Flood of the Century: Potomac River

Great Falls, 162,000 cfs

This story package is featured in the December 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak, available on newsstands now.

By Jason Beakes

Great Falls of the Potomac. Photos: Irene Owsley

A lot of the time when we’re out on a day like that one, we’re discussing how in awe we are to still be exploring the river. I probably paddle the Potomac 150 days a year, and even after two decades, there are new things to find every time. The day of this picture, April 18, 2011, the Potomac crested at about 11.5 feet. Geoff Calhoun, Bryan Kirk, Necj Poberaj and I made this scary ferry across the bottom of the Fish Ladder, and then bushwhacked up Olmsted Island toward the top of Great Falls. The water was rising this whole time, and all the animals that live on the island were climbing to higher ground. I came over a rock and this fox jumps, literally, three feet from me.

Photo: Irene Owsley

We put in near the top of the falls, where Pummel usually is. At normal flows it’s an 18-foot waterfall, but on that particular day it was just a massive, terrifying, exploding mass. We started in this massive sketchy eddy directly below it and peeled out, one after the other. We just drove for the main flow; the edges of the river are full of these pocket eddies that you really don’t want to go in at all. It’s just huge water. Our main goal was to start as high up into Great Falls as we could. Nobody’s ever run top-to-bottom at such mega-high levels. That’s definitely a goal of mine, and I’m sure it goes.

—Jason Beakes is an 8-time member of the U.S. slalom team and lead instructor for Team River Runner, an organization that teaches kayaking to veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lives near Washington, D.C. and explores the Potomac River every chance he gets. As told to Jeff Moag




» Mississippi River ‣ Catching the CrestWhen the Levee BreaksBackwater Bliss
» Potomac River
» Colorado River
» Mad + Winooski Rivers
» Clark Fork River

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