Potomac Fest 2013: Remembering Shannon Christy

A local festival celebrates life through loss on the Great Falls

Remembering Shannon Christy

Photos and text by Bryon Dorr
The annual Potomac River Festival was run for the first time this year by Jason Beakes and his team at Active Nature. While it didn’t exactly go as planned, it did do exactly what Beakes had set out to accomplish, which is to showcase the amazing strength and community found in whitewater paddling. The participants in the Potomac River Festival experienced terrible loss, but also a celebration of life through paddling and competition.

The main event at every Potomac Fest is the Great Falls Race. This Class V, timed challenge tests some of the worlds best whitewater paddlers against each other and the mighty Great Falls of the Potomac. This year during practice, on the Thursday before the race, 23-year-old Shannon Christy swam from her kayak and washed into a tunnel-like undercut known as “Subway.” She was trapped underwater and drowned, the first fatality in Great Falls since Todd Andrew’s 2004 drowning, also in the “Center Lines” section of Great Falls. After about three hours of extremely brave and intense rope work, the group of seven or so paddlers lead by Steve Fisher was able to complete the recovery effort and help bring some closure to the heart-breaking accident. Due to the tragedy, the race organizers canceled the Great Falls Race and scheduled a memorial to honor the life of Christy.

At 11 a.m. Saturday morning, the kayak community gathered at Overlook 3 on the Virginia side of Great Falls to remember Shannon Christy. Race organizer, and Christy’s friend, Jason Beakes lead the memorial, which began on the overlook and then took to the water. The paddling community gathered in boats in ODeck eddy on the Maryland side of the river, which is only legally accessible by whitewater kayak, and shared stories about Christy’s life. After those who wanted to speak shared their thoughts individuals hit a quick surf on the O-Deck wave, dropping flowers into the main flow of the river. Expert paddlers then moved upstream to the falls itself and threw flowers into the falls known as “Grace Under Pressure,” the last drop Christy had paddled before her passing. After many of Christy’s friends and other top level paddlers agreed it was okay, safety was set and a few paddlers took to the water to paddle the Center Lines once again. Pat Keller said afterwards: “It just felt right to open the line back up with everyone there and proper safety.” Everyone ran smooth lines.

While the race was canceled, the rest of the Potomac River Festival carried on. Saturday night at the Potomac Fest Party, sponsored by Active Nature and Red Bull, everyone celebrated paddling, community and life. The boat throwing games, hula hooping action, slacklining, drinking, dancing to the live DJ, and the huge food spread went off as planned. A giant inflatable big screen was set up to show memorial videos edited that day by Fish Munga and Mark Leisher Productions (Watch MLP Video HERE), as well as a slideshow of the day’s memorial by Exploring Elements. The party raged late into the night around the bonfire with a solemn undertone.

Other races went on as scheduled Sunday. The morning started off with the Widewater SUP Challenge, pitting 10 racers head to head on the flat water of the lower Potomac. Beakes took home the overall win with a 20:22 minutes time on his 14’ SUP while Buck Jorss won the 12’6” class with a time of 20:40. For the Kayak Attainment Race, paddlers battled the raging currents of the Potomac’s Mather Gorge, racing for the fastest time upstream. Five paddlers finished the race, with Geoff Calhoun in a wildwater boat logging the fastest time at 20:20 and Scott Mann winning the slalom boat category with a 25:20.

Christy proclaimed on her Great Falls Race entry form: “I believe there is a direct correlation between smooth legs and smooth lines.” Her humor, love for life and passion for paddling made an impression on all that she encountered in her short life. Jason Beakes proclaimed at the memorial: “Every time she met people, in any circumstance, she was positive, happy and literally a ray of light.” Paddling Great Falls will continue, and the paddling community will carry Christy’s bright light with them on the water.

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  • Bob Cia

    She took off her helmet and life vest and swam in the river above the falls according to the DNR Police……

    • T. McEwan

      You don’t believe that do you? She had no reason to take4 off her helmet and life vest. The force of the water stripped both off her body as she stayed pinned in the rocks.

      • Bob Cia

        While it is sad that another life was lost on an area where no one should have been without the proper gear (this is the third fatality in that same area in the past 30 days with one not wearing a lifevest), her suicidal action is what was reported by the several police officers who were there. The same information was given by the many media reporters, including two helicopters, and the first responders, swift water rescue crews, as well as the boaters and hikers who watched her from the river and the shore. Of course, even though it was a typical daredevil act that happens in that area regularly, it is sad, and the grief shared by the family is shared by all. This is why proper gear is needed, alcohol use is not recommended, and swimming in that area of the river is prohibited. Maybe some will learn from this traagedy.

        • ADM

          Were you there? Did you see her remove her life jacket? Considering the fact he was an organizer of the race, I would listen to what Tom McEwan is saying rather than making disparaging statements based on secondhand information.

          • Bob Cia

            We were on the river, but regardless of where any information originates, I would use this a a warning to people who do not realize how treacherous the river can be, so this can be looked at as a positive yet sad occurrence because it will show that it is important to wear safety gear on the river and not to go swimming in dangerous locations. And I would not try to disparage what the police or first responders do, even if it seems cool to other teenagers, because you may have to depend on them one day……

        • Geoff C

          Hey, gullible, The news reports the first thing they hear. Yes, somebody said she ‘took’ her PFD off. that was an early report, and it was wrong. reporters are idiots. get over it. As for your second point, yes the river is more powerful than 95% of the population can understand. however, no matter how many accidents happen, we still see dumb people swimming in the river without lifejackets. worry about them, their foolishness is what really costs taxpayer dollars, kayakers will look out for ourselves.

          • Bob Cia

            Geoff – So, do you have many problems with cops after you are done getting drunk when a river trip is done? I used to lock up turds like you hourly. Being Bubba’s wife can make you squeal like a pig, so you will be ready for Deliverance II as a stand-in actor….

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