Potomac Fest 2013: Remembering Shannon Christy
A local festival celebrates life through loss on the Great Falls
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 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.