For 364 days a year, boaters who want to run Great Falls on Maryland's Potomac River wait for the tourists to go home, tiptoe down the access path, and quietly snap their sprayskirts in the pool above one of the East Coast's premier Class V drops. For one day each summer, however, local paddlers organize a festival to showcase an activity that usually takes a low profile in these parts: extreme kayaking.
This year's festival, held July 13-15, drew thousands of spectators to the overlooks on the banks of the Potomac just 11 miles upriver of the nation's capital. The weekend's events drew about 200 pro and local boaters, including Tennessee-based Jackson Kayak athletes who dominated the freestyle and downriver competitions.
Geoff Calhoun and Aaron Mann won the short- and long-boat divisions of the Great Falls Race, the Potomac Whitewater Festival's premier competition, a mad dash over the famed drop that typically takes competitors less than a minute. Joe Stumpfel won the C-1 division, and Maggie Snowel was the only woman to compete in the race.
Because the river was relatively low (about 2.73 on the gauge at Little Falls, a popular downstream rapid), competitors ran a line on the Maryland side, starting at an 18-foot drop aptly named Pummel and ending at Horseshoe, an intimidating and sticky hole.
At higher levels, competitors run lines on either the Virginia side or down the middle.
The top three winners of the long- and short-boat divisions split a $750 prize furnished by co-sponsor Liquid Logic. However, the race was mostly about bragging rights; Great Falls, which descends about 70 feet in less than a ledgy, hydraulic-infested mile, has long been a proving ground for area boaters to cut their Class V teeth.
Although the Great Falls Race draws the largest crowds, the festival also includes squirt, boatercross, wave surfing, attainment, and freestyle competitions (see potomacfest.com for complete results.)
“the festival highlights the charms of the Potomac, a unique, free-flowing urban whitewater river that can challenge anyone from first-timers to the world's best.”
Nathan Nahikian, head instructor at D.C-based kayaking school Liquid Adventures, which also co-sponsored the event and handled safety arrangements, said the course through Great Falls looks deceptively simple—especially to unsuspecting tourists watching from overlooks way above the river. The safety crew watched Pummel with particular care, he said—a long swim in the wrong direction there could end up in another hydraulic known as Charlie's Hole, an infamous feature backed by an undercut rock, and the site of Great Falls' only kayaking fatality.
Nahikian also said the Maryland line has more flatwater than other routes and thus is more aerobically challenging, which can be a problem if you run out of gas and botch a critical move above Horseshoe. Fortunately, all the competitors escaped serious injury, although one racer took a nasty-looking swim at Horseshoe.
Spectators lined both the Maryland and Virginia sides of the river, and, for many, it was their first exposure to kayaking, which Nahikian described as a mixed blessing. "The race represents a more extreme picture of kayaking than maybe there needs to be," he said. "It may not be the most accurate picture."
But he said the festival draws needed attention to both the sport and the river conservation work of American Whitewater, which the event has supported since 1990. Nahikian also said the festival highlights the charms of the Potomac, a unique, free-flowing urban whitewater river that can challenge anyone from first-timers to the world's best.