Learning to Whitewater Kayak on the Potomac

A kayaker far better than I navigates a sketchy stretch of the Potomac. Photo credit: Ronald Hilton via flickr Creative Commons

Since moving to Washington, D.C. three years ago, I’ve had an angst familiar to outdoorsmen who transplant from the West Coast to the East. I aspire to climb big mountains but the mountains are stubby little Appalachians; I yearn to ski, but the runs are short and the snow is hard as ice cubes; I want to surf, but it’s a three-hour drive, and the water is infested with small waves and jellyfish.

An exciting sport existed right nearby but I hesitated because it was mysterious and scary. The Potomac River flows right through the city past Georgetown and the Jefferson Memorial. A few miles upstream, on the border between Virginia and Maryland, the Potomac plunges 76 vertical feet in a roaring torrent called Great Falls. Whitewater kayakers rate Great Falls as Class V or VI (ie, really hard and dangerous). Just below Great Falls is Mather Gorge, where numerous rapids are a much more manageable Class II or III, surrounded by acres of calm water where one can safely learn the strokes. Whitewater kayaking is one sport that the East Coast does very, very well.

I decided this was the year to try kayaking because I wanted to know what people were talking about when they talked about whitewater kayaking. Get a kayaker going and he or she gets a faraway look in the eye that you don’t often see in this striving and prosaic city. It’s so beautiful out there, these people say with a sigh. So peaceful. And so exciting.

It is the kind of expression that belongs on the faces of people who have climbed big peaks or surfed big waves, members of a fraternity whose membership must be earned.

I could have signed on with one of the local kayak outfitters, such as Potomac Paddlesports, but before I got around to it I met Danny Stock. Danny is the friend of a friend who I have seen at dinners a few times. He smiles and nods his way through a party without saying much. I knew he taught second grade and that he enjoyed kayaking. It wasn’t until May that we had a one-on-one conversation, and he mentioned in passing that he had tried out for the U.S. Olympic team.

I Googled him that night and found that this quiet fellow is the reigning national champion in kayak slalom (in this picture, he’s the one to far right; in the video below, he descends Great Falls).

Uh, Danny, I asked, could you show me a thing or two about whitewater kayaking?

I rounded up some friends who, like me, were beckoned by the enigma of the river, and a few weeks later we met Danny on a Sunday afternoon by Old Angler’s Inn, a half-hour drive from downtown D.C. Hikers begin riverbank walks there, and in the turnout you see kayakers carrying equipment down to the water to practice their secret craft.

Danny’s truck was full of colorful plastic boats that were so short it didn’t even seem possible that I could fit my six-foot-two self into one of them. He handed out paddles, helmets, life jackets, and told each of us to put on these strange, rubbery cylinders called spray skirts.

Every sport has its barrier to entry. In skiing it’s learning to slide downhill with planks on your feet. In surfing it’s developing the strength to paddle out to the lineup without getting exhausted, and in mountaineering your ticket is scaling a steep glacier while wearing a harness and crampons. In kayaking, the barrier to entry is a two-millimeter layer of neoprene called a skirt.

There are two kinds of kayaks, open cockpit and closed cockpit. Open cockpits, often of the type called “sit on tops,” are for calm water. On one a rider may jauntily float and fall out with little in the way of consequences. A closed cockpit is needed when the water is rough, and what seals the cockpit closed is the skirt. It prevents the boater from falling out, and the water from getting in.

On land a spray skirt is an spectacularly awkward piece of apparel. You step into it and pull it up, and by the time it reaches your thighs it’s too tight. You yank and harrumph it up until it clings to your waist like a girdle. Below the girdle, the skirt flares around your hips like a floppy black rubber tutu. It bulges out more in the front than the back. A passing lady may have wondered if we were going boating or just happy to see her.

We carried our boats and paddles across the C&O Canal, our skirts bobbing, and through a thicket of trees to the dirt bank on a wide, calm stretch of the Potomac. At this point, most kayak outfitters would — well, most outfitters wouldn’t have you anywhere near the water at this point. You’d still be back at the office watching a safety video or listening to a long spiel in the parking lot. But Danny doesn’t have corporate lawyers to worry about, and with that small blessing we were afloat within 15 minutes.

On land with the nose of the boat in the shallows, you squeeze yourself into the cockpit — a snug fit is best — and tug the spray skirt into position around the cockpit lip, creating a seal. With the paddle across your lap you use your hands to inch yourself into deeper water. The last of the shore grit stops grinding against the hull and you are floating silently. You are compact and nimble, like a waterborne centaur or a manly mermaid. Like since birth you were meant to be half-man, half-boat, but your parents had never told you.

Now that we were afloat in a semicircle Danny gave his safety and technique talk, and because we were already on the water the lesson made perfect sense. He showed us how to hold the paddle, how to move the boat with the hips, how if necessary we could signal for rescue, and how Danny would use the nose of his kayak to rescue us if we flipped.

Wait — what does happen if this craft flips over? As if reading our unsettled minds, Danny talked us through the simple maneuver of the “wet exit.” On the front of the spray skirt, at the most forward opening of the cockpit, was a loop of webbing. It is our emergency rip cord, Danny explained. By pulling on it, the skirt would pop its seal and we could simply leave the cockpit, float to the surface and swim to shore.

We knew we needed to know how to do a wet exit but could tell intuitively that a wet exit is for chumps. Safe, yes, but one would still have to navigate the waterlogged kayak to shore, drain gallons of water from it, maybe have someone recover your lost paddle, and take precious time to regain breath and composure while everyone waited.

As he showed us how perform a forward stroke, I noticed a change coming over Danny. His voice was booming, he made jokes, he smiled from ear to ear. Here was a man literally in his element. We paddled upriver. Danny, leading the way, suddenly buried his boat’s nose in the current and poised in the air, like a rodeo rider suspended in mid-buck. Then he thrust the nose toward the river bottom, folded his body in half and did a forward flip, landing flat and smooth. It was delightful to see someone so good at his craft show us what was possible, to see someone so self-effacing so flagrantly showing off.

Initiating the kakak roll. Image credit: Jamesonline.net

The crucial thing we had to learn was to roll. If the current or some surprise element flipped you over, you needed to be able to use your paddle (or even your bare hands) to expeditiously right yourself, even in turbulent water. This is not an easy concept to get one’s head around.

Take, for example, the first time I flipped.

It happened, intentionally, after we had paddled just a few hundred feet upriver. At Danny’s urging I leaned far out to the side and flipped over. The feeling was extremely odd. I looked up and found I was looking down, at the nondescript silty riverbottom of the Potomac. I glanced to the side and peered downriver — or was it upriver? — into a muddy riverscape that vanished after a few dozen feet into a greenish haze. I looked down — or was it up? —  and there was the dark silhouette of my kayak and the silvery, undulating river surface. I saw the blue sky, and on the borders of my vision the treeline. Up there is where I wanted to be but I didn’t know how to get there. No air to breathe.

Then I felt my body lurch to the side as Danny turned me over. I outweigh him by at least thirty pounds but still he flipped me like a bathtub toy. I don’t know how he did it. I was sputtering and blinking and felt the ragged edges of panic dripping off of me, but Danny was laughing and so relaxed that I knew that everything was OK.

Subsequently I have been out several times with Danny and now I can pull off a roll, though it isn’t pretty. I can’t quite explain what it is I am doing. I reach the paddle out to the side and wrench my weight on it as I twist and lean far back over the kayak’s back deck. A guidebook to the sport, “Whitewater Kayaking: The Ultimate Guide,” takes five pages to explain just the basics of the roll, with photos, and even that barely makes the maneuver coherent. But the roll sure comes in handy.

Mather Gorge, below Great Falls. Photo credit: Geocaching.com

Once you leave Old Angler’s you are on a river enclosed by trees without a trace of civilization. A great egret skims low over the water and lands on the rocky bank. The trees, jungly in their summer profusion, crowd the shore, and a choir of invisible bugs sing in the trees. Puffy clouds stack up on the horizon. I knew that I had just been in a car and had driven from the nation’s capital, but it seems I had been beamed somewhere else entirely, maybe a waterway in the Congo or in the backcountry of Laos. There was no match between the city I knew and the landscape I saw before me.

In that first lesson (and in the following ones) we have navigated ourselves across eddies and even surfed a little standing wave, experiencing heart-pounding thrills. Danny has given a few of us the nod to go out on the river ourselves as long as the river’s not too high and we keep an eye on each other. I’m using a borrowed boat and will buy my own rig soon. More updates to come.



3 comments to Learning to Whitewater Kayak on the Potomac

  • William

    awesome write up. I just moved here and am looking to get back into kayaking while I am up here. I live right by AU. I will look into the lower portion as the Falls would just be a great way to die for me lol. Are there any areas easily accesible in and out play spots like the Nantahala or Ocoee rivers? I do not know any other boaters here and am not up for a full river run where I am my own scout and safety man!

  • davidferris

    Hi William — one great play spot I’ve discovered in my (very brief) kayaking career is the feeder channel by Lock 6 on the C&O Canal. This channel feeds water from the Potomac to the canal. The put-in is an easy walk from the Lock 6 parking area off Clara Barton Parkway, and the channel has a slalom course, areas of calm water, and a fun little rapid to play in.

    A great resource for new paddlers around here is Paddle Prattle, a website for mid-Atlantic paddlers. Many pertinent questions have already been asked, and the community is welcoming to newbies, though they may razz you a bit. The website is: http://boatertalk.com/forum/BoaterTalk/1126694/

    Good luck out there!

  • I just read an article tieltd When Nature Calls Answer on Paddling dot net about a technique for relieving oneself on the water (number two), which involved having a paddling partner brace your sit-in kayak while you somehow inch out of the cockpit and straddle the ends of your kayak and that of your partner so as to enable you to do your business in the gap between them. Presumably there’s very deep, very cold water involved to necessitate such a precarious maneuver, and one would hope very little wave action. I am compelled to observe, however, that in my experience such conditions usually do involve waves.There are obvious safety, privacy, athletic and aesthetic issues involved, not to mention environmental concerns. The article had a picture of a fully clothed kayaker in a wet suit demonstrating this maneuver while his partner braced him and averted his eyes. The need for a bag or other container for waste is referenced, although this is not shown, and it’s hard to imagine how someone desperately suspending him or herself between two bobbing kayaks would hold one; never mind perform the intended personal function, not to mention the subsequent clean up, dressing, and return maneuvers. Indeed the mind, or at any rate my mind, can’t even encompass how one would get out of one’s wet suit, or having succeeded in doing so then exit the cockpit with it around one’s ankles, never mind accomplish the rest of the maneuver. The only consolation would be the very real possibility of a grand prize on America’s Funniest Home Videos.I really don’t want to see a picture of anyone doing this on your website, or anyone elses, but I infer from your pictures of the riding over the hull tips position that it could be easily and safely performed solo on a W boat, possibly even more securely while sitting side saddle. If one anticipates such a necessity in the course of his or her kayaking adventures I would think it a compelling reason to purchase your boat without regard to any of its other attractive features.

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