Getting Pummeled

The Annual Great Falls Whitewater Race is a Frothy, Turbulent Minute

Early on the morning of July 10, I peered outside my home window to check the weather. What I saw did not lift my spirits. Gloomy skies and a steady rain are not a photographer’s best friend. But I also knew that, around Virginia and Maryland, a group of individuals was arising who weren’t going to fret about foul weather. They are the area’s elite kayakers, who would soon congregate atop Great Falls on the Potomac River for the annual Great Falls Race at the Potomac Whitewater Festival.

Begun in 1991 with a few dozen participants, the festival, a celebration of paddling on the Potomac River, has grown to 145 participants, including 65 paddlers in this year’s competition. The all-volunteer organization organizes the festival to promote and support American Whitewater, the sole national organization that works to protect paddlers’ ability to enjoy America’s rivers by working with local and national authorities to secure river access. In addition to the Great Falls race, the festival’s other events include an attainment (upriver) race, a freestyle competition, a so-called boatercross—multiple kayakers racing side-by-side—and a community paddle through the Potomac’s Mather Gorge. And of course, what festival would be complete without a post-competition party?

The most-anticipated event of the festival remains the Great Falls race. The DC area is home to some of the country’s best kayakers, including many current and former U.S. National Kayak Team members, and the Great Falls race allows them to go head-to-head in friendly competition, down one of the country’s most famous stretches of whitewater. As a freelance photographer who shoots outdoor activities, this was a spectacle I did not want to miss.

So with my rain gear in hand, I arrived at Great Falls at 7:00 a.m. That gave me plenty of time to hike up to the top of the falls before the 8:30a.m. scheduled start of the race. As many paddlers will attest, the most dangerous part of the race can sometimes be negotiating the hike to the race’s start. On a dry day, ascending the jaggedly strewn boulders along the falls’ edge can be an arduous, shin-scraping affair. On rain-slicked rocks, it can become perilous.

With my camera backpack protruding beneath my rain shell, I carefully picked my way towards the falls’ summit, no doubt looking like the hunch back climbing the bell tower at Notre Dame. Arriving at the top of the falls, I watched as the competitors began to arrive, several negotiating the same path I took, but with a kayak slung over their shoulders. Some were bare foot. In this race, it helps to not only be like a duck in the water, but like a billy goat on the rocks.

Water levels determine the race route, and this year’s route took contestants down the Maryland side of the falls. Starting just above the falls, the course drops fifty feet in just 150 yards and plummets through falls named Pummel, Pencil Sharpener and Horseshoe. Starting in one-minute intervals, paddlers were greeted seconds after the launch by Pummel, an 20-foot fall, which often sends competitors airborne. The paddlers land in the churning froth below in various ways—some upright and gracefully, others not so much.

From a perch on a cliff next to Pummel, I photographed the action. From Pummel, contestants make their way river left to Pencil Sharpener, an eight-foot drop, and then back toward the right to Horseshoe’s fifteen-foot descent before sprinting through the Class 3 Observation Deck waves to the finish.

Despite the rainfall, more one than hundred spectators turned out, some perched high above the river at the Virginia and Maryland overlooks, some kayakers in their boats and others perched atop the course-side rock outcroppings. Racers completed the course in roughly one minute—one very turbulent minute. This year’s glory went to U.S. Wildwater team member and national champion Geoff Calhoun, who got from start to finish in 58 seconds. Geoff was a mere second ahead of former slalom Olympian Scott Parsons, and two seconds ahead of last year’s winner and former national slalom team member Jason Beakes, both of whom were left to ponder where among Great Falls their seconds were lost.

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