One of the less well known benefits of living in the Washington, DC area is that it has some of the best whitewater action in the world. For those who are skeptical, here is a link to an article in today’s Washington Post. And the most difficult stretch of that action is the Great Falls of the Potomac which happens to be about 3 miles from my home. I’ve been following the action for seven years now and it is always exciting. It’s pretty cool to go to an Olympic level competition, get a prime viewing spot, and not pay a dime. So that’s where I was yesterday, photographing the boaters as they practiced for a competition that was held today. Here are a few shots from the practice session.
The water level was perfect for the center line which is perfectly located for viewing from two of the overlooks in Great Falls National Park on the Virginia side and pretty good viewing from the overlook from the Park on the Maryland side. It is also a dangerous route over the falls. A competitor was killed last year when she made an error during a practice run causing the event to be canceled. It should be noted, however, that this was an extremely rare incident; these participants are all highly skilled and numerous rescue capabilities are in position for these events. The image above was taken from the water level not normally accessible to non-boaters. I was about 100 meters from the falls. (Technical data (Nikon D800E handheld with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens extended to 200mm; Exposure was 1/200th sec. @ f/8, ISO 400)
This is a tight crop from the same image, so it shows the value of having an extremely sharp lens. The competition is a timed course so each competitor has to negotiate a series of cascades, finishing with this 20-foot (plus) drop and then making a sprint a short distance to a finish line (out of sight to the left). There are two runs and the boater in each class with the lowest cumulative time is the winner.
This was taken from Overlook 2 in Great Falls National Park (Virginia side). It is about the same distance from the drop as the location down at water level. I went back this morning for the actual competition and used an old Nikon 80-400mm zoom lens. It’s been a while since I have used it, since that extra three pounds is no fun to carry in one’s back-pack. But it seemed this would be a good comparison test on sharpness. Because of its weight, I used a tripod. And as it turned out, the images taken with the 70-200 model at maximum extension are sharper than those of the 80-400 at its maximum length. This despite the fact that the images from the 70-200 have to be enlarged twice as much to match the size of objects in images from the bigger lens.
But I digress. This is a post about kayaks and the Great Falls of the Potomac. So let’s wrap it up with two images taken two years ago during another practice day.
As noted above, the water level of the Potomac River dictates where the race will be run. The difference can be quite small. For example, the center line (first three images) is used when the water measures between 3.3-3.8 feet at a specified measuring location. That is a range of about 6 inches. There are three other routes, depending on the level measured on race day. This image was taken from Overlook 1 on the Virginia side of the park. It is an amazingly exciting viewpoint because spectators are less than 100 feet from the boater when she/he goes over. Unfortunately, there is very little room there and for a photographer with a tripod, there is literally only one optimal spot. And the Spout cannot be seen at all from any of the other overlooks. But I got lucky and saw a few boaters practicing when the water levels called for this route. Same camera-lens combination as above, exposure was 1/1,000th sec. @ f/5. This is a fairly tight crop, mainly because there was a lot of uninteresting foreground in the frame.
But there were two other boaters practicing together and the image above is a full frame shot with the lens extended only to 100mm. It’s hard to see here, but when this image is printed large you can see the big smile on the face of the paddler waiting for his friend to complete the drop.