4th of July Waterworks!

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.

Kayak Kent Blog 01
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)

Kayak Kent Blog 02
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.

Kayak Kent Blog 03
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.

Kayak Kent Blog 04
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.

Kayak Kent Blog 05
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.

18 thoughts on “4th of July Waterworks!

    • Thanks, Vanessa. Even though they have been going on for more than 20 years, it’s not surprising you didn’t hear about them. It has always been a very low profile event, rarely publicized in any systematic way. The Post article today was the first time there has been a major story that mentioned the competition (in advance). Last year, there was a fair amount of publicity after the incident in which the young woman drowned during the practice run. So that may have something to do with it.


  1. Robin, these photos are terrific ! I never would have believed you could be in the Washington DC area and get these shots. But, it sure looks dangerous to me !


  2. Thanks, Annette. I appreciate your feedback. Yes, looking at the Potomac rolling calmly under the bridges in DC, one would not suspect that something so wild is a mere 15 miles away. You get your first glimpse of the rapids at Chain Bridge a crossing point between McLean, Virginia and Georgetown in Washington. From there up to Great Falls, the river gets interesting and in many places seems far away from an urban environment. But Great Falls is where you see incredible whitewater.


  3. Great images Robin, Did you get the first one at Fishermen’s Eddy? Any issues with rangers when walking beyond the designated look-outs? Sailing lesson #2 tomorrow. M Sent from my iPad



    • Well, now that you mention it…..I did have another encounter with a member of the tripod police, but not on Friday when those shots were taken. Yes, the image was from Fisherman’s Eddy which, as you know, is accessed by a short but steep clamber down a jumble of boulders. On Friday I was down there with about a dozen other people, none of whom were photographers. No sign of any officials for the nearly 45 minutes I was there. The next day, during the actual competition, I showed up at the same spot about 90 minutes before the scheduled start. Shortly after I arrived another photographer arrived and set up next to me. As time passed a number of folks came and went without any rangers showing up. A volunteer from the race organization occasionally (and correctly) cautioned several who ventured too close to the water that the fast moving current could sweep them into a watery grave should they slip and fall. The race commenced and I photographed the event for about 45 minutes before I heard the loud shrill sound of a police whistle behind me. It was a ranger standing on a boulder above the crowd announcing that everyone had to move back behind a certain point because we were in a restricted area. I had enough images already so I packed up and left. So all in all, everything worked out well.


  4. This brings back memories! Great Falls used to be one of my favorite places to go when I lived in the DC area. I’ve never heard of this competition but on occasion have seen some brave kayakers make it thru these falls. I admire their courage. Great cropping to focus in on the action!


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