Dangerous Waters

Although the weather forecast on New Year’s Day called for cloudy skies, the sun seemed to be making a game effort in the mid-morning so I thought I would celebrate the first day of 2017 photographing Great Falls National Park. I was thinking about a waterfall image with a nice feathery look, using a slower shutter speed on the water. An example of the concept is shown below, taken a week earlier.

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Great Falls of the Potomac (December 25th, 2016)

(Nikon D810 on tripod with 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 150mm and ND filter; exp @ 1.6 secs, ISO 50)

The park is named for the Great Falls of the Potomac River, about 15 miles north of Washington, DC . It is a spectacular location for landscape photography but also is one of the most dangerous whitewater locations in the eastern U.S.  Since 1975, about 30 people have died there and only expert boaters should contemplate putting into this section of the river.

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Kayak portage across the”Flake”

Just as I arrived, I noticed several kayakers lugging their boats over the rocky island known as the Flake towards a put-in point for a run over the falls.  I sprinted for Overlook #1 which provides a decent view of all three routes over the falls.  For those who are not familiar with the level of these rapids, here are some excerpts from American Whitewater:

“Great Falls of the Potomac River is a major set of rapids located about 15 miles upstream of Washington, DC. The main Falls lines drop fifty feet in one-tenth of a mile, creating a Class V+ set of waterfalls.” (Note: Class VI is the most dangerous; anything more dangerous is considered unrunnable).

More scary information about the dangers of this kayak run can be found here: Scroll down to the several listings for Great Falls.

As I watched the boaters pick their way across the Flake, I surveyed the river trying to guess from the flow of the water which route they would choose.  The level is precisely measured by a hydrology station upriver and an online site provides current information which should dictate the choice.   A difference of 6 inches can make a big difference.

It looked to me as if two of the lines, the one closest to the Virginia shore (the Spout) and the one closest the Maryland shore (Maryland Lines) were  OK but the center line seemed too low to be safe. Two other boaters were already in the water near the put-in on the Maryland side so I concentrated on them.

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Approaching the final rapid on the Maryland Line

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A few seconds later, so far, so good

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Almost through

These two made the run nicely and paddled over to the base of the Flake and began the tricky portage back upstream.  It was then that I noticed two other boaters who seemed to be aiming for a run down the centerline, also known as “The Fingers” because there are five 25-foot vertical chutes to choose from.  The Fingers can be seen in the photo at the start of the post; it was taken from Outlook #3.

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Approaching the “Fingers”

The problem is that the wrong choice can be fatal.  I made an online check on the water level which showed it was about 1 inch below the level considered safe for that route. So the pair were pushing their luck just a bit.  Anyway, they made it OK, although I couldn’t see the finish from my vantage point. (See photo below)

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Running the Middle Finger (the correct choice)

No sooner has they completed their descents when four more kayakers moved into position for a run down the Virginia line.  This run finishes with “The Spout,” a spectacular 25-foot drop right in front of my position. Now I was getting really excited.

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In position for the Virginia Line, about 100 meters (and 3 rapids) from the Spout

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Through the 3 rapids and assessing the Spout

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Perfect Position!

All four made the run without encountering trouble and the small crowd with me at the overlook cheered loudly after each one resurfaced above the foam.  And the boaters themselves were proud of their accomplishment, judging from the energetic fist pumps made at the conclusion of their descents.

Of all the times I have been to the park and have been lucky enough to see kayakers, I have never seen runs made on all three of the major routes on the same day.  It was truly a special way to start the new year.

23 thoughts on “Dangerous Waters

  1. Great photos, Robin. I was there twice, but I didn’t see any kayak. Even if I did, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to take such great photos. I really enjoy seeing these photos!
    Happy 2017!

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    • Thanks, Helen. Glad you liked the images. More often than not, one doesn’t see kayakers running the falls because there is a fairly narrow range in the river level where they can can safely run the falls. So it is very hit and miss, even if you know the water levels are OK. There has been an annual whitewater event here, usually in late June to mid-July, although in 2016 a new group took over and it was held in mid-September. The event includes a kayak run over the falls, the route depending on the river levels. No date has been set for this year so far. But if you think you might be in the area in June-July and/or mid-September, shoot me a note and I can tell you whether anything is scheduled.

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      • Thank you, Robin. I was amazed at how much you know the place like how deep the water is and a good place to shoot photo… etc. I would be thrilled if I can come and carry your equipment for you (so I can watch and learn) 😉 Thank you so much for the beautiful photos for a place that means a lot to me.

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      • Thanks, Helen. That is very kind of you. Living very close to the park makes it pretty easy to get over there so I tend to spontaneously zip over for a quick shoot when the lighting or water levels seem promising. Levels can change quickly. For example, the hydrology station(link in the post above) predicts that by Thursday, the level will be almost 12 inches above this morning’s level. so it will be a while before perfect kayaking conditions return. If you have some specific questions on photography topics, you can contact me by email through my website at http://www.photographybykent.com. I’ll be happy to try and answer them.

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  2. Robin – As usual, great photos! My favorites were your first one just of the falls – the water looks beautiful and is a wonderful color of blue – and the kayak going down the Spout. It was interesting to learn about the water levels and the names of the various runs. I’ve been to the park countless times and now appreciate the river even more! And since, like you, I can easily pop over there, I’d love to hear when more kayaking is planned, etc. The kayakers certainly are a lot braver than I am!

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    • Thanks, Joan. It’s really hard to know for sure when the kayaks might be there, other than the annual Riverfest (no date set for this year yet). In the meantime, it’s a guessing game, starting with the water level. Right now (Friday AM) it is running about 18 inches above the level shown in these pictures, so nothing likely to be out there for a while. Weekends are the best bet (most of the boaters also have jobs) and in the afternoons (after work) as the days get longer. When the Riverfest date is announced, I’ll letr you know. Usually it was held in June-July, but last year in September when I was out of town.

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    • Thanks, Annette! Yes, happily no problems. As I mentioned above in another comment. Most of them know what they are doing. And they are appropriately cautious. They spend a fair amount of time examining the run before they start their runs.

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    • Yikes! That sounds scary. Accidents can happen pretty easily there when people ignore the signs and get too close to the water. I haven’t seen anyone get hurt but I’ve seen plenty of people clearly unaware of the dangers. I recall one time when a commercial photographer had a couple doing one of those engagement shots with the pair standing on the edge of a 50-foot drop. So I did what any self-respecting photographer would do–I photographed the three of them in that pecarious scenario. It all ended well, fortunately.

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  3. I loved visiting Great Falls and hiking the Billy Goat Trail when I lived in the DC area. And those kayakers – skill and guts – I always admired them. Now I live a few miles away from the headwaters of the South Fork of the Potomac, just a tiny stream in a very large meadow in the Highlands of VA. Great shots, as always.

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