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.
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.
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.
Approaching the final rapid on the Maryland Line
A few seconds later, so far, so good
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.
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)
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.
In position for the Virginia Line, about 100 meters (and 3 rapids) from the Spout
Through the 3 rapids and assessing the Spout
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.