Thursday, September 30, 2004

Potomac Express

Fishladder 9.5 feet

Yesterday i went out with Pete and Martha to run the Po. We set shuttle in DC and hauled ass to Great Falls park (MD side). The level as of that morning was somewhere above 9 feet and rising (I think the crest was around 9.5) You have to understand that the highest I’d ever run the gorge was somewhere between 5.5 and 6 feet. I’d been wanting to start getting out at higher levels gradually.

So here i am putting in at the Trash Compactor eddy (or so I was told it is called) below the Fishladder at 9 feet ! wow! We climbed up to the footbridge across the Fishladder to scout. The MD side overlook is closed to visitors when the water is that high, and for good reason. The water is so high that little bit comes over the ends of the bridge! The dry fork of the Fishladder is no more, at this level water is pouring over the log jam (which doesn’t seem to have budged incidentally). It looked like there was only about 3 feet of space between the bridge and the water. Looking down the Fishladder you can see the main flow of the river. It basically looks like a giant monster slug coming down. Quite impressive.

The put-in initially appeared somewhat sketchy (ferry across part of the Fishladder and don’t’ get slammed into the rocks below). But it ended up being a pretty easy move in some very squirrelly water. We ran the middle channel at Rocky. S-Turn was unattainable (at least for me) and also apparently has a monster pour-over at this level that you really don’t want to mess with. I’d like to see it sometime though from the shore. This section was just basically a long fast moving class III wave train. The straight section of the gorge is just fast moving water with big boils and whirlpools that pop up once in a while. Those things scare me the most because they are so unpredictable. You can be sitting in what appears to be flat water and suddenly it turns into a 20 foot wide boil. Crazy.

Once you hit the bend at the bottom of the gorge things change some. At high flow the gradient shifts downstream as features around great falls start to wash out. Near the bottom of the gorge you hit the area known as the Jumps (though I think this really starts to come in more at higher levels). Instead of the flatwater you are used to seeing above the Chutes there are now distinct sloping waves and a slight drop. The water starts to pinball of the walls forming big laterals on both sides. Not really a big deal you just kinda bounce off from one side to the other. The chutes are not a problem as long as you aim right once you get to the bottom of the gorge. . At that level the big island between MD and Center is a pourover to wave and there were some people surfing there. it was getting late so we blew down to Little Falls.

Between the Chutes and Angler’s you just ride the wave train down careful not to slam into the big pillow that is now forming on Skull Island. Between Angler’s and the Beltway everything pretty much looks the same as usual just a lot wider.

By the time we go to the Brookmont Dam it was dark. I’m pretty sure Pete stalled us at the chutes for this very reason. We had just paddled the long stretch of flatwater from the Beltway. So now we’re paddling past the big sign that says something along the lines of “Stop, Dam Ahead, Dangerous Undertow, Get to Shore”. So Pete says we are going to eddy out behind a tree that is sticking out of the water right by the RR bank just about 30 feet or so above the dam. WTF? That freaked me out! So the eddy was easy to get to but there wasn’t much room in it so we had to grab on to some shrubbery to keep ourselves in there. Pete starts explaining the line (Stay just about 2 feet of the concrete embankment and punch the big wave at the bottom then once you get past the dam head left away from shore a bit, to stay out of the trees). Well at this point it is fairly dark with only the distant city glow illuminating the river. It was all making me nervous so I decided that I would portage it. But Pete tells me that portaging would require walking through a lot of brambles and POISON IVY. For those of you who heard about or saw my poison ivy experience earlier this summer will understand. I am apparently severely allergic to it (read about it here)

So that made the choice clear! ha ha! what is wrong with me? i'm more afraid of poison ivy than a low head dam!! Plus we would have gotten separated and with fast moving water in the dark that is not a good idea. Actually it really was no big deal, the far right side (and at that level about the 70 feet from the RR bank, according to Pete) is runable. From what I could see of it in the dark it was a big wave followed by a lot of foaming/boily water but not retentive enough to hold you if you’re coming through (Pete had actually gone there to surf before meeting us)
DISCLAIMER: I put this part in to share. I DO NOT recommend doing this though. A low head dam is no joke! If you don’t know the line and fuck it up the consequences are catastrophic. At lower levels the margin of error is much smaller. DO NOT mess with the dam it will KILL you!!

After that is Little Falls. Basically it is just a big wave train that you can follow down. It is deceptive though. The bulk of the main flow slams into the bridge abutment creating huge pillow on the upstream side and a giant wave/hole with a long boil line on the downstream side. It is easily avoidable if you start heading right about 200 yds from the bridge. The top of LF was really dark but as we got closer to the Chain Bridge the lights from it illuminate everything so it was actually really bright and beautiful. The waves were huge! Coming down the face of one wave i actually got that feeling in my stomach like when you drive down a steep hill! crazy! Like paddling in the ocean after a hurricane. It was mesmerizing. So much that it took Pete yelling to paddle right for me to snap out of it. After that it was just mostly fast moving flat water all the way to the Lincoln Memorial. It was awesome paddling past the Watergate and the Kennedy Center in the dark with all the city lights and a near full moon illuminating the river. We stopped at one of the boat house docks to stretch our legs and chatted with some drunk yuppies. We took out right by the Lincoln Memorial. The tide was coming in as well so the level was high enough to paddle right onto the grass about 15 feet from where our cars were parked. Potomac Express: 16 miles in a little over 2 hours. Not bad for an after work trip!!

Maggie, Martha, Pete: Kennedy Center

Martha and Maggie: Kennedy Center

Although nothing about this trip was particularly difficult remember that near flood stage the river is very wild and unpredictable. There is a lot of large wood coming down. If you are not comfortable with big water it can be pretty intimidating. A swim would be very long most certainly result in a lost boat.

All in all it was an awesome trip, i can' t wait to get to do it again.

Martha and Maggie: Lincoln Memorial

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