On Sunday, the Potomac River humbled Mike May. "I am a semireligious person," May said afterwards. "When it sucked me back in the second time I said, 'Man, I'm going to die.' I said, 'God, here I come.' "
It is a little-known fact that for five years a handful of people have been going over Great Falls in kayaks and decked canoes. This is an extremely dangerous run, and only paddlers of great skill and strength could survive it. Even they are sometimes rendered helpless by the force of a massive river dropping 25 feet over rocks.May was pinned under water at the foot of the falls while his friends watched in horrified, helpless silence from the rocks above. His fiberglass and kevlar kayak was battered and finally broken, with him in it, as it tossed under the surface in a deep, rampaging pool.
It is impossible to say how long he was stuck. He came very near drowning. When the boat broke apart the force of water rushing past sucked May out, drove him deep into the pool where "it was so pitch-black I thought I was in hell," and finally spat him out 20 yards downstream, a piece of human flotsam, struggling for air.
Then May's partner, Dutch Downey, gave it a try and wound up in a jam almost as bad.The river was an inch or two above the level May and Downey consider ideal, but they felt it was safe. Paddlers run the falls on the Virginia side, viewing the Maryland side as instant death. The Virginia-side drop is broken up into three distinct segments, after each of which are eddies to duck into, rest, and set up for the next ledge.
Of the three drops, Downey and May consider the final one the easiest, even though at 25 feet it's by far the longest. "It's a straight shot," May said. While the drops above it are only six and eight feet, they are in boulder gardens where the water roars through passages so narrow it's sometimes impossible to get in a paddle stroke.
May, an accountant, and Downey, an ad salesman, had done the falls several times already this summer. Sunday they were leading two first-timers, Mike McCormick, a veteran of the U.S. whitewater racing team, and Norman Bellingham, the junior national kayak champion. The first two drops went fine.
As they prepared for the final plunge over the 25-foot waterfall they relaxed. It was tricky, but the worst was over. May explained that as the paddler goes over the falls there is a jet of water on the right shooting off a rock ledge. "You have to stay left of the rock ledge or it'll munch your boat," he said.
The middle of the base is a deep pool. The water has gouged out a hole there, creating what paddlers call a recirculation pool or hydraulic. A hydraulic sucks whatever falls into it under water and circulates it around and around for as long as it feels like.
Safety is on the left. "We try to hit the edge going left, shoot out over the falls, land on the eddy line and paddle out," said Downey.
May went first. He found the current so strong above the falls that he couldn't get to the left. When he went over he went straight for the recirculating pool, nose first.
The yellow kayak plunged in and popped back upright. May took one sweep with his paddle and then the waterfall hit his stern. The bow went up in the air and the kayak rolled, end over end. May was underwater. The tip-ends of the boat appeared, one after another, following the same arc.
For more than half a minute, maybe even a minute, onlookers watched in shock as the points of the kayak appeared and disappeared like some deadly pinwheel. The only sign of May was his paddle, flailing around as he looked for leverage to roll out of the trap.
Suddenly the boat disappeared and came up seconds later, bottom-side up. The paddle emerged. May rolled halfway up and took a breath. "Good," said his friend Mark Weitzel. "He got air. He's gonna make it."
May looked over his shoulder at the falls and in an instant he was sucked back into the hydraulic. The boat began its deathly pinwheeling again. Then the stern came straight up and the boat went straight down, on its nose, and kept going. It disappeared.
"First the tips just kept ripping by," May said later. "Then the water from the falls hit the deck and the boat bent. Then the nose broke. The boat was standing on its end, full of water, and I was in the falls. I said, 'I've got to get out of here. I've got to get air.'
"I let go of my paddle and reached for my spray skirt and then -- ZZZZwwwippp -- the water ripped me right out of there. It pushed me straight down. It was black as night. I must have been 20 feet down."
He came shooting out in the main channel a few seconds after the battered boat came up. Gulping air, May was washed up against a huge boulder in the middle of the river. He climbed out, shaking, and in a little while gave the thumbs-up sign.
Then Downey pushed off, went over and suffered much the same fate. He was aware what had happened to May and had a plan. He pinwheeled a couple of times but managed to work toward the jet of water coming off the rocks on the right. When he hit that jet it sucked him out of his boat and he was washed downstream to safety.
From his perch in mid-river May shouted to the remaining two paddlers, "Don't go!" McCormick and Bellingham, looking relieved, dragged their boats out. May's boat was demolished; Downey's was broken in a couple of places. They were distressed by the loss of their paddles, which were washed away. Later, Downey patched his boat, borrowed a paddle, went downstream and found both.
Officials of Great Falls Park worry at the prospect of publicity for kayakers who run the falls. They fear it could produce a spate of ill-conceived attempts, which they feel would result in drownings. The kayakers agree. May and Downey consented to photo coverage only under the proviso that the dangers of the run be stressed in any story. They managed to prove their point.
Bill Kirby, who is in charge of river safety for the National Park Service, said boaters are not allowed to put in kayaks at Great Falls Park, but of course there are legal put-ins up the river. "We can't keep people from running the falls," he said. "We certainly don't encourage it."
Kirby is a veteran kayaker who has run the falls once. He said it was first accomplished by two paddlers in 1976. Since then about 20 experts have successfully negotiated the falls, and many have done it more than once. They generally run it early in the morning, before tourist crowds arrive, to avoid attention.
Up to now no one has been killed or seriously injured. Two days ago that record was nearly destroyed.