Accident Database

Report ID# 521

  • Caught in a Natural Hydraulic
  • Does not Apply

Accident Description

Great Falls of the Potomac is on the border between Maryland and Virginia just outside of Washington, DC . It is a 60’ high, multi-stage Class V-VI drop. The river is quite wide here, and at low water there are many possible ways to run it. The level on November 28, 1998 was 2.8 feet, a good level for a run.

Scott Bristow, 26, was a skilled kayaker with many Class V runs to his credit. He had driven up from his home in Atlanta, GA with friends, intending to run the Falls. In D.C. he met David Mackintosh, a regular fall runner who he had contacted on the Internet. Together they drove to the park at Great Falls, MD , and launched at the Sandy Beach put-in. They then paddled and portaged up to the base of the Falls. After warming up in the play wave at the base of the Horseshoe, Bristow, Mackintosh, and a friend carried up to the top of Pummel, the first drop on the Maryland side. While carrying, they scouted lines through each of the drops.

Mackintosh made three runs of Pummel, Bristow two. They got out and scouted Z-Turn, then made good runs. They got out of our boats again on the river left side above Horseshoe to scout the drop a second time. Each paddler ran the “Hairy Ferry” line from river left to right above Horseshoe. They left the area planning to return the next day.

Mackintosh describes what happened:

“The next morning at 10 a.m. we met another experienced falls-runner in the parking lot. We put in above the Falls, ran the top drop (Pummel), and eddied out on the river right above Z-Turn. After making sure everyone remembered the line, we started down one at a time. The three of us ran the standard line and eddied out on river left above Horseshoe. We were all waiting for Scott to come through Z-Turn but instead saw him drop backwards into Charlie’s Hole. I’ve heard of this happening to several boaters who were too far right on the approach to Z-Turn. The first turn, to the left, is made in the pillow on the upstream side of the large rock that splits Z-Turn from Charlie’s. It is possible to make the turn but still get pushed to the right, backwards, through Charlie’s. At the base of this drop the water funnels down through a slot that necks down to about seven feet wide. The hole at the bottom is deep and powerful.

“Scott and his boat got surfed and I think he rolled up a couple of times, but was unable to get free. I saw that a couple of other boaters were already on the rocks next to the hole, and another was paddling towards the eddy just below. I didn’t know if anyone was downstream to recover gear, so I quickly paddled through Horseshoe. Once there, I found several boaters surfing, so I hopped out and ran back up the rocks with my throw-rope. In that time, Scott’s boat, paddle, and helmet exited the hole and were retrieved, but there was no sign of him.

“I threw the bag into the hole several times. I felt it being pulled down maybe twenty feet before it would flush out downstream. Next we tied the rope to the back of another boater’s PFD and lowered him into the pothole right next to Charlie’s. About five feet underwater he could feel (with his feet) quite a bit of suction pulling towards the hole. We also tried probing with paddles everywhere in the area that we could reach without being in danger ourselves. We felt only current and rocks.

“After about an hour, rescue squad personnel directed us to stop our search of the falls, so we continued searching downstream. It was hard to leave the river this day, but there was nothing more we felt we could do. We were interviewed by the park and county police, then called Scott’s parents in to give them the terrible news.”

SOURCE: David Mackintosh, posted to


1. (Mackintosh) We are still in shock over this incident. This day was like any other day on the river. We all felt we were within our limits, and we had taken normal precautions. Although I wish I could turn back he clock, I don’t know what we could have done differently.

2. (Walbridge) Charlie’s Hole is very powerful. It is named for a man who bailed out here and had to crawl out on the bottom, hand-over hand. It is not easy to escape from, especially in a short, low-volume playboat. These boats are also relatively slow, which can be a disadvantage.

3. (Walbridge) Veteran falls runners tell me that they believe that the accident occurred because Bristow was off his line above the drop and ended up in the wrong chute. It is unclear if this happened because he got deflected by a boil, bounced in a shallow place, or because he didn’t know exactly where he was. Given the dangers, I believe that future falls runners would be wise to scout Great Falls each time they run it.


The network was shocked on November 30th to hear that Scott Bristow, a regular contributor to this on-line forum, died while running Great Falls of the Potomac near Washington, DC. This Class V+ drop is several hundred yards wide, and there are a number of different routes. The river running at 2.8', a low flow that's ideal for falls running. Bristow drove up from Atlanta with two friends to meet some locals he'd met on line and run the falls. In DC he met David McIntosh, an experienced falls runner who would later reported the accident to After scouting they successfully ran several lines on the Maryland side.

The next day another experienced Great Falls boater joined them. After warming up below the falls, they prepared to run the Maryland side. They ran the top drop, Pummel, and eddied out above the Z-Turn. Bristow, running fourth, apparently missed his line, spun around, and dropped into Charlie's Hole backwards. This is a nasty pourover which has forced swimmers into rock sieves at the bottom of the river. A few years ago Charlie Crowley was only able to escape by swimming down and crawling out hand-over-hand along the bottom. Bristow was trapped and beaten by the hole and forced to swim. His companions eddied out, and ran up the rocks alongside the drop with throw ropes. They never saw him again. His boat and paddle washed out, but he did not. As of this date Bristow's body has not been found.

Bristow was the first kayaker to die in the Great Falls area since the Great Falls Park opened in the late 60's. For many years activity centered on Class III Mather Gorge just downstream. Great Falls was first paddled in the mid 70's, and in the past few years the number of runs has increased dramatically. Experienced falls runners speculate that Scott may have gotten off line, either by being back-surfed in an upstream hole or by going to the wrong side of a small rock in the approach, Efforts to get back on line may have caused him to spin out. These were small errors that have serious consequences in difficult whitewater. Local paddlers speculated that someone was going to get killed eventually, and hope that this accident will cause fast rising boaters to think twice before tackling drops of this seriousness.

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