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Guidelines for Running Great Falls of the Potomac (MD)

Posted: 04/18/1999
By: Jason Robertson

SUMMARY: boaters should avoid running Great Falls when visitation in the park is high. Morning runs are best. If you must go later in the day, go in a group no larger than four (4) and finish quickly. Never go in a large group, spend excessive time scouting, or carry back up for repeat runs when the park is crowded. Know the hazards of this class 5+ rapid before deciding to run it. Be aware that some of the dangers are not evident, even after careful scouting. And, please do your part to protect access to this tremendous resource.


At present, whitewater boaters enjoy open access to the extremely rugged and challenging class 5+ drops of Great Falls. In early 1999, boaters stepped up our efforts to maintain access to the falls and to build ties and mutual understanding with federal, state, and local authorities with jurisdiction in this area. We want to demonstrate that we are safety-conscious and responsible users of the resource. We hope that park rangers, resource managers, and fire and rescue personnel see us not as a potential problem, but as an asset on the water.

We can help by warning park visitors engaged in reckless behavior near the banks about the danger of drowning and about the necessity of wearing a life jacket. If a victim does fall into the river, kayakers are in a position to become the "first responder" who gets the victim to shore.
This has actually happened several times in the last two decades. If kayakers see other park visitors littering, painting graffiti, or engaging in other harmful, illegal acts, they are encouraged to alert law enforcement immediately.

Kayakers have traditionally been careful stewards of the natural environment of Great Falls and are encouraged to demonstrate their commitment by getting involved in regular trail-maintenance and clean-up activities organized by park rangers. Such efforts might include, but are not limited to, those areas of the park most impacted by us, such as put-in's and take-out's. Finally, we need to respect the concerns of park staff by following the reasonable guidelines for running Great Falls that are spelled out in the summary above.

The Great Falls of the Potomac lie within the State of Maryland about 15 miles upriver from the D.C. line. Like the rest of the river, the falls are under the jurisdiction of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Sandwiching the falls are two National Park Service (NPS) units: "Great Falls Park" on the Virginia shore, and the "Great Falls - MD" area of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, on the Maryland shore. Each of these units contains close to 1,000 acres of protected woodlands. Great Falls is a popular destination within an easy afternoon drive of some 4 million people, and it is one of the premier natural attractions in the eastern U.S.

Montgomery County (Md.) and Fairfax County (Va.) fire and rescue squads respond to reported emergencies in the parks or on the river. Both of these rescue squads, as well as C&O Canal NHP rangers, have zodiac-type search and rescue boats and are trained in swiftwater rescue. Kayakers will occasionally see these crews in training, or on actual rescues, and are asked to respect the need for such training and to give way when these rescue boats, which are less maneuverable, are coming through narrow chutes. The US Park Police "Eagle" helicopter may respond as well. The Eagle crew, made famous saving lives after the Air Florida plane crash in DC, has made several critical rescues on the Potomac over the years, including two kayakers who became stranded in the midst of the falls.

Kayakers are permitted access to Great Falls from either side of the river across NPS land. However, boaters may not put in above the falls on the Virginia side. You may not put in any higher upstream than the well marked "Fisherman's Eddy" kayak launch site on the Virginia side at Great Falls. Running the falls after putting in here requires an arduous carry up around O-deck rapid to the base of the falls, followed by an even more arduous carry up the "flake" to the top of the falls. On the Maryland side, we are permitted to put in above the falls, and many kayakers prefer this launch site for its relative ease. Kayakers should note that it is illegal to leave the boardwalk that runs from the canal towpath across Olmstead Island to the Great Falls overlook on the Maryland side. Do not use the boardwalk as a means of getting to the river. This rule is clearly posted, and kayakers are subject to arrest and fine for breaking it.

The falls-running guidelines spelled out in the summary above are voluntary, informal measures. However, if we disregard the concerns of park authorities, we could be faced with calls for formal restrictions or a ban on falls running altogether. Please think carefully about the impact of your actions when running the falls, and do your part to protect this whitewater resource.

In January 1999, rangers and boaters met at Great Falls Park to discuss a number of issues, including falls running. That first meeting has since evolved into what is now an ongoing series of friendly and cooperative meetings, which have included fire and rescue personnel and a pilot and rescue technician from the US Park Police aviation unit. A key interest of all parties has been standardizing river signals. The following agreed-upon signals are particularly
useful to Potomac boaters:

I AM OK: tap your head with your palm

EMERGENCY: wave both arms (if possible, holding a bright-colored PFD or other object)
NEED MEDICAL ATTENTION: form an "X" (with arms or other device)

The last two are internationally recognized distress signals. The "I am ok" signal is the most important of all, since it allows the helicopter or zodiac crew to more quickly locate the true emergency, if any. The head tap comes from scuba diving, and is already in use by the Eagle helicopter and the Rescue 3-trained zodiac crews.

A major concern related to falls running is large groups running the falls when the park is crowded. This is a problem because it draws park visitors closer to the banks and prompts false alarms to 911. Since 1975, 29 people have drowned at Great Falls. The "Spout" is a particularly notorious spot. This is the 24-foot waterfall near the bottom of Great Falls along the Virginia shore. Eight (8) visitors have drowned since 1975 at this one location. The park is justifiably uneasy about kayaking or any other activity that draws unsuspecting or inexperienced park visitors dangerously close to the banks and steep cliffs along the river.

Another concern is boaters getting out of their boats in the midst of the falls and spending excessive time not only scouting, but also walking about, rock-hopping, sunbathing, snacking, wading, etc. The fear is that visitors will conclude that this activity is not very dangerous, when in fact it could easily prove fatal to an unsuspecting tourist. The fatality record bears this out. Swimming and wading are illegal. Therefore boaters may not swim or wade in the river unless it is necessary due to a wet exit. Boaters should never enter the river without wearing a fastened PFD.

The concerns about falls running go back a long time. Fifteen years ago, a handful of local boaters began running the falls regularly. Within a couple of years, discussions began between the Canoe Cruisers Association of Greater Washington, D.C. (CCA), and Great Falls Park, eventually leading to a March 1986 voluntary agreement designed to head off formal regulations on, or a prohibition against, falls running. The parties agreed that the falls would be run only before 9 am (which applied seven days a week year round), or on summer evenings after 7 pm, provided that the park was not crowded, and even then, only Monday through Thursday evenings. In July 1989, mail-in registration with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources was added as a requirement.

Over the years, these voluntary restrictions were never really enforced and gradually became more and more ignored. Until recently, boaters often abided by the 'spirit' of the agreement, by making efforts to keep a low profile when the park was crowded (i.e., small groups, quick runs). In the last couple of years, though, it was becoming increasingly common for large groups of a dozen or more boaters to show up in the falls area on a crowded weekend day and walk around on the rocks, scout, sunbathe, run the drops, and carry back up repeatedly for more runs, while literally hundreds of curious park visitors gawked.

So far the park service has, with one brief exception, kept the falls open (or to be technically correct, they have allowed open access to the falls) for 15 years, despite the fact that boaters have essentially abandoned the 1986 voluntary agreement. The exception occurred in September of 1989, when boaters were shocked to see an announcement posted in Great Falls Park banning access to the falls across park land. After the CCA protested on legal and jurisdictional grounds, this ban was rescinded later that fall. This incident served as a wake-up call to boaters who had taken access for granted.

Many of today's falls runners are no doubt simply unaware of the park's longstanding concerns and of the substantial efforts made by the CCA and others over the years to protect access to the falls. Others just assume access is assured and don't bother limiting themselves to time or day restrictions they view as rigid and unrealistic. This approach has become increasingly problematic, though, with more and more boaters running the falls, in larger groups, and on busy weekend days.

Unfortunately, we also recently had our first-ever kayaker death in the Great Falls, which, for the record, occurred around noon on a Saturday (11/28/98) in front of a large crowd. This incident had the unexpected but welcome side-effect of jump-starting the dialog with local authorities and bringing various issues of concern to the table.

With the endorsement of American Whitewater and the CCA, and in consultation with park rangers, Maryland DNR, and local rescue squads, the guidelines spelled out in the summary above are designed to serve as common reference for boaters wishing to run Great Falls. Unlike the 1986 agreement, these guidelines do not involve rigid or unrealistic time or day restrictions. Rather, they leave it up to the individual kayaker to use common sense and discretion in taking into account the visitation level at the park. If it's crowded, either go another time, or go in a small group and get through quickly.

Thanks for your help keeping Great Falls open for all to enjoy, now and in the future.

c/o Mac Thornton, Conservation Chair
6467 Wishbone Terrace
Cabin John, MD 20818
(301) 229-7430

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