Potomac - 3. Through Great Falls (several runs)

Potomac, Maryland, US


3. Through Great Falls (several runs)

Usual Difficulty V+ (for normal flows)
Length 0.6 Miles

Old School Falls Running

Old School Falls Running
Photo of Bill Kirby by Bill Kirby (Photo by Rick Freimuth) taken 08/15/78 @ 3.1?

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
usgs-01646500 2.40 - 3.90 ft V+ 01h06m 5.99 ft (too high)

River Description

This is the classic steep hair run of the East Coast.
Wick Walker, Tom McEwan and Dan Schnurrenberger were the first to run Great Falls in August 1976. They ran the Spout side. The run went idle for two years, when Park Superintendent Bill Kirby ran it with fellow Park Ranger Steve McConaughy.
Guidelines for Running Great Falls of the Potomac (MD)
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
Posted: April 18, 1999 by Jason Robertson

Please see the Guidelines for running Great Falls before considering this run. The guidelines are the result of years of careful consideration and negotiation with local authorities, including Great Falls National Park. We all need to keep their concerns in mind.

Permit Information

don't screw up

StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2018-09-02 18:41:03


Rapid Summary

Mile Rapid Name Class Features (Legend)
0.2great fallsN/APortage Hazard Waterfall

Rapid Descriptions

great falls (Class N/A, Mile 0.2)

this rapid is wider than it is long. see the separate descriptions of the individual lines.

User Comments

Users can submit comments.
July 12 2005 (4940 days ago)
From the JacksonKayak.com page:

July 12, 2005
The Jackson's have arrived after a long drive from the Ottawa at the steps of the capital of the
USA. In this beautiful city lies a gem of a river called the Potomac. Just upstream from the
Capital about 12 miles is where you will find the Great Falls of the Potomac. The whole river drops
about 60-80 feet in a few hundred yards. The beautiful thing about the Potomac is the size of the
river and the fact that it never gets too high or too low. Although it is a natural flow river, it
services such a large drainage area that the record low was 500 cfs, more than enough to still run
the falls. Today it is running at about 20,000 cfs or so (my guess) and the options are endless for
class V water to run. I woke this morning planning on paddling with Danny Stock (star of Strokes
and Concepts DVD, and long time friend), Louis Geltman, and Nec Poberaj. Louis and Nec bagged and
it was just Danny and I. I have one Rocker and one Super Hero. Danny chose the Super Hero and I the
Rocker, with the plan to switch out. Our plan was to run the first drop of the Fish Ladder a few
times and then run the Back Canyon. For those of you who aren't familiar with Great Falls, allow me
to explain...
The put-in is at Great Falls Park in Maryland above a low head dam (8 feet tall) with a nice warm
up lake above it. The dam is used to divert water into the pumping station where Washington, DC
gets its drinking water. Once you warm up you can boof the dam just about anywhere (except the few
places with rocks at the bottom). The dam is 1/4 mile wide! Then you have lots of choices, and
depending upon the water level some choices are better than others. Today the choices were to run
the normal Fish Ladder which is 5 slides that circumvent the Falls and create a wonderful series of
drops with a hole at the bottom of 4 of them. The 1st Slide is a good warm up one with the hole
being fairly easy to punch, and a little space before the next drop. Kristine came down with the
camera to shoot us showing off the hole punching ability of the Super Hero and Rocker. Not only
were we able to get the bow over the hole and carry out momentum downstream, we were able to launch
into the air and land 10 feet below the hole! We were having so much fun with this drop that we did
it about 5 times. Next in line is a class 2 rapid that leads into the second slide only about 50
yards downstream. The second slide starts testing your boat control a little more with a bigger
hole and recirculating eddies on both sides ready to catch anybody not able to put their bow on top
or keep their boats straight. IMMEDIATELY after you get through the second drop the river splits in
two; the left goes through the rest of the Fish Ladder and the right is the Back Canyon. 95% of the
people in the Fish Ladder stay in the fish ladder instead of doing the back canyon. However a
recent log jam that was broken out resulted in one single log in the fish ladder between the 3rd
and 4th slides that is in a precarious position for anyone not maintaining control after the 3rd
slide. It also points upriver ready to catch any swimmer (swimming the fish ladder is a really bad
idea anyhow). If you stay left and do the fish ladder you will run the third slide right under a
walking bridge (usually with spectators) and hit a hard reactionary on your right to avoid a full
on hole on your left that is up against a wall. The reactionary lifts you up and drops you on the
left side of the channel making a left to right move to hit the entry of the 4th slide in good
position. With the log, stay left, boof the rock protecting the entryway and make your way around
the second rock. The 4 slide is intense on the way down, especially now that at the bottom a tree
that is the size of a Washington State Redwood is dead center at the bottom of the drop. The line
is to stay left and aim for the crazy splashing water that looks like one peton rock after another,
however it is good to go. Then catch the eddy on the left and ferry under the tree on the most
downstream side of it, and peel out into the next drop around the corner that leads you into the
final slide that puts you back in the main river. The best place to eddy out is on the right side
right above the 5th slide and you can see the looming hole at the bottom. I have never been surfed
in this hole and never intend to! However it requires a decent line on the right or left of it to
shoot through consistently. There are two main ways to do the 5th slide. The normal way is to peel
out of the eddy and go straight down hitting the corner of the hole with right angle and a boof
stroke to carry as much of the 30 miles per hour of speed you have through the hole. The cool way
is to boof the 6 foot pourover on the left at the lead in, catching the eddy behind it and peeling
out into the middle of the slide and still making the final move at the bottom. Today Danny and I
boofed into the pourover and he said, "The water is really high and you won't have to peel out
very hard to get right at the bottom." We were both struggling to maintain our position in the
boily eddy below the pourover in the middle of the whole drop and I said, "OK, you go first
and show me." and he started to peel out a little lower than I would expect and got rejected
by the boil on the eddyline and said, "wow, the boils are bigger than I expected". At
this point we were both thinking, "wouldn't it have been easier to just run the drop like a
normal person?" but there we were and the move was not going to get any easier by waiting to I
took off, made the peel out high by the pourover, peeling out into water that is going about 20
miles per hour at that point, and I had enough time to ride my draw all of the way into the hole,
nailing my line where I wanted it and cleanly shooting through into the eddy. Danny was right
behind me and had an identical line. The last drop always is interesting because if you are scared
of the hole and push too hard right you will bounce off of the wall back into the hole, or worse
peton the retaining wall just under the water, hurt yourself, and then bounce back into the hole
for a beating (like Gilbert Rocha in the Pre-World Extreme Championships in 1996).
The other line that Danny and I took just upstream of there is the Back Canyon. The photos don't
really do it justice. After running the 1st and 2nd slides we eddied out and had Kristine hike down
to the eddy at the bottom of the Back Canyon. She is still about 30 feet above the river where she
is taking these photos. We scouted the run to make sure nothing had washed into it (this drop is
where I had my closest brush with death in 1996 when testing the Kinetic prototype with Sam Drevo,
pin under a log, swim, broken ribs, etc.). I am careful to check familiar drops for new obsticles
now. It was good to go so Danny and I got in the water (after I waved and blew a kiss to Kristine
way downhill and downstream). From where we started we would have to do a ferry accross a wave (we
were downstream of the entry drop of the back canyon) and be pointed upstream or straight accross
to boof into the drop from the side. I made the boof OK and the water at the landing was going from
my right to left really fast pulling my bow left hard causing me to do a brace on the right, eating
some valuable time needed to get to river right for the second drop in an 8 foot wide crack with a
hole on the left and a reactionary on the right. I braced right and pulled through on the right
stroke, then did a hard left sweep to get my boat turned to the right wall where there is a flake
that is one boat width wide that if on it can carry you clear of the worse hole on the canyon, but
puts you on top of a very peaky boil line that will either drop you left into a big reactionary or
right into a shallow but clean drop with a reactionary on the right. Luis Geltman tells his story
of hitting the left reactionary and not bracing into it enough flipping and tearing his shoulders
and chest up, something about contusions, black and blue over his whole front side and not wanting
to do that again (we were drinking beer at Black's bar last night and I didn't hear the whole
thing.). Well I got over the boils to fall left and managed to guide my Rocker in between the two
reactionaries, leaving one relatively non-threatening hole left to punch and then catch the eddy
where Kristine was taking photos. The hardest part of the drop is doing an attainment to catch a
wave, and to enter the rapid in a very non- traditional way, from below and from the side to boof
into a rapid that can't be broken into parts, but is a top to bottom run. So it is mentally a
challenging peel out, especially if you haven't done it before or in a long time.

We got to the bottom of the 5th slide successfully and checked out Portage hole (a good playboating
spot) did a couple of enders in our Super Hero and Rocker, and then paddled back accross the Fish
Ladder into "Sandy Beach"; an inlet that has a sandy beach and is the place most people
put in at to run Mather Gorge (below Great Falls). It is hot and humid in DC so Danny and I took
our gear off and spent 15 minutes cooling off, swimming around in the 75 degree water before
walking back to the car. Yes, you can do all of this and simply walk back to the car, cool!

Now, I have described only one part of Great Falls, at one level, the Fish Ladder and Back Canyon.
These are about 1000 cfs out of the 20,000 cfs in the river. Start back at the low head dam, boof
it, then go straight down the middle of the river and you will find yourself in class 2-4 rapids
before the world drops out in front of you. You have three major choices: Run the Maryland side
(river left), run the Middle Lines, or Run the Virginia side (river right). At today's level the
two intelligent choices are Maryland (hard left at Pummel, then left of Charlies, and then down the
meat at Horseshoe or far left on an easy creek line) The traditional line is the Center line which
consists of "Grace Under Pressure" (I named that rapid back in 1993), an un-named class
3+ into the Fingers, a 20 foot waterfall with several lines of varying difficulty. Out of towners
get confused and lost by the time they get to the fingers and unfortunately risk going down Subway
or Twist and Shout if they haven't carefully scouted the lead in and the slot to take at the bottom
drop. It is not like a normal river since it is SO wide with many look alike lead-ins. I watched
Arndt Schaeflein from Germany (an awesome creekboater) run off of the fingers 10 feet too far right
and land on a rock at the bottom that is 4 feet out of the water and bend his boat in half. Another
kid did the same thing but landed sideways and broke parts of his body (I don't remember which
ones, but I think his back was one of them). With that said, I let my kids run it, and Dane has run
it numerous times, and certainly knows where to go. Emily hasn't run it yet but would love it.

As the water drops there is the standard Maryland or Virginia sides with the Spout on the Virginia
side being a 25 footer that is sweet! Both sides are unbelievable with many various sublines in
each side allowing you to challenge yourself as much or little as you want. The kicker on the
Maryland side is Charlie's Hole. Unfortunately known more recently because Scott Bristow went into
it by accident and was never seen again. (a rock just downstream backs it up and the green water
goes super deep, likely under that rock.) Charlie's Hole is not to be run by anyone considering
swimming as an option in the case of a very hard surf in an extremely hard hole to get out of. I
stopped playing games with that drop after Scott's death there, no longer assuming that "you
can always swim out". One game, however, that I thought was quite cool, back in 1988 was with
Corran Addison.

First off, Charlie's Hole is a long V-shaped slide at about a 45 degree angle that carries alot of
water in it and it freefalls for about 4 feet into a vertical hole with an overhanging wall on the
right and a 45 degree wall on the left with the eddy feeding hard back into the hole. The green
water is so thick and fast and vertical that it punches a big hole in the river and surfs you
underwater for at least part of your surf, if you should be so unlucky to be there. Well, the green
water looked like it went so deep so fast that i figured that it made an eddyling under water just
like on top of the water. My idea was to have Corran line up on the eddyline below the hole and
wait for me. I wasn't going to tell him what I was going to do. My idea was to plug my Dancer deep,
following the green water about 10 feet under water but with a slight left hand angle and be on the
left draw to pull my boat accross the eddyline while 10 feet under water, causing me to pop up in
the eddy on the other side of Corran. Well, without hesitation I did my standard catch the little
hole at the top of the slide and do a spin in it, then I lined up on the left of the slide letting
my bow drop and having just a hint of left hand angle, and once my whole body was under and the
force of the water was on my back, I reached for the left draw and WHAM; it powerflipped me at the
bottom of the river and raked my right hand accross the rock at the bottom and before I knew it I
was rolling up, and was on the other side of Corran! Cool! I put my hand up in the air for a fist
pump (I was psyched) and blood was already running down my arm. I still have scars on three places
on each finger (one on each knuckle). Corran was impressed but not enough to try it.

Yes, I can go on and on about the Great Falls of the Potomac, like the time I ran it solo at
100,000 cfs, or all of the extreme races we have had on it, etc. I am happy to be here!

Enjoy the photos and come check out this river some time!
:) EJ
August 26 2004 (5260 days ago)
From Bill Kirby:

BTW, the date for the first falls run on the page is wrong, and Sue Taft got it wrong in her book,
as I informed her last year at a Potomac Conservancy benefit in DC. Tommy
August 25 2004 (5261 days ago)
From Swimmer on Boatertalk:
Re: Bored today, please bear with me... Swimmer New
Re: Which drop is this pencil sharpener of which you speak.... Bradley New
Date: Aug 25 2004, 19:40 GMT
From: Swimmer

Pencil Sharpner is on the Maryland side, river left of Charlie's Hole, almost against the bank.

and yes Middle Finger of Fate drops you on stone. I've never ran the MFF, but have seen video of a
guy totally biting it there. He wasn't moving after he landed.

August 25 2004 (5261 days ago)
From Boatertalk:
Date: Aug 25 2004, 18:57 GMT
From: Swimmer

There are many more than three lines at Great Falls, all of them level dependent. As a man who goes
by the name of Snowwrestler has said, .1 on the LF guage can cause over a foot of difference in the
actual line of choice for that day. I am sure you can realize that more water equals more push,
meatier holes, ect ect ect.

You need class V skills for the most part. Some of the lines at some of the levels are class III
moves, but should something go wrong, and you don't have the ability to self
preserve..well...you're screwed in a bad way. For example...Pencil Sharpner. You come through a
little chute with a side current hitting you as you emerge through the slot. You're trying to line
up to slide off a broken shelf. If you don't anticipate and prepare for that side current, it'll
shove you off line and you drop into a crack beside the aforementioned slot which is just about as
ugly and rescue impossible as I've seen. The drop called Pummel has a cave behind the curtain. Get
worked in the hole, may wash into the cave. Horseshoe delivers a great beat down. The Spout has
broken more than it's share of ankles. Middle Finger of Fate has broken ribs and given
concussions....the list goes on.

For comparison down south...Can be tight like Daddy's Creek, can get vertical like Tellico. I've
dropped the bottom half of Bald River Falls and it was nothing like Great Falls. Uuuhhmm........the
tight section of the Doe, along through Body Snatcher, that area can be similar... It's just about
making lines, hitting your boofs, sticking the landings. Level dependent. Can be a low water run
with no push, or can be a scream fest shoving you everywhere you wanna be.

Now that I've said exaclty nothing really helpful after all that....my boy's awake.

May 17 2004 (5362 days ago)
Last checked the top of the fishladder was blocked by a massive strainer.

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