Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Kayakers race over Great Falls at festival

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Nick Kirkpatrick⁄Special to The Gazette
Kayakers took to the falls Saturday during the 18th annual Potomac Whitewater Festival. The three-day river fest was afundraiser for American Whitewater, a river conservation and recreation association.
At Great Falls last weekend, thousands of onlookers from both sides of the river were treated to spectacular displays as local and national kayakers competed in the 18th annual Potomac Whitewater Festival.

The festival, a fundraiser for American Whitewater, a river conservation and recreation organization, featured several on-water displays over the course of the weekend such as a freestyle competition and the classic attainment, in which kayakers paddle upstream. However, paddlers agree that the most spectacular event, and the most dangerous, is the Great Falls Race.

Reserved only for experts, the competition pits kayakers against each other to achieve the best time, navigating through treacherous rocks and fast-moving water and descending 60 feet through the falls. About 30-35 paddlers participated in the Great Falls race this year, according to Risa Shimoda, chairwoman of the event.

While some kayakers travel to the event from across the country, many are local, according to Shimoda. That’s due to the popularity of kayaking in the Washington, D.C. area, Shimoda said.

‘‘The Washington, D.C. community has been the home of avid kayakers and canoers for decades – for nearly 100 years,” Shimoda said. ‘‘It’s really well entrenched.”

Local kayakers agree. ‘‘Kayaking in Washington, D.C. is like skiing in Vail [Colo.],”said Cabin John kayaker Tom McEwan, who competed in the race this year. ‘‘The Potomac River is a wonderful site for paddling.”

The experience of riding a kayak over the falls is an exhilarating one, according to McEwan.

‘‘You’re out there in the middle of the river with water rushing everywhere around you,” he said.” The brightness of it and the light and the motion of the rapids – it’s a beautiful experience to be out there and it fills your senses in every way.”

McEwan co-directs Liquid Adventures, a kayaking school that organizes the Great Falls Race. McEwan gained some notoriety in 1975 when he, along with two other kayakers, became the first to ride a kayak over Great Falls.

He was careful to prepare by gaining some experience on smaller falls and even swimming over a few, he said. Even so, at the time, the move was seen as controversial within the kayaking community, McEwan said.

‘‘They thought it was a pretty dangerous development for the sport to take, but we survived,” McEwan said.

These days, whitewater kayaking has increased in popularity, according to Nathan Sass, 19, of Garrett Park, who came in fifth in the short boat category of the Great Falls race this year. ‘‘This kind of kayaking is gaining a huge amount of popularity I think because it’s interesting for people who don’t kayak to watch it,” Sass said.

It was Sass’ second year participating in the race, but this year, he decided to go for the gold – he spent about a month and a half training after being impressed by more experienced kayakers he watched in the race last year.

‘‘Navigating down such a difficult course in 45 seconds is really quite a feeling,” Sass said.

While event organizers are still tallying up the total amount of money raised over the course of the event, the festival raised about $10,000 for the conservation association last year, according to Shimoda.

About 175 people attended a silent auction at Old Angler’s Inn, the proceeds of which benefitted the group, which aims to preserve rivers on behalf of recreational users such as kayakers.

‘‘It’s just such a celebration of the sport,” Shimoda said. ‘‘It was really all about the [kayakers.]”

To learn more

For more information about the Potomac Whitewater Festival and to view the winners for the different competitions, visit