We launched into the Potomac River just beneath the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which links upscale Georgetown with the chrome-and-glass office park of Rosslyn, Va., and immediately faced the D.C. kayaker’s quandary: Paddle downstream first, taking advantage of the current, to enjoy the majestic bottom-up view of the Lincoln Memorial? Or push upstream against the current to quickly escape the urban grip, and then let the current propel us homeward after a day on the water?
On this Sunday, we chose to challenge the current first, paddling upstream. You still feel and hear the city, but the fish were jumping as if on cue to a Gershwin Brothers’ song, and great blue herons swooped in low on the hunt. As we passed Three Sisters, a trio of rock formations jutting above the surface, we could see evidence of heavy spring rains: Uprooted timber was twisted against the upriver Sister as if huge water fowl had made a nest of trunks and branches, instead of twigs.
It may be an alliterative overstatement to say that the nation’s capital is also a kayaking capital. But it is absolutely true that, along the 22-mile stretch of the Potomac River running upstream from Georgetown to Seneca Regional Park in Northern Virginia, nature provides everything from calm waters for a family outing to Class V extreme rapids that are dramatic, challenging — and that claim the lives of even experienced white-water kayakers with a tragic regularity.
“The Potomac River is a hazardous force that deserves our constant respect,” reads a National Park Service notice at a favorite kayak launching, at Fletcher’s Cove, about four miles upriver from Key Bridge. As we put into the water there on the next weekend, we kept that caution in mind, even though the Potomac River was calm and inviting. The sounds of Washington were barely an audio ripple as my kayaking partner and I paddled between high green walls formed by tree-covered cliffs that give the Palisades neighborhood its name.
But the Park Service warning became reality as we approached the next upriver car crossing, at Chain Bridge, where it becomes easy to understand why this is the uppermost limit for recreational kayakers on this stretch of water. Visible up river from here is Little Falls of the Potomac, which the Park Service describes as a “narrow chute of extremely powerful currents.”
The Potomac narrows. The surface first looks beguilingly calm, but the current accelerates, and with strength. Dig in your paddle. Pull back hard on the stroke. Dig. Pull. Dig. Pull. Dig. Pull. Even strong kayakers are on an aquatic treadmill: You paddle, but you stay in the same place.
Kayaking at that cusp of calm waters just below the dangerous currents of Little Falls is a reminder of why you are compelled to return to the river: There is a sense that you are simultaneously insignificant and universal. Halting safely just below the rapids at Little Falls, we did a quick back-paddle turn, and rode the current downstream with ease. There is more fast water up the river. Pull your kayak out of the water and drive about 10 miles above Little Falls to find Great Falls National Park, a favorite of white-water kayakers — but these rapids are only for absolute experts. The Potomac drops 40 feet through jagged rocks and a thin gorge. It’s hard to believe that this gorgeous, treacherous patch of extreme white water — which includes Class IV rapids (and even Class V after the rains) — is less than 20 miles from the White House.
Farther upstream are, again, calmer waters and a favorite location to rent kayaks, Riverbend Park, operated by the Fairfax County, Va., government, and an easy drive beyond the District line. On the opposite shore, on the Maryland side of the river’s bend, a bald eagle nest is visible high in the trees. Last summer, we were on the water early and saw one of these majestic birds of prey launch out of its nest and divebomb the water right by our kayaks, rising with a fish wriggling in its claws. That was the first time we had ever seen nature’s violent but eternal cycle of hunter and prey so close. The memory will be enough forever.
Keep going up upriver and there is a constellation of parks, docks and natural landings where a kayaker or canoer can put in. Several of the parks rent kayaks and canoes — but there are unlimited options if you B.Y.O.B. (bring your own boat).
Fighting the political currents
Since this is Washington, beware the powerful undercurrents — of the political kind, and not just hydraulic.
In March 2017, as the first golf season opened after President Trump’s inauguration, the Secret Service and Coast Guard closed off a portion of the Potomac where it runs alongside the Trump National Golf Club, just up river from Seneca Regional Park, whenever Mr. Trump was present.
That presented a problem to an assortment of boaters — including casual kayakers and canoers, Olympic aspirants, a riverine children’s camp and even wounded military veterans who kayak that part of the Potomac for camaraderie and group counseling.
Everyone appreciated the need for presidential security. But the president’s golf outings are not announced in advance, so the unpredictable closures interrupted boat outings — and, if paddlers were on the water before the security shutdown, it meant they could be cut off from access up and down the river for hours, unable to get home.
The issue went unresolved until March of this year, when — in advance of the suit being heard in court — the Coast Guard issued new rules for security along the Potomac River adjacent to the president’s golf club, which answered the paddlers’ demands.
The new rules shrink the length of the security zone, so a number of launch sites remain open, and they allow a 250-yard lane along the Maryland side of the river opposite the golf club.
Barbara Brown, chairwoman of the Canoe Cruisers Association, who said she has been paddling these waters since 1959, described the outcome as a victory.
“The Potomac River is always entertaining,” she added. “There are sections of the river that are perfect for teaching canoeing and kayaking and for families, and there are sections of the river that are life-threatening in their difficulty.
“For us, the Potomac River is Nirvana.”
If You Go
About a dozen boathouses and marinas rent a variety of platforms for those looking to be out on the water for an hour, or a day. Single kayaks are available for $16 an hour, as well as doubles, for $22, which are perfect for paddling with someone inexperienced, or if an adult has a young child along.
Canoes are $25 per hour and are preferable if you are taking children or canines or coolers and want extra space, and stand-up paddle boards, which rent for $22 per hour, are increasingly popular. Row boats and sailboats are available for rent at some locations, and a couple of boathouses cater to those who want to enjoy classic sculling.
For those eager for more than just a casual paddling experience, try out the Potomac Whitewater Racing Center, the Washington Canoe Club and the Canoe Cruisers Association, whose websites list lessons and races and other events on the Potomac. And an area outfitter, the REI Co-Op, organizes sunset kayak trips to review the national monuments at golden dusk.
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