U.S. Park Police were there, too, watching with binoculars. Such displays have long made National Park Service rangers cringe, fearing that observers might think it’s okay to kayak over the falls, which is for experts only, or to go swimming in the river, which is illegal. Fourteen people have drowned in the Potomac River Gorge in the past two years.
But after decades of tension between park rangers and daredevil river runners — marked by shouting matches, threats of fines and the controversial arrest of an Olympic paddler — the kayakers and the Park Service have charted a new course: working together to keep the river safe.
Beakes, who called the Park Service rangers before running the falls this week, is one of 11 experienced kayakers in the Potomac Paddlers Volunteer Corps. The new program, years in the making, trains the kayakers to help the Park Service patrol the river — responding to and preventing dangerous or illegal activity, including swimming and wading.
“The authorities are realizing that maybe people like us kayakers are a real solution to a lot of these problems,” said Beakes, 38, an infrared technician whose arms and torso attest to his hours spent battling the Potomac’s currents. Many park rangers “used to see a guy like me and think, ‘He needs to be watched so he doesn’t do something dumb.’ Really, it’s people who are just walking into the park and don’t know how to be safe.”
Testing the limits
Kayaking over Great Falls was thought to be impossible until Tom McEwan and a group of friends did it in 1975. McEwan, director of the Liquid Adventures Kayak School in Cabin John, said those early runs often ended with park rangers intercepting the kayakers and yelling at them.
“After that, we would usually try to stop in and give the park rangers’ office a heads-up so they wouldn’t immediately go for a helicopter,” said McEwan, 65. “We kept a low profile for a long time because we were afraid that if we got a lot of other people out there, the Park Service would not like it and would shut us down.”
But inevitably the falls started attracting more and more kayakers, and they kept pushing the limits — finding new lines of rapids or running the length of the falls without stopping. “Then someone said, ‘Let’s race,’ ” said Andy Bridge, who organized the first Great Falls race in 1988.
It became an annual tradition and, since 1991, part of the Potomac Whitewater Festival.