The kayak drifted through the shallows of the Potomac, belly up, like a florescent, sunbathing turtle. Mark Compton sat inside, submerged and upside down, running his hands along the sides of the boat.
Holding his breath, Compton felt no panic — this was a lesson in a maneuver called a T-rescue, which Stephen Huie, another whitewater kayaking student, was about to execute.
Huie paddled his kayak over until it tapped the side of Compton’s upside down hull. Feeling the tap, Compton reached until he found the tip of Huie’s boat, grabbed it and forced his boat over, right-side up again, spluttering for air.
Their instructor, one recent Sunday on the Maryland side of the Potomac below Great Falls, was Jason Beakes, founder and president of Active Nature, an outdoor adventure company based in Poolesville in Montgomery County that offers lessons in, and rentals for, whitewater kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding.
Beakes, 40, of Bethesda, a member of the U.S. whitewater kayaking team from 1997-2003, said that paddlers head out onto the Potomac on their first class. “The section of river is what’s important,” he said. “People always start on a flat section of river.”
The time it takes for paddlers to grow comfortable varies, he said, but most of his students are able to get to the intermediate level - paddling class 2 and class 3 rapids - after four or five lessons, he said.
Individual lessons cost around $100 each, he said. But many kayaking schools have packages that cut down costs and help students grow their skills further than if they took just a few lessons, he said.
Business is good. “We’re growing faster than expected,” he said, of Active Nature, which he founded in the last year. Since April, Active Nature has served more than 1,000 kayakers and standing paddleboarders through events and lessons, he said.
Nationally, more and more people are becoming interested in paddlesports of all kinds, according David Brown, executive director of the Professional Paddlesports Association.
From 2006 to 2012, the number of people participating in whitewater kayaking grew from 828,000 to 1,878,000, according to a 2013 survey by the Outdoor Foundation, a non-profit established by the Outdoor Industry Association to promote paddling, climbing, hiking, camping and other outdoor activites.
Touring and recreational kayaking, both of which have far more participants than whitewater kayakers, also experienced large increases.
In the greater Washington area, said Beakes’s wife, Patricia, also an Active Nature employee, Kayaking is “absolutely a growing sport.”
“There is a growing knowledge that it is an accessible sport that many people can enjoy,” she said.
Dave Harding, a local kayaker, said the high comes from being so close to the water. “Being on the river, on the water, is where I’ve always gone to recharge my batteries,” he said. “It’s an amazing, relaxing, calming experience. It’s smooth, graceful; it’s something that’s beautiful when you’re out there. It’s neat … seeing the power of the river.”
Compton, 37, Beakes’s pupil who agreed to capsize and hold his breath to learn the T-rescue maneuver, said he was an avid whitewater rafter when he was younger and always wanted to learn to whitewater kayak. But the nearest suitable rivers were hours away — until this summer.
In D.C. for a consulting internship, he has spent several weekends on the Potomac honing his skills. “I don’t know anywhere else in America in terms of a big city where there’s white water like this,” he said.
Mike Aranoff, of the Canoe Kayak and Paddle Co., based in Vienna, said there are so many places to kayak in the Washington area that there’s no excuse for lazy weekends. “We say to people that living here and not knowing how to canoe and kayak is like living in Aspen and not knowing how to ski,” said Aranoff.
Local kayaking enthusiasts say the area is home to some of the most diverse and consistently reliable water in the country, with sections suitable for all skill levels, whether would-be paddlers are interested in whitewater kayaking, flat water kayaking, or stand-up paddleboarding.
Dave Harding, who works at Potomac Paddle Sports, based in Rockville, said the Potomac offers rapids from class 1, easiest, to Great Falls, a class 5 rapids that should only be navigated by experts.
“A lot people view the Potomac as a killer,” he said. “Really, it’s just one small section. Most deaths are going to happen below the falls.”
Though the whitewater looks like out of control, he said, “if you know how to read the river, you can find these lines, and navigate through these somewhat fearsome rapids very easily. The biggest issue is people going in who aren’t properly equipped.”
Those who aren’t interested in whitewater, he said, can head further down river towards D.C. and paddle past the monuments or in the flatter sections of the river.
Tourists often walk the District and visit the capital’s various monuments – but many companies also offer water tours, he said, which let tourists and boaters experience the capital in a different way, he said.
“You really haven’t done it until you’ve seen it from the water,” he said.
For those who might want to travel further afield, the Rappahannock River, the Shenandoah River and the Chesapeake Bay all offer other spots to paddle, Aranoff said.
The Potomac has been in the news this summer after a spate of drownings. But, like Harding, public safety officials say that for the most part, rescues involving kayakers are a “rarity.”
“Kayakers are the least of our problems,” said Donnie Simmons, a 29-year veteran of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, and assistant team leader of the County’s River Rescue and Tactical Service Team.
“We get lots of calls of kayakers in distress - but [the caller] may not know what kayakers are capable of,” he said. “Most of the rescues are along the river, or swimmers.”
Vicki Capone, who kayaks regularly on class 4 whitewater in the Potomac, said she sometimes worries about getting hurt — but that doesn’t stop her.
“Part of being a safe kayaker is about going into water that’s not too difficult for us,” she said. “The reward is unbelievable. What you get from being out there and challenging yourself and learning, and being active and physically fit ... It’s totally worth it.”
The following is a list of paddling events taking place in the area in August:
Aug 7: World Kayak Hometown Throwdown (Richmond)
Aug 14 6-8 p.m.: Free Community Race Series - Widewater (Old Angler’s Inn, Potomac)
Kayaks and paddleboards
Aug 20: Moonlight Paddleboarding tours - http://anadventures.com/moonlight-tours.php
Here is a list of resources:
Canoe Cruisers Association at http://www.ccadc.org
Active Nature at https://www.facebook.com/anadventures
Liquid Adventure - 301-229-0248 or liquidadventurekayakschool.org
Calleva Outdoor Adventures www.calleva.org or 301-216-1248
Key Bridge Boathouse, Keybridgeboathouse.com (202) 337-9642
Canoe Kayak and Paddle Co. www.ckapco.com 703-620-4238