Rescue teams spent a second day Saturday looking for an unidentified kayaker presumed lost on the Potomac River, plying the rapids swollen from heavy rainstorms with swift boats, searching an eight-mile stretch below Great Falls by helicopter and using thermal imaging along the banks and footpaths for any sign of a man caught on video struggling in the rough water Friday afternoon.
Montgomery County police spent the day interviewing hikers and kayakers and looking for cars that may have been left in parking lots along the shore overnight. Police released photographs of a red kayak matching the one in the video that was recovered downstream shortly after a witness on the Observation Deck at Great Falls shot the video and called 911. They also released photos of a white alumnium paddle and a spiderman gear bag that were recovered. The equipment, seasoned kayakers say, is outdated, inappropriate for such treacherous high water levels and lacking standard safety features.
After several fruitless hours of searching, fighting rising water, swift, turbulent currents and floating debris, the rescue teams called off the search Saturday afternoon. They will resume the search Sunday morning, said Pete Piringer, spokesperson for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service.
“We did an extensive search, and we didn’t turn up anything,” Piringer said. “Typically, the people that boat in this area are expert boaters, Olympic-level people, so it’s not unusual to see people out here every day of the year. But these river conditions are dangerous, even for the expert boaters.”
The river is expected to continue to rise to seven feet, close to flood stage, before beginning to recede Sunday, he said. Typically, by this time in June, the water is a much tamer three to four feet.
And that, said Howard Morland, 71, a veteran kayaker who found the empty kayak Friday afternoon, can be a recipe for disaster for inexperienced paddlers.
At between about five and six feet, the river level on Friday, the Potomac runs as fast and furious as the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. And around Great Falls, the steepest fall line of any river on the East Coast, even the most seasoned kayakers with the latest safety equipment like Morland think twice before daring to ply the frothing waters and the standing wave that appears when the water runs this high on a portion of the river paddlers call the Central Chute.
“The water reaches that level in April and maybe once or twice in May, so it’s usually a cold water situation, and people who go out are experienced, year-round paddlers,” Morland said. “In an odd, wet year like this one, the spring flows will extend into June, and you can almost count on people getting killed, because it’s summer weather and all sorts of people take their boats out, thinking it’s a nice day, and get into trouble.”
Morland went out Friday afternoon to surf the wave on Central Chute in a short, sturdy freestyle rodeo boat designed for experienced kayakers to do tricks and surf. He put in at Angler’s Inn and, as he was heading upstream, stopped at Sherwin Island just below the falls to fix his drain plug. That’s when he saw the overturned empty red kayak rush past.
He chased the boat, brought it ashore and was surprised to discover that the kayak, an Eskimo Endo, was not only too long and narrow for the high river conditions, but was old, badly damaged by sun and had no airbags. The paddle was aluminum, also old, he said, as most paddlers use lighter, sturdier carbon fiber.
“The first thing I thought is, ‘What’s someone doing in an Eskimo Kendo on the river at this level?” Morland said. “It’s too long and narrow to ride waves. It’s not big enough to be in a high-volume river with a lot of turbulance. I’s a btit out of date. And it didn’t have airbags, so if you have to get out of your boat and swim, your boat will float and you can hang onto it. People are conscientious about not going out on the water like this without air bags.”
Because no one saw the man in the video actually go into the water, Piringer said, police have not ruled out the possibility that the kayaker may have swum safely to shore. “But no one’s reported anyone missing,” he said. “No one’s reported that they lost their boat.”
Jason Beakes, an avid paddler and founding member of the Potomac Paddlers Volunteer Corps, said that it was “entirely possible” that an inexperiended kayaker might have swum out of the kayak and made it to shore.
“Things like this have happened before,” he said. “Most experienced kayakers use our own code of conduct and let other paddlers know what’s happened. But, after seeing the equipment, my educated assumption is this is someone who was very inexperienced. They may not know the code or who to contact. Or they may be home, embarassed and licking their wounds.”
About seven people a year drown in the dangerous Potomac waters around Great Falls. Last year, the toll included experienced kayaker Shannon Christy.