To live in the Washington area and not take a shot at whitewater paddling is like living in Aspen, Colo., and refusing to ski. You're here, it's here, why not give it a try?
Whitewater is abundant and diverse. You can go from death-defying runs to family-friendly ones in minutes. The wild Potomac around Great Falls lures some of the top paddlers in the world in decked kayaks and canoes; a few miles upstream or down you can lollygag with the kids in an open boat -- just make sure to wear life jackets.
Jon Hitchings of Wheaton navigates the rapids during a 41/2-mile run on the Gunpowder River in Baltimore County.
(Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)
Nor do you have to go alone. From now till late fall, a half-dozen local paddling clubs run weekend guided trips down the region's waterways. Most are free. Several clubs also offer lessons.
Washington's venerable Canoe Cruisers Association is the grande dame of these institutions, having overseen the whitewater boom since the first intrepid adventurers in aluminum Grumman canoes tackled the Potomac's rocky rapids after World War II. Before then, canoes and kayaks were made of fragile cedar strips, and rocks and rapids were to be avoided.
Aluminum begat fiberglass, which begat Kevlar and other space-age materials. Today's whitewater boats are so durable, you get tired of them long before they break. The backyards of paddlers from Frederick to Alexandria are littered with perfectly good abandoned boats that can be bought for a song, which is a good thing for penny pinchers like me.
That's how I came to be thundering down the lower Gunpowder River last week in my newest acquisition, a shocking pink, $100 Pyranha kayak. My companions were the Thursday Paddlers, a Canoe Cruisers group specializing in midweek trips to small rivers and tributaries, especially in spring when the water is up from seasonal rains.
The longtime leader is Steve Ettinger of Chevy Chase, who had no problem with a hot-pink boat. "This way," he said amiably, "we'll be able to find it easier after you capsize."
No one knows more about the region's small streams than Ettinger, who is compiling a book on the subject. He calls it "Washington's Other Whitewater," which was witty back when he started in Bill Clinton's first term, but has lost its edge.
Ettinger oversees a loose coalition of paddlers who can get away during the week. He keeps in touch via e-mail and makes a choice on what river to tackle at the last hour, based on where the best water is. But Thursday Paddlers are fiercely independent and often disagree, and there's always a flurry of follow-up e-mails as members plot alternate trips. "It's like herding cats," says Ettinger.
Last week he managed to corral seven for the trip down the Gunpowder, a pretty 4 1/2 -mile run through the woods north of Baltimore with three sets of reasonably challenging rapids -- Potts Rock, the falls of the Gunpowder and Lorelei Ledge. He rates the run intermediate in difficulty.
Any doubts that paddling is a life sport were dispelled at the put-in when two folks I recall running rivers with 30 years ago showed up. John Lentz of Bethesda and Jane Collins of Takoma Park looked no worse for wear and probably paddle as well as ever, though at 68 Lentz says he's done with long portages.
Virginia bluebells by the thousands lined the banks at the put-in on Route 1. Mountain bikers sped by on a trail and anglers seeking spawning herring, shad and white perch popped up at deep holes, but we were the only boaters. The water was three inches above minimum for good paddling, according to a gauge on the Route 1 bridge, which seemed safe for an early-season run by rusty paddlers.
I made clear to Ettinger it had been years since I'd been on whitewater and it was my first trip in the pink torpedo. He was solicitous, watching closely as I demonstrated I hadn't forgotten two crucial whitewater moves -- catching an eddy to get out of fast water and ferrying across a rapid to get to safe water.
He pulled the group over at Potts Rock to scout the moves we'd need to get through it, then did the same at the falls of the Gunpowder, a long, class III rapids with rumbling standing waves. Nobody flipped in either, and I confess I was getting a high opinion of myself when we stopped to scout Lorelei Ledge, which Ettinger described as the easiest of the three.