A kayaker pushed off the jagged rocks of the Virginia shoreline below Great Falls on Friday afternoon, and the swirling, churning water immediately pulled his boat into the swift current of the Potomac. He thrust his paddle into the water to regain control and battled his way upriver toward the falls, the little orange kayak bouncing through cold waves in a course both grueling and graceful.
A helicopter hovered just overhead, a reminder of just how dangerous the river can be. Police were still searching for the body of an expert kayaker who got into trouble last Tuesday afternoon in rapids called Grace Under Pressure and disappeared in the falls just below.
Authorities say Todd Andrew most likely was forced underwater by the powerful river and pinned into a submerged hole or a cave there. He was the second kayaker to die on the Potomac this month.
Although the river flows at a placid pace downstream from Washington, the falls just 15 miles northwest of the city is renowned for its raging whitewater. For many in the kayaking community, the recent deaths raise questions about risk and responsibility in an area that has become a great lure.
On some summer evenings, recreational kayakers slip into the Potomac by the hundreds. Members of the U.S. whitewater slalom team train here. A neighborhood in Bethesda is full of athletes drawn to the easy access to the river; bright boats lean against garages in Brookmont, and neighbors meet after work for evening paddles.
To ride the rapids in a kayak, people learn to read the river, charting a course to dance between rocks and hydraulics, currents that can spin the water with relentless, pounding force. But even the most experienced boater can't always recover after going under.
Todd Andrew came to the Potomac to ride Great Falls. A 35-year-old from Spearfish, S.D., he had traveled to rivers across the country. He came with a friend from Virginia who knows the falls as well as anyone, local paddlers said, and they ran it several times Tuesday before the accident.
Andrew came out of his boat after Grace Under Pressure and the current forced him into a narrow chute over the last drop of the falls. "I know the spot where he disappeared," said Davey Hearn, an Olympian and now a coach who lives in Brookmont. It's a labyrinth of rocks, Hearn said, some as big as a conference table or a Volkswagen, with water surging through and around.
That was the last time Andrew was seen, as he went under.
Last year, Andrew was boating with another expert kayaker on Montana's Clarks Fork River when his friend drowned in the rapids.
Andrew told a local newspaper, "He died doing what he truly loved."
A Growing Sport
Thirty-five years ago, no one thought kayakers could survive Great Falls, the steepest fall-line rapids of any river in the east, a series of cascades, hydraulics and rocks.
But there weren't that many people out there paddling then. "Used to be you'd drive down the road, see a boat on someone's car, and you'd know who it was," Hearn said. "You'd wave."
A few hard-core paddlers rode Great Falls in the mid-1970s, keeping it secret to avoid getting banished from that stretch of the river. Over the years, kayakers worked out an informal agreement with authorities, and running the falls became so common that now there's an annual race there.