At 50, Potomac Downriver Race Remains a Beauty

Kayakers Jim Long and Jane Collins tackle the rapids at Maryland Chute on the Potomac in advance of next Sunday's 50th Downriver Race.
Kayakers Jim Long and Jane Collins tackle the rapids at Maryland Chute on the Potomac in advance of next Sunday's 50th Downriver Race. (By Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)
By Angus Phillips
Sunday, May 8, 2005

A half-century ago, Aubrey Graves, then outdoors editor of The Post, had this to say a week before the inaugural Potomac Downriver Race:

"An inspection party this week found the river fast and turbulent in places. Those who try it will have to fight swift cross-currents and eddies, dodge boulders by the hundreds, bounce haystacks and leap through raging rapids. For sure, somebody is going to get dunked."

Some things change, others never do. When that first race was run by the fledgling Canoe Cruisers Association, paddlers tackled the river in fragile canvas foldboats or canoes and kayaks made of canvas-covered wood or noisy aluminum.

Technology has laid those vessels to rest (though it's hard to kill a Grumman), but the river that greeted 19 intrepid racers on May 6, 1956, is all but identical to the one that will see three or four times that many next Sunday for the 50th running of the CCA's Potomac Downriver Race. It's as wild and powerful as ever and, for sure, somebody's going to get dunked.

"I've paddled and sailed around the world," said Don Besom, a well-traveled former U.S. Foreign Service officer and co-chair for this year's race, "and this as beautiful a stretch of river as any I've seen, anywhere."

Besom and co-chair Star Mitchell led the way down the 7 1/2 -

mile route last week on a preliminary run to check out conditions. Twenty boats turned up to make the two-hour passage down Wet-Bottom Chute, through the glorious, gray-rock canyon of Mather Gorge, past Difficult Run via turbulent Maryland Chute, alongside Offutt Island, over Yellow Falls and through rumbling, roaring Stubblefield Falls.

It was a perfect day for scouting, sunny and cool, with songbirds chirping, Canada geese tending their grapefruit-sized nestlings, ospreys soaring, wood ducks peeping, turtles sunning and a few fish jumping. The river was at a fine boating level -- just over four feet at the Little Falls gauge. The banks were lined with wildflowers and trees, with almost no roads or houses in sight. It was, as always, hard to believe you were 10 miles from downtown.

Among the paddlers was Carter Hearn, still fit and trim at 72, who says he's done all but three or four of the Downriver Races since his first one in 1963. Hearn paddles a sleek, low, decked solo racing canoe these days, but he used to take his kids on the race in an open canoe when they were young. Two of them, Davey and Cathy, went on to become world champions and Olympians in slalom canoe and kayak.

Cathy Hearn is living in Colorado, where she's just been named a coach of the U.S. Olympic whitewater racing team, so she won't be around for this year's race. But Hearn said he expects Davey, now retired from international racing and living in Bethesda, to compete with his own son, Jesse, 6.

For all the Hearn family's paddling credentials, they are not immune to upset. The river pays homage to no one and Hearn's wife, Ursy Potter, was the first of three victims on our scouting trip, capsizing in the surging rapids above Wet Bottom Chute. She popped out of her kayak and took a long, brisk swim downriver before fetching up in an eddy. She laughed off the mishap and hopped back in her boat, which was retrieved for her by Jim Long of Madison County, Va.

Long, a veteran big-water kayaker, was the best paddler in the group, which included folks at every skill level from struggling intermediate to advanced. Three even turned up in rental boats from Springriver Outfitters, which they proceeded to handle expertly. "I like renting boats," said kayaker Julie Seiler. "It gives me a chance to try different ones and see which I like."

There's obviously nothing wrong with a bit of experimentation, but race co-chairs Besom and Mitchell said the Downriver Race is not for everyone. Last year, Mitchell said, she fielded calls from potential entrants wondering "how long the ride is," and whether boats were being provided.

The river is not an amusement park, she advised them, and though safety boats will be stationed at every rapids to bail out competitors who run into trouble, race organizers intend to accept entries only from intermediate-level paddlers and above who are comfortable in Class II and III rapids. All boats must have flotation and paddlers must wear helmets and life jackets.

To celebrate the silver anniversary of this Washington whitewater institution, organizers hope to lure Bob Harrigan, one of the organizers and competitors of the 1956 race, to the finish at Sycamore Island for the prize-giving.

Sycamore Island is accessible by hand-drawn ferry from a spot on the riverbank just below Glen Echo's old Sycamore Store on MacArthur Boulevard. Spectators are welcome there, or they can watch the competition from the rocks on the Virginia shore below Great Falls, at Difficult Run upstream from Old Angler's Inn on the Maryland side or at Stubblefield Falls just below Carderock Park on the C&O Canal.

The race starts at noon at Rocky Island, just downstream from Great Falls National Park on the Maryland side. Pre-registration fee is $15 a person, or you can register at Great Falls Park on race day starting at 9 a.m. for $20 a head.

For information, check the Web site http://www.sycamoreisland.org. Go to the calendar page and click on CCA Downriver Race. They didn't have Web sites in 1956, but they had a beautiful river. Some things change, others never do.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company