On the Potomac, power plant's discharge is kayakers' paradise

The Dickerson Whitewater Course in northern Montgomery County is created by the outflow of cooling water from the Mirant Dickerson Generation Station, a gush of up to 250,000 gallons a minute that roars down a 900-foot sluice to the Potomac River. The site will host the U.S. National Whitewater Championships on Sunday.
By Steve Hendrix
Friday, September 24, 2010; 5:43 PM

The trickiest navigating at the Dickerson Whitewater Course for kayakers isn't the wicked drop at the top or the killer hydraulic at the bottom or any of the boiling rapids in between. It's the drive to the parking lot.

To reach this course in northern Montgomery County, which on Sunday will be the site of the U.S. National Whitewater Championships, you first have to drive through a power plant that is pumping enough electricity to supply 800,000 homes. The run features scrutiny by hard-eyed security guards, an escort by a plant vehicle and a four-minute slalom among rail cars, electric towers and coal silos. The final approach takes you inside a cavernous warehouse plastered with safety-first signs.

"It's sometimes a bit of a mystery, what roads you're going to take and what the security is going to be like," says Peter Lutter, 17, a member of the U.S. Junior Slalom Team from Bethesda who trains frequently on the course. "But hey, whatever it takes to get on good white water, I'm happy to do it."

World-class paddlers like Lutter say it doesn't get much better than the white water made by this strange partnership between a security-conscious public utility and a thrill-seeking sport. The course is actually the outflow of cooling water from the Mirant Dickerson Generating Station, a gush of up to 250,000 gallons a minute that roars down a 900-foot sluice to the Potomac River. The 40-foot-wide channel has been fitted with dozens of concrete "boulders" and angled dams that convert the flat discharge from the power plant into just the kind of jostling froth that serious paddlers crave.

The result is a reliable, debris-free, year-round training facility that is not beholden to rainfall, snowmelt or any other vagaries of nature's own white water. Coaches can shout their critiques from water-level platforms, and safety ropes are never more than a short toss away. It's even heated. A class-four Jacuzzi.

"It can be a little uncomfortable in the summer, but it more than makes up for that in the winter," Lutter said of the bath water pouring out of the coal-fired plant.

On a recent Saturday with a hint of autumn rustling through the trees lining the course, about a dozen paddlers made training runs at Dickerson. Under looming, steaming smokestacks, as racers took turns launching into the relatively calm swirl at the top of the run, Lutter offered to take a reporter on a little ride.

His normal boat is a $2,000 carbon-fiber kayak that weighs less than 25 pounds and barely seats one. For this ride, he offered a much heavier plastic two-seater. Should it capsize, Lutter said, he could "probably" still roll it upright, even with the extra burden of a wet journalist on board.

(Several of the area's swift-water rescue teams, including Montgomery County's, also use the Dickerson facility for training. None were there that afternoon.)

With each deep thrust of Lutter's double-bladed paddle, the boat came alive in the bouncing current, bucking down the first fall, drenching the paddlers. The ride was wild and smooth, until Lutter swerved into an eddy, planning to point upstream for a brief rest. But the bow nosed against the wall of the sluice, sending the team down into the next rapid - backward.

"That wasn't part of the plan," Lutter shouted. He laughed. The reporter did not.

But Lutter - a senior at Georgetown Day School who finished 41st at the Junior World Championships in France this summer ("I missed the semi-finals by 2/100ths of second," he lamented) - eventually wrestled the boat back in line. It plunged through the hydraulics, rode over the wave trains and finally shot out of the fury into a placid side water of the Potomac.

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