If the word canoe conjures images of Boy Scout camp and a dented old Grumman, stop at the feeder canal some evening for a look at the state of the canoeing art.
The canal, the Potomac above the C&O Canal's Lock 6, is where Washington's world-class whitewater paddlers practice these days. And they don't ride around in olg Grummans.
To the inhibited, the whitewater racers paddle looks more like a kayak than a traditiphal canoe.
Kayaks and today's racing canoes are completely enclosed boats, sleek and low to the water. Both have circular holes amidships where the paddler plunks himself down, buttons up a spray skirt to keep him in and the cold water out.
The only visible difference is the paddle. Kayakers of whom there are plenty in modern whitewater racing, still use the double blade. Canoeists use a single.
There's another difference. Kayakers [WORD ILLEGIBLE] canoeists kneel in the boats.
You couldn't tell that by looking, because of you see of a racing paddler is a torso and a head as if he didn't exist from the waist desin.
They call it whitewater racing because races are run on rapids, where rivers roar though narrow rocky channels. The feeder cental is tame stuff - Class 1 or 2 water even in spring runoff.
Whitewater racers look for Class 3 or 4 water for their competition.
Class 4 water, according to the local Canoe Cruisers Association's handbook, has "long, difficult rapids with constricted passages that often require precise maneuvering in very turbulent waters . . . generally not possible in open canoes. Boaters in covered canoes and Kayaks should be able to Eskimo roll."
What do whitewater racers do in this turbulent stuff? Sometimes they navigate through a complicated, half-mile-long set of gates similar to the ones on the feeder canal. Sometimes they head hell-bent-for-leather down a three- to five-mile wildwater course, with to object to get to the finish line fastest in any manner.
The gates are used for slalom races, which are a lot like ski slalom, only paddlers have an extra set of rules. The gates are marked. Some are downriver gates, and the boats must go through bow first. Some are upstream gates, and the paddler has to navigate downstream, then come back through the poles against the current. Others are reverse gated, through which the boat has to pass backwards.
There are no upside-down gates, although some are taken that way in the heat of competition.
A good racing canoe or kayak costs $300 to $500, but what's good this year may be useless next. Dick Bridge, head of CCAs slalom division, says, "Five hundred dollars buys a national class boat. It's usually good for about a year. After that its either obselete or smashed."
Washington racers are designing their boats, and last summer at the preworld championships in Canada the world was taking notice. The Europeans liked the Washington-inspired "Supermax" enough to take photographs of it to take home with them.
No doubt they'll have copied and outdated the Supermax by the time next year's world championships roli around. But the Washington crowd will have been updating too, and if all goes well international gold medals will be in Washington this time next year.
D.C. paddlers already are working out with that end in mind. Their principal training site is feeder canal; they practice most days alongside local novices and intermediates.
Want to see experts blast through a slalom course? Stop by the canal any weekday shortly before dusk, or during the mid-afternoon on weekends.
Park at the Lock 6 lot about two miles above Chain Bridge. Cross the C&O and walk about a quarter-mile up the towpath; you'll find a short path leading off to the left.
Take the path. At the end you might meet next year's world champion.