You wouldn't know anything was bothering Francesca Adams as she stood high on the rocks scouting Little Falls, but inside all was aflutter.
"My stomach is full of butterflies," she said with a smile.
"You've done Little Falls before, haven't you?" I asked.
"The Maryland side, yes, but never the Virginia chute. It's harder. I'm nervous."
Below the rapids her grandson, Nick Morse, was waiting. At 14, he was beyond fear and had plunged his kayak into the frothy whitewater with gusto. Now it was her turn.
"Go get 'em, Francesca," I hollered as she climbed in her little boat to do battle with the fear gods.
"It's Fran ches ca, not Fran sess ca," said the grey-haired grandma. "It's Italian."
With that she was off, bound for the huge, waterworn river rock that divides the Potomac into Virginia and Maryland chutes at the second-biggest rapids on the river. She stuck the kayak's nose out into the main current, spun deftly, picked up speed as the water funneled into the narrowing gap, drew hard right to point the bow away from the great, gray boulder in the middle and plunged over the first waterfall and out of sight.
Then it was our turn, and I had butterflies of my own. One of my fondest memories of life in Washington is the day in 1972 when I wandered down to the river after the worst of Hurricane Agnes' deluge. I followed my instincts to a spot overlooking Chain Bridge where the chocolate brown water roared through the bottom of Little Falls, upwelling unpredictably in rolling, five foot-high mounds that spat up whole trees.
I remember standing on the shore and feeling the concrete bridge buttresses and the ground around them shaking with the power of the river, which raged along barely below the iron underpinnings of the bridge.
It's funny how things stick in your mind, but at the time I thought it would be cool to some day come back and run Little Falls in a small boat, once the river got back in its banks. Twenty-seven years later, after a couple of brief flirtations with whitewater kayaking that convinced me it wasn't my sport, I was finally getting around to it -- in a canoe.
"Conditions are never going to be better," said Steve Ettinger, one of the Washington area's more experienced whitewater paddlers, who organizes trips for a group within the Canoe Cruisers Association called Thursday Paddlers. They make midweek forays to creeks and rivers around the area, but this year's selections have been limited by drought. The Potomac always has water enough to run, he said, and low flow is ideal for Little Falls.
"You even have a high tide today, which means the drop at the bottom will be less than usual," he said. "It should be perfect."
The canoe partner Ettinger hooked up for me was Star Mitchell, a recently retired Montgomery County schoolteacher. At first she took the stern to direct the show, and I was up front, but after a spectacular capsize near the put-in we reorganized. It seemed to work better with her forward, spotting chutes to run and rocks to avoid, and me in back providing power.
We navigated the mile or so of rock-strewn river from the put-in at Lock 6 on the C&O Canal to the boulders overlooking Little Falls without further incident. As we stood on high ground scouting the falls, I got a sense of what former president George Bush must feel like when he goes skydiving.
Eight paddlers were along for the trip, including CCA President Larry Gladieux, and each seemed determined to make sure The Washington Post didn't run an Independence Day weekend headline: "Outdoor Writer Lost at Little Falls."
They were all weighing in with plans, and I was getting more and more confused. Finally kayaker Jane Collins pulled me aside and advised, "None of this really matters because when you get down there on the water it's all going to look completely different anyway. Just try to stay left and away from the rocks."
We were the last boat to go, and Gladieux had safety patrols stationed at every possible trouble spot. But who needed them?
Wordlessly and without a hint of drama, Mitchell and I drove our battered old plastic canoe out into the main flow, peeled into the swiftest current and paddled hard to sweep close by the first rocky obstacle on river left.
I could see the whole route in my mind's eye, having scouted from above. But as Collins predicted, it was totally different at water level, just a rumbling, frothy, noisy, jumbled run. Keep left, I mumbled under my breath, and Mitchell must have heard because she drew hard left while I swept from the right side. The slender boat jogged into line with the rushing current, and we blasted through the first chute, which left only a hard right between jagged rocks at the final drop.
Two hard strokes later we were set up to enter it, and four strokes after that we were through and bobbing in the flat water below.
"High-five!" said Mitchell, holding her paddle aloft. We clashed paddles amidships, then swung them back into cadence to get around the bottom of the big dividing rock and paddle back upstream in the eddies on the Virginia side to watch the others from our group at play in the standing waves at the foot of the rapids. We tucked in behind a rock there and snapped photos of the group, including young Nick Morse, who kept flipping and rolling back upright in the fast-flowing bubbles. It felt good to have Little Falls and all those butterflies behind us.
Canoe Cruisers Association runs whitewater trips on weekends and Thursdays through late fall, as well as classes in kayaking and canoeing at all levels from beginner up. CCA dues are $25 a year. For information contact membership chair Lee Tucker by e-mail at LLTucker@erols.com or by phone at 703-573-0531.
CAPTION: Ernie Katz, one of eight paddlers on trip run by Canoe Cruisers Association, navigates the frothy waters of Little Falls, which is in ideal shape for whitewater kayaking after recent drought limited Potomac River to low flow.
CAPTION: Canoe Cruisers Association President Larry Gladieux rides the rapids through Virginia chute of Little Falls.