Monday, March 15, 2010

Raging Waters

Recent heavy rains in the midst of the year's big thaw has brought the Potomac above flood level once again. I went out today to take a gander at the swollen Potomac which I have never seen so high. Great Falls was indistinguishable from the rest of the river. Just a massive swirling sea of white water flowing franticly through the trees, carrying docks, trees and even construction equipment downstream. It must have been 25 or 30 years ago when the brindge to Olmsted Island washed out and today the waters were knocking at the bottom of the deck. The railings were still up that bridge could be a gonner by first light if things continue to be on the rise.

Hunting Quarter Road was under a bit of water...

The bridge to Olmsted Island...

A much different scene last week...


The spring of 2003 and was unusually wet in the Washington area and Phil, as well as myself, had been itchy for some excitement. It had been a couple of years since Phil and I had been night paddling out on the Potomac and the river was high after 3 days of rain. We thought this would make our travels a bit easier as a typical journey of this sort included portaging through rapids due to shallow water. We contacted some friends who supplied canoes and we began to assemble a crew, which was no easy task for Phil and I. Many of our friends knew the 2 of us to get hip deep in mischief at the drop of a hat and barely make it in to class/ work after the previous nights adventures. We had veterans Bob and Brad; the ladies Kay, Heater and Kathleen; and then there was Richard, a rather boulbous fellow who joked that he hadnt seen his own penis in 10 years.

Several groups of fishermen lined the shore of Seneca Creek upon our arrival but began to pack it in as the skies once again opened up. We all unloaded boats and life vests and wasted no time getting to the water's edge. Everyone grabbed a partner and shouted directions as they shoved off, drowned out by the peppering of heavy rains on the water's surface and thunder booming overhead. Bob and Heater were first on the water with Brad and Kathleen close in tow. Next was Richard and Kay followed up by Phil and myself opening fire on the rest with bottle rockets and roman candles. We all regrouped at the top of the first rapid and discussed our plan of action.

Bob and Heater glided through with ease, Brad and Kathleen following their lead. Phil and I waited for Richard and Kay, for they seemed to have trouble keeping the boat straight. Phil and I followed close behind into the splashing white water, but it wasnt long before they dumped the boat in the cold, spring waters. Phil shouted at them to hold onto the overturned boat, but Richard had already lost hold and was in the water up river. Phil and I made our way over to Kay who was clinging to her canoe. Phil told her to grab hold of the side of our boat while he tried to get a grip on her canoe. Still in whitewater and now off balance, we found ourselves sideways and eventually joined Kay in the water.

The air was only in the 50s with the water temperatures even colder; dangerously cold to be in for any length of time. We floated for a couple of minutes waiting to enter still water again, but the fierce water raged on. We tried to swim out of the current, but found it useless. Kay began to panic saying she didnt want die 6 hours before graduation so Phil and I found ourselves talking to her, calming her down slightly and keeping our own panic at bay. We floated along waiting for the current to let up or to be pulled ashore by one of the other canoes in the group. Phil began to panic as well, and at one point let go and began to drift away from Kay and myself, finding himself helplessly alone in the cold river, floating ever closer to great falls, but pulled himself together and grabbed hold once again.

In the water for some 10 minutes at this point, we began to shout for Bob. Eventually hearing our pleas, Bob and Heater pulled along side and I grabbed hold of their canoe telling them to take us to shore; any shore. Bob and Heater battled the currents and headed for an island in the middle of the river. I tried to hold firmly but began to feel my grip slip. I was so tired. I just wanted to rest, but others were counting on me. I was able to hold long enough to get to shore and collapsed face down in the mud shaking uncontrollably from hypothermia. I lay exhausted in the mud for a couple of minutes while Phil wandered about aimlessly muttering nonsense.

I got my bearings together enough to realize that my clothes were wet and keeping me cold so I began to undress. I took off my pack and my shell, which at this point was keeping water in rather than out, and joined the others in search for wood to get a fire started. Phil was still fully dressed and shivering uncontrollably, but eventually was able to understand that the clothes were doing him no favors at this point, and stripped as well.

Richard! Where was Richard?!? Upon last sighting, he was clinging to a small tree in heavy surf maybe 30 minutes ago. We told Bob that he and Heater needed to get back in the boat and go try to find him. They balked, but Richard would surely die if nobody went back out for him. As we stood on the shore discussing this, Richard floated right by the island at a good clip, waving his hands over his head, so Bob and Heater went in pursuit, hoping to reach him before he reached the falls. As the two paddled off, Brad, Kathleen, Phil and Myself attempted to get a fire started with wet lighters, paper and wood. Another 10 or so minutes and Richard was back on soggy land (but at least it was land) with his 2 rescuers while we still worked with the wet supplies to get some warmth. Richard casually walked up chuckling, which irratated both Phil and myself as we were in the water less than half the time he was, but he was much better insulated and dint even appear to be cold. Eventually we got the fire going good enough to dry some larger logs and before we knew it, the warmth began to soak in. Our clothes were hung on sticks around the fire to dry as we traded stories, food, smokes and beverages that somehow stayed dry up to this point in the night. We sat half naked on stumps and logs, telling trivial stories and making small talk. There is something implied, and you all know you just shared something big. Its something that only a person who has shared a near death experience with others can relate to. We sat around the fire waiting for the sun to rise so we might be able to find a land mark and see where we were on the river.

As the sun began to rise, we dressed ourselves in our toasty clothes and piled into the 3 remaining boats and paddled across the river to float along to shore and watch for a pull out which had been marked with some bags tied in trees. Not even 5 minutes had passed before we found our pullout, which was Swainslock and the last pullout before coming to the falls. We pulled our canoes ashore and carried them back to the lot where some more smoke were had and some photos taken before heading back upstream to fetch the other cars. We parted ways; most of us to bed, while Kay went off to graduation, never to be seen again.


  1. Oh, memories...

    Brings me right back there.

  2. misty water colored memories....