Last Friday and Saturday (June 22 and 23, 2012), Dan and I joined some friends for a trip to Harpers Ferry, WV, where we stayed overnight in a house owned by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. The house is called “Highacre” or “High Acre” and is administered as part of their network of cabins but is not primitive at all; it has running water, electricity, and a well-equipped kitchen. (No air conditioning, though, and there’s only one bathroom for a house that sleeps eight.)
We went with three other couples, who all stayed for three nights (Thursday through Sunday); Dan and I, having felt the stresses of overscheduling in recent weeks, elected to drive up early on Friday morning and return to Charlottesville late Saturday night. On Friday, all eight of us went on a paddling trip together on the Potomac, starting a little way above its confluence with the Shenandoah at Harpers Ferry and continuing down past the confluence and through several rapids. On the second day, the group broke up to pursue various activities, including hiking, flea market shopping, biking, and loafing around the house. Dan, Pete, and I did a second day of paddling, doing a run known as “Staircase” that starts on the Shenandoah above Harpers Ferry and goes down to the confluence. We took out on the Potomac not far past the confluence.
The couples on the trip were: Iva & Bill, Pete & Steph, Rob & Jolie, and Dan & me.
I snapped pictures at various times throughout the trip, but for the most part, I only have pictures of the boring (flat water) parts, because when we came to the rapids, I was too busy paddling to work the camera!
After the above picture was taken (I think) we ran through some of the biggest rapids of the day. A well-known one, called White Horse, is considered a class III rapid at higher water (link to classification info) but at the low levels we were running is a straightforward class II. Some people even run it in inner tubes with their toddlers (YouTube link). We all made it through White Horse successfully, using our kayak skirts to keep the water from the 1-2 foot waves out of our boats.
Farther downriver we came to another drop not as big as White Horse in terms of water flow but still significantly higher than anything on the rivers I usually paddle around Charlottesville. Pete and Steph went through the chute first and observed a submerged rock that was difficult to spot. Apparently Pete was paddling back to signal us to run a part of the chute away from the rock, but I saw that Pete and Steph had gotten through the rapid easily and I didn’t realize that Pete was coming back with a message, so I paddled ahead. As I went over the drop, there was a BAM! and my boat came to a sudden, but brief, stop. (Steph asked me later if my neck felt OK. It did. Never occurred to me that a whiplash injury could be a risk of paddling.) Apparently the prow of my boat had met the immovable rock and it was like running into a wall. After stopping for a fraction of a second, my boat sort of fell to one side of the rock and I went through the rapid in a disorganized fashion, let us say. Pete later commented that I had “fought valiantly” but after compensating for balance from side to side a few times I finally overcompensated in the wave train below the drop and tipped over to my left. Ah well–it was frustrating to lose control and the collision with the rock consternated me, but the capsize itself was no big deal. I swam with my boat to a pool of calm water in some rocks below the rapid and set about the business of draining the boat. I emerged unscathed except for a small bruise on one knee from hitting a submerged rock shortly after capsizing, as I was drawing my legs up for the “whitewater swim.” (When you find yourself swimming through rapids, you should float on your back with your feet near the surface and pointing downstream. This keeps you from snagging a foot in a crevice on the bottom of the river, which can be very dangerous, and allows you to bounce yourself off obstacles using your legs as shock absorbers instead of “finding” rocks with your face.)
That was the only “wet exit” or as I like to say “unplanned swim” of the day. The other paddlers behind me avoided the rock by taking a different line through the chute or by picking a different chute through the rocks (there were at least a few to choose from). Pete commented that his and Steph’s whitewater boats had been able to skim over the rock I hit because of their scooped prows and shorter overall boat length, but the combination of my boat’s length and its knife-like prow perfectly suited it for catching the rock as I descended the drop.
On Saturday morning, we parked my car near the bank of the Potomac not far downriver from Harpers Ferry, and then Rob dropped off Pete, Dan, and me with our boats at a public ramp on the Shenandoah.
fter passing through some relatively small rapids (they would have been pretty exciting by Rivanna standards), we came to the biggest drop of the day: Bull Falls. At Bull Falls, at the water level we were paddling, there are several chutes of water alternating with ledge rock islands. We started by landing on one of the rock islands and scouting the main chute on the left side of the river. Then we took turns paddling through the smaller center chute.
Pete went first while I took video. Sorry about that small tree blocking the frame.
I went next while Dan did a great job of taking video.
Finally Dan took his turn paddling the chute. Meanwhile, I hit the wrong button on my own camera and didn’t get the video started quickly enough. (This just minutes after showing Dan how to operate the video, which he did perfectly.) I just managed to catch Dan paddling out of the chute at the bottom. Sorry, Dan!
After each person went through, he or she would circle back to the rock island and haul the boat up on it. We then sat on the island together to eat our lunches. While we were eating, a large group of paying tourists and their guides paddled up in “duckies” (inflatable kayaks). Two of the guides went first down the main drop and stood on the ledges below with throw ropes. Then the gaggle of tour participants, probably about twenty to thirty people in all, came through one by one and attempted to go over the drop.
We watched the paddlers come through and we tried to help direct them to the center of the main chute. A few did well and hit the falls just right. Several hit the chute at a poor angle or not in the ideal spot, but made it through without flipping thanks to the forgiving nature of the duckies’ flexible, bouncy hulls (which demonstrates why the outfitting companies use duckies for their whitewater tours). At least four or five people, maybe more (I didn’t keep count), went for involuntary swims. We also saw several people go through the wrong chute. As you can see in the video above, the water flows over a point of land and splits at a rock (the “little island” you can hear Pete refer to). A large part of the water goes over the drop featured in the video, but some of it diverges to the left of the rock and goes down another chute (at the top of the frame in the video). As they were paddling—or, more commonly, failing to paddle—towards the main chute, the tour participants tended to underestimate how much the water was pushing them sideways towards the secondary chute on the left. We tried to shout and gesture to them to paddle harder towards the main chute, but quite a few people bumped up against the rock and then went over the secondary chute, which appeared to be a much bumpier ride.
After the tour group had cleared out, we re-launched our boats in the pool above the falls and ran the main chute of Bull Falls. Pete and Dan made it through cleanly, but I took my second unplanned swim of the weekend. I made it through the falls proper, but in the turbulent water below the falls, my boat got turned sideways and I ran abeam of a ledge, which flipped me over instantly. I suffered even less harm than in Friday’s wet exit; no bruises this time! And there were even more convenient rock islands in calm water below the falls; I didn’t have to swim far with my boat before finding a good spot to prop it up and drain it.
A local paddler who visited us at Highacre that evening heard my story and said I’d been whipped by “the Bull’s Tail.”
Continuing downriver below Bull Falls, we went on to run the “Staircase,” a mile-long series of ledges that run diagonally across the river. At higher water levels, this is considered a Class III rapid, but at the low levels we were paddling, it was a good Class II training ground for picking routes and steering through narrow, sometimes zig-zagging chutes.