Losing It All At Great Falls

So I lost it all at Great Falls, Maryland. Happened a long time ago. But I remember it all just like it was yesterday. No, really. Cause, I can’t forget. And I bet you’d like to know what happened to me that day. Well, get ready, then. And strap yourself in for one wild and crazy ride. Cause I’m going to tell you my mind-blowing story about me losing it all at Great Falls. It’s a moment in time that changed everything in my life. And created this website, too. So let’s get started right from the beginning…

Great Falls Park, Virginia:

Just so you know, Great Falls Park, Virginia, and the corresponding Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, is without a doubt, my favorite place to visit in the entire Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area. Indeed, when I resided in Arlington, Virginia, or NoVA, as it’s locally known, I visited Great Falls more than any other attractions in the area. And why would I?

Great Falls Hiking:

Cause it’s awesome, in short. Specifically, there’s amazing hiking on the Billy Goat Trail ( Section A) in Maryland on Bear Island from Old Anger’s Inn up to Great Falls, itself. And also, on the Virginia side, where I used to like to start my hikes on the Difficult Run Trail, then I’d proceed up the Potomac River on the Ridge and River Trails. Moreover, on both sides of the river, at the exact midpoints of these two hikes, you get rewarded with awe-inspiring views of Great Falls from the various observation platforms on either side of the river.

Great Falls of the Potomac:

Now Great Falls, as the name implies, is a magnificent set of river wide rapids and cataracts, which also contains some very distinct chutes, drops, and treacherous hydraulics and crosscurrents, all of which, fascinated me since the time I was a child. Moreover, my interest in this unique and majestic set of rapids only seemed to grow over time. Especially, after my stint as a whitewater raft guide in my early 20s in Western North Carolina, where I’d learned to whitewater kayak.

And upon returning to my native home in Arlington, VA, after my time as a raft guide, I’d often visit Great Falls Park and Old Anger’s Inn to kayak all of the fun and exciting rapids from below Great Falls, itself, and, all the way downstream through Mather Gorge to the takeout near Old Anger’s Inn.

Yes, this was where I spent a ton of my time in my 20s. As I was obsessed with the sport of whitewater kayaking. So I’d constantly find myself driving into Great Falls Park with my Perception kayak, lashed to the roof of my old 1989 Toyota Corolla with the AC that never worked.

Then, I’d launch my kayak at Old Angler’s Inn, “O-Deck”, or even Catfish Cove and proceed to have the time of my life, surfing and play boating on many of the famous whitewater rapids below the falls, such as Rocky Island Waves, Maryland Chute, Fishladder, just to name a few. Moreover, after an exhilarating day of whitewater kayaking on the river, I’d often wander over to the Observation Platform on the Virginia bluffs, gaze at Great Falls.

And wonder what it’d be like to actually kayak the falls, itself.
A pipe dream. Yeah I know.

Greats Falls of the Potomac
Picture of Great Falls taken from an observation platform in Great Falls Park, Virginia.

But I was becoming a skilled kayaker. And my passion for the sport was only growing. As, at that point in my life, all I lived for was the chance to go whitewater kayaking. And so I did. And not just on the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry all the way downriver to Little Falls, just above Washington D.C. But also, on many of the whitewater rivers and creeks, basically anywhere within a 5 to 6 hour drive of the Washington Metropolitan area.

So I’d live for the weekends and pray for rain on the weekdays. So that, my kayaker friends and I could go on a road trip to some far-off river with a renowned run of world-class whitewater.

Thus, we’d head off every chance that we’d get to kayak West Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Western Maryland, and even parts of PA. To amazing whitewater rivers and creeks, such as the Maury, North, Tye, Kitzmiller, Lower Yough, and so on. However, as my kayaking skills improved, those class 2 and 3 whitewater runs that I’d once cut my teeth on soon became too tame and lame for me. As a result, around this time, I began to only want to kayak increasingly difficult and more challenging class 4, or even class 5, whitewater runs.

Luckily for me, within about 3 hours of Arlington, Virginia, there was a river with some of the absolute best technical, glorious, and relentless class 3 to 5 whitewater rapids on the entire East Coast, simply known to kayakers as the Upper “Yough”, or Youghiogheny. And I remember running that river in a total intoxicating fog that first time. Being flushed along by those unrelenting rapids, one after another, and being pushed to the limits of my skills at the time. But ultimately, I navigated every rapid in that 9.5 mile stretch of superb whitewater without incident.

And once I’d accomplished this, I was hooked. Such that, me, and the rest of my new kayaker friends, J.R., R.H., E.B., K.H., P.F., and R.R., among so many others, would regularly load up our kayaks and skip work at every chance we’d get. Heading for those magical, gorgeous, and uniquely challenging rapids on the Upper Yough River in Western Maryland.

And yes, the more we kayaked it, which was A LOT. The better we all got at kayaking.

To the point, where we all wanted to try a few different, and perhaps, even more challenging whitewater runs. And so, we set out and kayaked many other class 4 and 5 whitewater rivers, such as the Big Sandy, the Blackwater, the Upper Gauley, and so on… So that, now, it seemed that nothing would ever stop any one of us from quickly becoming expert kayakers, in our own right.

I mean, sure. Maybe there were a few close calls. Here and there.

But those came with the territory of learning to whitewater kayak, which is really partially about learning to manage and control your most basic fears. Right from the beginning.

After a long career in the publishing industry, Gary Alan left his corporate job to pursue his next adventures in life as a blogger, writer, investor, fly fisherman, hiker, and traveler. He is the author of the adventure fiction book, 'Big Thunder-Hearted River'.