Kayaking rapids on Washington DC’s Potomac River

© Greg Mionske
Written by Kitt Doucette
Rafa Ortiz and friends find world-class Class V whitewater a stone’s throw from Washington DC.
“Being on the river and running waterfalls has a lot to do with embracing the present moment,” said Mexican kayaker Rafa Ortiz, known for his steely nerves and incredible skills paddling the gnarliest whitewater on the planet. “As soon as I’m in my kayak and the water hits my face, everything else just washes away.”
Precision is key when running Great Falls.
Rafa puts himself between a rock and a hard place
Growing up in Mexico City and learning how to kayak in Veracruz, escaping the city to find that feeling of freedom on the river meant a minimum of a four-hour drive. So when Ortiz met Tom McEwan in Veracruz and learned about Great Falls on the Potomac River, he couldn’t wait to come check it out.
McEwan, an old-school kayaker who grew up paddling on the East Coast of the USA in Maryland, is credited with the first descent of Great Falls in 1975. He told Ortiz about these beautiful Class V rapids and waterfalls just a quick drive from America’s capital city.
Tom McEwan grew up paddling in Maryland and is credited with the first descent of Great Falls in 1975.
The Godfather of Potomac kayaking – Tom McEwan
“There are several reasons that make the Potomac River and Great Falls so special… for one, it’s so unusual to have a river that’s wild and untamed so close to a major city,” said Jason Beakes, another local Potomac River paddling legend from Maryland who’s won the prestigious Great Falls race six times and was on the US National Kayak team for seven years.
“It’s crazy to think that just 30 minutes from the calm, reflective pool beneath the National Monument in the heart of Washington DC,” says Ortiz of Great Falls, “is an amazing series of rowdy, Class V waterfalls on par with the best, most challenging whitewater I’ve found anywhere.”
This proximity of the Potomac and Great Falls to a major city wasn’t always such a blessing. The Potomac River is the fourth largest river on the Atlantic coast of the US and one of the most densely populated waterways in the country. Over five million people live within the Potomac’s watershed.
“In the '60s and '70s the Potomac was terribly polluted,” Beakes explained.
The Mexican kayaker confirms that these Class V rapids are legit.
Rafa Ortiz runs Great Falls like a champ
“When I started paddling on the Potomac,” said McEwan, now 72 and still paddling, “if I had a cut on my leg and it got wet, it would inevitably get infected.”
A lot has changed since then.
“Now the river is safe enough to swim in,” Beakes says with pride, “it’s truly a model of what can be achieved with dedicated environmental stewardship.”
Thanks to the passion and stewardship of kayakers like McEwan and Beakes, the Potomac and Great Falls National Park are an environmental success story.
Currently waiting for his green card to clear, Ortiz can’t leave the US, an irony that doesn’t escape him as he walks his kayak past the Mexican embassy. Luckily the river can wash his worries away.
“It doesn’t matter how bad I’m doing or how worried I am about things,” Ortiz said. “As soon as I’m in my kayak I’m alive again and life is good. The best escape for me is getting on the river in my kayak and finding that happy place.”

World Rivers Day

World Rivers Day is celebrated on the last Sunday of September around the world. If you're within striking distance of Washington DC, you can get involved by connecting with the city's top paddling companies, Calleva and Active Nature, but there are international events around the globe.
A special thanks to Great Falls National Park and Leigh Zahm, Calleva including Steven Mckone, Ashley Nee, Rhys Jensen-Jones, George Boss, Aaron Mann, Johnny Brooks and Tom McEwan and Active Nature including Jason and Patricia Beakes.