“For me,” says Mexican kayaker Rafa Ortiz, known for his steely nerves and incredible skills paddling the gnarliest whitewater on the planet, “being on the river and running waterfalls has a lot to do with embracing the present moment. As soon as I’m in my kayak and the water hits my face, everything else just washes away.”
Growing up in Mexico City and learning how to kayak in Veracruz, escaping the city to find that feeling of freedom and the present moment on the river meant a minimum of a 4-hour drive for Ortiz. So when Rafa 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 in Maryland and is credited with the first descent of Great Falls in 1975, told him about these beautiful class V rapids and waterfalls just a quick drive from America’s capital city. “There are several reason that make the Potomac River and Great Falls so special,” says 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, “for one, it’s so unusual to have a river that’s wild and untamed so close to a major city.”
“It’s crazy,” Rafa says, “just 30 minutes from the calm reflective pool beneath the National Monument in the heart of Washington D.C, 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, flowing through Washington D.C into Chesapeake Bay is the fourth largest river on the Atlantic coast of the U.S and one of the most densely populated waterways in the country. Over 5 million people live within the Potomac’s watershed. Thanks to the passion and stewardship of kayakers like McEwan and Jason Beakes, the Potomac and Great Falls National Park are an environmental success story.
“In the 60’s and 70’s the Potomac was terribly polluted,” explains Beakes. “When I started paddling on the Potomac,” says 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.”
Currently waiting for his green card to clear, Ortiz can’t leave the U.S., 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,” Rafa says, “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.”