Up the River to Great Falls

by Paul H. Cathcart

[This article appeared in the July 1923 issue

Is there one person in ten thousand around Washington that has any idea of the grandeur and wildness of the Potomac River gorge below Great Falls? I would be willing to wager that the percentage is but very little higher than that, and the number of people who have gone up and down this stretch of the river in a canoe would form a figure too small to figure in percentage. From the expressions on the faces of the few fishermen that we encountered up there, it was easy to imagine that we were, in their minds, immediately placed in the large class happily expressed by Mr. Barnum as arriving in this world at very frequent intervals.

The trip is not without its dangers and exciting moments, but as that is one of the things that from time to time lures a few of us away from the Broadwater of Sycamore, the more of it we can get, the better we like it. At some times of the year, or more properly, at some stages of the river, the trip up into the gorge would be impossible, or an attempt utter folly, and at no time should an inexperienced canoeist try to make it.

Nowhere in its whole length is there another stretch of the Potomac River like that between Little Falls and Great Falls. Swift and rocky most of the way, there are some stretches where it momentarily idles along through scenes of unsurpassed beauty and again tumbles headlong and tumultuously over ledges and rocks in a wild rapid that shows forth all the latent power and force of its turbulent waters.

One of the grandest of these rapids and the one we hear most about at Sycamore Island, is Stubblefield Falls. This is reached by a four-mile paddle up the river and is well worth the trip, for it is situated at one of the most picturesque parts of the river. Several smaller rapids or riffles bar the way going up, but a little strenuous paddling interspersed with a few timely pushes on the bottom, will get you past these without much delay.

After a good drink of spring water below the falls and resting a few minutes, one either poles his canoe up the shallow channel around the Maryland shore or else goes up the back channel on the Virginia side, lifting his boat over the rocks in a few instances to get up the worst places. Another mile of steady paddling brings you to the point where the river separates into three parts encircling Scott's and Herzog Islands. It is possible to work your way up in several places, but as the steepest drop is in the Virginia channel over the Calico Rapids [now known as Yellow Falls], the shortest "lift-out" is to be found in the quiet water on the left near the big mass of pink quartz rock.

Many ledges run across the river just above Calico and make the course rather crooked in low water, but just past them, there is a stretch of about two miles where the river makes several big bends, much like the letter S, fairly swift in a few places but rather sluggish most of the way.

The next real barrier across the river is the Horseshoe Rapids. This is where the river has made the last of two turns of the "S," the last being an abrupt right angle, where Difficult Run comes in from the Virginia side. "Horseshoe" extends from the steep Virginia bank over to a large "highwater island" known as "Cupid's Bower" and derives its name from the fact that it consists of several chutes separated by small rocky islands extending in the form of a horseshoe across the river.

A lift-out has to be made over the rocks at the brink of the drop, either at the Virginia shore, at the first island out, or in the chute next to Cupid's Bower. From here the river really begins to awe one with its majesty. The Virginia shore rises as a steep rocky cliff some two hundred feet and the opposite shore is a wild, tumbled mass of immense boulders perhaps half as high. The river, held in the narrow confines of this chasm, swirls along in a quiet, ominous way that gives one an uncanny feeling about its depth and power. Though the surface seems smooth it is only by hard paddling that progress is made and the next turn reached.

This is at the point known as Sandy Landing, where a break in the Virginia wall makes a little open, though very rocky and uneven, space. Here the river makes a right turn and enters the long narrow and nearly straight gorge or canyon that extends for nearly three quarters of a mile to the narrows in which the river disappears when viewed from the island used as a picnic ground at the end of Conduit Road.

The river has, through countless years, plucked its way down through the hard, old Archaean rocks that form all this region and now runs along in this deep canyon-like gorge, inaccessible except to a few hardy canoeists or a few fishermen who really have to be much better mountaineers than fishermen even to get near the water. Every little projection from the wall that causes a little slackening of the current or makes a helpful eddy must be utilized, for like water everywhere, it runs downhill and here does it quite rapidly.

About half way up this gorge is a cut in the Virginia wall, almost the only work of man to be seen in any direction. It is the lower end of the canal built by George Washington and his associates around Great Falls and looks quite small and puny when compared to the work accomplished by the river outside. Just above this is the first of three regular "he-rapids," so little seen and known that I have never heard a name for them. If the river is high they shouldn't be approached, if indeed they could be, as the current is swift from wall to wall.

But if the river is not too high it is possible to follow up close to the Virginia shore and by getting out on the rocks at the edge of the rapids, to drag and lift your canoe over the rocks or through the edge of the water until it is possible to get in again and by a vigorous spurt of paddling get away from the clutches of the fast moving water. There are three of these rapids and after they are all passed a little spell of straight, hard paddling will land you in a quiet protected cove on the Maryland side just below the Narrows.

If a rest isn't taken here the paddlers who have made this trip aren't human. I know for my part I was glad to fasten the boat and sit down on some solid rocks that didn't have a way of bouncing about under me or drifting down stream in spite of almost Herculean efforts to paddle up stream. For such is the action of a canoe in water like this.

When sufficient wind has collected in your lungs to enable you to climb to the top of the rocks you are more than repaid for all your efforts by the grand sight that is spread all about you. Downstream, the way you have come, stretches the gorge with rapid, white-flecked waters of the Potomac rushing madly toward the sea. No where else in the East do I know of a sight like this, while to the right and left the country seems to be nothing but wild, rocky hills covered by a growth of scrubby pine and a few sturdy hardwoods. Like a path along the distant Maryland hillside stretches the line we know to be the canal and here and there can be seen evidences of the work being done on the new conduit for Washington's water supply.

Looking forward, or upstream, the river is seen to separate, the main portion of it coming from the left. This is the water that comes over "The Falls" which can be seen and heard at the foot of the cliff below the amusement park. In the immediate foreground is the big island and on its right the picturesque chute where the water that comes under the swinging bridge rushes down over the fish-ladder in a perfect frenzy of white foam. So a strenuous trip has been completed and all the fun is still ahead, the trip down the river to Sycamore Island without the necessity of getting out of the boat. All of the rapids can be shot and therein is the greatest sport of the trip. But the story of the trip down the river will have to wait for another issue when advertisements and exchanges run out again and when the writer has recovered from the volley of old fruit, old eggs and old jokes that is usually the reward of ISLANDER contributors.