"If You Enter the River, You Will Die."

Great Falls of the Potomac

Great Falls of the Potomac. NPS photo.

One of the deadliest stretches of whitewater in the eastern U.S. is located in an unlikely location—just outside the nation's capital. An interagency effort is under way to focus attention on the dangers of the Potomac River Gorge and the Great Falls of the Potomac with a very pointed message: "If you enter the river, you will die."

What makes this spot so dangerous…and how well will that message be accepted by the public?

The Gorge is an area that a recent NPS press release describes as "becoming increasingly more popular with kayaking, boating, fishing and hiking enthusiasts." Conditions — and the skills required to use the river through the Gorge — vary widely among different sections of the river, but the water in parts of the area are very risky indeed. The dire warning in the latest safety campaign focuses on the most dangerous section above and through the Great Falls, and statistics unfortunately support the sobering message.

Last year, the Gorge claimed the lives of six drowning victims, and completing a rescue in the area is a daunting — and often dangerous — task for emergency responders. So, where is this stretch of treacherous river, and what's being done to reduce the number of tragedies?

The Potomac River Gorge is 14-mile stretch of the Potomac River, defined by local officials as extending from the Key Bridge in the District of Columbia north to the Great Falls of the Potomac. A NPS website offers the following description of the key problem area from a safety standpoint, the Great Falls:

Many people consider the Great Falls of the Potomac to be the most spectacular natural landmark in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Here, the Potomac River builds up speed and force as it falls over a series of steep, jagged rocks and flows through the narrow Mather Gorge. This dramatic scene makes Great Falls Park, located just fifteen miles from the Nation's Capital, a popular site with local residents and tourists from around the world who are visiting the Washington area.

The falls consist of cascading rapids and several 20 foot waterfalls, with a total 76-foot drop in elevation over a distance of less than a mile. The Potomac River narrows from nearly 1,000 feet, just above the falls, to between 60 and 100 feet wide as it rushes through Mather Gorge, a short distance below the falls. The Great Falls of the Potomac display the steepest and most spectacular fall line rapids of any eastern river.

That dramatic scene holds plenty of hazards for the unwary or unprepared who find themselves in these waters minus the exceptional skills or good fortune to survive. In 2003, five people drowned in the Potomac River Gorge.

Since 2004, considerable interagency cooperation has occurred among local, county, state and federal agencies and those efforts continue in order to focus attention on methods to eliminate preventable drowning. Until last year, it seemed all that work was paying off: there had been no preventable drowning in this area for five years.

That changed tragically in 2009, when the river claimed the lives of six drowning victims.

In light of those events, federal, county, and local agencies and private organizations have cooperatively joined forces to renew their efforts at focusing public attention on and getting the message out about the dangers of the Potomac River Gorge. The State of Maryland has jurisdiction over the river itself and the National Park Service has jurisdiction over the shoreline and surrounding land.

According to Montgomery County, Maryland officials,

"As it courses through the metro area the Potomac River and shoreline offers a full range of recreational opportunities for hikers, campers, fishermen for the active boating enthusiast. In fact, the Potomac River provides some of the finest urban whitewater in the world. However, the Great Falls area itself can very dangerous even to an experienced boater and should only be challenged by truly expert kayakers under low river conditions."

Kayakers who want to run the ‘Falls’ must consult with State of Maryland officials and sign a release form. Other sections of the river offer a range of options for recreationists. The area upstream from the Old Anglers Inn put-in on the Maryland side of the Potomac is extremely popular for novice and intermediate kayakers and canoeists. Little Falls, inside the Beltway above Chain Bridge, is a short, but challenging run for more experienced boaters. The C&O Canal adjacent to the Potomac River provides calm water for relaxed canoeing and kayaking.

Representatives from the National Park Service, the United States Park Police, Montgomery and Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Departments, District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Harbor Patrol, and REI Sporting Goods stores — all of which are members of the Potomac River Safety Task Force — have called for a renewed effort to raise the visiting public’s awareness of the inherent dangers in the Potomac River Gorge and to eliminate preventable drowning in the Potomac River Gorge.

According to the Task Force,

this year's efforts include an “all-out” effort to bring the key message – “if you enter the river, you will die” – to all communities that use the Potomac River Gorge. The NPS National Capital Region Communications Office produced a four-minute video presentation in English, Spanish and Vietnamese on this same theme. The United States Park Police provided Major Patrick Smith, who spoke in Spanish, and Officer Calvin Nguyen, who spoke in Vietnamese, to the news organizations gathered for a recent press conference. All six persons who drowned in the Potomac River Gorge in 2009 were from these two communities.

Besides the three-language communications effort, Montgomery County and Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Departments, both partners in the task force, have provided area news organizations with an opportunity to get direct and close-up photography of the Great Falls from their swift water rescue boats. During a media event highlighting the new safety effort, the U.S. Park Police helicopter “Eagle One” made several flyovers of the area to remind news organizations of the important rescue efforts that have been successfully performed in the Potomac River Gorge.

Montgomery County Fire Chief Richard Bowers says, “We want everyone to be aware of the danger of the currents and swift water of the Potomac River. Although the water may appear calm, the currents are often very deceiving. In other words, the currents underneath the surface often will move faster than you can see from shore. Boaters will need proper safety gear and adequate training, while hikers and fishermen should exercise care while near the shore.”

County Executive Leggett adds, “As beautiful and majestic as the river and the surrounding trails may seem at times, it can be dangerous and treacherous."

The upcoming Memorial Day weekend marks the traditional beginning of the summer vacation season, and that includes more activity around and in the Potomac River Gorge. Let's hope users of the area are paying attention.

Comments

I used to climb regularly at Great Falls (the VA side) and they have a lot of signage that say "If You Enter the River, You Will Die," along with drowning stick figures. The way the message was presented seemed more humorous than serious. Hopefully these new efforts work for upcoming seasons.

Is there no limit to how many public resources will be wasted to protect people from their own stupidity?

Putting a sign that says "If you enter the river, you will die" would be like putting a sign that says "If you enter the Beltway, you will die" at each entrance to the Beltway, except I am much more afraid of the beltway than I am of any section of the Potomac (and yes, I have paddled every inch of the river from Riley's Locke through Little Falls). Actually I think that you have a greater chance of dying on the Beltway than you do anywhere in the Potomac. With a few exceptions (which are isolated features in Great Falls) every section of the Potomac can be navigated safely. But to know how, when and where requires education. Instead of using a method of fear to keep people who are uneducated and unprepared from entering the Potomac, the focus should be on education.

A tragically timely article, as a 13 year old girl and her 35 year old mother both drowned in the Potomac River on Memorial Day. According to one news report, the mother was just standing in water up to her ankles when she lost her balance and was swept away. The daughter went in to save her and was carried away by the current too.

While I agree that we demonize natural sources of danger while becoming inured to daily risks like automobiles, it is clear that these public awareness efforts are justified.

The sign should also say: "If you try to recue and enter the river you will die too." (At the great falls, maybe it does already)