GREAT FALLS — GREAT FALLS -- Two women in wet suits and helmets slip into long, narrow boats and side by side sweep forward into the slow-moving current. They paddle their red and blue kayaks upstream toward a spectacular gorge and the famous falls that lure thousands of sightseers to the Potomac River here every year.
For the moment, it is surprisingly quiet here, two miles and a couple of bends downstream from the roar of Great Falls, where whitewaterers rush over jagged ledges, cascading through rugged "chutes" into Mather Gorge.
The women slice their paddles into the river, moving gracefully and -- for a time -- in unison with a pair of Canada geese, just above the rippling water.
The river is rife with activity. Since the earliest days of spring, hundreds of kayakers, or "river runners," as some call themselves, have glided up and down the waterway, dwarfed by the gorge's 40- to 60-foot cliffs.
River runners such as Jean O'Steen and Cindy Madden spend an hour or so cutting across rapids, honing paddle strokes and practicing "Eskimo rolls," an eye-grabbing maneuver in which the kayaker turns the boat over, submerging before popping right-side-up again. It's a necessary skill, kayakers will tell you, when water levels run high and kayaks can be overturned easily.
This 2-mile stretch of the Potomac, from Great Falls to an access area near Old Angler's Inn on MacArthur Boulevard, is a kayaker's paradise. In a canyonlike setting, the river drops 76 feet in less than a mile, creating a series of rapids with names such as Wet Bottom Chute, Maryland Chute and Yellow Falls -- whitewater for both serious and recreational kayakers.
"It's a nice, long river for kayakers," says Markus Hanses, 25, a graduate student from Montgomery County who started kayaking six years ago. "The Potomac really has something for everyone. Any level of kayaker can practice here."
It's one of the busiest kayaking rivers -- rivaling the Youghiogheny in Pennsylvania just north of the Maryland line; the Savage in Garrett County, where world kayaking championships were conducted six years ago; and the New in West Virginia. For many regular kayakers, though, the Potomac around Great Falls is more accessible.
"Where else can you live, work and go on a river for 45 minutes and then go home?" asks Steve Popkin, a kayak instructor and owner of Adventure Schools in Gaithersburg.
Almost any evening and weekend, BMWs, Broncos and Subarus -- kayaks tied to their roofs -- can be seen pulling into a dirt parking area just off the river, across from Old Angler's Inn, a local landmark. Men in business suits and women in business attire emerge from the vehicles, change into wet suits, shoulder their kayaks and walk several hundred yards downhill to the river.
"It's a tremendous playground," says Dan Huebner, marketing director for Spring River Corp., a canoe and kayak retailer in Rockville. "When you're out on the Potomac, you are literally just five minutes from the [Capital] Beltway, and you're out in the middle of wilderness. For a lot of people, the river is literally on their way home."
Also, a training area
The river is more than a playground. For one, it's a training area for kayakers skilled enough to compete at an international level. A majority of the nation's world-class kayakers live on the Maryland or Virginia sides of the Potomac. And if they're not living here now, they've lived in the area at one time or another, Mr. Popkin and others say.
"You never get bored on the Potomac," says Eric Jackson, a 1992 Olympian and 1993 world kayak champion who lives in Germantown and trains on the river daily. "There's awesome whitewater out there -- some awesome waves to surf [in the kayak]. It's good for training 12 months of the year."
The lure for Olympic hopefuls such as Eric Southwick is the whitewater of Great Falls -- a rugged stretch of the river where water surges turbulently through narrow chutes among huge slabs of sandstone, spilling over boulders and cutting deep into the hidden bedrock below. Depending on water levels, the 25-foot drop can rate as a "Class 5" rapids, among the toughest in whitewater kayaking.
"The water can be really high, and if you don't know what you're doing, you could end up dead," said Mr. Southwick, 20, a New Mexico native who has lived in the area five years. "It's wonderful whitewater."
Yes, the sport can be dangerous, mostly for those who tackle white water without knowing what they're doing. Dangers that kayakers fear most include flipping over and getting caught in the unseen branches of a submerged tree.
Kayakers like to point out that through the years none of their own has been counted among the numerous fatalities. As a rule, kayakers wear helmets and life jackets, carry whistles to summon help and knives to cut themselves free should they become entangled in fishing lines.
"There's an impression that kayaking is a 'to-die' sport," says Don Handy, owner of another kayaking school, OuterQuest Inc. in Cabin John. "With the right kind of instruction, it's not. It's not all whitewater and action."
Whatever the perceived dangers, there's no denying the sport's growing popularity.
A National Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association survey ranks "paddle sports" behind only in-line skating and roller hockey as the nation's fastest-growing participant sports.
"It's a clean and green sport," says Dennis Stuhaug, managing editor of Canoe and Kayak magazine. "It's a low-impact sport on both the participant and the environment."
It's also relatively inexpensive. Paddle enthusiasts can buy a kayak -- most are made of fiberglass or polyethylene, a form of plastic -- and other equipment for less than $1,000. The one-man boats, which originated with Greenland Eskimos, who used them for fishing and hunting, vary in length from 10 to 12 feet and weigh just 30 to 40 pounds, making them easy to carry.
The appeal is not all whitewater. For many, kayaking is a more contemplative affair -- a chance to get away from everyday life.
Large stretches of the Potomac, not to mention a wide area of the nearby Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, are calm and ideal for those who just want to be closer to nature.
'Living in the moment'
"As you paddle upstream, the river naturally separates people by abilities," Mr. Huebner says. "The creme de la creme use the falls. But a whole lot of people use kayaks . . . because they just want to be out on the water."
That's much of the appeal for Ms. O'Steen, a 55-year-old retired schoolteacher from Ijamsville, Frederick County. She took up kayaking about five years ago, after trying canoeing and fly casting to get closer to the river.
"I love the river," she says. "I feel like I'm a part of the river -- I'm right there with nature. You really can't see the beauty of the river from the shore. You need to be on it. It's one of those things that renews your spirit and your soul."
Added her friend, Ms. Madden, a computer-software tester from Gaithersburg: "Kayaking is one of the few things you can do that makes you live in the moment. No matter what else is going on in your life, you're there in that moment. There's not much else like it."