On a Saturday morning in late November, Bristow became the first kayaker ever to drown on the Potomac River. A notoriously tough spot of Great Falls that the paddlers call Charlie’s Hole did him in. In boater’s parlance, a “hole” is a natural sieve, often located beneath a “drop,” or mini-waterfall, in which water rushing through a rock formation or other obstacle creates a whirlpool. Kayakers classify each set of rapids by their degree of danger; the higher the number, the greater the hazard. Flat water is Class 1, meaning it poses very little peril to an experienced boater; Charlie’s Hole rates a Class 6. That’s the most dangerous ranking. An inexperienced boater has about the same chance of surviving a set of Class 6 rapids as a jogger does on the fast lane of the Beltway.
Bristow, though a fairly seasoned paddler, couldn’t beat Charlie’s Hole. While trying to navigate his small plastic kayak to another part of the river, Bristow was spun around by the current and sucked into the funnel backward. His boat, paddle, and helmet shot up from the hole within minutes. But, to the horror of his buddies, Bristow didn’t resurface. His parents came up from Marietta, Ga., and watched the recovery effort throughout the weekend from the Maryland side of Great Falls, but they returned home without their son. Two weeks after he went under, Bristow’s family went ahead with a memorial service without him in an outdoor amphitheater he’d helped build as an Eagle Scout in his hometown. He was 26.
All these months later, Bristow’s body still hasn’t been recovered. Since he was wearing a life jacket when he went down, river rats suspect he’s stuck to something at the bottom of Charlie’s Hole, probably a rock. Most doubt Bristow will ever leave Great Falls.
“We’ve had a few instances since this happened where the water level on the Potomac got really high after big rains, and that usually flushes out the falls,” says Peter Johns, who paddles the river near Great Falls nearly every day. “So we all kind of expected Scott would come up. But he hasn’t. That shows you the power of Charlie’s Hole.”
The proximity of a world-class kayaking venue like Great Falls to a major metropolis is unique in the U.S. The Potomac, unlike most East Coast whitewater tributaries, never runs out of water. Those factors combine to give D.C. one of the hottest boating scenes in the country and explain why the area is a breeding ground for both Olympic paddlers and obsessive hobbyists. With light, easy-to-transport boats and high-tech wet suits now on the market, kayaking has become a year-round, seven-days-a-week activity for many Washingtonians.
As popular as the sport already is here, the scene now appears to be on the verge of really, as the cool kids say, blowing up. On the evening of Tuesday, April 6, not far downstream from where Bristow presumably still lies, an enthusiasts group called the Potomac River Paddlers threw its first Chute-Out Rodeo, a competition for “playboaters,” or freestyle kayakers. Jon Freedman, a rodeo organizer, says PRP expected “maybe five to 10” paddlers to show up for the introductory installment of what is planned as a monthly event.
“We got 30 boats,” Freedman says. “That’s a lot more than we wanted, and more than we can really handle. So now we’re all worried about how many we’ll get when the weather gets warm.”
At least some of the newest generation of paddlers have been drawn by the burgeoning image of kayaking as an “extreme” sport. That’s the one boat manufacturers are all now pushing. Before the November tragedy, the Potomac River veterans didn’t view themselves as extremists. And they had no reason to. There was a feeling, statistically supported, that even the foolhardiest kayakers weren’t in any grave peril. Not around here. Can kayaking be physically risky? For sureon a really bad day, you might slip on the cliffs while hauling your boat to the river and end up with a busted arm or leg. But deadly? Nah, not around here. Who died?
Because of kayaking’s reputation, use of the Potomac is almost entirely unregulated as far as kayakers are concerned. At the entrance of Angler’s Drop, a landing just downstream from Great Falls that is the epicenter of local kayaking activity, there’s a poster listing the types of people who should fear drowning: Fishermen, hikers, rock climbers, and canoers are all named as endangered species. Kayakers aren’t.
“That’s an old poster, I guess,” says Dave Mackintosh, a PRP booster and one of the leading forces behind the growth of whitewater boating in the D.C. area.
Mackintosh, who grew up in Chevy Chase, works as a mechanical engineer but leaves himself time to paddle six or seven days a week. He was on the river with Bristow when he went under. They’d met over the InternetBristow organized kayakers in his regionand found that they shared a passion for rapids, that they were, again in paddlers’ parlance, “soul boaters.” Mackintosh, 31, had gone south on several occasions to meet up with Bristow for runs on Dixie’s toughest rivers. But their November excursion was to be Bristow’s first stint at Great Falls. Since it was Mackintosh’s home turf, he served as guide. He knew what Bristow could do in a boat, and he told him to stay away from Charlie’s Hole.
“Scott didn’t want to go there,” Mackintosh says. “Everything just went wrong for him.”
Mackintosh wrote “Remember Scott” inside his boating helmet the day after the accident, but he never gave up making daily visits to the river. He’s now helping to promote the Potomac Whitewater Festival, a weekend kayaking competition scheduled for June 4 and 5 over the very waters that took Bristow’s life. Rather than make Great Falls overly macabre, having Bristow in the vicinity ensures that his death wasn’t in vain, Mackintosh says.
“Scott was the first to die, but I can’t say I think he’ll be the last. Having him there, hopefully that encourages people to think hard before running the drops at Great Falls,” Mackintosh says. “People around here, over the years, they’ve gotten complacent about the consequences. But the river is a dangerous, powerful thing. I know I think about him every time I’m out on it.”
Bristow also lives on through his Internet postings, which remain on assorted paddlers’ Web pages. A few weeks before his death, he weighed in when someone on a kayakers’ message board suggested that hot-dog paddlers were making things dangerous.
“Life is dangerous!” Bristow wrote. “All you do is play the odds.”Dave McKenna