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Paddlers Celebrate 'Nation's River'

Kayakers of all levels and backgrounds convened in Great Falls last weekend for the 17th annual Potomac Festival.

Kayakers, kayaking enthusiasts and a bevy of casual spectators gathered together last weekend for the 17th annual Potomac Festival which celebrated the “Nation’s River” via more than a dozen kayaking events that ranged in difficulty from beginner to expert level. Presented by Potomac Paddlesports, the July 13-15 celebration spanned the Potomac River from Great Falls through the Mather Gorge, and brought international freestyle champions and Olympic team athletes paddling side-by-side with kayakers of every level. Although the Potomac Festival did not start out as a fund-raising event, it eventually morphed into an annual benefit for American Whitewater, a national recreation and conservation group.

“It went very, very well,” said Risa Shimoda, Potomac Festival 2007 chair.

An avid kayaker, Shimoda has worked as a volunteer for American Whitewater since 1981 and also served as the organization’s executive director from 2001 to 2004.

“I think the two most important things were that it was run safely, and we are also really proud of the fact that it annually exhibits excellent high-skill kayakers, but is also very much of an inclusive event — there were people who were beginners, and some of the events were for experts only. So you had people who could just paddle a little bit, paddling with three-time world champions and two-time world champions. There are very few sports, if any, where you can do that.”

Shimoda said this year’s festival had 220 participants in total, and relied heavily on the efforts of the 70 volunteers who donated their time to the weekend-long event. Festival planners also coordinated closely with the numerous park and public safety entities involved, including members of C&O Canal National Historical Park staff and Great Falls National Park staff, as well as members of Cabin John Rescue Squad and Fairfax County Fire and Rescue.

“It was a really big coordination and organization effort,” said Shimoda.

She added that they had 55 kayakers run the falls this year – up 15 from last year.

“Fifty-five is a lot,” she said. “But I think it’s due to a combination of the availability of good equipment and good instruction. People kind of get going quicker when they decide they want to go for it these days.”

THE EVENT’S main sponsor Potomac Paddlesport is a major kayaking school in the region, and Shimoda said three other paddling schools also participated in the event — Liquid Adventure, White Water Journey and Adventure Sport Center. In addition, representatives from Team River Runner, an organization that teaches kayaking to severely wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Hospital, also attended the festival and participated in some of the events.

On Friday afternoon, July 13, expert instructors conducted on-water clinics, and on Saturday morning, July 14, expert kayakers paddled in the Great Falls race. The race was followed by freestyle competitions staged in various locations, “Wave Surfing” and the Community Downriver Paddle. Saturday evening featured food, sponsor displays, music by Fat Chance, kayaker karaoke and a silent auction. On the attainment race — which challenges kayakers to paddle upstream from a designated start point to a designated finish point — was held on Sunday morning, July 15. The event was followed by freestyle finals for surface and squirt boats, and the weekend finale, “Boatercross.”

“It was really great for the community — everybody was all in the mix,” said Shimoda, adding that she has yet to see another city with paddling waters that rival Washington’s Potomac River.

“No city has a river running through it like we do that has an array of so many different types of water,” she said. “I know a lot of people that live and work in town and have never seen it, and when I finally get them to come, they are just blown away.”