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Great Rappahannock Whitewater Canoe Race

by Eric Barcley

Heavy Rains, Hurricanes, & High Waters

June 1st, 2019. A date that had been marked on my calendar since last year. The 2018 Great Rappahannock Whitewater Canoe Race (GRWCR) in Fredericksburg Virginia was going to be my first ever kayak race, but heavy rains all spring long caused the river to be too high for the event that is held each year on the first Saturday of June.

The race, which was to be the 38th annual GRWCR, was postponed until September. I eagerly waited for the next three months, and when the weekend was finally approaching, Hurricane Florence made an appearance and made sure that the race was cancelled for 2018 altogether. My Dagger Pegasus sit on top whitewater kayak and I would have to wait until June 2019 to take on the 5 mile long stretch of the Rappahannock in northern Virginia. This time, however, high water levels would not be factor at all.

I drove up to Fredericksburg from my home in Greenville North Carolina on the Friday before the race. A close friend was driving down from Philadelphia to spend the weekend with me in Fredericksburg, though he wasn't paddling in the race. The spring in North Carolina and Virginia had been a rather dry one, drastically different from the record breaking year we had for rain in 2018. photo: Start of the race at Mott’s Run.

I had checked the water level on the American Whitewater website one more time before hitting the road. It was low, very low in fact. Under 3 feet. When I reached Fredericksburg, I crossed the Rappahannock on the I-95 bridge, a bridge that I had crossed before and never thought twice about the river below. I tried to glance down to get my first glimpse of the river, but wasn't able to see much. I arrived at the hotel about three hours before my friend, so I took advantage of the time to check out the river. Old Mill Park was the finishing point of the race, and also the site of the Rock the River Festival that would be taking place the day of the event. As I crossed the bridge that led to Old Mill Park, I was able to get a better look at some of the final rapids of the race.

Seeing the water flowing through the rock gardens only fueled the excitement that I already had. With plenty of day light still remaining, I was tempted to grab the boat from the top of my Subaru and get a little late afternoon paddling in. The river was clean looking and rather clear, a big difference from the murky, slow moving rivers in eastern North Carolina. A beach opposite of Old Mill Park was quite busy, and several people were getting relief from the heat by wading in the flatwater section of river just downstream of the rapids. I'd finish my exploration by driving to the put-in for the race at Mott’s Run, just to ensure I would know in the morning exactly how to get to both locations.

Flowing Clean & Clear

The alarm clock came early Saturday morning, especially after I had stayed up far too late the night before catching up with my old friend over drinks. But like a kid on Christmas, the excitement of kayaking on the Rappahannock overcame the tiredness from the lack of sleep. Within 30 minutes of waking up, I was back at Old Mill Park completing my registration for the race. The other competitors continued to pull in, cars topped with tandem canoes, sit in and sit on kayaks, and even some standup paddleboards were arriving. The event has categories for kayaks, canoes, and SUP's, and in addition to the five mile downriver race, there is also an option to do a one mile whitewater sprint race. There are categories for over and under 50, recreation and expert, and men and women. Once I completed my registration, I headed down to the Motts Run put in for the 9am heat.

About 15 boats in total were in the water at the start of the heat. As the paddlers were getting warmed up in their boats, a local fly fishing club waded out into the shallow, calm section of the river and begin casting in the flowing river. Once they could see that the race was about to start, they all made their way back to the bank to make room for the racers. A quick safety briefing was followed by a count down, and with that the race was underway.

For the first three miles of the race, from the put-in to the I-95 bridge, you are in somewhat of a gorge. There are no signs of the city on either side of the river, and sometimes you're able to get a peak of a vertical cliff face through the trees. I would actually read later that there are some rock climbing routes in Fredericksburg, known as Rapp’s Rocks, something I wish I would've known while I was there for a few days.

The rapids during this section are small, especially at low water. The American Whitewater website lists some rapids on this five mile section of river as class three, but with the river level at around two and a half feet, there is nothing that I encountered that I would think would be higher than a two. At over 3.6 feet, the race isn't even held on the whitewater section of the river. It's definitely a beginner friendly race with rapids that are fairly easy to navigate, and safety personnel set up at the largest rapids that you do encounter. Having never participated in a kayak race before, I wasn't exactly sure how to pace myself. I paddled at a steady pace and maintained myself in the middle of the pack. photo: Approaching the “BFR” rapid downstream of the I-95 bridge.

At about two miles into the race, I came up next to a paddler who had paddled the river numerous times before. We chatted briefly about my Dagger Pegasus, a boat that he had recognized from a distance, and had owned one several years back. He told me which lines to take on some of the rapids that were coming up, and in particular the rapid that we would encounter just beyond the I-95 bridge, at a rock known as "BFR." The paddler described this rock to me as resembling a large walrus in the water, which I would end up recognizing immediately once I saw it. We'd run the next couple of rapids together up to the I-95 bridge, where I would pull away from the friendly boater and be mostly isolated from the other competitors until the last mile of the race. I came up on BFR, where a safety team was standing on the rock and keeping an eye on the racers. I followed the left line that I was told to follow, went over the small drop and in a sense left the more scenic, gorge-like portion of the river.

Halfway-Point Rapids

Now that I was well beyond the halfway point, I was eager to encounter more rapids and shorter sections of flatwater. A paved path runs alongside of the river for the last mile or so of the race, and it offers runners and pedestrians easy access to the rocks that line the river bank. As I paddled into this section, it felt as if the spectators on the rocks were there to cheer us on, though I realize that on a warm Saturday morning, it's probably a popular spot regardless of whether there is a race going on.

The section of rapids for the last mile and a half of the race are known as the Falmouth Rapids, and this section of river is faster moving and requires more navigating than the earlier sections. The main line for the race stays to the right of Laucks Island, an island that was once marked on a map by John Smith in 1608. The Falmouth rapids were my favorite part of the race, and also where I would pass one more vessel before reaching the finish line. A tandem canoe that had been ahead of me for the entire race appeared to have capsized on one of the drops, as the paddlers were swimming it to the river bank when I came by. photo: Falmouth Rapids

I went over to help with their efforts, but a group of young men who were jumping off of a rock into the river were already there assisting, as well as one of the safety boaters. With that, I went ahead and made my last push towards the finish line. Not too much farther down river I came across two paddlers in Perception Torrents, another old school sit on top whitewater kayak similar to my Pegasus. These paddlers weren't in the race, and appeared to just be enjoying themselves on the refreshing river. I would go through one more rapid with a safety spotter and throw bag, who also assisted with which line to take, before reaching the last 200 or so yards of flat water leading to the finish line at Old Mill Park.

The Finish

One hour and six minutes after the start at Mott's Run, I had completed my first kayak race. My shoulders were tired and my face was hot from the sun shining on it, but I felt great. I saw Wes on the bank at Old Mill Park cheering for me, and I made my way to the takeout steps. An event volunteer commented on my home made kayak paddle with a bamboo shaft, and after a brief conversation, Wes and I loaded the Pegasus back on top of my car, where it would remain until I made it back to Greenville on Sunday.

Wes and I spent some time at the Rock the River Fredericksburg festival, which consisted of local breweries, food trucks, art vendors, a climbing wall, rescue dogs, and a live band. I was very impressed with how the city of Fredericksburg celebrates their river, and uses such a natural resource as one of the main attractions to the city.

The Virginia Outdoor Center at the start of the Falmouth rapids rents tubes and runs shuttles, as well as offers whitewater kayaking instruction amongst other things. The outdoor culture is strong in the city just 50 miles south of DC, and the people are very friendly.

When I headed back south the next morning, and crossed over the I-95 bridge once more, I looked down and had one thought. Only about 365 days until the 40th Annual Great Rappahannock Whitewater Canoe Race.

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