On the water, livin' is easy - or rapid

July 10, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

"The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass off to the sea ... This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic."

- Thomas Jefferson

"Notes on the State of Virginia," 1785

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - Veteran outfitter Lee Bailey often cites Thomas Jefferson's eloquent description of the scene he surveyed from a rock outcropping high above the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

Centuries later, the union of the two rivers framed by the Blue Ridge Mountains around Harpers Ferry remains "one of the most scenic river scenes in the country," says Bailey, owner of River & Trail Outfitters in southern Washington County.


And the picturesque area is a top spot for watersports.

Opportunities to raft, canoe, kayak and tube abound on the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers and the nearby Antietam and Catoctin creeks. And watersports enthusiasts don't have to own the necessary equipment to take advantage of nature's watery playgrounds. Outfitters in Maryland and West Virginia offer guided white-water rafting, canoeing, kayaking and tubing trips, and rent watersports equipment for those who prefer to canoe, kayak and tube without guidance.

Watersports enthusiasts can look forward to an especially good season due to heavy winter snowfall and spring rains.

"It's the best water we've seen in over six years," says Everett Ruppert, general manager of Blue Ridge Outfitters in Harpers Ferry. "It's awesome."

Sections of white water are ranked one through five according to their level of strength. Local sections of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers feature Class I, II and III rapids, Bailey says.

"This is a good place to start. It's generally known as an introduction to white-water rafting," he says.

The high water levels normal for spring to early summer mean faster but more exciting white-water river journeys, while late summer's lower water levels amount to more leisurely "float trips" with time for swimming and picnicking along the river's edge, Bailey says.

River & Trail Outfitters and Harpers Ferry-based River Riders, Blue Ridge Outfitters and Historical River Tours all offer guided white-water rafting and kayaking trips. Blue Ridge Outfitters and Historical River Tours stick to the Shenandoah, while River & Trail and River Riders take rafters and kayakers on both rivers - from the Shenandoah's heart-pounding Bull Falls and Staircase rapid, past the soaring cliffs of Maryland and Loudon Heights, to the Potomac River's Mad Dog and White Horse rapids, among others.

Historical River Tours emphasizes Harpers Ferry's rich history as rafters paddle by sites such as Spike Dam and the remains of the old cotton mill and factory that served as a Union hospital during the Civil War, says company owner Eric Nielson.

Most white-water trips are about six miles long and average three hours in duration. Outfitters generally offer more than one trip per day. Costs for white-water rafting and other watersports vary based upon season, day of the week, group size and length of the trip. Some age and weight limits apply.

Most outfitters also rent canoes and related equipment for unguided trips along the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, but guides usually can be provided for an extra fee. Canoe trips are generally sold as half-day or full-day excursions, with overnight options for groups available.

At least one person in a nonguided canoe trip party should know basic paddle strokes for canoes, how to steer in moving water and what to do if the canoe tips, Bailey says. He suggests recreational kayaks as an alternative to canoes because they are more stable.

In addition to rafting, kayaking and canoeing, most outfitters offer guided and nonguided tubing on flat-water and easy-to-moderate rapids. Flat-water tubing excursions are the perfect way to enjoy the area's rivers and creeks without exerting too much effort, outfitters say.

"Tubing is starting to be a big part of our business because everybody can do it," says John Norris, who runs Hancock-based Potomac Outdoor Expeditions with his son, Paul Norris. The company offers unguided tubing and canoeing trips on the Potomac River from near Cumberland, Md., to Sharpsburg.

River Riders provides the only licensed Class III white-water tubing trips in the Harpers Ferry area for tubers ages 10 and older who want to splash over ledges and ride wild wave trains in the outfitter's specially designed white-water tubes, according to the company's Web site at

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