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Whitewater kayaking might not be for the faint of heart, but rapids are my sanctuary

Josie Norton for NPR

Head northwest along the Potomac River about 15 miles from Washington, D.C., and you'll find a world-class whitewater playground. The Great Falls area of this mighty river — steeped in history — has been my urban sanctuary for more than two decades.

I got hooked on whitewater kayaking after a rafting trip down the Gauley River in West Virginia. I had just retired from being a competitive in-line speed skater and was looking for a sport that required a similar blend of skill, discipline, rhythmic motion and technique.

When he's not on the river, <strong>Rolando Arrieta</strong> finds joy as NPR's director of Content Production and Operations.
/ Stephen Voss
Stephen Voss
When he's not on the river, Rolando Arrieta finds joy as NPR's director of Content Production and Operations.

We were a team of eight on the raft, muscling through the turbulent rapids under the yelling command of a guide. But I was drawn by the folks in the small, colorful plastic boats all around us — mesmerized by the way they carved through the same big water with precision, artistry and grace under pressure. The age range looked to be teenagers to seniors. I knew at that point that a switch from the asphalt to the water would feel just right.

Within a week of that trip, I purchased my first kayak — a Prijon Hurricane. A few extra bucks for cold weather outfitting and I could paddle year-round. The Great Falls section of the Potomac River, bordering Maryland and Virginia, became my new backyard.

The Potomac offers outdoor adventure and a workout

The epic rapids along this section of the Potomac offer thrills and challenges for anyone from the die-hard to the weekend warrior.

Full disclosure, I have not descended the Great Falls rapid itself. Just watch any helmet-cam video online and you'll see why. It's not for the faint of heart. When I get on the river, I usually start just below the falls and run rapids that nonetheless require skill and a certain amount of physical and mental fortitude.

It's the best combination of outdoor adventure and full-body workout. Plus, it's nearby and accessible.

On the roughly 8-mile stretch between Great Falls and Little Falls, there's a little bit of every difficulty level — the Great Falls rapid itself being a Class V+ (expert), according to American Whitewater. Most of the currents below that range from Class I (beginner) to Class III and are ideal for learning how to "read water." In other words, how the river flows in order to navigate boulders, eddies and potentially hazardous obstacles, all in the company of blue herons, ducklings and rock climbers along the scenic Mather Gorge.

Rolando Arrieta kayaks on the Lower Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania.
/ Ohiopyle Photography
Ohiopyle Photography
Rolando Arrieta kayaks on the Lower Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania.

It's also a perfect place to learn the most critical part of the sport: how to upright the kayak if capsized. The feeling of being trapped upside down was definitely my first mental hurdle to overcome.

That's because whitewater kayaks are not your typical recreational or sit-on-top kayak. In a whitewater boat, I wedge my lower body into the cockpit and then seal myself in the kayak with a tight-fitting neoprene spray skirt. The idea is for the boat to be an extension of the body. The hips, thighs, knees and feet work together along with the arms and torso to maneuver the kayak through the rapids.

Paddling local waters has led to so much more

These boats are also designed to spin on a dime, so maintaining a steady and rhythmic stroke can take some getting used to. Once I got the basics down, I was out there practicing and playing in the rapids just about every day. With the skills I developed on these local waters, I've been able to tackle big rivers in the French Alps, Norway, Panama and across the East Coast, including the Gauley.

There is a fairly large whitewater kayaking community in the D.C. metro area, a few clubs, social media groups and kayak instruction schools. The Potomac has been a training ground for former and aspiring Olympians. The sport has been growing in popularity, mostly driven by the early days of the pandemic and the impulse to expand our outdoor activity options.

And while Washington, D.C., is a major metropolitan city, I'm able to transition from being in a downtown office to a whitewater haven in about a half-hour — barring traffic delays.

As much as I love paddling on the Potomac and the social aspects of the sport, there's an awkward side to it that I've become increasingly aware of over the years. As a Black man, I'm often the only person of color when I meet up with other kayakers to run a river.

Early on, the awkwardness was rooted in not wanting to draw too much attention to the fact that I was the only nonwhite person in the group. There's also the awkwardness (maybe even occasional uneasiness) of driving rural back roads to access certain rivers.

Lily Durkee, who is Asian American, has had similar experiences since she started whitewater kayaking on the Potomac when she was 9. In June 2020, she co-founded Diversify Whitewater, a nonprofit that organizes whitewater and other water sports events across the country to raise awareness among underrepresented groups, women and communities of color and to help remove barriers of entry to the sports.

I've become more comfortable as an 'only' in the sport I love and, ultimately, it's about feeling safe around those with whom I paddle.

"Going to the events and seeing the expressions on people's faces and hearing the laughter on the river is probably one of the most rewarding things I have experienced paddling," Durkee says.

Recently, a dozen or so outdoor enthusiasts showed up for a Diversify Whitewater event on the Potomac. After some water-reading basics, the novice crew paddled off and made it through a couple of Class II-ish rapids unscathed, with grins from ear to ear.

But was that afternoon's thrill enough to get them hooked on the sport, and will I see any of them on the river again someday?

I've become more comfortable as an "only" in the sport I love and, ultimately, it's about feeling safe around those with whom I paddle. When I'm running a river, serious injury can be staring me in the face at every turn. The common bond with my fellow kayakers rests in how we look out for each other on the water.

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Rolando Arrieta
Rolando Arrieta manages the Ops Desk, the team that handles the day-to-day content production and operations for the Newsroom and Programming. He also works closely with software developers in designing content management systems in an effort to maintain efficient production and publication workflows for broadcast newsmagazines, podcasts and digital story presentations.