IN THE SHADOW OF THE FALLS
(Canoandes – 25 years later)
by Stefan Danielski
The narrow gorge of the Potomac River, just below the Great Falls, a three-km-long stretch of fast moving water flowing through a series of rapids, is a mecca for kayakers, climbers, fishermen and tourists living in the Washington, D.C. area. According to park statistics, there have been 37 drowning accidents since 1972 in the torrent river passing thorough the park, but only one victim was a kayaker.
The falls themselves were unrunable until the 1980’s, when three local paddlers decided to navigate all three of its drops. It was a confrontation with mortality, a challenge and an acceptance of a high price to pay, in a case of failure. After, out of respect to each other, they declined to reveal, despite numerous questions, who had been the first lucky one to reach the bottom of the Great Falls, and instead emphasized on the partners’ collaboration.
The first Sunday of September. Gray, brooding clouds covering the sky foreshadow an incoming hurricane already tormenting Florida. One can hear the falls from a distance. Piotr Chmieliński is leading, and we follow him with caution, balancing kayaks on our shoulders, down the narrow trail descending to the bottom of the gorge.
Our destination is scum-covered slack water called Fisherman’s Eddy —the favorite spot of Sunday fishermen under the Great Falls— just below the rapids where three streams from each waterfall join together. From here, we will be able to ferry across the river, closer to the falls.
On the left, the Great Falls form a towering amphitheater, made of three rocky drops —a perfect staircase cataract. This is the place where the Potomac accelerates and plunges with an uproar into the gorge and the river spirits reveal their power, rousing our humility and respect.
Below, on the Virginia side, Zbyszek, Jacek and Zygmunt pull out their monstrous lenses preparing for pictures. Just across the river, vultures on the rocks are watching us with suspicious attention. It surprises us to see them here. Sensing a coming hurricane, or waiting for free dead meat?
12-year-old Max in his yellow Dancer is first to ferry across the river as Piotr Chmieliński carefully watches him from the riverbank. It’s his first time on the rapid under the falls, but despite the strong current, he traverses the river with confidence to the eddy on the other side. Today, Chmieliński won’t lose him from his sight, making sure that he is all right.
For a moment, I gaze up at Al, who leaning slightly forward to his right side, ferries behind Piotr. Disappearing between waves, he paddles smoothly, without apprehension, almost effortless, maintaining attentively the proper kayak angle towards the powerful current. Just last year, I was filled with trepidation about his safety, so typical for concerned fathers, seeing in every rapid a lethal threat to him. Now, I recognize with pride and some sadness that his kayaking skills have surpassed mine.
Paddling toward the falls on the right side of the river, we scout hydraulics —where water drops with high velocity curling into rooster-tails of spray and foam— passing some nasty keepers that hold unsuspected kayakers. Józek Milewski dares first into hole, catching surf. His kayak, pointing upriver, squats on the stern, and accelerates matching the current speed and then slides on the bottom of the wave. His face lightens up, his body tips slightly toward the stern to counteract the water pressure on the bow, and his paddle movements become almost invisible. Nirvana —the exhilarating charm of kayaking weightlessness.
During surfing, each of us discovers the pulsing and restless rhythm of the river. Stern squirtings, cartwheels, spins, and above all: rolls, hundreds of Eskimo rolls – an adrenaline infused liquid play on the rapid, the essence of playboating.
Great Falls Park, located in Virginia, extends from the Potomac Great Falls to the Mother Gorge, whose sheer walls are covered on the top with a green lush forest. The park, only a 20-minute drive from the capitol of the U.S.A., attracts scores of paddlers and a forgiving climate allows for an extended kayaking season.
In 1986, Chmieliński returned financially broke after paddling the entire Amazon River, searching for a place to settle down. “When I saw Great Falls, I knew this was the place I had been looking for. At that time, the Washington area became a hot spot for companies specializing in environmental field where I was also hoping to find a job”, he said.
Eight years later, he arranged a gathering of the clan on the Potomac during Labor Day weekend, inviting his former partners from the Canoandes Whitewater Expedition and kayaking buddies living in the USA from the “Bystrze” Student Kayak Club from Cracow, Poland, where he had began paddling. According to Piotr, the idea came up when Andrzej Piętowski and Zbyszek Bzdak —his long-time expedition partners— had come to Washington to work on an article for the National Geographic Magazine about the Colca River. Having some spare time, they decided to dip their kayaks into Potomac, and the rest is history.
There are also other reasons no one talks about, although it can be sensed. The long exploratory journey with the Canoandes had transformed its members. Suspended in a Peter Pan eternal youth timelessness; free from obligations, wives, careers, mortgages and credit cards; and above all, addicted to adrenaline-fueled adventure, they traveled for three years in both Americas exploring whitewater rivers. They found a home in the U.S.A. after martial law had been declared in their native Poland. And they still managed to do their second expedition supported by the National Geographic Society to the world’s deepest gorge, Colca Canyon in Peru, especially for the article, and two of them took part in the first complete descent of the Amazon River. Then, it was the time to settle down, time to find a steady job, time to get married, time to have children, slowly sinking into the shallow waters of a middle-class “American dream”. Family life, with all its trappings, began to weaken the firm relationship they had developed on the river during their years together. Chmieliński realized that they needed something which would allow them to preserve the friendship and for this reason, he decided to organize an annual kayak reunion on the Potomac.
A few years later, a new aspect of the meeting became evident to Chmieliński and the rest. The annual paddling under the Great Falls happens to bring excitement and thrill to Chmieliński’s and other attendees’ children, and according to Joanna, Piotr’s wife, the event becomes to their kids even more important than Christmas. The song-infused, easy-going ambiance of the gathering replicates that special spirit during paddling when they were laid-back students with a bohemian attitude in the communist Poland And for their children this is also the closest picture of their exuberant youth raised in totalitarian country where adventure-sports such as kayaking, climbing and sailing were the only oasis of freedom outside the impact zone of the system. Besides, they have discovered that kayaking together helps to strength the connection between father and son, based on a partnership rather than on authority.
The majority of participants have already passed the shadow mark —the magic number 50— entering an age where funeral homes put their names on customer lists to help organize the future. Today, free —at least for the moment— from the confinement of daily family existence, they do not see passage of time written on their faces and graying hairs; this is the same Piotr, Jacek or Biczu who 25 years ago carried a raft on their shoulders portaging a nasty waterfall. To this day they still feel a deep bond with their former expedition partners tested in life-threatening situations.
There is no talk of jobs or family problems, no discussion of the future beyond this one evening. There is also no talk about good old times: glorious canyon explorations, first descents of virgin rivers —already covered with heroic patina over the years. Paddling during the day; then evening filled with feel-good popular songs sang at campfires when they were young, buoyed by wine for the soul, barbecue for body and Extra-Strength Tylenol for aching muscles.
We arrive in Herndon, Virginia, Friday evening, after a 10-hour drive from Canada. At the Marriott Hotel, we are greeted by Jacek Bogucki, a former Canoandes cameraman, who is as usual in good spirits, never to be bothered by small things —the ideal expedition partner— with an incurable attraction toward venomous reptiles. Bogucki had paddled many rivers, always in raft, and all the time maintaining unrestrained faith in his kayakers-colleagues’ not-always-good judgment, allowing him to stay calm in the most perilous situations on the rapids.
From Jacek I learn that founder of the Bystrze Paddling Club, Chris Chmura of Kansas City, is not coming. Nor is Luis Muga, a Peruvian, who had studied in Poland and who can’t imagine his life without a Polish fiancée, is going through a turbulent relationship which holds him down. I bring news about Biczu, a member of Canoandes and a free-spirited vagabond who had never held a steady job in the communist Poland, who has now been caught by the system and was not granted vacation.
I welcome Wiesiek Cyprys from New York City, who has come with his eleven-year-old son Albert. Wiesiek, trained as lawyer, is a journalist by passion with typical —for someone who had been exposed to communism— skepticism toward the left and authoritarian rules.
Zygmunt Malinowski, a member of many expeditions to Peru including the 2000 National Geographic-sponsored search for a true source of the Amazon, arrives soon. Tall, slim, between-fifty-and-death hard-to-detect age, he emanates with calmness and coherence. “Have you brought that delicious beer you’d had last year ?” —he asks me, referring to Richard’s Red —an ambrosia of the Canadian brewing industry— whose deep honey taste, intense amber color and twisted cap earned the deep appreciation from the clan.
The gang from Chicago arrives at six o’clock in the morning. For the first time in years, they drove without getting lost or unintentionally reaching Boston, instead of Washington, as it had happened in the past. Their leader is Józek Milewski, Chmieliński’s close friend from the university and the Bystrze Club. Milewski, a passionate kayaker, who after graduating from the university had chosen the security of family life over the freedom and uncertainty of Canoandes voyage, is now trying to make up for lost opportunities. Always ready to help, he is the Boy Scout and Good Samaritan all rolled into one, who has an unusual soothing effect on oversensitive mothers. His presence on my kayaking adventures helps to offset my wife’s chronic mistrust toward me, and he is her assurance that I will bring back our son intact.
With Milewski arrives Andrzej Piętowski, the spirit and soul of the group —always in the center of attention— and a man of many skins. Trained as a mathematician, he declined an enticing job offer to work on the stock market, refusing to pursue the Holy Grail of money in his life. Paddler, leader of the Canoandes Whitewater Kayaking Expedition which explored rivers in Central and South America, head of the 2000 National Geographic expedition to locate once for all the source of the Amazon, he is open to everyone and ready for everything. He is on a mission, and despite his age, he is a dreamer and still holds a youthful desire to change the world. Recently, he started a foundation to teach young Indians in the remote Colca Canyon, Peru, the English language, so they can stay in the region and find employment in the tourist industry. He is with his newly-wed wife Anna, whom, as he mentioned, had met on Sunday religion class in his teens.
Zbyszek Bzdak from Chicago became a member of the Canoandes when the expedition photographer quit last minute. Self-composed and easy-going, he became a great support in numerous expeditions, invisible to the wide public, hidden on the other side of the camera. Chmieliński, after completing the first source to sea navigation of Amazon River, expressed his appreciation stating that without Bzdak, who with Dr. Kate Durrant was his support team, it would had been impossible. Bzdak, like Bogucki, took part in many first descents as a raft crew, showing remarkable calmness and quick response in pulling in his fellow paddlers thrown over the side.
In the morning we all meet in the hotel restaurant with our host, Piotr Chmieliński, who arrives with his wife Joanna, sons Alex and Max and their nanny, Carmen. This is a tradition —breakfast together as an official opening. Short greetings and a brief introduction of new participants. Elegant restaurant service in the background. Welcome to whitewater, Potomac style!
Piotr Chmieliński is a handsome, lean man with penetrating deep-blue eyes, brown hair with some specks of gray on the sides. He is full of self-control, talks little, as though thoughtfully with deliberation, creating an aura of trust around himself. His mono-focus and self-imposed discipline in pursuing goals in a straight line without any distraction is legendary, so are his work ethics and managerial skills. The best-selling book “Running the Amazon” by John Kane —placed on the must-read adventure book lists by Outside and National Geographic Adventure magazines— describing the first and to this day the only complete descent of Amazon River by Chmieliński, made him a household name in America.
Chmieliński is a river runner and on his kayaking resumé there are many first descents, but only the Amazon and Colca River, remain in public memory. Chmieliński is predisposed for an adventure, ready to take risk, and, at the same time, he is able to coolly calculate his chances. He also knows when to quit, which is what separates him from reckless and ego-driven fanatics.
When he started, whitewater kayaking was about running rivers only. It was the heart and soul of paddling to run from point A to B, and every trip was an expedition with its logistics and survival aspects. He noticed how in last 10 years, kayaking had been transformed from outdoor sport for a selected bunch of masochists to a popular adventure branded as an adrenaline sport. Now, playboating is the name of the game, sitting on the rapid preferably close to a parking area. And he is aware how it has changed whitewater kayaking, including kayak designs as well as paddling technique.
Chmieliński is convinced that despite the popularity of playboating, river running in remote corners of the globe is still the ultimate, unforgiving test of skills and characters, in which experience, mental stamina, determination, ability to live in a small group, and finally humility and respect for the river are more important than extraordinary paddling skills and super-size muscles. During his long voyages, he had learned how rivalry and personality conflict can tear an expedition apart, and also it is not easy, after so many months on the road, to stay positive.
Sitting on the rounded rocks smoothed by the endless waves of the Potomac, we eat our lunch slowly, staring at the streak of fast moving water. Two kayakers play in the rapid in front of us. For a while I listen to a small chat about nothing. A large, age-scoured bone under my foot, wedged between the rocks, catches my interest. After closer inspection, I move my eyes to check the vultures on the other side contemplating if they have something to do with it. The motionless, bald-headed birds have still been watching with innocent indifference the turbulent river, waiting patiently for their chance. As a hurricane is expected, there have already been signs of weather change. The forecast for next days warns about torrential rains which can transform the Potomac into a raging monster, capable overflowing the Great Falls and filling up the narrow gorge. Uprooted trees crammed in gorge crevices high above the river level are silent testimony to the untamed nature of the river.
For a few moments, we watch Józek and Al climb with kayaks on their shoulders over a rubble of bus-sized boulders on the Maryland bank of the river, to get closer to the waterfall. Their dark silhouettes contrast with the bright sky, then they vanish. After a few minutes we see them again, on the water, with the Great Falls in the background. Fourteen-year-old Al is leading. Bent forward to balance his kayak’s low stern volume, he slides down the first of two sharp drops, punching through the hole and then he plunges into the next one. Caught in the hydraulic, he struggles with a curling wave until a strong current pushes him through. Few meters behind, Józek falls down the first step as though testing gravitation force in his kayak mockingly named Zero Gravity. Next, he slams into a wave, which punches him in the torso and face, sending him back under the fall. As the current pushes his stern underwater, for a moment, we see the surprise on his face before flipping on the left side. Milewski navigates the next drop counting fish underwater, then rolls seconds later in tail waves below. Still disappointed, he relives his predicament on the way to the hotel.
It’s a tradition that Sunday evening is the international party day at Peter’s place. Conversation in English, Polish and Spanish blends with the gentle and soothing sound of pouring wine. This is the time for guitar and these old traditional Spanish and Polish songs learned during kayaking trips. Nobody is distressed if the guitar is out of tune or singing is a bit out of sync; feel the mood and if you can’t, please feel free to get more wine.
The slide show from the latest trips is a grand finale to the evening. Tonight, Zbyszek Bzdak presents his slides from Iraq, where disguised as an Arab he took pictures for the Chicago Tribune. His tale is short of emotion, but his pictures tell everything. A tragic situation in Iraq is epitomized by a picture of Arab woman’s unspoken gesture of despair with hands raised high to the sky after learning that her children had been killed by a suicide bomber, and it speaks volumes. Andrzej Piętowski shows his slides from a small town near Colca Canyon, where he returned last summer, together with some young Americans and Canadians, this time as a teacher to help local Indian youngsters learn English. He had nurtured this idea since he had led the first descent of the Colca river 25 years ago. Piętowski doesn’t believe in erecting monuments; as an incurable idealist, he prefers to build them in people’s hearts.
Going home. I feel tired after moving tons of water in the last three days, and that darned pain in my lower back. 1000 km to go, to Canada. Through sport to disability —I paraphrase sardonic Biczu, a good friend of mine. Tylenol for pain and long chat with my son until we arrive at home. Frankly, I am not sure what I like better: kayaking with the Canoandes gang or the 11-hour drive in which I have an opportunity to talk with my son. This year, I have realized for the first time that he has become my partner and I don’t need to have my eyes in the back of my head anymore on the water. I think of this one special moment on the Gull river in which fear and joy merged instantly. Watching how Al approached a waterfall, I wanted to shout “Watch for that nasty rock below”, too late. Then, immediate joy after a successful run.
Stern squirt. 360s flat spin. Cartwheel. Al’s vernacular, describing with precision the kayaking moves, is known only to us and separates us from non-paddlers. I listen to him and feel his fascination with whitewater, his lack of fear and unyielding belief in his own ability to conquer the world. I also think about us —members of the Canoandes group— how humility acquired with passing years has replaced our youthful cockiness, and allowed us to accept our family and physical limits. Young-age exuberance. The joy of kayaking.
© Stefan Danielski
This article appeared in the Polish traveler magazine Poznaj Świat (March 2005) and the kayak magazine Wiosło (Feb-April, 2005). Translated by the author.