Bill Kirby

One of the first kayakers to traverse Great Falls National Park’s 25-foot drop recollects the ride.

One of Great Falls first Kayakers

Bill Kirby padding over the "Spout" at Great Falls National Park.
Bill Kirby padding over the "Spout" at Great Falls National Park. Photo courtesy of Rick Freimuth.

It began with a phone call. In 1978, a 26-year-old Bill Kirby, a park ranger in Great Falls National Park and eight-year white water paddler, woke to his coworker and fellow paddler Steve McConaughy calling. McConaughy only said, “Let’s go run Great Falls before work.”

Since the popularization of white water paddling 20 years earlier, giant vertical drops like the many in Great Falls were considered suicidal.

Kirby’s job was to know every bend in the river. He did his job well, and he knew it was possible to survive the 25-foot waterfall known as “Spout,” which claimed its first victim in 1975. In 1976, Wick Walker paddled up to Kirby and bragged about his successful Spout run.

While the run had been completed, it was still far from safe. With no knowledge but their best guess, the possibility for disaster was high. “I thought that was the best part. It’s sort of the essence of paddling. If you’re not prepared to walk up to the [unknown] rapid and run it all by yourself, you shouldn’t do it.” Prepared, Kirby and McConaughy assembled their homemade safety gear and went to the river.

Resting in the calm water above the Spout, Kirby waited. A moment later, paddling right to left, he dropped. Gaining speed in a 25-foot freefall, he plunged so deep beneath the surface his boat cracked a seam.

Kirby waited for McConaughy to make it down before telling him, “I gotta get outta here man. I’m sinking.” Racing against time, he made it to the end of the river with a water-filled boat.

Kirby and McConaughy proved that Walker’s run two years earlier was no fluke. Great Falls was now open for business. “We took a picture or two of each other, danced around a bit, and then worked the rest of the day.” It was over, and Kirby claimed the right of the first photographed descent.

Since that run in ’78, hundreds, if not thousands of experienced kayakers have followed in Kirby’s paddle strokes to conquer Great Falls. This year will mark the 27th annual Great Falls Race on July 5, where spectators can gather at various watch points as the 30 top kayakers from around the nation compete.

In the ’70s, many rivers had yet to be tamed, and remained an unknown. Kirby could claim first descent on many rivers, but chooses not to, content to be called an early adopter. Nevertheless, he was a pioneer, and treated every new river as a first descent. “Everybody has to make a judgment of their own skills. I was confident, I got beat up a couple times … it worked out alright.”

Five years prior to his Great Falls descent, Kirby and Jack Wright made the second attempt to complete the Lower Meadow, a dangerous West Virginian river. “Even today, 40 years [after] I ran the first part, people still fear it.”

They ran the river in fiberglass-composite long boats, which unlike the plastic boats of today, meant rocks were liable to put a hole in the hull. It wasn’t the boat which led to Kirby’s downfall, but rather a spray skirt, the covering that keeps water from entering the cockpit of the kayak. “A lot of folks made their own gear [life jackets, spray skirts] in those days, and I had made my own spray skirt but apparently I didn’t make it tight enough around the cockpit rim.”

After paddling down a large drop, Kirby’s skirt imploded, and water flooded in. Knowing the danger, Kirby paddled into a calm section behind a rock, unfortunately, it was a sieve, an underwater tunnel considered the most dangerous feature on a river. He spent 10 seconds underwater, getting tossed through narrow passageways. He didn’t expect to make it out and was “gripped” when he surfaced in a pool next to a rock.

Through it all, Kirby has been paddling along the Potomac for 44 years and one must wonder, with all the danger, why does he love it?

“It’s being on the river, and everything that’s associated with it—the animals, the microbes, the physics of it. It’s the feeling of being in tune with this gigantic force that is infinitely more powerful than you are that takes skill and know how to deal with. It’s just very satisfying, and very addicting.” —Robby Osborne

27th Great Falls Race July 5, 10:30 a.m.

(June 2014)