One of Their Own
Paddling the treacherous whitewater of Great Falls earns kayakers a spot in an elite, close-knit community. When the rapids took the life of Shannon Christy, local kayakers refused to leave her behind.
WILL SEEBER wasn’t worried at first.
The 24-year-old Bethesda kayaker had made his way down the Potomac River with fellow paddler Shannon Christy, so together they could run Great Falls, some of the most treacherous white water in the world.
As Seeber weaved through whirlpools and waves on the way to the falls in C&O Canal National Historical Park on that July afternoon last year, he could see Christy, a 23-year-old kayaker from South Carolina, paddling straight ahead. Seeber assumed she would stop to wait for him before attempting the difficult “line,” or path of descent, down the falls.
“I realized at the last second, ‘Oh, she’s not even stopping,’ ” Seeber says. “I wasn’t worried at that point. She paddled into it with purpose, and hit the line perfectly.”
Seeber paddled quickly to catch up, running the first waterfall right behind Christy, but found no sign of her. Assuming that Christy had continued down the falls, he kept paddling. He glimpsed Christy’s red boat above a section of the rapids known as the Five Fingers.
Then Seeber spotted the young woman.
She was trying to swim in full paddling gear, but the current was sweeping her downstream toward a dangerous death trap of water and rock called the Subway. As Seeber began sprinting toward her, Christy disappeared beneath the churning water.
By the end of that day, Christy’s disappearance had sparked a search involving dozens of kayakers and highly trained swift-water rescuers from Montgomery and Fairfax counties who took to the water in heavy-duty inflatable boats as news helicopters buzzed overhead, broadcasting the drama to the entire nation. For the elite local kayakers who would risk their lives to recover Christy’s body, the day would forever change the way they viewed the sport they loved.
But at first, it was just Seeber, furiously back-paddling away from the deadly channel in shock, trying to figure out how to save his friend.
TWO DAYS EARLIER, Christy had stood on a cluster of rocks above Great Falls, exuding outdoorsy charisma as she flashed a wide, confident smile at Jason Beakes of Poolesville, an elite kayaker who was preparing to guide her through her first run down the falls, a set of rapids that drops more than 55 feet in about a third of a mile. The river roiled around her, careening over boulders, frothing in furious currents and swirling in countercurrent eddy pools.
“I’m ready,” she said as a production crew from CBS’s 60 Minutes Sports captured the scene.
It was Tuesday, July 9, four days before the 26th annual Great Falls Race on July 13, which attracts the world’s best kayakers.
Christy had come at the invitation of Beakes, whose outfitting company, Active Nature, organized the race, and professional kayaker and documentary filmmaker Steve Fisher of South Africa, who’d been contracted by CBS to help film a story about the white-water paddling scene at Great Falls and in the area. Beakes invited Christy to participate because he thought she represented something important about white-water kayaking: She paddled because she loved the access to the rarest and most beautiful parts of the world, and to be with others who valued the same experiences.
Finishing her first run, Christy flashed her well-known smile for the camera.
“Ahh, that was great,” she said in a Southern drawl, her big blue eyes bright, her kayak slung over her shoulder. “I cannot wait to do it again.”
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Christy was a talented paddler who was well prepared for Great Falls’ Class V+ rapids, a designation reserved for the world’s most difficult white water. But expert kayakers who run the falls often know that no matter how talented or confident the paddler, the exhilaration of a successful descent comes with deadly risk—the rapids claimed the lives of two experienced kayakers, one in 1998 and another in 2004. They know that the velocity and complexity that attract them to the falls can just as easily turn into their worst nightmares.
With its stunning beauty and easy access, the Potomac River draws a wide variety of kayakers. Beginners can learn basic skills on flat, quiet areas of the river. Advanced and intermediate kayakers find challenges and excitement paddling the river’s numerous Class II, III and IV rapids.
But for a handful of talented athletes, such as Beakes and Seeber, the falls represent a unique opportunity to test their world-class skills. Lured by the sense of accomplishment and confidence they feel when pushing their limits, they choose to run waterfalls and rapids that represent the edge of what’s humanly possible.
First run by local kayaking legend Tom McEwan in the 1970s, Great Falls remains a rite of passage for expert kayakers in the Bethesda area, and a destination for elite paddlers throughout the country.
Beakes, now 40, a former national white-water slalom team member who grew up in Bethesda, made his first full descent of the falls at 15. He would go on to win the Great Falls Race six times.
He recalls hearing the lore of the falls at Valley Mill Camp in Germantown, where the kayaking school has produced scores of elite paddlers. “I knew how to run the lines before I even saw them from hearing the stories about them,” he says.
He also learned to respect the dangers of the falls, and later became part of the culture promoting river safety as a member of the Potomac Paddlers Volunteer Corps, which works with National Park Service officials to patrol the river.
Beakes met Christy during a trip to South Carolina to see his sponsors at Confluence Watersports, where Christy worked in marketing. Beakes was charmed by her enthusiasm and optimism, and he invited her to stay at his Poolesville home on the days leading up to the 2013 Great Falls Race.
Christy arrived on July 4, and kicked off her visit by watching the Washington, D.C. fireworks on a stand-up paddleboard on a calmer section of the Potomac with Beakes and his wife, Patricia.
Known as a stickler for proper kayaking technique who refuses to paddle with people whose skills aren’t up to his standards, Beakes had checked with friends in the small world of extreme white-water kayaking about the level of Christy’s ability, but he hadn’t ever paddled with her. He says he was instantly impressed by her “clean, well-practiced technique” as he watched her paddle in easier rapids leading up to her first Great Falls run.
Christy’s mother, Kim, says her daughter’s athletic talent and intrepid spirit developed at a young age. As a teen, Christy spent summers as a rafting guide in North Carolina. She took up kayaking while studying at West Carolina University, developing her skills at clinics.
Though Christy had only started kayaking a few years earlier, she was a rising star in the sport by the time she came to Maryland. She’d run dangerous rapids and was well aware of the consequences of a wrong move in Class V+ water, Beakes says.
Beakes explained to Christy that the race line—the path kayakers would follow on race day—would follow the Center Lines, one of several routes a kayaker can take to run Great Falls. He warned her that straying into a chute called the Subway, one of the Five Fingers at the bottom of the race run, meant almost certain death. Fisher and Beakes say they asked her to repeat those warnings to them, which she did soberly.
Christy nailed the race line the first time through, Beakes says. She did so several more times on Tuesday and Wednesday with Beakes and with Fisher.
Bethesda filmmaker Mark Leisher planned to film and photograph the Great Falls Race, and on Wednesday evening the men met at Beakes ’ home for a preproduction meeting. Leisher found Christy cooking a pot of spaghetti for several kayakers. She was radiating warmth and enthusiasm.
“She lit up the room,” Leisher says. “She was real excited for the competition. She was humble about it, but you had this sense that she was beginning to realize that she was a person to watch in the kayaking world; that this was her time to shine.”
ON JULY 11, with just two days to go until the race, Christy and Beakes both considered taking the day off.
Then Seeber, who began kayaking at age 8 and first ran Great Falls at 14, got out of work early that day and texted Christy to ask if she wanted to kayak. She responded with an enthusiastic yes, and she and Beakes both made plans to head to the river, though they drove separately.