Millennium Post

Scintillating cascades of the Great Falls

Spread across Maryland and Virginia, the Great Falls are picturesque, wild and rugged – falling off steep cliffs from several feet above, the gushing water will keep your adrenaline pumping

Scintillating cascades of the Great Falls

It's early afternoon of the second day since we arrived in Washington and we are lounging in the porch of my brother's palatial residence in Maryland. A bruised and swollen March sky threatens a downpour even as the giant star above attempts to pierce the dense clouds to display its brilliance. A solitary bird wheels in circles on the vast canvas above us, unmindful of the changing weather. Away from the pressure of work and routine, we vacationers revel in nature's drama as it unfolds before us in myriad hues. As we drink in the sights and the fragrance of pre-shower earth, little blobs of rain tattoo the lawns with their pearly texture.

The ambience and the nip in the air tickle our strong Indian palate which lusts for spicy samosas and hot pakodas. Snack time is advanced and we polish off plates of the decadent savouries. We wash them down with piping cups of ginger-cardamom chai, the quintessential brew for cold, rainy days. Our gastronomic cravings sated, we decide to visit the Great Falls on the Maryland side, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Park, close to my brother's residence.

The brooding sky deters us from making it to the Virginia side of the Falls. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park stretches roughly across 21 km from Georgetown to the Great Falls Park and is a much sought after tourist spot to which residents often bike down from their homes. We motor down and enter the area through an avenue of tall foliaceous trees. As we take a stroll in the park and drink in lungsful of fragrant air, the chill, rowdy breeze flirts unabashedly with the naturally unruly tresses on my uncovered head.

We amble across the pathway alongside the serpentine flow of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O Canal) as it gushes in fury, crashing over boulders. The avalanche of white froth is laced in portions with Mother Earth. We are told that the rising water getting muddy spells danger for swimmers and rock-hoppers who could be easily deceived by an apparently docile and tranquil river. For, the river is known to swell within minutes to deathly proportions, creating a watery grave for those who've dared to take it lightly!

As we leisurely saunter closer to the Falls, the ceaseless symphony of the gurgling, thrashing water, feels like music to our ears. From information boards that dot the park, we get a peek into the history of the C&O Canal which dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The entire area encompassing the jaw-dropping Great Falls which separates Virginia from Maryland, has been enjoying the status of a National Park since 1971. The Canal, a system with about 74 locks built between 1828 and 1850, runs parallel to the famous Potomac River. It was created to transport goods between Cumberland, a manufacturing centre of timber, whiskey, furs and other products, and Chesapeake Bay. The presence of the Great and Little Falls obstructed the Potomac from being navigable. US President George Washington's dream since his youth, to make the Potomac navigable, bore fruit when he initiated the construction of the canal system. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the completion of the project which happened in 1801.

The Potomac originates as a small spring near Fairfax Stone in West Virginia and travels approximately 575 km to Chesapeake Bay, snaking its way through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland Virginia and District of Columbia. It drops 76 feet through several cascading rapids into the Mather Gorge, a canyon, when it reaches the Great Falls, which is the steepest and most scintillating fall line rapids of any eastern river. In the face of melting snow and a heavy downpour, the Potomac is known to become chaotic with a huge volume of water that is unable to force its way through the narrow entrance of Mather Gorge. The river then backs up to cover the Falls and floods the riverbank.

As we attempt to capture the beauty of the raging water on our digital devices, jet sprays of water romance tantalisingly with our faces. It sends the little ones around us squealing in ecstasy. To the west, far ahead, we see the anemic sun sink through a sky that is a splash of peach tinged with grey. Fortunately, the rain-laden clouds have been benevolent with us thus far and have not yet begun their dance earthwards. Not to push our luck too far, we return, tearing ourselves from nature's mesmerising drama that leaves us thirsting for more. We promise ourselves to visit the Virginia side of the Fall before returning to India a week later.

Fortunately, we are in for a couple of sunny days and we make the best of the salubrious weather, to visit the Falls on the Virginia side. Following a 30-minute picturesque drive from my brother's, we are at the Park's Visitor Center which is equipped with restrooms and a snack bar. It also offers a 10-minute slide program and houses a three-dimensional model of the Great Falls and Patowmack Canal.

The 800-acre sprawl is laced with several trails to suit all kinds of leisure and adventure seekers. There are trails along the Potomac itself and also in the adjacent woods – for walkers, bikers and horse riders. It is at once evident that rock climbing is very popular here. We see plenty of picnickers carry their own grills and settle at cookout sites, conveniently placed in several areas of the park.

It is palpable that Washingtonians consider the Great Falls with its unusual landscape, to be the most spectacular natural landmark in D.C. For here, the Potomac dramatically gathers speedy momentum as it descends over a series of steep, jagged rocks and flows through the Mather Gorge. Over 30 plant species, three of which are not found anywhere else in the world, inhabit the bedrock terraces high above the river.

The Patowmack Canal Company was formed in 1785 and construction began amidst a lot of engineering challenges, especially at the Patowmack Canal of Great Falls. The Canal, which is in ruins today, was considered to be the most significant engineering feat of 18th century America. For 26 years after its completion, it enabled a diverse range of commodities to be comfortably ferried. The Patowmack Company, though a financial failure, was the forerunner of the spate of lock engineering and canal construction that became significant in America's development.

Joggers of all ages and shapes, dogs – leashed and unleashed – are out for their morning constitutional. Vantage points and observation decks that are also wheelchair accessible allow us some of the most spectacular views of the churning rapids. We feel the adrenaline rush ourselves as we watch a couple of rafters bobbing, flouncing and weave their way beneath the white fluff. We sate our senses with views of the susurrant rush of foaming water from all the viewpoints. As we revel in our expansive surrounds, lulled by nature's own melody, I am compelled to recall the sentiments of some of my friends who opine that if you have seen one waterfall, you have seen them all! How far off the mark can they be! As I stand here, feeling awestruck by the burbling Great Falls, showing off medley shades at different places and changing hue every now and then, I'm flummoxed at their take!

The sky is awash with a splash of colors, much like an artist's palette, as sundown draws its cloak around us. I make a feeble attempt to capture this sunburst of colours as the giant star disappears below the horizon. The turquoise blue waters assume tints of red-orange but its rhythmic whispers, rushes and thunderous roars continue to pleasantly haunt us as we leave the part precincts, homeward bound.

Chitra Ramaswamy

Chitra Ramaswamy

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