Saturday, July 31, 2010

Almost biblical proportions

It was another one of those evenings when a Severe Thunderstorm Warning was in effect, but conditions looked pretty clear. Not unusual for a Washington summer evening. Because (for the sake of variety) we were paddling out of an alternative location, and perhaps because of the weather, only a few people showed up. It was just Rob, Kurt, Peter and me. After some time spent examining the weather maps on various smartphones and listening to the forecast on the radio we decided it was safe to go out. The Severe Thunderstorm Warning was scheduled to expire within 30 minutes and it looked like the last line of storms had already passed by. Still, to be (slightly) safe we ditched our original plan of paddling up the Anacostia River, which would have meant a mile or so of exposed paddling across the Potomac. Instead we headed south, sticking close to the Virginia shore.

South of National Airport we decided to duck into the cove to see if it was possible to poke up Four Mile Run at all. A poor choice of routes into the cove combined with low tide soon had us nearly aground in some very shallow water. As we were mucking our way through this inch deep stuff a wave train came rolling in from the river - a series of small (maybe a few inches high) but noticeable waves. According to Kurt, this was the tidal bore - the leading edge of the tide as it turned around and started to come in. I'm not sure if this was the case or not, but if it was it was a pretty cool thing to have witnessed. And I can say I kayaked through a tidal wave.

Our focus on slogging our way across the shallow flats back into the deeper channel was suddenly interrupted by Rob's VHF weather radio which sprung to life with an urgent warning pertaining to a Severe Thunderstorm just north of National Airport heading south, bringing with it heavy rains and 50 MPH winds. In other words, it was just on the other side of the airport from us and headed our way. We could see the storm in the distance and so made a beeline for shelter at the Washington Sailing Marina. There we waited things out for a while, striking up a conversation with some sailors who were also waiting for the weather to clear. As it turned out, the storm tracked just north of us. We could definitely see it and we could feel the wind pick up, but we didn't feel a drop of rain. I think, however, that if we had been in the Anacostia River as planned we would have gotten hit more head-on.

As the storm continued east, a giant rainbow appeared in the sky, bathing the silvery riverfront headquarters of the Defense Intelligence Agency in multicolored splendor. I know from my biblical studies that the appearance of a rainbow means everything is going to be A-OK for boaters (Genesis 9:13), so we took it as a sign that the weather was again safe and started the trip back to Gravelly. As is often the case, the thunderstorm left some beautiful skies behind it and as we paddled home we were treated to a gorgeous sunset.

There was one other neat aspect to the paddle. Our route took us around the airport's perimeter. (I assume) because they were trying to clear a backlog of flights that had been held during the storm, both the main runway and the shorter crossing runway (runway 33, that is) were in use. Planes landing on the crossing runway practically skim the water as they come in. If you happen to be paddling past the end of the runway as a flight is approaching the planes are so low that you really feel the urge to duck. It was cool. We waved to the pilots on approach. Couldn't see into the cockpits to see if they waved back, though.

As we landed our kayaks, we could see that as is typical, Gravelly was crowded with people there to enjoy the river view on a pretty evening and, in particular, to watch the planes take off and land. The roar of planes as they thunder in and out of the main runway is pretty impressive. We got off the river feeling that having witnessed the (putative) tidal bore, a massive thunderstorm, a giant rainbow, and a grand sunset, we had indeed had a special evening.