People on the River - Finding Inspiration at Seneca Breaks

How did we ever use to figure things out before Al Gore invented the internet? For example, I read that Nanjemoy Creek was a great place to kayak. I was thinking that I should add the location to my portfolio of Potomac River photography. Where is my AAA atlas when I need it! No need, I just Google’d the location like any 10-year-old with a phone would. What does that idiot light on my car’s dash mean – Google’d that too. How do you build a kayak rack – 1.800.Google.

If only the world’s biggest search engine had the answers for every situation like when I am out in a kayak photographing my favorite subject, the Potomac River. For example, there is a section of the Potomac called Seneca Breaks that has frustrated me for several years. It has beautiful large rocks, swirling pools and a mix of calm and turbulent water, and plenty of places for wildlife to hide. To you, that may not be worth getting off the couch for but to me that’s the recipe for a whole new playground for my photography. Hey Google, what is the path up into this section of the river? Unfortunately, Seneca Breaks has been impossible to access from where I normally kayak because of the number of large rocks and the heavy current.

Rocks at Seneca Breaks
The rocks and current at Seneca Breaks on the Potomac River can make it a difficult section of the river to paddle

Seneca Breaks Challenge

For three years I have not given up accessing the Breaks and tried everything from taking whitewater kayaking classes to even buying a whitewater kayak. Being the photography geek that I am, yes, I have used my drone to scout up into this section of the river to figure out a path into this playground.

This past spring, after all the whitewater classes, the kayak rolling practice and reconnaissance flights with my drone, I made another attempt but still failed. After giving up that morning, I parked my kayak on a rock, caught my breath and put the failing moment into perspective. That moment was short because I was interrupted by the distant sound of laughing. The sound was slowly getting louder and louder as if the happy people were approaching me. It turned out to be a family of four floating their way down through Seneca Breaks in a canoe. They were having a ball doing it!

If Google had an answer for me it would tell me that you don’t paddle up through Seneca Breaks. You paddle downstream from the next access point up river (ie, Violette’s Lock) like this family did in the canoe. Something my physics calculations and mechanical drawings failed to predict was that maneuvering the rocks is not such a challenge when you are paddling with the flow of the river. How stupid could I be? Why paddle up stream when you can just get in your heavy canoe, your eight school-aged children, your Labrador standing on the bough, your picnic basket with obligatory French baguette and float downstream?  I really laughed hard when I realized that.

Heavy currents flowing around a rock at Seneca Breaks, Potomac River
Seneca Breaks is filled with turbulent currents, waves and rocks.

After being housebound this past summer due to COVID my next kayak outing was down through Seneca Breaks – no children or Labrador accompanying me in my whitewater kayak. I didn’t make any good pictures that morning, but every few paddle strokes there was a new inlet or rocky outcropping that captured my attention. Even the smell of the river was a little different that morning.  Like when I first got my driver’s license and was allowed to do an errand with nobody in the car to monitor my driving, every sense was on a state of alert. It felt like I was paddling the river for the first time. It may have taken me several years to get to Seneca Breaks, and not for the most intelligent reasons, but the sensory experience was worth it. This section of the river will be an inspiration for years to come. Certainly many images will follow…

Launch of a New Project: People on the River

That morning was also the launch of something else new. While being house-bound all summer I thought that if I ever get to kayak again, I really should interview and photograph the people that I meet. Well not all the people I meet…the people that you would want to meet. I should capture their stories on why they go to the river. What better way to stimulate interest in the Potomac River and why it is such a great place for outdoor recreation, nature and just getting away from life’s challenges.

After my first big venture through Seneca Breaks and as I pulled my kayak from the water at Violette’s Lock, I met another gentleman who appeared very skilled at handling a canoe. I mean he really looked the part with the leather gloves, a special Gore Tex rain hat, and his life vest was so faded from the sun that it matched his cargo pants. He would have been very intimidating with that Crocodile-Dundee-but-from-the-Potomac-River-look but his smile made him very approachable. I introduced myself from a distance and got his permission to take his picture. His name was George and he’d been bringing his canoe to Violette’s Lock for almost 30 years. I wasn’t really prepared but I thought I would try a quick interview.

Me: When you think of the Potomac River, what word comes to mind?

George: Inspirational.

How do I follow-up on that answer? Certainly a little more preparation would have helped on my part. I just replied, “Inspirational?”

George recalled several occasions when he was canoeing the river, his mind being on other things but something would catch his attention unexpectedly. There was one particular morning where remarkable sunlight reflected off the water in such a way that he could not tell if the light was coming from above him or below him. The light just surrounded him and resulted in a very inspirational moment. I was tempted to ask George whether he got a picture or whether he enjoys telling the story. Sooner than I knew it, however, George picked up his canoe, swung it over his head and walked away.

People on the River - Inspiration at Seneca Breaks
His name was George and he was very skilled at handling a canoe
A picture of a man with a canoe on his shoulders at Violette's Lock
After sharing his inspirational moment with me, George walked off with his canoe

Reflecting on Inspiration

With interview number one in the can, I called it a day, but I have taken some time to reflect since meeting George. In retrospect it was as if he was reading my mind that morning and recognizing that I had a very enjoyable morning coming off of Seneca Breaks. Perhaps he was even putting to words…or more like word…what I was unable to say myself.

We all probably have the opportunity to be inspired every now and then. It might not come easily and it may take some time but with persistence inspiration will come. Probably more important than the moment of inspiration is what we do with experience for years to come. If that moment of inspirational light kept George coming back to the river to canoe for thirty years, just imagine what I can do with my Potomac River photography portfolio with this challenging section of the river called Seneca Breaks.