Think tubes mean calm, aimless floating? Think again!
Harpers Ferry is most well-known for its rich history, but it’s also a prime river town.
Tucked under the shadow of the Blue Ridge, at the confluence of the lazy Shenandoah or the more adventurous Potomac rivers, this place is a hub for outdoor recreation. In 1783, while standing on the boulders above the converging rivers, Thomas Jefferson even famously declared the landscape, “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.”
Harpers Ferry has also long been a portal to adventure. In 1761, construction of the first ferry across the Potomac River transformed the town into a gateway to the west for anyone venturing into the Shenandoah Valley or beyond. Meriwether Lewis even stopped in Harpers Ferry for supplies before joining William Clark for their journey to the Pacific Ocean. Hikers still wander through town on the Appalachian Trail, cyclists cruise past on the C&O Canal Towpath and climbers flock to the craggy cliffs looming over Harpers Ferry. But, for many thrill seekers, the biggest draw is the whitewater.
On a balmy morning in July, along with my sister and 4 of our friends, I am one of those thrill seekers, waiting to ride the river in an oversized tube. In Harpers Ferry, there are several outfitters with tubing trips on both rivers, including River Riders, the Harpers Ferry Adventure Center and River & Trail Outfitters. You can take flatwater floats on the Shenandoah and whitewater tubing trips on the Potomac. They range from brief 2-hour runs to full-day trips to guided group tours.
At the Harpers Ferry Adventure Center, as we snap on our life jackets and pile to the idling school bus that is our shuttle, we are giddy as sunscreen-smothered kids at summer camp. Before the bus lurches into action, our driver reiterates key points from our safety talk— life jackets on (always), and what to do if you find yourself in the water.
“The river is class III, but the bus trip is a class V ride,” our driver warns us jokingly.
Sky-blue and lime-green tubes are handed out as we get off the bus, and we cross a leafy stretch of the towpath to wade into the Potomac. Standing in the ankle-deep water, I feel a twinge of nostalgia for summers spent in a sun-scorched black inner tube floating on the creek behind my grandparents’ cabin in northern New York. The river is broad and deceptively gentle, and from our shallow put-in, the historic Winchester and Potomac Railroad Bridge towers downstream. As whitewater rafts slide into the water, colorful inflated tubes spread out across the surface of the river like balloons released into the sky.
At first, the river lulls us all into a sense of false complacency— it is tempting to kick back and gaze up at the almost cloudless summer sky. The current is so lazy I dip my arms into the cool water and paddle a few strokes. Suddenly, I feel the river churn, and my vision is a swirl of blue-green tinged mountains as my tube spins into an eddy line. I bob and surf, gliding into pockets of foaming water before being spit back into a gentle stretch of river.
Sun-basking tubers gather on the massive rock islands dotting the middle of the river. Downstream, I see a couple in a whitewater raft with a black Labrador retriever bouncing over the chain of rapids ahead just before my tube drops into a frothy chute. I crest a wave and dip again. Another wave washes over me as I plummet into a second pocket. When I pop back up, a tiny silver fish the size of thumbnail is flopping around on my arm. I slide the shimmering fish back into water as the river calms again. A blue heron eyes our group from the shallow water along the shoreline.
We drift steadily toward the Potomac Water Gap, carved in the Blue Ridge by the coursing river. As we begin to merge with the Shenandoah River, the town of Harpers Ferry is visible, perfectly tucked into leafy hillside, almost like a movie set. The rivers combine to form a churning whitewater course— and we pinball between eddies, surfing and bobbing through the Whitehorse Rapids. When the current chugs to a crawl, I notice a yellow sign on the riverbank, marking the end of our run. I paddle halfheartedly toward shore, reluctant to leave the water.
On land, as we climb into the massive military truck to be toted to the Harpers Ferry Adventure Center, I glance back at the glistening river, sprinkled with multicolored tubes. As the truck chugs uphill, I turn to my friend Neville and say, “You know, this is an all-day pass. We could always go again.”