Upper Potomac What'SUP

Hello all,

I’m starting my planning to do a multi-day trip along the Potomac River, somewhere between Cumberland, MD and Harpers Ferry WV. The plan is to SUP and camp along the river using C&O canal hiker/biker campsites that are riverside (some are too far away from the shore).

SUP choice, gear loadout, etc is all easy and taken care of - but I’m having a bit of trouble finding out information concerning the river and its characteristics for those areas.

Specifically, I’m trying to educate myself on how fast or slow the Potomac moves, what an appropriate CFS would be for different parts of the Upper Potomac downstream from Cumberland, ID any rapids, and see if anyone has had experience portaging around the old C&O canal dams that exist in the Potomac.

Another question that seems to pop up - what are the effects if the river or CFS are too low? I feel like this would have limited effects for a SUP - most info sites refer to “low flow” concerning white water. So I’m a bit confused there.

Any advice or experience shared will be greatly appreciated!


It’s been a while since I’ve down this stretch of the river however, I’ve sent this off to my sister who lives in Cumberland.
She and her family have spent many hours on the river in that area.

What I remember of our trip in an 18’ Wenonah Jensen in July (low water) was a lot of shallow riffles and mini ledges that we scrapped over.

Have you started out by looking at satellite photos? You can get a pretty good feel for what a river is like that way, though you have to have enough familiarity with rivers in general to figure out whether you are looking at low water or high water.

I just “flew over” much of your planned route using the photos on Google Maps and saw numerous short, Class I riffles, usually with very long pools between them. The current looked moderately slow in the pool areas.

I didn’t “fly” the whole thing, but most of it, and I saw only three dams, all on the lower section, and the ruins of a dam at Harper’s Ferry. Interestingly, the river seemed to dry up at that point, as if most of the flow had been diverted somewhere, though perhaps the all the tiny channels in the rock were enough to carry the flow. Still, the water below the confluence with the Shenandoah really looked too low, as if the water in the Potomac might have been diverted.

I might have missed a dam or two when occasionally skipping to map view while flying over the upper parts of the trip, though I saw no evidence of dams there by that method. Of the three I saw on the lower part of this stretch, the first two had an obvious easy portage on river left, and it looked like the best portage for the third dam was on River left as well, but with the take-out obstructed from view by trees. It looked like river right would be a tougher portage in all cases due to tall retaining walls both upstream and downstream of the dam on that side, but maybe there’s a guide book or something that will tell you what to do at the dams.

The usual problem with “low flow” when talking about whitewater is simply getting a boat through those spots. Why do you say shallows would be no big deal on a SUP? Is it because you can remove the skeg? If you can remove the skeg, do you have no concern with dragging your SUP over rocks? I assume you’ll be dragging and not carrying if you are packing camping gear, and I’d think that dragging a SUP would be more awkward than a canoe or kayak. If you can’t remove the skeg, I’d expect you to have occasional problems in many of the riffles unless the water is well above the low-flow conditions I saw in the photos, but you may be aware of that since you asked about recommended flows. Again, checking with guide books should help (in the area I live, any river that size would be well described in at least one guide book). Some of the riffles in the stretch approaching Harper’s Ferry get pretty expansive, but they look deep enough (until you reach the point where the river seems to go dry). On that note, the geology that’s visible in the river from the air in that lower stretch is pretty fascinating - you can see an endless series of lines where layers of rock intersect the ground surface and are visible in the shallow water, and you can see how the layers must be highly folded, or at least tilted.

@rival51 & @Guideboatguy Thanks for the responses!

I’ve “flown” the whole river via Google Maps, but you have pretty much hit my questions on the head. I guess I needed a confidence booster for the small dam portages. But more importantly, you’ve given me insight into what “too low” means.

I knew the logical explanation, but I was thinking more along the lines of white water than general river level. So in my mind, I was thinking a white water paddler wouldn’t be able to get past a rapid, etc - And since I’m looking to avoid rapids (above II or III) I figured a low drafting SUP (with a cut-down fin or temporarily removed fin) could be just fine.

I will go find that guide book to have a better understanding of the river features.

This often not a great site for information regarding rivers and whitewater paddling especially regarding SUP. There are a couple of east coast whitewater paddlers who may know the Potomac and will answer. Try the Boater Talk general forum. There used to be many Potomac paddlers there who would know the condition of the river at low flow.