National Geographic : 1948 Aug
Down the Potomac byCanoe BY RALPH GRAY With Illustrations from Photographs byWalter Meayers Edwards AR upstream from the broad tidal reaches of thePotomac atWashington, D. C., the "national river" begins astwo small trickles almosthidden inthe deep folds of the Allegheny Mountains. One trickle forms the North Branch ofthe Potomac; the other, the South Branch. To trace the crazywindings ofthechangeful river as it tumbles totidewater, seven ofus in three canoes embarked onthe North Branch about five miles below Keyser, West Virginia, one hot day in July. Before us stretched some 225 miles of paddling and portaging, shivering and sweat ing, camping and cooking, that ended twelve days later in the Nation's Capital (map, pages 214-215). Canoeing Through a"Rock Garden" We put in from the Maryland bank where the river, though lessthan two canoe lengths wide, seemed deeplychanneled. We did not know that around the first bend we should find the water skimming over arocky shelf that all but chokedthe current. Caleb (Cay) Hathaway saw itfirst. "Did you ever canoe through arock garden?" he asked. "This is known as ariffle," Iexplained. "Usually the rocksare wet instead ofjust damp." I stood up in therear ofBaby Blue, an aluminum canoe, tosee ifthe riffle had a "slick," an opening inthe rocks where most of the water pours through inasmooth Vpointed downstream. It did."Follow me," Icalled back too confidently. As I sat down, Harry Swanson, the front man, paddled strongly tobuild up steerage way. We swung easily into the opening and for a moment felt the thrill of alive vessel beneath us slidingsilently over brawling water. Then-scrape! The Potomac had scored first.Harold and Vernon, my two brothers, were following in J-10, anall-red canvas canoe. They piled up behind us. But Green Lady, our third canoe, hadseen waters like these before. Cay, her owner and steersman, suc cessfully worked her18-foot canvas length through a passage against the reeds onthe West Virginia bankthat any smart sardine would have avoided. "You've got tolearn how toread the water," hesaid, with asmug look onhis face. "Look out! Rock on the right!" warned Charles (Chuck) Peck, Cay's front man. Green Lady, with ashuddering scrape, hung hard onthesubmerged obstruction. Pride Goeth Before aDucking Walter M. (Toppy) Edwards, the third man inBaby Blue, jumped into the ankle deep water andpushed, while Harry andIpoled, andwe were soon afloat. With J-10 right behind me, Ipiloted my free canoe through the remaining rocks, then lether drift asshefound deep, quiet water. Chuck andCay silently paddled upbeside us. "You've got toread the rocks beneath the water too!" Ichortled. Starting 725 feet above sealevel, we navi gated hundreds ofthese miniature rapids. Inthe first days, many ofthem dropped only afoot, or even less, andoften they were less than 100yards apart. Later, asthe river burgeoned with tribu taries andfought clear ofmountains andPiedmont, riffles became rapids andrapids became falls. Nearly everything the Potomac had tooffer we took, andthe rougher itwas the better weliked it.Almost before we knew it,theshoal area ended. The river deepened, ran through anavelike arch of sycamores andmaples, and broke out around abend beneath sheer cliffs 140feet high. Then the rock wall disappeared behind us andagain weentered the main aisle ofawoods cathedral. The Potomac's changed personality wasrevealing itself. One thing was missing-people. Inour first three days wesawonly one person on the water. Part ofthe answer inthe upper reaches was pollution, industrial andsanitary -ascourge made worse bythe low-water season. Acid coal mine runoff, blending with the outflow from the Luke, Maryland, paper mill 12miles above our starting place, com bined tokill nearly all lifeinthe water. Spume flecked the river. Our paddles stirred upblack sediment with every stroke. Where the water was three or four feetdeep akind ofsubterranean fermentation sent bub bles popping tothesurface. The ones that struck Baby Blue's hull pinged metallically. Riffles areNature's aeration plants, restor ing the water's natural clearness.