National Geographic : 1948 Aug
Drawn by Theodora Price and Irvin E. Alleman Taking Passage with the Fast-water Potomac, Canoers Twisted and Dropped to the Tides Embarking on the Maryland side five miles below Keyser, West Virginia, the expedition followed the river through a dozen ranges of the Alleghenies and Blue Ridge. In their fragile craft the paddlers skimmed rocks, shot riffles, and lurched over rapids and falls. In between, they drifted with the current along natural tree-draped pools and stroked laboriously through the slack water behind dams. Altogether, the tumbling river dropped them 725 feet in 225 miles of paddling. We made our first camp in a narrow pasture bracketed between river and railroad tracks. Baltimore & Ohio and Western Maryland trains were out of sight over a slight crest, but not out of hearing. Each locomotive whistled at least four or five times as it passed. Hamburger and Coffee Time Cay built a fire and got coffee going while Vernon and I made hamburgers-three parts top ground round and one part onion. Chuck peeled potatoes and put them on to boil. Harry and Toppy pitched the two tents. Vernon, war surplus-conscious, had bought a jungle hammock which came complete with everything except two trees the right distance apart. "I bought that hammock for re search," he said. "I want to find out how long a body can go without sleep." After eating, we washed the dishes in dark ness. The sun had gone down behind Dans Mountain, and now the moon was silhouetting Knobly Mountain (Plate V). Our fire flicked misshapen shadows on the nearest trees. Tired out by an unaccustomed 14-hour day, we turned in. Next morning I noticed Vernon was stand ing slightly doubled over. "How did you sleep?" I ribbed him. "Fine," he said. "From 5:30 to 6!" In short order we breakfasted, broke camp, and shoved off. Except for the railroads and bridges, we still had the river to ourselves. The Keyser-Cumberland highway, a mile or so to our left, was just out of sight. "There may be no traffic on the river," said Harold, "but its valley is a real transportation artery." "Once the river itself carried commerce," I reminded him. Hard as it was for us to believe, the "Patow mack Company," whose prime mover was George Washington,* announced in 1802 that the river was navigable from near Western Port, six miles above Keyser, to tidewater. "Navigable" meant dry-season channels deep enough to allow passage of boats carrying 50 barrels of flour. "What did they haul on the river then?" asked Cay. "Flour and farm produce, tobacco, whisky, and livestock. Often farmers poled makeshift rafts down to Georgetown, marketed their surplus crops, sold their rafts for lumber, and walked home." After hours of expectant paddling, we reached the Celanese Corporation of America dam. A rough line of rocks diverted water into the huge plant. The first of our nine portages was simple. We Push into Cumberland Below the dam, white, soapy-looking foam poured from the plant into the river. A few yards farther on, a stream heavy with residue blackened the North Branch. As we neared Cumberland, the fast-water * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Po tomac,-River of Destiny," by Albert W. Atwood July, 1945.