back to index
Views of the River
Story and Photographs
by keith harmon snow
I have come to Washington, D.C. in search of a story. I came searching for meaning in life, for a moment's insight, for a cohesive thread from which to spin a tale around the indifference and love of this huge and portentous metropolis. I have met families on vacation, power boaters, students, museum buffs, cigar-puffing diplomats, historians, and, in that moment of strangeness between strangers, I have cast about in hopes of anchoring a hook in their most intimate and personal stories. But the river seduced me.
The granite cliffs and jagged chasms shock and holler freedom. The silent blackwater depths mirror the sky, scarred only by chortling white currents and bottomless whirlpools. Everywhere is the seductive whisper of bluebelly shad and smallmouth bass and fat, old trout that lurk in the underworld of the river's soul.
This is pure force and violence, among the most treacherous stretches of water in the world. At high water, navigating it would be suicide. Even in this drought it could be deadly. The Potomac here narrows from 2,000 feet to 200, and the dynamics of gravity and chaos and flow punish my little red kayak. The water hauls all things into the abyss of rapids and chasms and mysterious black pools known as Great Falls. Here in the National Historic Park, just ten miles upstream from the U.S. capital are trails alive with deer and foxes and woodpeckers.
Built on the banks of this awesome river, the city grew with the hope and promise of a newborn nation, and the premise of justice, truth, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Having seen a revolution and a civil war, and with its White House and Pentagon and Watergate, Washington is a vortex of power. Most who come here come to mingle with power. That is the seduction of this city.
I came to explore the heart and history of the land, and now I will take the pulse of Washington through the life force of the water and the people who live and love it. In the capital's halls of power, treaties are forged and broken. And the mighty Potomac ' undaunted by the growing human tide ' flows silently through it.
Of Mules and Men
Flying over the concrete labyrinths of the D.C. beltway, all trestles and tar, ramps and signs, engulfed in urban forest, I exit the cityscape and enter the mossy hardwoods of Great Falls Park. A few hours into my adventure and I am in the water, kayaking on one of the nation's most technically treacherous stretches of river. I have never before been in a kayak.
Along the river and through the woods is the Cincinnati & Ohio canal, stretching nearly 185 miles and rising 605 feet through 74 locks from Rock Creek in Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland.
Here is the playground of the urban crowd. Couples holding hands coo and cuddle in the shade of leafy hardwoods. A scattered band of children race to the viewing platforms, followed by a puffing middle-aged woman shrieking warnings to stay away from the edge.
A couple of dozen geese strut around amid the visitors, honking menacingly. A sign reads "Don't feed the geese and you won't get bit," but is it more alarming than reassuring.
Hikers wearing creased khaki shorts and determined grimaces carefully skirt the mules that tread the dusty towpath along the stagnant, weed-grown waterway. The animals look well tended, if a bit indifferent to their task, as if they knew it was only for show, hauling a reproduction barge through the locks of the C&O in an anachronistic ritual celebrating the canal's demise.
"When do you feed the mules?" I ask the park ranger in a wide-rimmed hat, who steers me far from the honking crowd and toward the stables. "These mules got it made," he says. "Life is good for a Potomac River mule. Hay three times a day; plenty of oats; plenty of sunshine; lots of shade. And they hardly do any work. Only the most stubborn mule could complain. They're lucky they don't work at our Grand Canyon site," he snorts, throwing a bale of hay over the fence. "You think this is hot? You ever been to the Grand Canyon?"
A train of mountain bikers passes, flags sticking up from their packs. These teens all have the same story. They have traveled 130 miles in the flagrant heat of August. They are hot, self-righteous about their conquest and deserving of ice-cream. They crash the nearby snack shack.
The folks on the old canal barge are costumed in colonial garb, men in triangular hats and fob-tickled vests and leather knickers, women in long skirts, petticoats and bonnets. There is sweat on their brows as they pole along the canal from bow and stern. With an old brass horn, the matron of the barge trumpets the opening of the locks. The water floats the old barge twelve feet up. I jump aboard and interview them. Not much of a story, these new-time ol' timers.
Inside the Visitor's Center and Museum ' the original Great Falls lock-house and tavern restored ' artifacts and photographs reveal the history of the C&O, the great floods that haunted the Potomac settlers and unsettled the city, and people and industry of a bygone era. The water blows like a cyclone over Great Falls nearby.
Free Africans sailed the Atlantic to trade with Native Americans long before Columbus, but the conquistador Admirante Pedro Menendez was the first European known to have navigated this river (1574). Captain John Smith in 1608 named her the Elizabeth after his ship was halted by Little Falls, 10 miles north of the Lincoln Memorial site, then known to the Indians as "Plenty of Fish" place.
"Otters, Beavers, Martins, Luswarts, and Sables we found," Smith wrote of this place, "and the abundance of fish lying so thick with their heads above water, as for want of nets we tried to catch them with a frying pan; but found this a bad instrument to catch fish with." Smith stood in the shallows spearing fish with his sword ' until he was stung by a ray and given up for dead.
Some 400 years later, on the Nightingale II, a breezy D.C. tourist boat, I am sailing smoothly up the Potomac. Washington is an oven. Because I am his only passenger, Captain Skip Shankle is disconsolately wilted. "Even the fish are complaining," he mutters, mopping his brow. (Captain Shankle is dreaming of his annual off-season dive trip to the emerald green Caribbean.) The flat, gray Potomac seems ready to boil.
Shankle ties the Nightingale II up for the day, and together we grab a cold drink on the lively boardwalk at Washington Pier. I frequent the boardwalk and its many amusements. I take daily walks and long, sweaty runs, I explore the monuments, the athletic fields and tourist attractions, and ' by paddleboat ' the tidal basin of Potomac Park.
Malarial swamps were dredged and filled to create the "tidal basin" that rings the monuments. Local people fish for solace and pleasure here; foreigners picnic and stroll; brides in lacy, long-trained white gowns haunt the cool stone shade of the Lincoln and Jefferson and Roosevelt memorials, holding long-stemmed red roses wilting in the heat.
Under the "Chain" Bridge near Little Falls I find a burly Scott Roberts teaching son Adam to fish. Half a dozen silvery catfish are strung over the side of the boat. "Row, row, row your boat," Scott sings, laughing. A retired soldier, Scott has worked this river for years. "The river is sweet," he says, "you never know what gift it will give you."
The river is dark and silent. I see fat old fish lurking in black currents. Cypress behemoths, their gnarled roots clutching the shore, bespeak the tidewater swamps of the past. There are children hiking and swimming, kayakers and canoers challenging the canyons and rapids. Rock walls climb to 250 feet, a buffer to the noisy metropolis beyond.
From rocks that the locals call the Hens and Chickens, I drop into a blackwater pool. Like an otter I soak and bask in hours of sunny river solitude. A bald eagle soars overhead, and a great blue heron works the shallow pools. By sunset I am sinking into a good book ' a Potomac River history ' in a plush chair at a Washington Pier juice bar. The Potomac shimmers under the moon.
A Light in the Wilderness
Man's past lives on in the colonial architecture of Alexandria and Georgetown ' towns that grew into bustling international ports. Wealthy traders built mansions in Georgetown, today the center of Washington nightlife, and my last stop after a hard day's ride on the river.
Walking the cobblestones of Alexandria, I find the boyhood home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. There is the Alexandria Archaeology Program, preserving colonial artifacts, and the Black History Resource Center, telling the story of African-Americans here. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary was the corner drugstore for the Lees and Washingtons.
Plantations sprouted out of the Potomac wilderness, sprawling Victorian mansions at their hearts. Here lived the planter elite ' the Washingtons, Jeffersons, Lees and Hamiltons; the Lords Fairfax and Baltimore and Calvert. They built elaborate heated greenhouses; their gardens were stocked with exotic plants, wild animals and peacocks.
Orangeries bespoke prestige and power; magic was invoked to plant and harvest. Laborers were not allowed to water the gardens, where a woman's touch was a deadly hex. Almost everyone lived on plantations; almost everyone
Like the 555-foot stele erected in his honor, George Washington was a force that loomed over the Potomac. Born and raised on the river, he was hired out of boyhood to survey the million acres of Potomac country granted to Lord Thomas Fairfax by King James I. Great-grandfather John secured the tracts that the industrious George grew into a 7,600-acre tobacco plantation.
The Potomac was a bond, a light in the wilderness for the planter elite. Bewigged and bespectacled, men in split-tails, women in hoops, with servants and livery and lace, they partied on sloops and ferries that plied the river to the tunes of European composers. They traveled Europe, their children in its top schools. They read Shakespeare and Goethe, their brass telescopes turned to the heavens.
Conversation ran on tobacco, horses, hunting and more tobacco. Ships from Europe and the West Indies brought sugar and spice and everything nice ' presses and books, copper and silver, Oriental porcelain, exotic woods and aromatic herbs. All ships that sailed for England were loaded with tobacco. They sailed down the Potomac and into the Chesapeake and out across the hostile Atlantic.
A City Is Born
At Independence, all roads crossed the Potomac. Annapolis and Philadelphia lay to the north, Williamsburg and Charlestown to the south. Taxed to the limits of their enlightened tempers by mother England, the colonists were liberty mad. The dumping of tea at Boston led to a British blockade and to war. Companies of soldiers formed rapidly along the Potomac, men arming and training everywhere.
"I believe we must defend our plantations upon Potowmack with our Musquets," reported Washington's farm manager at a 1775 council of war. "The gentlemen are ready and willing to turn out to defend any man's property ' but the common people are most hellishly frightened."
Transoceanic trade ground to a halt as British ships raided Potomac shores in 1776. Racked with disease, short of fresh water, food and munitions, harassed by the Patriots, the Brits raked the shore with canon. They landed sporadically, hit and run, torching houses and barns in a guerrilla campaign that terrified the Americans. They looted plantations, pillaged slaves and provisions.
By 1783, the war's end, King Tobacco was dead. Peace could not restore it; the land could not take it. People moved away, plantations collapsed, slaves and land were sold. Anticipating tobacco's demise, Washington had diversified his Mount Vernon industries by 1766, phasing tobacco out, churning profit out of his granaries, his Potomac River fisheries and his textiles. With wife Martha's death in 1802, even Mount Vernon succumbed to decay.
In 1791, the farmland near Georgetown was purchased and a pugnacious little Frenchman named Pierre L'Enfant was commissioned by George Washington to lay the plans for the future capital. The city was built out of the forests and quarries of the Potomac Valley. Like Fort Washington, built for defense in 1808 (across the Potomac from Mount Vernon), the city was burned in the War of 1812 by marauding British ships.
Where Eagles Dare
Again I am out in a canoe battling the expansive Potomac, half a mile wide here, drifting under a lazy but scorching sun. My lunch awaits me at the nearby Annapolis Yacht Club, but it seems I cannot stay away from ' stay off of or stay out of ' the river. The story can wait. I swim. I sail. I windsurf. I canoe. I kayak. I swim. Skull boats and crews race by. Windsurfers sail and splash, driven by a rising gale. I float, lazy as a hay-eatin' Potomac mule.
Sunset finds me paddling back to Jack's ' the only place in Washington where they remember my name each time I come. Frank and Bill are friendly, and Jack's is peaceful and cool, with a cosmopolitan clientele. There is a shady river hammock, and my book calls to me. The Potomac takes me there. This is how I spend my days. It is a form of paradise in the urban jungle of world power. If only peace came that easy.
It ended as it began. Cool water rushed over the rubber skirt and the scarlet fiberglass of the kayak, splashed into the continuum of the river. The sun bit my cheeks. Turtles slid out of the sun and into the abyss as I floated by. The paddle in my hands cut the sheen of water, bent the surface, steered the bow of this sleek boat into line with the whimsical river.
As my ears cleared of water I heard the scream of an eagle ricochet off the black river and echo through the rock canyons. I knew I had found my story. Here, where the energy of water and stone and earth and sky and wild things is sealed in the dance of time and the mutual destiny of the river's metamorphosis. With a sigh of relief and a gulp of challenge, I plunge over the next falls. The kayak dances and bobs and thrusts into the blackwater and ' my journey one with the river ' I enter that moment of infinite chaos and terror.
Back to Jack's
On the shack at Jack's Boats, a Georgetown waterfront institution hidden for 55 years under the Francis Scott Key Bridge, I find a handful of colorful but weather-beaten murals. One is a Spanish woman dancing in a flowing black dress with a burrow and a cart. Another one is honoring "Ak Wan Hee: Last of the Analosan [sic] indian tribe... circa 1697."
"I don't know anything about that," says Frank Baxter, partnered with brother Bill at Jack's Boats. "Talk to Tom Woodward." Jack's is busy with people checking canoes in and out. Frank and Bill are sad, their father Jack having just died, and Frank sends me off to Roosevelt Island. "Take a canoe over to that beach and have a swim."
From Jack's I paddle a canoe to Analostan Island, an 88-acre nature reserve with a monument to Teddy Roosevelt and his passion for wilderness. President Roosevelt rode horseback along the Potomac from Little Falls to Great Falls, 15 miles upriver, hiking and rock-climbing daily.
"Jack and I built that shop and I painted the murals," octogenarian Tom Woodward later told me. Tom has canoed the Potomac all his life. "We learned how to swim on the Potomac, too" he recalls. He chuckles. "Analosan [sic] is the Indian name for Roosevelt Island. I made up all that other stuff about Ak Wan Hee. It was a joke: Who's gonna know about some Indian who lived 300 years ago?"
A boardwalk over the island's wetlands offers a glimpse of the Potomac's former wildness. With three miles of trails, it is another soothing respite from sun and city. I read more from my history book under a giant cedar on a sandy Potomac beach. Ducks paddle in the marsh and butterflies flit by. An occasional tourist drifts through. The island is lush and peaceful, a haven of wild happiness in the heart of this roaring city.
"The Confederates camped out on Analosan Island during the Civil War," Tom Woodward said. "I took a metal detector out there looking for Confederate army trash. Jack's sons found arrowheads over there, but I never found anything. The river is not what it was, but it's still beautiful. You can be only two miles from the White House and you feel like you're out in the wilderness."
Though he was surveyor, statesman, soldier and more, George Washington's greatest love was farming. This I see revealed in the motifs painted on the ceilings of his Mount Vernon estate, 16 miles south of the capital. I walk the stables, the mansion, the expansive gardens and fields planted with Washington's favored trees.
"Rode to my Mill Swamp," Washington wrote in 1785, "and to other places in search of Trees I shall want for my Walks, Groves and Wildernesses."
There were 150 horses at Mount Vernon, as many cows, 500 sheep, and 200 oxen. To breed mules, the King of Spain donated a jackass. George sent to England for deer, to France for hounds and partridges, to China for pheasants and pigs. There was carpentry, blacksmithing and wagon making; milling, distilling and shipbuilding; spinning, weaving and knitting.
Seated on the high-columned piazza overlooking the river, I can imagine Washington's romance with Mount Vernon. The rolling green slopes down to the water under ancient trees. Here, overlord to miles of Potomac shore and a river four miles across, Washington secured a delightful and happy life.
"I can truly say I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me," he wrote in 1790, "than to be attended at the seat of government by officers of State and representatives of every power in Europe."
Unlike Mount Vernon, nearby Gunston Hall is not often crowded with tourists. Here lived gentleman farmer George Mason, one of the largest plantation owners in Fairfax County. Mason helped draft the U.S. Constitution, but refused to sign the final copy because it did not prohibit the importation of slaves, did not adequately restrain the powers of federal government, and it lacked a bill of rights.
"Gunston Hall is truly remarkable," says Education Coordinator Denise McHugh. Denise quotes Mason's 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, which set the tone for the U.S. Bill of Rights a few years later. "All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights. Namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."
back to index
© keith is an INDEPENDENT freelance journalist and investigator entirely dependent on individual donations and voluntary contributions. He has lived under the poverty line for over a decade, and he has continues to work as a volunteer for three non-profit humanitarian organizations. Without your support, he cannot continue to do this important and insightful work.
||Your support makes this work possible!