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Potomac, Part 1

River of the month #44

December 2001

The Potomac River is the nearest river to Harrisburg that rivals the size of the mighty Susquehanna. While not as big as the Susquehanna, the Potomac clearly is a bigger river than the Juniata or Schuylkill and is closer to us than the Allegheny or Delaware. The main stem of the Potomac runs some 170 miles from the confluence of the North and South branches to where it widens into what is essentially a bay down in DC at the mouth of the Anacostia River. 170 miles is a lot of canoeing and it took many years and lots of trips, some overnight and some single day, to complete this river. In the process I’ve come to really appreciate our ‘National River’. It has many fine features.

To illustrate the Potomac’s good and bad points, we’re going to do a comparison with the Susquehanna. I know, we already did this with the PawPaw bends section, comparing it to the Susquehanna West Branch canyon in ROM #26 published in June, 2000. But this is river to river, not merely river trips and I still believe it is the best way to talk about the Potomac. Seeing as most CCGH members are familiar with the Susquehanna, questions comparing the Potomac with the Susquehanna are bound to come up anyway. To do a blow by blow of the whole 170 miles would take many columns and besides, Ed Gertler thoroughly describes the river in 10 separate sections of his guidebook, ‘Maryland and Delaware Canoe Trails’.

Now rather than go to back to the point by point comparison like in the PawPaw column, let’s field some common complaints and accolades about the Susquehanna and see if the Nation’s River differs, or not, with ‘our’ river. Keep in mind that we’re referring to the main stem of the Susquehanna, from Sunbury to the mouth.

Even with this limited comparison format there is still much to discuss about the Potomac (and the Susquehanna). Too much in fact, for 1 column. So we’re going to split it up over 2 months. This month we’ll look at 4 common complaints about the Susquehanna and see if the same grievances arise when paddling the Potomac.

Susquehanna Complaints:

1. The Susquehanna is too shallow in the summer.

For a big river the Susquehanna is very shallow. Other free-flowing eastern rivers get quite low too, when it doesn’t rain. Having paddled some sections of the Potomac when the Susquehanna was ‘bottomed out’ at 3.2 feet on the Harrisburg gauge, I have to say that the Potomac is at least no worse and probably a bit better than the Susquehanna at resisting droughts, in spite of being a smaller river. Only the upper sections become un-canoeable and only during real droughts. Most of the river has ample deep water between ledges to keep you moving. Wide low gravel bars and 2-inch deep rocky flats that plague the Susquehanna are less prevalent on the Potomac.

2. The Susquehanna has too many motor boats.

Have you been around Harrisburg or Goldsboro lately on a hot summer weekend, or anywhere on the river in York County below route 30? Good grief! I have never encountered anything like these areas on the Potomac. The pool above dam #4 below Williamsport, MD can be bad and I suppose the tide water area around DC gets crowded too, but most of the river is relatively powerboat free. Fishermen in their jon boats are also much less numerous than on the Susquehanna. I’ve often thought, ‘where are all the fishermen’ when paddling the Potomac.

3. There is too much development along the Susquehanna’s banks.

There is a tremendous difference here. The Potomac is way more remote than the Susquehanna. For starters the entire left bank of the river is locked up in the C and O Canal National Historical Park. Except for a smidgen of development that was ‘grandfathered’ in when the park was created, river left is all wooded and all preserved. And it has the ultimate shuttle facility - a bike path converted from the old canal towpath. When peddling your shuttle along this smooth flat trail you can savor the sight of eastern hardwoods in full maturity. A gorgeous old-growth alluvial forest runs for the entire river length, a real rarity anywhere in the East these days. In addition there are primitive campsites about every 5 miles for hikers, bikers, and boaters. You get a toilet, pump water and a picnic table, real comforts for the weary paddle-craft camper.

Over on river right there is rarely much development either. Ed complains about it in his guidebook (I believe Ed is more critical of his native rivers in Maryland than ‘our’ Pa. rivers outlined in ‘Keystone Canoeing’ ) but there is much less development on the West Virginia and Virginia shores than along most of the Susky. The Susquehanna’s banks have some nice undeveloped stretches below the route 30 bridge, but 3 big dam pools invite large amounts of power boating in this final section. The Potomac has some clustered summer homes below Great Cacapon, below Williamsport and above Harpers Ferry. But other than these areas there ain’t much on river right except woods, pasture and occasionally cliffs. Below Harpers Ferry, even approaching Washington DC, you still see mostly farms, pasture and some woods on the Virginia shore. There are high-dollar housing developments in DC’s Virginia suburbs, to be sure, but so far they’ve been kept away from the river.

And, there are no highways! Except for an 11-mile stretch of I-70 below Hancock, only occasional country roads parallel the Potomac. There’s nothing like the main routes that travel both sides of the Susquehanna all the way north from Harrisburg. Not a problem on the Potomac, highway noise is probably the most common complaint heard among folks that camp on the Susquehanna. A case in point is the area above Dauphin. Some people have remarked now that the new route 322 has been completed, that you can see the river from the highway. They make it sound like this is a good thing. Not for boaters! The trade off is that you can now see the highway from the river. And brother did it get louder out there! Bummer!

Except for a few coal-fired power plants you won’t find any industrial development along the Potomac either! No TMIs and no sprawling Bethelem Steel mills.

4. There’s no whitewater on the Susquehanna

Actually there is, but not much. The Susky has big water at Falmouth and Holtwood but these spots are de-watered at normal summer flows. The Potomac has big water year around below Great Falls. You can find limited ‘park and play’ on the Susquehanna in the Dauphin Narrows and single-wave spots below Bainbridge and at McKees Half Falls. The Potomac offers park and play at Harpers Ferry, Violettes Lock, Great Falls/Mather Gorge and Little Falls. While there are no real whitewater trips on the Susquehanna (the whitewater at both Falmouth and Holtwood lasts less than 2 miles) the Potomac has a few. You can do a nice easy 7-miler from Needles Rapid to Brunswick in the Harpers Ferry area taking in big White Horse Rapid. Or opt for the popular trip below Great Falls through beautiful Mather Gorge down to Brookmont Dam. For more challenge include the powerful big water of Little Falls at the trip’s end. (Next month’s column will have more about this trip.) Or there’s Great Falls for the ultimate whitewater challenge! Did you know that 2 of our club members (that I know of) have actually run the falls? Through most of its length the main stem of the Potomac is not a whitewater river, but it does offer more opportunity for the splashy stuff than does our Susquehanna.

So, it appears as though the Potomac does resolve some of the common complaints about the Susquehanna. But does it do so at the price of eliminating the Susquehanna’s good points? Next month we’ll see how the Potomac stacks up against the Susquehanna’s better attributes.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2001 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.

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