author: Pat Reilly
date: January 2002
If you’re a regular reader of, you may remember that last month we started a discussion of the Potomac River. Because it would take many columns to write about the whole river, we decided to do a comparison with the Susquehanna, since most all CCGH members are familiar with the Susky. Last month we looked at 4 common complaints about the Susquehanna to see if they held true on the Potomac. Now we’ll look at 4 of the most praised features of the Susquehanna and see if the Potomac is worthy of the same accolades.
Indeed it is, but the Potomac is beautiful as well. The Susquehanna’s claim to fame is its perpendicular path down through the ridge and valley region of central Pennsylvania where it cuts some impressive gaps through numerous mountains. It follows this up by cutting a shallow gorge down through the piedmont to tidewater. Actually the Potomac takes a similar course. It too pushes through ridges, but not one after the other like the Susky. The Potomac spends more time in the Piedmont where it sometimes cuts down through rock leaving impressive exposed cliffs, usually limestone. You’ll see a lot more rock from the Potomac than from the Susquehanna. Especially down in Mather Gorge, where granite cliffs rise straight up from the river on both sides to form an impressive 2-mile long canyon that one would think belongs out west somewhere.
If you’ve never visited the Potomac River in the Washington DC area, you owe it to yourself to paddle it, or at least go see it. Start by taking in the awesome power of Great Falls, easily visited via Great Falls National Park on both sides of the river. Launch a boat (doable on either side after a tough carrier) and paddle down through the swirling eddies and surfable waves of Mather Gorge. Continue down through 6 more miles of scenic river bordered on the right by Washington Memorial Parkway National Park and the left by the C and O Canal National Historical Park. You can’t tell from the scenery that you’re in a major city as you play the easy rapids of Difficult Run, Yellow Falls and Stubblefield Falls. As you hit the slack water of Brookmont Dam you paddle past Sycamore Island, home of Ed Gertler’s (among others) club, the Canoe Cruisers. Take out on river left and throw your boat in the old canal, re-watered at this point. Just below the dam visit the old feeder canal and see the slalom gates where the Hearn family and other members (past and present) of the US Canoe and Kayak team train. Continue down through powerful Little Falls or bypass it using the canal and head on into tidewater. Now your cruise takes you down past the historic Washington Canoe Club, Theodore Roosevelt Island, Watergate Hotel, under the M Street Bridge and by the Pentagon on river right and the Lincoln Memorial on river left. Get out at the Tidal Basin for views of the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument. Paddle or bike back up through the city. You can pick up the beginning of the Canal and its towpath in Georgetown. Now that’s an urban paddle trip you won’t likely forget!
Being a lifelong bather in the Susquehanna, I’ve always put my trust in its cleanliness. The Potomac, on the other hand, has had its problems. But I understand most are now in the past. Paper mill pollution from the North Branch is mostly under control. Acid mine drainage is also a problem on the North Branch but I’m sure its no worse than the West Branch Susquehanna. The standard excess nutrient problem coming from farms on the South Branch Potomac is no doubt comparable to the Susquehanna’s nutrient problem. Overall the water quality is probably similar on both rivers, which is to say, ‘not bad’.
The Susquehanna’s smallmouth bass fishery has a national reputation. There may be plenty of other rivers as good as the Susquehanna but there’s none better. I remarked last month about the Potomac having less fishermen than the Susquehanna, well the reason very well may be that there are less fish. I’ve talked to fishing guides that work both rivers and they report that the bass are bigger and more plentiful on the Susquehanna. As for other species, I believe you’ll find they work out about the same. But the Potomac does have a big established shad run below Great Falls while biologists are still working to restore the Susquehanna's shad.
So what’s the big deal about islands? Well lots of visitors to the Susquehanna remark about the fascinating labyrinth of islands good for exploring or getting lost in. Indeed, the best way to escape the highway noise talked about last month is to hide amongst the Susky’s many islands. Every since I was a kid I’ve been charmed by the numerous narrow channels between islands where you can imagine that you’re on a jungle creek somewhere instead of opposite a noisy city or town. All these islands are perfect for camping. They work with – or maybe are a result of – the ‘mile wide, foot deep’ character of the Susquehanna that gives it its unique allure.
The Potomac has islands of course, but nothing like the Susquehanna. If cruising above Harpers Ferry you’ll seldom be beside an island. Below Harpers Ferry there are plenty of islands, but most places there’s just one big island that divides the river. Only down below Violettes Lock is there anything like that found on the Susquehanna. From Violettes Lock to Great Falls (7 miles or so), there is a neat maze of islands, including 3.5-mile long Watkins Island and its many satellites, that are fun to explore.
So there you have it. The big Potomac stacks up pretty well against our Susquehanna. Go check it out sometime. My favorite sections? I like the Paw Paw bends for a long remote and scenic trip (see ROM #26 on the Blue Mountain Outfitters web site), or Great Falls to tidewater for whitewater thrills mixed with great scenery. Getting to any section of the Potomac is not hard. The Paw Paw area is only 2.5 hours away and the DC area is less than 2. You can be at Williamsport or Harpers Ferry in about 1.5 hours.
Using the C and O Canal towpath trail for a shuttle is one of the great features of the Potomac River. But you must be aware of just how you set up your shuttle to avoid stupid predicaments like the one I found myself in back in '97. Following a weekend at the Yough, I returned Sunday via Routes 68/70 below the Maryland border. To break up the long drive I had decided on paddling a virgin section of the Potomac. Dropping my bike off at Hancock I drove over Cacapon Mountain to the mouth of the Cacapon river in West Virginia. As I unloaded the boat I gazed across the Potomac to the Maryland shore where I would be finishing up my bike shuttle. Wait a minute, what’s wrong with this picture? There’s no bridge here! How am I going to get to the car? Shuttling on the West Virginia side was not an option. I was determined to bike shuttle on the C and O Canal towpath for every mile of the Potomac paddled. That way I could see all of the C and O Canal National Park as well as all of the river. Besides, I certainly didn’t want to ride up and over Cacapon Mountain, it ain’t little. Driving and parking on the Maryland shore wouldn’t work either, there was no road access anywhere near where I wanted to put in.
My only option was to portage the bike. Portage? I don’t suppose that would be the proper term, but you get the picture, I had to carry the bike across the river. ‘No sweat’, I thought, ‘it’s July’. I made sure I took my dry bag with me on the shuttle ride. After stuffing my fanny pack in the bag and clipping it to my shorts I shouldered my bike and waded into the mighty Potomac. It had rained recently and the river was up well past minimal but not real high. I figured I would be fine. But the water deepened and the current picked up. Soon the water was up to my neck and all thoughts of keeping the wheel and crank bearings dry were abandoned as it was all I could do to hold on to the bike yet alone hold it over my head. All I could think of was if it gets any deeper or swifter I’ll have no choice but to let go of the bike. In which case, I’d be back out here next week, when the water recedes, with my goggles and fins on, trying to salvage my poor trusty Mongoose mountain bike. Well, luckily I was soon past the ‘crux’ and the water started getting shallow again. I walked out onto the West Virginia shore tired and dripping, in front of two fishermen. They said not a word but shook their heads back and forth as they eyed up the foolish Yankee.
Copyright © 2002 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.