The CIA Canoe Pool Revisited

By Leah Hertz

Sycamore Islander, January 2000



On Friday, October 15, 1999, Renee Dunham (fellow ex-Fed (NIH)) and I set off from Sycamore Island to retrace the historical route of the legendary CIA Canoe Pool, "famous (so various parties tell me) in song and story."

The author, arriving at the old site
Actually, Renee and I were meeting for the first time as a result of her having placed an announcement in the Canoe Club newsletter seeking fellow women kayakers. For a first time run, we decided to go on an easy expedition -- just over to the Danger/Undertow sign on the Virginia shore, to check out the current status of the Canoe Pool's former landing site. One thing led to another: We ended up landing, stowing our kayaks, and going up the entire path to the far end of the bridge over the GW Parkway, within sight of the guard shack at the CIA gate.

Remains of stone stairway (indicated by author's outlines)
are hidden by years of nature's detritus.
To get to the heart of the matter: The upper third of the trail has been obliterated. The section of the path that led directly down from the parkway off-ramp skirting a ravine, and the stone staircase that curved its way down to a high hillside stream (quondam "Crayfish Towers") are not in evidence -- swept askew or buried. The ravine has turned into a vast eroded chasm; the entire gully looks like it has shifted southeast, and the trees that formerly lined the edge have toppled or disappeared. Some remains of the stone staircase are visible underneath piles of tree trunks, but the former path is completely impassable. Alas, its charming rustic architecture is no more.

An alternative path appears to have been trodden by unknown feet, possibly Chinese, (more on that later), starting about two-thirds of the way up the slope and skirting the area of destruction. This "trail" goes straight up a steep, denuded slope and looks like it would simply be all slippery mud most of the time. The mud track takes a bend to the NW and comes out onto the GW off-ramp just where the old path did. Out on the roadway itself, much looks the same. There are the same mowed grassy margins that are prime woodchuck territory (although we didn't see any). The bushes that were planted in the median strip are all dead -- victims of drought, perhaps, or neglect. Or maybe the Chinese sensors buried at their roots interfered with their growth. (More on that later.)

The spot past Pulp Run where the Poolers' route branches off uphill to the CIA is less marked than it used to be. The stone steps are tumbled, and again a "detour" -- a dirt track -- runs parallel to them. As one goes higher, the path itself remains distinct but definitely grows much narrower in places. It used to be that negotiating the path in the dark on the way home was a bit tricky. Hence, certain Poolers were seen using a helmet-mounted carbide lamp or hand-held flashlight. The more recent narrowing would make the nighttime path even trickier.

Pulp Run was a mere trickle. It was hard to imagine it as a raging torrent that once forced even veteran Canoe Poolers to get their feet wet en route home. I pointed out to Renee the site where the valiant Lydia Weber, spotting a pair of children's shoes left on a rock mid-stream, had cried out, "Look, elves!"

The erstwhile path lies in alignment with, and beneath, this large downed Tulip Poplar.
Although the shoreline portion of the Canoe Pool path is relatively unchanged, appearing well maintained and well traveled -- free of fallen trees and trash -- the Virginia landing site has changed considerably. A mini-inlet downstream from the undertow sign and a giant sycamore that leaned out over the water are no more. The bank that once was curved and sloping is now straight, blunt, and steep. The low plateau where canoes were hauled up over grass is now Nettle City. They grow dense and high without a break. Following (sort of) in the footsteps of the intrepid Canoe Poolers who, according to legend, pushed a canoe ahead of them across the ice as they traversed the frozen Potomac on foot, I pushed my boat along the ground ahead of me through the nettles to make a path to the trail. At the base of the undertow sign, I searched long and hard for some sign of the Canoe Pool's old cable, chain, and bike locks. I found absolutely nothing. Not a trace. They must have become buried in the silt.

When Renee and I returned to Sycamore Island, Doc Taliaferro, hearing of our reconnaissance, had his own observations to add: Doc had noticed that there was quite a lot of human activity on the river after dark. He had especially noted some Chinese soldierly-looking types who more than once went to the Virginia shore in boats and who, on one particular occasion, crossed the river after dark "on a rainy Tuesday night." Doesn't sound much like fishermen. He thought it sufficiently piquant to call up the Agency, but whoever answered the phone there sounded less than interested. We speculated about who might have trod the muddy alternative track going up to the GW Parkway. (It has been noted that fishermen, among others, do park their cars on the verge of the GW off-ramp and clamber down to the water's edge on foot.) My alternative title for this account was "Ozymandias in Virginia." On a closing note, I append the relevant lines:

"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Well, it ain't THAT bad.




The Canoe Pool on Foot


By Penny Doolittle

Sycamore Islander, February 2000


I was inspired to dig up these old photos after reading Leah Hertzís article, "Revisiting the CIA Canoe Pool Path," in which she mentions that there were times when the trip was made entirely on foot. These pictures were probably taken in the late 1970ís when winter here was really winter. Shown is me--in proper ice crossing outfit--Bob Sinclair, famous for crossing no matter what the weather, and the intrepid Lydia Weber. Her daughter Xenya accompanied us on the crossing that day.

The author, Bob Sinclair, and
Lydia Weber forming up the crossing-pool.
I was a most disloyal canoe pooler but rarely missed a chance when the river was frozen over, mostly because it was incredibly thrilling, but also because it was so quick and easy--just walk down the hill and over to the Island, then across the river and up the Virginia side, ready for work. No need to mess with the ferry, canoes, or even with a change of clothes.

I wish that I had some photographs taken a few days later when the ice was beginning to melt. It was still safe to cross in the morning, but with a warmer sunny day predicted, getting home could turn out to be very tricky. If it hadnít been for Bob Sinclair, Iím sure we wouldnít have risked it, but he was thorough in planning for every conceivable disaster and determined to go. We set off armed not only with his ice ax, but carrying long poles and dragging a canoe. The poles were in case someone fell through the ice. I think the canoe was intended to provide an escape should we became stranded on an ice floe or worse. As it was, the ice was very wet on top but passable for the return trip, but it was most comforting to have that canoe in tow.

"...showing off my river crossing outfit..." with Bob.
I donít remember who else made that crossing. Does anyone else have some pictures? I know there were some wonderful ones of Peter and Holly cross country skiing around the Island. And of course, there were all those wonderful days of ice skating, when the river was frozen solid with smooth black ice stretching all the way to Virginia.

Those were the days.