Memories of the Week
Before Mother's Day
(Potomac River
White Water Race)

by George Loeb

Mother's Day. Who can be afraid of this celebration of one of our nation's favorite symbols? Along with baseball, apple pie, and a certain car, Motherhood is a sacred ungulate.

Well, there are some folks who are afraid of Mother's Day. White Water Race chairfolks are afraid of Mother's Day because if the water levels are high on Race Day, the race is postponed to the next week. What's so bad about that, I hear you asking? Since you asked, I'll tell you. The next week is Mother's Day. Everyone wants to be with their mother on Mother's Day is what the matter is. There are approximately 50 positions to be filled by volunteers to make the race go: timers, starters, calculators, safety teams, spotters. The MSIC entertainment and finish line committees. The Park Service liaison team. And, of course, the racers themselves are involved. For those who have never had to think in this context before, the impact of the fact that all God's children, even Race Chairfolks, have, or are, or know of mothers, is astounding. Restaurants and travel reservations are not written in washable ink: high water does not remove them.

But it's not all bad: fortunately, some mothers understand, and, after all, it doesn't always rain. As a three-time Race Chairman (who had to postpone) and a past Island hospitality half chairfolk (my better half, Marcia was the other half), I can say that the Mother's Day trauma is balanced by the benefits of participation. There are a group of benefits whose nature can be guessed. They consist of meeting and working with a group of very fine folks in the CCA and in the Park Service. In addition to local paddlers, the people who participate include travelers who trek here, and have their own colorful stories: the folklore of the hardy Interstate Pilgrims looking for the Perfect Rapid: white knuckles on white water. I suppose there must be a million of such stories.

From my perspective, however, two episodes stand out in memory. In my job as an oceanographer, I was on a working voyage to the Venezuelan coast, off the mouth of the Orinoco, analyzing the dissolved organic matter in the seawater. One of the other people aboard was a specialist in algal plankton, the marine microscopic plants. These microplants are the basis of the marine food chain whose other end is available to us at outrageous (from one point of view) or fair (from another) prices at the market. We came to be good friends because we had a highly significant trait in common: a tendency which leads to an uncommon degree of preoccupation with trying to keep ones abdominal contents down where they belong instead of making a contribution to perturbations in the local marine environment. Other people mark the progress of voyages by miles made good, or days at sea. We count meals held down. However close in spirit this shared condition made us, there came a time when help in the identification of an algal form was required in order to account for certain peculiarities in our analyses, but my tummy buddy was too exhausted from a long stretch of his own work to attempt it willingly. But (small world) it turned out that he had been a hard-working graduate student here in D.C., and his favorite diversion had been the CCA and especially -- The Race. When informed by a mutual friend that I had been a Race Chairman, why, no effort was too great, and the ID was forthcoming forthwith.

Another memory deals with the medals given out to Race winners, placers and showers. One of our perennial participants, who shall remain nameless (but whose initials may be obtained for a reasonable fee) was quite active politically. When at a function whose protocol called for medals he was quite taken aback because everyone except him was wearing one. Quick as an eddy turn, he ferried back home, put on one of the CCA medals he had so valiantly earned, braced himself, took a fast chute back downtown, and found himself in better harmony with his local environment. A number of those present allowed as how they had never seen one quite like that before, and asked what it was for. He took a deep breath, explained, and then learned that a number of the other medals in evidence were for such things as cross-country skiing, swimming, and completing walking tours. Again, a small world.

Who knows: similar benefits may come to you. See you on the River.

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[It seems only appropriate to supplement George Loeb's essay with the account of the first Potomac River White Water Race, published in the June 1, 1956 issue of The Sycamore Islander. -- John Thomson]

by Dr. James W. Johnston, Jr.

As all who read "The Sycamore Islander" know, our Club was host to the racers, officials, and their friends on Sunday, May 6, 1956, when nineteen canoeists and foldboaters finished the race without serious mishap. The Potomac River was too high for ideal racing conditions as most rapids lacked the large "hay stack" waves which makes Great Falls Gorge [Mather Gorge today] and below a thrilling whitewater course for seven and a half miles to Sycamore Island. However, the river was so fast that the running time for canoes -- tandem with single blades -- was only one hour, eight minutes and some seconds. The running time for the foldboats -- solo with double blades -- was only a few minutes slower.

News of the success of this pioneering race reached Mr. Lawrence Zuk, Denver, Colorado, who is probably the best authority on this new and little-known sport, according to the American Canoe Association. Mr. Zuk has written to Andrew Thomas, chairman of the local White Water Race Committee, expressing interest in the particulars as they will aid him in the preparation of an article on whitewater racing.

Mr. Thomas, and all who assisted him, have done an outstanding work. About five hundred spectators stood at various points along the course, and many visited Sycamore Island to cheer their friends at the finish line and watch Commodore William Rhodes present the awards to the winners.

That we had many visitors on the Island is attested by the one hundred thirty frankfurters and rolls and ten gallons of coffee served by our Entertainment Committee, ably guided by Mrs. Charles P. Cake. The older members said that it was a sight to gladden their hearts to see so many happy people on the Island for the first time since World War II.

The large, detailed map of the race course that was given to our Club by the local members of the American Canoe Association has been framed by Vice President Ellery Fosdick and hangs in the Clubhouse. It is a useful memento of a gala day!

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In the Thirtieth Potomac River White Water Race, May 5, 1985, we had high water again -- 5.6 feet -- and a very fast race. There were 75 boats entered and the fastest time was in a kayak -- a craft unknown in white water racing in 1956 -- which came down in 42 minutes and 15.58 seconds. There were now 22 separate classes of kayaks and canoes competing.