The Powerful Potomac
by Bill Kugler
Surely you jest, most Sycamoreans are likely to respond to my description of our river as powerful. This is certainly not the impression one generally has as the Potomac gently flows past the Island, usually well within the six-foot height normally associated with the tides in coastal areas. Yet I believe this characterization is accurate on several levels of understanding. To begin with, the Potomac defines our existence; without it the Club clearly would not exist. More than that, the river configures our activities, delimits our possibilities and permits us to realize the potentialities in and around our islands and the adjoining shoreline. Certainly in this sense the river is indeed a mighty force in our lives as Sycamoreans, with this influence felt more strongly the more active we are as members.
The Potomac's typically placid appearance as it meanders past Sycamore, especially in summer, often beguiles us into disregarding its inherent power; to some extent we are misled by the braking effect of the Brookmont Dam a half mile to the south of us. Consider for a moment, however, the watershed that this river drains: north of Chambersburg, south of Staunton, west of Cumberland, parts of four states including West Virginia. Water from this extensive area co-mingles on its way downstream, finally crashing over Great Falls and the series of none-too-daunting rapids well known to Potomac River White Water Race participants before resuming its usual tranquil course after the beltway bridge toward, Sycamore, Washington and finally the Chesapeake Bay.
Crossing Chain Bridge from Washington at most times of the year, one is often deluded by the Potomac's languid pace and narrow breath that marks its, at most, sixty foot depth between the bridge and Little Falls upstream. But think for a moment of the river bed here, stretching as it does from the Virginia palisades to the towpath and canal, obviously not without reason. Next consider the sudden expanse of the river as it approaches Key Bridge and proceeds down to Haines Point where it is joined by the Anacostia. And then reflect on the flood marker at Great Falls Park, Virginia, showing that the Potomac has overflowed its banks at this high elevation just before Mather Gorge six times in the last hundred years. Some Sycamoreans probably can recall the 1936, 1937 and 1942 floods, and more of us remember the power of the flood from Hurricane Agnes in 1972 as viewed from the top steps of the footbridge across the canal, the closest one could get to the raging waters. In later years and undoubtedly earlier there have been truly memorable ice jams at Chain Bridge as late winter thaws have funneled tons of thick ice into this check point. All this, I submit, is evidence that the Potomac is potentially a powerful physical river which fortunately is seldom realized.
The natural power of our river is manifest daily in another sense. After experiencing -- some say suffering -- the impact of development and industrialization along parts of its upper stretches, the Potomac basin amazingly retains much of its natural form and substance as one gets close to the capital city. In this it assuredly is unique. With few intrusions such as the beltway bridge, the Little Falls pumping station and Chain Bridge, the river proceeds in its largely uncivilized and quietly powerful way practically to Key Bridge in Georgetown; I do not consider the Fletcher's complex or the few residential houses along this part of the river to be particularly discordant.
Most of the great capital cities of Europe, from whence we all came during the colonial era and the early years of the republic, are situated along important commercial waterways; the Thames, the Seine, the Tiber, and thanks to a quirk of post-World War II history, the Rhine. As is fitting for America, our experience is different. Even at the time of the location of the federal capital at the confluence of the Potomac and the Anacostia, these rivers were of minor importance compared to others on the eastern seaboard, serving the largely tobacco ports of Alexandria, Georgetown and Bladensburg. None of the three is a port of any consequence now and silting has eliminated the Anacostia for all but shallow-draft craft. The power of the Potomac above Georgetown to Great Falls and beyond is that of relatively untrammeled wilderness in an increasingly urbanized area. I suggest this is puissance of a veiled sort but to me it is nonetheless persuasive.
I end these ruminations on a different note. Sycamoreans, I am quite certain, need not be reminded of the mortal dangers of the Brookmont Dam. The perils of running Little Falls are less well known because of its difficult access and because it can be run successfully by skilled canoeists and kayakers, in a group and under the right conditions. Great Falls, of course, is suicidal. So lest the above account be read as encouraging a river transit from Great Falls to downtown Washington, please don't even think about it. Our usually friendly, Potomac is also powerful below the surface in terms of currents, sinkholes and whirlpools that can hardly be imagined, let alone experienced.