Sycamore Island
and River Safety

by John Thomson

Our record for safety over the past century has been remarkably good although we do know of two Island associated drownings. The first was that of Bob Venables who, together with Norment Custis, was paddling down Little Falls Rapids. As Norment reports, Ed Wilcox rescued him but Venables was never found. The second was that of Aloysius Gay, Caretaker, who was taking an electrician ashore in high water in 1947. When the ferry washed away the electrician made it ashore. Gay did not. In addition we've witnessed the drowning of a highschooler celebrating graduation by swimming in the quiet waters just below our ferry landing. He went down with a cramp or a seizure. Steve Jones, acting caretaker after Frank Davis's death, observed the accident and tried hard to rescue -- to no avail. And, of course, we all know of the shocking 1984 drowning of army rafters who, ignoring Ken Fassler's warnings, ran Brookmont Dam in high water. (Years earlier, Caretaker Peter Day received a special letter of appreciation from the Park Service for successfully diverting 14 rafting pleasure seekers to the shore and the canal. They had known nothing of the dam ahead or of Little Falls Rapids between them and Georgetown.)

This excellent safety record rests fundamentally on the caution and common sense of our membership. We have potentially useful rescue boats available and also life rings and life jackets -- "personal flotation devices" or PFDs as they are known in the boating world. We also have competent (outstanding) boaters, swimmers and experienced safety personnel as Islanders. And all this helps. Given the informality, independence and simplicity of our Island life style, however, we have no designated lifeguards or for that matter fixed hours for swimming and boating. It is ourselves on whom we must and do rely. Our Standing Rule #8 spells this out: "A member is responsible for the actions of his guests ... " and so do our frequently reprinted reminders in the ISLANDER.

Glen Echo Fire Chief Sillerman underscored the necessity of this self-reliance when he spoke at our meeting last year. His trained river rescue personnel are essentially those who come after the fact to save victims who have been stranded on islands or rocks or to recover the bodies of persons lost. In this role they function well. Note the Frank Davis rescue from the Island in Hurricane Agnes. They are not trained for rescues in the rapids and are specifically prohibited from getting closer than 150 feet to the Little Falls Pumping Station dam.

Our Sycamore Surrounding

Kindness of the two Little Falls dams -- the old rubble dam from the 1780s and the 1959 pumping station dam -- our portion of the river, known as Broadwater, is normally calm, quiet and appealing. Unlike most Potomac slackwater areas behind the C & O Canal's eight feeder dams, it is largely inaccessible and not the habitat for water skiers. In fact, over the years Islanders have been most disapproving of high powered noisy motor craft. Notable currents begin only near the upper end of Ruppert Island and until the publicized panic over Potomac pollution in the late 1960s, Broadwater was recognized as an ideal place for swimming. It still is. Kindness of the Potomac cleanup program current tests show the river to be suitable for all water activities except drinking -- untreated Potomac water is not potable -- all the way down to Key Bridge. (After storms and in high water the pollution level rises drastically because of run-off from both urban and rural areas.) Safety, however, is another matter. Thus far, because of the lack of safety personnel, Washington's regulations prohibit Potomac swimming within the District limits.

In essence, our Island is ideal for swimming when water and weather conditions are right. That is when water levels are below five feet on the Brookmont Gauge and the water, and air, temperatures are warm -- probably from May to late October. The summer months are of course ideal for swimming -- but the climb up the hill afterwards is particularly unattractive then. At any time of the year, however, appropriate precautions must be taken.

Swimming in the Sycamore Area

Don't swim alone. Don't swim in high water. Have a life ring available in the vicinity of the swimming float and know where it is. Have a safety boat available near the swimming float unlocked and equipped with appropriate paddles or oars. Be prepared for the unexpected. (My only two rescue operations as a young lifeguard came where neither of the victims appeared to be in trouble at first glance.)

Boating in the Sycamore Area

Be prepared for the unexpected when boating in the Sycamore area no matter whether you are canoeing, kayaking, sailing, rowing or even putt-putting along with an outboard motor. The tranquility of our Broadwater can be misleading. While it takes time for the water level to rise, it is astonishing how fast the winds can rise and what an impact this can have on our small lightweight vessels.

First and foremost, be sure to have life jackets with you for all boaters. If you are accompanied by a non-swimmer, make sure he or she wears the life jacket. In the unlikely event of an upset, it is almost inevitable that the passenger will go in one direction and the PFD in the other unless they are attached to one another. Though few will accept this advice for boating on Broadwater, it is strongly recommended that life jackets be worn at all times. Upstream in the rapids, I require this of all my companions.

Second, stay clear of the dams downstream. If you go downstream, be sure to take out well above the dams and move to the canal. A logical start for such a trip is at our ferry landing. Further down along the Maryland shore there is another easy, but unmarked take-out point about 200 yards upstream from the pumping station.

Third, as you move upstream from Sycamore, be prepared for the impact of the current on your boat. There is a sharp differential between the quiet water downstream of rocks or below a point of land and the moving water in the channels. You can see an actual line -- the eddy line with waters moving in different directions on either side of it. When you cross this line in either direction -- from moving water to quiet water or from quiet to moving -- the impact on your boat is noticeable and can, indeed, knock the boat right out from under you if you are not prepared. The traditional advice to river paddlers has been: "Lean downstream." (This is so strongly stressed upon whitewater paddlers that some years ago, a young Islander, Jonathan Schlefer, in filling out a school application was tempted to summarize his rule of conduct for life as "lean downstream.") More recently the admonition has been changed to read: "Lean with the current" so that the prevailing current into which you are moving pushes your boat up into you and not out from under you.

Boating beyond Broadwater

The difference between Broadwater (flat water) boating and whitewater canoeing, both of which can be demanding and gratifying, is as great as the difference between rowing and sailing. The currents play the same role for the whitewater canoeist that the winds do for the sailor with one exception -- the currents are less predictable and change more frequently. It is possible, of course, to learn whitewater canoeing through repeated efforts and grim determination, but it takes a great deal of time. (In an early edition of his text, Basic River Canoeing, Robert McNair used to point out that it is possible to learn whitewater canoeing in an Old Town canoe, but it is very expensive.) By far the best way to master this art is with the guidance of an experienced river man or through participation in a Basic River Canoeing course. For us in the Sycamore area, the immediate source of such instruction is the Canoe Cruisers' Association of Greater Washington, D.C. The information sheet appears on our bulletin board in the Clubroom.

Perhaps the most difficult -- most humbling -- fact for the experienced flat water stern paddler to accept is that it is the bow paddler who must make decisions in the rapids. The fact that the bow paddler must choose which side of a rock to run and then it is the responsibility of the stern paddler to follow the bow paddler's lead. This fact flies in the teeth of all flat water canoeing tradition even though the voyageurs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries always followed this pattern in the rapids.