Straight to The Source
At the Headwaters of Washington's River, a Very Different Potomac

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I had admired the views of the Potomac from every possible urban angle -- the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, waterside restaurants in Georgetown, the Kennedy Center terrace. But where does it come from? I wanted to see the source of this big river, to get in it and glide along from the headwaters, or somewhere near there.

And so, on a sunny Saturday this month, there I was just outside Petersburg, W.Va., paddle in hand, bracing for a rocky ride along a Potomac that bore little resemblance to the river we cross on the Wilson Bridge. In the August heat, I had expected the current to have mellowed to a tame level. But after setting us up with a canoe, a boating outfitter warned us what an unruly child this part of the Potomac can be. On that note, we pushed off into the less-traversed stretch of Washington's signature waterway, just about the uppermost part of the river on which less-experienced boaters can easily paddle.

Officially, this stretch is called the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac, a complicated name for a gorgeous place. The Potomac Nature Show kicked off right away. Trout and bass glided through the water. Great blue heron, hawks, the occasional bald eagle and other colorful winged creatures fluttered overhead. Their cawing and chirping provided nature's version of easy- listening music. Ahead, a quartet of deer pranced across a narrow neck of water. A black bear lumbered across a road. This was a far rawer version of the Potomac than the one along the Georgetown Harbor.

In some spots, it cascaded swiftly. In others, it was shallow enough for an adolescent to trudge across. Sometimes no more than a couple of body lengths across, lined with trees within reach of passing boaters, it was far more intimate than the Tidal Basin and other expansive parts of the river familiar to Washington residents. The rugged, layered cliffs and caves along parts of the route contrasted with the manicured lawns along the more northern banks.

This northeastern corner of the Mountain State, blanketed in green, was also different from any backdrop I'd seen elsewhere along the river's banks. Among the rising peaks of the Allegheny Mountains, the bright yellow and blue wildflowers and thick patches of conifers were everywhere. Small farms with white silos and red barns popped up along the winding roads. Occasionally, there were other bodies of water: Mill Creek, Deer Run and other streams. But this stretch of the river was the life of the region.

This is just what my fellow paddler, Bill Blackwell, a seventy-something granddad, and I had in mind: a place near the beginning of the river where we could canoe. Hightown, Va., the official spot of the headwaters of the South Branch of the Potomac, was about 60 miles upstream. Daredevil canoeists sometimes try their hand in those waters. The Smoke Hole region, about 30 miles from the headwaters, is also favored by more experienced paddlers. The confluence of the south and north branches, just east of Green Spring in Hampshire County, W.Va., was more than 100 miles downriver. This section, running through Pendleton, Grant and Hardy counties, is the closest spot to the headwaters recommended for novices like me.

Our base was the snug Eagle's Nest campground, a small commercial area with a few spots for camping. Perched in a grassy meadow off Route 55, it was close enough to the river that we could hear its constant gurgle. A field of corn and an imposing cliff were our neighbors. In a region that is home to a large population of bald eagles, one swooped along the river and through the nearby woods at sunset.

It was a three-hour drive southwest of the District, just outside Petersburg. The town of 2,400 people was a pleasant cluster of stores, motels, homes and the inevitable McDonald's. We took a brief tour during a run for wheat bread, eggs and other breakfast supplies.

The Alleghenies, visible from almost any vantage point, held far greater allure. They rose in the distance in a range of blues, from Easter egg to deep regal and every hue in between. Curious to see them up close, we drove 20 minutes to the west, past a few small towns and settlements of holiday cabins, and six miles up to Dolly Sods, a wilderness area beloved by hikers. On the ascent, we passed through evergreens and other trees.

Then came the "Sods" -- an unusual enclave of the Allegheny Plateau comprising upland bogs, rocky plains and craggy vistas. The combination of high altitude and land use -- sheep grazed here as far back as the mid-1800s -- had transformed it into the kind of dry, rocky terrain you'd expect to find in northern Canada. The cool weather at this height -- sometimes dipping into the 40s on summer nights -- was also reminiscent of the far north. After a short hike down a trail and a climb across a scattering of boulders, I was overlooking the commanding landscape of mountains and rivers that stretched across the state and faded into the sky. With trails snaking out in different directions, a hiker could easily spend a day or two here.

Seneca Rocks, a get-there-now destination for serious climbers, was another easy drive away. After 20 minutes we were at the visitors center in the town of Seneca Rocks. There a short film told of the area's rich and colorful history. From a viewing station outside, I could see the craggy wall of sandstone rising 900 feet above the North Fork River.

But the day we spent maneuvering along the Potomac was the centerpiece of our trip. Our push-off point was a narrow inlet near the center of Petersburg. A couple of fishermen stood at the edge of this trout-rich stretch.

In all, the day was either light paddling or look-Ma-no-hands gliding as the river moved us along. Some boaters bring their own canoes or boats, but most rent them for a day or two from a handful of local agencies. The biggest challenges were the few spots where the river had subsided from its springtime peaks. The shallow waters required us to navigate between rocks and branches. One woman stood up in the back of the canoe for a better view of the rocks as she guided the way.

River traffic was also light. A family of four, down for a weekend from Baltimore, floated along in two canoes. Two pairs of tubers also drifted along, their feet dangling overboard in the refreshing water. And a group of five men in kayaks pushed along farther downstream.

Later there would be dinner by the campfire -- spinach, garlic mashed potatoes and charcoal-grilled steak. There would be a post-dinner show, too: mountains shifting to a deep blue, songbirds chirping softly, fish jumping and river water so clear you could see the sand-covered floor.

But for half a morning and a glorious afternoon, I was content to sit upright in my front-row canoe seat, watching birds swoop, beavers scurry in the nearby brush and other creatures make cameo appearances. This was the Potomac I had been searching for.

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