The Old Man and the Canal

John Heidemann of Chevy Chase, 85, is an integral member of the Canoe Cruisers Association; he joined the group in the 1960s while canoeing to his job at the CIA.
John Heidemann of Chevy Chase, 85, is an integral member of the Canoe Cruisers Association; he joined the group in the 1960s while canoeing to his job at the CIA. (By Angus Phillips -- The Washington Post)
By Angus Phillips
Sunday, November 12, 2006

Washington area river rats had much to smile about at last week's gathering of the Thursday Paddlers on the Potomac. Election results seemed to please most ("You won't find a lot of conservatives in the environmental crowd," said kayaker Star Mitchell); the day was gorgeous; the river at a perfect level; and folks were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the capital's venerable Canoe Cruisers Association.

Local paddlers will formally convene to mark their first half-century Dec. 1 at the Clara Barton Center in Cabin John. "We'll drink beer, eat pizza and swap lies like we always do," said veteran CCA member John Stapko, who has tackled whitewater from here to Alaska in his battered solo boat.

And while CCA has seen better times -- membership is down a third from the glory days in the 1970s when it hit 1,500 -- the home river runs as lively as ever and hope of revival springs eternal.

"I think this is our biggest turnout ever for a Thursday paddle," said organizer Steve Ettinger, surveying a mob of 21 boats and 25 people assembled to run the five-mile Potomac stretch from Violette's Lock to Swain's Lock. Participants ranged from 6-year old Ocoee Chapelle, who came with his mom, Sheila, and four of his seven siblings, to John Heidemann of Chevy Chase, who turns 85 this week.

Heidemann is a CCA icon. He joined in the early 1960s after he and longtime paddling partner John Seabury Thomson devised a clever way to get to work. They were CIA types, and when the agency moved to the suburbs at Langley, they had to drive into Washington, cross the river at Chain Bridge, then back out to Langley (this was before the Beltway).

"It was a nightmare," said Heidemann, who along with Thomson reckoned it would be simpler just to canoe across the river and walk up the bank to their super-secret spy jobs. They joined the Sycamore Island Club to have a place to store a boat, then joined the fledgling CCA, where both became indispensable.

Thomson, who died on the river in 1998 after toting his boat up the bank at the end of an evening run, wrote a book on Potomac whitewater and was CCA's ambassador to the world. "He'd tackle people hiking or riding their bikes along the [C&O] Canal and tell them, 'You need to join Canoe Cruisers,' " Heidemann said with a chuckle. Meantime, Heidemann edited CCA's monthly newsletter, chronicling the club's myriad instructional classes and weekend trips.

When the movie "Deliverance" came out in 1972, it sparked a boom in whitewater canoeing. That same year, Washingtonian Jamie McEwan won a bronze medal in slalom canoeing at the Olympics, inciting youngsters in the area to start training. Three -- Jon Lugbill, Davey Hearn and Cathy Hearn -- wound up world champions.

Almost overnight, Washington became America's whitewater capital and CCA was ready. "It seemed like there was a race or a trip every weekend," Heidemann said. Meantime, CCA classes covered all levels from beginners to budding whitewater runners to racers.

It was heady stuff, but times change. Today, a lot of kids would rather bury their heads in Game Boy than surf a two-foot standing wave at Difficult Run. Many take cues from their parents. It's their loss, because the river and CCA roll on.

Thursday, it was my pleasure to paddle bow for Heidemann down the George Washington Canal and the Potomac from Violette's to Swain's, a run he's made scores of times over the years.

I was a tiny bit concerned at the outset. Heidemann's hearing is about gone and he made it clear he's not as strong as he was. Eighty-five is a lot of years. We had to cross nearly a half-mile of river in a stiff wind to get from the Maryland side to the Virginia side, then dive into the canal, a diversion designed and built by the nation's first president in his early surveying days to get commercial barges around the rapids.

Any worries I had were quickly allayed when I felt Heidemann's firm, deft paddle strokes guiding the boat as we ferried across the river, quartering the current and the wind. In a canoe, the stern man sets the course and the bow man makes adjustments. We didn't need words; Heidemann made his intentions clear through subtle twitches of the paddle. I could tell what he wanted intuitively, instantly. What a delight to paddle with a pro.

The river was high after the long day's rain on Wednesday and the run down the mile-long Washington Canal was fast. We shipped water a couple of times in standing waves and, lacking a bailer, had to repair to the bank to dump it out. "This boat's getting a little unwieldy," Heidemann said from the stern as we wallowed through the tail of a rapid.

We hauled out on a gravel bar and the other boats clustered around to make sure we were okay. The company was splendid: Ettinger, who's been running these Thursday trips for years and just finished his own book on area whitewater streams; Carter Hearn, father of two world champions, still going strong in his 70s in a solo canoe; Barb Brown, CCA member since the 1950s; and freckle-faced Ocoee Chapelle pounding along in a 5 1/2 -foot red kayak, grinning, with big sister Zoe herding him toward shore.

If all goes well, 50 years from now those kids will shepherd their own grandchildren down the same riffles and runs, and CCA will have organized the trip.

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The Canoe Cruisers Association's 50th anniversary is at 7 p.m. Dec. 1 at Clara Barton Community Center in Cabin John. For details, check the Web site or call chairman Jennifer Plyler at 301-445-4815.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company