Paula Smith Is a Lover of the Potomac River and Washington Area Wilderness

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 17, 2009

In the long tradition of American self-reliance -- that urge to eschew social conventions for a simpler life -- most refugees have headed for wilderness. Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond. John Muir to Yosemite. Then there is Paula Smith, who came to Washington about 20 years ago and has been pretty much living off the land ever since.

Not that Smith farms, hunts or freeloads. She is a forager and a scavenger. And among the assorted characters who roam the forests and streams of the Washington region and the Potomac River valley north of Georgetown -- a wilder place than many realize -- there might be no keener two-legged creature in the woods.

Smith knows when to look for fruit on the papaw trees, where the best oyster mushrooms hide and when the wild raspberries and wineberries are ripest. Also the easiest way to get free venison.

"I've eaten my quota of dead roadkill, trust me honey," she said. "As long as it's clean" and not too beat up, "I'll cut it up and eat it."

In a town known for backslapping bonhomie and double talk, Smith, 57, is brutally direct and totally unconcerned with appearance. Short, wiry and ill-mannered, she wears thick glasses and heavy boots and is rarely seen without her tattered bucket hat and a cigarette. Her salty language is as legendary on the river as her knack for finding deer antlers. Local outdoorsman Bill Heavey, a columnist for Field & Stream, once described her as "gruff and gravel-voiced," with "all the charm of a sawmill foreman." To many, she is the Potomac's unofficial riverkeeper.

"There's a lot of [stuff] that goes on in these woods that people don't know about," she said recently, at work on the docks at Fletcher's Cove in the District. This reporter was intrigued.

Cleaning up garbage and litter along the river has been Smith's obsession for a long time. But lately she has been consumed by a new concern: deer shot illegally along the river on National Park Service land.

"Poachers are going wild up there," she said, referring to the area south of Chain Bridge.

Poachers? In Washington, D.C.?

"I'll show you," she said.

To fishermen on the Potomac, and just about any weekend recreationist who has taken out a rowboat at Fletcher's, Smith is "the dock lady," running the boat rental program from a wooden shack stuffed with oars and life jackets. There, she works the angler crowd like a canny waitress at a truck stop, bantering with fishermen she calls "baby" and "honey" -- when she's not cursing at them -- and serving up shad and perch advice in turn for a little extra in her coffee can tip jar.

"We call her the empress of the docks," said Dan Ward, who has worked at Fletcher's Boat House since 1969. "Occasionally we get someone who complains because she has a bad habit of cussing in front of children, but she's worth the price of admission."

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