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Post Magazine
This Week:
America's River

With Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, April 29, 2002; 1 p.m. EDT

Sometimes we forget, but the Potomac is one of the most evocative, dangerous, divisive, rambunctious, history-saturated rivers in the United States.

Joel Achenbach, whose article "Potomac Dreaming" appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Monday, May 6 at 1 p.m. EDT, to field questions and comments about the article and the storied life of the river.

Achenbach is a Washington Post staff writer who lives in the Palisades neighborhood of Northwest D.C., not far from the banks of the Potomac.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.



Joel Achenbach: Hey! On a laptop here and its so slow it basically is using morse code i think...one sec...everyone stand by...


Disembodied: Joel, In your research for the article, did you come across a series of articles collectively titled "Potomac Odyssey," that appeared in Potomac, the Washington Post magazine, some 25-30 years ago?

Joel Achenbach: Yes I did, by Hank Burchard, a great series of 4 stories, in think circa 1968 (is that possible?). Hank and a photog went down the entire river, i think both the south branch and the north branch. At some appoint i intend to canoe the river but i don't actually like water and hate getting my socks wet and stuff like that. Also fish scare me. basically the entire world of H2O i find repugnant. this is a problem given my intention to write about the river. fluids: not my bag.


Somewhere, USA: I was expecting some information on Cabin John, who he was, what he did, and why he has places named after him.

The woman next to me on today's metro was reading your article. I tried to peek at her pictures. Where online can I see the pictures from your article?

washingtonpost.com: Post Magazine

Joel Achenbach: The pictures aren't online? We will see that someone is fired over this. The pictures are by regis lefebure (french for The Febure), and they're excellent. One option you might consider is buying the paper. I am not pushing that, just thinking out loud here. Cabin John, i believe, dates to a character named john who literally lived in a cabin around those parts...


McLean, Va.: I’m thrilled that you found the Potomac Heritage Trail since I am the volunteer District Manager of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club that maintains the trail! Did you walk another quarter-mile, around the trail’s first bend and get away from the "deafening white noise of the traffic?" Other than the jets periodically overhead -– you do find solitude. I am new, but hope to improve the trail’s signage so that others can find this hidden treasure which I boast is the "best urban trail in America." What other urban center has both riversides protected for a 10-mile stretch along its major waterway? Thanks for a great article.

Joel Achenbach: First, i apologize for how slow this is going. my laptop was built in 1944 and is the size of a refrigerator.
The PHT is a wonderful trail, and i thank you and your fellow volunteers with PATC for keeping it up, and also building that new underpass at chain bridge. There is, in fact, a great area there south of the beltway, turkey run park, i believe...turkey creek?...anyway, off the GW Parkway, usually quite serene and empty of people...


Washington, D.C.: If you, Gene, and Dave Barry got into a joke-off, who would win?

Joel Achenbach: I would somehow wind up fourth in that contest, behind, in no particular order, Gene, Dave, and Gene's dog.


Glen Echo, Md.: Ahh, Joel. Thanks for a great article.

While the Potomac goes unnoticed to many, I think of it as home.

Two summers ago I moved from Falls Church to Glen Echo. I can walk out my building, down a footpath, through Brookmont, across Clara Barton Parkway, and arrive at Lock 6. The lockhouse there is one of two (the other being Lock 10) rented out by the NPS to lucky people who trade the hassle of renovation and upkeep for the privilege of living on the canal. I arrived when the missing person signs for Allison Thresher were still tacked up everywhere; and I looked for her, figuring it the duty of my proud status as a "local." I discovered the kayak/C1 slalom course, used for training by resident Olympian Davey Hearn among others, within a week; and the "feeder canal" at Lock 5 within two weeks. On a longer walk I was stunned to learn about the VERY exclusive Sycamore Island Club (10+ year waiting list, and its own rope-tow ferry to access the island).

I retreat to "my river" regularly to bike, run, hike, kayak, discover more of its history, and soak up the rhythms of nature; it has radically changed my perspective on D.C. life. But I swear what I take for granted is little understood by suburbanites or even visitors to Great Falls. You captured it well.

Joel Achenbach: I had the pleasure of meeting the people at Lock 6, they're nice folks, and that whole area is just saturated with history, much of it buried or overgrown as i said in the story. You got the site there where G.Washington built a skirting canal (on top of an existing one by some character named Ballantine or Ballandine), and just upstream at the dam is where J.Q. Adams broke ground for the C & O. I was down there yesterday, a gorgeous day, and of course it was like the Beltway on the towpath. But people don't go there when the temperature is under 55 degrees and barometric pressure lower than 978 millibars. A cloud will empty the place out.


Washington, D.C.: why aRe you tpying lik ethis? i am accustmoed to you bengni more literATE,

Joel Achenbach: the problem is that i'm typing with my elbows. on account of having to uses my hands to work on a separate project. i cant do one thing at a time.


Mason Neck, Va.: Really enjoyed your article on our Potomac River. My late husband, Noman Cole, always said that "a river is a living thing," and this is what drove his efforts to make, and keep, the river clean. He also said "give it half a chance, and it will heal itself." It is nice to see how well the river has, indeed, responded, but it is important to keep up people's awareness of its problems, as well as its potential. Thanks!

Joel Achenbach: My article didn't focus much on the problems, but there are, of course, serious problems. I think that by elevating people's appreciation of the river, that's half the battle. Just getting people to cherish it, not throw litter, think about what they're dumping into it, understand its history, where they are in the world -- in other words i think one of the less appreciated environmental problems is this general dislocation, disinterest, separation from where we live and our place in time (not to sound preachy -- actually i like being preachy). But anyone interested in doing direct work to help the river could contact the Potomac Conservancy, or some such group.


Washington, D.C.: I recall reading about the local Indian population being pushed out of the Washington, D.C. area by our forefathers and making a village on one of the islands on the Potomac. I believe it was near where that dude was living on his own island. You mentioned that he spent time digging up spear points. Do you know if it is the same island?

Joel Achenbach: Yes, it's Heater's Island, also known as Conoy island, which is just downriver from Point of Rocks. That's where the Piscataways and other Indians retreated in 1699 (so i'm told -- no direct memory of said event). And that's where Vic Jenkins grew up before moving further downstream to mason's island.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Achenbach,

A terrific article, but, if I may, I thought it could have used a brief mention of the formerly active ports of Georgetown and Old Town, and also Bladensburg on the Anacostia -- that often forgotten tributary. I suppose you were just focusing on the piedmont and mountain sections of the river.

By the way, 15 years ago, you'll recall sitting in on my high school English class and writing another terrific piece about our excellent and eccentric teacher, Dan Bowden. Though Mr. Bowden had one big gripe about the article, I thought he was wrong and you were right.

Joel Achenbach: I do remember that piece and the great Mr. Bowden, what an excellent teacher.
I didn't mention the ports but there were a lot of things i didn't mention, the story was long and rambling enough. I think i mentioned the siltation problem, and that, plus floods, really hammered georgetown and bladensburg i believe, while Old Town functioned as a major port much longer, correct?


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for the article Joel. I wish you had touched on the current environmental concerns I have for the river, especially around Chain Bridge -- spray painting on rocks, illegal fishing (netting), littering. The park police who drive along the canal never seem to make it out to the river where these offenses are carried out daily. I'm not sure they could do anything anyway, since most the offenders appear to be illegal immigrants.

Joel Achenbach: How does a person appear to be an "illegal" immigrant? I wish I had that kind of observational power. I do think there's a litter problem from the fisherman and the poaching issue was, i thought, being addressed, but maybe i'm wrong.


Arlington, Va.: Joel,

Really loved your article. I'm now 32 and grew up in this area. At various times, I've walked along every inch of both sides of the Potomac from Mt. Vernon to River Bend Park in northern Fairfax.

What I like best about the river, in addition to being able to get away from the city so easily, is the fact that there's almost always a small new discovery each time. From the schematic map of the Potomac tributaries at the resevoir intake, to a new bald eagle nest, to an abandoned WWI boiler, to a creek/waterfall, to an old fortification to an old Indian camp.

In researching this story, did you just visit guided points along the river, or did you take a few journeys of your own?

Joel Achenbach: This is a story that grew out of all the times i've just wandered down to the river and scrambled along those trails. So no, i wasn't guided to the various places, i knew them already. after i wrote the piece i walked 100 miles up the river on the towpath, from the southwest waterfront (you know down by the fish market there) to williamsport, md....it was a blast, and although i didn't write about that trip in this particular piece i might in the future. the river is just like you say, something that changes every time you see it, particularly from season to season.


Joel Achenbach: Have i mentioned that i'm in california by the way. i'm in palo alto, and i feel an urge to move here and become someone who bicycles everywhere and has opinions about bean sprouts (you know, do we appreciate lentils enough?). The San Francisco Chronicle today has their annual Top 500 Companies story, but since they've all tanked, the list has been trimmed to the Top 200. Collectively they've lost something like 100 billion dollars.


Fairfax, Va.: Isn't it amazing that littering is still such an issue -- is it me (say it out loud in your best Larry King voice) or has littering gotten worse in the last five years? Can't people just find a damn trashcan or -- keep it in your car until you do?

Joel Achenbach: I vividly remember how, as a kid, we'd eat at Burger King and as we were driving home would just hurl the refuse out the window. It didn't occur to us that this was wrong. Also i appreciated littering because people always threw the soda bottles away, and while delivering newspapers i could retrieve the bottles from the bushes and turn them in for a 3 cent each deposit and buy a comic book back when they only cost 15 cents. Um, does that answer your question. I assume not.


University Park, Md.: Joel -- Great article!

Now that you've written on the historical perspective of the river, would you consider following that up with a future health of the river article? You allude to the river not being as polluted as it once was -- as kids, we survived swimming in it below Carderock in the 60's! However, run-off, development, etc. still threaten the Potomac and the Anacostia Rivers. Perhaps you should cover the Anacostia Watershed Society's Paddle to the Bay event in June to learn more about the threats to these two rivers! Thanks!

Joel Achenbach: That's a good idea, covering that paddle, email me with more info (achenbachj@washpost.com). The Anacostia has special problems because it doesnt naturally flush itself very quickly. I think the rap on the Potomac in the 60s was somewhat driven by negative publicity, because of the all the algae growth below Blue Plains. You can swim in the river now, too -- i've swum in it at pennyfield lock and i know there are kids in the river regularly near Glen Echo...


Fairfax, Va.: I grew up in Great Falls and spent a lot of time fishing on the river from Algonkian down to riverbend park. Sad to say I have never explored the PHT! What is the name of the road that leads to the aforementioned cul de sac?

Joel Achenbach: The best way to get on the PHT is to go to Turkey Run park off the G.W. Parkway. From the parking lots there, just take a trail down to the main PHT. Its very hard to find the culdesac i mentioned.


Springfield, Va.: Is Rough Draft coming back -- I mean on a roughly consistent basis?

Joel Achenbach: Thanks for asking about R.D. ... I'm not sure what will happen, I'm on this book leave, I'm not scheduled to come back to the Post until the beginning of next year, roughly. I'd like to write something for the print paper and not just for the online version. So we'll see. Maybe i'll do something completely different, like sell display ads. I kind of miss the days when i worked out here, for the san jose mercury, and they kept sending me out to cover car crashes and recovered bodies. there was grandeur in that. It was news. It was the old stuff. It was old school journalism. You called stuff in to the rewrite guy.


Ashburn, Va.: Hello, Joel --
I just wanted to say that I enjoy reading your articles in The Post. Your research is impeccable, and your conversational style always makes for an enjoyable read. Thanks!

Joel Achenbach: And my wardrobe is impeccable. Why does no one ever mention that? I believe that 90 percent of journalism is how you look while reporting.


Joel Achenbach: I guess i should have also said thanks. Though when i get a posting like that i assume its from my mom.


Washington D.C.: Your paren'ts let you throw trash out the window? Where did you grow up, Fife, Ala.? The American Indian weeps over your upbringing!

Joel Achenbach: Gainesville, Fla. -- that was just how we did things then. But we stopped when the Crying Indian showed up. Iron Eyes Cody was his name, died a couple of years ago. Keep America Beautiful -- in retrospect it seems incredibly heavy-handed, but didn't it work!


McLean, Va.: If people are interested in finding the "hidden" Potomac Heritage Trail -- and access points to it -- there is a printable map on the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's Web site (patc.net)under its "Trails" menu.

Joel Achenbach: There you go...actual information...


Glen Echo, Md.: I actually discovered the PHT by kayaking from Jack's up to Chain Bridge. Looking along the shoreline, we wondered, "What in blue blazes are those blue blazes?!" Kindly the folks at PATC sent me whatever info they had, and we later hiked the length of it.

Did you talk to folks at the boathouses? Fletchers and Swains are still maintained by descendents of the original families.

Joel Achenbach: I did talk to Joe Fletcher and he gave me some excellent background. Fletcher's Boathouse is really a spectacular place, particularly in spring, and I think he's the fourth generation there...


Herndon, Va.: Mr. A: Let it be noted, when the "Joel Achenbach" fan club gathers to mourn your absence from The Post, the FIRST thing we discuss is your stunning wardrobe.

Joel Achenbach: And my hair. The whole drama of my hair.


Washington, D.C.: Family legend has it that my great-grandfather, John Brookfield, helped save Great Falls by getting the state of Virginia to turn their side into a park. But we all know that family legends have a way of getting, shall we say, streeeettttched over time, and I'm trying to separate the fact from the fiction. Did you run across him while working on your Potomac story? I know he established Fairfax County's first parks commission, so there may be a grain of truth to this.

Joel Achenbach: I don't know about Brookfield. I think -- someone correct me -- that the McMillan Commission of 1902 recommended that both sides of the river up to great falls become parkland, and that that planted the seed for the federal actions later in the century. But now suddenly i find that i have no confidence in anything i'm saying. Probably it was John Brookfield who saved the day.


Mount Vernon, Va.: Joel:
Not a question. Read the article and to use an old Navy phrase, "Bravo Zulu" -- which means well done! Enjoyed the reading and wanted to let you know.
Don Leach
(We met at Mount Vernon)

Joel Achenbach: Thanks much Don (who is the world's expert on Potomac river fisheries).


Palisades: I live there, too, on MacArthur, and I still don't quite understand why they dug it up and kept rooting around in the bowels for so long. I understand why they replaced the curbs, sidewalks. What is under there?

Joel Achenbach: Under MacArthur? The Washington Aqueduct, built by Meigs circa 1853...is that what you're asking?


Washington, D.C.: Heater Island reminds me of Danny Heater, a local high school boy who set the record for scoring in a basketball game back in I think the late 1960s. He scored 116 points I think! Also, Gabriel Heatter was a bigshot radio guy during world ward II who used to say "There's Good News Tonight" even if 20,000 people roasted to death or something.

Joel Achenbach: Thank you for sharing that.


Arlington, Va.: Joel,

As I understand it, the "fall line" represents the farthers places along the East Coast where rivers, such as the Potomac, are still navigable by ocean-going vessels. Thus, cities were founded (Philadelphia, Washington, Richmond, etc.) at each river at the fall line where wagons were loaded and unloaded to/from the frontier. Route 95 follows the fall line.

Apparen'tly about once every 10,000 years or so, the fall line has a huge earthquake. When this happens, all the East Coast cities will fall into ruin, unless we start using California-style construction standards.

What do you think of this?

Joel Achenbach: I was unaware that we faced certain extinction due to east coast earthquakes but i'll take your word for it. the fall line is geologically where the hard rock of the piedmont gives way to the sand and gravel of the coastal plain, and thus the rivers fall, and yes they have to change from boats to wagons. Washington DC is on the fall line, as is fredericksburg, richmond, baltimore, philly...


Joel Achenbach: I think we're about out of steam here...Thanks to everyone for tuning in...I hope you get a chance to get out on that river...pick up litter if you see it. Kiss a fish. Wave to the birds. Eat wild berries. Avoid enraged bears. Etc...


washington, D.C.: Is it possible to metro to one of the entrances to the trail? All I see on the Web site is driving directions.

Joel Achenbach: Sure, actually. Rosslyn metro. Get out, go toward Key Bridge, look for a little bike path threading down toward roosevelt island. that will take you to the southern end of the trail.


Joel Achenbach: Take care folks...sorry about the questions I didn't get to... Cheers, Joel.


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