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Drought of '99 Special Report

  Drought Turning Rapids Into Ripples

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 1999; Page B1

FRONT ROYAL, Va. –– Nick Mastri has felt the impact of the drought more acutely than most people.

For more than four hours, the 13-year-old's bottom bumped and dragged along rocks covering the Shenandoah riverbed. By the time he and his orange tube finally reached the Front Royal Canoe Co., his arms ached from paddling through the lazy current.

"Oh God. I made it," Nick gasped. "It was too shallow, not enough current, and we had to paddle too much in some places."

To sum it up: "It was great!"

Outfitters along area creeks, the Shenandoah and even the Potomac have been warning customers about shallow water and seeking out still-deep stretches for canoeing and kayaking. But while they concede that most rapids are now ripples, paddling regulars say there's still enough water to enjoy.

"If you're talking about whitewater rafting thrills, you're out of luck," said Scott Coulter, who runs Outdoor Excursions, a Boonsboro, Md., company that offers trips on the Potomac. "But if you're talking about beginning kayaking lessons, we just go to a different part of the river. There's still plenty of water."

At the Front Royal Canoe Co. this week, owner Don Roberts fielded a steady stream of calls from would-be customers who worried that the Shenandoah River was "bone dry."

"It's our most popular question: 'Is there enough water to do this?' " Roberts said. "We tell them, yes, it's low, but there's still water in the river, it still flows and you can still have fun."

Splashing around in the 86-degree calm during their three-mile trek, Nick and his friends from a church in Markham, Va., had no problem finding enough water to enjoy themselves. They hefted their tubes over rock ledges, pointed out fish and lolled in the sun. The river measured a little under a foot at a gauge near the Front Royal Canoe Co. that had registered 1.66 feet this time last year, Roberts said.

The low levels have the greatest impact on rafting because the larger, rubber boats can stick on rocks. While the Potomac is still deep enough in most areas to support rafts, Roberts and some other outfitters along the Shenandoah and area streams have limited their rentals to canoes, kayaks and tubes.

The Youghiogheny River in Maryland and Pennsylvania, another popular rafting river, is so low in some sections that outfitters have had to turn away customers. Precision Rafting in Garrett County, Md., is hosting trips only on Fridays, when officials release water from Deep Creek Lake, said manager Margaret Frost, who added that her business has been cut in half.

Downstream, across the Pennsylvania line, the river is at higher levels because of releases from the Youghiogheny Reservoir.

Outfitters report that soaring temperatures sent plenty of customers their way earlier this summer. Only after area officials began talking water restrictions did business slow down.

"Before all this hype on the drought, we were jamming," said Lee Baihly, manager of River & Trail Outfitters in Knoxville, Md.

In spite of the calm water and the exertion necessary for kayakers and canoeists to make any progress, Nancy Goebel's customers at Shenandoah River Outfitters in Luray, Va., tell her they like it.

"People keep telling me a bad day on the river is better than a good day in the city," she said.

Brian Burton and Melissa O'Brien agreed.

"I don't think I've ever seen the river so still," O'Brien said.

The serene water was a perfect escape from jobs and commuting, the couple said.

"There's no place we'd rather be today," Burton said.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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