Joe Fletcher having a good laugh as the dregs of Hurricane David descended on Washington two days ago.

He was pondering what the District government would be up against if its plan for a swimming area on the Potomac had already been realized.

He and his cohorts at Fletcher's Boathouse had spent the morning hauling boats and canoes to high ground to escape the anticipated flood waters.

"I'd love to see those District guys now," Fletcher chuckled. "They'd be trying to roll that beach up and put it away."

Fletcher, who has spent all his life on Washington's river, thinks last week's proposal that a swimming beach be built somewhere between the Three Sisters islands and his quiet, picturesque fishing camp a mile upstream is wildly misguided.

"People today don't know how to do anything," he mused. "They can't build a fire, they can't catch a fish, they don't know how to row a boat or chop wood. Now they want to come in and clear out the woods and put up a parking lot.

And how long, he was asked, did he reckon a sand beach along the Potomac's shores would hold up?

"Until the first good storm," he said, "and then it's gone."

The impetus for opening the Potomac to swimming emerged after a massive, 14-year effort to clean up the river. Pollution counts around Fletcher's these days are generally in the safe level for swimming. Now officials from the District and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin have indicated a willingness to consider a closely supervised bathing beach there.

The confirmation of water quality improvement pleases the boathouse proprietors mightily. They are sick of answering the same question from dozens of first-time visitors every summer day: "You mean people actually eat these fish."

But the beach idea worries them.

"I don't think the people who come up with these ideas have any idea what they're dealing with," said Joe's brother and partner, Ray Fletcher. "I don't think most of them have ever been on the river."

By way of demonstration he offered a short boat tour of the stretch between Three Sisters and Fletcher's. So, with the first slanting sheets of the David downpour spattering the brown river, we cast off from his dock and headed downstream.

A hundred and fifty yards from the landing, the clearing the National Park Service has made for picnicking and bank fishing gives way to a green shroud of tall sycamores, tulip poplars and willows. And that's the D.C. shoreline, silent and uninterrupted, from the boathouse to the islands. It's a wild and unspoiled vision in the city.

Overhead we say three ducks zooming along below ominous dark clouds -- the advance wing for hordes of migrants that will arrive soon for the winter. A solitary hooded merganser made its way nervously in front of the boat, seeking cover.

Fletcher gestured toward Walker's Point, a rocky spit that juts out from the D.C. shore.

"When we were kids the point was covered with big trees, but Hurricane Agnes wiped them out. We used to hang out over the branches in the spring and watch the huge bass in there spawning."

Bass still spawn in hordes each spring in the lagoon behind Walker's Point.

As we pressed along a great bird flapped overhead. It came close enough for positive identification -- an osprey, also called fish hawk, bearing its shiny, fresh-caught breakfast in its talons.

That is by no means the extent of the wildlife that makes the little in-town wilderness its home. Beavers work away along both shores. The observant hiker can spot deer sign -- tracks and droppings -- in the forest between the C&O Canal and the river edge.

The Fletchers have seen pairs of wild turkeys on the Virginia shore. Raccoons, snakes, squirrels and great blue herons are common along the wooded water's edge.

The fallout from the D.C. beach concept hasn't begun to filter down. A myriad of issues are yet to tackle, involving jurisdictions (all the land is Park Service property) and supervision.

The Fletchers assume it's just another paper proposed that will flame out long before the first spadeful of dirt is turned.

But in their minds they hear bulldozers in the wilds. It's not a happy sound.