To those who paddle canoes and kayaks, the Potomac River is divided into distinct sections. Each has public access at the beginning and end, and each is just long enough to paddle comfortably in one day.
Some sections have taken a particular character. For instance, the stretch between Sandy Hook and Brunswick, Maryland, is identified withfamilies, summer and fun.
From it's beginning, upstream of the Route 340 bridge, to its end at the Brunswick boat landing, this secti305 on the river is wide and shallow, split by explorable islands and dotted by large and small rocks that occasionally reach out to pat your boat bottom as you drift along. Even at low summer water levels, the river's languor is broken only rarely by spasms of white foam where water tumbles over small ledges or squeezes between the rocks. These mild outbreaks of whitewater can be easily bypassed, making this an easy section to paddle -- good for beginners and for the kind of family outing the Monocacy Canoe Club schedules each summer. The Sandy Hook-to-Brunswick trip, usually held by the MCC in July, is the largest event of the year, and it's the only one 12-year-old Jill Vamos looks forward to paddling. But, then, "The Annual Water Battle" isn't your regular, everyday canoe trip. Kids plot strategy for days in advance, making sure their family's boat is fully armed. A bailer is the most common weapon: it's a bleach bottle, usually gallon size, with the bottom cut away. In the hands of an expert, a paddle can also become an awesome piece of artillery. By skimming it across the surface of the water at the right angle, paddle wielders can throw sheets of water into the enemy's boat. Older youngsters, like Jill, sit in the bow of the canoe and are expected to help paddle. Smaller ones are tucked into the middle between the "big kids." The water fight starts even before all the canoes and kayaks get into the water. Last year, Jill and John, a "big kid" in a faded red hat, fired the opening salvos. At least, John says Jill started it and Jill says he did. Anyway, they doused each other with bailers full of water, and others rushed in to take sides. Each boat in this battle is an independent nation. Alliances form and shift according to who threw the last bailer-full of water in your face. The only ban is on staying dry, as one young woman learned when she screamed, "Don't come near me!" at an attacking boat, only to be soaked from behind by her partner. "Don't you want to get wet?" he asked. There are stops for lunch and swim breaks. The most popular stop is at Weaverton Cliffs, which can be identified from upstream by a large rock island with chutes of fast water on both sides. There, the river drops over a semicircular lip and bubbles back upon itself forming a natural whirlpool bath. It's one of the places that Jill likes best; she can crawl carefully along the lip and ease into the pool. The falling water holds her firmly in place, cool and relaxed. Getting into the pool takes some negotiation, since it can accommodate only a few at a time. When her turn is up, Jill zips on her life jacket and floats away on a small gush of water -- too small for a boat, but just right for people -- that ends in a big, quiet eddy. It's easy to crawl and swim back to the top, then swoosh down again until it is time to move on. Sometimes during the trip, things can get serious: A canoe with novice paddlers becomes glued to a rock in fast current. John, the "big kid," paddles back to help out. No sooner has the canoe cleared the rock than another canoe bears down on the same rock. John stays put and helps deflect the second canoe into the channel, cutting his thumb in the process. Several friends offer bandages and antiseptic, and stand by to sympathize. While the bandage is still being wrapped, John slips his bailer into the water with his free hand and dumps a surprise shot of water into his helper's boat. The truce is o shuttle service for this section of the river. River and Trail Outfitters is just off Route 340, east of the river; Blue Ridge Outfitters is west of Harper's Ferry off Rte. 340.