Strange how an old-fashioned, ferocious creek flood can remind you of life's cycles -- a relentless washing away, and a relentless returning.
The corner of New Hampshire Avenue and Sligo Creek Parkway in Takoma Park yesterday morning is a good place to start. This is where deceptively docile Sligo Creek usually flows under New Hampshire on its indolent way into Prince George's County. The night before, rain fell at a rate of 2 to 3 inches an hour, until water flowed over New Hampshire.
Now in the halfhearted sunshine, dunes of mud and sand glisten on the commuter routes. Not much commuting is happening because a traffic-light pole was knocked down after the torrent washed away its foundation. Fat logs have come to rest against guardrails. Sidewalk fences look like sieves that have captured armloads of wet kindling and armadas of plastic bottles from the tide.
Water water everywhere -- except in the uptossed water bottles that define the high-water mark of the flood, like urban buoys.
Where did they begin their journeys, these bottles -- Silver Spring, Forest Glen, Wheaton?
Leaning on a rail, smoking a cigarette, staring hypnotically into the mocha current -- still swift and swollen, but receded -- is Bryant Elliott. He's on the contractor crew that's about to begin erecting a temporary pole from which to string a new traffic light. The rush of the current is as loud as the traffic usually is at this intersection, and he has to speak up to make himself heard.
"Mother Nature," he says a little wearily. "I've seen a lot of things washed out."
He's leaning a few feet away from a bronze plaque fixed in a concrete wall overlooking the creek. He has read the plaque before, shivered to think of all it suggested about fate, coincidence, cycles that roll on and on like a river. He has worked this intersection before, but not on the night commemorated by the plaque, Aug. 6, 1969.
The plaque is in memory of Robert J. Harmon Jr., 23, and Robert C. Hobstetter, 31, of the Chillum-Adelphia Volunteer Fire Department.
During a thunderstorm and flash flood, these men gave their lives while attempting to rescue flood victims . . .
On that night, Harmon and Hobstetter swam through five-foot swells on the parkway to reach a family from Woodbridge -- father, mother, 5-year-old son -- clinging to a railing near where Elliott is smoking. The roadway collapsed, and the firefighters were swept under the bridge and drowned. The family was rescued by other firefighters.
Sligo had vaulted its banks regularly before that night, and it has done so regularly since, though usually not with such fatal consequences. In this week's deluge, Sligo borrowed someone's car in Silver Spring and took it on a soggy joyride downstream.
Paul-Harvey Weiner, 18, stops on his bike to read the plaque. "Kind of weird," he says.
He lives in the neighborhood and he came to check out the creek in a mood he doesn't get to see often. He was out the night before, too. Floods are awesome and instructive, he says.
"Things that appear normal in regular times can suddenly open up," he says. "This little bitty creek that doesn't have hardly any water turns into torrents."
Flood control measures have helped a little. But still it rains and rains, and then on a morning like yesterday, a big bearded man from the state highway department -- call him Bear, he says, his nickname on his blue shirt -- is inspecting more damage on the other side of the intersection. The creek hauled away an SUV-sized chunk of roadbed in the night.
"Water's got a lot of power," says Bear. Then he gets on his phone: "I'm down here at Sligo and [Route] 650. We got some problems."
Upstream, a creekside playground is washed over with sand and silt. A heavy picnic table has been shoved against the bottom of an orange double slide.
Farther upstream, a crew from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission is working. Usually these men lay blacktop. Now they are on flood duty, sweeping silt dunes from commuter routes.
They are under no illusions that this work has any lasting impact. They speak of the cycles of silt: Sand gets spread on the roads in the winter. Rain washes it into the creek. The creek floods, and the sand gets spread back on the roads. Then crews come along and sweep it to the side, from whence it will be washed back into the creek -- and out again.
"Eventually it reaches the Potomac River, where it kills the fish," says one of the crew.
They've been listening to the weather forecast, too: Chance of more rain. They expect to be here again soon, sweeping.
A few miles to the west, along Rock Creek, the same awesome and instructive spectacle elaborates upon itself. Rock Creek is wide, shocking in its preemptive occupation of neighboring territory. It rounds large bends like a moving carpet. It piles up against bridge supports like soft coffee ice cream. It does not roar, it hisses.
In the boughs of trees a few feet above the river are more plastic bottles, blue and red fruit of the flood, marking how far the waters have receded. Did they enter the great watery procession in Chevy Chase, Kensington, Garrett Park, Rockville?
In narrower channels closer to downtown, the river churns and boils, stirring frothy cream into the coffee, making a miniature Great Falls. This sound is loud, enveloping, like white noise.
"I love the sound of running water," says Maria Moreno, from Woodbridge, who has pulled her car over to admire the scene. "It's calming."
Yet the visuals -- the river in uproar -- fascinate for the opposite reason. "It's the wild untameness of it," Moreno says. "You know this is killer water. I'm expecting to see someone's car come floating by."
A couple bridge timbers -- 30 feet long -- have washed downstream. Jason Searson is looking for them. He's a superintendent on a project to build channels for migrating fish that have been frustrated by dams. With channels, the American eel, the blueback herring, the alewife and others could return to their spawning grounds each year upstream in Rock Creek.
But the new flood has set back his effort to re-establish that cycle. It has washed out part of his construction staging area. He can see the waters are already rising again, with runoff from upstream. And he's heard forecasts for possible heavy weather near the headwaters to the north. All parts of the fragile system are bound together, a bottle misplaced in Rockville may be delivered to Georgetown.
Searson knows this: "The rain's not over yet."