Recent editorials in The Post endorsing a crackdown on swimmers in the Potomac River between Chain Bridge and just above Great Falls point out serious dangers. The Post's recommendations included arrests, fines and possible jail sentences for those caught swimming in this admittedly very dangerous stretch of hydraulics -- where even a quiet pool in reality can harbor vicious undercurrents lethal to swimmers. I agree that these measures are the least required deterrents necessary to save dozens of lives yearly.
But let me speak for the large number of "paddlers" who daily enjoy this very portion of the Potomac -- considered one of the few natural treasures left in the area. By paddlers, I mean kayakers (such as myself), canoers and rafters, who by any measure would be considered safety experts on eastern rivers.
Experienced paddlers know all about Little Falls dam and, naturally, Great Falls. They have on the whole been instructed by professional paddlers (some aspiring or former Olympians) who enjoy the beauty and proximity of the Potomac, but who get their "kicks" on much rougher white water.
Not only is it considered de rigueur to have inflation in their crafts, but well-versed paddlers also wear Coast Guard-approved life vests and helmets for protection against the occasional ride through a rapid without a boat, and against the chance of hitting subsurface rocks in a capsize or during an "Eskimo roll" to regain an upright position.
My point is that passage of any additional, stringent legislation should absolutely exempt these paddlers. A check with Park Service statistics would show that the overwhelming majority of drownings in this stretch of the Potomac are experienced primarily by climbers accidentally slipping off rocks along its banks, swimmers unaware or uncaring of the potential for disaster from being in the river without proper safety gear and by those fishing along the river banks who suddenly find themselves lost in the very currents they so favor for sport. It is extremely rare to find that river victims were experienced paddlers.
Two vignettes: Strolling down to one of the more hazardous put-ins just below Great Falls on the Maryland side, I encountered a park ranger fending off some kids obviously intent on a swim. The ranger was standing right next to a large warning sign that prohibited swimming or wading as plainly as English can. I headed on to the water in my gear, easily shouldering my kayak and commented to the ranger, "They'll never learn." He agreed, urging me to have a safe time. Rangers recognize responsible paddlers.
Another outing: paddling the 6-foot waves at Rocky Island on a bleak, rainy day, I was caught off guard in a trough and instantly rolled over. Twisted and pulled by violent hydraulics, I washed out of my kayak and, exhausted, kicked over to a quiet eddy using the boat for flotation. Weak, I lay there panting to catch my breath and mysteriously began bobbing up and down like a cork. My tennis shoes were torn straight off my feet, down into the river's depths. I had experienced my first powerful undertow on a quiet spot near shore. My respect for Old Man River rose light-years.
It bothers me when officials on both sides of the river start talking about mandatory arrest and court appearances for "those who enter the river" from either side (as the U.S. attorney for Maryland put it). Taken literally, this would prohibit paddlers -- the safest river rats on the Potomac -- from getting to its waters by any means other than a helicopter drop.
It would be ridiculous to enact such a wholesale prohibition, but it would be quite sane to keep swimmers out of the water and to enforce more strictly regulations to keep picnickers and the like from scrambling over precarious rocks overlooking the river. Any new legislation should clearly spell out the distinction between serious paddlers and casual swimmers' rights to Potomac waters.
Checks with the Sierra Club, the Baltimore Kayak Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the American Canoe Association, the American Whitewater Affiliation, the Blue Ridge Voyageurs and the Canoe Cruisers Association of Greater Washington, should underscore these positions on safety, swimmers and paddlers on this portion of the Potomac river. They would also no doubt agree that tighter measures and enforcement to save lives in the Potomac are essential -- the sooner the better.
Certainly anyone would agree it is one of the very last places in the Washington metropolitan area where one can pretend -- even believe for a while -- that one is truly back to nature.