Come and sit by the river with me for awhile And I'll tell you a story that's true 'Bout when I was a boy Playing here on the shore And the grass was so green And the water so blue -- The Country Gentlemen'
The grass is not green nor the water blue on the Monocacy River. On the shores the vegetation has faded to dead dull winter brown; the water is darker and even more ominous.
"You sure couldn't call this a pretty river," Jack Scanlon muttered from the bow of the canoe as a cold wind blew up the Monocacy and storm clouds mushroomed overhead. The nose of the little boat cut through thick, coffee-colored water; papers and bottles and cans piled up in the claws of blown-down trees along the banks.
Scanlon is a fan of pretty rivers. He can (and will, among friends) name six streams within 45 minutes' drive of Nation's Capital where trout reproduce naturally, for example.
He found those streams when he went exploring. Last week his exploring took him to a swollen stretch of the Monocacy south of Frederick, an hour from the big city, for some river duck hunting. What he saw he didn't love.
"Did you see that fish?" asked Scanlon, a pediatrician who specializes in deaseas of the just-born. He pointed to a trash-bedecked blowdown near shore where some ripples were settling out."I can't imagine what a bass would be doing in there or why he'd be jumping. Unless he was choking to death."
A couple years ago on a hot summer Sunday another acquaintance suggested a fishing trip to the Monocacy. It had been dry for weeks beforehand. We found the water clear and pleasant; in the course of a few hours' fishing we landed some bass and sunfish and counted it a good day.
I wrote a story about the Monocacy that reflected that experience. A few days later I was accosted by an old Potomac fishing friend. "You have a lot of nerve," he said, "writing anything nice about the Monocacy."
The message of that fisherman and the word that Scanlon will be spreading, too, is that every time it rains around Frederick the Monocacy turns into a river of silt. The silt flows downstream in a thick soup to where Monocacy meets Potomac, and it often takes a week after that before the river in Washington is clear enough to fish again.
"We hate the Monocacy," said the Washington fisherman.
Even people who love the Monocacy are saddened by its troubled state. Jim Gilford, a toxic substances specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency, has lived next to the river and followed its ups and downs for 25 years.
"Too thick to drink and too thin to plow," is how Gilford describes it. "The Monocacy is the biggest single contributor of sediment of all the Potomac tributaries. And of course that sediment continues on into the Chesapeake."
Gilford thinks it's a problem that could be controlled, or at least improved upon. "They're farming right down to the river bank," he said. "You have a lot of red clay in ths watershed and that stuff doesn't settle quickly."
Also, Gilford said, the state and counties love to build bridges over the river and every time they do they clog the stream bed with earthen dams that later crumble in rainstorms. Housing development in the valley strips away land that once held water back and other "progressive" land use, like the ubiquitous industrial parks and shopping centers, complete the mess.
I'd heard these tales before, but to actually navigate the Monocacy in a canoe after a moderate winter rainstorm is to confirm the sad, sorry state of this once-clear river. Presumably once clear.
"Look at the riffles and you can see what the bed once was," said Gilford. "It's gravel and rubble. But even the old-timers say it's been muddy like this for a long, long time."
The ducks are no fools. With a choice of a clear Potomac with deep forest along the banks for cover or the roily, dirty Monocacy, they took the former. Scanlon spied a hen mallard zooming upriver early in our float trip, swung and dropped her with a single shot. For a long time it looked like the only duck on the river.
Late in the day he spied three black ducks in a little backwater, but the ducks spied him too and were not seen or heard from again.
"Disappointing,c said Scanlon, who always hopes for great things from new waters.
He's not the first to be frustrated by the Monocacy. Nor will he be the last.