Last week was a tough one, even with Monday a holiday, for workers of the world. By Tuesday afternoon, all the stories about vacations and final weekends at the beach had been told. Eyes began to glass over, shoulders hunched and minds melted with the realization that summer was over and real life had resumed.
It was the perfect time for a great escape and Jack Lorenz knew the perfect place.
"I can't get over this place. It's a different world," said Lorenz, paddling his small boat into a narrow stream lined on both sides by lush greenery and babbling like a mountain brook. "This is so close to the city and it looks like West Virginia."
Lorenz's stream is actually a 200-year-old canal built by George Washington. It is one of five built beside the Potomac, from Harper's Ferry to Alexandria, by the Patowmack Company, whose first president was Washington.
The idea behind America's first canal system was to make the Potomac a mighty river of commerce and connect the nation's capital with the Ohio Valley and points west. For almost 30 years, until the C&O Canal was built, the Potomac and its canals carried flatboats 75 feet long and filled with flour, timber, whiskey and tobacco from Cumberland to Washington. There the boats were dismantled and sold for lumber. The boatmen and women walked home.
George Washington's canal recently has been subject to a historic revival. The lock system at Great Falls, Va., for instance, was dug up and is being restored. Fortunately, Lorenz's canal, which carried traffic around Seneca Falls on the Virginia side of the Potomac, has been left alone, overgrown and overlooked.
"You could easily canoe down it without realizing what it was," said Bill Kirby, a U.S. park ranger at Great Falls, Va.
The canal has avoided notice because it is not easy to find and impossible to navigate in anything but a small boat. Unless you are willing to hike through thick woods on the Virginia side, you have to park at the C&O Canal's Violette's Lock, just off River Road about six miles north of Potomac, and cross the river by boat.
Once you get there, you won't want to leave soon. For canoeists, it is a lively paddle that drops seven feet in only 1,300 yards. For birders, there are wood ducks and great blue herons to spy on. If fish are what you are after, the canal is a hatchery waiting to be harvested.
"I caught a 2 1/2-pound bass there last week," said Lorenz, pointing to a quiet pool of water with good cover, just below a gentle riffle of water over rocks.
Lorenz is paid to think about fishing. He is the executive director of the Izaak Walton League, a conservation group made up primarily of anglers and hunters that is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
As conservation groups go, the Izaak Walton League floats down the middle of the stream. It doesn't like pollution or James Watt, but it also wants to keep government interference in outdoor sports to a minimum. If the league is considered conservative by more outspoken groups like Audubon and The Wilderness Society, in its early days it was one of the most feisty.
"There is not left one honest, disinterested, unselfish (government) agency devoted to the preservation of outdoor America . . . Of the alleged protective leagues there is not one which does not have commercial or personal gain or aggrandizement under it as its real basis," read an editorial on the cover of the first issue of the league's magazine, Outdoor America, in 1922. That editorial appealed to the "Spirit of the Great Angler" to save the country from the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service.
The league was formed during a decade between world wars when America's rivers were being polluted by industry and its forests denuded by lumber merchants. There were few restraints on business.
During its 60 years, the league has fought battles for black bass, Wisconsin water, Alaskan land and Wyoming elk. The league has now focused its attention primarily on keeping water fit for fish, protecting wild wetlands and promoting outdoor ethics.
There are now hundreds of more specialized groups, such as Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, Grouse Unlimited, etc., to lobby for wildlife that the league once fought for nearly alone. If the other groups have removed some of the League's burden, they have also taken away dues-paying members. League membership that once topped 300,000 is now 50,000.
"There are so many conservation groups now all competing for the same membership," said Lorenz, who quickly changed the subject. That was work talk and both of us were there to escape.
The fish seemed to have that purpose in mind, too. We could see them jumping and feel them nibbling our artificial baits. But except for a small catfish that Lorenz tossed back, we finished the day empty-handed.
"Another successful day," said Lorenz. "No fish to clean."