Editors are such worrywarts. “Don’t eat that,” they say when you dig into the cherry pie that sat out on the filing cabinet overnight. Or, when you propose shadowing a weed dealer for a story, they say, “That sounds like a bad idea.” So when I told my editor that I wanted to take a duck boat tour, I wasn’t surprised when he brought up the potential for drowning. “I remember reading something about duck boat-related deaths,” he said.
“I’m a strong swimmer,” I replied.
A little Googling revealed his concern was not entirely without merit. The amphibious vehicles — built by the U.S. military during World War II and later repurposed as rolling, floating tour buses — have been involved in a spate of recent accidents in Philadelphia, Boston and Seattle. A search of The Washington Post archives, however, turned up no such incidents for our local operator, DC Ducks. So, one fine spring day, I bought a ticket online ($37.80 in advance) and climbed aboard.
As we rolled away from Union Station, our tour guide began pummeling us with information. Within minutes, I had involuntarily learned: the number of flags around Columbus Circle (56), the year Union Station opened (1907) and the name of its architect (Daniel Burnham). Our tour guide also mentioned something that I’d heard before but didn’t believe: You know the Roman soldier statues around the ceiling of Union Station? They are naked behind their shields — a fact I later confirmed in the station by simply looking up.
As we turned down Pennsylvania Avenue and then Independence Avenue, the green carpet of the Mall unfurled around us. The amphibious vehicle’s elevation, open top and ambling pace were perfect for taking in the stately buildings that flank the Mall and the open spaces around them. As we moseyed down 17th Street, our guide pointed out how the World War II Memorial gracefully framed the Lincoln Memorial in the distance, and we all cooed in appreciation.
A little while later, we crossed the Arlington Memorial Bridge and our guide made the announcement we all had been waiting for: Soon we’d be entering the water. My fellow tourists and I all vibrated with excitement as well as in response to every pebble and pothole in the road. Shock absorption technology? Apparently not a military priority.
“Hold on to your hats,” the driver said. Tourists on the shore applauded as we rolled down a boat ramp into a small lagoon and then puttered onward to the Potomac.
“Who wants to try driving this thing?” our driver asked as we entered the broad river. Unable to believe his luck, a boy in a striped shirt scrambled to the front of the boat, stepping on his sister on the way. He steered the boat left and right with a look of intense concentration on his face.
“Do any big kids want to go?” the captain said. “Yes!” I answered, the only adult brave enough to admit it.
What is it that makes riding duck boats so enjoyable? Perhaps the fact that they traverse two very different terrains makes them seem futuristic, like Transformers. Or maybe it’s because they are serious military vehicles that we’ve reappropriated into tools of campy fun.
That said, the D.C. shoreline — at least the part between the Pentagon and National Airport — isn’t particularly interesting. The adults were somewhat bored by the boat part of the tour, but the kids were captivated by all the different types of vehicles we encountered. A few of them had little fits of joy when we floated under a railroad bridge at the same time a train happened to be crossing overhead.
That highlight was followed by the worst part of the tour. In clear violation of the Geneva Convention, our tour guide handed out duck whistles to everyone on board. The sound they produced was less like waterfowl and more like a hundred beginner trumpet players warming up their mouthpieces while also suffering minor seizures. If you ever hear an actual duck making this sound, call animal control immediately.
“When you parents get tired of the duck whistles, two minutes in the microwave will take care of it,” the captain said, referring to whistles, not children, I assume.
And that’s when I realized the real flaw in the duck boat design: There’s not a single microwave onboard. Though, toward the end of the tour, the guide did mention a tantalizing possibility.
“Quiet down, please,” he said, “or I might have to use the ejector seats.”
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