That love has translated into a book that Chris has just released with Arcadia Publishing, part of its Images of America series. The book, “Washington Canoe Club,” is all about the organization that was founded in 1904 and has a handsome boathouse in Georgetown, just up from Key Bridge.
In a canoe, you look forward. In a rowing shell, you look backward. Chris did a lot of looking back as he researched the history of his club, the sport and its history in Washington.
“I probably looked at 10,000 images over a couple of years, not just of the canoe club, but of the city and the waterfront,” he said.
D.C. is a hotbed of things one might not expect to be popular here. Bluegrass music is one example. Canoeing is another. How did this pastime — practiced by Native Americans in birch bark canoes; staple of New England summer camps — gain such a strong paddle-hold in Washington?
Chris said it was a confluence of factors. One was the boom in outdoor leisure pursuits that gripped the entire country after the Civil War, a trend that encompassed everything from baseball to bicycling. Improvements in materials helped, too. Bark boats were replaced by less expensive wood and canvas canoes. Finally, Washington had the advantage of being farther south than other U.S. cities where canoeing was popular, such as Minneapolis, Boston and New York.
“In terms of places where paddlers could train for longer periods of time, Washington had a big advantage,” Chris said.
Washington has been a powerhouse in canoeing and kayaking, producing world-class athletes. It’s helped that we have a world-class river in the Potomac.
“I claim — and I think it’s true — that from Great Falls to the Wilson Bridge is the finest urban river in the world,” said Chris, 74, who’s paddled 250 of the Potomac’s 400 miles and still hopes to canoe its entire length.
Like many organizations founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Washington Canoe Club was at first open only to men — and White men at that. Its members came together to celebrate canoeing but also to fraternize at oyster roasts, dances and musicales. The club’s wooden, twin-turreted headquarters is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Potomac was once lined with such boathouses. On the Virginia side — and on some islands — temporary camps sprang up in the summer, offering tented accommodation and easy access to the shoreline.
In his book, Chris recounts the club’s decades of devotion to paddling as a leisure pursuit and a sport. (The entire 1924 U.S. Olympic canoe team was made up of WCC members.) Today the club has about 300 members, who keep boats at the boathouse and prize its wide dock.
“Canoeing is probably the fourth most popular sport of the canoe club,” Chris said.
Most popular are boats with Hawaiian-style outriggers, paddled by anywhere from one to six people. “We probably have 100 outrigger canoes,” Chris said.
Just behind those in popularity are stand-up paddle boards. “One of our members, Kathy Summers, brought it to this area from California 15 years ago,” Chris said. “There’s a whole racing circuit. People just love it.”
Next come kayaks, from sea kayaks to racing kayaks.
“It’s very interesting the way the sport has changed over time,” Chris said.
Chris fell in love with canoeing in 1972 when he was living in Chicago. A man named Ralph Frese ran the Chicagoland Canoe Base, where he rented out canoes, made his own, and spun tales of voyageurs exploring the Great Lakes in canoes and the expeditions of Marquette and Joliet.
“Ralph was one of the great raconteurs of natural history,” Chris said.
Eventually Chris went to work for the National Park Service. He came to Washington in 1980 and became the chief planner for the Appalachian Trail. He brought his love of paddling with him and joined the Washington Canoe Club in 1990.
When we spoke on the phone, it had been raining for two days in Washington. Chris said he was going to check the river gauge, hoping it wouldn’t be too high to safely paddle.
“I just love being on the water,” he said, “that contact with nature, the feeling of the water under you. . . . Getting out is just a godsend.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.