Dan Schiff can see the Potomac River from his workplace in Rosslyn, and each time he thinks, “It’s beautiful.” Under the summer sun, it is silver, sparkling with light, like some kind of jewel.
But conservationists say that for too many, that jewel is like the Hope Diamond, the fabled look-but-don’t-touch heirloom that brings bad luck, something to be feared. For example, Schiff, 31, said he adored the Potomac’s good looks but never got close enough to touch it during his seven years in the District.
That changed last week. Schiff joined about 200 other young professionals at an event called Paddle the Potomac, where many of them climbed into kayaks or stepped onto paddle boards and ventured out on the river for the first time.
The idea of the Paddle, sponsored by the National Parks Conservation Association and the Potomac Conservancy, was to make the river more relevant to young people. The hope was that some of them would become activists who will fight to protect it from such defilement as the sewage overflow that caused portions of the river to smell during their outing, or the garbage that rain swept from the streets to the Potomac the previous day.
Although the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments reports steady improvement in the river’s water quality, the Potomac is troubled. It’s where scientists discovered male smallmouth bass with female sex organs. It’s not considered safe to swim in the water after heavy rains because of sewage overflows that leave high levels of bacteria.
Still, the idea was to try to get people talking about their experience on the river at work the next day so that maybe — just maybe — employers would come to see the Potomac, the Anacostia River, Rock Creek Park and Washington’s other open spaces as selling points to attract young workers.
“You only care about what you connect to,” Hedrick Belin, president of the conservancy, said as he stood near Key Bridge at the river’s edge. “At this event . . . we’re connecting young professionals to a resource in their own back yard.”
Belin and organizers at the conservation association point to a trend that the U.S. Parks and Forest services picked up on years ago.
“Our children and young adults seem to have lost touch with nature and history to an unprecedented degree,” a 2009 report by the National Parks Second Century Commission said. “Perhaps the only thing we know for sure is that we must think and act in new ways.”
At the nation’s most popular park, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which straddles the borders of North Carolina and Tennessee, the age of summer visitors 61 and over shot from 10 percent to nearly 20 percent between 1996 and 2008. In California’s Death Valley, nearly half of visitors to the national parks in 2010 were 46 to 65, according to the Parks Service. And at Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, the average visitor in 2011 was 54, a research division at the University of Montana determined.
Meanwhile, a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that kids age 8 to 18 spend nearly eight hours a day watching some form of media with a cellphone, laptop or TV.
“There are times when it seems as if the national parks have never been more passé than in the age of the iPhone,” National Parks Director Jonathan Jarvis said in 2011. “The parks must compete with high speed, high resolution entertainment with instant access to seemingly everything in the blink of an eye.”
Ed Stierli, a field representative for the conservation association, helped developed the idea for Paddle the Potomac and reached out to the District’s 20- and 30-somethings on a platform they’re glued to — social media.
“It didn’t take long for this event to get out,” Stierli said. “We sold out of the first 100 tickets in four hours. We made it really low-cost [$10]. Eventually, we sold more than 200 tickets.”
At the Key Bridge Boathouse, participants lined up to board kayaks, orange-tipped paddles jutting in the air like the spears. Belin gave a pep talk.
“Who knows the source of your drinking water?” he bellowed from atop a picnic table. The answer: the Potomac, 487 million gallons used daily. That answer had half the boaters turning to each other, mouthing, “What? I didn’t know.” One guy dropped his head and said, “Gross.”
Because most were kayaking novices, a boathouse employee barked out a few helpful instructions.
“Don’t go too far! Don’t get in the path of motorboats! They are bigger than you!” The victor in any collision was assured.
Out on the river, Kelly Tek, 30, of the District, laughed it up with friend Nicole Fischer, 31, of Arlington. Fischer, who has lived in the area for about a year, said she never would have considered going out if one of her pals hadn’t heard of Paddle the Potomac and suggested it.
“I was intrigued,” Fischer said. “It was fun. It was a really good workout. It was very relaxing.” Hopefully, the organizers said, she will post that on Twitter. Better yet, with a picture.
But maybe leave this out: “I also noticed the water looked filthy,” Fischer said. “It isn’t clear, and there was garbage out there. It was disconcerting that our drinking water comes from here.”
Schiff sat nearby, back against a bench, legs crossed after a 45-minute paddle. “It’s a valuable resource,” he said of the Potomac, definitely worth protecting. “It’s a nice break from urban life, if just for a little bit.”
Joy Oakes, the conservation association’s Mid-Atlantic region director, said the young participants had much to learn, and she wasn’t talking only about kayaking.
Soon they will be parents, if they’re not already, and they should know this: “What parks do is allow parents to wear children out,” she said. “The original exercise machine is the great outdoors.
“You tend to take for granted what’s in your back yard,” Oakes said. Near the river’s edge, where baptisms are known to happen, she started to preach. “It’s all about quality of life.”