I was born in Washington and I learned to do white-water boating on the Potomac River. It became a lifelong love. Since then, I’ve run at least 150 rivers in different places out West, in the Smokies and in Florida — but the Potomac is home. Its water levels constantly change, producing channels and taking them out, and yet the river itself is available all year, rarely freezing over. Its stretches of flat water, broken up by rapids, are a wonderful resource for beginning canoers and kayakers. Even running right through the nation’s capital, it feels wild, edged by forest and wildflowers; great blue herons fly overhead.
But now President Trump is making it harder for people to enjoy the river. Whenever he visits his golf course in Sterling, Va., the Coast Guard cordons off the entire width of a popular stretch of the Potomac. Since Trump took office, the shutdowns came so frequently that in July 2017, the Coast Guard decided to create a permanent security zone. (The lawsuit the Canoe Cruisers Association has filed against the Coast Guard notes 30 visits over the past year and a half.)
Following the president’s whims, the Coast Guard enacts closures at the last minute, announcing them over a marine radio frequency which most canoes and kayaks aren’t equipped to receive. A boat with armed members of the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard, and the Maryland Natural Resources Police patrols the area. Paddlers who try to cross are stopped and questioned, and sometimes are required to turn back. When the Coast Guard made this rule, it was legally required to answer the public’s comments — including the CCA’s proposal of access channels that would ensure safety for all. But there has been no official response.
The approximately 1.5 miles from Sharpshin Island to Pond Island may not sound like much on paper. But not only does it encompass the grand golf club on the Virginia shoreline, it also blocks public access along the Maryland side. This policy cuts off casual pleasure-seekers, summer campers and students in white-water and swift-water rescue classes; it gets in the way of competitive kayakers training for the Olympics and veterans with disabilities learning adaptive athletic skills. It also impedes conservation efforts. Each year, I lead a small flotilla of volunteers in collecting at least a dozen bags of trash and recycling, metal objects and fence posts, as part of the spring Potomac Watershed Cleanup, co-organized with the group Potomac Riverkeeper. We can’t plan our cleanup expeditions around these sudden shutdowns.
The zone does more than inconvenience the public: It endangers them. The perimeter forces boaters, who need to cross tranquil stretches of the river, upstream of the Old Rock Dam. It pushes them into the rapids, which can be especially perilous for the untrained.
The closures are also outrageous on principle. We’re told that this major recreation area has been closed to protect Trump and other “high-ranking United States officials “ — and I guess we paddlers don’t count. Rivers are navigable waterways that should be open and free. The Coast Guard has drawn an arbitrary line without regard to function, or to the safety or needs of the public.
This is George Washington’s river: He built his home on Mount Vernon down in the tidal area, and constructed the canal, the bypass, and the Seneca Breaks. Our current president does not share that sense of stewardship. In 2009, when he bought the former Lowes Island Club in Sterling and emblazoned it with his name, he razed hundreds of trees along a mile and a half of shoreline. “Now we have unobstructed views of the Potomac Rover,” he boasted. “There’s nothing like it.” After he ripped out the river’s natural runoff filtration system, the water was obviously muddied, even months later. To this day, the river still gets polluted after heavy storms. Dirt and fertilizers from the golf course flow directly into popular areas for practicing swimming and rescue skills. Continuing the pattern of casual, careless ownership, his administration now prevents the public from enjoying the river whenever he or other VIPs want to play 18 holes.
The Potomac is a place of refuge. There’s nothing like the serenity of putting your boat into the eddy and focusing on the motion of the water, always keeping an eye on what’s downstream. People go there to escape — from the difficulties of their lives, the hustle and bustle of the city, the noise of the news. But of course, there are some things we can’t just run away from: We have to face them.