Students on the "Paddling the Potomac" trip get the hang of paddling their canoes from one stop to the next. Photo courtesy of Page Hutchinson.
The morning mist rises above the river while a great blue heron leads the way. Besides the occasional cry of a Kingfisher, the only sound is of many paddles dipping in and out of the water. I know it won’t stay this blessedly peaceful and quiet for long once the 19 eighth graders find their rhythm and wake to the day.
This is our third morning of paddling on the Potomac River after spending the night camping in one of the many sites along the C&O Canal. Some of these children have never camped or canoed and are finally finding their daily stride. Today we made it onto the river in record time after requiring that the tents get packed before breakfast…good motivation!
Many years ago, Judy Cutright and I were both teachers at J.P. Burley Middle School in Albemarle County. We developed this fall trip we call “Paddling the Potomac” in conjunction with The Mountain Institute in Spruce Knob, W. Va. Every year, we’ve tweaked the trip just a bit to make it better than the previous year.
On the first day, we meet TMI staff at Little Orleans on the Maryland side of the river. The students learn how to pack and seal a dry bag since we carry all our gear in the canoes with us. Usually they arrive with way more than they need and we have to convince them that their long underwear is more important than their favorite stuffed animal brought along for comfort.
Next is safety and paddling instruction. It may seem crazy, but yes, we takechildren on the river who have never paddled a canoe. The first day is always a little frenetic with canoes zigzagging back and forth across the river, heading the wrong direction or going in circles, but we coach them along and they finally get it. The shallowness of the river lessens any danger and we all wear life vests.
Students navigate to their next stopping point along the Potomac River. Photo courtesy of Page Hutchinson.
TMI provides one land guide who sees us off in the morning and then drives to our daily stopping point to mark it with hot pink plastic flagging ribbon easily seen from the river. Often, the TMI guide has to hike or ride a bike into the camp site since not all of them are easily accessible to a parking area. After several years of experimenting, we’ve finally worked out the distance between stopping points well enough that we land before dark.
We haul the gear, both personal and group, out of the canoes and pass it up to the campsite “bucket brigade” style. Due to erosion, most of our landing sites are steep and not conducive to individuals running back and forth. This teaches our students two great lessons: teamwork and erosion.
Trip participants pass supplies and gear along an assembly line from the canoes to camp for the night. Photo courtesy of Page Hutchinson.
Next is dividing into cook crew and tent crew. Every evening a different small group of students has the opportunity to cook dinner on portable camping stoves for the rest of the group, which is another first for virtually all the students. The rest of the students set up tents.
Countless opportunities offer themselves up for watershed instruction: erosion, algal blooms, land use, tributaries, habitats, and so forth. We can pretend we are traveling water molecules, and history and the role the river has played rounds out the experience.
The second day we pull out at Hancock, Md. to walk the C&O Canal, read the historical plaques, study the locks and peruse the museum. Most fun are the old film clips of the canal in use.
The group poses for a photo at Fort Frederick. Photo courtesy of Page Hutchinson.
The third day we land at Fort Frederick and enjoy a leisurely afternoon learning about life in the fort and its many uses over the years. Best of all is a visit to the store for a soda, ice cream or candy. It’s been three days of no junk food, after all.
Our fourth and final day on the river is a short one, only a couple of miles. We pull out at McCoy’s Ferry, unload, and rack the canoes. Next stop: Antietam Battlefield by school bus.
This last night together, we’ve made camp at the Harper’s Ferry KOA for the express purpose of taking showers. Unpacking dry bags and getting showers is interspersed with setting up camp and starting a special celebratory meal of lasagna made in two Dutch ovens. The evening ends with us around the campfire delighting in s’mores followed by a talent show.
"Paddling the Potomac" is a Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience none of the participants will be soon to forget. Photo courtesy of Page Hutchinson.
The final day of the trip, Friday, takes us to historical Harper’s Ferry at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, two rivers that have determined the fate of Harper’s Ferry. It is here we say goodbye to our beloved TMI staff who have to head back to Spruce Knob and deal with wet tents, mats, stacks of muddy dry bags, cooking gear, leftover food and the like. Living together as such a close community even for only five days makes this a heart-wrenching affair.
After a tour and some free time, we load up and head home to greet parents who can’t quite believe what they’ve just let their children do. Occasionally, I run into former trip participants and they never fail to mention it. “Remember when….”
It’s those moments that make it all worth it for the kids and for me – never mind four days of canoeing rather than being in the classroom!