High Water and Hurricane Florence
A visit to Fletcher’s Boathouse before the storm
The Potomac is at flood stage, almost unheard of in September, which usually brings the lowest water levels of the year. Fletcher’s isn’t renting anything that floats in what should be prime time. It’s the screwiest year anyone can remember.
I drove down this morning just to see it. I hadn’t seen water at this stage—11.9—in ages. And I like the idea of unstoppable natural forces inconveniencing the seat of government. God knows government inconveniences us often enough. D.C. officials are taking the threat of Hurricane Florence seriously. They’ve got the flood ramp across Constitution Ave. ready, according to the newspaper. (It has never been used and nobody really knows whether it will work.) It looks like we’re wet and going to get wetter.
I drove through the short tunnel underneath the C&O Canal and was confronted by the waterline 40 feet away instead of its usual 130 feet. I stayed long enough to take a few snaps and then retreated, walking over the canal footbridge to get to the boathouse. There, I found Paula Smith and Gordon Leisch, whom I’d had venison stew with Sunday evening, as well as longtime boathouse employees Danny Ward and Alex Binsted.
We all just stared at the great brown animal that is the Potomac in flood. It’s not unlike a bison at Yellowstone when you’re stuck in traffic. It looked benign, almost domesticated, like it wouldn’t want to hurt you. This is why the Potomac kills so many people. Almost everywhere, this river looks placid on the surface. It’s the stuff you can’t see—the chaos of hydraulics, competing subcurrents, and lethal undercut ledges—that pose the real danger. Go under near a ledge and you may just stay there for three days, which is how long it takes for the gases in a rotting corpse to expand to where they have the power to pop you free of the water’s hold.
Alex, one of the best anglers on the river, was doing his best not to look glum. But the river has been above normal every day since May, four months ago. The smallmouths have been washed miles downstream, past the Jefferson Memorial and the Reflecting Pool, down to Occoquan, 20 miles away. There have been recent reports of someone catching a 130-pound catfish nearby but no confirmation, although invasive blues and flathead are thought to be taking over the river.
The river had risen 7 feet in 48 hours. The floating dock had been pulled far up the Fletcher’s Cove and secured. The canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards that usually sat atop it had all been removed and stacked up from the dock to the grass by the boathouse.
The forecast is for the river to drop significantly in the next few days. But if you look at the watershed upstream, nearly every gauging station shows high water levels. All that is headed our way. Add rains that Florence might bring as early as Thursday night, and that forecast looks optimistic at best. What struck me most today was that the river had been a drowning victim of itself, along with so many other waterways. Gordon looked at it and shook his head. No fishing for a good while.