Our Potomac Playground

June 12, 2012, Washington, DC: The boathouses of the Potomac River are a throwback to another era. The Potomac Boat Club first opened in 1869, a hub for Olympic caliber rowers, followed by the opening of the green-shingled Washington Canoe Club next door in 1904 — when Teddy Roosevelt was president and the sporting age was in full force. It’s easy to envision these boathouses as grand structures in their day, filled with elite athletes in training by day and visitors reveling in leisure time at night. It’s easy to picture the boathouses of the Potomac with a shiny new coat of paint and some twinkling lights bouncing off the water in the early evening.

I often paddle up the Potomac, past the still active boathouses, to cool off at the large rocks in the middle of the river known as Three Sisters. It’s there that I flop my legs over the sides of my yellow kayak and float where the river is wide, taking in my surroundings. Sometimes I recall the other waters that have shaped me: a cold swimming hole in Marin County, the sea enveloping Santorini, the waters of Maine dotted with small canoes. Sometimes I watch the bicyclists who roll up and down the C&O Canal Towpath, spotting them intermittedly through the gaps in the trees, or gaze over at those who discover the rope swing hovering over the water just off the trail. Other times I imagine the boathouses in their heydays and consider that the scene on the river may have looked this very same way for generations.

This contemplative spot just beyond the boathouses is not a solitary one: On stifling June weekends, dozens of boats are strung together with laughing swimmers floating off their sterns, bobbing up and down in life vests or lounging on rafts. People in rental kayaks and on paddle boards make their way up river from Jack’s Boathouse to converge on this summertime playground. And just beyond, the boathouses of the Potomac stand tall, markers of an ongoing sporting age for those of us who love the river.

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