The Potomac River tumbles down the mountains from Fairfax Stone, West Virginia, (the North Branch) and Highland County, Virginia, (the South Branch) and flows just over 400 miles to its 19-mile-wide mouth at Point Lookout in southern Maryland on Chesapeake Bay. Along the upper Potomac you’ll find rapids, waterfalls, good smallmouth bass fishing, canoeing and kayaking along the Potomac National Trail route, in addition to a good deal of Civil War history, including the site of John Brown’s uprising at Harpers Ferry.
The Top of the Ditch has been pretty quiet for pleasure boat viewing, but the commercial side presses on regardless. In the words of Calvin Coolidge: The business of America is business. Big bulk carriers pass by, heading for the myriad facilities on the Southern Branch, and the Port Authority posted a record in container traffic earlier this year.
When John Smith explored Chesapeake Bay, he found five rivers along the Western Shore. In his words: The fift [fifth] river is called the Pawtuxunt, of lesse proportion then the rest; but the channel is 16 fadome deepe in some places. Here are infinit skuls [schools] of divers kinds of fish more than elsewhere. More than 400 years later, boaters and fishermen still enjoy the Patuxent, and nowhere so much as on Solomons Island, at the mouth of the river.
It was a lovely fall and mild start to winter here at Mile Zero. The cruising rallies to the Caribbean got off pretty much on schedule from Portsmouth and Hampton, Virginia, and I didn’t hear about any catastrophes en route. Hurricane season on the East Coast was quiet, though marred by the tragedy of the freighter El Faro off the Bahamas with the loss of all hands.
When Capt. John Smith came up the Chesapeake in 1608 and rounded what is now Howell Point into the Sassafras River, he was met by dugouts filled with armed Tockwogh warriors. Although he had been trading with Iroquois raiders, the Tockwoghs’ mortal enemy, the locals thought he had been fighting the Iroquois, and he did not attempt to convince them otherwise, making friends. It may have been then that the saying “Relax, you’re on the river,” was born, and to this day it remains good advice, particularly in the fall.
Page 1 of 17
Jack has been cruising Chesapeake Bay and writing about the region for more than 25 years. His critically acclaimed book, "Maryland's Vanishing Lives," was published by Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University Press and is now in its second printing. Before joining Soundings, Jack was a feature writer at the Washington (D.C.) Star for nearly 20 years and a senior editor at Chesapeake Bay magazine from 1995 to 1998. His monthly Bay Tripper column focuses on the Chesapeake.