Notes from the Island
October 2006


I canoed Cabin John Creek on September 5th. It wasn't until after five o'clock that I got the kids squared away and finally loaded the canoe on the van. My concern now was whether there still be enough water in the creek. The rain had stopped and small creeks drop really fast. I decided that it was worth checking out. I drove through the wet streets thinking that it was better to have it a little too low rather than too high, especially since this would be my first time on this creek. I'd say it's a stiff class three in the right levels; it's very technical with lots of drops and turns. And besides I'd rather be on a creek as it was going down rather than have it go up while I was on it.

My other concern was whether I would be back at Sycamore Island before dark or not; if the creek was too low it could be a long trip. Actually, it was amazing that I made it out the door at all considering all the things that I was worrying about before I left: Do I have the skill? Which boat should I take? Is it safe? Should I wear a helmet? How do I get back to my van? Will the van be ok where I park it? Can I make it through the culvert under the Canal? That last one really had me worried. I had tried to scout out the tunnel under the Canal earlier; but there is no clear view from the shore, plus I had heard that the exit from the tunnel is six inches lower than the entrance -- not good. After I arrived at the put-in on River Road and found a nice place to leave my van, I walked down to look at the creek. Not too scary no trees rushing by. In fact it looked just barely high enough to float a canoe. Perfect. I quickly unloaded the canoe and paddles (I always take an extra). I had my dry bag with water, a snack, and my headlamp -- I also remembered to bring my bailer, which came in handy later in the trip -- and, even though the creek was only knee deep, my life vest.

Cabin John is about ten miles long with head waters in Rockville. It drains everything east of Falls Road and west of Wisconsin Avenue. Wisconsin Avenue actually follows the ridge that separates this watershed from Rock Creek, whose headwaters are also in Rockville. I canoed the last 2.6 miles of the creek with an average gradient of 37 feet-per-mile and a maximum gradient of 80 fpm.

I carried the canoe, a fourteen-foot Old Town, down the newly bulldozed construction road, followed the deep tracks toward the water, and stepped over the erosion control and past the porta-john. I put in down river from the large timbers that formed a ford across the creek. After I jumped in the boat and felt the current push me down stream, I remembered another thing that I needed to worry about: strainers. I had hiked this valley before and I knew of one place for sure where there was a tree firmly wedged across the creek, under the Beltway where the pillars rise up sixty feet from the creek bed. There may be others, so I proceeded with caution. I emerged from under the River Road Bridge as a green-backed heron flew from the bank on my right. I was quickly approaching an island so I followed the heron to the right. It turned out to be the better of the two routes and now I was on my way with a green heron as my guide. The green heron did stay with me the entire trip, doing its awkward takeoff every time I got too close. It would do its chicken-like flight and disappear around a bend until I caught up and scared it again. The canoe was moving pretty fast and it took effort to stay in the deep channels and avoid the rocks. I could see the scars of heavy erosion from the June storm as I skirted along with River Road to my left. Yards of freshly fallen dirt and stone lined the unnaturally high banks. Large healthy trees not only lost their footing but were taken forcibly down stream. It is rare to see a tree across the creek with green leaves but not a bit of soil on its roots. I came to a small strainer as the creek turned to the right, and I had to get out and squeeze the boat under a log.

The noise of River Road faded as I headed down stream along Seven Locks Road. I startled some deer and caused a doe and her fawn to make a dash across the creek in front of me. The rain was over now and the sun was making an attempt to penetrate the thick canopy shading the creek. Everything was wet, glistening green except for the creek, which was muddy brown. I passed the stone quarry on my right and did the first drop, a two-foot ledge under the Seven Locks Bridge. I think this ledge is the remains of an old ford that was used to cross the creek before there was a bridge. The river dropped again until I reached some wide riffles that looked like another old ford. I reached the Beltway and portaged river right over the remains of the artificial creek bed, (concrete slabs that toppled when the banks were eroded behind them). This spot wasn't pretty. The canopy was gone, replaced by concrete and steel, and the banks were fifteen feet above me with fresh scars of erosion. There were trash and invasive vines everywhere. I reentered the tunnel of overhanging trees and soon Cabin John was joined by Booze Creek coming in on river left (maybe named during prohibition). Booze Creek drains NIH and everything east of Burdette Road.

After Booze Creek, I entered a gorge where the creek is especially beautiful with rock outcroppings jutting right down into the water. The pace picked up here and the last third of the trip was nonstop action. I tried to catch glimpses of all the beauty around me but my attention was focused mostly on the rocks in front of me. The semi-low water conditions made the run very technical and it was all I could do to find the right route through the barrage of rocks and ledges. My canoe took on some water, mostly by being sideswiped coming off the ledges, but managed to stay upright. Things slowed down and I passed under the Cabin John Parkway. A great blue heron flew up from what looked like another ancient ford and suddenly much of my anxiety melted away. I was now in a full sweat and my shoes and pants were soaked with muddy water. The sun, now low in the sky, cast a strange light onto the scene as I drifted below the Union Arch Bridge high above me. I did my last portage around a log jam under the bridge.

As I did the last few yards before the Canal, I passed a yellow-crowned night heron perched over the creek. I felt very far removed from the commuters passing over me on Clara Barton Parkway as I approached the tunnel under the Canal. I was apprehensive but there seemed to be plenty of headroom and no strainers. When I finally got the angle to look through the tunnel I saw a clear path to the other side. What was I worried about?

I coasted through and made a point of looking back up to the towpath to appreciate this reversed perspective. I headed for home. The sky was an assortment of soft pastel colors when I reached the open waters of the Potomac. The green heron seemed to turn back and head into the interior and I pushed my tired body down river. This last section from the mouth of Cabin John down to Sycamore Island seemed to take even longer than the entire trip down the creek, but finally I made it to the ferry and home. Quickly changed my clothes, had a snack, and biked back to my van. Most of the way back was along the towpath or on bike paths; but there is a section along Seven Locks where I was sure I'd be biking on a narrow road in the dark. I cursed myself for not having lights on my bike. No problem. There is a wide sidewalk along Seven Locks Road all the way to River. I was back at the van in half an hour, tired but feeling very satisfied. It felt like some sort of rite of passage had been achieved. A threshold crossed.

-- Joe Hage, Sycamore Island Caretaker