Along the Potomac River

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This is Mary Tillotson. And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program, EXPLORATIONS.

Join us today as we travel along the Potomac River in the eastern United States. The Potomac is one of America's most historic waterways.The Potomac River flows more than 600 kilometers from the Allegheny Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay, on the Atlantic Ocean coast. The river flows through West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia. It also flows through the United States capital, Washington, D.C.

The Potomac is the wildest river in the world that flows through a heavily populated area. It supplies water for more than 80% of the four million people who live in the Washington area. Millions of people use the river and the land nearby for recreational activities. These include boating, fishing, hiking and bird watching. The area is home to important birds such as the great blue heron and the American bald eagle

The Potomac River has played an important part in American history. For example, America's first President, George Washington, lived for many years along the Potomac in Virginia. He urged that the river be developed to link Americans with the West.

We will explore the Potomac River in a small boat called a canoe that we move through the water using sticks called paddles. Our trip will take seven or eight days. The boat has only enough space for two or three people. But we will not be alone on the water. Other canoes float nearby.

We start in the calm waters of Shepherdstown, West Virginia. A guide in the boat next to us says people lived here 15,000 years ago. The Potomac River was a meeting place for American Indians long before Europeans arrived. The Indians gathered to trade food and furs. Today, people often find objects that the Indians left behind.

We work hard to paddle our canoe, and are happy to stop and rest at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. During the 19th century, this village was an important transportation center for the river, a smaller waterway and a railroad. At Harpers Ferry, the Potomac flows through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here it meets the Shenandoah River. From our boat we can see the water flowing toward huge rocks. Green trees cover the mountains on either side. Round white clouds hang low against a blue sky. It looks very peaceful.

But this area is not known for peace. In 1859, the United States was close to civil war between the northern and southern states. The federal government had a weapons center at Harpers Ferry. John Brown, a militant who was against slavery, decided to raid it. Historians believe he did this to provide slaves with weapons for a rebellion.

John Brown and 18 of his supporters captured the weapons center. However, federal troops recaptured the center the next day. John Brown was later hanged. But his name was made famous forever by American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson wrote that although Brown had died, his spirit would march on

Harpers Ferry became a national historical park in 1944. Today the park welcomes visitors who come to learn about life along the river. The park also operates a program to restore an important bird, the peregrine falcon, to the area. About 50 years ago, the use of the insect-killing chemical DDT had almost killed all these large birds. DDT was banned in 1972. Wildlife experts now bring baby peregrines from the Chesapeake Bay area. Then they place the birds in rocky areas high above the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry.

The baby birds wear a device that sends signals telling where there are. The devices let wildlife experts follow the birds' movements. They hope that before too long, many peregrines again will fly in these skies.Most of the time we paddle smoothly over the Potomac. But sometimes the river is wild. George Washington understood that the Potomac was difficult to travel on, even for much bigger boats than ours. He proposed a waterway to avoid dangerous places on the river. But he did not live to see it built. Washington died in 1799. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was built more than 25 years later.

Over the years, continued flooding from the Potomac damaged the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Today it no longer carries goods. Instead, the C and O Canal is a national park. Kayaks and barges float on the waterway, passing through devices called locks. The locks close off the canal and use special gates to raise or lower the boats. They do this by raising or lowering the water level.

The area between the Potomac River and the canal is called a towpath. The towpath extends about 300 kilometers from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland.

Today we see families walking their dogs along the towpath. Other people are running or riding their bicycles. Still others are fishing.Now we are getting close to Washington, D.C. Here the river begins to look dangerous. Signs warn boats away from the 24 kilometers of the Potomac Gorge. So we leave our canoe to walk along the towpath.

Water moves fast in the gorge. There are many rocks and waterfalls. The gorge begins above a large waterfall called Great Falls. Here the water drops to sea level. The gorge then extends to Theodore Roosevelt Island, named for America's 26th president. Here we get a quick look at a blue heron. This beautiful bird stands for a minute on a rock on one long, thin leg. An eagle spreads its wide wings in the sky, but does not land.

We take land transportation to follow the river into America's capital. Washington, D.C. was built on a low wetland area in 1800. The British burned the city in 1812. But Americans soon rebuilt it.

While in Washington, we decide to continue our trip on the Potomac River in a larger boat for visitors. This will take us past George Washington's home in Virginia. He helped design the big white house, called Mount Vernon. George Washington and his wife, Martha, are buried on the property.

Today we see sheep and goats eating grass on the hill between the back of the house and the river. This sight probably looks about the same as it did when George Washington supervised his beautiful riverside farm.

After passing Mount Vernon, we end our trip on the Potomac River as it flows toward the Chesapeake Bay. By now, we have a deep feeling for the beauty of the river. But the beauty always exists under threat.

Over the centuries, industry, agriculture and human development severely damaged the environment of the Potomac River. By the 1970s, people described the river's condition as sickening. Then Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972.

The river has been improved greatly since then. Still, coal mines in West Virginia drop harmful acids into the water. Waste material from the Anacostia River floats on the Potomac. Sediment material that falls to the bottom prevents traffic on some areas of the river. Pesticides and fertilizers pollute the water. Many environmental activists worry especially about the building of new homes and businesses along the Potomac.

The Potomac River faces many environmental problems as a result of population growth and its resulting pressures on land and water resources.

The river flows through land controlled by developers, private owners and state and local governments. These groups often have conflicting ideas about what is good and bad for the river. Several organizations work to protect and improve the Potomac River and the land near it. The Potomac Conservancy is one of them. It carries out a land protection program, develops land and water restoration projects, and provides education programs for adults and young people.

We have enjoyed our trip on the Potomac River. The trip was sometimes peaceful and sometimes exciting. We learned a lot about the river and its history. We hope that Americans will always take good care of their historic Potomac River.This Special English program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Paul Thompson. This is Mary Tillotson. And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program on the Voice of America.