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Tough Fish, Secret Sculpture Gardens, Rivers That Flows Both Ways

It’s a Potomac for people seeking a different dose of reality

There’s another Potomac River out there. Like our own Potomac, this place is well worth knowing. It’s full of life and beauty, and it has a sly way of challenging our ideas and assumptions about nature.

It’s also very different from our own Potomac. In fact, I’d argue that it’s not even a river at all.

One of the tributaries to this other Potomac is Mattawoman Creek, in Charles County. You reach it by following Indian Head Highway to the very end, where you can launch your kayak or canoe at a peaceful little county park.

I paddled upstream, pushed along by the current and undeterred by a series of explosions coming from the Naval Surface Warfare Station. Then, rounding a bend ahead of me, I spotted “Joe.”

Joe -- I don’t know his real name -- was standing as he paddled, as he always does. His heavily tanned torso was bare to the waist. He had a long beard, like a Greek water god.

Most of all, he really knows this creek and the creatures in it. His is the voice of personal experience.

Had he caught anything? “No snakeheads,” he replied, burying the bow of his boat into the lily pads to hold it against the current. “Just bass.” Too bad.

Many people still believe that snakeheads, a toothy Asian invader, are only fit to club to death. The State of Maryland recommends the additional step of ripping out their gills, just to make sure.  

But for Joe and other Mattawoman fishermen I’ve talked to, snakeheads are simply the new neighbors on the block, taking their place alongside the long-time favorite largemouth bass (also a non-native). They even admire snakeheads: “These fish are tough,” said Joe. “And smart. One look at you and they’re gone."

Aquatic sculpture garden

I paddled on, thinking about how Joe accepts nature as it is. For myself, I’ve long cherished the notion that nature should be “natural.” Or at least, that man’s hand should be discrete: An iron ring driven into a cliff below Great Falls; the graceful stonework of a C&O Canal lock.

Far from discrete, however, was the fishing spot I was approaching: a semi-submerged dock bristling with rusting machinery. I paddled gingerly, on the alert for any jagged piece of iron that could gash my kayak’s hull.

I cast a rubber frog to the base of a beaver lodge built among old pipes. I let the lure lay until the ripples disappeared, then gave it a twitch. The water erupted as a bass inhaled the lure. My line wrapped around a rusty iron spike and broke off.

I caught and lost a half dozen bass around the dock. As I did, I started to see this gritty collection of machinery less as an eyesore and more as an aquatic sculpture garden, complete with delicate wildflowers. 

By now it was high tide and the afternoon light was beginning to fade. I passed an island looking suspiciously like dredge spoils and entered a vast expanse of lily pads.

Around me I heard splashes of creatures eating and being eaten. Suddenly, the water bulged right before me, lifting the bow of my kayak.  The creature charged off, its path marked by swaying lily pad stems. Snakehead? Carp? Monster bass? Or perhaps it was a prehistoric gar, its long snout bristling with teeth.

A two-way “river”

On the way back to the launching ramp, the current swept me along, just as it had when I paddled upstream earlier in the day. This raises another interesting question.

My map says that the waterway that stretches some 400 miles from Fairfax Rock in West Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay―including Mattawoman Creek―is the Potomac River.

But my dictionary disagrees. It says that a river is a stream of water, flowing into a lake or other large water body.  This describes our own stretch of the Potomac, where the water flows down―ever down―among the rocks and ledges, past forest-covered islands, and over waterfalls. Our Potomac obeys the rules of earth’s gravity,

But Mattawoman Creek, and the entire 117 miles of “river” from about Chain Bridge to Point Lookout, is not a flowing stream of water. Instead, it sloshes back and forth, never really making up its mind. Here, the Potomac is a tidal estuary that moves to the rhythms of the moon.

The Potomac River and the Potomac Estuary. Take your pick. I pick them both.

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