So far it had been a quiet afternoon on the river. I was pretty much alone as I poled my canoe up to the Seneca Breaks rapids. The heft of the cedar shaft felt good in my hands as I thrust it against the rocky bottom to drive the boat ahead.
Nothing much was happening. The temperature hovered in the low 90s, and the fish were sheltering in the stargrass or under rock ledges. Except for an eagle that mobbed an osprey and stole its fish, even the birds were taking time off.
It was getting dark when I turned back into the creek. I entered the tunnel that carried the creek under the C&O Canal. Made back in the early 19th century, its walls are lined with rocks, except where they’ve fallen out. It’s a magical place, a little eerie even. I heard water dripping up ahead, and then felt the drops as they trickled icily down my back.
I headed for the semi-circle of light ahead of me. A barred owl called nearby. Was that a sign?
On shore, I checked my emails. There was a message from the local Canoe Cruisers Association (CCA). It hit me like a punch to the stomach.
The subject line read “Closing the Potomac at Violettes and Rileys.” This was the section of the river just upstream from where I had spent the afternoon.
Was the closure due to a pipeline spill? Toxic chemicals? Gobs of decaying algae or carcasses of rotting fish. Any of these would be bad enough.
It turned out the reason for the closure was much worse: Donald Trump.
I stood there by the creek reading the Coast Guard interim rule. It said that federal and local law enforcement would have the authority to kick boats off the river fronting the Trump National Golf Club when Trump or other high government officials were at the club.
Public comment on this Security Zone plan would be taken until August 9. Here is the excellent set of comments from the Canoe Cruisers Association that includes a map of the closure area proposed by the Coast Guard and the CCA alternative.
The Coast Guard will probably scale back their original Security Zone, according a guide for Team River Runner outfitter I spoke with later (and in fact the Coast Guard commandant has since testified verbally that it intends to do just that). The guide said that riversports businesses and non-profits hope that they will win over the feds by taking a “respectful approach.”
But respectful was not how I was feeling that evening at the creek.
Trump gets personal. Like millions of others, I loathe Trump for who he is and what he is doing to our country. But up to this point he was someone out there, the tragic-comic buffoon of the nightly news. Now my loathing had notched up to a new and much more personal level.
As I brought my canoeing gear to my car I mulled over the implications of the Coast Guard plan.
The section of river targeted for closure is heavily used and much loved. It’s a place where outdoor schools teach young kayakers to roll before heading down the rapids. Canoeists and kayakers cross the river here reach the start of a tree-canopied channel on the opposite shore where George Washington had built a canal to create a water route to the Ohio Valley.
Here also is where fishermen and duck hunters put in their camouflage jon boats and head for spots they had carefully scouted beforehand. Even the detestable jet skiers would be left sputtering and fuming at the launch ramp while Trump played golf.
Imperial golfer. The Coast Guard rule said closures would be announced by VHF radio. Really? The rule makers clearly don’t know much about canoes and kayaks. VHF radios on the upper Potomac are about as common as Coast Guard cutters.
Or maybe they had a bigger boat in mind, something more like a landing craft.
The environmental impact statement said that the rule would not negatively affect the “human environment.” It didn’t say anything about the paradox of a human environment where the humans are removed.
Why should one man who wants to play golf deprive many others of the right to spend their hard-earned free time on the river? It all sounded arrogant and reeking of imperial privilege. It was not America and it certainly wasn’t fair.
River of ironies. But while it may not be fair, it is ironic. First there’s the issue of the trees.
The closure plan is aimed at protecting Trump from threats coming from the river. The rule also refers to protesters, such as the “kayacktivists” at the PGA Competition earlier this year.
And it’s true—boaters on the river have an unimpeded line of sight to the golf club. And why is this? Because in 2010 Trump ordered the removal of all the trees along the 1.5-mile shoreline to create a river view for his club patrons (although his “environmental” consultant claimed the removal was to prevent erosion).
Glorious non-battle. The next irony is about truth and integrity, two fundamental qualities of the river but not of the president.
After Trump cut the trees, he erected an enormous American flag. At the base of the flag he placed a plaque commemorating a Civil War battle that turned the river red with blood. No surprise: There was no battle.
Then there’s the massive river cleanup effort now being jeopardized by—guess who?
In the 1960s the Potomac was befouled by raw sewage and toxins. President Lyndon Johnson called it a “national disgrace.” One hundred years earlier Abraham Lincoln would retreat to the highlands on summer evenings to escape its stench. The 1972 Clean Water Act marked the start of a dramatic turnaround.
A federal-state partnership is now working to meet ambitious pollution reduction goals by 2025 in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including the Potomac. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is heading up the cleanup with $73 million earmarked for this current year.
Trump has proposed to eliminate this funding as part of his push to gut the EPA.
Kayaks vs. golf carts. The final irony is the person the security zone is aiming to protect.
Most people who get out on the river are physically fit and love being outdoors.
In contrast—as we remember from last year’s outbreak of naked Trump statues—the president is in terrible physical condition, even borderline obese. He rides his golf cart onto putting greens—a serious golfing no-no—to save a few steps. He even opted to take a golf cart for the quarter mile to a G-7 photo op while the six other world leaders walked.
Nor has Trump ever shown the slightest interest or curiosity in the natural world. His world is defined by manicured golf courses, office towers, and gambling casinos.
Now thoroughly depressed, I lifted my canoe on the roof rack and tied down the straps. Another owl had joined the first, and they called back and forth, growling and hooting like TV pundits. As I left I rolled down the window to hear if they had found some kind of resolution.