WASHINGTON — Most Americans probably know the Potomac as a backdrop to the world of politics. The river that winds its way through the capital city, shimmering with reflections of democracy's marble monuments, has served as the set for many political thrillers, not to mention the nightly news.
Yet the Potomac's geography and history, and the many lives it touches, stretch beyond the confines of the Beltway.
From its origins 285 miles to the west of Washington, the river meanders through rich farmland and flows silently past Civil War sites. It passes George Washington's Mount Vernon estate before turning brackish in a tidal estuary where it meets the great Chesapeake Bay.
For people fleeing their offices, the river is a place to play. Although not everyone will swim in it because of pollution, a typical day finds boaters of all kinds. Streamlined crew teams row in unison, and windsurfers and sailors skip the waves as passenger jets departing Reagan National Airport soar overhead.
Half of the United States Whitewater Team Olympic competitors train on the Potomac. A favorite team spot,14 miles upstream from downtown, is a dramatic spillway called Great Falls, the result of the wide river funneling through narrow chutes of rock. The rush of wild white water gives experienced kayakers a place to hone their skills.
With a national park that parallels the river for 187 miles out to Cumberland, Md., the Potomac's playground offers much more than water sports.
High above Great Falls, rock climbers crawl spider-like up cliffs four stories high. Presidents and senators jog along the jasmine-scented banks. A few weeks ago, Tipper Gore was spotted almost outpacing her security detail.
From the river's headwaters all the way to the bay, fishermen of every sort sink line and hook. Recent immigrants net spring shad that run in thick silver schools up to Little Falls Dam.
The numbers of shad are impressive, though perhaps nothing will match the fish stories from the days of the Revolutionary War. Lore has it that the sturgeon thriving here then were so large that, when breaching the surface, they could capsize rowboats. And in 1608, Capt. John Smith recorded that game fish were "lying so thicke with their heads above water, for want of nets, we attempted to catch them with a frying pan."
For those who prefer watching wildlife to handling it, herds of whitetail deer, litters of red fox, and a universe of waterfowl thrive right up to the border of Georgetown. Even the blue heron, which has recently made a comeback in the area, delights bird watchers with frequent appearances.
Development and livestock farming are threatening water quality. On the American Rivers organization's list of most endangered rivers, the Potomac improved a few notches in the past year and now is No. 12.
Fixing the pollution problem belongs, appropriately enough, to the realm of politics. Meanwhile, the playground is open.