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Potomac River Sojourn: Call of the Peregrine

The Potomac River is the nation's river. George Washington had his home here and lobbied to have the capital city on its shores. The river flows through four East Coast states and Washington, DC on its way into the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in North America.

In a sojourn by boat on the Potomac, VOA's Rosanne Skirble stops for a history lesson and to witness efforts to recover a bird that has been absent from the riverscape for more than fifty years.

"I'm told that if you could look at a map of the river, two million years ago you would recognize the Potomac. Basically the shapes would be the same as they are today," says Philip Ogilvie, a student of the Potomac River. He has written books and taught college courses about the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. "It's clear that man was here more than 15,000 years ago," he says.

The Potomac River was a meeting place for Native Americans long before European exploration. The Indians traded goods and occasionally warred with rival tribes along its tributaries. The watershed is littered with arrowheads and spear points and discarded oyster shells from these early peoples.

America's first president, George Washington, was born on the Potomac. He owned a house on the river and lobbied to put the federal city here at what was then the geographic center of the new country.

Philip Ogilvie says George Washington's vision for the United States was closely tied to the Potomac, its tributaries, and the established Indian trails and mountain passes in the region. "He advocated strongly the idea of a connection with population that would move west and saw the Potomac as that link," he says.

But, the Potomac proved difficult to navigate. It has dangerous falls and is prone to flood and drought. George Washington decided to build a canal to skirt the rough spots, an idea that gained force more than a quarter of a century after Washington's death with the creation of the C&O Canal. The man-made waterway stretches 300 kilometers alongside the Potomac River from Washington to Cumberland, Maryland.

Ground breaking ceremonies for the C&O Canal and the B&O Railroad began on the same day, July 4, 1828. The railroad, which could haul goods more efficiently than the canal, eventually put the canal out of business. But repeated damage from Potomac flooding also hastened the canal's demise as a commercial pathway.

Today the C&O Canal, the ditch, its locks, lock houses, aqueducts and towpath, is a national park, a playground for joggers, hikers, bikers and kayakers.

"Everybody on the Sojourn, please come on over. We're going to have a safety briefing.
"Thank you very much for yesterday, for being a really good group to lead under very difficult circumstances..."

The C&O Canal buffers the northern shore of the river as we join a group of paddlers heading to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. This town made famous by an anti-slavery uprising prior to the American Civil War was also an important transportation hub for railroad, river and canal barge traffic in the 19th century.

At Harpers Ferry, between tree covered hills, the Potomac breaks through the Blue Ridge Mountains and meets the Shenandoah River, creating one of the most dramatic vistas in the watershed.

Until recently, the last time anyone in Harpers Ferry heard the call of a peregrine falcon, was fifty years ago. This crow-sized raptor, whose natural range is the rugged coastal areas in North America, was nearly decimated by the pesticide DDT. Since the toxin was banned in 1972, the peregrine has made a slow but dramatic recovery.

"This is ideal habitat for peregrines, says Bill Hebb, who coordinates the peregrine falcon restoration program at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. He sets up a spotting scope on a hilltop across from Maryland Heights, the open face cliffs high above the Potomac River which have been historic nesting sites for the peregrine.

Hebb: "What we're doing is that we are bringing peregrines from coastal areas along the Chesapeake Bay. We're bringing the chicks here when they are about 30-35 days old. We're putting them in Maryland Heights in what are called hack boxes. These are boxes that provide them protection while they mature and it has an open front, but bars on that front so they can look out over the river and get familiar with their environment before we release them.
Skirble: "Why do we care about these birds?"
Hebb: "The primary thing is that they are a native species. And that's always our goal: to perpetuate native species and, in this case, bring them back where they were."

The peregrine falcons at Harpers Ferry are fitted with solar-powered satellite tracking devices to monitor their migratory patterns, nesting habits and mortality rates. "If we don't get any adults back next year then we will do the same thing. We will continue hacking [raising birds in protective hack boxes] here at Harpers Ferry," says Mr. Hebb.

The peregrine falcon was removed from the endangered species list a few years ago. Programs to protect the bird are active in many states in rocky coastal areas of the United States. Park Ranger Bill Hebb says their return to former nesting sites at Harpers Ferry has reestablished an important link to America's ecological past.

This is the second piece in a five-part series on the Potomac River, the waterway in the eastern United States that flows through four U.S. States and metropolitan Washington DC into the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in North America. In a canoe trip down the river VOA's Rosanne Skirble explores the natural riches of the Potomac and the struggle to protect the land and water resources of the river in the face of population growth, sprawling development and pollution.