The Potomac is the nation's river. This important waterway in the eastern United States flows from the mountains of West Virginia through four U.S. states and metropolitan Washington, DC into the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in North America. VOA's Rosanne Skirble joins a group of paddlers on a weeklong sojourn on the Potomac River.

"All right you guys, we are just about ready to launch. There's not a whole lot I want to say, but I do want to go over some safety stuff. Let's listen to Martin."
"We are going to try to keep the rules simple, but the rules we do have you must follow. If I hold a paddle horizontal, that means stop..."

A flotilla of kayaks and canoes carrying some eighty people heads out into the calm flat water of the Potomac River in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Some boaters are veteran paddlers, naturalists and fishermen, but the Potomac River Sojourn, a 7-day, 135-kilometer journey downstream to Washington, DC, is also for novices and families.

Bob Murphy, a restoration ecologist with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, coordinates the weeklong expedition, which stops at riverside communities and campgrounds and includes lectures on the history, culture and health of the Potomac River watershed.

Murphy: "I think the bottom line is that we want to foster a stewardship ethic. This is our river. It's not mine. It's not yours. It's not the government's [river]. It is not industry's [river]. It's ours to protect, and we have to leave it to the next generation. And I think the more you know and learn and the Sojourn is all about education as the direct experience of the river the more you are going to care about it and protect it, especially for future generations."
Skirble: "How do you go about that? As you are going down the river, how do you educate?"
Murphy: "The best education is the impromptu discussions in pointing out the little neat things along the river, maybe problems such as invasive clams that we have on this stretch of the river. People become interested in the river and once you become interested, you are probably more likely to do something to protect it and keep its quality."

"I think one of the things that is fascinating about the river is that it is continually changing. You can come back week after week and it's going to be different each time," says Boyd Post, a retired forest biologist, avid fisherman and experienced canoeist. He joined the Sojourn with paddling buddy Fred Swader. "The last time we were here the river was high. There was no vegetation apparent. Today the river is low. The vegetation is growing. The yellow star grass is in bloom. A fisherman never knows exactly what he is going to catch. You know where you should find fish and where you probably won't. It's always a delight, like this afternoon, I said to Fred, 'Cast over there behind that rock, there ought to be a bass there,' and sure enough, he landed a nice small mouth bass!"

The adventure is what attracted some two dozen children between the ages of 5 and 17, some with their families and others with peers and teachers from a public high school in Washington. This week they are cut off from the routine of urban city life.

Cythnia: "I think it's a lot about being stuck in a boat with my brother and having sibling rivalry, little wars and little jokes and falling out of the water. And [it's about] the community."
Josie: "We all have stuff to do and people to do things with."
Cythnia: "And suddenly realizing that a drought does mean that there is less water in the river. It really brings you closer to what is important in life that you don't get in the normal summer."
Josie:"And it can be still be fun, but you are still learning at the same time even though you don't realize it."

Along this stretch of the Potomac, paddlers experience a changing landscape from a calm, flat and broad river thick with aquatic vegetation to a narrow expanse lined with rocky cliffs studded with rare plants.

As the paddlers approach Washington the river becomes broad and busy with motor boat traffic. Coordinator Bob Murphy says while their journey on the Potomac has come to an end, for many of the participants the connection with the nation's river has just begun. "The focus is on the Potomac. Everyone knows where it is now," he says. "They know what things are important to maintaining the beauty that we are sitting right next to. If we walk away with that, if we change one person's opinion and actions, we've done a pretty good thing."

The Potomac River Sojourn, a journey to consider the stewardship of the nation's river.

This is the first 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.