Chesapeake

Mighty Susquehanna
And the dam that (tries to) control it

The upstream dam …

turns on and off throughout the day.

Looking upstream through the fog and snow to the Conowingo Dam

But it’s never enough to completely shut the river off. The Susquehanna Flats are wide. About a mile to be exact. This photo is taken about 2 miles downstream of the Conowingo Dam that was completed in 1928, coincidently the same year as the Tamiami Trai. So who would have ever thought: a thousand miles apart, the headwaters to Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades got cut off on the exact same year.

My home river
Pretty Boy and the Gunpowder music video

To be honest I was miffed:

How could cartographers leave the Gunpowder out?

Words and music by Bobby Angel

My response was to right this song. Yes, the Susquehanna River is the Chesapeake Bay’s largest tributary, and the Potomac River is bigger too and also drains the Shenandoah Valley. But to look at a map of the drainages of the Chesapeake Bay and to leave the Gunpowder out downright irked me on too many levels to count. But what is a hydrologist to do? And who do I complain to? My philosophy: Never complain and never explain, and rather get down to the business at hand. And specifically, that means telling the story of a pretty special river that sadly people don’t know exists, or sorely misunderstand. The opening line to the song came to me while hiking the river trail just above Jerusalem Mills. I refined the lyrics in the following days in the loft overlooking a brook that feeds the river. But it wasn’t until returning to Florida that I finally put the final touches on the song, and in particularly the last two lines.

Where does this song rank in the Maryland song canon? Behind the Star Spangled Banner and Maryland My Maryland, I’m having trouble coming up with a third. That being the case, I’ll rank it 2nd since Maryland My Maryland is a knock off of Oh Tanenbaum.

Floodplain features
Working river returns to nature

Hiking the Gunpowder River …

is a study in floodplain dynamics.

Cross section of the Gunpowder River Valley

Not just a single or simple valley that the stream sometimes overtops, a hike along the trail is a living textbook on the many features and geomorphic processes in action. Rapids for example usually occur where larger rock outcrops are visible on the hillside. And it’s not just a single channel. Also periodically present are yazoo tributaries, oxbow lakes, backswamps made soggier by logjam pools and dry meander scars that the river once cut out. But maybe my favorite feature is the older terraces that form a stairstep from the modern-day floodplain to the adjacent hillside. Today, the terraces are home to very large trees. So they haven’t flooded for quite some time. But how long? Was it a feature from the higher flow rates experienced in the waning days of the last ice age? Or has upstream Pretty Boy and Loch Raven Dams reduced river flows below a point that water makes it up onto that second step?

Another feature I didn’t show was the many archaeological remnants from the pioneer days. They too leave me to wonder: Today, the corridor is a nature preserve, but for the original settlers, it was a working river that powered many a mill.

Hydrologic identity
Contemplation of a near miss or two

Havre De Grace came very close

To being the capital of the country.

Major counties and watersheds of my youth

And who’s to say it wouldn’t have been the perfect spot. At the confluence of where the Chesapeake and its main tributary meet, two centuries ago it was hard to argue it wasn’t the perfect spot. Eventually of course they picked Washington D.C., in part because the Potomac was a deeper water port, and Havre De Grace was shallower and silting in. Or maybe there were other reasons, too. My point: Havre De Grace went on to miss out on being the state capital (to Annapolis) and county seat (to Bel Air), too. Talk about a fall from grace! Or maybe not. Havre De Grace has an eclectic charm all its own, and is somehow preserved in time. So maybe swinging and missing at all three was its saving grace.

It makes me think about Maryland at large as being my “home state.” People always ask me: “Bob, where are you from?” My knee-jerk reaction is to say Maryland (the full state). But really when I think about it there are only two counties of the 23 that I know really well — Harford and Baltimore Counties — and can truly lay claim to knowing if not as good as the back of my hand, then as well as the bottom of my feet will ever know.

Or is it the watersheds I know best? As a kid my brother and I worshipped Deer Creek. Sometimes we told our parents we were going to church we’d drive there instead. The Gunpowder was our other spot. Unlike Deer Creek that flowed into the Susquehanna River, the Gunpowder emptied straight into the Bay. Both cut deep valleys into the Piedmont Plateau imparting a rolling landscape in reverse: the highest spots the highest remnants of the flat plateau and the waterways forming the base of the large hills.

View of Deer Creek Valley from the King and Queen Seat

So, am I a Marylander or a Harford/Baltimore Countian? Probably a Deer Creeker describes me best. Standing on top of the King and Queen Seat looking down, sometimes I wonder why I ever left.