Tubing down the Gunpowder

Tubers relax by drifting down Big Gunpowder Falls near Monkton. (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis / July 8, 2012)

On a hot summer day, Big Gunpowder Falls beckons and thousands answer the call: anglers, swimmers, kayakers and picnickers.

The Gunpowder also speaks to Gary Kloch, who hears cash registers each time a customer pays $20 to $35 for a red-and-yellow tube and shuttle to the water's edge for a refreshing three-hour float downstream.

Maryland Natural Resources Police say what he's doing is illegal — using a state park to drop tubers off and stash a stack of inflatables — and have ticketed him three times since Friday. But that has not slowed the flow of customers seeking relief from triple-digit heat. Police estimate that Tube N Taxi and a smaller, rival operation are putting as many as 400 people on the water daily.

Critics say the businesses are creating "a superhighway of tubing," defiled by trash and noise that is ruining an area designated by the state as wild land and recognized by national fishing groups as a blue-ribbon trout stream.

"Other state parks have gates, and when the parks reach capacity, they close the gates to protect the resource and the people," says Theaux Le Gardeur, the Gunpowder Riverkeeper, a volunteer advocate for the waterway. "But there is no gate on the Gunpowder, there is no way to protect it now."

Le Gardeur, who owns a Monkton fly-fishing shop, says many people bring floating coolers full of beer and other alcoholic beverages to state park grounds, a violation of policy and a safety hazard.

State officials are expected to discuss the situation Monday, a continuation of talks that began this time last year but failed to generate a solution. The state's Sport Fish Advisory Commission, which urged the Department of Natural Resources last July to come up with a policy to ease the conflicts, has agreed to take up the matter again.

Meanwhile, Kloch says he'll fight the tickets, which each carry a fine of $105. The tubing business has been good to him, allowing him to spend the winter in Mexico, and he has no intention of giving it up, he says.

"Some people here don't want things to change at all. If it's not one thing, it's something else," Kloch says. "Well, I told the officers they'd better get used to me because I'm not going anywhere."

On a table in a dusty parking lot off York Road that serves as his office and storage area for his tubes is a framed set of "7 Commandments" his customers are supposed to read. The rules include packing trash out and keeping noise down.

Kloch has a Baltimore County vendor's license. But last summer, the DNR pulled his state permit to operate in Gunpowder Falls State Park for an alcohol violation. He says he has no right to inspect people's coolers before they get onto his shuttle buses, and that he's being made a scapegoat for everyone who misbehaves.

"We do our best to keep things right," Kloch says. "Things have really calmed down on the river since last year."

Laura Downey, a fly angler from Jessup, disagrees.

"I understand that just because I have a fishing license and trout stamp that I am not in the only group to use the river," she says. "I am willing to share the river, but I am not willing to be chased off the river by an excessive amount of tubing this year."

On Sunday, between noon and 2 p.m., nine 16-passenger shuttle buses made the five-minute run from Kloch's lot to the state parking lot on Big Falls Road. Customers, ranging in age from preschoolers to white-haired grandfathers, piled off and waited for Kloch's drivers to hand them a tube and point them toward the river.

At least 15 people holding beers walked by a large "No Alcohol" sign on their way to the launch area on state property. Others waited until they were standing in the water before opening their coolers to grab a cold can.

Natural Resources Police Sgt. Brian Albert says the agency has gotten complaints about rowdy tubers from other park users, "but by the time we get there, they're gone."

Baltimore County police have stepped up patrols and placed officers on mountain bikes to reach remote areas. On Friday, officers from the Cockeysville precinct wrote tickets for illegally parked cars.

Le Gardeur says he knows police manpower is stretched thin and that there are jurisdictional questions to be ironed out about who can patrol the river and its banks. But failing to create a policy to balance the needs of all users will have consequences.

"It's just a nuisance now," says Le Gardeur, watching cars triple-park at the tiny gravel lot next to the Gunpowder and in no-parking zones. "What's it going to look like in five years? It's going to look like the Preakness infield."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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