On any summer weekend, thousands of outdoors enthusiasts are drawn to the cooling waters and shaded shores of Big Gunpowder Falls.
Some of them are after nothing more than a leisurely float down the river. Tubing has long been a hot-weather institution for Maryland families, who used to walk up the old railroad bed, throw their inflated rubber rings in the water and drift back to Monkton Station.
But now two commercial operations, complete with bus shuttle service, are attracting a wider audience, including college-age people with coolers filled with beer, creating a trash problem and threatening the family atmosphere.
"It's the Preakness of tubing destinations," says Theaux Le Gardeur, the Gunpowder Riverkeeper, part of a network of volunteers who act as stewards of the state's waterway.
In this case, the revelry sparked by enterprising business owners could cause officials to curtail the tradition.
Two weeks ago, state park rangers pulled the parking permit for one tubing vendor for violating the alcohol clause in his agreement. Days later, a state fisheries commission voted unanimously to ask the Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Park Service to restrict activities in a 7.2-mile section of the Gunpowder nationally known for its trout fishing.
"We need to put the park service on notice," says James Gracie, chairman of the Sport Fish Advisory Commission. "It's unfishable on weekends."
But one of the tubing vendors says the Gunpowder is for everyone and he doesn't have the authority to inspect coolers and backpacks before customers shove off down the river.
Besides, says Gary Kloch, it's unfair to blame his business alone.
"Some people have their own tubes and they bring their own alcohol and they leave behind their own trash," he says. "A lot of my customers are families that behave themselves and are just here to have fun."
Like Mike and Barbara Axelsson of Monkton, who were entertaining their four grandchildren on a recent 100-degree day.
"It was something we did with our children years ago and now we're sharing it with them," said Barbara as she helped load Bailee, Emilee, Carter and Riley, all under the age of 10, into tubes and give them a push. "We're trying to give them an appreciation of nature."
Betsey Gilbert of Baltimore wants to take her son, Matthew, 7, tubing as soon as he is a little older to continue a tradition she began as a child.
"I like that it's so close to Baltimore and my son and I have been talking about it for two years," she said.
"But I don't want to bring my son to a frat party."
A flash point
It's not the first time that the Gunpowder has become the flash point for conflicting recreational uses.
Four years ago, the Greater Baltimore Canoe Club and members of Maryland Trout Unlimited had a showdown over downed trees in the river. What the paddlers saw as a safety hazard, the anglers viewed as the perfect natural habitat for trout. The matter had to be resolved with state intervention and a written policy.
But the Gunpowder tubing season is much shorter and problems take on a sense of urgency, says Todd Huff, the Baltimore County council member who represents the area.
"It's gotten overpopulated and it's putting a major, major strain on my constituents with the parking problems, the trespassing and the drunk and disorderly issues," he says. "There is no question that it is putting a strain on the resource."
Huff says the major problem is that the river corridor is the responsibility of a patchwork of jurisdictions: Baltimore County Police, Maryland Park Service and Natural Resources Police and Baltimore City's Watershed Police. It is a quilt whose stitches are breaking down.
Le Gardeur has a fistful of letters from disgruntled citizens to prove it. Neighbors have complained of tubers who make noise, bare flesh and leave trash. A business along the route has had The chain barrier across the property of a business along the route was cut to provide access to parking and the river. Bicycle riders say they have had to get dismount and walk when tubers getting out of the river clog the adjacent rail trail.
"The river itself looked like an amusement ride at Six Flags," wrote Amiel Bethel, a biker rider and fisherman who is a doctor at the Baltimore Washington Spine and Neuroscience Center.
"We enjoy tubing, too, but there has to be a balance."
Online, the Gunpowder is getting a reputation, with bloggers discussing "homo sapiens beerus" and directing readers to "Party Rock" in the river.
"I'm not anti-tubing," says Le Gardeur, who owns a nearby fly fishing shop. "But the shuttles bring in more people than the river corridor can support. In this situation, 600 Girl Scouts would be too many Girl Scouts."
Long, but not wide
At 57 miles, the Gunpowder is a long river but not a wide one. Big Gunpowder Falls begins its run near the Pennsylvania line and meanders south and east until it picks up Little Falls in the Blue Mount area of Baltimore County and the two flow as one toward the Chesapeake Bay.
Along its course, the Big Gunpowder runs into Prettyboy Reservoir, part of Baltimore's drinking water supply, passes over a dam and into Gunpowder Falls State Park, Maryland's largest. It leaves the park north of Monkton and continues on past a quarry and residential areas.
For years, there were just two ways to float the river: bring a tube and leave a car at each end of the stretch or rent a tube from Jim White at Monkton Station, walk a mile or two upstream and then float back down.
But the model changed rapidly in the last two summers. White added a shuttle bus, and competition increased when Kloch opened a second tubing operation at Monkton Station. Business went from brisk to full boil.
At one point, Baltimore County Police estimated there were 600 tubers on the river on a hot weekend day.
Neighbors and the community association complained about the traffic and illegal parking to the point that Kloch got a huckster's license from Baltimore County and moved out to a parking lot on York Road. He runs a shuttle and several pickup trucks to ferry passengers and tubes to spots along the river.
Citing pedestrian safety, the Maryland Park Service issued Kloch a permit to drop passengers off at its Big Falls Road parking lot instead of having people disembark in the middle of the narrow, two-lane road. A similar request by Kloch to use the York Road lot was shelved by officials.
Le Gardeur says Kloch is using limited parking along the river to stack fully inflated tubes, denying anglers an access point. Kloch says he does that to spare the neighbors the noise of the air compressor he uses to inflate the tubes.
Any discussions about uses of the river should include a public hearing and involve the state Fisheries Service to protect a trout stream that was named one of the best in the country by Field and Stream magazine, says Le Gardeur.
Huff says Baltimore County Police officers have stepped up patrols and are ticketing both illegal parking and tubers who are intoxicated.
"Anything they can address legally, they are. Unfortunately, there's only so much we can do by law," he says. "I understand and respect the river and don't want to see it destroyed. If there's something that needs to be done, I'm ready to do it."