A river in recovery

It might be some of the best money ever spent by the state of Maryland - $16,200 for Carrie Dixon's two old house-trailers, her trampoline-size satellite dish and one acre of bottomland on a section of the Potomac River that had been poisoned for a century, left for dead and forgotten.

Now the Dixon place, across some railroad tracks in an eye-blink of Allegany County called Black Oak, is about to become one of the few public access points to the North Branch - a place where people with kayaks and fishing rods might start to visit a long, tree-lined stretch of "the nation's river" that few Marylanders have ever seen.

Degraded by decades of acidic drainage from Western Maryland coal mines and by years of pollution from the large Westvaco paper mill at Luke, the North Branch of the Potomac was a paradox - a foul river that flowed through some of the most beautiful and wild countryside in the region, framed in leaning sycamores and astonishing rock cliffs.

At one point in the 1980s, the state had to ban the consumption of any fish in a 90-mile stretch of the North Branch because of the presence of cancer-causing dioxin. The state lifted the ban in 1993, after Westvaco made millions of dollars in improvements to the way it treated water used in the paper-making process.

That's about when Ken Pavol, the western fisheries manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, carried buckets of baby smallmouth bass to the river to see what would happen.

By then, Pavol and the DNR already had made great strides against the river's primary problem - mine drainage. Many miles upstream, they'd outfitted the North Branch with a low-tech, lime-dosing system, giving the river an intravenous of creamy antacid to neutralize the foul, orange drainage from abandoned mines.

In relatively short time, trout were thriving in the clean, cold waters between the Jennings Randolph Dam and the small town of Bloomington. The state-record brown trout - 18 pounds, 3 ounces, and 33 inches long - was hooked there this summer.

But downstream and around the bend, at Luke and Westernport, problems persisted. The river was the color of an old penny. The waste water coming out of Westvaco, and through a Westernport treatment facility, was full of "suspended solids" that discolored the river for miles downstream, past the town of Keyser, W.Va., and the Carrie Dixon property, all the way to Cumberland.

Still, Ken Pavol stocked his bass to see what would happen.

And something remarkable happened. The bass lived. They grew. They even reproduced - the first time that had happened in the North Branch in more than a century. The smallmouth somehow adapted and learned to see through the murky waters and find crayfish, a prime food source. Pavol even discovered trout several miles downstream of Westernport, an indication that the water was cold enough to sustain the most fragile of fish.

But, while the mountains, cliffs and woods along both sides of the North Branch form vistas as big and as gorgeous as what one might see in Montana or some other western state, the river itself still doesn't look good. It's not the coffee-colored brown runoff from farms and construction; it's an olive-brown you might find in a large pot after boiling greens and vegetables.

Westvaco says it will do more to clean up the North Branch. It will have to. Under a long-delayed agreement with the state, reached in March, the company must cut the amount of matter it dumps in the river by 50 percent over the next two years.

One of the most vigilant advocates for the river, the American Canoe Association, said that agreement did not go far enough, that state and federal regulators balked at imposing more stringent limits because of pressure from the company and from Western Maryland politicians concerned about the mill's 1,500 jobs.

But Safe Waterways in Maryland, an advocacy group founded by Sinclair Broadcasting executive Duncan Smith, a land owner along the Potomac, saw progress in the agreement.

Gary Yoder, a DNR official who grew up in Western Maryland and remembers the Potomac's dead years, agrees. But he thinks a lot more can be done. The next thing, he says, is getting more people to believe that this forgotten stretch of the North Branch can be saved.

He argues convincingly - during a 10-mile float trip on a sunny early-autumn day - that there's no better advocate for the river than the river itself, with its long meander through tunnels of sycamore and maple, against the face of wow-inducing cliffs, and in the cradle of a forested mountain range. Open it to the public, Yoder says, let Marylanders and their West Virginia neighbors see what's at stake in the river's rescue, and the North Branch's extended support group will continue to grow.

Yoder and Pavol stumbled upon the Dixon property during a raft trip last year and heard Carrie Dixon say she was willing to sell because the river was "stinky and muddy." The state Board of Public Works approved the deal in June, and now Pavol and Yoder are looking for more access points for the paddling and fishing public.

If they succeed, and if the water quality continues to improve, more people will be able to appreciate what lives back in the woodlands and across the farm fields at the foot of Dans Mountain along Route 220, south of Cumberland: A river in recovery, struggling to be reborn and rediscovered.

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