A healthier North Branch is worth going west to see

THE BALTIMORE SUN

IFOUND MY OWN private Idaho, and it's in Western Maryland. It's the North Branch of the Potomac River, the long, winding waters that divide Maryland from West Virginia, and if there's anything within three hours' drive of Baltimore that resembles the big rivers of the American West, it's this place, with great cliffs and spectacular mountain vistas. Some stretches remind me of a river canyon I once visited in Idaho. The color of the water is a little weird, but you can't have everything -- yet.

Don't feel bad if you've never been to this long stretch of Maryland borderland south of Cumberland. We're not talking a tourist hot spot. No one ever set up a B&B; beside the North Branch. In your lifetime and your daddy's lifetime, this was zombie water, filled with mine acid and other poisons -- a river of the living dead through some of the region's prettiest countryside.

Back before the white man, the natives found cold water brimming with fish. And even after the settlers started stripping the land, the North Branch remained healthy. Trout and even salmon were stocked and harvested until the late 19th century, according to records.

But then came a long period of classic abuse. In the 1800s, men went into the forests of Western Maryland and they cut the trees, and Garrett built his railroad, and the coal companies put men to work digging mines that in time were abandoned. And the mines became huge, underground reservoirs of acidic water. The poison flowed up through the ground and into the North Branch, and it killed virtually everything in the river.

Local towns and industries, including a large paper mill, dumped their waste into the river, too.

For folks who live in Allegany and Garrett counties, this is an old story. They recall the strange, ugly color of the North Branch. Neither they nor their daddies ever fished it. They ignored it.

Sixteen years ago, a fisheries manager for the state found only sunfish and suckers in the North Branch, and concluded that, until someone undertook a major effort to improve the water quality, the river would remain a dead zone. Why put healthy fish -- delicate rainbow trout, in particular -- in such polluted waters?

But the story turns for the good here. I like to visit this river and go over the recent history now and then because it shows how, with clever tinkering, the human hand can fix a natural resource that the human hand almost destroyed.

Upstream, in the restored forests of Garrett County, on Lostland Run and other creeks that feed the North Branch, the state installed lime dosers, silo-like hoppers rigged with devices that drop pulverized limestone into the water leaking out of mines. The lime neutralizes the acid. It's as if the North Branch is on a constant drip of liquid Rolaids.

You can mourn the need for such contraptions, but they make the North Branch healthier. Several miles downstream, this treated water enters the huge Jennings Randolph Lake, with its big earthen dam built by the Army Corps of Engineers.

From the dam, the North Branch spills cold and fresh into places we never would have visited without these efforts at recovery -- places called Barnum and Blue Hole and Bloomington. The river holds fish again, and not just suckers and sunfish. Trout live in the North Branch now. In fact, they thrive in it. At Bloomington, the Savage River, one of Maryland's healthiest, joins the North Branch and gives it a boost, and all that good water rolls on, through mile after mile of remote countryside, down to Cumberland and, eventually, to the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay.

The water is only slightly better looking than it appeared during my last visit -- in the early fall of 2001. The people of Maryland still allow MeadWestvaco, the large paper mill downstream of where the Savage and the North Branch meet, to dump its industrial wastewater in the river. The company has made efforts to filter the waste, but the water still looks greenish-brown. While most people seem to agree this is just an "aesthetic issue," affecting only the color of the water, it still keeps the North Branch from returning to its historic best.

I hope the Maryland governor and the West Virginia governor crawl into a raft and take a trip on the North Branch. Late September, October would be a good time.

During another recent float trip, it struck me that this river could become a destination for people who like to fish, to paddle, to run rafts over white water (and stay in B&Bs;). Great natural resources, restored and protected -- and not casinos -- is what we should be looking to market to the rest of the nation.

The story of the North Branch's recovery should be a source of pride for all Marylanders. Farmers who, like their ancestors, let their cattle stand and relieve themselves in the river ought to put up some fence (with a small grant from the government), and the state should buy more land along its banks so the public can gain access to the North Branch and see what I've been lucky enough to see. The local folks along the Maryland and West Virginia banks -- like the laconic fellow who spoke to us from a railroad bridge as we passed beneath it the other day -- ought to take care of it and feel possessive of it. They need to know that this ain't their daddies' river anymore.

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