Port Deposit: A river (at times) runs through it


PORT DEPOSIT - Mike Flanagan of the Baltimore Orioles will recall the fine spring day he and I were standing in Deer Creek, about a mile from its mouth at the Susquehanna River, fixated on shad, when the rushing, gurgling water around us went suddenly silent. It was an odd moment - as if someone had shut off a spigot - and dramatic enough for both of us to stop waving our fishing sticks and look down.

Indeed, no one had shut off a spigot.

Just the opposite was true.

The rocks we had been fishing from, gray and dry when we'd waded 30 yards to reach them, had disappeared, and now water was rising up to our knees.

And we were on the wrong side of the river - in danger of being caught there, unable to cross back to where we'd left our car.

Conowingo was the reason. Upstream, more gates had been opened at the big hydroelectric dam across the mighty Susquehanna and, when this happens, it's noticeable downstream everywhere, particularly here at Port Deposit, and even up Deer Creek.

So before you could say trouble, Flanagan and I reeled in our lines and tried to wade back across the creek in a rising backwash. It wasn't easy. In fact, as I took a couple of steps into spooky pockets, feeling cold water slip into my chest waders, I remembered the American Indian expression, "It is a good day to die."

Of course, I lived to tell the story.

And I still love rivers.

I still wade in them and fish in them and canoe in them every chance I get, everywhere I go.

But I'm sure I'd never live on a river - especially a big drainage ditch like the Susquehanna. (It's more than 400 miles long, originates in Cooperstown, N.Y., and drains 27,510 square miles through Pennsylvania and into the Chesapeake Bay.)

You can keep your real estate in the flood plain. This is one river rat who won't build a nest there. Life is stressful enough.

The experience of being caught suddenly in a flood - enjoying a river, then suddenly being scared to death of it - came to mind yesterday as I walked to the edge of the Susquehanna in this riverfront town. Through the weekend, the 700 residents of Port Deposit had been threatened by the planned release of water from Conowingo because of the big rains from what was left of Hurricane Ivan. Sunday, an emergency crew drove through in a sport utility vehicle, announcing: "Attention, we are strongly urging everyone to evacuate."

Disaster was averted.

And yet people here know this kind of thing can happen at any time.

And yet they stay. I guess they like the view.

Yesterday was splendid and sunny - a day to die for - and the coffee-with-cream-colored water poured out of the dam, bloating the Susquehanna, rushing the 5 miles down to Port Deposit, still skimming high along the town's northern edges.

The heavy current bent trees growing out of rocky islands. A few years ago, a friend and I had canoed serenely through here, stopping to fish for bass and eat a sandwich. But this same place was underwater now, its trees with yellowing leaves bowing under the pressure of the current.

There were swaths of mud along the road, and plastic bottles and sticks left by the rising water of the weekend.

It's not just the Susquehanna that threatens the town. Port Deposit sits at the bottom of a huge hillside full of moisture. In July, when Harford and Cecil counties were hit by freakish storms with heavy rain, a creek called Rock Run surged onto Main Street and water rose 5 feet. A house started to lose its footing to the creek. Step out the back door now, and you'd slide 30 degrees down a concrete platform, over crumbling blocks of stone, right into the water.

By yesterday, people in Port Deposit were going about their business again. There was a truckload sale at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, and they'll have bluegrass music again there tomorrow night. Along North Main Street, men with rakes and shovels were cleaning debris out of their back yards by the railroad tracks.

Everything in life involves tradeoffs. City life might be convenient, robust and even exciting, but it might also be noisy and dangerous. The suburbs might be relatively safe, but also relatively boring and impersonal.

Port Deposit is a lovely little town, if a little muddy in places, and if you stepped out onto its modern riverwalk yesterday, you could sit in the shade of the porch of a seafood restaurant, ceiling fans spinning overhead, warm breezes kissing your skin. Of course, had the big water come, fish might have been swimming through the restaurant instead of being broiled in it.

Rick Morris of the Port Deposit Police Department sat in his patrol car by the post office. He remembered me from a long-ago encounter in another waterfront place, a tavern in Fells Point, maybe 20 years ago. He used to be a Baltimore police officer. But he's been in Port Deposit a few years, and his chief, Mark Tomlin, is the son of one of the finest commanders the Baltimore police force ever had, the late Leon Tomlin.

As we stood there talking, several people called Morris by his first name and waved to him. He returned a couple of bucks he owed an elderly man, who laughed about it. Morris likes the town, likes the work. Port Deposit might live with the threat of big flood, but at least Rick Morris doesn't worry about getting shot here. One irony: "In Baltimore I never discharged my firearm once. Here, I've had to do it twice." Both times to put injured animals out of their suffering - one a deer, one a fox.

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