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At Big Hunting Creek, a presidential past and a troublesome present

Thurmont Mayor John Kinnaird examines historic Big Hunting Creek, which is undergoing another restoration project.
Thurmont Mayor John Kinnaird examines historic Big Hunting Creek, which is undergoing another restoration project.(Ryan Bacic / Baltimore Sun)

These days, some parts of Big Hunting Creek do not seem nearly so presidential. Its banks torn apart by years of erosion, the roaring stream has become, for some Thurmont citizens, a noisy, unwanted neighbor.

"It sounds like a freight train," said Carol Newmann, who lives near the creek.

Over the past two decades or so, Thurmont Mayor John Kinnaird estimates, water thundering down Big Hunting Creek has cost some Thurmont residents living along the embankment 10 to 20 feet of their property lines. Now, through a $765,000 grant from the Maryland Department of the Environment, Thurmont is about four months into its latest Big Hunting Creek watershed restoration project.

And while the state hopes to preserve Thurmont residents' yards — and eardrums — there's more at stake: The creek, which runs down a mountain near Camp David, the presidential retreat, might be the country's most historic trout stream, having been fished by world leaders from Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat.

And so it is that as far as Big Hunting Creek is concerned, particularly in Thurmont, past and present have become inextricably intertwined.

"Thurmont people, who have seen every President since Herbert Hoover used to fish for trout in nearby Hunting Creek, have since probably glimpsed more world celebrities than any other villagers in the country," Ralph Reppert wrote in the Sunday Sun Magazine on Oct. 17, 1965. "They nod to them, and sometimes chat with them, as casually as if they were everyday neighbors."

Pat Weddle, who has lived in Thurmont for 79 years, recalls passing Roosevelt and Churchill down by the creek one childhood afternoon on her way home from school with a couple of classmates.

Camp David, then called Shangri-La, was a ways away, but there the two political giants stood nonetheless, with the presidential touring car parked on the side of a Thurmont road — Churchill fishing upstream a bit and Roosevelt smoking a cigarette nearby.

"I don't remember any Secret Service. I don't remember any commotion. Nothing," Weddle said, and not because she doesn't remember much from that day: "I must have made a mental picture," she continued, "because I can [still] see President Roosevelt sitting there."

In that time, the presidents' arrivals were no secret. Marine One, the presidential helicopter, used to land on the Little League ballfields, and the residents of Thurmont would run out of their homes to greet it.

Commanders-in-chief didn't make appearances at just the creek, either. For decades, presidents would stop into the town of about 6,000 for a bite to eat, a fill-up at the old gas station or, most often, a Sunday service. For presidents Carter, Gerald Ford and Lyndon Johnson, that meant a trip to Harriet Chapel in Catoctin Furnace; Richard Nixon, it is said, frequented the town's Methodist church. Even fictional presidents got in on the action: Little Hunting Creek, a stream just to the south that feeds into Big Hunting, once hosted a shoot for a "West Wing" episode.

These days?

"You don't even know that they're there unless you hear helicopters going over," said Carol Voellinger, president of the Thurmont Historical Society.

Said Kinnaird: "The only way you'll know about it is you'll see Secret Service guys getting sandwiches at Rocky's Pizza parlor. That's about it."

To town and stream officials' knowledge, no presidents since Carter have fished the creek. And about 12 years ago, a chapel was built at Camp David, obviating the need for Sunday trips into town. Heightened security is a big reason for the diminished presence.

But while less history is made in Thurmont nowadays, the reverberations of history still are very much felt.

Theaux Le Gardeur, owner of Backwater Angler fly-fishing shop in Monkton, knows this to be true. Although his store stands about an hour east of Thurmont, Le Gardeur said that when he asks customers where they're headed on a given day, Big Hunting Creek remains a popular answer. And not just because of its history.

"What's nice about Big Hunting Creek is you can get there," Le Gardeur said. An easy drive from Baltimore and Washington, "it's accessible from all of these major metropolitan areas."

John Mullican, western region fisheries manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, fishes the stream himself. As Maryland's first stream to have catch-and-release rules and the first to be designated fly-fishing only, Big Hunting has its own robust history apart from the famous figures who have used it, and because it flows through two parks — Cunningham Falls State Park and Catoctin Mountain National Park — there are plenty of places to cast as well as an unusual degree of oversight and care.

Mainstream attention has followed.

"It's one of our most popular centrally regulated streams, and even though it's a small stream, the quality of the resources is very high," Mullican said. "And that's in large part due to the protective regulations and good natural reproduction."

Don Cosden, manager of the DNR's inland fisheries division, said, "Later in the summer, when some of the other streams in the area are just too warm to be very good fishing, this stream remains cool enough that the fish remain active. So you can fish there pretty much all year round."

The major worry with the stream is the bank erosion in Thurmont. The problem is a persistent one, Kinnaird said, and the most recent efforts to redress it began last summer. The erosion occurs because water rushes down the stream far too quickly. Neighbors don't like the sound or the loss of land. The trout aren't too fond of the speed, either.

To slow the stream, workers have been stacking boulders in the creek at three locations in the town, predominantly along the Route 15 interchange. It's the fifth or sixth such project in Thurmont, Kinnaird said, and it's not likely to be the last. "It'll keep happening," he said.

The remediation project should last at least through next summer, and in one sense, that might be long enough: While residents such as Newmann and fishermen such as Mullican are likely to see the same project again in the years to come, time is ticking for the stream's most important potential visitor.

This summer, he stayed at Camp David from July 18 to 20 and, for the second year in a row, spent his birthday there in August. But like his four most recent predecessors in office, as far as anyone knows, he has yet to fish the creek.

The common explanations are that the Chicago native prefers urban life to rural pleasures, or perhaps, when it comes to outdoor activities, he prefers swinging clubs to casting lines. He did fly-fish in Montana in 2012, though, so maybe a return to Thurmont is in the offing.

For President Barack Obama, after all, there are only two summers left.

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