The coolest swimming spot on the Potomac River has been destroyed. For years I’ve known about a semi-secret spot off of the C&O Canal, known only as the “rope swing” place. Located at Little Falls Damn, near Snake Island and High Island, a hidden trail led to a spot on the shore where a pair of old trees had collapsed over the river, at an angle perfect for climbing. Every year a brave soul would climb near the top and attach a long rope to let you swing into the water. And every year someone would cut the rope off. The spot was popular with students from Georgetown Day School, but it was clear someone didn’t like the idea of people playing in the river. The deep water was perfect for jumping; I never felt the river bottom when splashing in.
This weekend, on June 28, 2014, I rode my bike to the spot, and was shocked to find the trees had been cut down to stumps. So sad. My last visit was May 11, so the vandalism occurred sometime in the intervening seven weeks.
This is not the first time someone has destroyed a rope-swing tree. Though I never saw the one on Sycamore Island, its Rope Swing Tree was cut down by the National Park Service in 2002. I would expect that the NPS was also the perpetrator of this summer’s tree removal.
When Dan Snyder cut down the trees on his riverfront property to carve a better view of the Potomac, he was rightly criticized and fined (see Washington City Paper). How is it that the Park Service gives itself carte blanche to remove trees without public feedback? Why isn’t preserving this cherished natural feature part of their mission?
More recently, when a group of Boy Scout leaders nonchalantly toppled an ancient rock formation in Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park – in the name of “safety” – they were roundly criticized and threatened with legal action. Is it different if the government itself takes a chain saw to an old tree?
When there is a traffic accident on Clara Barton Parkway or Rock Creek Parkway, does the Park Service respond by shutting down the entire parkway? Do they ban people from driving? Why do we let our fear of accidents on a rope swing swing destroy a treasured resource?
Below are some photos from the old rope swing, which is now forever gone.
Too often it feels like the Park Service puts more effort into discouraging use of its lands than in maintaining and improving them. The recent permit debacle for the Fort Reno concert series, the cancellation of Bike DC, and numerous tales of difficulty in securing permits for Dupont Circle, together paint a picture of ineptitude and disdain towards the public they serve. Restricting use is not the right way to protect our parks. Witness how the NPS has forced the Solar Decathlon and National Book Festival off of the Mall, and almost kicked off the Folklife Festival as well. The Independence Day fencing is one more signal of the NPS’s upside-down priorities. And handing tickets to people fishing in or wading through the river is not the right way to encourage water safety. We deserve better. We want our river back.