Fletcher's Cove Boathouse: The Capital City's Everlasting River Hideaway
To get to Fletcher’s Cove you drive through a short narrow tunnel. The circa 1828 tightly arced stone masonry drips wet mere inches above your car’s roof. “Coming through the tunnel is like coming through a time machine,” says Dan Ward, Assistant Manager of Fletcher’s Cove Boathouse on the Potomac River in Washington DC. The world that greets your senses at the end of the tunnel is slow, deliberate and content. Ward calls it his spiritual center.
“We’ve got traffic on both sides, and the airplanes and the capital’s five miles away and here we are,” says Ray Fletcher, whose great great grandfather Joseph founded the boathouse in the 1850s. Indeed, this little cove on the Potomac River is an anachronistic gem in America’s capital city, its enduring draw a lesson in the power of a river to give city dwellers a measure of solace.
We arrive at the boathouse, which rents out bikes, kayaks, canoes and rowboats March through October, to find Fletcher and Ward painting pink primer onto overturned 14-foot wooden rowboats (a Fletcher family design). Granted, day rentals now run $22 instead of 25 cents a day like they once did but little else has changed about this unassuming business that serves a clientele described by Fletcher as coming from “all walks of life”.
The two men are preparing the boats for next spring, when fishing season erupts into chaos once the snow melts and trees bud. The rowboats are two toned, their insides painted Gunmetal Grey and their hulls painted Tile Red in a bright gloss. “Same colors my father and his father used before him,” says Fletcher.
There’s a lot of heritage to this place. It’s palpable in the hush that emanates from the still river between airplanes roaring overhead. There’s enough serenity here to last a while in the city you can just tell.
Fletcher has rented boats to just about every type of profession including some federal circuit judges who come out to fish before they go to court. “I hope it puts them in a better mood when they get behind the bench,” he says. Fletcher's Cove sees its fair share of lobbyists too. When I ask about the close links between the river and capital hill Fletcher corrects me: “I see a major separation. That’s why they come here. They want to get away from the bureaucracy and the lobbyists. They come here to escape that.”
Ward (also known as the resident Ocean of Knowledge) rattles off the names of some visitors of Fletcher's Cove: Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy. “Many presidents have come here way back to Andrew Jackson,” he says. “From what evidence I could glean from the archives he fished here back in 1828.” Jackson caught himself a rockfish (called a large striped bass back then). The cove acts as a traffic jam for fish before they hit Little Falls upstream from here.
American Shad on the Potomac River are recovering thanks to the Herculean efforts of Jim Cummins, Director of Living Resources at the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin but fish numbers and diversity are not anything near what they used to be. For example there is an account from Colonial Washington where a massive sturgeon leapt onto the stern of a ferry going across the Potomac River and crushed a man’s hip (he later died several weeks later from the injury).
Also, the hydrology of the Fletcher’s Cove has shifted ever since the city dumped dirt dug up from building the Foggy Bottom metro station upstream of the cove. Now instead of the river scouring out the cove it deposits its silt there. As a result half of the boat dock that Ray Fletcher used to jump off as a child now sits on mud. Thank god for environmental impact assessments now he says.
“My father’s generation and my generation did tremendous harm to the environment and it’s the next two or three generations before hopefully we can start going back the other way,” says Fletcher. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel I should say.”