Except for an occasional floating plastic soda bottle and some suspicious-looking white foam, yesterday's canoe and kayak race down the Jones Falls was remarkably un-city like.
The water wasn't sparkling blue. But the lush green watershed's river along the expressway, among Baltimore's best-kept secrets, made for a pleasant ride, competitors said. A few even went swimming.
FOR THE RECORD - In an article July 13 about the kayak and canoe race on the Jones Falls, the location of Meadow Mills was given incorrectly. It is near Union Avenue and 38th Street, about four miles from Lake Roland.
The Sun regrets the errors.
Maybe the swimming wasn't intentional. The 10-foot drop at Round Falls near Wyman Park was harder to negotiate than a few people expected.
"We meant to do that," Tom Neuhart, 44, of Canton, insisted after he and his canoe partner flipped their boat at the end of the course.
Barbra Tschida, 36, from Washington, called their dunk-finish a "demonstration in self-rescue."
"It's a hoot - a great way to finish," said David Plott, a 47-year-old Annapolis attorney, who, like most of the competitors, took a kayak down the 5.5 mile course.
He, his wife and their 9-year-old daughter had gone on a "family float" at Gunpowder Falls last weekend, where he said you could see fish swimming near the bottom. "You can't do that here," Plott said. "But things like this event stimulate interest. Maybe one day."
The Jones Falls Watershed Association began organizing annual Jones Falls Valley Celebrations about six years ago and monthly clean-ups - one of which was held yesterday during the race.
"A lot of people think the Jones Falls is just an expressway. But it's really a beautiful natural resource," said Jennifer Powell, a 20-year-old Michigan native who is working with the association as an Americorps member. "I'm glad these people can enjoy it."
Now in its third year, the canoe and kayak race, sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Canoe Club, has become increasingly popular, said Pat Hamlin, an instructor with the club. "I think everyone has a good time," he said.
In the first year, about 20 people participated. But for yesterday's races, there were about 40 - ranging in age from 8 to 70. Some entered the recreational - or beginner - course from Lake Roland to Meadow Mills near Mount Washington. But plenty of kayakers were up for the rapids in the longer course to Round Falls.
"You know those dreams where you're falling? That's what it's like," said Mike Huber, a 38-year-old welder from Baldwin.
Dale Griffiths, a 49-year-old woodworker from Jarrettsville, called it a "classic drop."
"It's hard to believe we're inside the Beltway," Griffiths said.
Even Hamlin was initially skeptical about the water quality. "I couldn't believe how much wildlife was in the water," he said. "There are even fish - at least until you get down to North Avenue."
Hamlin's reaction didn't shock Michael Beer, a founding member of the Jones Falls Watershed Association. Beer persuaded Hamlin to paddle it for the first time several years ago.
People are sometimes surprised that "it's not a ghastly storm drain," Beer said.
"It was very nice," said Cliff Hubbard, a 36-year-old Aberdeen Proving Ground researcher from Havre de Grace. "When you got away from I-83, it was kind of pretty in there."