A delightfully pedestrian event

JFX: The Jones Falls celebration lets thousands enjoy the highway and the waters below at their own speed.

September 20, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Cathy Goucher isn't the kind of mother who normally would let her toddler play on an interstate highway, but yesterday she made an exception.

Angus Goucher, 14 months old and clearly new to walking, was swaying to the music of Mambo Combo as he joined an estimated 3,200 festive Marylanders in the northbound lanes of the Jones Falls Expressway.

They came to walk, run and roll - on bicycles, skateboards and in-line skates - along the Baltimore stretch of Interstate 83 on the one day each year that the northbound lanes are closed to vehicles.

Goucher, a Charles Village resident, said she pushed Angus in his stroller from Cold Spring Lane to 28th Street and then back to the performance stage set up between Cold Spring and Northern Parkway.

"He really enjoyed the walk. He enjoyed looking at the flags and bikes," she said as cars whizzed by in the southbound lanes. "We got some great pictures of him in the middle of the highway."

The partial expressway shutdown was part of yesterday's Jones Falls Valley Celebration, an annual event in which Marylanders get to see the JFX - and the waterway for which it is named - from a different vantage point and at a slower pace than they're used to.

The event is staged by the Jones Falls Watershed Association to raise money and to educate area residents about the stream that flows from Baltimore County to the Inner Harbor through the center of Baltimore.

Christel Marie Cothran, executive director of the association, said the event - in its seventh year - was the brainchild of retired Johns Hopkins University professor Michael Beer. This year's celebration included foot, bicycle and boat races, as well as exhibits of the valley's wildlife.

"The idea is the Jones Falls is not just an expressway," Cothran said.

In the shadow of the JFX, dozens of kayak and canoe enthusiasts were getting wet in the Jones Falls. The race down the far-from-pristine stream from Robert E. Lee Park was more a brownwater event than whitewater, but it still ended with a joyous splash at Round Falls near Hampden, where the course ended with a drop of about 6 feet.

The first of the racers over the falls was a four-man "dragon boat" canoe paddled by members of the Baltimore Canoe Club in Norse regalia - or at least what was left of it after an earlier set of rapids.

The four "vikings" paddled aggressively toward the drop and went over with a whoop. The boat promptly sank, but they were winners.

"It was awesome, great teamwork," said Tom "Petre" Newhart, who joined Dave "Thor" Holyoke, Scott "Dietur" Weems and Adam "Hans" Stevenson in the canoe. Having survived one plunge and swim in the murky water, they promptly headed upstream to do it again.

Nicole Richmond and Duane Dittman, wearing devil horns on their helmets, followed with a more dramatic plunge. One nanosecond their silvery two-person canoe was horizontal, the next it was vertical - nosediving into the water.

"I closed my eyes and held my breath," Richmond said. "We didn't flip, so that was good."

Leith Herrmann, head of the Gilman lower school, took his kayak over the falls before the race.

"Other than tasting Jones Falls water, it was great," he said.

On an observation deck by the falls, Joan Pamperien of Ellicott City was observing the action and pondering an attempt on the course. After watching several kayakers take the plunge, Pamperien said she is ready to give it a go next year.

"Now I see the tricks," she said. "If this is the hardest part, I know I can do it."

Pamperien said she and some friends had bicycled up the JFX from Charles Street. She said the headwind was stiff, but that she enjoyed seeing people of all ages out on the expressway.

Unlike last year, when the event was held shortly after Tropical Storm Isabel, yesterday's celebration took place in near-perfect weather - sunny and breezy, with hardly a hint of humidity.

Many of the highway walkers, such as Neva Krauss of Hampden, came with their families. Joined by her husband, son and daughter, the local actress had walked from Sisson Street past Cold Spring.

Krauss, who commutes up the JFX to Timonium, was enjoying taking the road at a different pace. "It's kind of cool to walk it and take my time to see things," she said.

As the event broke up shortly after 2 p.m., Herrmann - the morning kayaker - finished a downtown-and-back bike ride with his wife. He said he wished the city would close the expressway more often.

"I would like to see it once a month, once a week," he said.

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