On a day when the heat index flirted with the 100-degree mark and the humidity lingered like an unwanted guest, Joan Worrall and Linda Kelly might very well have been the coolest women in Maryland.
The two friends sat on their inner tubes on a tiny patch of muddy sand by the side of the Gunpowder River near Monkton, close enough to the chilly water to feel its air-conditioning effect, and nibbled on watermelon chunks and smoked salmon on crackers.
On a normal day off together, they might have gone horseback riding, but it was one of those days when the National Weather Service issues dire-sounding heat advisories about proper care of children and animals.
"Today, we decided to do this -- give the poor horses a break," said Worrall, a Jacksonville resident.
It was indeed a day when man, woman and beast could appreciate a break from the hot, muggy air mass that has camped over Central Maryland since last week -- showing little inclination to move on before the weekend.
The National Weather Service said the temperature topped out at 90 degrees in Baltimore yesterday, but high humidity made it feel more like 98. Little relief is in sight, with temperatures in the 90s predicted for today and tomorrow.
The surprise at the Gunpowder yesterday was that so few people were indulging in one of Maryland's most cooling outdoor activities -- floating down a river chilled by releases of water from the depths of Prettyboy Reservoir.
Worrall and Kelly had the river almost to themselves. And that's the way they like it.
"We try to do everything on weekdays -- leave the weekends for the people with no other option," said Worrall, who had the day off from her job as a nurse.
Kelly, a retired Verizon worker from White Hall, said tubing on a hot summer day is not for everyone. "Joan and I hit it off because not many of our friends would do this," she said.
Dan Heinecke, who works at Monkton Bike Rentals, said the tube-rental business is always busy on weekends.
Heinecke, who has been floating on the river since he was 5, blamed a weather forecast calling for scattered thunderstorms for the slow traffic -- even though the storms seldom roll in before late afternoon and often do not come at all.
Undeterred by the forecasts were Don Cain of Parkton and his 5-year-old son, Jeremy, who got up early to get on the river before 10 a.m. By 11 a.m., they had finished their float from the entry spot, which is reached by a 15-minute walk up the North Central Railroad Trail.
Jeremy reported that the water, which typically hovers in the 55- to 60-degree range in summer, felt especially good yesterday. He estimated that yesterday's temperature would reach "700 degrees" after hitting "500" Monday. But he was happy because he had seen dragonflies and minnows and "heard a lot of birdies."
That is, in fact, a big part of the Gunpowder experience. With little company on the river and no roads for most of the stretch above Monkton Road, there is little to hear but birds, insects and the sound of water rippling over the rocks.
Once on the river in a tube, there is little to do but relax, feel the cold water underneath and occasionally push away from an obstacle. Unlike canoeing or kayaking or riding a bike along the trail, tubing hardly qualifies as exercise. It is relaxation, without a shred of self-improvement.
The stream sets the pace, and there is little a tuber can do to exceed it. But the Gunpowder is brisk, even in its flatwater stretches, so the feeling of heading somewhere is constant.
Gunpowder tubers share the stream with more ambitious craft, such as the kayaks being paddled by Dave Niner and his 12-year-old son, Devin.
"You're right down by the water. It's cool," said Niner.
The White Hall resident, who has lived in northern Baltimore County all his life, said he has seen many changes in the area. Most have been negative, he said, bringing development and traffic. But the Gunpowder, he said, looks better than it did when he was a boy because the water flow from Prettyboy is more regular.
Niner said he frequently sees wildlife, especially deer, along the river. But at midday yesterday, there were few sightings except for colorful insects and the occasional trout breaking the surface. The scenery was less spectacular than serene -- no small thing for a spot less than an hour's drive from downtown Baltimore.
About two-thirds of the way down the trip to the Monkton Road bridge, the river takes a turn and narrows into a mild rapids -- not enough to turn over a sturdy tube but sufficient to bounce its occupant off a few rocks.
The two friends said they have been tubing on the Gunpowder since the 1970s and think of it as the perfect place to be when it gets into the 90s.
"Usually you get out of the river, and you're cold for a couple of hours," Worrall said. "It keeps you nice into the evening."