I think the word “Patapsico” (also spelled “Patapsco” by tourists, the Department of Natural Resources and the dictionary) has been a part of my consciousness for as long as I can remember. Decades before the 1994 establishment of the tire park in the Hilton area of Patapsco State Park, my friends and I used the area as our playground, scrambling around on the banks of the river and playing Indians in an unknowing homage to the Susquehannock and Piscataway tribes who inhabited the area centuries before.
My family always loved the outdoors and it seemed like at least part of every childhood summer was spent visiting the park and river with either my father or one of my older sisters. One sister in particular was a favorite babysitter, for she would take my friends and me to the swinging bridge in the Avalon area of the park. After marching us, Gestapo style, to the middle of the bridge, she would then jump up and down while yanking on the rickety wooden structure, causing the bridge to violently sway to and fro as we kids screamed in terrified pleasure. This was the pre-Hurricane Agnes swinging bridge I’m talking about, not the namby pamby up to code suspension bridge you see today. The bridge I remember as a child was one that would give Indiana Jones pause.
As I got older I was allowed to go down to the river on my own, a privilege of which I was more than happy to take advantage. Riding our bikes and precariously balancing fishing rods, we would basically bushwhack our way down to the river, as the trails were not nearly as well-maintained as they are today. Once at the river we would fight the flotsam and jetsam floating by, sinking our lines in an effort to catch the giant catfish lurking on the bottom of the murky waterway. This was the seventies and real efforts to clean up the river were still a few old tires and some rusted refrigerators away. Most of the “sea glass” found at that time was in the form of broken Bud bottles. And it was pretty clear not to eat what we caught. Even a twelve year old knows better than to eat a fish that smells dead while it’s still alive.
As a teen my friends and I would sometimes hang out around Bloedes Dam, located just upstream of the swinging bridge. The braver and/or dumber among us would slide down the dam, depending on the invincibility of youth to land them in the water instead of dashed on the rocks obscured by the churning foam at the base of the dam. Thank God the park police would come along to ruin the fun, their salaries an excellent example of taxpayer money at work.
The park has come a long, long way since those days of my youth. Today’s Patapsco River, encompassed by parkland for 32 miles of its length, is clean and clear, providing a summer’s worth of tubing, swimming and fishing. The trails, over 170 miles of them, are outstandingly well maintained, thanks in different measures to the Department of Natural Resources, volunteers, and the attention brought to this area by mountain bikers. In addition, the new swinging bridge, built in 2006, links Ilchester Road to the , allowing easy entry to the park from Ellicott City and Catonsville for the first time since Hurricane Agnes destroyed much of the riverfront road in 1972.
When I’m hiking or jogging with my dog and friends along the Grist Mill Trail, I’m always pleased to see the next generation of kids and teens enjoying the river. Just this morning, my 13-year-old son headed to the park with his friend, hoping to get in at least a little trouble. I had to bite my tongue to keep from warning him away from the dam, not knowing what he’d do with the idea of sliding down it once his pubescent brain got a hold of such thoughts.
It warms my heart to know my son is spending a summer day down by the Patapsico just as I did at his age.
I just hope when he returns home he'll tell me only water went over that dam.