Illustrated by Zach Schoettler
Story by Dan Rodricks
Once upon a time, long ago, the North Branch of the Potomac River was full of life. It was a beautiful river. It flowed through mountain forests, over and past big boulders, and under cliffs. Trout and bass lived in it. And turtles and frogs. Deer drank from the water of the North Branch. The natives of the region ate the fish from the river and went swimming and canoeing in it.
This was a long time ago, before people came by boat from England to live in America.
One day, when they were out exploring, some people discovered something under the ground near the North Branch.
“Coal! We discovered coals in them there hills!”
Coal was a black rock that could be burned to heat people’s houses and cook their food. Coal could make big fires that made steam that was needed in factories, and coal was used as fuel for trains. Pretty soon thousands of men were digging deep holes in the ground to find the coal. Those holes were called mines and some of them went more than 100 feet underground. The men who dug the mines were miners. It was hard, dirty work, and it could be dangerous.
As years went by, the miners would empty a mine of all its coal. So they would leave. And the mines would fill with water and when the water came out of an abandoned mine it brought poison with it — mineral acid that was very bad for the North Branch and all the fish, turtles and frogs.
Pretty soon, the North Branch was so full of mine acid that nothing could live in it. The river was still kind of pretty, but the trout and bass, turtles and frogs all disappeared. Even the insects stayed away.
No one cared. No one did anything to help the poor old river for a very long time.
And then Dr. Bob Bachman came along.
Dr. Bob was a river doctor. He knew how to make rivers better again. He had a plan for the North Branch.
“This river needs medicine!” Dr. Bob said. And Dr. Bob knew what kind of medicine to give the North Branch — a white powder called limestone.
Limestone can make some of the mine acid go away. It’s like when someone eats too much spicy food and gets a tummy ache. They take a pill, called an antacid, and it makes the tummy better. Same thing with the river. The limestone would take away the acid from the mines.
So that’s what Dr. Bob and a whole team of river doctors did — they found a way to give the North Branch a steady dose of powdered limestone until the water was better again.
They put a whole bunch of the powdered limestone in big tanks in the woods, and every few minutes some of that medicine would fall into the North Branch. It made the water milky at first, then it dissolved and became invisible.
And you know what?
“The trout can live in the North Branch again!” Dr. Bob exclaimed.
Pretty soon there were trout everywhere again, and bass, and turtles and frogs. And big birds — heron, ospreys and bald eagles — came from many miles away to go fishing for food in the river. The North Branch was again healthy. All because of the limestone medicine. And because Dr. Bob and the other river doctors cared about the river.
Now they go fishing in the North Branch, and people go kayaking in it too. It’s what it was a long time ago: A river full of life and beautiful.