Dean Naujoks fires up the engine of his boat at the Bell Haven Marina in Alexandria, Virginia, and heads out to his version of an office cubicle: the wide, windy, greenish-gray currents of the Potomac River.
“This is the Woodrow Wilson Bridge,” Naujoks says as he guides the boat on a sunny morning. “And then right over here is Jones Point Lighthouse. This is the oldest riverine lighthouse in the country.”
For the last three and a half years, Naujoks – a 49-year-old veteran environmental activist and son of a tool-and-die maker from Eastern Pennsylvania – has worked as the Potomac Riverkeeper, leading a nonprofit organization that advocates for cleaner water.
Much of his job involves technical environmental policy issues—like a new state law that Naujoks and his colleagues successfully lobbied for that requires Alexandria to stop dumping raw sewage into the nation’s river from its antiquated combined stormwater pipes within eight years.
But before he started the job back in 2015, Naujoks wanted to make sure he really understood the river he was defending – and not just the paperwork and the policies. So he decided to take off and paddle its length, by himself.
“It took three weeks,” Naujoks recalled. “It was about 300 miles, and I averaged about 14.6 miles a day. So it was a pretty grueling pace at times. But it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. This river, I can honestly say, from top to bottom, is beautiful.”
But not always peaceful. After nightfall one day, he was paddling near Harper’s Ferry when he unexpectedly plunged -- in the dark -- over a small waterfall caused by a rock shelf, flipping his canoe and spilling his camping equipment in the pitch black.
“The gear was tied to the boat, so I was basically holding onto the boat—but luckily it kind of sunk,” Naujoks said. “But just getting all the gear out and putting it up on rocks while I’m standing in three feet of water with whitewater going past me, and then dumping all of the water out of my boat, and getting it up onto an area where I can load all my gear, took some doing in the pitch black.”
Then....the storm struck.
“Hurricane Joaquin came through, and suddenly I was dealing with rain for six straight days, with heavy winds,” Naujoks said.
And the river – which was supposed to be his friend and client– rose and turned angry. He was forced to switch boats.
“So I literally rafted into DC on class 4 rapids,” Naujoks remembered. “And then I thought that would be the scariest part. But the reality is that -- as I was coming through DC – it was in flood stage, because there was so much rain.... But then then I still had another 100 miles of tidal river to paddle down to the Chesapeake Bay, which was also an adventure, in and of itself.”
All along the way, Naujoks said he was inspired by not only the power of the river, but by the generosity of scores of people he met along the way who volunteered to help him complete his journey and were moved by his epic dedication to the river.
Since his bonding experience with the waterway, Naujoks has only become more determined to clean it up. And he has witnessed tangible evidence that his crusade is working, with his advocacy starting to help reduce both sewage and urban stormwater pollution.
“President Lyndon Johnson said the Potomac River is a national disgrace back in 1961, and it was,” Naujoks said. “We’ve come a long way – there’s been a lot of improvements made, including upgrading wastewater treatment systems and better practices from industry. But there are still a lot of threats, too. Urban stormwater pollution is still a growing source of pollution to the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. We still have a lot of concentrated animal feeding operations farther up in the river basin, in the Shenandoah River and other places that are causing tremendous amounts of pollution and causing algae blooms and problems down in the Chesapeake Bay. So until we get a handle on those, we are never going to fully clean up the bay.”
His love of the river is a tough one – but it is paying off.