I have never met a self-respecting Washingtonian who has taken a DC Ducks tour.
This was no deal breaker.
The people who make their lives in Washington exist in sometimes uneasy concert with the tourists who journey here year-round to see the nation’s capital and its attendant attractions: museums, monuments, government edifices.
In places such as the Capitol or the National Mall, these two tribes occupy the same space. But on ventures like the DC Ducks tour, never the twain shall meet.
But what if they did?
“Oh, you’re doing that? Why?” one befuddled colleague asked after being made aware of my DC Ducks tour intent.
Every year, around early April, otherwise reasonable people mutter violent fantasies about what they’d like to do to the cherry blossoms and the traffic they bring to Independence Avenue. It’s perhaps not healthy to gleefully chuckle when the cherry blossoms fail to bloom at the anointed Cherry Blossom Festival time, but it does help blow off steam. Tourists are here throughout the year, helping keep the economy afloat, and traffic at a crawl.
Perhaps there is a better way to understand the tourist tribe, and perhaps no better place to start than with the 90-minute land-and-waterway tour taken via a refurbished 1942 DUKW amphibious vehicle.
There are many aspects of the Washington tourist agenda that no local sees himself participating in. A trip to the Lincoln Memorial is a touchstone moment for visitor and native alike. Heavily visited or not, the Great Emancipator statue is an amazing sight. No one thinks you’re a dork for paying respect to a great president.
But inserting a plastic duck call into your mouth and waiting for your “wise-quacking captains” to give the signal for a “quack attack” — that’s another matter.
“You guys aren’t going to come back with those annoying quacky things are you?” another colleague asked, adding with a shudder, “I hate those things.”
Strong feelings. It was time to climb aboard.
“The Coast Guard says you’re safe now,” Capt. Bob informs us as he hoists the ladder up the stern. There is even a sticker to prove the Coast Guard approves of the Rubber Duck, setting out from Union Station at 1530 hours on April 22 with 19 souls on board.
Not everyone was convinced.
“These things go down all the time,” said Humberto Sanchez, a colleague who, although obviously skeptical of our chances of safe passage, agreed to accompany Roll Call After Dark. While he was joking, the fact remains that the vessels are World War II vintage. You half expects to see dents in the hull made by the helmets of Nazi soldiers on Omaha Beach.
It’s not hard to find evidence of DUKW tragedy, not with headlines like this from last summer in the London Daily Mail: “Tourist terror as amphibious duck bus carrying 31 people sinks in Liverpool's Albert Dock for the SECOND time in three months.”
Closer to home, a duck boat tour in Philadelphia was rammed in 2010 by a tugboat in the Delaware River, killing two tourists.
Capt. Bob seemed most concerned about D.C.’s traffic, though. We were setting out at the beginning of rush hour, so no holds were barred.
“Keep your hands in. This is D.C.,” he warned, perhaps worried that other tall-masted tourist vessels would ram us on Constitution Avenue. “I will be slamming on the brakes,” he added. A quick glance around the hull showed no seat belts, although there were life jackets for 25.
“Sold out, even in the rain. I’m surprised,” said Daniel Newhauser, another colleague brave enough to join the trip as we tried to buy tickets for the 1400 hours slot on a Tuesday during recess.
Still, the popularity of the 90-minute tours is unmistakable. Few DUKWs start out from their Union Station port with more than a handful of empty seats. April 22nd's manifest listed Capt. Bob, 13 adults and 5 children, a relatively demographically diverse crowd, with ages ranging from early childhood to old age, predominantly white but with two blacks, one Hispanic and one Asian.
When Capt. Bob starts the engines, the grinding roar is a marked contrast to the smooth-gliding propulsion of modern automotive engineering. As we pull out into the slow-moving maw of gridlock around the Capitol, Capt. Bob fills us in, like a junior-higher schooling fifth graders on the intricacy of the spitball, the proper technique for “quack attacks.”
Passing by the Hall of the States and C-SPAN, he says, “If we see the cameras, we give them a quack attack. Then, cut! They have to do it again,” explaining how to ruin a television producer’s day. Another accepted quack attack prompt is the unsuspecting cellphone talker.
The tour proceeds apace and without incident. We creep up on the White House, where Capt. Bob cues “Hail to the Chief” on the Rubber Duck’s PA system, which also sounds of World War II vintage; Capt. Bob outlines the intricacies of the Federal Trade Commission’s mission, waxes about the Albert Einstein statue’s nose and explains that the Washington Monument is about to re-open after sustaining earthquake damage. One of the tour-goers, a sweet little old lady who obliged requests for multiple photos, asks about the “tulip trees” on the South Lawn of the White House, before someone guesses she was asking about the cherry blossoms. That was about as rough-going as the first 30 minutes went. Then we crossed the Memorial Bridge, and began our descent to the Potomac River, on the lookout for tugboats.
“Warp speed! Warp speed!” Capt. Bob yells as the Rubber Duck tops out at 25 miles per hour, swinging onto the George Washington Parkway off the Memorial Bridge en route to our put-in spot at the Columbia Island Marina.
The marina, situated in between the Pentagon and the Lyndon Johnson Memorial Grove, Capt. Bob explains, is a low-noise zone, so he disconnects his microphone headset as the Rubber Duck glides into the water.
It feels incongruous, no matter how many times the duck tour concept is explained, to be one minute driving on land and the next humming along the water. The lack of tour-guide patois and the peaceful marina environment signal that the next phase is beginning.
“This is definitely the coolest part of the tour,” says Sanchez the skeptic, as the quiet leads to reflection among tour-goers.
As soon as the Rubber Duck reaches the mouth of the Potomac, though, the return to the world of DC Ducks tourism begins, as Capt. Bob cues the theme song to “Gilligan’s Island.”
Out on the Potomac’s high seas, the day’s weather has broken. The rain has stopped, and fellow tour-goers begin to notice the planes above us, banking along the river en route to landing at Ronald Reagan National Airport.
Once satisfied there are no encroaching tugboats, Capt. Bob allows the young and young at heart a few moments at the wheel.
When I take the wheel, having patiently allowed the two children closest to Capt. Bob their turns, I assume command of the Rubber Duck and its 19 passengers.
“Capt. Bob? What's the worst thing you can do in this situation?” Sanchez asks, showing a remarkable lack of faith in my piloting skills, even at 1 knot.
“There’s a lot you can do wrong,” Capt. Bob replies.
Everyone laughs, but the passengers are perhaps relieved when Capt. Bob retakes the conn and begins our tour back to terra firma and the last 30 minutes of our journey. When we leave the water at Roaches Run and the wheels start rolling at Gravelly Point, Capt. Bob cues Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.”
Our journey back to Union Station is less inspired. Perhaps the relief of not being hit by a tugboat has left us emotionally exhausted. Along 14th Street, Capt. Bob bemoans the lack of cellphone talkers and “quack attack” opportunities.
Slicing along the West Front of the Capitol, there are many selfies taken with the Dome in the background. Capt. Bob explains that the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial is quite large. Sanchez says, sotto voce, that he has always preferred the James Garfield statue.
Capt. Bob’s last good crack is aimed at the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body: “We poke fun at the Senate office buildings. You call them the SOBs,” he says.
As the Rubber Duck prepares its final swing up Delaware Avenue to Columbus Circle, a land-lubber tourist walking along D Street Northeast stops, points at us, and illustrates why DC Ducks and its brethren enjoy a certain popularity.
“Hey! It’s a duck. Take a picture,” she says.
We all quack at her and wave.
It would be hard to argue it hasn’t been fun.