Upper Potomac River Canoe Trip

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Sports  |  House: Booksie Classic
Six day canoe trip on the upper Potomac River complete in May 2015

Submitted: August 07, 2015

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Submitted: August 07, 2015

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One Hundred Miles on the Upper Potomac River

There are a limited number of rivers in the US today that offer relatively calm canoeing and readily available campsites for extended canoe trips.  The Potomac River offers this opportunity thanks to Congress which in 1971 established the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.  In addition to preserving the C&O canal tow path a series of primitive campsites have been created.

I recently completed a 6 day canoe trip on the Upper Potomac River and would like to share my experience and some of the river’s rich history.

The Potomac River has played a significant role in in American History.   The construction of the C&O canal was an important commercial link between the 13 coastal colonies and the western territory.  The Patowmack company formed in 1785 was the manifestation of George Washington’s idea that the Potomac was necessary as a trade and transportation route and vital to link the western country to the newly formed United States.  He feared that the inhabitants of the western territories would unite with another European nation.  Washington had surveyed the Potomac river basin as a young man and even then realized that this was a potential gateway to link the coastal colonies to the greater western region.  

A series of locks was constructed on the Virginia side of the river to circumvent the falls and rapids just north of Washington DC.  However, The Patowmack Company lost money during most of its operating years and was eventually taken over by the C&O Canal Company.  They undertook the construction of a continuous unobstructed canal to Cumberland, Maryland. 

The C&O canal operated from 1831 until 1924. Long narrow boats pulled by mules moved cargo up and down the potomac river basin.  It stretches 184.5 miles from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington DC.  

The Potomac River also served as the eastern border during the Civil War, separating the Northern Union states from the Southern states which had seceded.  Thanks to some strong-armed politics, President Lincoln and the Governor of Maryland were able to preserve that boundary and keep Maryland from holding a convention to vote on secession.  

Day 1

My trip starts just above canal mile marker 173, a few miles down river from the western end of the C&O canal in Cumberland, Maryland.  There is a campground and boat launch at Spring Gap, MD and that is where I have chosen to start my down river trip.  I start out on the North Branch of the Potomac River and will paddle for approximately eight miles before the reaching the confluence of the North and South Branches of the Potomac.  Immediately I am greeted by a bald eagle flying out of one the the many huge trees lining the river banks.  Wild flowers also line the flood plane just above the river bank for miles.  I believe they are some sort of wild phlox.  It is cloudy and overcast but I encounter no rain. 

I am eager to start fishing so I pull out my fly rod and very quickly catch a few smallmouth bass on a wooly bugger.   I have not been in a canoe for almost a year so I am enjoying the sounds of the outdoors joined with the rhythm of the canoe paddle cutting into the water.As I approach the campsite for the first night, I have enjoyed catching a few fish and seeing eagles, ducks, and a beaver.  

I camped at Town Creek.  I only travelled 11 miles on the first day, but I was eager to set up camp and reorganize my gear to facilitate camping and meals for the rest of the trip.  For those of you who have not tried freeze-dried cuisine, the bottom line is that it is simple and pretty good.  When you are traveling alone, it is a valuable convenience.  So, I enjoyed scrambled eggs with bacon bits and Frank’s Redhot sauce.

Day 2

The beauty of Spring continues as the wildflowers line the river and the trees and other plants are a mixture of a thousand different shades of green (have you noticed how the greens in the Spring all morph into a few shades of green as the Summer progresses?).  On this day, I saw more eagles, adults and immatures who have not grown into the adult plumage.  A few deer came to the river for water and I had an incredible osprey encounter.  I witnessed an osprey dive into the water and catch a fish with it’s talons just 20 yards in front of my boat.  The bird hit the water making a big splash and appeared to go completely submerged into the river.  It emerged from the water and then took the fish to some trees on the other side of the river and quickly returned to the tree it was originally fishing from.  I don’t know whether it was mama or papa, but the bird was definitely taking the fish back to the nest to feed the young ones.  Witnessing the osprey catching a fish that close was probably the highlight of the trip for me.  Nature is amazing!

While the C&O canal mostly follow the river, the engineers who built the canal decided to take a few short cuts along the way.  They cut out about 6 miles of river turns by digging the Paw Paw tunnel.  So, when you are measuring river travel by C&O canal mile markers, you are under estimating the distance you have paddled on this stretch of the river.   Incidently, this is one of the most remote sections of the river but also one of the most beautiful.  

I camped on the second night of my trip at Fifteenmile Creek campground.  It is easy to find because there is a boat ramp and you are close to the town of Little Orleans.  There are a number of beautiful aqueducts on this stretch of the river where the canal passes over a creek or stream and one of my favorites is the one over Fifteenmile Creek.  

Day 3

The wildlife viewing continued on day 3 with deer, eagles, ducks and Canada geese being observed.  While I really enjoyed seeing all the critters, I did find the geese to be a bit annoying.  It seems that there is no way to paddle past a goose in the morning without it honking incessantly.  I tried to stay as far away as possible and it did not help.  It definitely takes away from the serenity of the setting when a few of these noisy birds are honking away and disrupting the quiet of the day.  For some reason, I did manage to paddle past a few geese later in the day without a single honk, but that was not the case in the morning.  Perhaps they are grumpy in the morning and mellow out as the day goes on.  Or maybe it is just that they have honked so much during the early part of the day that they lose their voice.

Once again I caught a few smallmouth bass and a rock bass, mostly on a green and white weighted wooly bugger.  I did see a nice smallmouth in the river late in the day.  

I encountered a lot of wind on day three and it always seems that there is more headwind than tailwind.  Not sure why that is but it sure seems that way to me.  Finding the hiker/biker campsites on the canal from the river was difficult and on day three I failed to find one even after trying several different locations.  So, I really roughed it by camping up high on the river bank near the C&O Canal mile marker 120.  No issues, but disappointing not to find the groomed campsites that were a part of my trip plan.   It was nice to have some coyotes serenade me during the night.

Somewhere around the town of Hancock, a change in the terrain occurs.  Up to this point the river carves it’s way through the mountains and hills of Western Maryland.  Now there is more open space.  There are still hills but there are also wide valleys along the path of the river.

Day 4  

I was greeted by a calm morning overcast morning.  No headwind but there was a light rain falling when I broke camp and put on the river.  It was warm and the rain was light so it was not uncomfortable - actually quite refreshing.  I said they were light showers.  That may be overstated.  It was one of those rains where it seems that the clouds have just a little too much moisture to be capable of holding so a bit of that moisture falls out.  Anyway it was over in less than an hour.  

This stretch of the river passes Fort Frederick.  Fort Frederick was built in 1756 to protect Maryland’s frontier settlers during the French and Indian War.  It is unique because of its stone wall construction (most forts constructed during this period were made of wood and earth).  During the American Revolution it served as a prison for Hession and English soldiers.  It was also used in the Civil War as a gun emplacement to protect the C&O Canal.  These days it has been restored and represents another aspect of the rich Potomac River history.  

It is also a stretch of the river where the water flow slows down because of the presence of the first dam I will need to portage, Dam #5.  Once again the river makes a big sweeping loop that the canal builder decide to short cut.  Remember, river miles do not equal canal towpath miles.

I had to work pretty hard to get through this section of the river.  It was good to finally see the stone structure of Dam #5.  It was an easy portage on the Maryland side of the river and I was back in the canoe below the dam in less than 30 minutes.  Once again the river has some flow so I didn't have to work so hard to make progress.  

Day 4 was another day of lots of waterfowl viewing but late in the afternoon I encountered another cool wildlife incident.  I was paddling close to the Maryland side of the river when I noticed a deer resting on the river bank.  She was up from the waterline against the mud and dirt slope that was cut by higher water levels.  I was fairly close as I paddled past her but she didn't spook and run.  Soon I saw a pair of deer doing the same thing.  All in all I saw five deer resting along the river bank.  I am not sure whether they had come to the river bank to find a cool spot out of the afternoon heat, or they knew of the coming thunderstorm I was about to encounter.

I could see storm clouds building so I stopped to camp at a hiker/biker campsite just above canal mile marker 100.  It is know as Jordan Junction campsite.  I quickly put up my tent and rainfly and immediately after, the skies opened up with wind and heavy rain.  It continued for almost an hour and dumped a lot of water on the campsite.  After the storm, the campsite was a muddy mess.  I had dinner consisting of nuts, dried berries and turkey jerky inside the tent and went to bed very early.  Once again the coyotes sang to me during the night.  

Day 5

As a result of the storm last night, the steep river bank I climbed to the campsite had turned into a mudslide.  I was able to lower my gear part of the way down and then access it from below the mud slide.  So, I only fell one time getting back down to the canoe instead of multiple times.  However, before I could load the canoe for the day, I had to clean out a thick layer of leaves downed by the storm and bail out several inches of water.  

I, along with most of my gear, was a bit muddy from the storm and campsite, but I was back on the river early in the day and headed to the town of Williamsport, Maryland.  

Wiilliamsport was one of many towns that prospered because of the C&O canal trade and even today you can still see evidence of the commercial activity that was tied to the canal.  

Just below the town of Williamsport there is a small power dam that could probably be run in an empty canoe but a portage is the wise choice for a canoe with gear.  There is a clear portage path on the Maryland side of the river that actually takes you right by the old power plant.  

My canoe trip on the Potomac included three dam portages (dam not damn portages but maybe that is more appropriate).  I now had completed 2 of the 3 and expected to complete the third portage later that day.  

Dam #4 on the Potomac River is preceded by a stretch of river known as Big Slackwater.  Here the canal follows the river as it makes multiple sweeping turns and I can personally attest to the fact that Big Slackwater is a very appropriate name.  The river gets wide and deep and had no flow that I could feel.  Canoeing this stretch is further complicated by the fact that the wide deep water brings out the power boats.  As if that wasn't enough, I was paddling through this section on a Sunday morning and the power boats were out.  Canoeing along with speed boats requires caution.  You don’t want to be too close to the speed boat but you don’t want to be too close to the shoreline either.  In both cased the waves created by the wake can potentially toss your canoe.  If you have witnessed how ocean waves get amplified as they crash into the shallow water along the shore, the same phenomena occurs on the river if you are close to the river bank in shallow water.  

After paddling hard for hours to get through the Big Slackwater, I finally made it to Dam #4.  Carrying a heavy old Old Town Canoe on your shoulders is something that can be done, but believe me, no one looks forward to it.  So, I was very happy to put the boat back in the river below the dam knowing that my three portages were complete.  

Below Dam #4, the flow returns to the river and you weave your way through a series of rock ledges that cross the river.  Taylors and Snyders Landing areas provide boat ramp access to this stretch of the river and the fishing is some of the best I encountered on the trip. 

Just above canal mile marker 75 is the Killiansburg Cave hiker/biker campsite.  It is one of the few hiker/biker campsites that is clearly visible from the river.  A short hike from camp you will find Killiansburg cave.  It is just a few miles from Sharpsburg, Maryland.  During the civil war some Sharpsburg residents took refuge in the cave during the Battle of Antietam and several other times when the town of Sharpsburg was occupied by Southern troops.   To this day the battle that occurred on September 17, 1862 remains the bloodiest day in our country’s history.  There were over 22,000 casualties in a single day of fighting.  As I set up camp that night I couldn't help but think about the things that might have happened on the very ground where I was camping.  

Day 6

My final day was a short canoe trip.  I had less than 7 miles to cover and the river had good flow.  A mile or so down the river from Killiansburg Cave you see the town of Sheperdstown on the West Virginia side of the river.  High on the hill on the Maryland side of the river is Ferry Hill Plantation, the family home of Henry Kyd Douglas.  Douglas served in the Confederate army and was a member of Stonewall Jackson’s staff.  His knowledge of this area proved invaluable to the southern army during the Battle of Antietam.  

Just below Sheperdstown the river flows over Packhorse Ford.  This shallow river crossing was used by Native Americans, settlers, and the retreat of the Confederate Army from the Battle of Antietam.  

Just below canal mile marker 70, is my stopping point, Antietam Creek campground.  I am happy to have accomplished the trip as planned, but also a bit sad that it was over.  By the time I bring all my gear and canoe up to the road, my wife is there to greet me with a kiss and a cold bottle of water (there was no ice on this trip).  

One of my bucket list items for retirement was to do more canoeing and trip canoeing.  The Potomac River trip was what I hope to be the first of many for this 60 year old outdoorsman.  I chose to start with this trip because of the C&O Canal National Park.

I will close by saying to anyone who has enjoyed hiking, biking or canoeing the C&O Canal’s path along the Potomac River to Washington DC, we owe a debt to William Douglas.

In 1954 Congress had approved construction of a highway along if not on the C&O Canal Towpath that was to be similar to the Skyline Drive.  Justice William Douglas who enjoyed hiking on the canal’s towpath on the weekends wrote a letter to the Washington Post stating that the area should be preserved as a refuge, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns.  

In addition, Douglas challenged the two editors of the Washington Post, Merlo Pusey and Robert Esterbrook, to hike the entire distance of the C&O Canal with him and then use the Post and it’s political influence to help keep this sanctuary untouched.  His dream was finally achieved in 1971 when Congress approved it as a national park.  

Thanks to the efforts of Justice William Douglas, we have in his own words, “a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace…a wilderness area where we can commune with God and nature”. 

I hope you keep your paddle wet, your tent dry, and your spirits high!

 

References

 

  1. Joel Achenbach The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the race to the west, NY Simon & Schuster, 2004
  2. Wilber E Garrett and Kenneth Garrett, “Gerorge Washington’s Patowmack Canal: Waterway that led to the constitution,” National Geographic, Vol.171, No. 6, June 1987, pp. 716-753

3.  NPS.gov Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Justice Douglas: One Mand Can Make a Difference

4.  Henry Kyd Douglas, I rode with Stonewall, UNC Press, 1940

5.  Fort Frederick, dnr2.maryland.gov

6.  Maryland Dept. Natural Resources,  The Potomac River Water Trail and the C&O Canal

 


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