The sun was low as the D.C. monuments came into sight, and we knew that our adventure was nearly complete. It had begun 15 days earlier at the western end of the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal National Historical Park. We could almost taste the steaks that awaited us at Tony and Joe’s, a chic pub on the Georgetown waterfront, where we’d arranged to meet a friend for a ride home.
The C&O Canal is a reminder of a time when America’s waterways were the developing nation’s first mass-transit system. The canal operated from 1850 to 1924, then sat neglected until the 1950s, when plans for a highway along its route spurred a successful movement to preserve the historic canal and its accompanying towpath. Today the canal and towpath are popular with hikers, bikers, and joggers as well as paddlers. Although most of the canal no longer holds water, the last 20 miles or so are intact, and the preserved towpath provides frequent river-access points and campsites along its entire route.
Paddling the C&O Canal is a muddy trip through history, with modern conveniences.
My paddling partner, Mark Regan, a freelance photographer, had biked the C&O towpath more than a decade earlier. He and I had talked for years about paddling its route, following the Potomac River where the canal is dry. We spent a winter planning the adventure, researching places to stop for water and food, and sorting out the logistics required of any long-distance trip.
But from our first day on the water, record-setting spring rains and rising river levels washed away most of those plans. Fortunately, hiker/biker campsites are situated about every five miles along the towpath, so we were always able to find places to stay. And while the sites were usually high enough to avoid flooding, heavy rains left many access points looking like Saturday night at the mud-wrestling arena. At some spots, the banks were so muddy that we searched far and wide for boat ramps to portage our boats to camp.
Our boats were insanely heavy. We both carried two days’ food and water, along with our tents, sleeping bags, clothing, and other gear. We each also had a small cooler, and country stores within walking distance kept us well provisioned throughout our trip. The gear we couldn’t fit inside our boats was lashed to the outside, and our kayaks rode low in the water. The river was fast, and debris was everywhere. We had to avoid huge logs drifting downstream, knowing that a capsize could end the trip. Most of the time the river is much more sedate, although numerous dams complicate this trip.
The swift water put us ahead of schedule, so after one 20-mile day in the rain, followed by a slimy scramble up a muddy boat ramp, we treated ourselves to a stay at the Red Rooster Hostel in Paw Paw, West Virginia. J. D. Gross and his wife, Shirley, welcomed us to the converted garage where he worked as a mechanic until opening the hostel. We spent time drying gear and investigating the Paw Paw Tunnel, a 3,118-foot engineering marvel completed in 1850 that bypassed six miles of meandering river. (The canal is no longer intact in that area, so we explored the tunnel on foot.) Don’t forget your flashlight.
After camping the next rainy night at Devils Alley, one of the camps along the towpath, we paddled through another rainy day to Hancock and hauled our boats to the Super 8. We duplicated this pattern for the next week, alternating two or three nights of camping on the towpath with a night in a motel to dry wet gear and resupply.
Once we reached Great Falls, we paddled the canal from there to Fletcher’s Boat House, since the canal holds water continuously from Violettes Lock to Georgetown. The numerous locks are fascinating, but navigating the canal requires frequent portages. At Fletcher’s, we dropped back into the river and made a beeline for the Georgetown waterfront, two miles away. Commuters streamed out of the city as Mark and I paddled closer, our watery commute about to end. We had survived monsoon-like weather, heinous portages around dangerous dams, and swirling, muddy water, but we still had to join that mass of snarled traffic. We consoled ourselves with the thought that our buddy John was already waiting at the appointed watering hole, and he was buying the first round.