C&O Canal

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C&O Canal, a National Historical Park (NHP)-

Great Falls Park

Fort Frederick State Park (MD)

Buck Valley Ranch



January, 2004





May, 2004
















June, 2004






The C&O Canal Towpath & the Wrath of Hurricane Isabel

September 12-17, 2003

We finally reached a point in our training where we actually thought we were ready for a more lengthy trip, say a week or so. But we weren’t quite confident enough with our planning regimen to take on a hike of this magnitude in an area where if we miscalculated our supply needs, we would be stranded and our corpses would not be found until way after we had been fired from our jobs for not showing up at the end of our scheduled vacation break.

 We decided that hiking the C&O Canal Towpath 130 miles, from Cumberland, MD to Brunswick, MD would be just the ticket. It would not be a physically strenuous hike, from the standpoint of terrain, so we could concentrate on other important aspects of a long hike such as stepping up our pace and packing adequate food supplies and then rationing them for the duration of a longer hike. We were confident that we could complete it in 7 day’s time – hands-down. We would plan on doing the rest, from Brunswick to Washington, DC at another time. We had already hiked a number of sections of the C&O from DC and points north just as day hikes, so doing the northern section, where there is much less development and traffic, would be a treat.

 What we did not want to do is have to drive two cars to both ends of this trip so we added a new dimension to our adventure this time; we drove one car to Brunswick the night before the hike and on Friday evening took an AMTRAK train from Rockville, MD to Cumberland. If you ever have the chance to do something like this, take advantage of it. We had a grand time. We walked right onto the train with our gear and joined up with all the Friday evening commuters who regularly make this trip from Washington, DC to their homes in the outer reaches of Maryland and West Virginia. Personally, I think it is quite nuts to make this kind of trip on a daily, or even, weekly basis just because there are high paying jobs in DC. But then again, when the median price of a home in the DC/Metro area is $429,000.00, buying a house that costs one-third of that price waaaaay out in the suburbs and commuting 3-4 hours a day makes some modicum of sense, I suppose – but not to me. At the ripe old age of 55, I am beginning to count each available hour of life I have left and wasting that much of them sitting on a train just does not make a whole lot of sense. What we found odd was that this trip was taken not that long after 9-11 and, yet, no one ever searched our packs or even gave us a second glance when we entered the train. But in hindsight, the main concern during that time was with terrorism on planes so trains were not even on the radar as a high risk. With the events in Madrid and London in 2005, I wonder if things would be different were we to take this trip now.

 We were like little kids on their first vacation with our faces glued to the windows in order to try to recognize places along the tracks that we had only previously seen from a car window. It was a different and exciting perspective to see it from the train. We stopped in all sorts of small towns along the way with their quaint reconditioned 19th century train stations and, in some respects, it was like going back to a more relaxed time when towns such as those lived and died by the activities surrounding the trains that passed through. We saw things that you would never get to see from the air- conditioned comfort of a car. And, of course, we had to explore! We were all over the train checking out the dining car, for lack of a better term, gift shop with all it’s AMTRAK memorabilia and even the rest rooms. I think, some day, we would like to do a cross-country trip on a train and just live on the train for a week or so. 

We arrived in the sleepy town of Cumberland at around 8:00 p.m. or so and took a short hike to the Holiday Inn which was right across the tracks and only a few blocks from the C&O trailhead. And once again we were beginning an adventure by relishing all the comforts of commercial civilization rather than just hitting the trail and toughing it out. After checking in and visiting the restaurant for dinner, we had, what would probably be our last good night’s sleep for a week. Funny thing about restaurants in towns that are far from the trendiness and health consciousness of the urban centers; every entrée comes with some type of potato; be they garlic mashed, baked with all the toppings or french fried. Haven’t these folks ever heard of the South Beach Diet or heart attacks? I suppose that in this instance, where we knew we would be burning a lot of calories over the next week, all those carbs would be a good thing so I went ahead and ordered meat loaf, seldom found in our regular rotation of urban restaurants like Applebees, TGI Fridays, Ruby Tuesday’s or Outback and also the mashed potatoes. I was in heaven knowing that from here on out it would be tuna, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and power bars. 

 Saturday we awoke early, had breakfast at the hotel and started our trek through town to the trailhead. We found Cumberland to be quaint and unassuming and there is quite an elaborate C&O Canal visitor center and museum right before the trailhead. And, since the C&O is a mecca for bikers, who on weekends turn the towpath into a two-wheeled version of the Washington Capitol Beltway, there was also the proverbial bike rental shop. The weather was gray and a heavy mist hung in the air but both of these added to the consummate beauty of the Potomac River, which parallels the towpath. Since we started out so early, we only passes a few early-morning joggers and a few very friendly local walkers so we had time to just look around and take numerous pictures of the unfamiliar surroundings. We kept up a pretty good pace, took our requisite snack breaks at the appropriate times and looked forward to making camp at the hiker-biker site some 15 miles ahead. As the day worn on we became cognizant of the fact that, despite the trail being flat and without any rocks to abuse our feet, they were indeed developing sore and hot spots on several toes. We found this to be very curious and a bit disconcerting considering all the foot-toughening expeditions we had been on up to this point. Little did we know that this was just the beginning of what was to become the biggest hurdle of this trip.

 Late in the afternoon, with our feet becoming increasingly tender, we arrived at our scheduled stop for the day; a very nice hiker-biker site. These sites are strategically placed every 4-6 miles on the C&O, generally near one of the restored lock houses, and are complete with, at least, one picnic table, a port-o-john and a water pump. Because we had researched all of this information prior to setting out on this adventure, we were completely comfortable with our pace and use of water because we knew when we would be able to replenish our hydration packs. What a horror to find that the handle had been removed from the water pump evidently due to the fact that the water in the cistern was not fit to drink. Psychologically, we had shut down for the day, thinking that this site was the end of our day and we became quite demoralized by the fact that we would now need to go another 4-6 miles, at a hurried pace, in order to arrive at the next site before nightfall. Even then, we were now not sure that there would be water there either. We grumbled, swore (though be it not using the Lord God’s name in vain), put on our packs and headed back out onto the trail. It was the most grueling 5 miles we had ever done and by the time we reached the next site, both of us were suffering mercilessly with sore feet and aching legs. There was an operating water pump at this site but, to add further frustration to an already merciless day, the pump handle was frozen and it took an incredible amount of effort to break it loose. To say we were disappointed and extremely unhappy would be an understatement. This was our first real taste of the unpredictability of life on the trail and we had failed rather miserably in coping with it. Of course, up until the writing of this journal entry, we were the only people on earth who knew that.

 As quickly as our tired and ravaged limbs would allow us, we set up our tent, filled our hydration packs, prepared and ate dinner and called it a day, hoping upon hope that we would miraculously recover overnight and be ready to do another 15 miles the next day. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. We awoke the next morning to beautiful weather, which as it turned out, was the only redeeming virtue of the day. Our feet were a mess and we spent the first hour of the day, nursing all the blisters and protecting the remaining hot spots so that we could make any miles at all.

 As it turned out, we only made 9 miles on Sunday and even that was a painfully slow process. We decided that we needed to rest our feet and legs and that, despite the fact that a 9-mile day would significantly impact out schedule, we decided to leave the trail at Paw Paw, West Virginia and stay at the hostel there to nurse our wounds. The last mile into Paw Paw was brutal road walking but we finally made it, spending most of our time diving in to ditches so we would not be hit by cars.

 Paw Paw is an interesting town; a bit eerie in fact and the hostel is a converted gas station. What we found inside though was thoroughly entertaining and rejuvenated our spirits. The caretakers were extremely pleasant and were more than willing to chat at length about the history of the town; or what was left of it. Once we had set up our tent, ate dinner and did some more first-aid work on our feet, we went back inside where we sat with the caretaker, in the hostel’s great room, and heard about “The Big Flood”; the catastrophe that became the downfall of the town and had reduced this once thriving town to nothing more than a rundown stop along the trail where most of the buildings were abandoned. We even got to see a book about the history of the town complete with pictures of the devastation of the flood. The caretaker turned to a much-viewed, dog-eared page and gleefully showed us the “famous” picture of the cow wedged beneath the bottom of the bridge into town. Now this bridge hovers a good 35-40 feet above the river so the fact that a cow was washed downstream and got stuck under this bridge was pretty amazing. I guess when you live in a town like Paw-Paw, something like this happening is akin to a visit by the Pope.

 Virtually every building in town was boarded up or was run down to the point of giving the appearance of being abandoned. The centerpiece of this community, both socially and commercially, was the local gas station that also included a small market. It definitely was not the cheapest place in the world to shop but it was all that was available. We went on a search for more first aid items for our feet, to replenish what we had already used, but had little, if any, luck. It seems that the stocking list for this store and the other mom & pop store in town was designed to cater to the local clientele, not the needs of lowly thru-hikers. So, if we had been in need of chewing tobacco, fishing gear or 12-guage shot gun shells we would have reached nirvana. But band-aids and blister packs – well, no such luck. So, we gingerly walked back to our tent and called it a day.

 The human body is an incredible marvel of God’s creation and its ability to heal itself just never ceases to amaze us. When we awoke in the morning we aptly expected to still be crippled to the point of not being able to move at all but to our amazement, aside from some obvious stiffness that we had grown accustomed to on these hikes and some tenderness in our feet, we were in remarkably good shape. We hobbled down the road back to the trail and by the time we reached the infamous Paw Paw Tunnel, we were pretty much back up to our normal walking speed.

 The Paw Paw Tunnel, at times referred to as one of the "Wonders of the World," is one of the major features of the canal. It was estimated that construction of the nearly one kilometer-long tunnel (3118') would take two years. Instead, it ended up being fourteen years between the onset of construction and the opening of the tunnel to traffic.

 Some of the problems faced by the builders of the tunnel were ethnic violence which broke out among the Irish, English and Dutch workers, financial woes, and a general underestimation of the difficulty of the job. The completed tunnel was only wide enough for one boat to go through at a time. When a boat arrived at a tunnel entrance, a boy would be sent to place a lantern at the other end to signal to oncoming boats that the tunnel was already occupied. Usually this sufficed. However, from time to time boats would meet in the middle and one would have to retreat. On one memorable occasion, the captains of the two boats that met in the middle were particularly stubborn. For days, neither would agree to turn around. Finally the section superintendent of that part of the canal could stand it no longer. He bought all the cornstalks he could and built a roaring fire at the upwind end of the tunnel. Both boats exited very quickly.

 Hiking through the tunnel gave us the first chance to use our new headlamps and they worked like a dream. As we walked through the dark on the dirt path that the mules used to pull the barges through the tunnel, we could hear the dripping of water from the joints in the millions of bricks that made up the tunnel. It was an awe-inspiring and eerie walk and as we exited out the other end we knew this would be one place on the hike that we would never forget.

 The better part of the day was spent just taking in all the natural beauty around us, the myriad of wildlife such as turtles, deer, muskrat, beavers and birds. But, as we approached the next hiker-biker site to have lunch the sky grew ominous and we had a feeling that this was going to be another interesting day.

 As we were finishing up lunch, we heard what sounded like rolling thunder but Georgia insisted that it was only a large plane passing overhead. Then we heard it again and we prepared for the worst. Now we had to make a decision; pitch our tent and ride out the storm or keep going and deal with whatever mother nature threw at us. Since the site we were at was close to, and only a few feet above, the Potomac River, we decided that this was probably not a good place to ride out a storm of unknown intensity and duration. So off we went with a new resolve.

 Before we knew it we were in the middle of the most intense storm that we had, to this date, ever experienced. Despite having our rain jackets on we were soaked within minutes. This episode confirmed the fact that the rain gear we had, though lightweight was simply not adequate for this type of weather. We have since purchased Frogg Toggs that are not only incredibly lightweight but also super water resistant. This rain gear is the bomb!

 Well, back to the story. Our boots were soaked to the point where our feet were sloshing around inside them which doesn’t lend itself well to the healing of blisters and our clothes now weighed twice what they did when dry. Not long after the storm started we reached a point on the trail where we walked underneath a railroad trestle and as we looked ahead we saw a shadowy figure approaching from the other direction. Now this was a bit disconcerting since we had not seen another human being since leaving the tunnel in Paw Paw. Were our eyes deceiving us because of the intensity of the rain? The figure grew closer and we could see that this person was dressed all in camouflage and was carrying a crossbow and a quiver full of arrows. Immediately the strains of the “Dueling Banjos” from “Deliverance” echoed all around us and we had the sinking feeling that we may be doomed. You see there is no hunting allowed along the trail, so what was this person really doing here?  We walked up to him and as we passed in the driving rain he asked, in a somewhat sinister voice, “Are we having fun yet?”

 Our pace immediately quickened and, until we were clearly out of range of his bow, I was constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure he was still headed away from us. On top of this unnerving confrontation we later found out that the section of rail that we were on when this all occurred is conspicuously called “Devils Alley”. Way too weird!

 The rain finally let up but, by this time, we were so wet that it really did not make any difference and we resolved ourselves to the fact that the rest of the day was going to be uncomfortable. But in the back of our minds, we were comforted by the fact that at our next stop we were going to get a good meal at Bob’s Place which is a restaurant right on the trail at the Little Orleans Campground. But once again our dreams were dashed!

 Seems that Bob’s Place, which was a very rustic place complete with a bar and, from what we were told, a very good menu, had burned down several months prior to our arrival. Now, a new, more modern log structure had been erected in its place and though its reputation was still in tact, Bob had developed a more relaxed attitude with regards to when he would be open. As we walked up onto the wrap-around porch, with visions of a hot meal and possibly a cold Coors Light dancing in our heads, we were abruptly wrenched back to reality by a sign that read, “Closed – Gone Fishin’”. Are you kidding me? That only happens in Mayberry or on cartoons. But, come to think of it, this area was a lot like Mayberry.

 Well, no problem, we will go to Plan “B”. Plan “B: being that we would call one of the hostels or B&Bs on the list we had with us and they could pick us up and take us back to reality for the night. Well, it seems that Bob had taken everybody in town with him fishing because no one answered any of the numbers we called. It was looking more and more like we would have to pitch the tent and spend a fitful night at the campground.

 As we sat on the porch contemplating our fate, several bikers showed up who were as wet as we were but who obviously had better plans for the evening then us. As we talked with them we found that they had arranged for a person to pick them up and take them to a ranch in Pennsylvania for the night. Viola! We may be off the hook! Shortly thereafter, an old beat up Ford F-250 with a crew cab and enough rust on the body to deem it un-roadworthy in any other state, pulled up and out jumped a grizzled farmer with a scruffy red beard. But hey, considering our current position, who were we to judge. This guy could be our first experience with a “Trail Angel”. As he loaded everyone’s bike into the back of his truck we inquired as to whether or not he had room for us “at the inn” and he answered that he did but qualified his answer with what it would cost us for the night. At this point, we didn’t care. We threw our packs in the back, jumped into the cramped crew cab and off we went.

 We drove for what seemed like hours up into the hills of Pennsylvania, past the “original” Mason-Dixon Line, until we reached the Buck Valley Ranch. Leon and his wife Nadine had been running this ranch for years and made a decent living by giving horseback trips through the Pennsylvania mountains and putting up bikers and hikers from the C&O. We were escorted into this huge, old farmhouse replete with Nadine’s collection of ceramic figurines and the most eclectic array of art work we had ever seen. We were shown our rooms and proceeded to change into some dry clothes after a nice hot shower. Nadine informed us that if we would give her our wet clothes she would take them to their house, across the yard, and dry them out for us. This was just amazing! Especially since she was not expecting us and, in fact, nicknamed us “The Strays”. Leon showed us around the house, let us know where the refrigerator full of beer was and let us know that dinner would be ready shortly. What came next just blew us away!

 Seems that Leon, besides being a cowboy for many years, had developed quite a knack as a cook. As we sat down for dinner, we were amazed by all the options he presented to us. There was salad, fresh tomatoes, chicken, potatoes, corn, rolls and our choice of beverage. There was enough food to feed 20 people and every bit of it was delicious. As we stuffed in the last bit of chicken, Nadine let us know that we must leave room for Leon’s homemade peach cobbler and ice cream. At this point, returning to the trail the next day didn’t sound like such an inviting idea. We sat around for hours just talking with our newfound friends and after a brief moment on the front porch, looking up at the most star-filled sky we had ever seen, we called it a day.

 As if we had not had enough food the night before, breakfast put us over the edge. There were eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage, juice, toast, fruit, coffee and muffins. Now this is what the trail should be! Leon would even pack us a box lunch to take back on the trail. Since we still had plenty of food of our own we chose not to go that route. We all loaded into the truck, bid farewell to our hostess and headed back to the trail. It was a gorgeous day with mild temperatures and, thank God, not a cloud in the sky. We said good-bye to Leon, thanked him for all he had done for us, said we would keep in touch and headed on down the trail, more determined than ever to make it to Brunswick, MD on our scheduled day.

 Totally re-energized, we picked up the pace and just walked, talked, looked and wondered. Our sore feet were a distant memory by this time and it was just an unbelievable day. One of the high points of the day was the sight of a Pileated woodpecker that came out of a tree next to the trail, just missing us, and flew down the trail ahead of us. It was so cool!

 One of the wonderful advantages of being on the trail is that you are out of virtually complete contact with the outside world and what is going on. With no radio or TV, you can just concentrate on the immediate world within eyesight and your stress level tends to go to the negative side of zero. However, there is a downside to this, as well, as we were about to find out.

 As we walked along just thoroughly enjoying ourselves, we talked about the fact that despite all the unexpected turns of events so far, we were going to complete the entire 130 miles to Brunswick just as we had planned. Not long after heading out, we began to notice a lot of activity along the trail involving employees of the National Park Service. The solitude of our trip was now being constantly interrupted by pick-up trucks towing flatbed trailers down the trail. And what was additionally disturbing was the fact that, on these trailers, were port-o-johns and picnic tables; lots of them. Since we had been deliberately incommunicado all week, what we were not aware of was that there was a huge hurricane, named Isabel, that was scheduled to hit the mid-Atlantic in the next few days. As a precaution against loosing valuable park property to a potentially flooded Potomac River, the NPS was picking up everything at the hiker-biker sites and taking it to a more secure location. It never occurred to us that we would need to cut our trip short. We would just have to come up with alternate plans to deal with the fact that there would be no services, like water, available at our remaining overnight stops. Port-o-Johns? We don’t need no stinkin’ Port-o-Johns! However, developing those plans was a short-lived endeavor when we were informed by one of the park rangers that we would need to leave the trail by Wednesday and that no one was going to be allowed to use the trail until the danger of flooding had passed.

 We were devastated! Not to mention the fact that our car was parked another three days’ hike down the trail. However, if there was one thing that we had learned so far on this hike, it was that we needed to look at every turn of events, be they good or bad, as an adventure; an obstacle that we needed to overcome and still keep good spirits as we did. Such was this situation. Within 15 minutes we had worked out our plan; all the while keeping up our pace as if nothing had changed.

 We decided that we would continue hiking this day until we reached Hancock, MD where we would leave the trail, hike into town and find a place to stay. During a snack break, Georgia pulled out her cell phone (yes, we do submit to the use of technology a bit especially if it something that can help us out in an emergency) and called the Motel 8 to get us a room. We then decided that the only way to get from Hancock to Brunswick was to get a cab, which we knew was an expensive proposition but it was our only option. As it turned out, Hancock only had one cab company so we considered ourselves very blessed by the fact that these folks were willing to take us the 30-some miles to our car.

 Compared to the previous part of the week, this last evening and the ride to Brunswick were relatively uneventful. We hiked through town, with its array of mom & pop storefronts, off-brand gas stations and the town’s culinary mecca, Pizza Hut, until we reached the motel. At this point we were very tired, hot, sore, a bit frustrated and more than a bit smelly from our day on the trail. The air conditioning and hot shower were welcome amenities and we ordered dinner from a local restaurant and had it delivered to our room. As we ate, we watched reports on Isabel and, based on the predictions by the National Weather Service, it was probably a wise idea that we would not be on the trail for the next few days. But, in the back of our minds there was this nagging feeling that we had failed; had been defeated by the whims of nature and had not been allowed to challenge them to see if we could defeat what was thrown in our path.

 The next morning we rose early, jumped in our cab and we were off, weaving our way through the scenic countryside of Northern Maryland to Brunswick. Now what is so memorable about this trip, aside from the lack of water, sore feet, torrential downpours, trail angels and the hurricane was this; the providence of God through this whole adventure and the underlying fact of why we needed to be off the trail.

 As it turned out, when we finally arrived home there were numerous phone messages on our machine informing us that Georgia’s grandmother had been in a bad car accident and was in intensive care in a hospital outside Chicago. With that, we were on the phone getting plane tickets and within hours we were in the air and on our way to see her. We spent the remainder of our vacation with family at her bedside and, had it not been for the series of events that brought us home early, we would not have been able to be there with her. God is good – all the time.

 The remainder of this hike would have to wait for another day.


The C&O Canal Towpath - Monacacy Aqueduct to Brunswick, MD.

May 21-22, 2004

 This hike was to be a continuation of our quest to complete the entire C&O Canal before our thru-hike; we only had a few sections to go, so were getting totally psyched. On Friday night we hiked in the 0.3 mile from the trailhead to the Indian Flats campsite after stopping at the Dickerson General Store to pick up sandwiches for dinner. In preparation for a predicted thunderstorm, we looked for a high area where we wouldn’t get flooded out since the site was at the bottom of a steep hill. The biggest drawback to this site was that the port-a-john had not been serviced for some time and the air smelled of urine. This was definitely a “Two Cheeks Down” privy. We also had to put up with locals on a nearby island on the Potomac firing off fireworks until, probably 9:00 p.m. And we had a stranger walk into the site from downstream and ask if the port-o-john had paper. Having assured him that it did, he proceeded to the toilet, got a huge handful of paper and disappeared back down to the water's edge, out of sight. Hmmm?

 The storm finally hit and it was a blessing in disguise because it got rid of all the partying intruders who had to run for cover. The storm was intense, with wind, thunder & lightening and heavy rain. It was so awesome to be huddled in our tent just riding it out and the only thing that kept our tent on the ground was our weight inside. We could hear the thunder rolling in from miles away and, after awhile, we could predict when it would be virtually right on top of us. It was both frightening and beautiful. Ironically, though we did not vocalize it until the next morning, both of us had been wondering if the unbelievable wind would cause a tree to fall on the campground and reduce our tent, and us, to nothing more than a colorful spot on the landscape.

 We arose the next morning to a clear day but very hot and very humid; not normal for a day in May.  We ate breakfast and started out to the sound of millions of cicadas. This sound stayed with us all day and after awhile we hardly noticed it. The evening rains had left the trail very muddy so it was slow going and it was hard on the legs as we slipped our way along. This was another creature-filled trip!(my gauge of a successful hike) First we came upon a deer in the trail, the first of two would we see this day but the most awesome sight was a large Barred owl that flew into a tree right along side us. As Georgia pulled out her camera for a shot, I noticed a rustling in the weeds to our left. I tried in vain to see what it was because it left a pretty good-sized trail through the weeds. We wondered if, whatever it was, was going to have been the owl’s breakfast had we not stumbled into his dining room when we did. We got some great shots of this owl and proceeded, full of energy and enthusiasm.

 Shortly thereafter, we came upon the picnic area at Nolands Ferry, took a quick break and said hello to a large contingent of bikers headed north. As we left the picnic area, we came across a beautiful old stone building that looked like it had once served as a mill. There was no sign telling us what it was but it was obviously being used for something because there were lights on inside. On the front were two markings indicating high water marks from two past floods and we later learned that this building was a water pumping station for Frederick County.

 As we proceeded on to Point of Rocks, the heat and humidity began to be a factor and our pace started to slow. Just before Point of Rocks, we came across a hiker/biker campsite, took a snack break and spoke with one of the bikers who was camping there. Despite the fact that it was already mid-morning and most bikers had already been on the trail for some time, he was the only one of this large group of bikers that was actually up. We had a nice, but brief, conversation and headed to Point of Rocks.

 We continued on with plans to stop at Bald Eagle Island campsite for lunch and when we arrived, we had to sweep hundreds of cicada exoskeletons off of the picnic table so we could eat. On the ground had to be literally thousands more exoskeletons from cicadas that had used the tree by our table for their home.  It was a pretty incredible sight. After lunch and a brief time of stretching and rest, we headed out with Brunswick in our minds and the false idea that it would be a piece of cake. Little did we know how much the heat and humidity had taken out of us and we were really feeling the affects.

 We did get an enjoyable break at Lock #29. The lock house had been refurbished by a local historical organization and we spent about an hour there getting a tour of the house and a history lesson from George, the volunteer caretaker. We sat on the porch in the old rocking chairs and just chatted with George about the house and our backgrounds. It was one of those moments that make an adventure like this memorable because so few people take the opportunity to do it. We headed on out with about 5 miles to go – as it turned out, the longest 5 miles of the trip. We just could not drink enough water and our feet and legs were feeling the toll of the heat and the preceding 7 miles on hard-packed dirt. There were several diversions that broke the monotony of the walk like the ruins of an old aqueduct, a large snapping turtle in our path and several rather large black snakes. One of the consistent things about the canal is the abundance of huge snapping turtles sunning themselves on the tree limbs in the canal. Some of the shells are, by our estimates, 12-16” across and they are typically covered with the green slime from the canal so they are very well camouflaged.  The rest of the trip was somewhat uneventful and we were a bit disappointed that we did not get to Brunswick in time for the Potomac River Festival. But it was probably just as well, because we were just too darn tired to take it in any way.

 This trip was a warm-up for our 3.5 day hike from Brunswick to Williamsport on Memorial Day weekend. As tired as we were and as bad as our feet and legs hurt, we wondered what the next weekend would be like and looked forward to it with a warped sense of anticipation. But we were glad that we had an opportunity to do this trip so we could analyze what we did right and what we did wrong so the Memorial Day hike wouldn’t be quite so brutal. It also gave Georgia a chance to try out her new ULA P-2 pack, which she really liked.


The C&O Canal Towpath - Brunswick to Williamsport, MD

Memorial Day Weekend 2004

 We set out from Brunswick at 2:00 p.m. on Friday, after leaving our 2nd vehicle at the C&O Canal Visitors Center in Williamsport the night before. Our goal was to hike the 8 miles to the Huckleberry Hill campsite, north of Harpers Ferry by early evening. This stretch was beautifully scenic and we arrived in Harpers Ferry (one of our favorite places) at about 5:00 p.m. where we had a nice dinner at Lori’s Café. Once we had rested our feet and visited the restrooms in town, we spent some time talking to a family who had just completed hiking the AT thru Maryland. We swapped stories of our experiences on this section of the AT and then we were on our way.

 Just before reaching the campsite, we got caught in an early evening shower that forced us to set up camp in the rain. We decided, at this point, to be more diligent in reading the weather and preparing for rain a bit earlier than we normally would. We turned in early in anticipation of a long day on Saturday. Georgia was really loving her new P-2 pack!

 We hit the trail at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday morning with just absolutely beautiful weather to hike in; cool with low humidity. We kept up a good pace and stopped at the Antietam Creek recreation area for a snack and facilities break. While there, we spoke with the NPS volunteer who oversaw the campground and he gave us some insight into the campground and his past history as a volunteer with the NPS. At this point we were feeling pretty strong and decided to hike past our original stop for the night, Killiansburg Cave campground, and continue on to Horseshoe Bend campground at mile marker 79.9. This would make for a long day, 17 miles, but we knew that Sunday’s walk on the 5 miles of asphalt road on the Big Slackwater detour, would be hard on our feet, so Sunday should be a somewhat shorter day. Our original plan on Saturday was to stop in Sheperdstown , WV for lunch but the 2-3 extra miles into town and back, would make for way too long a day, so we nixed that plan rather quickly.

 The section of trail near Killiansburg Cave was very interesting with numerous caves in the limestone cliffs to our right. It is said that women and children hid in these caves during the battle of Antietam. Many of them had streams running out of them and it was a pretty incredible sight to see. Just before Horseshoe Bend, we stopped at the historic Barron’s C&O Canal Store for some ice cream which tasted great after a steady diet of tuna, hard-boiled eggs and trail mix. There was a small museum at the store with some great pictures of sections of the canal from “way back when.” We arrived at Horseshoe Bend late in the afternoon and set up camp. This was a nice campground though the picnic bench was chained to the railing on the steps coming down from the trail. We had to locate two large logs to raise one end of the table just so that items didn’t slide off the table while we were eating. It was another beautiful evening to sleep though Georgia ended up on a very lumpy piece of ground and woke up the next morning pretty uncomfortable. We hit the trail on Sunday, again at 7:30 a.m. (we just can’t seem to get past that start time no matter what time we get up) and set out on what turned out to be a very arduous day. 

After a quick stop at the Big Woods campsite for a potty break, we were off and we arrived at Dam #4 on the Potomac late morning where we stopped for a snack break before tackling the Slackwater detour. This detour covers 5 miles of narrow asphalt road and was necessitated by the fact that years of flooding of the Potomac had washed away the towpath from mile marker 85.5 to 88.1. This detour might be a nice change for bikers but for backpackers it is a grueling trip. The asphalt burned our feet, there was no water, we had to constantly jump into the ditches to avoid speeding traffic and, because the roads wound through residential areas, there was no secluded place to “relieve” yourself. We nicknamed this section the “Damn 4 Road”. By the time we arrived at the other end of the detour, at McMahon’s Mill (where there were also no facilities) we took our chances and used the nearby woods to answer nature’s call. At this point, we were glad that we had done a long day on Saturday and that we only had 2 miles to go until we reached our destination for this day, the Opequon Valley campsite.

 We decided to take another snack break and rolled out our sleeping pads for an extended break and vowed to let the NPS know our feelings about the lack of services on either end of the detour. About 30 minutes later, after talking with some bikers heading south,  we were off. This section of trail, though narrow, is quite beautiful as you walk right alongside the Potomac and, except for an occasional traffic jam with oncoming horses, it was a wonderful section. One of the great things about hiking is that with all the peace and quiet, you get a lot of time to think and dream. My dream for the day was that our next stop would be this beautiful open campsite with lush grass in an open area. Much to our surprise, that’s almost exactly what we found at Opequon. The site was large with lush grass to set our tent up on and moles had worked over the earth so that the dirt underneath was extremely soft. However, THERE WAS NO WATER! The handle had been taken off the pump.

 At first this did not create a problem because we knew that about 4 miles further up the trail we would find water at the Cumberland Valley campsite and if we rationed what we had, we would be fine. Just before we got ready to use some of the water we had left to cook an early dinner, a family arrived on bikes and notified us that the pump handle had been removed at Cumberland Valley as well. Upon hearing this, we severely rationed what water we had left so that we could make it to Williamsport on Monday without running out but, even at that, it still would be close. We felt bad for this family because they were completely out of water and the next available place was McMahon’s campground, another 2 miles down the path. We shared the site with these folks and found it humorous that they brought only hotdogs and rolls to eat. Evidently, based on an argument between them that we overheard, on their last trip the wife brought more food than they would ever eat. So, on this trip she scaled back their meal options and brought only hot dogs. They did have their beer, cigarettes and Pepsi though so they were somewhat happy. The husband actually spent the rest of the day fishing to try to catch some dinner which he eventually did.

 We turned in REALLY early so that they could have the use of the site to themselves and made a note to bring some type of entertainment with us next time so we had something to do when we arrived in camp so early in the day. Going to bed at four in the afternoon, out of sheer lack of anything else to do, seems like such a waste of valuable time; especially for two people who pack so much into every minute of every day like we do. We spent the afternoon and early evening listening to the numerous oversized and loud speed boats and jet skis racing up and down the Potomac next to the campsite.

 On Sunday we finally broke our routine of hitting the trail at 7:30 a.m. and actually were packed up and ready to go at 6:30. As it turned out, this turned out to be a very advantageous thing. The skies were threatening and, so as not to be caught again like Friday evening, we prepared for rain. The packs were covered, we had our rain gear on and were ready for the last 10 miles into Williamsport. We had only a small amount of water left in our Nalgene bottles so we decided that at each mile marker we would take a small swig. This section was again picturesque but we suddenly came upon a development with numerous trailers and cottages, that we were not expecting. The trail went right through the middle of this development and the adjoining campground and we were somewhat amazed by the number of cottages that were built right on the edge of the river where floods would wash them away. Stopping at Cumberland Valley for breakfast, we met a very nice couple who had biked into the site to have breakfast as well. However, their breakfast was a bit more luxurious than ours. They had a propane camp stove and were having pancakes, eggs, bacon and orange juice. They offered us some but we declined the offer because we knew if we ate pancakes we would not be able to overcome the dryness in our mouths with the little bit of water we had left. That was a real bummer because those pancakes would have tasted great right about then; certainly better than the trail bars and fruit cups we were eating. After talking with these folks for awhile, the drizzle was getting heavier, so we decided to hit the trail before it got worse. Besides that, we had a mission at this point; Williamsport by 10:00 a.m.

 We picked up the pace as the rain got heavier and we were glad we were prepared. We knew we were getting close to our destination as we encountered more and more joggers and bikers and this lifted our spirits immensely. We finally broke through the wooded area of the trail and out into the open next to a section of the canal that had been “re-watered”. It was truly a beautiful sight. There was a fully restored lock house and several bridges and then the lake behind the visitor’s center. We had made it by 10:15! Forty-five miles in 3 days – WOW! And we physically felt pretty good. No blisters, no bruises from hip-belts and a sense that we were getting stronger with each hike. Now all we had left was the section from Williamsport to Hancock and a few short sections near DC and we will have completed the entire canal in a little over a year.


The C&O Canal Towpath – Williamsport to Hancock, MD

June 26-27, 2004

 Since we were forced off the C&O by hurricane Isabel last September, we used this weekend to complete the section of trail that we missed. By completing this section, we only had a 22-mile section near DC to finish and we would complete the entire 184 miles of the C&O. Not long after this hike, we completed a long day hike of this last section, through the Great Falls area, and got some beautiful photos.

 We drove to Hancock on Friday night to leave the pick-up car at the trailhead and then searched for a place to have dinner. Hancock is one of those sleepy little, life in a past century, type of towns that rolls up its sidewalks when the sun goes down, so dinner options were few and far between. We did find the Pizza Hut that was open and sat down for what could only be considered a “memorable” meal. It was memorable in that it was pretty awful! It was only 8:00 p.m. and they looked like they were ready to close. The salad bar was out of fresh fixin’s and the country-western music was way too loud. Of course, any volume of this type of music is too loud for us. Once we finished, we headed to the Red Roof Inn in Williamsport to spend our anniversary so we were ready to hit the trail first thing in the morning.

 Because of our experience with running out of water during our last C&O hike, we came prepared with extra full water bladders which added another 5 unwanted pounds to our packs but assured us that we would not run out of water if the pumps on the trail were down.

 We left early Saturday morning with our goal being Fort Frederick where we would stay at the campground for the night. This made for a long day, 17 miles, but we felt confident that we could easily do it. The weather was absolutely beautiful and this section of the trail was one of the most picturesque sections we had been on so far. We also called this the “black snake section” of the trail due to the fact that we encountered more black snakes here than any place we had been thus far. One of the curious things about our hikes on the C&O has been the lack of backpackers that we have encountered. Up to this trip, we had only ever seen one and that was an AT thru-hiker that we saw near Harpers Ferry and the only reason he was on the C&O was because that section of the C&O was part of the AT. But, on this trip, we ran into a large group of Boy Scouts who were headed south to Brunswick. We felt pretty good about ourselves when we saw them because here was a group of teens, who should have seen this trip, physically, as a mere walk in the park but, instead, they were really dragging; and this was at about 10:00 a.m.. It was obvious that they had never done this before, because they were walking complete with oversized and ill-fitting packs and Walkmen plugged in their ears. After watching them and the speed at which they were moving, we were certain that they would not make it to Brunswick for quite some time. We felt really good that, at our ages, we were out-walking these kids without even breaking a sweat.

 About mid-morning we came upon Dam #5, which was an awesome sight and a very scenic place to take a break. This was evidently a fishers’ paradise because there were fishermen everywhere and they were pulling catfish out of the river, at the base of the dam, as fast as they could throw their lines in. We talked with a crew of bikers who were headed south, had a morning snack and then stretched out on our sleeping pads for a brief rest. One thing we have learned from our extensive hiking, is that we can actually make better time and incur less fatigue and blisters, if we take rests more often. By pushing ourselves, we actually get slower as the day goes on. With frequent rests, we make up whatever time we lost during the breaks by being able to walk at a sustained and brisker pace after the break. After taking some photos, we headed on to Fort Frederick, our final stop for the day. One minor mishap, that could have become a major catastrophe, was that I used my backpack to lean against while I was resting and inadvertently sat on my water hose causing a great deal of my valuable water supply to drain out onto the ground.

 We arrived at Fort Frederick at about 2:00 p.m. and walked the extra mile from the trail to the picnic area at the fort. We went into the store there and picked up  sodas and bottles of orange juice. They really tasted great until we realized that there were no trash cans around and that we would have to carry the bottles with us the rest of the trip. Duh! After eating lunch we spent some time at the fort and it was really interesting. The fort had been rebuilt to its original condition and there were several people, in period costumes, who were doing day-to-day chores around the fort and would answer any questions you might have about the fort itself. It was a relaxing diversion from the trail and we learned quite a bit about the history of this little-known fort. Since my feet & knees were giving me some trouble, Georgia headed off to the park office to get us a campsite for the night. Once done, we headed back across the trail to the campground, which was a well-maintained facility right near the Potomac. One slight mix-up was that when we arrived at our site, someone was already in it. However, the people were very nice and upon learning that we had just reserved the site and that they had just invoked “squatters rights” and parked there, they gave up the site and drove off to the office to actually pay for one. I have to say, our site looked pretty bare compared to the other sites with their monster-sized RVs and trailers. All we had was our 2-person tent and our packs. It was pretty obvious that the gentleman next to us had been there for awhile because he had brought everything but the kitchen sink with him. Come to think of it, he did have a kitchen sink or, at least a reasonable facsimile. We had to laugh when we saw him break out his TV and sat it on a table under his camper tarp to watch the news.

 We had dinner, massaged each other’s feet (real bonding experience) and nursed each other’s minor blisters. We had also learned to “listen” to our feet and at the first sign of hot spots, we stopped to take care of them. This little technique has served us well and has kept us from getting any large hike-stopping blisters. Since we only had 12 miles or so to go on Sunday, we knew that we could make it with just one full water bladder so we dumped our other bladders which was a welcome relief. Having eaten most of our food and with 5 pounds less water, our trip on Sunday would be no more than an average day hike from here on out.

We headed out at about 7:00 a.m. on Sunday for what was to be another beautiful day. This section was one of the most well-maintained sections we had ever been on and every hiker-biker site was in great shape except for Licking Creek where someone had left a whole bunch of trash from what looked like, a party the night before. Unfortunately, there was so much trash we could not carry it out. When we got back, I contacted the NPS and they sent out a section supervisor to take care of it. Always on the lookout for wildlife, I keep an eye on the actual canal whenever we get to a section that still has water in it. We came upon a section that had a bunch of turtles sunning themselves on logs in the green waters of the canal. We stopped for a moment to take a better look at what looked to be a green slime-covered log when we realized that it was a snapping turtle. Now we had seen plenty of snapping turtles before but this one was extraordinary. His head was the size of a softball and his shell had to be 16”-18” across. He was huge! In fact, when he backed off of the log he was sunning himself on, the entire log surfaced and it had to be 10’ long and 8” in diameter. That log had to have weighed 50-60 lbs and this turtle had almost completely submerged it with his weight. It was unbelievable.

 We arrived in Hancock at about 2:00 p.m. and felt really good about what we had accomplished. The weather had cooperated and it was a wonderful way to spend our 12th Anniversary. In fact, as a bit of irony, there was a banner hanging up over the trail near our car that said “Finish Line”. This was obviously put there to mark the end of a bike race but we saw it as a fitting end to our hike.



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