My three week, 300 mile paddle trip down the Potomac River.
The Kickoff Paddle launched in Cumberland, almost 200 miles upstream from Washington DC, on Saturday September 19th. A small group joined me, Brent Walls our Upper Potomac Riverkeeper and his three daughters, my wife Kathy, my daughter Krista and former Vice President and Acting Potomac Riverkeeper Robin Broder, who along with former Riverkeeper Ed Merrifield, helped build Potomac Riverkeeper Network into the organization it is today.
It was an uneventful Kickoff, just a relaxing paddle trip that seemed no different than any other paddle trip. It was nice to catch up with Robin as we made our way down river. Tall giant bluffs lined the West Virginia side of the river. The C&O Canal, which starts in Cumberland and follows the river downstream 185 miles to Georgetown, ran along the Maryland side of the river. It was hot, about 85 degrees. We eventually pulled over to take a swim and eat lunch. Brent’s daughters, Alexis, Anna and Taylor switched in and out of the two kayaks, while one of them paddled with Brent. My daughter Krista eventually got tired of her kayak requiring Kathy, with a broken foot, to jump in the kayak. “I am fine she insisted.”
The 9 mile trip we planned to Spring Gap turned out to be 10.78 miles. By mile 8, the kids were ready to be done paddling; I have to admit so was I. We got to Spring Gap, loaded boats and secured a campsite at the campground along the river. As Brent, Robin and I drove back to Cumberland to get our vehicles, I joked that I was tired and sore. I said I had a crazy dream that I committed myself to paddling the entire river. We laughed but the joke was on me.
Robin left and Brent headed back to Williamsport. It was Brent’s birthday tomorrow so he would not be paddling with me on Sunday but we made sure we touched based about where we were going to meet on Monday. “See you at the Paw Paw campground” he said and pointed to it on the paddle map he let me borrow. I had never seen this part of the river and was relying heavily on Brent for logistics in the Upper Potomac. It was nice spending time with my family at the campground. I was not going to be seeing them much over the next three weeks. It felt like a warm summer night, we cooked food and made Smores for Krista and went to bed early.
We awoke to a beautiful day. It was another hot day. We enjoyed morning coffee and a big breakfast at the campsite. I was in no rush to leave since I was paddling by myself. I was also in no rush to say goodbye to my family. I still had to pack all my gear into my canoe, which barely fit in my car. I had no idea how it would all fit in my canoe.
I still had to get some supplies, so Krista and I drove up to Cumberland while Kathy helped break down the campsite. It was nice to get to see some of Cumberland and its connection to the river. Krista and I took some pictures and headed back to Spring Gap. Just before we left, Krista got a call from her best friend Josie in NC. They talked for a while and when she got off the phone, she started to cry. She was homesick and missed her best friend. It choked me up watching my daughter cry, knowing I was getting ready to leave my family for two weeks. I was also nervous about completing an extremely difficult 300 mile/3week paddle trip. I was really going to miss them.
I didn’t leave until almost 4pm, knowing I would be getting off the river at night. It was another beautiful day. I stopped in Old Town to see if I could get a signal on my phone. I was already having trouble posting to FaceBook. No signal! But I did get to see the old wooden low water bridge and old toll bridge at Old Town. I grabbed a meal at the old high school in Old Town because I knew I would not want to cook once I got to my campsite so late.
I jumped back in my canoe around 6:30pm as I watched a beautiful sunset and realized I had not even gone halfway! I paddled for another three and half hours in the dark. The moon was not full and obscured by a haze. The river was calm and easy. Occasionally, I would get hung up in a shallow area. Paddling at night is like driving in a snow storm. You are hyper focused, trying to make out what is right in front of you. I took it slow. It was really dark and not a single source of light or civilization along the entire stretch down to the bridge near Paw Paw.
Beavers like to come out at night and apparently they are not used to seeing paddlers in the evening. So at least 5 times, a beaver would come along side of the boat and slap its tail, letting me know I was on their turf. It startled me on more than one occasion but also made me laugh. They were messing with me. I paddled passed the confluence of South Branch of the Potomac where it enters the North Branch to form the Potomac River. The river widens as the two rivers form the mighty Potomac River.
I was relieved to see the bridge Brent had shown me as the (near) end point. “Just around the bend, Paw Paw will be on the left.” I remember him saying. I broke out my map and light to confirm I was in the right location but I completely ruined my night vision. I paddled slowly near the shore, looking for a boat ramp. I could not find it. Once I got down to where I knew I likely passed it, I pulled out the map again. I knew I was in the right place but I would have to paddle back upstream.
I paddled back upstream and finally pulled over and began walking up the river bank looking for this take out. I could not find it. I paddled further back upstream, pulling over one last time before I was just going to call it quits and sleep on the rocks. I left a light on my boat so I could see it and began walking up river. I finally found a little notch in the bank, not a boat ramp but a small trail leading down the river. It was Paw Paw. It was also 11pm. I checked the trip odometer on the GPS, 31.4 miles total. The 14 mile trip turned out to be 20 miles—including a half mile downstream and back up, since I missed the take out.
I set up my tent and sleeping bag. I was beat but still awake. I walked up to use the restrooms and register when I saw the sign pointing to the Paw Paw tunnels on the towpath of the C&O Canal. I had always wanted to see them since I started in March but Brent was coming at 8am. We had a 28 mile paddle the next day. Well, it was “now or never” I thought.
I grabbed my flashlight and began jogging down the towpath to the tunnels. I was still in a t-shirt and shorts. It started to get a little chilly; jogging warmed me up a bit. Suddenly a giant buck jumped up and over the towpath right in front of me. I got the tunnels and read the historic signs. The Paw Paw tunnels were over 3000 feet long and diverted the old C&O canal through a mountain to bypass 5 miles of river. You could drive a train through it. As I made my way inside, I shined my light down in the water of the canal. It was clear and sandy. I estimated about a foot deep but the towpath was about 10 feet up from the canal. I made my way further into the tunnel, not surprisingly a few bats were hanging from the brick lined tunnel. It was amazing feet of historic engineering that would never be built today. I imagined the horses walking along the narrow trial, pulling barges of coal, through the dark and eerie tunnel. I only walked in a quarter mile but I was so glad I checked out the tunnels and was impressed it was still filled with water. I was determined to return the following day. It was 12:30a.m. by the time I got back and finally laid down after 1am.
I was sipping on my coffee when Brent arrived at 8 am with Frank, the Director of the Cacapon Institute, located in the town of Great Cacapon WV. It was a grey and foggy morning. I was beat and not even close to being ready but I asked Brent if he wanted to paddle the canal through the Paw Paw tunnel? Since our paddle was 28 miles, the tunnel would cut off 5 miles of river and save us some time I rationed. “That would be awesome, I have never heard of anyone doing that before” he said. We were excited. As I packed, it began to rain. I loaded all my gear into Brent’s car so my boat would be light for the long paddle. The real challenge now was portaging our canoes up and over to the tunnel, about ¾ of a mile.
The portage took longer than expected but we were excited to paddle through the tunnel, using the canal like it was 150 years ago. We took pictures. Brent paddled first. It was more shallow than I realized. When I paddled into the tunnel, I scraped bottom since I am much heavier than Brent. Brent slowly paddled through the tunnel. It got really dark but did not use any light. I eventually stood up to better distribute my weight, pushing myself along, gondola style. Then I would hit s shallow spot and almost fall down. I finally relented and stepped out into the cold, black water. I floated my boat the rest of the way to the end of the tunnels. I even got up on the foot path to pull by boat by rope but it kept getting snagged. Back in the water! I actually startled a biker who was peddling through the tunnel who was surprised to see someone down in the canal, lurking in the dark.
Once through, we both floated our boats for another half mile before the water ran out. It was raining and we were not even close to the river. We lugged the boats back up the towpath. Several bikers passed us wondering what we were doing as we portaged our boats down the towpath back to the river. We probably did not save much time by using the tunnels but I was glad we did it. I told Brent this is a story you will tell your grandchildren about someday.
Once back on the river, we realized we still had over 20 miles to paddle. The difficult portage did not help our energy reserves but the rain was not too heavy and the water in the Paw Paw bends was crystal clear. We followed along the C&O Canal and the course of the river which winds back and forth through rugged mountains. It is an incredible stretch of river, secluded but easy enough for any beginner paddler with amazing camping along the C&O Canal through the entire Paw Paw section. I just recommend keeping your distance to 10 or 12 miles.
Brent and I took a few breaks along the way but paddled hard until dark. We recognized the changing colors, falling leaves floating in the river. It seemed like summer only two days before but now it was clear Fall was here. We see numerous Bald Eagles and flocks of Canadian Geese making their way south. The Paw Paw bends are really a beautiful stretch of river.
The final half mile required us to paddle up the Cacapon River and drag our boats over a small rock dam. Another 26 miles down! The intensity of the rain increased and by now I was pretty cold and exhausted. I expected the car to be at the take out under the bridge but we had to stow our boats and walk another half mile into town. Someone offered us a ride but Brent said we were fine and only had to walk a little ways to Cacapon Institute. “I would have taken the ride” I said, smiling.
We ended up driving to a Sheets gas station, ordered food and had a beer. Brent drove home and I slept on a hard wood floor at the institute but was glad not to have to set a tent up rain. Unfortunately, the shower did not work but I crashed like a baby.
I awoke, exhausted, stiff and sore. I was totally dehydrated. I grabbed breakfast at Doris’s Deli, “best deli (and only deli) in town.” I drank Gatorade and coffee, trying to recover and get ready for today’s paddle with the folks from Cacapon Institute. We met under the bridge on the Cacapon River which is an emerald green, clear river that flows from the mountains of West Virginia. I did not know anyone paddling with us today but it was nice to have company. Paddling has a funny way of bonding people and by the end of the trip I had many wonderful conversations with everyone who joined us. I thanked them for joining me and I learned a lot about the Cacapon River and the Upper Potomac.
We paddled passed Lovers Leap and the old furnaces on the C&O Canal, giant fire places made of stone built into the side of the mountain, right on the old canal. We also say Devils Eyebrow, an old cave up on the hill, near the old furnace. I can’t wait to bike the canal and come back here with my family I thought.
It was cloudy most of the day but the sun finally came out by mid afternoon. It was an easy paddle. Brent headed home and would not be able to paddle with me tomorrow but would meet me at McCoy’s Ferry on Thursday. Frank and his wife Katherine offered to take me to dinner in Hancock. A few others joined us. We ate at this amazing restaurant called Buddy Lou’s on the C&O Canal. I was grateful for their hospitality but once again, I had to get back on the river. There was no place to camp in Hancock but there was a campsite down river about 4 miles. By the time I got packed and on the river, the sun was going down. It was also time to start taking care of my feet. Blisters began to form on my big toes and pinky toes, and so I had to use duct tape and “Nu Skin” to cover these areas.
The river on this stretch is unbelievably calm. The moon was bright and I made my way down river. It was a beautiful night. I never made it to the campsite. I pulled over on an island in the middle of the river. I found a great open campsite, right near the water. No lugging gear.
Today would be a day to relax. I was actually ahead of schedule since I was scheduled to stay in Hancock. It was hot. I actually got to swim for the first time in three days. I broke out my speaker and played music while I cooked a big breakfast. I drank coffee and caught up on emails. I even jumped on a conference call all from my office on my secluded island.
I finally packed my gear and left around 2pm. It was a slow, lazy stretch of river. I had enough time to fish. I forced myself to relax and take it easy. But once again I was watching the sun go down. I saw some campgrounds from the river, so I pulled over to take a look and was pleased to find the campsite closest to the river and my canoe, vacant and available. The sun had not gone down yet. I was impressed until I realized I was at Fort Frederick Park Campground and not McCoy’s Ferry. I was staying put. I texted Brent and told him where to meet me and began to cook dinner. By now, I was out of ice and water. Thankfully the ranger came by and resupplied me with drinking water. I ate a hardy dinner and went to sleep. That night, hundreds of Canadian Geese resting on the calm stretch of water near the campsite, “honked” through the entire night.
Brent and Potomac Riverkeeper Network’s Stan Oaks, met me at the campsite. We took advantage of having a car to go into the park and see Fort Frederick before jumping on the river. It was an amazing, fully intact fort, part of Maryland history. Our self guided tour was brief. We headed back to the river, packed our boats and jumped on the river. Brent said it was only about a mile down to McCoy’s Ferry.
We battled a strong headwind and no current. By the time we arrived at McCoy’s Ferry we had paddled over 2 miles. We estimated a 14 mile paddle, much of it through slow back water of Dam 5 on the Potomac River. It was already noon and we were starving. “So technically we have not even started yet, right Brent” I said, smirking. “Uh, yeah..that is right” he said. We kind of laughed it off but paddled hard against the headwind. Brent and Stan had kayaks, I had my canoe and with no weight in it, I was being blown around like crazy. The moment I stopped paddling, I went backwards.
The cliffs lining the river and the back waters of the lake were stunning. There were numerous people who had docks and small lake houses on the West Virginia side of the river but the C&O Canal came back to the river from time to time, making the Maryland side of the mostly forested. We shot some video of me jumping off a 30 foot cliff but for the most part, paddled hard through the miles of back water to the end of the lake.
We were greeted by a portage around the dam on the C&O Canal with spectacular views of the dam and the river. We met bikers who took our picture before we jumped back on the river. We were grateful to be back in the current but it was still shallow and slow going. By the time we reached Williamsport, we had paddled 20 miles with a portage. Stan, who was 70 years young, was the first to reach the take out. Brent and I said it seemed harder than the 26 mile through the Paw Paw bends.
I was rewarded to pizza and beer at Brent’s house and a king size bed. I got to watch Thursday night football as the Washington Redskins took on the NY Giants. The game was terrible, but I enjoyed having the comforts of a bed and sitting on a couch for the first time in almost a week. I was grateful for the break and Brent’s hospitality. I slept well!
I lost my paddling partner, Brent, because he had to go 100 miles upstream to investigate a 10,000 gallon latex chemical spill that turned the river white. He dropped me off at Williamsport. Once again, I paddled alone. I was beat. I had about 14 miles of back water from Dam 4 to paddle. It was a slow go.
I actually caught up on phone calls and some work while paddling which seemed to pass the time. The kayak I borrowed from Brent was so much faster than my canoe but I was cramped and I had back spasms from such little back support. My energy was low so I pulled over to take a break. 99 total miles, the trip odometer read. I stayed for a while, knowing I should get going but I just needed a break. I jumped back in the kayak and paddle on seriously wanting to get past the back water of Dam 4. Even though there were lots of houses, docks and boats on the West Virginia side of the river, I was amazed at the giant granite cliffs that towered over the river. They went on for miles.
I kept paddling but had to take breaks to avoid my legs and back cramping in the tight kayak. I finally made it down to Big Slackwater. Brent came with his daughter Anna to pick me up and take me a few miles down the road to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Conservation Training Center located on the Potomac River below Dam 4. There was annual conference there hosted by Chesapeake Bay Alliance, where I would see old friends and get some much needed rest and good food . I was ready for the break and knew I needed a little recover time for the upcoming paddle over the next two weeks.