The weather was hot and muggy, even for a Mid-Atlantic August. Having had more than our share of high-adrenaline, high-exertion adventure for the summer, we opted for a more sedate, hopefully cooler bit of recreation. We met up with John from Potomac Outdoor Expeditions in Hancock and he shuttled us and the canoe up through gorgeous, scenic back roads to Paw-Paw, WV. Crossing the river, we arrived at the campground on the C&O Canal. Light was fading quickly, so we set up the tent, made dinner and fell alsleep to the sounds of hyperactive cicadas and crickets in the trees overhead.
Saturday dawned warm and foggy. By 8:30 we were on the river negotiating the first of the famous Paw Paw Bends. This is a spectacular section of country where the river makes four or five sweeping, 180-degree turns between steep cliffs and dense forest. It's rugged enough countryside that the builders of the C&O Canal (which parallels the river for over 180 miles from Washington, DC, to Cumberland, MD) decided to dig a 3000-foot-long tunnel through a mountain (in the 1830s, before the days of dynamite) as a shortcut rather than dig six miles of canal along the side of the river! I now understand why.
The day became sunny and we had the river to ourselves. Cliffs reared overhead and the current swept us along quickly. Every quarter mile or so, we encountered a rocky shelf stretching across the river. They were nothing exciting or lengthy enough to get a whitewater class, but it kept us on our toes. Often, the rocky shelf would be uniform enough that the water would just fall smoothly over the eight inch drop to the other side. The whitewater could be heard, but you couldn't see it until you were very close. A word to the wise: stick to the right-hand bank for most of these drops. Fortunately, our tough ABS canoe ground over many a rock without complaint. A bald eagle flew on down the river at our arrival.
The day wore on and it became officially, swelteringly hot, even down on the water as we were. After six miles of gorgeous bends, the rapids became less frequent and we rejoined the C&O Canal on our left. Fish were leaping out of the water in search of bugs to eat. At one point, a swimming mammal, possibly a mink, swam across the river within three feet of the canoe. It probably would have climbed in had I put the paddle out for him. We saw another bald eagle. We caught a bit of early lunch near Stickpile Hill and I had a refreshing swim in the fast-moving, shallow, water. The weeks of 90-degree heat has turned the river water warm as a heated pool.
Paddling through some glorious, deserted bends
Napping out an afternoon rainstorm
Sunday looked like it was going to be a repeat of Saturday. By the time we hit the water at 9am, the mist was rising prettily off the steep mountains and the sun was shining hotly. We were out of the extremely bendy river of the day before and into five-mile-long straightaways, the first of which was directly into the sun. We were hot and sweaty before long.
We soon reached the site of Dam #6, an old feeder dam for the canal. It was breached long ago, but I wasn't so sure of running it site unseen so we landed on the upstream side and looked around. The right-hand side of the old earth and stone dam is missing and fast, smooth water runs through. Immediately downstream, however, was quite rough. We were becoming quite good at running minor rapids like this and we zipped through some nice haystacks unscathed. A bit of lunch and another swim rejuvenated our spirits at Cacapon Junction. We were ready for the last ten miles of the trip.
The heat of the day brought out thousands of damsel flies, most of whom seemed interested in mating with each other. They adorned every floating bit of grass and leaf in great purple-eyed clusters, occasionally landing on the canoe or even our heads. Fish continued to jump and fishermen were frequent along the shores. We saw a final Eagle near Round Top. Finally, we rounded a bend and saw the Rt522 bridge in Hancock (the first road bridge we had seen in over forty miles) and soon after it the boat ramp at Little Tonoloway Creek. Thinking of icecream and cold drinks, we hauled the canoe out. John arrived and picked up the canoe and we, hungry, hot and tired but well satisfied with life, headed for home.
It was a great trip and quite different from my usual weekend adventures. This part of the Potomac is about as remote and wild as it gets in Maryland. The bends are exciting enough to keep your attention, but not a frothing mass of whitewater. Any competent canoers should have no trouble with this stretch of river and I'd recommend it to all.
The Wilderness Journal