Full-size (650K) topo for this part of the river
The package of maps I have covering "Potomac River and C&O Canal" advertises "Over 1000 Exciting Things to See and Do". Since the maps cover 92 miles, this works out to roughly ten exciting things to see and/or do per mile or one every 500 feet along the river. I don't know if our excitement rate was quite that high, but it was certainly a lovely, enjoyable trip.
The day was promissing as we loaded the canoes on the car and set out for western Maryland. The crew consisted of myself, Amy and my parents, recently arrived on their annual Easter visitation and escape from the snows of NH. Armed with a book on Maryland and Delaware canoe trails and a brace of canoes rented from Hudson Trail Outfitters in Towson (who do a very nice job and charge reasonable rates for this sort of thing), we arrived at Dam #4 on the Potomac River roughly 11 miles upstream from Shepardstown, WV, and Sharpsburg, MD.
With the spring runoff and the several inches of recent rain, the river was extremely high. Silty water pulsed over the Dam as we reconoitered a spot to put in. Finally an accessible spot was found which wouldn't involve paddling through flooded trees to reach the main channel. The food and my parents were packed into one canoe while my disassembled bicycle accompanied Amy and I in the other. This was our first experience with bike shuttling and we hoped it would serve the dual purposes of giving us flexibility in end points and getting me good and tired out by day's end.
Several miles of mild whitewater were promissed in the book description, however, the water levels were so high that the only sign of excitement was the barely-submerged stern of a blue canoe causing wake on the surface. Hardly paddling a stroke, we were whisked along at perhaps 3 mph by the overly-swollen river. The shores rushed by displaying numerous Virginia Bluebells and small leafy groundcover. The trees were still bare, but all had a green shimmer about them suggesting leaves were just around the corner.
As can easily be seen on the map, this section of Potomac is one of the twistiest and in the course of the day we rounded six major bends. At Taylor's Landing on the largest of these great bends, we stopped at a boat launch for a spot of lunch and to see the canal. The canal here is a wide ditch filled with grass very reminiscent of a castle moat. In most other places, it's filled with trees and sometimes standing water with turtles.
The lazy day continued as we rounded bend after bend. A few summer houses could be seen, mostly on the WV shore, and we passed only a single fellow pair of boaters out drifting along with a canoe and banjo (all Deliverance comments were quickly quashed). Fifty-foot stone bluffs lined one bank or another for large portions of the trip. From time to time dark patches could be seen in the bluffs which might be cave entrances. Needless to say, this got me tremendously excited and I vowed to return at some point to investigate.
At length, the weather grew ominous and we decided it was time to finish up (keeping in mind that I had to retrace our float via bike to fetch the car). We swept under the bridge at Shepardstown and ignored the obvious boat launch ramp directly under it. "No problem," I state confidently, "There will be other places we can take out just a little farther down." I remembered a spot we'd come to along the C&O Canal for a bit of post-caving swimming and washing off. However, the more I recollected, the more I realized that we'd had to scramble down a steep, weed-choaked bank to get there.
At length, a semi-viable landing site was found and the canoes precariously hauled out of the water. My bike was hoisted up to the towpath level and assembled and I hastily headed upstream leaving the unenviable job of canoe extraction to those left behind. Eleven miles of river translated into eleven miles of towpath biking on level gravel. I was covered in mud and slime and gnats kept getting in my eyes. Never-the-less, the miles flowed past and I made good time.
Along the way, I discovered that a good number of the potential caves we'd seen through the trees on the other side of the canal were, in fact, actual caves. Not being equipped with time or gear for a thorough investigation, I didn't waist too much time exploring. But I AM a caver afterall and leaving such a bounty of leads unchecked goes against my nature in every way. Thus I stuck my head into six different holes and proceeded perhaps 20' until natural light gave out. My tiny LED light showed that at least four of them continued for some ways... tempting, but something for a different trip.
The rain had been puttering around as if indecive for the last several miles. Just as I got to the car, it made up its mind; the verdict was for downpour! The bike was hastily disassembled and thrown in the back of the van. Soaking wet and thinking of my likely half-drowned family, I careened down some roads for which the term "secondary" seems overly kind. But my fears were put to rest when I arrived to find to overturned canoes resting against a gate with my family sitting happily (and fairly dry) underneath.
A pair of cave entrances along the C&O canal. Each is about six feet tall and are obviously well-visitted.
A good trip and somewhat different from my usual fare in this area. It's nice to see the river from the river instead of from the banks. Most of all, it's nice to see my family at the same time!