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Volunteers Rally to Restore Towpath

There is no easy way to pass through the Widewater section of the C&O Canal towpath. In fact, for over 700 feet, there is no towpath.

Each hiker or biker passing through this heavily traveled stretch of the park just below Great Falls faces a choice: navigate a choppy rock-strewn trail or take a detour that includes a staircase and the parking lot across from Old Angler's Inn.

"Being a level walker and going through that area, it's really like a small Billy Goat trail," said Potomac resident John Kimbrough. The towpath "is washed out there, and you can't take a bike through it and so forth. I became keenly aware of it when I started volunteering."

Participants in the March for Parks on Sat. April 13 aimed to overcome the obstacle that Widewater poses to park visitors. Park Superintendent Doug Faris led the marchers from Great Falls Tavern through the problem area beside Widewater and returned via the detour.

KIMBROUGH AND HIS THREE SIBLINGS recently made a $100,000 grant donation to the C&O Canal Association. The money will be available to the National Park Service, which intends to restore the towpath along the most problematic portion of Widewater.

"My family sold some land and decided to set aside some funds for charity or public purposes," said Kimbrough. A frequent volunteer with the park since 1996, Kimbrough suggested that the money go to the canal.

Repairs to the towpath at Widewater are projected to cost $1.5 million, according to Faris. He expressed hope that private donations will match the Kimbrough family's grant, and that federal appropriations will follow the show of public support.

"WE CONSIDER THIS AREA a major safety problem and challenge," said Faris before the march. "It's difficult to walk through there; you cannot ride your bike through there, because it's too dangerous and too difficult."

Widewater is so named because the man-made canal widens into a natural channel between mileposts 12 and 14. It is a particularly scenic area that receives a considerable amount of human traffic, due in large part to its proximity to Great Falls.

However, the tranquil appearance of Widewater masks a slew of problems for those visiting and managing the park. The level gravel of the towpath disappears for a 760-foot stretch along Widewater, and this is the area of concern to many who marched.

"There's a real rocky area, a little over 100 yards that's pretty treacherous," said Stephen DeLanoy, a volunteer for the C&O Canal Bike Patrol who lives in Bethesda. As part of his patrol duties, DeLanoy has seen "people with sprained ankles, lacerations and what not. … It's just a very troublesome spot."

THE TERRAIN beside Widewater was once much less rugged. A towpath once ran beside the craggy path familiar to today's visitor. In the C&O Canal's 170-year history, construction along Widewater has often been susceptible to major flood damage. The volatility of Widewater during floods consumed prior efforts to construct and reconstruct the towpath.

The knockout punch came in 1972, when floods from Hurricane Agnes destroyed much of the Widewater towpath.

U.S. Rep. Connie Morella (R-8) said of the 1972 floods that "the devastation was tremendous. I was not holding any office at that time, but I know what it did to the bridges. It just indicates that nature can't be taken for granted."

RECONSTRUCTION of the towpath has been hindered by more than 30 years of unresolved debate. Blueprints for future construction must accommodate the interests of historical preservationists, park visitors and outdoor enthusiasts of many types. Money is also an issue.

"It's been somewhat of a controversial area for about three decades now, about how it would be repaired, if it would be repaired, and when it would be repaired," said Faris.

"There were attempts [to fix the towpath] from time to time," said Ken Rollins, President of the C&O Canal Association. "Some repairs contrasted with historical integrity … [and] some of the plans looked like the Mixing Bowl in Springfield."

Above all else, Faris says that the towpath must be sustainable through future floods.

"We believe if we attempt to build [the towpath] as it was originally, then it won't be very sustainable," said Faris. "During the next major flood, we'll be right back where we started."

The current plan he describes includes construction of a boardwalk with a railing. The structure would be raised on concrete pillars in hopes of accommodating the caliber of floods that previously destroyed the towpath.

THE MARCH RAISED $3,583, according to park ranger Nancy Poe at the event's conclusion. An additional $295 was raised by a raffle, and a silent auction earned $450.

"I think it's very important" to restore the towpath, said Pauline Rabin of Bethesda, a participant in the day’s events. "[Widewater] is not accessible. We walked over the rocks today, and not everybody can do that."