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New Rules Unleashed on C&O Park

What do you get when you mix horses, dogs and alcohol?

The National Park Service hopes never to find out.

New regulations were issued last week by C&O Canal National Historical Park. One of the rules has particular relevance to the area — dogs are no longer permitted on the “Section A” of the Billy Goat trail, the steepest portion between Old Angler’s Inn and Great Falls Tavern.

“Taking dogs out on that trail creates safety problems,” said park superintendent Doug Faris. “We thought it best not to have dogs in that area.”

Steve DeLanoy of the C&O Canal Volunteer Bike Patrol said that dogs on the Billy Goat Trail were frequently unable to handle the steeper portions of the trail. Hiking the trail with a leashed dog could pose several problems, where the dog pulls the person or the person pulls the dog.

“You can’t have a leash there, because in many cases, both your hands are busy,” said Karen Gray, head of the C&O Canal Level Walkers. “I don’t know how dogs get around that part.… I was shocked at people taking their dogs along it. People were having trouble staying out of the dogs’ way. … It’s really a spectacular experience, but on the other hand, it’s no place for a dog.”

ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION was previously permitted in upper areas of the park, mostly along the river. It was never permitted in hiker/biker campgrounds or on the lower portion of the towpath between Great Falls and Georgetown.

When patrolling on bike in the lower canal area, DeLanoy found alcohol-related problems to be uncommon.

“Occasionally you’ll find fishermen taking beer out there,” he said, and he also saw people with small quantities of beer at the hiker/biker campgrounds. “Everybody was usually pretty good about it.”

Further up the towpath, Gray, who lives in Hagerstown, believes alcohol consumption was more problematic.

“In the campgrounds at night, you get people really boozing it up,” said Gray, who described an incident at a campground some fellow campers drank throughout the night and were disorderly way into the a.m. hours.

“I think natural areas are not places where people should be drinking,” said Gray. While walking the towpath under the influence is safe enough, “there are other parts of the canal where people could makes some dumb decisions when their judgment is impaired. … The Potomac can be very dangerous and not look it.”

Faris said that responding to alcohol problems occupies a significant amount of staff time on weekends, and it was easier to ban alcohol use and possession entirely.

“We’ll try to ease into it as smoothly as possible,” said Faris. “We don’t intend to issue a lot of citations. … Hopefully visitors will be cooperative.”

OTHER REGULATIONS pertain to horses on the towpath. Park regulations restrict horseback riding to the portion of the towpath above Swains Lock, and this remains in effect. Up to four horses can now be tethered in hiker/biker campgrounds, as far away as possible from tents, picnic tables and wells. This was more of a clarification of rules than a creation of new ones, said Faris.

“Previously people didn’t know whether they could [bring horses] in the hiker/bikers,” said Faris.

Equestrians may also now trailer their horses into parking areas along the canal.

While horses are still allowed on all portions of the towpath where they were previously permitted, Gray said that some portions of the towpath are historically soft. “If the towpath is soft, [horse] hooves tear up the path. … I wish people would not take them out after a heavy rain.”

Both Gray and DeLanoy expect to hear some complaints about the new rules, but DeLanoy wants to further familiarize himself with them and the reasons they were implemented.

“I haven’t sat down and talked to the rangers and asked why,” he said.