Enjoying Potomac’s Namesake

Enjoying Potomac’s Namesake

Steve DeLanoy likes to remind Potomac residents of their town’s namesake; he’s known people who have never been down to the Potomac River or the C&O Canal towpath.

“It’s just amazing how many people have lived around here for years and have never been down here. They’re always amazed how beautiful it is when they see it,” said DeLanoy, who is an avid volunteer along the towpath.

A locksmith, DeLanoy will sometimes give clients pamphlets about C&O Canal National Historical Park if they are new to the area or just haven’t visited the canal. “You can only point them in the right direction; you can’t force them to go,” he said.

The Potomac River affords countless recreational opportunities for day trippers as well as hard-core outdoor enthusiasts. Between Georgetown and Seneca Falls, the river’s waters range from the idyllic to the impassable, making the Potomac a nationwide attraction for kayakers.

Ashore, the river and C&O Canal make a gamut of activities possible, from hiking to birdwatching to rock climbing.

<sh>Go to the C&O Canal

<bt>Steve DeLanoy has biked all 184 miles of the C&O Canal towpath, and as a bike patrol volunteer is well acquainted with the park. Many of his favorite spots on the towpath are nearby.

Beginning in Georgetown and finishing in Cumberland, Md., the towpath and adjacent canal are centerpieces of Chesapeake and Ohio National Historical Park, accommodating hikers, bikers, birders, historians and joggers in its varied terrain.

Widewater, a natural widening in the canal between Great Falls and Old Anglers Inn, is one of DeLanoy’s favorite spots. Along Widewater the towpath gives way to a rocky trail. First-timers should be warned that passing Widewater is not as easy a stroll as the level gravel on the towpath. Reconstruction of the towpath is underway along Widewater, but for now, a detour takes hikers and bikers up a flight of stairs to a wooded trail.

There are 31 hiker-biker campsites along the canal, roughly one every five miles above Swains Lock. Tent camping only is permitted at these sites, and each has pump water and a pit toilet.

<lst>Get there first:

There are many places to access the C&O Canal towpath with parking space available. However, some lots are small and get filled on weekends and after work hours.

* Carderock Recreational Area — Just off the Clara Barton Parkway. See www.bikewashington.org/parking/carderock for driving directions.

* Old Anglers Inn — Parking lot across the road from Old Anglers Inn, 10801 MacArthurd Blvd., Potomac.

* Great Falls Tavern — Visitor Center is at 11710 MacArthur Blvd. Entrance fees are $5 per car or $3 for hikers and bicyclists. Call 301-767-3714.

* Swains Lock — From Potomac Village, go north on River Road for 2.1 miles, turn left onto Swains Lock Road.

* Pennyfield Lock — From Potomac Village, go north on River Road for 5.2 miles, turn left onto Pennyfield Lock Road.

* Violettes Lock — From Potomac Village, go north on River Road for 8.6 miles, turn left onto Violettes Lock Road.

Visit www.nps.gov/choh/Recreation/Milepost.html for a list of park facilities and entrances with parking access.

<sh>Go Hiking

<bt>When a Washington Post editorial supported Congressional plans to turn the C&O Canal into a scenic highway in 1954, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas lead a group of nine men on a hike along the 184-mile canal. Douglas’ hike persuaded the Post editors, who joined the hike, that the canal should be preserved as a national park.

Hiking a mere fraction of Douglas’ hike can be an enjoyable way to spend a weekend day. “The first thing [a newcomer] should do is just go on a walk or hike along the Billy Goat Trail or the C&O Canal,” said David Ritter of OuterQuest. “You get a good idea, ‘Oh wow — a lot of stuff is here.”

Naturalists will enjoy the flora and fauna along the towpath, while history buffs can see surviving lockhouses and locks of the 176-year-old canal. On many days, kayakers and rock climbers will be visible from the vistas near Great Falls Tavern.

The towpath itself is level and smooth between Georgetown and Seneca, save for the portion along Widewater, between Great Falls Tavern and Old Anglers Inn (a detour around Widewater takes hikers up a set of stairs and along a path to Old Anglers, where it rejoins the towpath).

<lst>Don’t (always) fear the goat:

Near Great Falls Tavern, more than 16 side trails are accessible from the towpath. Among them, the Billy Goat Trail has a reputation for being a strenuous hike. However, this stems from one portion of trail — Section A, which begins .6 miles below Great Falls tavern, requires climbing over rocks and boulders as it follows a cliff until its end, .7 miles above Old Anglers Inn.

“Many people are only familiar with Billy Goat A, which is the toughest,” DeLanoy said. “[Sections] B and C, those are nice; you’re not doing too much work on those trails.”

Section C of the Billy Goat Trail begins 4.5 miles below Great Falls Tavern, runs 1.4 miles, and is described as a “moderate” hike by the National Park Service. It may be accessed from Carderock Recreation Area, and is marked with blue blazes.

Section B is 1.6 miles long, and is also a “moderate” hike according to the Park Service. Hikers may access it from Carderock or the parking lot across from Old Anglers Inn.

* For a map and description of the trails off the C&O Canal near Great Falls Tavern, visit www.nps.gov/choh/Recreation/ and click the links under “Trails.”

<sh>Go Biking

Mountain bikes are permitted on the C&O canal towpath, which is smooth and highly traveled between Georgetown and Seneca. For the 160 miles of towpath above Seneca, the towpath is rougher and narrower. Still, bikers who crave hills and trickier terrain may grow tired of the relatively flat path. Along the Potomac, their best bet is to cross the river. Several trails in Great Falls National Park in Virginia permit mountain biking. Several nearby inland trails also permit mountain biking.

<lst>Off-road, on the Web:

Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts is a nonprofit organization representing area mountain bikers. Visit their Web site at www.more-mtb.org.

Biking by the river:

* C&O Canal National Historical Park — Biking is permitted on the 184-mile-long towpath. Visit www.bikewashington.org/canal/ for a detailed description of the sights and features for a biker on the canal.

* Great Falls National Park (in Virginia) — Six miles of multi-use trails are accessible to bikers. Park entrance fee is $3 for visitors on a bike, $5 for visitors in a vehicle. Visit www.nps.gov/gwmp/grfa/trails/index.htm for an interactive trail map.

Nearby offroad bike trails:

* Cabin John Trail — A 10-mile trail running alongside Cabin John Creek between the Beltway overpass over Seven Locks Road and Montrose Road. For more information, visit www.more-mtb.org, click “Where to Ride,” then “Cabin John Trail.”

* Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg offers trails accessible to mountain bikers, including multi-use trails at Schaeffer Farms. Visit www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/central/seneca.html.

<sh>Go Canoeing

<bt>Canoes may not have the sleek design or extreme-sports appeal of kayaks, but David Ritter of OuterQuest believes that a canoe is a perfect way to enjoy the Potomac.

“Canoeing in my opinion is pretty much the most disrespected sport, because everyone assumes it’s easy,” said Ritter, who has known many adults who haven’t been in a canoe since the days of summer camp.

“It’s really empowering,” Ritter said. “You spend a half-day in a canoe, and you feel like you spent a week away from the city. … You get home before you realize how much you worked.”

The C&O canal offers an ideal environment to learn (or re-learn) how to paddle a canoe. “It’s a safe environment, and it’s a closed water system,” said Ritter.

Canoeists should not take on the Potomac River without learning about the portion they plan on paddling. Great Falls looks like the Class VI rapids (extreme danger) threat that it is, but other portions are more deceptive.

<lst>Canoeing outfitters:

* Team OuterQuest — Offers beginner through advanced canoeing courses, as well as rentals from Cabin John (call 301-320-1544) and Riley’s Lock in Seneca (call 301-320-1915). Visit www.teamouterquest.com or call 301-258-1914.

* Springriver — Retailer of fitness equipment and canoeing and kayaking gear, with three locations, including one at 5606 Randolph Road in Rockville. Rents canoes and kayaks of all types. Visit www.springriver.com or call 301-881-5694.

* Swains Lock — Rents canoes, kayaks, rowboats and paddleboats for $8.50/hour or $19,10 all day. Closed Mondays. Call 301-299-9006.

Canoeing organizations:

* Canoe Cruisers Association of Greater Washington, D.C. —

Helps paddlers get together for cooperative adventures to explore local lakes, rivers and streams. Offers summer instruction courses. Visit www.ccadc.org.

* Monocacy Canoe Club — A Baltimore and Washington-area canoe club sponsoring more than 100 annual trips, paddling instructions and river safety clinics. Visit www.monocacycanoe.org.

* Blue Ridge Voyageurs — A voluntary association of experienced whitewater paddlers (both open and decked boats) from the Washington, D.C. area. The club offers trips at all skill levels from beginner to expert. Visit www.blueridgevoyageurs.org.

<sh>Go Kayaking

<bt>Several miles up the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. is one of America’s premier kayaking areas. “It is the best urban whitewater there is,” said Ritter.

The U.S. Olympic kayaking team trains near Lock 6 in the C&O Canal, just before the District Line. World-renowned kayaker Eric Jackson had his roots here — “This is his home river,” said Ritter. Every Memorial Day weekend, nationally touring kayakers compete in Great Falls in the Potomac Whitewater Festival (visit www.potomacfest.org).

“We’ve seen an explosion of kayaks,” said Ritter, describing an array of kayaks ranging from flat-bottom boats to small play boats designed to surf river waves, or even plummet into eddyline holes.

Before going out on the Potomac, though, a novice paddler should take lessons. “Take a one-day, see-if-you-like-it course,” said Ritter. “You might decide, ‘Maybe canoeing’s more my speed.’”

As is true with canoeing, beginning kayakers have an ideal place to learn in the C&O Canal, a closed water body where there is virtually no waterflow, and the shore is never any more than 30 feet away.

<lst>Kayaking outfitters:

* Team OuterQuest — Offers beginner through advanced canoeing courses, as well as rentals from Cabin John (call 301-320-1544) and Riley’s Lock in Seneca (call 301-320-1915). Visit www.teamouterquest.com or call 301-258-1914.

* Potomac Paddlesports — Offers instruction and activities for flatwater trips, whitewater kayaking and sea kayaking. Meets in Cabin John. Visit www.potomacpaddlesports.com or call 301-831-8270.

* Valley Mill Kayak School — Germantown-based instructional kayak school, camps and kayak store. Visit www.valleymill.com or call 301-840-7388.

<sh>Don’t Go Swimming

<bt>With all the outdoor sports sustained by the Potomac, swimming is not among them — not ‘round these parts, anyway.

Swimming is prohibited by the National Park Service from the Potomac shore in the District of Columbia and Montgomery County. Among the reasons is the often violent current as the river descends from Seneca Falls to Georgetown.

The potential danger it poses may be obvious in the cascades of Great Falls, but is easy to underestimate elsewhere. Even in shallow waters along the shore, the Potomac’s current is often strong enough to knock an adult wader off his feet.

Rapids are graded on a scale of I (benign) through VI (life-threatening), and the lower Potomac has its share of extreme rapids, some reaching as high as level VI. What is good for the expert kayaker is not good for the swimmer.

<sh>Go Fishing

<bt>Steve DeLanoy of the C&O Canal Volunteer bike patrol has a favorite fishing spot at Violettes Lock on the canal, where he tries his lock catching and releasing bass and sunfish.

“The bass are more fun to catch because they like to fight,” said DeLanoy, who uses an ultralight rod and rooster-tail lures, and is a “catch and release” fisher.

Violettes and nearby Riley’s Lock are also favorite spots of David Ritter of OuterQuest, who says it is one of the area’s best sites for catching smallmouth bass. Other popular fishing spots on the canal are at either end of Widewater, a scenic natural water body that is part of the canal between Great Falls and Old Anglers Inn.

James Kim of Silver Spring enjoys fishing in the canal, away from the locks. “Mostly it’s the quiet,” he said. “If there are any people, they’re closer to the locks. … We kind of like to go out and look for the fish.”

Kim tends to cast from the towpath, often toward the opposite side of the canal, where fish often like to linger under the shade of trees on the shore. Watch out for those trees, Kim warns — a fisher’s line can get snagged in an overhanging branch on a careless cast.

<lst>Get a license

* A person 16 or older must have a license to fish in non-tidal waters in Maryland. Call the Maryland Department of Natural Resources at 301-974-3365.

Bring a trash bag

* C&O Canal National Historical Park is a trash-free park, meaning there are not trash cans. The park provides small trash bags at various sites along the towpath, but it is better that the visitor bring a bag in which carry any trash out of the park.

Nine fish in the C&O Canal, the Potomac and its tributaries:

* largemouth bass

* striped bass

* chain pickerel

* crappie

* channel catfish

* yellow perch

* white perch

* bluegill sunfish

* carp

<sh>Go Birdwatching

<bt>Birdwatchers have spotted such rarities as barn owls and rough-legged hawks in Montgomery County, but checking off rarities on a “life list” isn’t what motivates Karen Stewart.

“The pleasure for me is finding out who’s out there, and who we share this precious space with,” said Stewart, chapter director of the Montgomery Bird Club. “Along the towpath is indeed wonderful for birding, and you will find birders out there 12 months a year.”

Great blue herons are a frequent sight along the canal, and DeLanoy says seeing a heron stalk and eat a fish is one of his favorite sights.

River, forest, marsh and field habitats are all alongside the canal, often in close proximity to one another, along with the birds that frequent them. Most locks on the canal provide birding opportunities, but novice birders will benefit by learning from the experts. “Most beginners will have an easier time if they join an organized bird club,” Stewart said. There are several opportunities (see below).

Birders should always bring water along, and remember to wear “quiet” clothing. “A nylon jacket that swishes – that may as well be a whistle,” said Stewart.

Binoculars become essential for an avid birder, who gets what he or she pays for. “The more money you spend on binoculars, the happier you’ll be,” said Stewart.

<lst>Birding organizations:

* Montgomery Bird Club — A chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society that sponsors bird field trips and holds monthly meetings on the third Wednesday of each month at Potomac Presbyterian Church, 10301 River Road, from 7:30-9:30 p.m. Everyone is welcome. Visit www.mdkinc.com/mccbird

* Audubon Naturalist Society — Sponsors birding field trips, lecture series and monthly beginners’ bird walks. Call 301-652-9188 or visit www.audubonnaturalist.org.

Places to go birding:

* McKee-Besher Wildlife Management Area — includes Hughes Hollow. More than 200 species of birds have been identified in this area, just off River Road, 2.5 miles past River Road’s intersection with Seneca Road (Rte. 112). Hunting is permitted seasonally in the area. Visit www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/central/mb.html.

* Meditation Park — Across the road from the Kunzang Palyul Choling (KPC) Buddhist Temple, 18400 River Road, Poolesville. A resident monk has counted more than 85 species in this park, according to the Montgomery Bird Club.

* Dierssen Waterfowl Sanctuary — A 40-acre refuge between the C&O Canal and the Potomac., a half-mile above Pennyfield Lock. A migratory stop for teal, wood duck and mallards, the sanctuary is also home to wild turkeys and beaver.

* C&O Canal Lock 7 — Near Glen Echo at the intersection of Goldsboro Road and MacArthur Boulevard

* Rileys Lock (see above)

* Carderock Recreational Area (see above)

Birds along the C&O Canal:

* Canada geese

* Mallard ducks

* Great blue herons

* Bald Eagles

* Ospreys

* Kingfishers