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‘A Chance To Give Back’

Revived C&O Canal Association group gives volunteers chance to improve park.

Five hours after Brian Piché and his friends arrived at Swains Lock, the area had a new look, and they were still at work.

Piché, an Eagle Scout from Troop 50 from Fairfax Station, Va., led his friends Andrew Smith, Frank Hamer and Tim Goulding as they threshed chest-high weeds in the campground at Swains.

“Watch out for the stinging nettles,” Piché warned the gang.

They were part of a group of 25 volunteers, most of whom were Piché’s friends or family, who spent the day painting signs, threshing out weeds, filling in potholes in the parking lot and cleaning up the lock. To do the latter, Piché went through the lock in a canoe and removed invasive plants that were damaging the stonework.

Midway through the afternoon, signs and picnic tables at the nearby campground received a fresh coat of paint they hadn’t received in years. The lockhouse and an adjacent building was also painted, and Swains Lock itself was visible, clear of the weeds and vines that were choking it that morning.

“It’s just incredible what’s going on,” said Steve DeLanoy, who oversaw the volunteers on Sunday.

THE SWAINS LOCK cleanup was just the type of project DeLanoy and Jim Heins had in mind when they reactivated the C&O Canal Association’s Volunteers in the Park program this spring. Both longtime volunteers with the park, Heins and DeLanoy wanted to revive the program that once helped the Park Service keep up with the demands posed by the 184-mile-long park.

The Association’s volunteer program existed before, but has been dormant for nearly a decade. When floods in 1996 caused widespread damage to the canal, many local people wanted to help, and the C&O Canal Association oversaw volunteer efforts to restore much of the damage. “They had a million volunteers, and a million things to do,” Heins said. “I think people got burned out.”

Much of the damage done by the ‘96 floods has since been repaired, especially on the towpath itself, which has only two gaps between Georgetown and its terminus in Cumberland, Md. But along the canal’s 184 miles, there are too many repair jobs for the National Park Service to keep up with.

Invasive plants such as honeysuckle, garlic mustard and wild roses pervade the towpath, the canal locks and adjacent campgrounds. Litter is a problem in some areas, and there is no trash removal under the park’s “carry-in, carry-out” policy.

“It needs a little TLC, and more than that at times,” Heins said. “Why not spend some time with the park and give us a hand?”

“[People can volunteer] if they love the park and want to give something back to it,” said DeLanoy, who was the Capital Region’s National Park Service Volunteer of the Year in 2002. “That’s how I got started. … Then I started meeting all kinds of neat people, and got even more involved.”

DeLanoy and Heins restarted the Volunteers in the Parks program when they led eight volunteers who removed trash and cleared invasive vegetation by Seneca Creek Aqueduct on March 19. As sturdy as the aqueduct’s red sandstone may appear, the 172-year-old structure is damaged by invasive plants.

“We’ve tried to approach it with a different point of view than we had before,” Heins said. He and DeLanoy aim to make the volunteer outings pleasant, rewarding, and somewhat informal — nobody is obligated to commit to multiple projects. For now, the volunteer projects are held monthly, and last for several hours in the late morning.

While the VIP program is part of the C&O Canal Association, Heins and DeLanoy want to emphasize that anybody is welcome to help out.

BEFORE VOLUNTEERS went to work, Nature Conservancy educated park volunteers on how to distinguish between the invasive plants and the desirable ones — “the good guys from the bad guys," Heins said. “So we don’t go roaring in there and leave [invasive] plants there,” Heins said.

Part of the program’s goal is to have group leaders who can oversee such projects without needing a Park Service official to oversee the project. Before, it made no difference whether or not there were willing volunteers — if no park ranger was available to oversee a needed project, it didn’t get done.

In a few months, Volunteers in the Parks have helped get willing volunteers the chance to help out. When Piché sought a project for his Eagle Scout badge, he contacted DeLanoy and Heins to see if he could help out. The volunteers who came with Piché on Sunday gave the Swains Lock area a facelift it hasn’t received in years.

“I like how it’s very beautiful out here, and how it’s got a lot of history,” said Piché, a rising sophomore at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Va.

DeLanoy and Heins hope that other park visitors will opt to help out. During their first few projects, they planted a sign along the towpath describing the program and the project they were working on. “Maybe we’ll make a few people guilty,” Heins said. “This is just a little way to give a bit back to the park.”