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Cycling Enthusiast Documents the C&O Canal

John Urman creates award-winning documentary with hand-held camera.

For years, John Urman dreamed of biking the entire length of the C&O Canal. He finally got the chance in 2004, when he rode all 184.5 miles with a friend in three days.

“We got rained on two days and hailed on the third day,” said Urman, a 49-year-old Washington, D.C. native who resides in Arlington. “It was wet, miserable and the best ride of my life.

“[The canal] has a peace and serenity and healing power to it,” he added. “The places where there isn’t anything are as special and important as the sites there are to stop and see. I wanted to tell my friends and family about it.”

Urman, who works as a television cameraman, decided to create a home video about the C&O Canal as a Christmas gift. The homemade travelogue simulated his three-day bike ride.

The personal project turned into a month of film shooting and another month of editing. Urman tackled complex camera angles, creative video splicing, in-depth historical research, and footage of restaurant owners, visitors and park rangers at various stops along the canal.

“It was going to be a home video and a gift for friends,” said Urman. “It kept getting better and better.

“The turning point when I thought ‘This could be more than just a home video,’ was when I was poking around online and found footage of the C&O Canal in operation in 1917, available from the Library of Congress,” he added. “I realized the footage was perfect for the video. I thought, ‘This could be something really nice.’”

“HERE IT IS, mile zero of the C&O Canal trail,” exclaims an enthusiastic Urman, dressed in cycling gear at the opening of the documentary. “For some it’s a destination. For others, it’s a starting point.”

The video guides viewers through about 60 miles each “day.” The first segment extends from Georgetown to Harpers Ferry. Day 2’s journey reaches to Hancock, and Day 3 goes all the way to Cumberland.

“It’s amazing to ride along this restored waterway and slowly become immersed in this country’s history, and yet we’re in the middle of Washington and its crazy, crowded suburbs,” narrates Urman during a shot of him cycling beneath bridges in D.C. “Heck, that bridge up there is the Capital Beltway.”

The documentary is rich in history, both about battles waged at sites along the canal, the commerce along the canal, competition from trains and the fight to protect the canal.

“It’s hard to believe now, but in the 1950s there were those who just wanted to pave over the canal,” says Urman mid-way through the video. “Supreme Court Justice William Douglas changed their minds with a challenge to join him to hike the entire length. … His passion saved the canal and kept it from becoming just another two-lane highway.”

Douglas’ voice booms from a 1954 radio broadcast:

“[The canal is] a place where we can commune with nature — a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns.”

The history of the C&O Canal spans four centuries. It was first proposed by George Washington in the 1700s to improve navigability along the Potomac. The canal operated from 1836 to 1924 along the Potomac River from Cumberland to Georgetown. It stretches through the District and Montgomery, Frederick, Washington and Allegany counties. Seventy-four canal locks accommodated an elevation change of more than 600 feet along the 184.5 miles, and 11 aqueducts enabled the canal boats to cross major streams.

In 1938 the U.S. government purchased the abandoned canal and restored the lower 22 miles. After World War II, Congress considered developing the canal and towpath as a parkway. In 1954, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas saved the canal by leading a group of politicians and journalists on a hike of its entire length.

Douglas was famously kicked out of Old Angler’s Inn in Potomac by owner Olympia Reges, who died last year after running the restaurant for nearly 50 years.

In 1971, the canal was designated a National Historic Park. The park encompasses nearly 20,000 acres and receives about 3 million visits per year.

URMAN’S FINISHED PRODUCT, a 30-minute documentary entitled “On the Canal,” won first place in its category in the nationwide Hometown Video Festival and received an award of distinction in The Videographer Awards, an international competition for professional and amateur filmmakers. It was aired on public access television in Arlington and Alexandria, as well as in Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Anne Arundel and Washington counties. The public television channel for the state of Maryland also ran the video.

“I’d never tried shooting a documentary before,” said Urman. “I had to teach myself how to edit on the computer, how to be comfortable on camera and how to promote the video.”

Urman devised creative camera techniques to capture video of himself cycling along the canal, and his brother Tom also helped film about 20 percent of the footage.

“We spent most of our lives around the DC area,” said Tom. “I remember John had an early interest in biking.”

“It was your bike I kept stealing,” joked John.

“[The documentary] was … one of the most special Christmas presents ever,” said Tom. “[Our family] was quite thrilled. They maybe didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the effort beforehand, but afterwards they realized how much work went into it.”

The documentary could inspire others to turn home videos into works of art.

“The content is always there if you do the research to find it,” said Tom. “You just have to do more than scratch the surface of something to find out what’s interesting about it.”

“Everyone’s vacation adventure could be a travelogue,” added John.

After perusing hours of footage for the travelogue, Urman realized something was missing.

“It needed to have more than me,” he said. “I needed to have other people’s faces in there, even if only for a moment, to let [viewers] know that beyond mile 22 it’s not a wilderness. There are thriving towns and really nice people and places to stop and eat and see things.”

Rita Knox, a park ranger at the Cumberland Visitors Center, appears in the documentary and narrates a section about the history of the western end of the canal.

“[John] is a person of great enthusiasm, he’s an interesting person, and he’s quite a biker,” she said. “He had a nice perspective in the way he did the video.

“It’s something that will make others want to hike and bike and explore the canal,” she added. “He brought out the flavor of [the canal] as if you were actually biking it.”

Are any future projects in store from the award-winning videographer?

“I’ve thought of several ideas,” said Urman. “Right now I’m working with Revolutionary War reenactors. There’s also a hiking trail … called the Potomac Heritage Trail that runs from the American Legion Bridge to Rosslyn. I’d like to reveal this trail because it’s a hidden gem in the heart of Washington.”