Paddling on the Potomac

by Alfred B. Dent

[This article appeared in the April 1922 Sycamore Islander.]

We arrived at the little village of Hancock at about noon on a Monday, having sent our canoe and duffel ahead by canal-boat to await our arrival at the Hancock Lock.

Feeling the need for food, we lunched at a convenient restaurant, then laid in a goodly stock of canned goods and other provisions for the voyage, and went to the lock. Found the canoe safe and sound, nothing missing, and carrying everything down a steep embankment, launched into the Potomac at about 3 o'clock.

The scenery was interesting, but not unusual enough to need description to readers who are probably familiar with our river. After paddling easily for an hour or more, we began to cast about for a likely camp site for the night, but saw nothing attractive, so kept on our way. About 5 o'clock we decided we must make camp, even though no site such as we would have liked had come into view, and we went ashore on the Maryland side and pitched our small tent between the river and the tow-path, after looking in vain for a better situation. Soon a good fire was burning and we enjoyed a hearty supper, turning in before dark, on the ground, as we carried no cots. We first spread a tarpaulin, on which we laid, wrapped in our blankets, with rolled coats and other extra clothing for pillows. I slept well, but on arising about daybreak was rather disgusted to find, as a bed-fellow, a crawling creature some four inches long, looking rather like a centipede!

We had just finished a breakfast consisting mainly of pancakes of cornmeal, when we saw approaching us along the tow-path a man who proved to be a "levelwalker" or inspector, in employ of the canal company, who informed us in a very decent manner, that no camping was allowed along the path, as the boat-horses might be frightened thereby. This we knew, but we professed ignorance of the rules, and promised to break camp at once (which we were about to do anyway).

The next four hours were spent paddling leisurely but we made fair time going with the current, went ashore on an inviting point for lunch, where Handy (who is well named --[a fellow club member]) contrived some delicious biscuits, baking them between two parts of a folding frying pan.

Again afloat, enjoying the crisp autumn air, (it was late October) and delightful scenery. Late in the afternoon, clouds began to gather, and we has several light showers; and as the weather promised rain, a good camp site became much desired. Handy had been down this stretch of the river before, and said he remembered a suitable place. Soon he thought he recognized the spot, a level shelf about ten feet above the water's edge, with trees not too closely spaced, and hills rising beyond the level. A storm had been threatening for some time, and by the time we beached our canoe it was raining briskly. The bank at our landing point was steep, but no easier ascent being evident, we had to unload our duffel and carry it up the slippery bank in the driving rain. I had put on my raincoat, but my companion had brought none, so he was pretty well soaked.

The natural shelf would have made a fine camp site had we arrived in time to get things in proper shape before the rain began; but we made the best of it, pitching the tent with its back to the wind. We found a number of saplings ready cut, about eight feet in length, evidently used by former campers. These poles we placed close together, ends resting on two logs, making a bed to keep us off the water-soaked ground. On these we placed twigs and small branches with leaves to close up the chinks, over which were spread our blankets, and it proved comfortable. Our tent was enclosed on only three sides. In front of the open side we built a fire, the logs banked up against three stakes of green wood driven upright into the ground, which arrangement threw heat into the tent. We collected a quantity of nearly dry wood, storing it under the bed, so that Handy kept the fire going all night without arising from his downy (?) couch.

The rain lasted nearly all night, but by daybreak it began to clear, and after breakfast we resumed our voyage under a bright sky. In packing our duffel down the steep wet bank we dropped our folding baker in the water and it disappeared beyond retrieval.

Our noon meal was enjoyed on a pleasantly wooded Island and we seemed quite like early explorers, no signs of humanity being visible except our own belongings.

The afternoon's paddle brought us to the town of Williamsport. The sky had again clouded and as we approached the village a heavy shower descended, from which we took refuge under the aqueduct, which leaked to such an extent that we might almost as well have remained in the open. The rain apparently was to be quite lasting, darkness was approaching and we were hungry -- so decided to put our canoe in charge of the lock keeper and seek dinner in the town. We thought of bunking for the night in a shed at the lock, used as a boathouse, which was put at our disposal by the keeper; but when we found the canal "race" or overflow ran beneath it, with a thunderous noise, we denied ourselves the pleasure of "roughing it" in that manner, and enjoyed a good night's rest in a clean and comfortable bed at the village hotel.

The next morning was Thursday, and calculations showed that we had not made as good "time" to this point as planned. In order to hasten, therefore, we launched the canoe in the canal, and took our breakfast "afloat." We had in our outfit a small alcohol stove, over which Handy prepared corn-cakes and coffee, while I kept up fair speed with my paddle. Luncheon we managed in the same way, and kept steadily paddling from early morning to nearly sundown, covering about thirty miles. This evening we had a good camp site at the edge of the river. I wanted a change from the tent, and slept in my canoe, moored from a branch of a tree leaning over the water. By chance a rope-end was left trailing in the water, and in the morning I found the canoe swarming with a small kind of water beetle. We swamped the canoe and thus rid it of the unwelcome visitors, who had climbed in by way of the trailing rope, but they left behind an odor which though not offensive was not especially agreeable, and lasted for months.

While at this camp, my canoe, not properly tied up, got adrift, and was rapidly taking its departure on a solitary trip of investigation when it was noticed by Bill Handy, who quickly threw off his clothes and swam for it. Had I been alone I should have had to waft it a sad farewell, not being enough of a swimmer to venture into the current after it.

Friday morning we put into the river again, and had good sport in "shooting" the numerous fish-dams that are found in this part of the river. We had negotiated an occasional obstruction of this nature in the upper reaches of the river, and always found a spot where there was sufficient water, over displaced stones, to float our light craft through. There were some broad stretches of the river where we took a rest from paddling, by hoisting a small sail and letting the breeze and current do all the work.

Towards afternoon we came to the dam above Harpers Ferry, which has a fall of about eight feet. We disembarked and lowered the canoe without unloading, getting in immediately, among numerous rocks, and, threading our way through them, negotiated in good style the rapids between the dam and the town. To save time we went ashore to a restaurant for lunch and took advantage of the chance to inquire of some boatmen the nature of the rapids further down the river. They agreed that "if you keep your boat head on, you will probably get through all right, not withstanding the strong cross-currents, as there is good depth," and added, as an afterthought, "we are going out now to look for the bodies of two men who were upset there yesterday." Nothing daunted, we launched "1010 Reliable" again, and were soon in the "chute". Handy, being the stronger, was in the stern. The waves dashed against our bows, casting sheets of water over my head, and into my face. But we kept her straight, and in a minute were in comparatively smooth water, and immediately made for the nearest shore, being nearly swamped. We had shipped so much water that we had to unload our duffel and upset the canoe. Then reloading, we put in again. The river from this point to below Brunswick is a series of riffles and rapids, but none nearly so difficult as those we had just been through, which are known as the "Bull Pen."

When the time came for planning for the night we were nearing Point of Rocks. We landed at a number of places but found nothing but mud and bushes; so kept on to the village, and, putting our property in charge of a good-natured "peasant" family residing near the river, we walked back along the canal to the nearest lock. This was the point at which we had planned to meet two friends, members of the Sycamore Island Club as we were, who were to paddle up the canal and join us for the return trip. At the lock we found a canoe which we recognized as belonging to our friends, but the lock-keeper did not know where they were located for the night. We walked back to the village, had supper, lodging and breakfast at the village tavern, and early Saturday morning started towards the lock by way of the tow-path. Before going far we saw a canoe approaching and soon the paddlers were waving their hands to us; we helped them ashore (did I tell you they were ladies?) and were greeted enthusiastically. All having breakfasted, immediate portage to the river was made with the recent addition to our fleet, which soon joined the flagship left half a mile below. We made a shift in crews, Handy going with one of the ladies, at stern of her canoe, the other lady taking the bow of my craft. The ladies were experienced canoeists and good sports. One was an expert swimmer, the other just learning. As I could not do much in that line, I chose the swimmer as my partner, telling her in case of a spill she must look out for me (which she refused to promise). We had no mishaps, however, negotiating several fish-dams and small riffles with enjoyment.

Made a landing shortly after noon at Goose Creek, and our new companions prepared the best meal of the voyage, including "hot dogs" toasted over the open fire at the ends of willow wythes.

Getting under way again, we had fine weather, sometimes paddling, sometimes sailing. The broad expanse from "Sharpshin Island" to Seneca Dam made sailing quite good sport. The full moon made a-wonderful picture with hills and river in an unclouded sky.

At Seneca Dam we were "locked" though into the canal and paddled through the gathering dusk to "Pennyfields" where we hoped to obtain lodgings for the night. Found the old residence as well as the lock-house quartering quite a number of people who had motored over from Washington for a weekend of fishing. Mrs. Pennyfield managed to care for our ladies, however, Handy and I sleeping in the canoes.

After breakfast, the next morning (Sunday) we put in to the river. From this point to Great Falls there is all kinds of paddling water, with riffles and rocks galore. This is very pleasing to an experienced paddler and we had a very good time. On reaching the Falls, we of course had to portage to canal, and go through the group of locks; but we soon "took out" and made the portage back to river over a winding trail seemingly a mile or more in length, coming out at the Gorge below the Falls. It was long past noon, and we made a fire on a big rock high above the river and took it easy, having a hearty meal. When we thought of the passing time, it was found to be after four o'clock with the most dangerous part of the river before us, and this the last day of our vacation. So we hurriedly loaded and launched our canoes for this last lap of our voyage and were soon gliding through "Horseshoe Chute", off the mouth of Dangerous Run. This was exhilarating, but soon over. After a short stretch of quiet water we approached "Calico" sometimes called "Yellow Falls." We lay alongside the large rocks at the side of the falls, while Handy climbed to a point of vantage from which to plan the attack. These falls are very rocky, except for one spot, where there is a mass of smooth, deep water, with a sudden drop of about three feet, and a big rock about a canoe's length below, dividing the mass of water to right and to left. After taking the plunge into the falls a quick turn must be made to the right, to avoid striking the big rock and an almost sure upset in the boiling waters. Both canoes shipped some water, but neither overturned, and we were on our way to the long and rapid chute through the very rocky stretch of the river known as "Stubblefield."

This proved easy to negotiate, but we acquired enough more water to necessitate another landing and handling of the duffel in and out. For a mile or so below Stubblefield the river is quite free from outstanding rocks, but below that again there are a couple of miles where the rocks are too numerous to mention. The riffles are many but modest.

We are now within a half mile of our island, but it has grown quite dark and the rocks can hardly be located (by eye). Just then Handy located a flat one just below the surface, on which his canoe hung for some fifteen minutes, despite his strenuous efforts to disengage her. When we caught up with him and joined our efforts to his, success crowned them, and we were soon housed on our dear island, a tired but happy group.