Paddling on the Potomac:
A Contemporary Commentary
by John Thomson
The fascinations of this piece [Alfred Dent's 1922 article by the same name] are boundless to an "experienced" canoeist of the 1980s. The territory Alfred Dent is describing is well known, popular to today's paddlers and, though names have changed -- for the "Bull Pen", read "White Horse Rapids"; for "Horseshoe Chute", read "Difficult Run Rapids" which is broken down to the "Maryland Chute", the "Main Chute" and the "Virginia Chute"; for "Dangerous Run" (well named), read "Difficult Run"; and for "Pennyfield", read "Pennyfield" even though we have the written evidence that it should have been "Pennfield" ( It was Mrs. Pennfield who put our Ladies of Sycamore up for the night -- we can recognize them all and the problems, and excitement, they provide.
Clearly Alfred Dent, at the time of this article, was on one of his early exploratory trips away from Sycamore and, most properly, he was taking the trip with an "experienced" canoeist (I avoid the term "expert"), William U. Handy. First trips into whitewater should always be undertaken with the guidance of "old timers." I look back with amusement at the fears raised by such drops as Wet Bottom Chute, Yellow Falls and Stubblefield Rapids when I first ventured into white water -- and think how they have now become pleasant play areas on the way down stream.
The perils of paddling were indeed greater in those earlier days than they are today. The magnificent Old Towns of that era were fragile. To run on a rock threatened to tear the canvas skin or, worse, to break the wooden framework. There is an old saying that "You can learn to paddle in whitewater in an Old Town, but it is very expensive." We've moved from wood-and-canvas to aluminum, to fiberglass, and now to more advanced plastics. Canoes are getting stronger, lighter and more flexible. No experienced canoeist today would as William U. Handy did, sit for fifteen minutes on a flat rock in mid-stream. He'd push off forcefully with his paddle, perhaps stepping out to do so.
This, of course, brings us to the changes in costume for canoeing. Note in the photos of the twenties the neckties, the heavy boots -- and the lack of life jackets. I'm sure that our Ladies of the trip were in long skirts and, probably, in beautiful hats. It has been only in the past two decades that life jackets have come into vogue, become required by state regulation and by paddling clubs. I recall in the sixties expert canoeists protesting that life jackets interfered with paddling skills and, in hydraulics, were a danger to survival.
The necktie may still be worn, but seldom is. Heavy hiking boots are even disappearing from mountain trails, let alone canoes, and have been replaced by tennis shoes or light weight wet-suit booties. With the improvement of equipment and skills, there is frequently a tendency to down-grade the difficulties of rapids but to the inexperienced they still remain treacherous.
Following the Handy-Dent course down the river in 1985 is fun and revealing. Levelwalkers no longer chase you off campsites though, on a volunteer basis, they do check the conditions of the towpath and the canal. Perhaps more significant, the Park Service now provides comfortable biker-hiker (and canoeist) camp-sites equipped with privies, picnic tables and protected pumps. We would take out at Williamsport, but just to portage the power plant dam. We'd have to return to the river as there is no water in the canal in this area -- and no lock keeper to boat-sit or provide accommodations. The fish-dams still persist, a fascinating reminder of past fishing techniques. Their run down the canal, to make up time, also avoided a nasty portage around Dam 4 at the lower end of Big Slackwater.
In the Harpers Ferry region, Dam 3 is still there serving one of its former functions, of providing energy for the power plant. It no longer feeds into the canal -- its original purpose -- as the canal is dry. The drop is still about eight feet though it is possible to run it through at least one of the several breaks. The rock garden below the dam -- all the way to the confluence with the Shenandoah -- is now called "The Needles" and is one of the pleasant runs for whitewater canoeists with some experience. We still refer to the Bull Pen, but our interest is more likely to be focussed on the last drop, White Horse Rapids, which is the best in that area. We have indeed seen many an upset there and some canoes pinned on rocks -- but no drownings.
From White Horse down to Seneca Dam, Dam 2 for the C & O Canal, I'm sure we would agree with the description of easy paddling through minor riffles. At the Seneca Breaks there is a change. Though the water still flows into the canal there, watering the canal from Seneca to Lock 5 at Brookmont, it is not possible to be "locked in". One must carry. It is, of course, possible to paddle to Pennfield Lock -- I fight a losing battle for historic accuracy -- but there is no current lock keeper or accommodations for transients. Actually, today most paddlers prefer to run the river down what we call "The Old George Washington Canal." The channel we follow does in fact cross the old canal and has delightful riffles and minor rapids.
Great Falls, with locks functioning, was much easier then than now. Where the Sycamore foursome paddled down the canal and were lowered down four locks, we have to portage our canoes down the towpath. Their portage clearly started at the Stop Lock (closed in flood conditions to protect the canal at Widewater) to follow what Is today's Billygoat Trail. From there down to Sycamore, except for name-changes at Difficult Run -- and the massive American Legion Bridge (aka The Cabin John Bridge), I see no changes in the river to report some 60 years later.