Notes from the Island
September 2007


Normally, this would be the month that I would tell you all about my summer vacation and the adventures I had in some far-away place. This summer, however, I didn't go anywhere but stayed close to home and enjoyed the perfect conditions here on the Island. The weather this summer has been so amazing that sometimes I'd wake up and feel like I was in some New England vacation spot. Never, in my memory, has it ever been 62 degrees in D.C. in July.

I did take one little local trip that might be worth reading about. This story falls under the category of my continued exploration of the towpath and Potomac River, another "hike up/paddle down" story.

This time I started my trip in Hancock Md. Now I've driven by Hancock many times heading west out Interstate 70 and from the highway it doesn't look very impressive. Mostly what you see are railroad tracks and truck stops and overpasses. But, once I got down into the historic part of town, I found a very friendly and interesting town.

I drove down the main street through town and continued north until I was at the top of Tonoloway Ridge. Here I turned left and followed the ridgeline through Woodmont Natural Area straight down to the river. On the way I passed the old Tonoloway Rod and Gun Club (1870), whose guests included several presidents. Soon, I found the western terminus of the Western Maryland Rail-Trail. This is a converted RR track and runs parallel to the canal and the river from Fort Frederick to this spot. Here, at the abandoned town of Woodmont, is where I'd stash my canoe. I carried my canoe through the dry canal bed, across the towpath and into some thick brush nearer to the river. I knew it was the right spot when a red-shouldered hawk made itself known and landed on a branch just above me. I saw a mile marker up ahead. I was now 136 miles from Georgetown and twelve miles from Hancock. It was also 10:30; I had better hurry up and get hiking.

I rushed back to Hancock and parked my van in the boat ramp parking lot. Apparently, they don't mind if you leave your car there over night. If you don't mind risking it. It was so nice to finally leave the car behind and start hiking. The towpath at mile 125 is very similar to the towpath at mile 6, fewer people and more horses, but similar. The obvious difference is that there is no water in the canal. The trees and plants are slightly different as well -- a lot more hardwoods and ferns. The most striking difference is the topography and it was really cool walking along the towpath with Cacapon Mountain shooting up from the river to my left. I passed "The Devils Eyebrow", which is an anticline or a fold in the rock that is visible from the towpath. It is this same folding that created these mountains; and as I walked along I contemplated the forces that allowed this river to continue to flow east despite all these ridges trying to block its course. I also passed an old cement plant. At one time, after they discovered the limestone layered into these rocks, tons of cement were shipped from these hills.

I passed the Cacapon River as it entered the Potomac on my left. It was here at this Cacapon Junction Campsite that I was supposed to be able to fill my water jug. Unfortunately, the pump was broken. I didn't have to panic; I had my water filter, but even with the filter I didn't like the idea of drinking the warm water from the river. Since it had been so dry, all the smaller springs were dried up. I pressed on, not knowing if I could make it all the way to the next pump before dark.

The trail was pretty quiet and except for a few cyclists I was able to explore all the abandoned lock houses and canal works in solitude. I passed locks number 53, 54, 55, 56 and dam number 5. This earthen dam no longer holds the river and has a huge breach on the West Virginia side.

I reached the spot where I hid my canoe, but decided to keep walking. Sidling Hill Creek was just a couple of miles ahead, and I thought that would be the best place to get the water I needed. On the way to the creek, I counted thirteen wild turkeys in a group as they crossed the towpath in front of me.

The shadows were getting pretty long as I sat under the Sidling Hill aqueduct pumping my drinking water. I decided I had better camp there for the night. I looked around for a good spot for the tent and ended up out on the rocky bars that lined the drought-level river. I wanted to camp near the water. It was breezier outside of the trees but it was way too rocky on the bar for a bed. But then, triumphantly, I found a perfect little grassy patch and I set up my temporary home. I was too tired to fish for my dinner and I fixed my dehydrated meal and watched the sun set behind Sidling Hill before going to bed. It was a great spot to camp except that I was only yards from the West Virginia shore where an all-night stream of coal trains was passing by. (Coal is still king.) It was surreal to see the lights of the trains coming out of the complete darkness and rounding the curve around Sidling Hill.

I awoke the next morning to the sound of some local fishermen trying their luck in Sidling Hill Creek. I wasted little time in breaking camp and I headed down river to my boat. It made me smile when I heard the screeching of that same red-shouldered hawk as I dragged my canoe to the river. There is a steeper gradient on the river here and the canoe moved swiftly over the shallow water. It was a little tricky navigating through the remains of dam number five and I was wondering what it would be like in higher water. The town of Great Cacapon was coming up on my right and I decided to splurge and head into town for some bottled water. I parked the canoe at the mouth of Cacapon River and bush-wacked my way over the railroad tracks and up to WV Rt. 9. It was a ten-minute walk to the country store where I bought some water. I also couldn't resist buying a bag of ice, a six-pack of beer, and a steak sub.

I spent the next six hours floating and fishing on a perfectly hot summer day. There were plenty of fish to keep me from getting bored as I drifted past all the makeshift campsites and summer homes that lined the WV shore. Some of the shoreline was trashed out with old school buses. I diverted my eyes to the towering hillsides and their ancient rock outcroppings. Soon I was back near Hancock and paddling under the Rt. 522 Bridge that was being painted. I was marveling at the extensive scaffolding when a worker stuck his head out from behind the giant tarps high above the river. We waved to each other and I was thinking how glad I was to be the one in the canoe.

-- Joe Hage, Sycamore Island Caretaker