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The canoe is newly packed and ready for an excursion on the Potomac.
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The canoe is newly packed and ready for an excursion on the Potomac.
A canoe trip on the Potomac means beautiful scenery, impressive fishing, lots of birding and overnight stops on land from campsites to B&Bs.
"There he is, there he is!" shouted James Apperson. "Do you see him?" The unmistakable white head of a mature bald eagle glistened as the raptor flew over and then upstream from us before alighting in a shoreline sycamore. The eagle became bird species number 48 of the 51 I either saw or heard on my most recent summertime canoe trip down the upper Potomac in West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia.
As exciting as the eagle sighting was, it was not the birding highlight of my two-day excursion with Apperson, a guide with River Riders in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Earlier that day after we put in below Brunswick, Md., we spotted a loon, the first one I have ever observed on the Potomac. While we were viewing the creature, it dove under the water and some 20 seconds later re-emerged – no doubt having feasted on some hapless fish.
What I like best about my summertime sojourns on the Upper Potomac (which forms the border between Maryland and West Virginia until the Shenandoah River enters at Harpers Ferry and then divides the Free State and Virginia) is that they allow me to participate in four of the outdoor activities I enjoy best: canoeing, fishing, birding and camping. One of the reasons this is so is that after a day of bird watching and float fishing down the river, all I have to do is paddle over to the river left shoreline (the Maryland side) and spend the night at one of the many campsites that dot the C&O Canal, which parallels the upper river throughout almost all of its length.
Also of great appeal is the pleasure gained from stopping at many of the small towns that line the river's banks. For example, I fondly recall the time friend Tim Wimer and I paddled up to the Paw Paw, W.Va. shoreline and walked into town where we had dinner at Grandma's Country Kitchen and Inn. There, a young couple regaled us with why they so much enjoy going to high school basketball games on Friday nights and church socials on Sunday afternoons. In Berkeley Springs, W.Va. Tim and I took a detour to the namesake state park there and toured the mineral baths and spent the night at the delightful Manor Inn B&B.
In Hancock, Md., I remember chatting with middle school boys who were relishing the first days of summer vacation by swimming in the river. They grimaced when I asked them if they were reading any books over the summer and actually groaned when I told them I was a high school English teacher.
Later that same excursion, Wimer and I left the river early one day to visit the Antietam Battlefield, the bloodiest confrontation of the Civil War and one where Antietam Creek was said to have run red from the carnage. On another outing, I took a break from camping to tour Shepherdstown, W.Va. and spend the night at the Thomas Shepherd Inn. And this past June, my wife Elaine and I stayed at the Washington House B&B in Charles Town, W.Va.
Matt Knott, who operates River Riders, has paddled the entire Potomac except for the extreme whitewater of Great Falls and Little Falls.
"One of the main reasons people come to this area of Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia is the historical sites," says Knot. "But when you paddle much of the upper Potomac, the isolation is such that you could be a thousand miles from anywhere.
"Couple that with the fact that every five miles or so, the C&O Canal offers camping facilities on the Maryland side. It's really special to paddle up to a bank and spend the night there. Of course, a lot of people come for the birding and fishing. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons have returned to the Potomac, and the smallmouth bass fishing is very popular."
As Knott notes, the isolation is indeed appealing. Perhaps, the most remote part of the Potomac is the first junket below the confluence of the South and North Branches of the Potomac – the 13.5-mile stretch from Paw Paw to Bonds Landing at Maryland's Green Ridge State Forest. The river snakes back and forth through here forming numerous outside bends and coursing past heavily wooded mountainsides. Tim and I only spotted one other canoe on this excursion.
The 26 miles from Bonds Landing to Hancock, Md. is almost as secluded. On one trip, Wimer and I saw only a few other paddlers and when we stopped to spend the night on the canal, we had the entire campsite to ourselves. That night, the predominant sound was a male bullfrog that serenaded us to sleep.
When dawn came, the amphibian was still belting out his deep bass rumblings as he advertised himself to all female members of his species. I have to believe that he endured a fruitless, frustrating and ultimately lonely night. That morning, we cooked oatmeal over a two-burner stove and watched as fog lifted from the river.
After you leave Hancock, houses and other indicators of civilization become much more common, but many rural stretches still exist. The fishing remains excellent, and I have caught smallmouth bass up to 20 inches – a trophy fish anywhere in the country. On the most recent getaway fishing with Apperson, I hooked a fish that actually towed the canoe upstream.
I shouted for Apperson to paddle after the rampaging creature and some two minutes later, the guide finally netted a four-pound-plus channel catfish. James says that channels up to 12 pounds lurk in the river. Muskies, walleyes, rock bass and redbreast sunfish also swim the waterway. The stretch from Taylors Landing in Maryland to Shepherdstown is especially popular among anglers.
For safety's sake, I must warn you that the 7.5-mile float from below Dam No. 3 to Brunswick flaunts a number of potentially dangerous Class II and III rapids. A canoe filled with camping gear and manned by inexperienced paddlers – or even veteran canoeists for that matter – could easily capsize here.
This section also contains what I consider the most scenic vista on the river – the mountain peak that overlooks where the Shenandoah River flows into the Potomac. Thomas Jefferson was likewise impressed with this sight and penned these words: "This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic."
I agree with our third president. And for those who revel in rivers and all that there is to experience on them, the upper Potomac is well worth a trip.
Before You Go
River Riders: canoe rental, guided trips, current river information: riverriders.com, 800-326-RAFT
Grandma's Country Kitchen and Inn: grandmascountrykitchenandinn, 304-947-7751, 800-580-4225
Jefferson County CVB: hello-wv.com, 866-HELLO-WV
Manor Inn: bathmanorinn.com, 304-258-1552, 800-974-5770
Maps for the Upper Potomac: dnr.maryland.gov/greenways/watertrails.html
Maryland Tourism: visitmaryland.org, 866-639-3526
Thomas Shepherd Inn: thomasshepherdinn.com, 888-889-8952
Travel Berkeley Springs: berkeleysprings.com, 800-447-8797