It was early Sunday morning. When I asked Teresa which section of the canal she wanted to go to, she left it to me to decide – because it was my birthday. There was no particular time constraint either on how long we could spend on our adventures that morning. I picked a place to go to that took a little longer than usual to get to, a place that she had not ever been to for hiking. We spent the whole morning on the towpath hiking near Shepherdstown, WV, (my biking companions from 2016 will surely remember the place!) and Sharpsburg, MD.
This walk was a little different from usual. We spent more time than usual exploring off-trail, beside the Potomac river itself.
As we drew into the parking lot after the long drive from home, my attention was drawn to the sound of a freight train beginning to make its way across the river from West Virginia, on its way to Hagerstown. Although I had the urgent need to visit the facilities, I changed my mind and quickly grabbed my camera from the back seat after parking the car. This is what we saw. It made me wonder.
Once on the towpath, we decided to head in the direction of Harpers Ferry, towards Washington, DC. It was a nice and cool morning.
The first time we decided to walk down from the towpath to the river was when we heard the sounds of the water rushing over rocks, indicating the presence of some rapids. We do not come across rapids that often during our walks. Usually, the river is very quiet. Additionally, we had noticed many places where people had walked off the marked trail towards the river and created ad-hoc paths through the woods in the process. We took one of the paths that appeared to be more easily navigable. Since the towpath happens to be at an elevated level when compared to the level of the river in this section, we had to be careful coming down the sandy trail to the level of the river.
It was still early in the morning when I took these pictures from beside the river. The rapids, if I could even call them that, were very gentle, with a very small drop in the level of the river at this point.
Back on the towpath, we passed a neighborhood with older houses on the berm side of the canal. This one could have been unoccupied, and perhaps even abandoned.
We arrived at Antietam Aqueduct after passing a huge campground next to the trail.The Antietam Creek Campground is the only one of its kind along the 184.5 mile towpath. It is a very different setup from the regular Hiker and Biker campsites that line the rest of the trail. This campground is much bigger, with many individually marked sites that can be reserved. Unlike the Hiker and Biker campsites, this one is accessible by car. There were many vehicles parked in the vicinity of the campground on the berm side of the canal. The facilities in this campground could be considered slightly less primitive than at the Hiker and Biker sites – but not by much.
When we arrived at the Antietam Aqueduct, my first instinct was to go down creek-side to get a picture of the aqueduct itself. This proved to be a little bit of a project since the closest approach required stepping down a steep slope immediately next to the wall of the aqueduct. The slope was covered with small, loose, gravel. It would have been easy to lose footing while trying to go down, and to end up sliding down to the bottom.
After some exploration, we managed to find a spot further along the towpath that was less intimidating, a spot where other people had attempted to go down to the river in the past. We managed to get down to the river, and then walk back along the riverside, on a rough and uneven path, to the the mouth of the creek, where the creek met the Potomac. The aqueduct was revealed to us in its fullness.
We got back to the towpath taking the shorter route up to the trail, the one next to the aqueduct itself. It helped to hold on to the wall of the aqueduct while climbing. I think going up is easier than coming down, especially if you are dealing with damaged elbows.
The next time we decided to go down to the river was on our way back, when we found a nicely cleared path down to the river in the section of the towpath next to the homes we had seen on out way out to the aqueduct. This foray into the woods resulted in the decision to attempt to keep walking along the riverside, using whatever rough trail we could find, for as long as we could.The risk was of having to walk back along the same rough trail if we found ourselves stuck, with no easy way to get back to the towpath from where we had reached along the river.
We had to pick our way over a narrow and very lightly used, perhaps even disused, pathway, walk over sand and pebbles in some places, and even navigate past fallen trees. If I were a child, I would have enjoyed the experience even more. Eventually, we got to a place where we had to cross a stream that passed under the canal via a culvert. Fortunately the stream was shallow enough for us to walk across.The path along the river seemed to end here. There was a path back up to the towpath on the other side of the culvert. That was the end of this particular escapade. I would be remiss if I did not post a picture of this object that we found in this section of the trail.Some of you might recognize it for what it is. It makes you wonder!
The final time we explored off-trail was when we got to the general area of the parking lot we had left our car at. We walked beyond the parking lot and up to the bridge for vehicles that went over the Potomac river, the bridge over which my friends and I had biked in order to get to our hotel in Shepherdstown one evening in 2016.Walking back to the parking lot along the riverside allowed us to see the remains of all the old bridges that used to connect the two sides of the river at this point.The railroad bridge that we had seen the freight train activity on earlier on could also be seen from the level of the river.
The off-trail activities that took place throughout the morning ended up making this a longer outing than usual. But that was not the end of the story. We also took the longer route home, taking the country roads, and driving past Harpers Ferry on the Maryland side of the river.
We were sad to see that the National Park Service had shut down the parking spots that used to exist next to the road in the section of the road next to Harpers Ferry. It will make any future attempt to climb Maryland Heights a somewhat longer effort, with much more walking involved. It is also the end of free parking if you were planning to visit Harpers Ferry itself. It is probably a good thing that they closed the parking lots. Their locations were dangerous.
That was about it for the long morning on the towpath. I had my customary PB&J sandwich for lunch, after which I attempted to take my usual Sunday nap that was needed to recover from all the activity. But this was not the usual Sunday.
Early Monday morning, we got some very sad news. It was about a death in the family. Joy Aloysius Thomas was a truly remarkable person. You do not find people like him in this world often. He was incredibly brilliant and knowledgeable. He was also an terrific human being by all measures. He was humble. He had already done so much in his life in the service of humanity, and for his fellow human beings. He would have done much more if he had not lost his life. He died young, unexpectedly. I decided to hold off on this blog until funeral services were complete.