As most people know, the Big Slackwater Project has been underway for a couple of years, and the story that I’ve been hearing is that it will be completed sometime in September.
On June 11th, Candee and I did the detour for the third–and probably last–time. We don’t have anymore big C&O rides lined up in the near future, and there really isn’t any reason to explore the environs of Avis Mill and Dam 5 roads on a bike. Simply put, the detour’s days are numbered.
Naturally, there will be many through-riders hitting the towpath in the next couple of months, and for anyone who hasn’t done the detour before, my advice is to not worry too much about it. It’s true that the last sign on the towpath before embarking on the paved roads warns bikers (and hikers) about the lack of a berm and narrow sight paths, and, yes, there’s also the story of 30+ canal enthusiasts being injured on this part of their journey. While all of this may be true, my biggest gripe has always been the lack of shade. It can get hotter than blue blazes out there!
With all of that said, let’s separate fact from fiction. The current detour starts about a mile short of McMahon’s Mill and ends just below Dam 4–or vice-versa, depending upon one’s starting and finishing points. The distance by road, according to my odometer, is about 6.2 miles, and it is about an equal mix of uphill, downhill, and flat riding. Anyone breaking the C&O trip into three days who is coming from Hancock will travel about 36 miles before reaching the detour, and the rolling countryside can be a bit daunting on a hybrid bike with full panniers. The first hill is a real humdinger, and there’s another one at about the the halfway point that’s pretty intimidating, but the news isn’t all bad.
The scenery consists of a blend of upscale housing and farmland, and it’s not unusual to see horses, sheep, and an occasional deer along the way. Also, I have to admit that it was kind of nice getting off of the towpath for a while and avoiding the bumps and jolts that are a fact of life when traveling on a packed earth and gravel path. Likewise, the high-fives at the bottom of the last hill made the whole side trip worthwhile.
Like most people, I’m really looking forward to the completion of the Big Slackwater Project, and I don’t think that I’ll be shedding any tears for the detour. However, I think it’s only fitting that this fixture of C&O Canal lore should be remembered with a writeup and a few pictures. Who knows? Maybe it will be put in service again sporadically when the Potomac is flooding. I guess time will tell.