C&O Canal fans, rejoice! Well, maybe not just yet. The Big Slackwater Project is near its completion, but there are still some machines and “No Trespassing” signs in the vicinity of McMahon’s Mill. However, the downstream end of the new section of the towpath was open, and several hikers and bikers were out for a tour of the trail. There are some low-hanging trees and patches of brush and weeds in the way, but I’m guessing that everything will be spruced-up in time for the big ceremony on October 13th.
The towpath’s wall has two distinct looks: a concrete front with a “faux” rock surface and an actual rock wall. Where there is concrete, the towpath has a cement surface as well, and where there are rocks, the towpath is made up of the usual fine gravel and dirt that C&O regulars have come to know. At one point, a small stream flows down from the hills and underneath the towpath, and there are several places where the trail is pinched right up against the cliff. It’s definitely unique, and the close proximity of the river adds to the scenic beauty.
As stated, the new towpath alternates between surfaces, and some of the odd angles in the cement sections add to the quirkiness of the trail. I suppose that’s just the way things are when a path is stuck between a cliff and a really big river. Likewise, the wall is already very popular with fishermen. There were a number of bass boats within thirty yards of the trail, and the anglers were busy tossing their lures toward the shore. Some of the crevices underneath of the concrete are bound to make for shady, secluded homes for some pretty impressive lunkers.
The line of sight is pretty good from the big picture perspective. The new towpath is built on a large bend in the river known as Whitings Neck, and one can nearly see from one end to the other with literally no obstructions. However, the shape of the cliffs does make for some peculiar angles in small sections. It’s not out of the question that two speeding cyclists could meet head-on in several places. It might be a good idea for bikers to start ringing their bells in such situations. The result of not doing so could be an impromptu game of Kerplunk–Potomac style.
So, what does all of this mean? In the Summer of 2010, ground was broken on the Big Slackwater Project in order to span a breach of 1.7 miles (if my shoddy math is correct) in the C&O Canal’s towpath, and in spite of a few bouts with high water, the work will be completed pretty much on schedule. Likewise, hikers and bikers will no longer be subjected to the trials and tribulations of the detour (at least most of the time), and–perhaps most importantly–people will now have the opportunity to explore a section of the park that was once only viewable from a boat.
I couldn’t help but leave the Big Slackwater Project area with a number of personal observations. For starters, this is a magnificent piece of work, and Candee and I agreed that this may have been the most awe-inspiring hike we’ve ever taken on the C&O Canal. I have no doubt that this section of the towpath will be as big of an attraction as the Paw Paw Tunnel or Monocacy Aqueduct. However, the rock and dirt portions have me believing that erosion could be a problem after really bad floods. The people who did the work know their job a lot better than I do, but the detour will probably be in use from time-to-time while repairs are being done. Nevertheless, my first-ever hike along the cliffs of Big Slackwater was unforgettable, and I think canal junkies and casual visitors alike will be pleased with the final results.