A stroll along the C&D Canal means you can count boats . . . and exercise too!
by Jody Argo Schroath
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller
"The next time we do this," my friend Kathy declared, "let's make it a weekend day, so we'll see more boats."
"No," her husband Hal countered, "weekdays are better, because there's bound to be more commercial traffic."
Since this friendly discussion was, in fact, taking place on a Friday--a day that is neither fish nor fowl, day-of-the-week-wise, because it's really half-weekday and half-weekend--the resolution would have to wait. Meanwhile, though, my husband Rick and our friends Kathy and Hal (as well as Skipper the dog), had just parked ourselves in a friendly patch of shade along the C&D Canal, about two miles or so east of Chesapeake City, Md. We hadn't just stopped our boat in midstream. In fact, we weren't on a boat at all. We had left the Albin 28 tied up at the public dock in Chesapeake City after a day's ride up the Bay from Annapolis. Instead, we were taking a break in our walk along the canal's southern service road (and potential recreation path; see sidebar) to readjust our internal operating temperature with the judicial application of shade and idleness. And to watch for boats--of any kind--and to listen to the wind ruffling the leaves of the trees that lined one side of the road. Other than the wind, there was silence--an expectant silence, I fancied, as if the waterway were waiting for the next vessel coming through to restore the natural order of things.
Service roads border both sides of the canal and are, like the canal itself, owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Here in Chesapeake City the Corps maintains an office in a two-story building next to the canal museum (a former pumping station) on the east side of the anchorage basin. Inside that office, the Corps' Philadelphia District keeps track of all the traffic on the canal. The Corps has responsibility for 7,500 acres of public land along the canal, which was the bit we were using at the moment on our expedition west of Chesapeake City. Not having walked the canal before, we had no definite goal in mind, though we had a vague idea of getting at least as far as Delaware, and perhaps Summit North Marina, which lay on the north side of the canal near the railroad lift bridge. To be honest, I'm not sure how far we actually got. Three of us had portable GPS devices in our pockets, but none of us thought to check them when it came time to turn about. I do know we didn't get as far as Summit North, however, which turned out to be five miles from Chesapeake City. But surely we made it to Delaware!
It had been hard--at least for some of us--to forgo the pleasures of Chesapeake City, but we'd wandered the village streets and sampled its restaurants on other occasions, so this time we wanted to try something new. Rick had been reading the history of another 19th-century canal--the Chesapeake and Ohio--and his head was full of statistics and barge-toting mules. Since he and Hal, both former general aviation pilots, loved watching airplanes land, they considered an afternoon spent watching canal traffic a perfectly legitimate pastime. They would have sat happily on a park bench at the foot of George Street watching marine traffic. Kathy and I, on the other hand--not to mention Skipper--were looking for a little more.
"Shopping?" I suggested.
This was immediately vetoed by the two guys and the dog.
I pulled out my last rabbit: "Someone told me, or maybe I read somewhere," I said, "that there is a path along the canal, or at least part of it. Why don't we see if we can find that?"
Skipper whooped. The others, for some reason, were a little more skeptical, but in the end succumbed. However, as we set off around the boat basin toward the museum, where I seemed to think we'd find the path, I thought I heard my husband muttering under his breath, "If this is another one of your half-baked ideas . . ." Okay, sometimes my ideas have a few holes in them, like the time I persuaded him that driving through New York City would be faster than the thruway because it was the weekend so there wouldn't be much traffic . . . and then we sat on the Bronx Parkway for two hours. But he tends to forget that I have good ideas, too. And this one, I'm relieved to say, turned out to be one of them.
Not that things were looking all that promising at the outset. By the time we had worked our way around the basin to the Corps office and museum, some members of the party were already wilting in the afternoon heat. But a few minutes of dawdling at the cool and dark museum while I made inquiries at the office next door eased the pain, and when I returned with the news that, yes, there was indeed a road that extended the length of the canal and that, yes, the road started just behind the building, I could feel the tide of popular opinion turning in my favor at last.
Okay, it was a bit hot and dusty as we trooped along the gravel service road, but it was no Bronx Parkway. Once we were out of earshot of the Corps facility (where they were pushing dirt and hauling things this way and that in the time-honored tradition of the Corps of Engineers) we could hear the songbirds in the trees that lined the right side of the road and we had an uninterrupted view of the canal to our left, separated from the water by only the riprap that neatly armored its banks. It wasn't always so tidy looking . . . or so deep and wide. Although the canal is now 450 feet wide and 35 feet deep, when it opened in 1829 it was more of a big drainage ditch--only 60 feet wide and a scant 10 feet deep. And its swampy sections were frequently clogged when its banks collapsed from heavy rain runoff and snowmelt. The original canal also had four locks and it followed a somewhat different route. Though the Chesapeake City end remains substantially the same, the canal's eastern terminus was Delaware City, several miles north of its current location. But, walking along that empty gravel road that hot dusty afternoon, it was not hard to picture the old canal. Rick said he could imagine driving a mule along the path with the tow rope taut and the steersman holding the boat off the bank. The rest of us could imagine it too--though it took some effort to ignore the light poles that stood every few yards, ready to illuminate the path for night passages. Indeed, that's the way I saw the canal for the first time: in the wee black hours of a cold April morning, standing at the helm of a 70-foot steel schooner, as nervous as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs, trying to sort out the navigation lights of the tug and barge in front of me from those of the cargo ship coming at me. Whew, that's a memory that's not going anywhere soon! But on this softly simmering long-shadowed Friday afternoon, the canal was quiet and uncrowded. We did see a few other people out walking though: a couple with a small child, and a man with two big black dogs.
After our rest-stop, we walked on for another half-hour before we decided it was time to turn back. We needed to move the boat off the public dock and out into the basin to anchor for the night. And then there was dinner to fix. And a final nightcap to enjoy in the cockpit before crowding into the cabin for a good night's sleep. Yes, definitely time to head back. The next time, with more planning, we could pack a lunch and go farther. Or we could cross to the other side and follow the north-side canal road.
Over the course of our walk, we had tallied five powerboats--two headed east and three west--and two tugs and barges--both headed toward the Chesapeake. "The Corps figures that about 8,000 deep-draft vessels transit the canal each year," I said as we reached the museum again. "That makes about twenty-two deep-draft vessels a day," Rick said after a moment's calculation. "Or just under one an hour," Kathy added with what I considered remarkable speed (but then she had thought of majoring in math in school). In any case, our impromptu canal walk had added up to a good time for us all.
And oh yes, the days with the highest maritime traffic? According to Rich Pearsall, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, that would be Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Make a note.