Back on our bikes, the trail picks up the features that we have become familiar with. Turtles sunning themselves, in the bright light. Deer running in the canal and crossing the path to get down to the river. Baked ruts of mud requiring care as we roll by. The ride can be difficult to dress for on a hot sunny day like today as in the understory, it is cool while in the open spaces it is hot. We opt for wearing less rather than more and cope with the 10 degree swing in temperatures.
South of Williamsport there was little rock to cut to create the canal so we are moving through more of a broadly forested area that soon consumes us in its remoteness and quiet. Little noise beyond our tires and the birds, we feel as if we are alone on the trail.
With no rain in the past few days, there is minor mud on the trail: a happy blessing. The shade is keeping the trail from drying out quickly and I keep changing my mind whether it is best to wear sunglasses or my non-tinted ones as sometimes darkness can make it difficult to spot the trail's hazards.
Ted notices that the circumference of the trees that are in the canal or on its banks are larger than those further upstream. The only explanation I can have for such a phenomenon is that this portion fell into disuse and maintenance before the upper part. The trees on the riverside, however, have no such issue and some of them appear to be over 200 years old, alive before the canal was built.
We take our initial stop near a large sycamore tree with a marker for Falling Waters, a Civil War site, where multiple battles occurred and the Confederate Army retreated over pontoon bridges. I'm sure the tree was here during the battle and soldiers leaned on it or hid behind it during their time here.
Walking away from the river, we come into a beautiful field of rye forming a sweeping blanket over the rolling countryside. Looking up the hill I can only imagine of the battles and carnage that must have taken place over the ridge where a farmhouse now stands. As we leave the site of Falling Waters I hear a gun shot. Time to roll on.
One thing I have learned about following Ted (or anyone) on a bike is not to do it too closely. If he needs to evade something quickly and I am too close, I will have even less time to react leading to a dangerous situation. The best way to follow is either at a distance or in the adjacent lane slightly behind. While it would be nice to ride next to each other and converse, on this type of trail that can be a recipe for a fall.
On the West Virginia side of the river, which is probably 20 to 30 feet below the C&O towpath, there a lots of pavilions, trailers, gazebos and spaces where people recreate. All have stairs going down to the river and often a landing where their boat is parked. Many also have reinforced the shore with rocks and concrete attempting to fend off erosion when the river rises and floods. On some high bluffs behind these areas stand stately mansions out of range and threat of hazardous waters.
We now approach Big Slackwater, where the canal has merged with the Potomac. Like up-canal, cliffs have come right to the river's edge thwarting the possibility of a canal. So the Potomac has gone slack and there should be a dam a few miles down river. The trail is very narrow, perhaps no more than 3 feet wide, forcing us to slow our pace. Craggy rocks are to our left and river to the right. I would like to stop and explore some of the formations--we just past a gouged out area where a stream was running down--but it is probably not safe.
The thin trail gives way to a nearly 3 mile long concrete cantilevered path that hugs the rocks and provides a smooth, safe ride. But we don't want to get too cocky as there are many blind corners and you never know what or who could quickly come around the bend. So we take it and the scenery slow and enjoy a nice, bump-free ride.
Nearing Dam 4, we also get to explore a huge lock that separated Big Slackwater from the canal. It is an impressive structure that stands out from the other locks we have seen. It needed to be larger and more structurally strong in order to protect the land from a potential flood. While from top to bottom most locks and aqueducts are no deeper than 8 feet, this lock must be 50 feet or more.
After Dam 4 we come to a part of the canal that is almost parklike in appearance. Rather than an abandoned trough of decaying detritus and growing trees, this space is a grassy, well-maintained median, with maples on either side. A road with tidy houses is on the other side of the canal. But as the street veers away, the canal returns to its naturally decaying state.
With that decay comes the return of a muddy trail. Ted and I are slowing down and being careful as we splash through mud puddles and try not to fall over as we coast over boggy spots that are ready to topple a careless rider.
After a few more miles we are able to leave the trail for a road that takes us into Sharpsburg where we will have lunch. It is a more direct route than taking the trail down to the State road then back to Sharpsburg, but there are some minor hills.
Ted doesn't like hills after 250-plus miles of cycling.
But our efforts are worth it as we soon reach the crest of the last hill between us and Sharpsburg and view a farming landscape that could have been an inspiration for Andrew Wyeth. Ted stops, catches his breath and takes a few photos. It is a coast down to town from here where we will get lunch.
I promise Ted that we can have some ice cream later as a reward for our efforts. Two scoops.