Friday, December 2, 2016

Day 8: "Why are you ignoring me, Stephanie?!"

July 12: I hit the trail early again, not just to beat the heat, but also because I wanted to push through a 27-mile day. I was going to need an early start if I hoped to get those kind of miles before sunset!

Dam #4 was responsible for creating Big Slackwater,
a relatively slow and deep area that backed up the Potomac
for 13 miles. Not only did it allow boats to navigate the Potomac,
but it also watered the canal from here down to Harpers Ferry.
The day's hiking was largely uneventful. The trail passed some section with steep cliffs on the right side of the trail--too narrow for the canal to be built. To solve this problem, the canal company would put boats through a guard lock and into the Potomac, then head upstream for a few miles before going through another guard lock and returning to where the canal resumed. The problem with the Potomac is that it's notoriously shallow and unsuitable for boats much of the time, so to get around this problem, the canal company had to build large dams to deepen the river water creating long lakes for the canal boats to use. Dam #4 created Big Slackwater while Dam #5 created Little Slackwater.

Now that the current of the river was slower and the water deeper, for the first time, I started seeing quite a number of motor boats plying through the waters. It was an unwelcome addition, truth be told. I liked the quiet that the occasional kayaker on the river provided better.

I walked almost non-stop for the next 12 hours, taking an occasional 10 minute break to eat a few snacks before pushing on again, and eventually made it into the North Mountain hiker/biker camp by 6:00 in the evening. I was exhausted by the end of the day. My feet were quietly crying, but once again, it was the palms of my hands that suffered the most. Pushing that stroller was not getting any easier. But I pulled in over 61,363 steps for the day. My second-best day ever!

At the campsite, there were two bicyclists who had already set up camp. I had a little trouble getting my stroller down the steep slope off the trail into the campsite--although the trail itself was very flat and easy, the campsites off of it aren't necessarily designed with flatness in mind.

The canal is GONE! Due to the steep cliffs on the right, canal boats were
moved into the Potomac River and pulled upstream (or downstream)
for a few miles before re-entering the canal again.
The two bicyclists were at the picnic table. I hadn't spoken to them for more than about 30 seconds before I took an immediately liking to both of them. The louder of the two was the man, who did most of the talking. The woman seemed a bit quieter, but they clearly had been biking together and had a certain camaraderie that they shared. When I first arrived, I noticed two separate tents set up nearby and assumed they were each using one of them, but I started to wonder if they were actually a couple. Maybe someone else entirely who I didn't see (either because they were in the tent or through the woods by the Potomac River) had the other tent.

"Are you two together?" I asked.

The woman replied, "Oh, God no!"

The man turned to her, with a mock sense of distraught. "What do you mean, 'Oh, God no?!' What's wrong with me? I'm not that bad!"

The exchange made me laugh.

She took the exchange in stride, though. "Well, for one thing, you already have a wife and two kids."

"Yes, but you could have just said that no, we weren't a couple. 'Oh, God no!' sounds more like there's a fundamental problem with me!"

The man introduced himself as Rick. The girl's name was Deborah, and they had only met for the first time earlier that morning--which surprised me. They sounded like they'd been friends for years! They were both biking from Pittsburgh to Washington--the opposite direction as my hike.

But Rick told me a story that happened earlier in the day when they had both been stopped and taking a break, and Rick had said something to Deborah, but called her Stephanie. "Stephanie" didn't answer, though, and--quite loudly with lots of other people around, Rick says something like, "What are you ignoring me, Stephanie?! STEPHANIE!"

Finally realizing that Rick was talking to her, she told him why, "Because my name is Deborah."


So the rest of the day, he'd jokingly been calling her Stephanie, and I happily joined in. =)

I told her she could get back at him, by calling him George or something. "Hey, GEORGE! Why are you ignoring us?!"

Rick... er, I mean George, was about to bike back on the trail to pick up water at a site they had passed on the trail because the water pump here didn't work. I was bummed--it didn't work? But he said if I gave him any water bottles to fill up, he'd fill up mine too which was thoughtful.

Looking at the pump, I couldn't see anything wrong with it and asked them what was wrong. Stephanie/Deborah had tried the pump earlier and not only did no water come out, but she said it seemed "loose" like something was broken. And I wondered if maybe she hadn't pumped the pump long enough. The pumps don't spout water immediately. The best ones will spout water after just a few pumps of the handle, but one of them I had to pump for close to a minute before water started coming out. You have to be quite persistent! And according to my guidebook, the NPS tests the water at each pump once a week to insure it's still safe to drink. So it didn't strike me as logical that the pump was broken. The one pump that didn't work didn't work because the handle was missing--something I assumed the NPS did because the water from that source didn't pass their tests. This pump still had its handle.

"How long did you pump it before giving up?" I asked, explaining that sometimes you have to pump a surprisingly long time before water starts coming out. She told me that I was welcome to give it a try if I wanted to.

And yes, I wanted to. So I headed up to the pump and pumped it about three times before water came out--mere seconds after I started. Stephanie looked a bit embarrassed at her incorrect diagnosis. George was happy about it, though--it meant he no longer had to bike back down the trail to get water.

I filled up my water bottles with water, and a bit later, Stephanie did the same. As she went up the pump, though, George spoke up:

"Hey, Stephanie! That pump doesn't work! You have to bike back down the trail to the last campsite! It doesn't work, I tell you!"

McMahons Mill
She just shook her head and ignored him, although I sensed a suppressed laugh. She probably was trying not to laugh and not to slap the guy at the same time. I giggled. When George went to get water, I pulled the same stunt on him.

"George! GEORGE! That pump doesn't work! Why aren't you listening to me? GEORGE?!"

As sunset approached, George built a campfire--which would be my first on the trail. I was too tired and lazy to build them myself. I told them Paul Revere's Ride over the campfire. As darkness descended, they eventually headed back to their individual tents for the night.

I stayed up writing in my journal and read my book for awhile. I wanted to take another skinny-dip in the Potomac, but this particular campsite was situated immediately across the river from a park where I could here people and the occasional boat. I wanted to wait until it was very dark before I jumped into the river naked.

But I did, and soaked in the river for nearly an hour under the moonlight. It was probably close to 11:00 at night when a car drove up to the boat ramp on the other side of the river and dropped a boat off. What the hell are they coming out so late for? Maybe they were fishing or something, and this particular fish was only active late at night? Maybe they were looking for eels--did eels come out at night? Why am I swimming in waters that I know are infested with eels? I was a bit more uncomfortable when the boat started weaving up and down stream, slowly, sweeping a spotlight across the water's surface in ever widening circles like they were searching for something. When they rounded a curve in the river, I decided it was a good time to quit and head back to camp.

I had set up my tarp because weather forecasts were calling for rain during the night once again. Although the temperatures were comfortable in the evening, I swear that they spiked up a couple of hours after sunset. I didn't realize it when I was in the chilly water, but by the time I dried off and got back to camp, it was positively hot out. I couldn't bring myself to get inside my sleeping bag, and instead draped it over me like a blanket. How can it be so freakishly hot outside so late at night? How can it feel warmer now than at sunset? The weather here defied all logic.

With those thoughts, I finally faded off to sleep for the night.

It was steep cliffs like these that didn't allow the canal to be built through these three miles, and instead they built Dam #4 to raise the water level of the Potomac enough for canal boats to use. The towpath was blasted into the cliffs. (The Potomac River is just out of view next to those trees.)

There were a remarkably large number of wildflowers along the exposed flanks of the Big and Little Slackwater areas.

Interstate 81, where it crosses the Potomac.
Lock 44, completed in 1834, appears to be undergoing some renovations. That's the lockhouse behind the lock.
The R. Paul Smith Power Station was built in the 1920's and is one of the older "dirty coal" plants that would have to be retrofitted to meet the latest environmental standards. As of the spring of 2012, the plant was only being used "intermittently" and its current owner, FirstEnergy, announced plans to retire the plant rather than try to retrofit it.
Turtles could be seen all over the canal resting on logs in the water, but they were hard to get photos of because they're small, far away and very camera shy usually jumping into the water before I could get a photo. This little fellow was surprisingly cooperative, however! =)

The stroller is still going strong!

Dam #5 created Little Slackwater. Stonewall Jackson tried to destroy this dam and cripple the canal on several occasions during the Civil War but failed.

A nearby sign also told the story of the American eel: "American eels are making a comeback along the Potomac River watershed. Young eels born in the Atlantic Ocean drift on currents toward the Chesapeake Bay. Upstream migrations lead eels to freshwater habitat where they live up to 24 years. Once plentiful along the C&O Canal, eels made up much of the fish population of East Coast waterways. Over time, dams and other barriers blocked their passage, and eel populations declined. Public and private partners are working to reestablish eel populations by improving upstream and downstream passage in the Potomac River watershed. Special "eelways" at Dams 4 and 5 can enhance habitat while preserving historic structures and recreational access."
Again, due to the steep cliffs right next to the Potomac, canal boats were directed back into the Potomac through Little Slackwater before the canal resumes again on the other side of the cliffs.

A good look from inside Lock 47. This is the first of four locks that raised the canal level approximately 32 feet enabling it to cut quickly across Prather's Neck rather than following the river bend.

Lock 50. This small structure at the end was a "wait house" for the lockkeeper.
"Stephanie" and "George".

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