11. POTOMAC CROSSROADS CANOE TRIP
[See Full Potomac Crossroads Canoe Trip for More Detail]
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A Potomac River Canoe Trip from Point of Rocks to Edward’s Ferry
At Point of Rocks, where the trail begins, the Potomac flows from a gap in the last of the Appalachian ridges onto the rolling “piedmont” plateau –once the roots of even older ridges, but weathered now into the gentle hills and valleys that beckoned early travelers. Along the river to Edward’s Ferry are strings of floodplain islands, occasional bluffs, and broad, alluvial terraces still lined with sycamores and silver maples.
At normal water levels, strong paddlers can do the 17.5 miles to Edward’s Ferry in about seven hours; at high water, swift currents cut the time considerably. For a chance to study and explore, spread the trip over two long afternoons, the first spent among Graffenried’s “enchanted islands” above the Monocacy and the second from the Mouth of the Monocacy to Edward’s Ferry.
The canoe put-in at Point of Rocks is under the route 15 highway bridge. To reach it, pass the train station, turn left on a side road across from Ballenger Creek Pike. Cross the railroad tracks and canal on a wooden bridge, and go to the right along the towpath for a short distance.
PART I. POINT OF ROCKS TO MONOCACY RIVER (6.2 miles)
A region of major Indian and colonial river crossings, this section includes early north-south trails and fords at and around Noland’s Ferry (mile 3.8).1. Point of Rocks
2. Heater’s (Conoy) Island
By the late 17th century the Piscataway Indians (called the Conoys by the Iroquois) had been pushed out of their southern Maryland Homeland by the English, and after several years in Virginia had settled on Heater’s Island in 1699.
3. Noland’s Island
For an interesting side trip go down the Virginia side of Noland’s Island and through a chain of small, unnamed islands; head back to Noland’s Island and round the tip to see the former site of Noland’s Ferry just up river on the Maryland shore.
4. Noland’s Ferry
Look for a small boat-launching ramp on the Maryland shore, just below a large stone building that houses a Frederick County water intake. You can canoe back and put ashore there; walk over to the C&O Canal, and find the sandstone abutments that once carried the old road over the canal to the ferry.
5. Tuscarora Creek
Look for the mouth of the Creek on the Maryland shore not far below the tip of Noland’s Island where a large red-sandstone culvert carries it under the C&O Canal. To see the fine stone work executed by the canal builders, canoe up the creek and into the culvert.
6. Birdsaw Island
Another interesting side trip is back across the river and down the channel between the two halves of Birdsaw Island, then down the Virginia shore past Cox Island. Near the head of Cox Island, where a small Loudoun stream empties into the Potomac, is a perfectly preserved fish weir.
7. Mouth of the Monocacy River
Look for the C&O Canal Aqueduct, and just beyond, the major engineering work of the Metropolitan Branch of the B&O Railroad – the Monocacy River Viaduct. Here you may paddle up the Monocacy for a side excursion.
7a. Monocacy River
It drains the rich Frederick Valley from head springs near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and was once a major canoe route and north-south trail for the Indians.
7b. Monocacy Aqueduct
This seven-arch stone aqueduct was completed in 1833 to carry the C&O Canal 516 feet over the Monocacy River. The stone was quarried near Sugar Loaf Mountain, about six miles east, and carted from the quarries on the wooden tracks of one of Maryland’s earliest railroads, built by the contractors for just that purpose.
7c. B&O Viaduct
Built in 1873 to carry the Metropolitan Branch of the B&O Railroad over the river, it was raised and strengthened about 1900.
7d. Sugar Loaf Mountain
The summit is visible 1,282 feet above sea level. It was named by von Graffenried, who camped at the mouth of the Monocacy during his 1712 travels and later “ascended a high mountain standing alone in the midst of a vast flat stretch of country, called because of its form Sugar Loaf …”
7e. Indian Flats
The “flats,” which run from Tuscarora Creek to the Monocacy and east to the railroad, saw countless aboriginal settlements, some of them thousands of years old.
PART II. MONOCACY RIVER TO EDWARD’S FERRY (11.3 miles)
Indian fish weirs dot the Potomac at Mason and Harrison Islands, but it was the 19th century, and especially the Civil War, that made this stretch of river famous.
8. Spinks Ferry
This is an old crossing below the Monocacy that kept its name long after the ferry quit operation.
9. PEPCO Power Plant
This massive set of structures is a coal-fired generating plant which began operations about 1959. The original 400 foot chimneys are dwarfed by the large 750 foot stack completed in the late 1970s.
10. White’s Ford
Above the head of Mason Island was a little known ford that led from Loudoun County to Maryland. Here Lee’s army, including Stonewall Jackson’s Corps, waded the Potomac on September 5, 1962.
11. Mason Island
Take the Maryland (left) channel which leads to two fish traps and the site of an abandoned marble quarry.
12. Calico Marble Quarry
On the Maryland shore, just above a channel that bisects Mason Island, is an overnight Hiker-Biker camp adjacent to the canal; in the bluffs beyond is the site of a quarry drawn upon by Benjamin H. Latrobe in rebuilding the Capitol about 1818.
13. Stone Rip-Rap
The stone retaining wall was built by the C&O Canal Company to prevent bank erosion. Along much of Mason Island the canal towpath and ditch are just uphill from the river.
14. White’s Ferry
The last working ferry on the Potomac River, it is now the only Potomac crossing in the 40 miles between Cabin John and Point of Rocks.
15. Harrison Island
This large floodplain island is still farmed. Take the channel on the Virginia side.
16. Ball’s Bluff
Just before reaching the head of a small island close to Harrison Island, look for the mouth of a small stream on the Virginia shore: it has built a muddy delta where, in summer, much debris is often left by fishermen. From here, a trail runs inland and up a steep sandstone bluff to the Ball’s Bluff National Cemetery, about a five minute walk from the river.
Just below Ball’s Bluff is a fish weir, still in a perfect “V” thought by some archeologists to be several thousand years old.
17. Goose Creek
After passing Harrison Island paddle down the Virginia shore another two miles to the mouth of Goose Creek, a major tributary that drains a large watershed in Loudoun County.
18. Edwards’s Ferry
The “lower” ferry connecting Poolesville and River Road to Leesburg, this was – like White’s Ferry – an important storage and shipping point for local farmers. At the canal is Lock 25 and the locktender’s house, and just below, the ruins of a former store. A few hundred yards below the store are the two “guard locks” that gave grain boats access to the canal.
Edward’s Ferry is the take-out point. Today the weedy, isolated river bottom gives little hint of its days as an important crossroads – too far from the railroad and major highways, its end was signaled when the C&O Canal closed in 1924. Ferry operations ceased in 1936, and fire and the 1972 flood claimed the remaining summer cottages and fishing camps.
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