fbpx Skip to main content

#MyCanal – Riding the Towpath: A Natural vs. Man-Made Continuum by Joe Schlag

I embarked on my first towpath ride on Saturday, July 29, planning to ride from Georgetown to Cumberland over a week’s time. This was not my first time going long-distance on the towpath, as I participated in the Sierra Club’s 50 mile walk from Washington, D.C. to Harpers Ferry, WV when I was a decade younger. But this was my first time traversing the miles by bike.

I was looking forward to this adventure as a time to reflect and commune with nature. Wanting to have a framework in which to couch my observations as I rode, I decided to observe the forms of ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’ within the Park. Using this simple, theoretical structure, I tried to describe my impressions of situations and scenes that I encountered and placed them on the continuum as either being more ‘natural’ or ‘man-made’ from my perspective.

Day 1, Sunday, August 29th:

  • Right outside of Georgetown, I pass a stoic, grey heron balanced seemingly on one leg, like a flamingo, atop a red, rusty muffler pipe protruding at an odd angle out of the murky soup. I was even more impressed when a passing cyclist told me he has repeatedly seen that bird in that exact same spot over the past few weeks. Is this a taxidermist’s trick meant to inspire the illusion of the natural world holding steadfastly on in the midst of negative changes to its environment? Did I see his solitary knee wobble?
  • During a detour on the Capital Crescent Trail, there were flowering vines hanging from the aqueduct above, arranged like flag bunting welcoming me into the natural world. I couldn’t imagine a better way to arrange those vines in my mind other than what had presumably occurred naturally.
  • There was a skilled kayaker at Little Falls Dam, cutting his way through the rapids with finesse and grace.

  • A kind and knowledgeable bike patroller, Tom, helped me remove and patch my rear bicycle tire and get me to a safe place for pick-up by my wife.
  • My lovely wife transported me to a nearby bicycle shop for a new inner tube and then returned me to the trail after sharing a delectable apple Danish with me. It turns out that some bicycle inner tubes are not meant to handle weights in excess of 250 poundsJ. Miguel at the bicycle shop assured me these new inner tubes would serve my purpose. At this point I felt a little like the friend who accompanied Bill Bryson on the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods.



  • Settling in at Lockhouse 22 around mile marker 19.6 brought me peace and relaxation. It’s amazing how building a fire and eating something substantial can bolster morale, especially in the context of such a rustically beautiful and historic backdrop.



Day 2, Monday, August 30th:

  • I encountered multiple animals today. A well-fed groundhog crossed my path. Earlier in the day, I had come across a black racer snake, which was making its way haphazardly across the towpath. It was between 4 and 5 feet long with fairly uniform scale color. I couldn’t see his underbelly. When the snake sensed my approach, it wended its way back in the general direction from which it had come.

    Photo by Amy Allen

    There were several encounters with fawn and doe. One beautiful doe had such big black eyes that I couldn’t help make a comparison to an anime princess or perhaps to some primeval spirit. She had a big, black, wet nose like my dog’s nose. Lastly, there was a gaunt, red-tailed hawk, poised on a stump at about my chest height while mounted on the bicycle. I slowed on my approach and it did not move, but did watch me warily with one eye. I imagined that it was watching the creek below with its other eye, scanning for fishy delights.

  • Later in the day, I had a relaxing dinner at Deli on the Rocks in the canal town of Point of Rocks, MD. It had begun to rain in earnest as I made my way back to Lockhouse 28 from dinner. On the walk back to the Lockhouse, I ran into my wife. She was walking back from the Lockhouse in the rain and upon not finding me there, headed back toward the car. We met halfway between the parking lot for Point of Rocks and Lockhouse 28 on the towpath. We spoke briefly, as it was pouring heavily, but she did mention that a man had taken refuge from the rain under the side entrance porch roof of Lockhouse 28. When I approached the Lockhouse, I did not see the man. Eventually, I noticed a well-maintained bicycle parked alongside the porta-john adjacent to the Lockhouse. Several hours later as evening was turning to night, I went out to use the porta-john and the man was still in there! It rained hard into the night. When I went to use the porta-john in the morning, it was vacant and the bicycle was no longer there. I wonder how long he stayed inside?

Day 3, Tuesday, August 31:

  • With the weather for the next four days showing heavy rain and thunderstorms, I decided to put the rest of the trip on hiatus until next summer. I knew that the impending downpours (natural) were going to make my planned campground stays in my one-person tent both wet and miserable. My wife picked me up at Landers, and I returned to my (man-made) home. Until next summer, towpath!