Pictures available. Click on the facebook icon --f in a circle. Never has the canal looked so good.
We six paddlers were John S, Barb, Peter Ryan, the Quams doubling in their pretty red canoe, and myself. Day was sunny and cold - max at 44 degrees - and the wind scarcely affected us until we returned down the river, when it was at our backs. Swains Level's three miles up to Pennyfield Lock were pretty indeed on this winter paddle as we cruised past several cliffs and with the river always close to our left, so flooded with light from the afternoon sun. John adds: WE SAW THE BIRDS OF WINTER, KINGFISHERS, DUCKS, AN EAGLE, AND GREAT BLUE HERONS IN ABUNDANCE, A PAIR OF WHICH WERE DOING A SYNCHRONIZED NECK STRETCHING DISPLAY. THE ALTERNATING ROCKY CLIFFS AND LOW WET STREAMBEDS GAVE US A WONDERFUL RANGE OF VEGETATION TYPES IN A COMPACT AREA.
This was a first ascent for all of us. Certainly we found it far more strenuous than expected. I, and likely Barb, were pretty tuckered out by the time we got back to Swains. I think that for navigability up to Pennyfield they would need one and a half feet more water.
For there are two places near the Pennyfield end where intruding side-stream deltas cause small rapids - the top one of which occasioning a drop of one foot - and our having to exit our boats to ascend. That was not easy, as you sink a couple of feet into tne muck.
I could see, from my earlier (4 Oct) partial descent of Swains Level, that the Park had done yeoman work in removing trees from the prism - and in cutting back the catbriar on the towpath side of the Canal. But when Barb & I had to exit our boats we found the mud soft, deep, and clinging. I went in up to my knees and worked out how to escape. Barb got enmired almost up to her bellybutton and was most thankful for my and Gary's assistance. It will be a welcome improvement when the NHP scoops all this stuff out in their dredging effort. (Barb had seen workers last week at Swains with a small (3 ft?) craft that was sounding the bottom.)
So tired were we that we asked John and the Quams to cut short the paddle up to Pennyfield Aqueduct and simply put back into the Potomac behind the Lock House. The trip back on a flooded (4.4 ft) Potomac with the wind at our back was swift and pleasant. The late afternoon sun flooding in from the west kept us warm (all were in dry suits). We found that the lower take-out at Swains camping ground was the best way out.
Even in December on a cold (max 44 degrees) day, Swain's parking lot was crammed - both at our 11:00 put-in and 3:00 take-out. The Canal level was 45" down on the wooden upright of the waste weir, or 9" down from the top lip of the bottom step opposite that - from which several of us launched.
The next reach, that down to Great Falls Tavern, was full, implying that the new Lock 20 gates have been emplaced next to the tavern. Accordingly, there should be almost 8 miles of pretty navigable canal from the Falls up to Violettes. With winter closing in, we'd recommend waiting for the NHP to dredge and raise the level before heading up Swains Level.