Sunday, September 25, 2011

A weekend along the C&O Canal

You may remember that back in May, WABA hosted it's annual fundraiser, Bike Fest in Crystal City VA. They held various silent auctions, and one in particular caught my eye. It was for a "Weekend Along the Canal" package, which included a 2 night stay in Lockhouse #6. I put in a bid and won. Go me! (Actually, I watched the bidding sheet like a hawk and made sure that I outbid anyone else. I didn't care that I probably way over-paid. It was a fundraiser, and I was going to "win" something, dammit, because I am rubbish at carnival games).

I finally decided to put that package to good use last weekend. Reserving the Lockhouse was a snap. The Canal Trust has an online reservation system that lets you see when the Lockhouses are free and you can book them right then & there.

I guess I should back up a bit and explain what a Lockhouse is for those of you that may not be familiar with the workings of a canal system (I grew up around the Erie Canal).  Think of a canal as a highway for boats. It's a man-made system that allows for the transportation of goods along the canal. Boats would travel along the canal towed by a team of mules along the towpath which ran alongside the canal. Along the canal are a series of "locks".  It helps to think of locks as an elevator for boats. Because the different segments of the canal are at different heights, you needed these locks to lower or raise the boat. At each lock, there were two sets of "paddles" or gates at either end. By opening or closing these gates, you could change the water level inside of the lock, thereby raising or lowering the boat so it could continue on in the canal.

These locks had to be manually operated by somebody, so a house was built at each lock. A lock-keeper (and usually their family) would live in the "lockhouse" and operate the lock as needed. Often, generations of families lived in these lockhouses. Families also lived on the canal boats themselves, as well.

The C&O Canal was operated from 1831 until a gigantic flood in 1924 put it out of commission. It was considered too costly to repair, especially since railroads had taken over most of the transportation needs of the country. (The Canal has suffered through many floods). It lay dormant and unused until 1954 when Justice William O. Douglas advocated for restoring the Canal after Congress (and the Post) suggested it be turned into a parkway for cars. Justice Douglas challenged Congress & the Post to take a hike along with him along the canal from Cumberland (its endpoint) back to Washington, DC to witness first-hand the beauty and history of the Canal. Luckily, they took him up on his challenge and completed the hike in 8 days.  His idea worked, and opinion turned against developing the Canal into a parkway. In 1971 it was designated as a National Historic Park and many restorations were completed.

Since that time, many of the Lockhouses were used as lodging for Park Rangers and their families. Lucky them!

Today, the Canal Trust is working to restore all of the lockhouses and allow visitors to stay in them (an ingenious money-maker, I think). Each lockhouse is restored to a different era in the Canal's history. Lockhouse 6 (the one we stayed in) was restored to the 1950's era in honor of Justice Douglas's efforts in 1954. I highly suggest you check out the Canal Trust website to see the other Lockhouses.

Anyway, I reserved Lockhouse 6 for two nights (Sunday night & Monday night). The Boy wasn't too sure about this hare-brained scheme, especially since I insisted that we bike there and back (he's never really biked much further than his work commute). I assured him that it wasn't as far as he thought it was.

As usual, I procrastinated until the last minute to prepare for the trip. Included in the "Weekend Along the Canal" package was a front rack system. Unfortunately it didn't come with any directions on how to assemble it, and trying to figure it out 2 hours before we were supposed to leave wasn't a good idea. So we scratched that out. I also didn't purchase any appropriate panniers or bags to use anyway. So, I winged it.  Using a combination of my Basil grocery shopper, a reusable grocery bag from whole-foods, a backpack, a bag I found in my closet & a whole bunch of bungee cords & zip-ties, we managed.

(I forgot to bring my camera, so these iphone photos are terrible and blurry. Sorry! I won't make the same mistake again).

Betty, all loaded up. Notice how the Ukulele fits snuggly in between the handles of the grocery shopper, and the 6-pack fits in the basket.

First, we had to decide what to bring. At first we thought we were only going to stay the one night, because The Boy had to work the following night. So, we figured we didn't need to bring too much. Just enough food & beer to last the night, right? Oh, and I knew towels & linens weren't included so I brought a couple of sheets & a towel. This particular lockhouse has electricity, running water & a fully equipped kitchen (not all of them do) so I knew I could whip up something quick and easy to eat. I brought two cans of Chili. If we were only staying the one night, we didn't have to pack too many clothes, so we didn't. And I brought my laptop (the only DVD player I have) and some old DVD's in case we got bored with staring at each other all night (there's no tv or internet. weee!). Basically, our load consisted of 90% beer, 10% actual useful necessities.

The ride there was fairly pleasant. We took the Rock Creek Trail, to the Capital Crescent Trail and then hopped onto the Canal towpath when they intersected at Fletcher's Boathouse. From there, it was a short ride to Lockhouse 6. All in all, it took slightly under an hour and was just under 9 miles from our front door to the door of the lockhouse. (We took it slow and easy).

Arriving at the lockhouse was the best part. It was dusk and it looked like a cottage out of some fairy tale...

We get to stay here?
Rocking chairs on the porch

Betty (and Jamie) checking out the new digs.

The house was beautiful. 2 bedrooms, 1 bath (in the basement, where you can also stash your bicycles. It's not a creepy basement at all). Fully equipped kitchen. A lovely place to spend some quiet time.

cozy kitchen 
Cute "50's era" touches around the house

Those were the most comfortable chairs ever.

No fires in the fireplace :-(

It quickly became apparent that we had not packed enough to eat, however. Although I was fine, the Boy was not used to riding and he was ravenous. The two cans of chili wasn't going to be enough. WABA had also included a packet of chocolates and candy in the package as well (part of the romantic part of the weekend, I guess. We drank the bottle of wine they included weeks ago :-/), so he tore through those while I used my iphone to find nearby stores that we could stock up on food with.

According to one website, there was a shopping plaza that was accessible by bicycle around mile 8.4. We decided to give that a shot. But it was already sunset, and getting darker by the minute. We hopped on our bikes and took off down the towpath. It got darker and darker. We had lights on our bikes, and they managed to illuminate the path somewhat. We rode to Lockhouse 8 (also called the River Center) and I checked around for a path off the canal. I saw one....but I wasn't sure if it was the correct one or where it led to. And it was almost pitch black out. We saw some lights further down the canal and decided to head towards them. We rode and rode. We saw a bridge that looked like it might be the right way and followed it.....but it simply led to the Clara Barton Parkway (or "The Effing Parkway" as it came to be known), and there was no way we were going to attempt to ride THAT in the dark. We turned back and kept going. We made it to Lockhouse 10 before we discovered that we had gone too far.  By now, it was pitch black out and I knew it was going to be futile trying to find our way off the canal in the dark. We turned back and rode back to our Lockhouse. (A very spooky ride in the dark, ACK!).

I still wasn't all that hungry, so I let the Boy have both cans of chili which seemed to satisfy him. We spent the rest of the evening chilling on the porch, having some beer. It was perfect outside. The only drawback (and this was minor) was that the back of the lockhouse is adjacent to The Effing Parkway, so there was the constant sound of cars driving back and forth. At least they didn't honk. At one point we watched a couple of deer attempt to cross the Effing Parkway. Thankfully they turned back and didn't get hit.

(P.S. For those that aren't cyclists, yes you can drive to the lockhouse. There is a parking lot right off of the Effing Parkway that is only a short distance away and you can obtain a parking permit so you can park there overnight).

Blanket, Beer & Ukulele. What else do you need?

In the lockhouse, there are plenty of pictures & books about the Canal and the surrounding area. There's also a stamper thing for those of you with a National Parks Passport (I forgot to bring mine, I was so mad!). I loved reading over the guest book that previous guests had signed and told their stories. Some even drew pictures or wrote poems.

I don't even know what this was supposed to be.

A poem about the Canal

Of course we left our own (un-creative) entry.

After a few hours of feeling the stress of the city melt away, we both agree that we needed to take advantage of both nights that we had reserved. But first, we would need to restock. We decided to sleep on it, and then try again in the morning.

We set out again, and this time we were successful. Turns out we were *so* close the previous night. We just couldn't see because of the dark.

Behind Lockhouse 8 (aka the River Center) there is a path that runs along behind it (NOT the stairs that go up the hill--they simply lead to another parking lot.). If you follow that path it turns into a paved road. Follow that road as it winds around in a big circle (it take you under The Effing Parkway), and it will dump you onto MacArthur Blvd, right across from a shopping plaza. It's a short ride. The plaza includes a deli, a beer/wine store, a sushi place, a restaurant (Wild Tomato) and the Bethesda Co-op. We were saved!

We bought a few sandwiches and ate them while The Boy managed to get leave so we could stay the extra night. Then we went to the Co-Op and stocked up on food & drink for later. The ride back was interesting. I saw a bunch of turtles and a skunk. Then we saw a Great Blue Heron. Did I mention The Boy is *terrified* of birds? I don't think I've ever seen him ride so fast before. He was convinced it was going to attack.

Great Blue Heron. It's a known fact that they eat people.
When we got back to the Lockhouse, we decided to explore a little. There was a trail opposite the towpath that led down to the Potomac. We followed it and were surprised to come upon a training site for kayakers, and a class going on.  I wish I had taken a photo, but I didn't have my phone with me. We watched the class for a little bit and then sat by the river. It was lovely.

The rest of the stay was pretty much the same, with the occasional card game & late night movie watching thrown in.

The next day it was time to leave. Boo! Packing up the bikes was much easier since we had less to carry. Unfortunately it was raining. Not hard, but enough that the towpath was a muddy mess. We didn't have any rain-gear either. Oh well, a little bit of mud never hurt anyone.

This is what Betty looked like by the time we got home:


This weekend was even better than my failed "vacation" back-up plan in West Virginia. We loved it so much, that we've already booked another weekend for next month. This time we will stay in Lockhouse 10, which is restored to the 1930's era. Can't wait to see what that's like.

Thank you, WABA, for a wonderful weekend along the Canal.


  1. This is so neat! I did not realize they rented the Lockhouses. Thanks for the writeup, which also gives some good tips for planning and packing!

  2. Wow - I too had no idea that they rented the lockhouses. I would love to rent one with my husband, although it would be a much, much longer ride there for us as we live up in the suburbs. Maybe he'd drive and I'd meet him there by bike. As for the history, I love the Justice William O. Douglas story. It's similar to how John Muir invited Teddy Roosevelt to Yosemite and got it declared the first national park. Clearly, we need to do more active outreach to our politicians - maybe get them to go biking on the Capital Crescent Trail to show them how we need to build more like it?

  3. Very cool. I run on the canal towpath and always envy those smart enough to be on a bike. Hubz and I have been meaning to get out there for quite a while, thanks for the review of the lockhouse stay!

  4. Could you please tell me the right office to complain to about the lack of charges?