Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A slow ride on the C&O Canal

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Park Rangers Angela Grace and Mike Vliet lead the mules and the replica boat Charles F. Mercer downstream in the C&O Canal towards Great Falls Park during a ride on the historic canal on July 12.
Nineteenth century children would have had a different view, but for those of the 21st century, a ride on a C&O Canal boat is a quiet, scenic break from the everyday.

On a recent ride on the mule-drawn boats, Ranger Warren Kasper drew in the half-dozen children on board, who ranged in age from 1 to 10, by giving each an age-appropriate scenario of what they might have been doing 150 years before. For the 5-year-old it was cleaning rocks from the mules’ hooves or fishing while the 10-year-old would have been leading the mule team and the 2-year-old likely would have been tethered inside to protect himself from drowning, Kasper said.

The canal operated from 1832 to 1924, carrying coal and other goods from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C.

In September, following a three-year hiatus while the C&O Canal Board Fund raised money for a new replica boat, the Charles F. Mercer was launched to offer the public rides from Potomac.

Nowadays visitors to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park can board boats at either Potomac or Georgetown.

When one young rider commented on the slow speed of the boat (3 or 4 mph), Kasper objected.

‘‘This is high speed living,” he said. ‘‘It’s only slow for those of us who grew up with automobiles and airplanes.”

Kasper’s chat, assisted by a basketful of props that ranged from models and harnesses to 19th century toys and a harmonica, continued nonstop for the duration of the trip. Parents onboard were impressed by the way he involved the children as well as his range of knowledge — Kasper had an answer for every question.

‘‘Its part of the job,” said Kasper, who has spent three of his 10 years with the National Park Service on the canal boats.

Children on this weekday ride had plenty of room for looking over the boat railings, observing the five-member crew and spotting fish in the water. There were only 18 people on the boat, which can carry 75. A weekend trip would likely have 50-60 riders, Kasper said.

Canal boat riders can enjoy the scenic beauty of the canal and learn about the difficulties of the 19th century journey.

‘‘There’s not much to romanticize about it,” Kasper said.

A ‘‘Meet the Mules” program is part of school outings to the park, but summertime visitors have to hike to the pen on the opposite side of the canal if they want to meet Ida, Lil or the rest of the mules.

Such a hike offers a chance to spot the deer, fox, turtles, geese and other wildlife that live in the park. Families can fuel up for the walk with a picnic on the grounds or with purchases from the snack stand, although Kasper noted its hours are irregular.

Visitors should be aware that the canal park has no trashcans. There are plastic bag dispensers at various points, but any trash generated by the trip must be taken out.

C&O Canal Boat Rides

The one-hour trips leave from Great Falls Tavern, 11710 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac at 11 a.m., 1:30 and 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday until September.

Cost is $7 for adults; $5 for seniors and children ages 6-15; free for 5 and under (there is also a $5 per vehicle fee to get into the park)