Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Potomac Heritage Trail

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Potomac Heritage Trail

Article excerpt

Winding Ribbon of American History

"You mean you want us to go in the water?" squeaks a surprised 12th grader, peering warily into the murky C&O Canal in Great Falls Park, Maryland, just north of Washington, D.C. She and her fellow students - most wearing outfits better suited to a night on the town than a day on a riverbank - stare dumbfounded at park ranger Harry Hagan as he holds up a large rectangular net.

"Yep, you're going in," says Regina Leonard, a teacher with Bridging the Watershed, a program for high school students studying ecology. "The more thorough you are at sifting through the debris," she tells the 20 students, "the more critters you'll find." And the critters they're looking for, says Hagan, a park ranger for the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) National Historic Park, are stream-bottom macroinvertebratessensitive indicators of the pollution that plagues this stretch of the canal and its sister waterway, the Potomac River.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal consists of a narrow channel just large enough for one slim canal boat. Alongside it runs a wide dirt swath known as the towpath, originally used by mules to drag canal boats along. From its starting point in the Washington neighborhood of Georgetown, the C&O extends northwest on the Maryland side of the Potomac. Comprised of approximately 20,000 acres, this preserved waterway and corresponding path provides habitats for countless birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles; 200 of these species are listed as rare or endangered.

As the students nervously pull on rubber boots, take hold of the nets, and wade in, park visitors walk past on the towpath, some stopping to watch. All around them on this warm April day, the earth is exploding with life. Mittenshaped leaves on the slanted sycamores sway gently in the wind. Six sunbathing turtles perch on the partially submerged trunk of a gnarled oak. The chirping birds, quacking ducks, and rushing water from nearby Great Falls add to the laughter of the students.

Grand Canyon of American Heritage

The canal and its national historic park are the heart of the National Potomac Scenic Heritage Trail, called the Grand Canyon of American Heritage for having the highest concentration of historic and cultural landmarks of the country's 20 national trails. From its beginning in the Great Allegheny Passage near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to its end at the tranquil tidewaters of Southern Maryland and Virginia's Northern Neck where the Potomac River drains into the Chesapeake Bay - the trail spans Native American hunting grounds, preserved Civil War forts and battlefields, a presidential home, and several preindustrial bridges and aqueducts. National trails typically traverse mountains, but the Potomac Heritage Trail also encompasses agricultural areas, coastal plains, hardwood forests, and the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

And it's still a work in progress. While hikers or bikers can travel continuously over 375 miles on connected trails or sidewalks from downtown D.C. to Seward, Pennsylvania, Rie Francke, executive director of the Potomac Heritage Trail Association, describes it as a trunk trail: a long stem with branches extending, looping, and crossing it. There are currently 84 miles of gaps, with the potential of adding 240 miles of land and water trails to eventually reach the associations goal of a seamless, uninterrupted, trail network running the full 800-mile length of the Potomac River, from the Allegheny Mountains to the mouth of the Chesapeake. Francke and other conservationists are encouraged by Congress' passage earlier this year of the Omnibus Land Bill, which includes a "willing seller proposition," meaning, as Francke explains, that "if somebody owns land along the trail and will agree to sell it, the government will appropriate money to buy it."

From President Washington to Justice Douglas

The C&O canal, and by extension the Potomac Trail, sprang from the vision of President George Washington. …

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