For some reason, back in 1930 a National Geographic writer described Maryland as "America in Miniature." I guess this is because of the topographic diversity, with oceans, estuaries, mountains - even a small desert zone. It certainly isn't because Maryland's state sport (jousting), state sport (lacrosse), state crustacean (blue crab) or state dinosaur (astrodon johnstoni) are all that common across the United States. From a kayaking perspective, the nickname rings true as within an hours drive you can do whitewater, flatwater, bay and ocean kayaking. In particular, the Potomac River and the C&O Canal travel side by side for 184 miles in Maryland, creating some interesting paddling loop opportunities.
Carole and I did a 5 mile paddling loop with our friends Bunny and Jerry, putting in at Violet's Lock onto the Potomac River, heading downriver and then exiting the Potomac at Pennyfield Lock and paddling back up the C&O Canal for the return. Violet's Lock isn't a real elegant put-in spot, you have to carry the boats down a rocky narrow path and, at the current low water levels, put in on some rocks on a small creek that feeds the Potomac.
The Potomac from Violet's Lock downstream for a mile or so is strewn with rocks and small islands - it doesn't look like the Potomac at all. Since the water level was low, we had to experiment to find a line with enough water to go downstream. Jerry was acting as our guide, but since he hadn't done this stretch in many years and since the downstream flow meant stopping to ponder wasn't possible, and Carole (who has very little whitewater experience) got to bang into some rocks and traverse several ripples. We basically all randomly paddled through different spots until we decided to portage across a downed tree and go over to the Virginia side of one of the many islands. From there, we shot through a few Class 1s and a lot of riffles, feeling like real whitewater paddlers, and passed many herons and fishermen along the way.
After about a mile of that, we reached the flatwater section and headed over to the Maryland side. This was pretty much stillwater paddling but very scenic, with the requisite herons guarding the shore every 1/8th of a mile or so. One danger on this loop is missing the Pennyfield take out spot, as the Maryland shore pretty much looks the same no matter where you are. If you miss Pennyfield, you can take out at Swain's Lock a few miles downstream, after that it is Great Falls. We saw some canoes coming out of a stream on the Maryland side and suspected we were near Pennyfield, so a bit downstream I asked some fly fisherman (standing in only knee-deep water in the middle of the river) and they told us that the stream was the Pennyfield put-in. So, we paddled upstream against the raging torrent and turned into the small stream. Very cool - we ran into a Potomac Paddlesports class practicing right next to the aqueduct bridge that takes the stream under the canal and towpath - they all had Perception Daggers just like Carole's, which was no surprise since we bought her's used from them.
The canal is shallow and weed-choked for most of the section between Pennyfield and Violet's Lock, but at least it wasn't covered with green scum - it sort of felt like what I imagine paddling through kelp beds on the West Coast must be like. Albeit in water that is only 2 feet deep and 20 feet wide.
There were a couple of blow-downs across the canal, but someone had come along with a saw and strategically removed enough limbs to open up a path through. With some bobbing and weaving we made our way back up to Pennyfield, seeing lots of turtles along the way. Probably about a 5 mile round trip, nothing very strenuous, but a nice way to enjoy a great day out on the water with friends.
Googletronic map of the route: