Friday, December 26, 2008

One of My Favorite Places...

... in the US, and possibly my favorite place in the DC area, is the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, better known as the C&O Canal. For those of you who live elsewhere and don't know about it, the park runs the entire 184.5 mile length of the original canal, built in the 1800s, and made almost immediately obsolete by the railroads. It became a National Park in 1971, thanks in large part to the efforts of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who fought to preserve the canal as a natural resource, rather than see it replaced with a highway as some wished. As a result, we have one of the truly great parks, in my opinion, with wonderful opportunities for cycling, walking, hiking, horseback riding, and camping. Not all of the original canal is intact today, but the towpath runs almost uninterrupted (there's one basically permanent detour on roads) from Cumberland, MD to Georgetown in Washington, DC. I've walked or cycled it on many occasions, twice riding the complete length and camping along the way at the convenient (and free!) hiker/biker sites.

Yesterday, on Christmas Day, I decided it was a good day for a walk along the canal, so I stopped there before going to see my family. I pulled in at an area known as Carderock, just off the DC Beltway. Although you're only about 10 miles from Georgetown, it feels much more remote than that, and there's a fair amount of wildlife... depending on season, you can see turtles, eagles, osprey, kingfishers, ducks, geese, cormorants, herons, and abundant songbirds and squirrels. Further out you can even encounter more uncommon critters... I've seen a number of wild turkey and a couple of goshawks along the trail nearer the western end, as well as beaver and muskrat.

On this visit, my most interesting wildlife encounter was with a Great Blue Heron, who was fishing and seemed undisturbed by my presence, allowing me to sit and watch from close range, and snap a number of pictures, such as the one to the right. I've always thought these were among the more fascinating and elegant birds, and love watching them both in flight and in the water.

I also stopped to observe a crow in the top of a tall tree, who seemed intent on calling out over and over. I commented to a gentleman watching him with binoculars "He's a vocal fellow, isn't he?" Much to my surprise, the birdwatcher informed me that the crow was clearly trying to communicate something, as he was using two distinct and very unusual calls, over and over. Well, I'm not enough of a crow expert to know, so I took his word for it. The bird did seem rather urgent.

Speaking of trees, one of the best parts of this walk, or any walk along the canal this time of year, was looking at the ways the bare trees were silhouetted against the sky. In particular, I'm fond of the striking white inner bark of the sycamores, especially when contrasted with the darker bark of some of the other trees. When it comes to autumn color the sycamore is pretty underwhelming, as it goes from green to brown to bare, with no intervening bright tones. But once bare, the intricate branches and bone whiteness of the bark are amazing.

And on the subject of bark... there were a number of folks out walking their dogs along the canal, and the dogs seemed to be having a grand time. I imagine for them it's just so wonderful to be out in someplace more wild than their neighborhood, smelling all the amazing scents to be found along the way. And for a lot of dogs, it seems nothing is finer than a good dunk in the canal!

Finally, while the towpath certainly wasn't as crowded as it is in warmer weather, there were a suprising number of people enjoying the day, considering it was a major family holiday. Two little boys were zooming along on bikes, one with training wheels, one having outgrown them, both having a wonderful time. I asked their parents as I passed "Christmas bikes?" and they said "Last Christmas!" I smiled and said I was glad they were still enjoying them. It was fun to see the sheer pleasure on the little guys' faces. A little later I encountered a couple softly singing to each other, in a language I didn't know (which is a long list, sadly), just enjoying a simple, lovely moment together. It made me smile, seeing them sharing a song together. It was the kind of day that made one want to sing, or whistle, or make some kind of joyous noise.

For the record, I whistled as I walked. People who know me well will not be surprised at this.

For more photos, see:

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