Montgomery County Stories and Tips

The Monocacy River Water Trail

Travel Photo by IgoUgo member

Maryland is blessed with an abundance of rivers and streams suitable for canoeing and kayaking. We’re fortunate to live just a few miles from the confluence of the Monocacy and Potomac Rivers and have spent countless hours boating, fishing, and walking along these lovely, historic places. Having gotten two recreational kayaks a few years back, we’ve been gradually exploring nearby rivers and streams in our kayaks. Only just recently I found information about the Monocacy River Water Trail, , a 41-mile-long stretch of river that is every flatwater paddler’s dream, I duly put it on my list of places to go and waited for an opportune time.

The Washington DC area’s customary summer heat and humidity took a break recently, so we loaded our kayaks on one car and headed for the river, leaving another car at the end point near the Monocacy Aqueduct to set up a shuttle. Before leaving, we checked the level of the river at the National Weather Service’s Advanced Hydrologic Prediction website, a handy online resource listing precise hour-by-hour measurements of river levels. I knew from consulting the Monocacy Canoe Club’s list of Ranked Rivers that the Monocacy River needed to be flowing at about two feet at Frederick in order to be considered "enjoyable" for canoeing and kayaking. Although the river levels were just below that (at 1.83 ft.), we didn’t think that .17 was going to make that much of a difference, and indeed it didn’t.

After some deliberation, we decided to put in at Buckeystown, about ten miles upstream of the Monocacy Aqueduct. According to the water trail map, there was a boat ramp at Buckeystown Park, but in fact there is merely access to the river behind a picnic shelter, down a somewhat slippery bank flanked by poison ivy. My kayak is a monster – long and wide – and it took some maneuvering to get it down the bank and into the water. However, once we were in the water we had no regrets about having set off from Buckeystown – the stretch of the Monocacy below Buckeystown was wonderfully peaceful and scenic. And although the river was on the shallow side, we never had to portage the kayaks at any point. Blue herons took wing as we came upon them stalking along the bank and turtles basked in the sunshine on fallen logs. Occasionally we’d come upon a very minor riffle of water that required a modest bit of maneuvering, but I’d hesitate to call these stretches even "class 1."

On such a beautiful day, it was a given that others would be out enjoying the river as well. We passed several anglers (having little luck, it seemed), a few dozen people picnicking on the banks near some of the bridges we passed, and a large party of girl scouts in canoes. Two of the girls, looking a bit tired and hot as they struggled with their canoe, pleaded with us to swap our kayaks for their canoe. Chuckling, I said I’d pass on the offer.

A shaded bank near a sycamore tree leaning picturesquely out over the river made an idyllic lunch stop. Apples, cheese sandwiches, and pink lemonade all disappeared from the cooler I’d stowed in the waterproof compartment of my kayak. It was tempting to stretch out and take a nap, but we weren’t sure how long the 10-mile trip would take us and it was well into the afternoon, so reluctantly we climbed back in our kayaks and resumed our trek.

Just past the bridge at Rt. 28 near Dickerson, we came upon a large congregation of turkey vultures on the bank. (Actually, my friend Henk tells me that the correct collective term for vultures is a "venue.") A few of the vultures in the venue were desultorialy picking at the desiccated carcass of some creature, while others sunned themselves, holding their great wings outspread. I drifted up to see how close they’d let me get to them and was surprised that they showed no signs of alarm. Perhaps they didn’t regard me as a threat in a boat, or perhaps they thought there was safety in numbers. They did, however, grumble a bit, commenting on my presence. Vultures make a peculiar muttering sound that, frankly, I wouldn’t want to hear in the dark. Although vultures may seem like unwholesome creatures, they’re part of the Great Recycling Team that we’d be in bad shape without.

We also saw two park rangers handing out tickets to two canoeists who were paddling without PFDs (personal flotation devices or life jackets). Be forewarned that there’s a $90 fine for paddling without a jacket on Maryland’s rivers, and the rangers seem to be forever on the prowl to catch the unwary. Even when the water is running just a foot or so, the park rangers will be out on the river writing up tickets.

About three hours after we set out, we rounded a bend in the river and saw the familiar span of the Monocacy Aqueduct. This handsome stone structure, completed back in 1833, has recently been restored and made more suitable for foot traffic and cyclists using the C&O Canal Towpath. Straddling the Monocacy River just at the confluence of the Potomac, the aqueduct is one of the most scenic places in Montgomery County, in my opinion. It’s at its finest near sundown, when light cast from the setting sun turns the stone a glowing reddish-gold.

The Monocacy is a river for all seasons. I’ve seen it frozen over in the dead of winter, with interesting brachiate fissures in the ice. I’ve seen it when the sycamore trees lining its banks send countless leaves like golden barques floating on the water. On hot, hazy evenings I’ve seen fat fish jumping to catch the dragonflies zig-zagging over the water’s surface. In the spring, I’ve heard serenades of peepers so deafening that the sound resonates in my ears for a good while afterwards. Each time I come to this river, I find it has something new to show me.

One day I’ll be an old lady, but with some luck and careful stewardship, the Monocacy will look just as lovely as it does today. And, no doubt, it will still hold surprises.

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