Monday, June 12, 2017

Ten Miles To Go

In my second week at the canal I have just about doubled the ground I have covered so far, making it all the way to the western terminus in Cumberland Maryland and just ten miles from its start in Georgetown, Washington D.C.  While I haven't seen every single mile within this stretch, it is certainly more of the canal than I expected to get to, even over the whole summer.

Staff dresses in period garb while operating the canal boat

The Charles F. Mercer approaching Lock 20
 This week I was with the interpretation division, getting an inside look at how the importance of the canal and the cultural and natural resources that accompany it is conveyed to visitors.  I took a look at three different visitor centers, not including the one I am staying at, two reproduction canal boats, and a host of other historic buildings and structures.  While there were no school trips happening, I got to see some of the locations and interpretative material used for the various programs the canal offers.  I also got to hear some interpretive talks and go for a private ride on a canal boat!
Two of the park's four mules pulling the Charles F. Mercer

A reproduction canal boat in Cumberland, Maryland

The canal and its surrounding features are significant for a variety of reasons. By preserving the canal and its historic structures, the park creates a window into the infrastructural development of the country during the period of industrialization.  It is one of the most frequented recreational trails in the country and provides many access points to the Potomac river.  It creates a wildlife corridor, buffering the Potomac and protecting one of the most biologically diverse areas in the country.  And it preserves evidence of thousands of years of human habitation.

Some of this is immediately evident and some requires more instruction, but what is important about interpretation is creating a connection between the visitor and the material, helping to foster their own interest.  For example, if you were a kid in a canal family, you would have spent a great deal of time tied to the roof of the boat picture below.
Great Falls Tavern and Lock 20

On Friday I participated in a bike patrol with longtime Canal Volunteer John Hutchinson.  John told me he considered himself an ambassador of the park and liked to greet and assist as many visitors as possible.  We did a nine mile loop, giving directions, making sure everything was in order, and unfortunately explaining that the overlook where you can normally see Great Falls was closed for construction.

Tamping down the new towpath material

We had a volunteer who wanted to help out but couldn't quite lend a hand
At the end of the week I took part in Canal Pride, an annual event in which volunteers get together to lend a hand and perform maintenance on different parts of the park.  This day the focus was on one of the areas of greatest visitation, Great Falls Tavern, just a few miles outside of Washington D.C.  I lead a team in resurfacing the towpath, filling in potholes and areas where the path had eroded out.

The biggest takeaway from this week is without a doubt the importance of volunteers and partner organizations.  Nine times out of ten when you come to the C&O Canal, it will be a volunteer that you interact with rather than an actual NPS employee.  They help staff the visitor centers, go on bike and kayak patrols, they are the trail stewards, run the bike loaner program, and come out to do maintenance for events like this one. Partner organizations like the C&O Canal Trust, Friends of Great Falls Tavern, and the C&O Canal Association and the volunteers that make up their membership are integral to the functioning of this park.  The uniqueness of the canal in terms of size and shape, coupled with the staffing and funding impediments faced by the park service as a whole, means the C&O Canal must be creative in its problem solving to continue to protect its resources and provide for public enjoyment.  Superintendent Kevin Brandt has even said that C&O stands for Challenges and Opportunities.  Luckily there is such robust support for the canal in its surrounding communities, which has allowed for many a volunteer based creative solution to take place, something that will likely be occurring more and more frequently in parks across the country.

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