Chesapeake Bay Voyage: C & D Canal

The Chesapeake Bay Voyage is a series of kayak trips, with the goal of paddling the entire length of the bay from north to south. It is taking place over several weekends during the warm seasons of 2014.

Detour (Fri 4/18/2014): C & D Canal

Ask people why they’d paddle 200 miles of the Chesapeake Bay, and you’ll get lots of different answers. For me it has nothing to do with endurance, or mileage goals, or bragging rights. Churning up water over thousands upon thousands of paddle strokes doesn’t earn me extra credit points, and I don’t drive long distances across the Bay Bridge just to see more water. When it comes down to it, most water in the Bay looks pretty much the same, the variations mostly result from the seasons and local weather conditions.

To me, this opportunity to kayak the length of the Chesapeake has everything to do with exploring local history and tying together the communities that have created Chesapeake Bay culture over time. It’s fascinating to pass by a sleepy town of population 350, knowing that in its heydey thousands of people lived there and supported hundreds more who came to enjoy the town’s resorts and entertainment. Most of the places we’ll encounter on this voyage have a story behind them, another piece in the puzzle of rich Chesapeake history.  To paddle by and learn nothing new, or see naught but water, would seem like a regretful shame.

On the first leg of our voyage, we passed by the mouth of the C & D Canal. We were battling against winds and waves, struggling to keep the group together, and the canal was on the other side of the Elk River from us at the time. But I vowed to go back and see the canal in a more focused way.

The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal (C&D Canal) is 14 miles long, 450 feet wide, and 40 feet deep. It was built as a shipping canal connecting the Delaware River with the Chesapeake Bay, saving a 300-mile trip around Cape Charles, or about a day’s time for ships traveling from Baltimore to Philadelphia. Near the western end is the town of Chesapeake City, headquarters of canal owner/operators the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It’s also the site of the C&D Canal Museum, which I wanted to visit.

The C & D Canal in Chesapeake City, MD

The C & D Canal in Chesapeake City, MD

The C&D Canal Museum is housed in the Old Lock Pump House which pumped water uphill to compensate for water loss in the upper canal and locks.  Originally in 1829 when the canal first opened for business, boats and barges were hauled by teams of mules and had to navigate four locks from one end to the other.  But starting in 1919, all the locks were removed and excavation began to convert the canal to a sea-level operation.  The canal reopened in 1927, though work continued to make it wider and deeper, to accommodate larger ships.

Front facade of the C & D Canal Museum

Front facade of the C & D Canal Museum

As the ships grew, the bridges that carry vehicles and trains across the canal had to be reconfigured as well.  Today there are six bridges over the C&D Canal.  In my explorations, I managed to walk over one and drive across three of them. And I caught a glimpse of the Lift Bridge, one of the most appealing and interesting as it soars above the water, only lowered to carry an occasional train.

Crossing Carries Location
Chesapeake City Bridge MD Route 213.svg MD 213 Chesapeake City, Maryland
Summit Bridge US 301.svg US 301
Elongated circle 71.svg DE 71
Elongated circle 896.svg DE 896
Summit, Delaware
Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Lift Bridge Norfolk Southern Railway Kirkwood, Delaware
Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Bridge Elongated circle 1.svg DE 1 St. Georges, Delaware
St. Georges Bridge US 13.svg U.S. 13
Reedy Point Bridge Elongated circle 9.svg DE 9 Delaware City, Delaware
Model of the lift bridge formerly in Chesapeake City

Model of the lift bridge formerly in Chesapeake City

Today the C&D Canal is one of the busiest working canals in the world, carrying over 25,000 vessels per year, both commercial and private.  It’s still operated and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who monitor all traffic via closed circuit television, fiber optics, and microwave links.  Though it’s open 24/7 (with rare exceptions for ice in the winter), mariners are well advised to check the tides and currents, which can be strong enough to push you through with ease OR really foul up your timing.  I had hoped to see ships navigating the canal, but the museum monitor only indicated one in the area, and it was several hours away.  As I sat on the banks in Chesapeake City, I watched several 20-30 foot yachts burn up gas struggling against the current.

Mariners take heed of the tides and currents in the canal!

Mariners take heed of the tides and currents in the canal!

After pitching my tent at Lums Pond where I was staying for the night, I explored some more with a quick drive to Delaware City at the other end of the canal. After being visually jarred by the acres of industrial-looking stacks indicating oil refineries and chemical companies just outside Delaware City, I took a detour over the Reedy Point Bridge, which gave me a beautiful bird’s eye view of where the canal ends at the Delaware River surrounded by scenic salt marsh.

Original lock in Delaware City

Original lock in Delaware City

Then I walked out to the original end of the canal, where Lock 1 has been preserved as a landlocked pool of water. It’s also where you can catch a ferry to Pea Patch Island to explore the ruins of Fort Delaware. Interestingly, as I learned from one of the interpretive signs, Pea Patch Island was naturally formed as the result of a ship running aground and spilling its cargo of peas into the mud back in the 18th century.  As it grew large enough to support a fort, it also became a significant wetlands stop for migratory birds and hosts one of the the largest colonies of herons in the U.S.  Luckily I had brought my 10x binoculars, and was thrilled to watch hundreds of herons, egrets, ibis, and other birds swarming through the trees and marshes.

Pea Patch Island, site of Fort Delaware and heron colony

Pea Patch Island, site of Fort Delaware and heron colony

Only the fading light and dropping temperatures made me want to leave.  I made one quick stop on the way back to Lums Pond campground to see an old building with a sign that had caught my eye. The Lums Mill House, circa 1730, offers a “restoration opportunity” (read: serious fixer-upper) for anyone interested in a resident curatorship through the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation.

Free rent for a fixer-upper!

Free rent for a fixer-upper!

Link to more photos

Link to Google map of Chesapeake Bay Voyage series

Link to Dave’s Spot tracks

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~ by pasadenagina on May 4, 2014.

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