When the temperature is soaring and air conditioning becomes claustrophobic, a day of floating on the Monocacy River is the perfect summer antidote.
Tree-lined banks shaded the water on a recent hot morning as Mark Hardie, of Daybreak Excursions, unloaded eight kayaks for a group excursion from the Md. 77 bridge to Creagerstown Park.
The six-mile trip was just a slice of the 41-mile Monocacy Water Trail. While the Monocacy River begins in Pennsylvania and meanders 58 miles south to the Potomac River, the Monocacy Water Trail starts at the little put-in, which is really just a dirt trail off Md. 77 leading to a sandbar along the riverbank, about six miles east of Thurmont.
Hardie, of Frederick, has been guiding river trips for 25 years, along with rock climbing outings, hiking trips and cave expeditions. He's guided plenty of whitewater trips, but now he likes the leisurely pace of the Monocacy.
The seven kayakers who joined him were all beginners, and the Monocacy is a beginner-friendly river to paddle. The low water levels usually found in July and August make the river a good place for beginners to try their skills at canoeing or kayaking.
Debby Claypool, of Ijamsville, was going on her first kayak excursion. She wanted to test the waters, so to speak, to see if kayaking is for her. "It's good exercise, and it's something I can do myself," she said. Her kids are grown, she said, and she wanted to start a healthy new hobby.
Erin Martin, 25, of Frederick, was also along to learn about kayaking, as well as have a fun day on the river. Martin is a teacher at Northwest Middle School in Taneytown.
Maria LaRocca, a Spanish teacher at Frederick Community College and Hood College, brought her daughters Ysabel, 12, and Victoria, 25. Ysabel's friend Caitlin Shepherd, also 12, and Caitlin's dad, John, rounded out the group.
Caitlin and John paddled a two-person kayak while the others paddled single recreational kayaks. These stable boats had keels to keep the boats moving through the sluggish flow of the river.
As soon as the group got on the river, the sounds of modern life were left behind. No traffic noise could be heard. On this lazy morning, birds twittered, dragonflies flew low over the water and cicadas hummed.
Above the river, great blue and green herons flew, remaining low enough to spot fish. High overhead, a bald eagle soared. Turtles lounged on logs in the river.
"The river is clear, not muddy," Maria LaRocca said. "The sounds of the river, the quiet, you don't hear this at home."
Hardie gave the paddlers a short course in how to paddle at the flatwater put-in. The paddlers practiced forward and back strokes. They tried sweeps, strokes that help the kayaks make a wide, sweeping turn. They also practiced draws, which help the kayaks make quick, sharp turns.
The Monocacy in summer and early fall is usually shallow, and it is safe for beginner paddlers, Hardie said. According to the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, river paddlers must be willing to assume risk and learn the skills needed.
But just about anyone can get a boat safely down the Monocacy in a guided group setting, Hardie said. He used to guide whitewater river trips, but those days are behind him. "I got tired of fishing people out of the river," he said.
Periodically, small riffles speeded up the current and required paddling around rocks. The Monocacy's low summer level would occasionally cause the boats to become temporarily lodged on rocks, with the paddlers sometimes having to get out of a boat to free it. But that was just another excuse to wade into the cool water.
Hardie told the paddlers to watch for the historic LeGore Bridge, which would be about three miles into the 6.3-mile trip. The historic stone arch bridge, built around 1900 by local businessman James William LeGore, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The bridge is striking, rising high above the water, and the intricate architecture of the row of stone arches is best seen from the river level.
The banks are mostly tree-lined. In this stretch of the upper Monocacy, there is little evidence of the erosion seen farther downstream.
All too soon, the Creagerstown bridge loomed and the trip ended. Reluctantly, the boaters left the cool, refreshing water and plunged into the hot day ahead.
The name Monocacy is from a Shawnee Indian term, Monnockkesy, meaning river with many bends. The languid river winds its way in a south-southwesterly direction. There are a few riffles, but only two class 1 rapids. Class 1 rapids, according to the International Scale of River Difficulty, means fast-moving water with riffles and small waves. Obstructions are obvious and easy to miss, even for untrained paddlers, and self-rescue is easy.
One of the rapids is through a historic rubble dam crossing the river at Michael's Mill. There is a portage for those who would rather not run the rapid. The other, the only natural rapid on the river, is Greenfield Rapids, just above the road crossing at Greenfield Road, just a few miles upstream from the confluence with the Potomac River.
The river has many other historical structures. Michael's Mill is a 1739 gristmill, high on a bluff on river right, heading downstream. The mill operated into the 1950s.
The old Greenfield Mills Bridge was destroyed by floodwaters that swept down the river during Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Agnes was devastating to the Monocacy, creating severe flooding and wiping out many bridges, including the bridge that connected Frederick to the Penn Central Railroad.
The Monocacy is Maryland's largest Potomac River tributary.
Paddlers who want to experience some Civil War history should put in at Pinecliff Park and take out at Buckeystown Park.
The five-mile paddle offers a unique view of the Monocacy National Battlefield, where the battle known as the "battle that saved Washington" occurred in 1864. The river passes through farm fields and under a railroad bridge. Rail buffs would be interested to know that Monocacy Junction was an important rail stop during the Civil War because of its location between Washington and the important cities of the Northeast.
The B&O Railroad had New Jersey troops build two blockhouses to protect Monocacy Junction. The "Y" at Monocacy Junction, completed in 1830, allows trains to turn around. It was the first of its kind in the United States and is still in use today, according to the National Park Service.
The Monocacy was known to Native Americans for the lush vegetation bordering its banks, and was also referred to as "the garden creek." The fertile soil was a good place for Indian tribes to raise crops. The area was used for farming long before European settlers arrived in the area.
The river winds past an archaeological dig site near Lilypons Road behind the Bishop Claggett Center. At that site, archaeologists have been studying Native American communities who lived there from the years 800 to 1400.
German and English families arrived at the river valley in the 1700s, clearing woodlands, establishing sawmills and farms, forming villages and setting up gristmills powered by the river and its largest tributaries. There were more than 870 gristmills along the Monocacy by the end of the 18th century.
At the Park Mills Bridge, at mile 37.6 on the Monocacy River Trail, the river enters the Monocacy Natural Resources Area. This is 1,800 acres of woods and farmland, with hiking and equestrian trails and hunting and fishing areas.
After four miles in the Monocacy MNRA, the river reaches the C&O Canal National Historical Park and the famed Monocacy Aqueduct, which is the largest of 11 built along the canal where rivers and creeks flowed into the Potomac River.
Construction on the Monocacy Aqueduct began in 1829 and took four years. Built of granite stone from a quarry near Sugarloaf Mountain, it's 516 feet long with a parapet wall 8 feet wide and an upstream wall that is 6 feet wide. There are seven arches, each with a span of 54 feet.
Through the years, the aqueduct deteriorated, and the National Park Service worked with other organizations to restore the aqueduct to its original state in 2004-05. The aqueduct looks as it did when it was built, but is stabilized.
A float trip on the Monocacy offers a glimpse into history, a cool way to spend a hot summer day, a chance to see wildlife and a chance to get some exercise, all at once.
- Paddling the Monocacy requires boats and transportation. Unless you want to paddle downstream and then try your hand at paddling upstream against the current, youll need to shuttle to the takeout. There are several outfitters in the area providing guided excursions, boat rentals and shuttle services. Daybreak Excursions, owned by Mark Hardie, of Frederick, is relatively new. Founded 11 months ago, the company offers customized guided outdoor adventures. Hardie can rent kayaks and take the kayaks to the various put-ins on the Monocacy River, and then arrange to get you back to your car after you take out. The optimum group size for Daybreak Excursions is eight people. Hardie will also provide guide service for people who have their own kayaks or canoes. Hardie can be reached at 240-731-9936, and the companys website is www.daybreakexcursions.com.
- River and Trail Outfitters, of Knoxville, offers Boat & Brew excursions on the Monocacy River. These trips take place on Saturdays from spring through fall. Participants paddle 5.8 miles along a mellow stretch of the Monocacy and end at Barley and Hops microbrewery, where paddlers can tour the brewery, sample beers and enjoy snacks. The price is $86 and includes all paddling equipment, guides, beer tasting, parking and tax. Box lunches are an additional $8 per person. The next Boat & Brew is Aug. 18, and other dates are Sept. 15, Oct. 6 and Oct. 20. The group meets at the take-out at 10 a.m. to shuttle to the put-in. Private Boat & Brew trips are also available to groups of 20 or more. For more information on all the trips, call 301-695-5177, or go to www.rivertrail.com. River and Trail Outfitters also offers canoe and kayak rentals and lessons.
- Frederick County Parks and Recreation offers guided canoe trips on the Monocacy River in May, June and early July. These trips are from 9 a.m. to approximately 3:30 p.m. for those ages 7 and older, and the cost is $69 per canoe. All children must be accompanied by an adult. For information on next years schedule, call 301-600-2936, or watch for the spring Recreater schedule of events at www.Recreater.com.
- There is a PDF of the Monocacy Water Trail, from the Chesapeake Bay Gateway Network, at http://www.smithtrail.net/pdf/Monocacy%20Scenic%20River.pdf. This map lists accesses and points of interest along the 41.4 mile Monocacy River Trail.
- The Monocacy Canoe Club, based in Frederick, offers canoe and kayak trips throughout the area. The club offers lessons and trips. More information is at www.monocacycanoe.org.