Big Slackwater on the C&O Canal

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was a monumental engineering feat for its day. President John Quincy Adams turned the first shovel-full of dirt for the project on Independence Day in 1828, just a few miles from where I live. The canal would not fully open until 1850, 22 years and seven presidents later. Although it never reached the Ohio River, its intended destination, the C&O Canal spanned 184.5 miles alongside the Potomac River, from Cumberland in western Maryland to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. Along its length, canal boats passed through 74 lift locks, over 11 aqueducts, and through a tunnel bored 3,118 feet—six tenths of a mile—through hard rock. And it was all planned and built by muscle and sweat, using hand tools and horse power.

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The entrance to Big Slackwater at McMahon’s Mill.

Dams were built across the Potomac at several places to divert river water into the canal. Downstream from Williamsport, Dam 4 backed up the river for about 13 miles, creating a deep, smooth stretch called Big Slackwater. Here, canal boats passed through a lock into the river. They were pulled by mule from a towpath along the riverbank for 3¼ miles before reentering the canal through another lock. Routing the boats through the river allowed canal builders to avoid having to blast miles of canal bed through the rugged limestone cliffs that border the Potomac here. Big Slackwater was the only place along the canal where this was done.

A final destructive flood put an end to canal operations in 1924. The federal government later acquired the property and, thanks to public pressure (a great story: see Justice Douglas’s Famous Hike), it ultimately became a national historical park.

Floods have remained an ongoing headache for the C&O Canal’s current overseers, the National Park Service. One of the worst floods, wrought by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, badly damaged some 66 miles of canal towpath—more than a third of its length. (Here’s a fascinating retrospective article from Washingtonian magazine on that storm’s effect on the region.) The storm destroyed the towpath along Big Slackwater, rendering that area impassable. Sections of the towpath finally reopened 23 years later, just in time for the devastating flood of 1996, which destroyed the towpath again. When I bicycled the canal from Cumberland to Georgetown in 2004, I had to follow a 5-mile detour on rural roads to get around that decades-old washout.

After a two-year construction project, a completely rebuilt towpath along Big Slackwater reopened in 2012. It features eight elevated concrete walkways, supported by columns bolted to the bedrock, that extend a mile and a half along the Potomac River.

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Sue and I recently revisited Big Slackwater to cycle the towpath from Dam 4 (Mile 84.6), where the canal enters the river, to Lock 41 (Mile 88.9), where it reemerges. It’s not a long ride, less than 10 miles round trip. But it’s a scenic and tranquil one, at least on a weekday when there are few people out on the river. And no where else on the canal can you ride right alongside the river on a concrete path. Except for a couple of very short low points along the cliffs right beside the river, the non-paved sections of the towpath are in pretty good shape.

Big Slackwater is located between Sharpsburg and Williamsport. You’ll need a good map or a map app to reach one of the two access points. Antietam National Battlefield is less than 10 miles from Dam 4, so you can visit both areas on a single daytrip. Antietam is a great place to explore by bike, as I did a few years ago.

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Restored by the Park Service, McMahon’s Mill marks the upstream access point to Big Slackwater.

You can park at Dam 4 at the downstream end of Big Slackwater or at a larger parking lot about a mile farther up the road, where there is a boat launch, picnic area, and pit toilets. Access to the upstream end of Big Slackwater is at McMahon’s Mill (Mile 88.1). This is also where the concrete path begins. If you walk or bike about a mile upstream from here, you’ll reach Locks 41 and 42, where the canal route reemerges from the river.

Enjoy the ride!

David Romanowski, 2019

Posted in Bicycling, Local, Maryland | 2 Comments

Botanical Gardens in Florida

During our annual spring trip to Florida, Sue and I always seek out new places to visit: Old Florida attractions, state parks and other nature preserves, and, lately, botanical gardens. Over the past few years, we’ve visited or revisited quite a few throughout Florida. We haven’t explored together most of the southern third of the state, so we still have many more to see. Here are some we’ve visited within the last couple of years.

Kanapaha Botanical Gardens

62 acres

Tucked away just southwest of Gainesville and the University of Florida, Kanapaha is an almost hidden gem. We always stop to visit when we’re passing through. Arrive early in the morning and you’ll have the lush gardens pretty much to yourself.

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A serpent and other creatures in the Children’s Garden.

After entering the botanical gardens at the Summer House, we usually head left and wander through the cluster of small gardens set along a meandering stream, including an oriental garden, a rose garden, and a whimsical children’s garden, a highlight you shouldn’t miss.

Then we make our way to the other side of the Summer House. There a loop trail threads through a palm hammock, a native woodland, and spectacular stands of bamboo, the largest public display of the woody grasses in Florida. In all there are two dozen separate gardens throughout the property linked by a mile and a half of paved paths.

Washington Oaks Gardens

South of St. Augustine
20 acres of formal gardens

Washington Oaks doesn’t appear on lists I’ve seen of Florida gardens, but it should. It’s one of the loveliest places I’ve ever been to in the state. Less than 20 miles south of St. Augustine, it was once the winter retreat of Owen and Louise Young, who acquired the property in the 1930s. Just before her death, Louise donated Washington Oaks to the state, stipulating that its formal gardens be maintained for the public to enjoy. Washington Oaks is now a state park. The gardens are part of the Washington Oaks Historic District, which includes the Youngs’ modest cottage beside the Matanzas River.

As you wander along the river, down the nature trails, under the live oaks, and through the manicured grounds surrounding a lovely pond, you may find yourself wishing you could live here. I know I did.

Coquina rock and tide pools on the beach.

Be sure to visit the other section of the state park across Route A1A from the gardens area. A short drive takes you down to a beach of coarse, orange-brown sand, where you can climb around on extensive outcroppings of coquina, a rock made of sand and shells that was used to build many structures in Florida, including the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States.

Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens

Port Orange
10 acres

Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens is another place you likely won’t find on lists of Florida gardens. Snuggled in a suburb just south of Daytona, it is maintained by a local volunteer group and is open to the public for free (donations appreciated). I first visited it on one of my Bike Florida tours and again on a second bike tour. I finally brought Sue here this spring.

Part of a former plantation, Dunlawton contains the ruins of a sugar mill. Exhibit panels explain the sugar mill operation and interpret the preserved ruins you can explore here. Along the wooded and shady garden paths, you will find ruins of a very different sort: concrete dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, the remains of Bongoland, a kitschy tourist attraction that existed here into the 1960s.

I wouldn’t consider this a “destination garden,” but if you pass this way it is well worth a detour. With its campy concrete dinos, interesting sugar mill ruins, and rustic but well maintained gardens along quiet wooded paths, Dunlawton is not far but worlds away from the famous sands and screaming speedway of Daytona Beach.

Harry P. Leu Gardens

50 acres

The first time we tried to visit Leu Gardens, Google Maps directed us to a locked gate rather than a public entrance. Then we discovered that this particular Sunday was a free-admission day with a plant sale taking place. The parking lot was full and the neighborhood streets were jammed. We gave up and left.

We returned on Monday, and the gardens were wonderfully quiet and peaceful. Leu Gardens focuses on plants that can be cultivated locally (USDA Zone 9B to be exact). The gardens are centered on the Leu House Museum, a 19th-century home last lived in by Harry P. Leu and his wife Mary Jane, who donated the property to the city of Orlando. The house was closed when we visited due to ongoing repairs from Hurricane Irma.

While we enjoyed wandering along the extensive system of walkways through the Tropical Stream Garden, Idea Garden, Rose Garden, Arid Garden, and more, I can’t say that this is one of my favorite Florida gardens. Maybe it’s the suburban setting or that I prefer the less formal design of a place like Kanapaha Botanical Gardens to Leu Gardens’ more neatly manicured grounds. But don’t let that discourage you from visiting.

Bok Tower Gardens

Lake Wales
50 acres of gardens

Bok Tower Gardens has been an iconic Florida attraction since 1929. The “Singing Tower” with its 60-bell carillon, featured on many a vintage postcard, stands atop one of the highest hills on the Florida peninsula (elevation about 295 feet). Edward W. Bok fell in love with the property near his Florida winter retreat and bought it in the 1920s to create a bird sanctuary here. He enlisted the renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. to design and develop the grounds.

You can spot the tower from miles away; finding the entrance to the gardens is a little trickier. The entrance is not on the main highway, where you might expect to find it (your map app may misdirect you). But Bok Tower is worth seeking out; this is one of Florida’s great gardens.

You can spend a lot of time here meandering along the lushly wooded informal gardens, examining the exterior details of the magnificent tower, visiting the estate house, and enjoying the exhibits in the visitor center on the tower, the carillon, and the history of the gardens. And you’ll probably want to relax for a while in one of the lawn chairs near the tower and enjoy its ringing bells and that Florida rarity: an expansive hilltop view.

McKee Gardens

Vero Beach
18 acres

Like Bok Tower Gardens, McKee Gardens also has an Old Florida backstory. It opened in 1932 as the much larger McKee Jungle Gardens. The 80-acre park was created from a subtropical hammock (a Florida forest) and featured tropical flora on grounds laid out by the Olmstead landscape design firm, which had also designed Bok Tower Gardens. A few resident monkeys and an alligator completed the jungle theme. McKee soon became one of Florida’s most popular tourist attractions.

But like many Florida tourist draws popular before Disney World, McKee Jungle Gardens fell into decline and closed in 1976. More than three-fourths of the property was sold off and developed. Decades later, an effort was launched to preserve the remainder of the property, and the reincarnated McKee Gardens reopened in the early 2000s.

If you love botanical gardens, McKee Gardens is one you don’t want to miss. Walkways loop past streams and ponds, through lovely wooded settings, and among thousands of native and tropical plants. The history of the property is recounted in exhibits in the Hall of Giants, itself a historic building from the original park. It still features “the world’s largest single-piece mahogany table”—38 feet long.

An added attraction on our visit were the 21 bronze sculptures of people engaged in everyday activities, created by artist Seward Johnson and placed throughout the park. They were so uncannily lifelike that we sometimes wondered, when we saw someone sitting still on a bench, whether that person was real or a sculpture. We were fortunate to catch the exhibition before it ended. A consolation: An elaborate Children’s Garden opens this summer.

Heathcote Botanical Gardens

Fort Pierce
3.5 acres

Heathcote Gardens is only about 14 miles south of McKee Gardens via US Route 1, so it’s easy to visit both in one trip. Heathcote is much smaller and more intimate than McKee Gardens; it has its own kind of charm. You can easily explore the place in an hour, but the serenity of the gardens on a quiet morning might make you want to linger longer.

The informally laid out grounds consist of a number of small “pocket gardens,” including the Reflection Garden, Japanese Garden, Children’s Garden, Rain Forest, and Palm and Cycad Walk. The most surprising feature is the outstanding collection of bonsai trees, displayed in an outdoor gallery. The garden brochure states that the hundred trees on display comprise the largest tropical bonsai collection in the United States. The only place I have ever seen a more impressive bonsai collection is at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

Nature Coast Botanical Gardens

Spring Hill
3.5 acres

This is another small but charming garden hidden away in a suburban neighborhood about 25 miles or so north of Tarpon Springs on the Gulf Coast. Lovingly maintained by the volunteers of the Spring Hill Garden Club, it is free to the public (donations appreciated). Like Heathcote Gardens, it consists of a collection of small themed gardens, nineteen in all. Some of the more interesting and unusual ones include the Fantasy Garden, Memorial Garden, Florida Native Plant Garden, Poinsettia Garden, Secret Garden, and the Waterfall Garden, which features an outdoor model railroad.

You’ll probably have to rely on a map app to find this garden. But beware! When I first began researching gardens, I thought Nature Coast Botanical Gardens was located a hundred miles farther north—because there is another community named Spring Hill  just northwest of Gainesville and not far from the similarly named Nature Coast State Trail, a well-known bicycle trail!

Other Gardens We’ve Visited

Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo, just north of St. Petersburg, has 30 acres of cultivated gardens along with other natural areas. It is part of a larger park that includes Heritage Village, a 21-acre Pinellas County living history museum. If you are biking along the popular Pinellas Trail, which connects St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs, you will pass right by it, but it’s easy to miss. When we biked this way several years ago, we didn’t see signs directing us to the park. We found it using Google Maps. I don’t have decent photos from that day to prod my memory, but do I recall that both sites were well worth a visit.

Alfred B. Maclay Gardens north of Tallahassee is another garden we visited several years ago but don’t have good photos of. Part of a much larger state park of the same name, it features 28 acres of ornamental gardens begun in 1923 by Alfred and Louise Maclay, who purchased the property for their winter home. The gardens are especially known for their camellias and azaleas. The park contains several miles of walking and biking trails. This was another place where Google Maps directed us to a non-public entrance.

But Wait . . . There’re More!

I found about many of these gardens through the lists on these two blog posts. I look forward to visiting more of them on future trips to Florida.

“The 15 Best Botanical Gardens in Florida”

“Florida Botanical Gardens”

David Romanowski, 2019

Posted in Florida, Walking | Tagged | Leave a comment

Winter Dreams: Coasts and Shores

January, the most useless month. I wish I could sleep through it and wake up when the crocuses are finally nosing up through the grass. Here in Bethesda, the foot of snow that fell just over a week ago is mostly gone. The temperature bottomed out at 10 degrees the other night and is rising back into the 50s tomorrow, bringing with it more rain of course. It’s January all right. The midwinter blahs have set in.

Smithsonian museums and national parks are still closed, thanks to our ungovern-ment, so I haven’t been volunteering. In the meantime, I knead dough into rolls that will warm the kitchen and make the house smell good. I make plans to remodel my workbench and to build an armchair from the pieces of an old wooden couch, once it’s warm enough to haul my circular saw outside. I sort through drawers and folders and reorganize stuff, my go-to activity when I’m bored. I check out book after book from the local public libraries. I plan trips, some of which I’ll never take, but I can dream.

On my computer desktop, a full-screen image I’ve taken of a coast or shore over the last dozen years transports me to somewhere else. I have at least 90 images loaded into a slideshow that washes a new view across the screen every few hours. For the sake of something new to do over the past couple of days, I gathered a few of them here. After all, it’s January, a time for dreaming.

The Mid-Atlantic

The Southeast and Florida

The Pacific

David Romanowski, 2019

Posted in California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Musings and More, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pacific Coast, Vermont, Virginia, Washington | 3 Comments

Brookside Gardens’ Model Train Display Recalls the 1960s

Brookside Gardens near Wheaton, Maryland, is one of our favorite local gardens. During the holiday season, it is renowned for its nightly Garden of Lights display. But day or night, there’s another holiday attraction worth visiting here: the Winter Train Display, located in one of the two adjoining conservatories.

Members of the Washington, Virginia, & Maryland Garden Railway Society install, maintain, and staff the train display. The live plantings that adorn the main layout like a miniature forest are provided and maintained by Brookside Gardens staff.

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The main layout contains a model of the conservatory complex (foreground) in which this train display resides. A tiny version of the train display is inside the conservatory on the left!

The display consists of two separate G-Scale (large-scale) layouts: a large two-train/two-track layout occupying the center of the room, and a linear layout representing the Cabin John Trolley Line, which ran from Georgetown in Northwest Washington to Glen Echo Park, a popular amusement park in suburban Maryland. Both layouts contain scale models of iconic local structures and represent the time period of the 1960s.

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In the foreground is model of the handsome Kensington Train Station, one of several iconic local buildings, past and present, recreated in the train display. The station still serves Kensington, Maryland.

The photos below depict the Cabin John Line display. It includes several structures from the heyday of Glen Echo Park plus some others that could once be seen on a trolley ride along the Potomac River from the city into the countryside.

And don’t overlook the rest of the 50-acre gardens, part of Montgomery County’s Wheaton Regional Park. Brookside Gardens is worth revisiting throughout the year.

David Romanowski, 2018

Posted in Local, Maryland, Musings and More | Tagged | Leave a comment

October at the Shore

Wild ponies have the right of way on Assateague Island.

Taking advantage of a week of favorable weather, Sue and I rendezvoused with New York friends Tad and Lea in mid-October to introduce them to some of our favorite cycling spots along the Delmarva Shore. Over five days, we biked in Ocean City and Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, and Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware.

We started out at Ocean City on a glorious day that reached 78°. The 2¼-mile-long boardwalk and the beach, jammed shoulder to shoulder in season, were almost empty. We stayed at the Dunes Manor Hotel in ocean-front rooms with balconies for an almost sinfully low price. The first and only other time Sue and I stayed here was 31 years ago, when the hotel was brand new. They still gave us a return-guest discount!

Since Sue and I had visited Assateague, Chincoteague, and Cape Henlopen several times before, I took few photos there. The one below is from the spectacular Gordons Pond Trail in Cape Henlopen State Park. The two towers in the distance on the beach are observation towers from World War II.

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As usual, we greatly enjoyed spending time with Tad and Lea and showing them around the Mid-Atlantic shore. A great way to roll into fall.

David Romanowski, 2018

Posted in Bicycling, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia | Tagged | Leave a comment