PawPaw Bends of the Potomac

River of the month #26

author: Pat Reilly
date: June 2000

Many of our club’s members have experienced and enjoyed the canyon of the West Branch of the Susquehanna on an overnight river trip. But I wonder how many have wandered into western Maryland for a camping trip down the Potomac. The rest of this column could be summed up with one statement – If you like the West Branch Susquehanna, you gotta like the PawPaw Bends of the Potomac. This is one fine river trip.

I can’t seem to figure out why the western Potomac never developed the reputation of the West Branch Susquehanna as a canoe camping river. Or maybe it has, just not up here in Pa. I did the trip in November and had the river all to myself. But I hear it can get quite popular in the summer with lots of folks coming in from the Baltimore/Washington area. Here in central Pennsylvania when boaters talk of a weekend camping get-away, it’s usually on the West Branch, Pine Creek (if in spring) or maybe the Delaware. I haven’t talked to many that have chosen to go down to the Potomac.

So let’s compare. We’ll take the best overnight section of each river and look at them side by side to see how they stack up. ‘Foul’, you say, the best river trip is in the eye of the paddler and can’t be summed up by tangibles. While that may be true, this is a good way to get the facts out, and besides, you’ll make the final decision. So here goes, we’re comparing the following two segments:

Potomac River from PawPaw, West Virginia to Little Orleans, Maryland - 21.7 miles

West Branch Susquehanna River from Karthaus, Pa. to Keating, Pa. – 21.9 miles

  • Distance from Harrisburg: We’ve got a dead heat here. At the speeds I drive both rivers are 2.5 to 3 hours away.

  • And the nod goes to…. tie

  • Aesthetics: Let’s get this category out of the way since it’s the most subjective. The West Branch has the canyon, deep, remote and blanketed in lovely old second-growth forest. The Potomac has a shallower canyon. But for the first 5 miles it’s quite spectacular - very steep and rugged. With lots of rock formations and a railroad borrowing directly into the canyon walls it reminds one of a Rocky Mountain setting. As I’m a sucker for this type of exposed-rock scenery, I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the water as the river snaked through 5 quick 180-degree bends. The Potomac emerges from the initial rocky canyon and continues on around 4 more 180s. The turns are now much gentler – big wide sweeping bends connected by multiple-mile straight-aways. The apexes of these larger bends abut big mountains (Town Hill and Sidling Hill) but in between the landscape reverts to low rolling hills. It’s nearly all forested, with river left being the preserved Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Park backed up by Maryland state forest.

  • And the nod goes to…. We’ll say even again. Personally, I liked the Potomac for the initial rocky S-turns, but if you’re a fan of big deep canyons, you can give it to the West Branch.

  • Remoteness: One of the biggest reasons for the popularity of the West Branch is the feeling of wilderness. At first glance the Potomac is just as remote. The state forest and the national park on river left allow for no development. The West Virginia side on river right is mostly private land, sparsely populated with lonely farms or woodlands. But there are some cottages. And one must consider that the C and O Canal National Park brings many users close to the water even if they aren’t in motor vehicles. Both rivers have paralleling railroads, but no auto roads.

  • And the nod… Slight edge to the Susquehanna because of the popularity of the Potomac’s C and O Canal towpath trail.

  • Water: There’s not much to say about water features. Just quick flowing flat water with a few riffles. The West Branch has some heavier riffles (rapids maybe?) but they’re a few miles above Karthaus. The Potomac has a few low ledges through the initial rocky canyon but quickly reverts to all flat water. As far as water quality, both rivers are far from pristine. The West Branch still suffers from the effects of acid mine drainage. Iron oxide stains the riverbed orange and the water has that metallic flavor if splashed into the mouth. The Potomac also has a legacy of pollution. A huge paper mill upriver at Luke stains and stinks up the waters of the North Branch to blend with its mine drainage. Fortunately, the South Branch dilutes the pollution to where the waters once again support abundant aquatic life downstream from the confluence.

And the nod… tie again

  • Runable season: The West Branch is always a ‘go’ in the spring, but is ‘iffy’ through the summer. Ed Getler says the Potomac is always runable except during prolonged drought. When I visited the area (fall of ’99), an outfitter told me it hadn’t run all summer from Memorial Day until the storms at summer’s end. But he also said that the ’99 drought was the worst on record.

  • The nod: While I’m not a regular visitor to western Maryland, the data clearly shows the Potomac to have a longer season.

  • Camping: The West Branch is known for many fine ‘pick-your-own’ camping spots. You may end up on private or State Game Lands but no one ever seems to mind. On the Potomac, paddlers can use the C and O Canal Park hiker/biker sites. There are 3 in the described trip plus a big one accessible by car at the take out. These sites offer pump water, picnic tables and port-a-johns, a big plus for many campers. Camping outside of these areas is prohibited in the park but there are some islands (always a safe bet) and I’m sure one would have no problem finding suitable spots on the West Virginia side.

  • The nod: Ya gotta go with the Potomac. Even if you aren’t a fan of designated sites, they mean less impact on a heavily used environment.

  • Fishing: This will not be a consideration for all boaters, but many of us like to do some fishing on weekend trips. However, there are almost no fish in the West Branch’s acidic waters. On the other hand, the Potomac has bass (largemouth as well as smallmouth) and walleye, along with the usual suspects: catfish, carp and panfish.

  • Nod: It’s no contest, the Potomac

  • Shuttle: Ugh, I don’t even like to think about the West Branch shuttle, it’s either ugly dirt roads or a long round-about route. The Potomac shuttle is mostly on a dirt state forest road, but it’s wide, in good condition and unlike the twisty river, it runs straight, so it’s only about half the distance of the paddle! Both areas have outfitters providing shuttle services. But wait! if you shuttle on the roads you’re missing half the fun of a PawPaw Bends trip. Bring the bicycle and enjoy the towpath along the C and O Canal. It’s easy riding, nice and peaceful, and you get to ride through the famous PawPaw tunnel. One of the most popular sites in the entire 185 miles of the C and O Canal National Park, the tunnel has a fascinating history. It’s over a half mile long, brick-lined and pitch dark in the middle. It carried boats under the mountain near PawPaw and bypassed the rocky ‘S’ bends of the canyon. As a result it will shorten your shuttle ride to an easy 17 flat miles!

  • Nod: The Potomac, hands down

  • Extendibility: One night not enough? Both rivers have a lot to offer for longer trips. The West Branch is scenic and remote for over 100 miles from Clearfield to Lock Haven. One would have two options extending a Potomac trip upriver - the North Branch from Cumberland or even down from Keyser, or paddle through the scenic ‘Mountain State’ of West Virginia on the South Branch. Downstream the Potomac remains mountainous and remote to Hancock. From Hancock on, it’s still a great camping river, for my money, all the way to Washington, D C.

  • Nod: Another tie

  • Weather: The weather is no doubt similar on both rivers except for one item – temperature. The Potomac is in the mountains and can get quite cold if not summer. But compared to the northern Pa. woods up on the Allegheny Plateau…. brrr, there really is no comparison. I’m sure the average mean temp is at least a few degrees warmer on the Potomac, again giving it a longer season.

  • Nod: Potomac

Overall: Hey, you make the call. But, I’ll say this. If you’re a fan of the West Branch and if you’ve ever entertained thoughts about a change of venues, you won’t go wrong paddling the PawPaw Bends of the Potomac. And don’t forget the bicycle.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2000 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.