Take a historic paddle along the Monocacy River trail

New designation adds maps, markers and more

September 04, 2014|By Karen Nitkin, For The Baltimore Sun

"Monocacy" is an Americanized version of the Shawnee word "Monnockkesy," which means "river of many bends," and the Monocacy River lives up to its name.

Though my kayak glides calmly under my kayak through the opaque green water, I struggle to keep up with my guide, Andy Lett, recreation supervisor for the Frederick County Department of Parks and Recreation. Whenever I get the hang of things, dipping one oar and then another to propel myself in a relatively straight line, another curve arrives to confuse me, and I have to stop to change direction so I don't paddle right into the riverbank.

It's a clear summer morning. Even though we're floating under the I-70 overpass and we sometimes hear airplanes from the nearby Frederick Municipal Airport, I often feel like we're alone in the world.

We move through sun and shadow, serenaded by the buzz of summer insects and the slap of paddles in water. A teal dragonfly hovers, then rests for a few seconds on the bow of my boat. An egret stands motionless to my left. Hawks circle overhead. In one spot, fat brown and white cows graze in a meadow by the river.

In about three hours, we cover 7 miles of the river along a stretch that on June 25 officially became the Monocacy Scenic River Water Trail. On the same day, the Monocacy National Battlefield became part of a new historic trail in Maryland — The 1864 Attack on Washington: The Last Invasion Civil War Trail.

The state designations add maps, historic markers and marketing opportunities to the river and the battlefield.

River paddlers along the 41.8-mile segment of the river, from Route 77 in Frederick down to the C&O Canal in Potomac, can now refer to a water-resistant, tear-resistant map that divides the water trail into three sections, each suitable for a day trip. The colorful fold-up guide also details where visitors can put their own or rented boats in the water and shows rowers what they will pass as they glide downstream, highlighting the few places where rocks or rough patches present minor challenges.

Battlefield visitors, meanwhile, now have a guide to the 1864 campaign as it moved from Martinsburg, W.Va., toward Washington.

In Frederick County and elsewhere, there's a push to combine outdoor recreation with historic learning experiences. The Monocacy Battlefield has several new walking trails that provide opportunities to enjoy time outdoors while learning about the battle of July 9, 1864.

On the suggestion of Charissa Hipp, media relations manager for the Tourism Council of Frederick County, I combined a half-day on the river with a few hours at the national battlefield. Getting close to the landscape, on foot or in a boat, can help people understand Frederick's past, she says.

"There's so much history in this area," says Hipp, adding, "Geography dictates history." The new designations, she says, "are a great way to attract people who are into recreation and give them a little history while they're here."

The Monocacy River has long been a popular no-cost destination for rowers of kayaks and canoes.

"It's a great, inexpensive way to just enjoy nature," says Jeremy Kortright, recreation superintendent for Frederick County Parks and Recreation, which leads kayak and canoe tours on the river.

The river is easiest to navigate in spring through midsummer, and late fall through winter, unless there are droughts or floods, says Kortright, who advises potential rowers to check the county website before heading out. Life jackets are required year-round.

During my row, the only challenges — aside from the curves — were a few rocks poking though the water's surface. Our journey started at Riverside Park, passed the county-owned Pinecliff Park (which has playgrounds, ball fields, picnic tables and bathrooms), and ended at the battlefield.

We pulled the kayaks out at the battlefield, which has no entrance fee, and explored the visitor center, which tells the story of the Battle of Monocacy through maps, photographs and recorded voices. There are also Civil War uniforms and backpacks for children to try on, and a Morse code transmitter to click.

Evans explains that the battle was important because Union forces were able to hold a much larger Confederate presence at bay, delaying their march to Washington and giving the Union army an extra day to amass defenses in the nation's capital.

While most visitors still explore the battlefield from behind a steering wheel, the 1,650-acre site has added several walking trails in recent years. The half-mile Gambrill Mill Loop is wheelchair accessible and has interpretive signs. Other trails include the 1.9-mile Brooks Hill Loop and the 1.6-mile Ford Loop, which takes walkers along the river.

"We're really finding that recreation and history are tied together a lot," says Hipp.

Finishing a stroll along the Fords Loop Trail, Silver Spring residents John Parrish and his wife, RG Steinma, said they come to the Monocacy Battlefield a couple of times a year.

"The natural history is just as important as the cultural history," says Parrish. "We live in the suburbs, so open space is important to us. We sat beside the river, and we saw an osprey."

Maybe next time, they'll add a kayak trip to their adventure, he says.

If you go

The Monocacy Scenic River Water Trail map, created by the Frederick Department of Parks and Recreation and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which designates Scenic Water Trails throughout the state, is available for free in many Frederick locations, and can be downloaded at http://www.frederickcountymd.gov/index.aspx?nid=5772. To request a copy by mail, call 301-600-2936.

A map and guide to the 1864 Attack on Washington Civil War Trail and mobile touring apps are available at visitmaryland.org.

Maps and information about the Monocacy National Battlefield can be found at nps.gov/mono.

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