Saturday, February 25, 2017

MD/DE - C&D Canal Path End-to-End Hike

Maryland's section of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Path

The full length and fully paved Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Recreational Path is now officially open. It starts in Chesapeake City, Maryland, and ends in Delaware City, Delaware, and is mostly very flat, making this a great place to ride bikes or stroll. I walked the full length of 16 miles (some say 17, others say 14, but my GPS said 16) on President's Day in sixty degree weather. We haven't had winter yet. Though wide and deep nowadays to accommodate modern barges and sea-going vessels, it got its start during the golden age of canal building in the 1820s. 

Rt 213 bridge over Chesapeake City.

The canal was put into private service in 1829 to shorten the distance between maritime industries in the Chesapeake Bay with Wilmington and its busy industrial seaport areas.  Built originally for shallow draft barges and sailing ships at ten feet deep with four locks, horses and mules were employed to tow the vessels from one end to other. By 1927 the canal was deepened to 12 feet , widened to 90 feet, and ownership transferred to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Several expansions have occurred since, and today the canal is 27 feet deep and over 450 feet wide to accommodate sea-going vessels to shorten by 300 miles the distance from Baltimore to the Atlantic via the Delaware River. 

Tug pushing a barge.

The expansions of the 1930s triggered studies by U.S. Army Corps of Engineer hydrologists who were interested in how water dynamics had been affected between the Delaware and Chesapeake. They discovered that there was a net flow of water from the Chesapeake to the Delaware, and that even with the daily oscillation of tides, there was always more water flowing east than west. My walk took about five hours (including a snack break) and I watched the canal flowing reliably eastward even with an incoming high tide that raised the level of the canal but did not affect its flow. When I returned home, I checked my observations against a 1971 paper by Pritchard and Cronin, University of Maryland Chesapeake Biological Lab, that used the original 1938 report to compare how hydrology had been affected by the most recent expansions.

The iconic Army Corps of Engineers trestle lift bridge.

Cronin, the hydrologist, measured an increased volume rate of flow from the Chesapeake to the Delaware at 2.70 times the rate measured by the 1938 study. In addition he noted increased velocities of water moving east. Averaging against the annual tidal variations and seasonal adjustments, he estimated that the current had increased 1.7 times faster with the canal at twenty-seven feet deep compared to twelve feet in 1938. Pritchard, the biologist, wondered how these changes affected the estuarine ecologies of the Delaware and Chesapeake. He measured salinity gradients, turbulence, and conducted biological surveys of the canal at both ends and in its mid-section. Would the canal serve as a barrier or a boon to fish species and populations? 

Ocean-going ship passes under the Rt 301 bridge.

They discovered large numbers of striped bass eggs and larvae in the canal as well as an increased number of spring spawning fish including perch, shad, and spot that swam "upstream" against the new currents from the Delaware. The canal had become an attraction to migratory fish, benefiting the Upper Chesapeake.  Pritchard and Cronin noted that the canal had become a rather dramatic example of an engineering activity which has created a new biological environment as well as an improved shipping route."  In the years since this paper, a thriving striped bass fishery has developed as a result. The canal expansion, which had initially worried local environmentalists, had resulted in an increase in fish species and numbers at both ends of the canal, while providing a new migratory route connecting the two bodies of water.

The Ridge, a natural hill structure about two miles in width is bisected by the canal.

The C&D is a dynamic system both for estuarine life and for management. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must constantly assess the canal for shoaling, the accumulation of bottom mud and sand that form ship-stopping banks. This requires periodic maintenance dredging which happens every few years, and the spoils can be a lot of fun to pick through for fossils. Though the canal path does not cross through any of the dredge dump areas, it is an easy side trip by car to reach them. Keep in mind that between dredging, these piles are picked over by fellow fossil enthusiasts but word of fresh material travels quickly. We've found come impressive Cretaceous oyster shells, belemnites, and small shark teeth. During the time these deposits were forming hadrosaurs and mosasaurs were common.

Map courtesy of The Fossil Guy,
Though the canal path for most of its length is flat, there is one two-mile stretch of hilly terrain that bears some mention - and some time to explore. "The Ridge" as a local hiker pointed out to me, is a low set of hills made of unconsolidated Cretaceous sands and gravels where vegetation is critical to the maintenance of the canal. These hills, once high sand dunes and wind-driven features, still retain their open coastal profiles for anyone wanting to imagine the period of opening oceans and rising sea levels. Covered in a beautiful forest of pitch pine and coastal plain hardwoods, the ridge area proved the biggest challenge to canal builders as time when forest cover was scant and tons of loose material would cascade in dangerous "sand-falls" into the work area. Known as the Deep Cut where canal builders encountered The Ridge, three and half million cubic yards of material was removed from the sand hills. As they worked to remove the sand from what would be the canal basin, tons of the material slid in from the sides. It was dangerous and frustrating work.

Aerial crossing for natural gas pipelines.

Today the area around Lums Pond State Park is preserved and open for the public to explore as well as areas west of Rt 1 bridge. Various dirt roads lead from the main roads in to the sand hills with parking areas, sometimes trashed, that lead to trails and open areas to go birding and plant gazing. It's a tough area to make home as the ground is loose and shifting. "Be prepared for lots of mud and the possibility of getting your car stuck," said my hiking friend, Sarah. Best to check this out during a dry period, eh? Meanwhile along the path, a steady bank of locust trees provided a large local black vulture population with plenty of places to soak up the warm afternoon sun. I happen to love vultures (sometimes to the point of distraction) so as I stood admiring them, my hiking friend decided to turn around and head back to Chesapeake City. Soon I was at the boundary with Lums Pond that has a beautiful new parking area, picnic benches, and a (locked!) bathroom.

Lots of black vultures in trees along the path.
Bridge gazing! Wow! Rt. 1 and St. Georges Bridges.

I was bridge-gazing all along the path. These big bridges soar high over the canal to give room to the huge ocean-going ships. They really are works of art in engineering and design, each one a little different with its own unique profile and character. High level traffic bridges have their own followers and I met two men on bikes who were photographing the bridges as they went. I learned way more than I ever though possible about high level engineering. Some people chase trains. These guys find high bridges and are really excited with them. They were really about adding the Summit Bridge, the U.S.A.C.E. trestle bridge, and Reedy Point Bridge to their photo-list. "Being able to bike under them is a thrill!" one biker told me. My only stop of the hike came at the Summit North Marina where I watched the University of Delaware Research Vessel, Joanne Daiber, undergo an inspection before returning her t the water for the new season.

University of Delaware R/V Joanne Daiber.
Marina store and picnic area rest stop.

I stopped in at the just-opened marina store for a snack and drink. The counter clerk was busy restocking a shelf of gum and candy bars. I asked her about the new canal path and what it might mean for business. She grinned ear-to-ear. "It's been great already - even before they completed the whole tract - but now it will be even better." She told me about how many bike riders make this their halfway stop on the end-to-end ride. I told her I was walking end-to-end and she looked at me incredulously. "You are walking it? The whole thing? Wow. I guess we need to think about hikers too!"  This is an important point - the economic benefit of paths and trails is often overlooked when our "so-called" political and policy leadership debates the merit of funding and protecting outdoor recreation sites, conservation lands, and open space. A six-billion dollar recreational/outdoor industry that continues to grow in this country is not to be ignored. The canal path alone, according to the store clerk, a University of Delaware graduate student, will generate interests in new businesses in canal path towns. Given its proximity to large areas of the Mid-Atlantic's population, she said, it's really an opportunity for new lodging, eateries, bike rentals, and parks. 

Welcome to Delaware City!

Another hour and I was entering Delaware City where my daughter and her family were meeting me for dinner and a ride back to Chesapeake City where I left my car.  The newly restored promenade path blended perfectly with the canal path and I walked along a remnant of the old canal that splits from the main C&D. The old town was beautiful in the low February sun and soon I was facing the broad Delaware River facing New Jersey with Pea Patch Island and its impressive fort in between. 

Delaware City - a beautiful and active old canal town.
The town has invested seriously in its waterfront park and main street. The American Birding Association has moved its national headquarters here. Fort Delaware State Park maintains a scenic ferry tour to the island in season at the end of the old canal and the south side of the old canal is left to bird-filled marshes. My family arrived and we decided to have dinner at the Delaware City Hotel where we sat in an 1820s hotel pub for seafood and hush puppies. Perfect ending to a long day on the canal path.

The canal path goes by several names along its length: The Ben Cardin Trail in Chesapeake City, Maryland, C&D Recreational Trail between the terminus towns, and the Michael Castle Trail in Delaware City. Large parts of the canal area are protected as the C&D Canal Wildlife Area, under the management of the Delaware Department of Fish and Wildlife.

 Donald Pritchard and L. Eugene Cronin presented their paper "Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Affects Environment," at the American Society of Civil Engineers Conference for National Water Resources in 1971.

The Fossil Guy web page gives the local fossil hunter plenty leads for where and how to search for C&D Canal dredge spoil fossils.

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