Antietam Creek

River of the month #37

author: Pat Reilly
date: May 2001

Just what is it that makes the Yellow Breeches such an exceptional canoeing stream? If you had to sum it up in one word, ‘limestone’ would be a good choice. Limestone springs supply the creek with sufficient flows year around and keep it ice free in winter. Dissolved limestone negates the effects of acid rain and keeps the water healthy. Limestone cliffs and outcroppings add to the beauty of the stream corridor. Finally, quarrying and building with local limestone developed the adjoining land years ago in a tasteful manner.

Down below the Mason/Dixon line in Washington County near Hagerstown you’ll find Maryland’s version of the Yellow Breeches in the form of Antietam Creek. The parallels between these two canoeing streams begin with limestone. When boating Antietam a paddler will encounter numerous limestone bridges and other structures, as well as lots of the rock in its natural state. Development near the creek is usually old and often pleasing rather than distracting to the eye. And dissolved limestone gives Antietam's waters the same distinctive color as the Breeches.

But, of course, there are differences too. Except for an unattractive stretch near Hagerstown, Antietam is more rural, often flowing through big empty farms or in lonely ravines. While the lower half of the Breeches is always up if you can put up with a little scraping, Antietam needs rains to supplement its springs. Luckily the lower third of the creek is runable most of the year. Perhaps the best difference is that instead of the numerous dams found along the Yellow Breeches, Antietam is blessed with widely spaced riffles and rapids. Yes, real rapids! Now flatwater paddlers hold on, don’t go turning the page. These are easy rapids, usually dam ruins or limestone ledges. Most are not terribly technical and usually have a clean line with no big waves.

Antietam starts out at the confluence of the East and West Branches just above the Maryland line a few miles south of Waynesboro. Here at its beginnings it looks rather ordinary, a better than average canoeing creek but hardly spectacular. You’ll see plenty of farmland and limestone formations (both natural and manmade) and encounter lots of simple riffles (no rapids yet) on the way to Hagerstown. Things deteriorate approaching Hagerstown as the water pools up behind 2 dams in the last 3 of this 13-mile section. The first you can bang over in a plastic boat. The good scenery ends at the second dam in Security, Maryland, just outside of Hagerstown, with a noisy quarry/concrete plant on river right.

From the dam in Security, after a few nice heavy riffles the creek quickly reverts to flat water behind another dam. Bridges and assorted development accompany the slack water for the next 2 miles. Another dam carry by an ugly old powerhouse and once again the creek gets lost in a pool after a fast stretch. This seemingly impounded water finally ends after 3 miles at the Old Forge Road bridge in Funkstown. I was quite surprised that there was no dam here, but a long bouncy rapid instead. The pool above had all the earmarks of an impoundment. Strange! But then it happened again, and again! After the Old Forge Road bridge and rapid, there are 2 more stretches of moving flat water that also end in rapids at old humpbacked limestone bridges. Now I’ve been told that these drops are actually old dam ruins, but you can’t tell by paddling through them. There is no visible structure left to give them away. And the rapids are rather long and spread out. Whatever they are, they present a fun challenge to complement a scenic trip. But if there are strainers caught on the bridge piers, these simple drops could become rapids of consequence, check ‘em out first.

Even after the third bridge-rapid the pool/drop character of Antietam continues for a while. But now the rapids are clearly natural ledges, and sometimes rather big. When I ran this section one ledge had a 55-gallon drum perched on the top. After running a chute to the right I turned to notice that the ledge was the same height as the drum, a 3-footer! No doubt some of these ledges would have nasty hydraulics at high levels. But none were river wide and a paddler should have no problem finding a wavy chute to get safely through at any level.

Antietam weaves slowly back and forth through this 10-mile section with the bigger ledges at the apexes of the western 180-degree bends. The scenery goes from good to better as now only woods and rock outcroppings are usually visible from the creek. After Roxbury Road bridge above ‘Devil’s Backbone’ County Park, the big drops mellow and the riffles become more consistent, as the creek transforms into a more conventional waterway. As you come to the end of the short pool behind the 6-foot dam at Devil’s Backbone, you’ll probably encounter trout fishermen. Give ‘em lots of room.

Below Devil's Backbone, the last 12 miles is Antietam’s most commonly run section and the easiest to find up. It is popular enough to support at least one canoe livery. Below the dam under the route 68 bridge, there’s yet another big ledge, actually a double ledge. And a mile below that is yet another broken dam rapid that can generate some bigger waves. After that, Antietam settles into a solid canoeing stream with many straightforward riffles and good scenery for the final 11 miles.

Nearing the end, around Sharpsburg, the creek goes through Antietam National Battlefield, site of the bloodiest day of battle in American military history, with 9 times the US casualties as D-Day. Here the scenery takes on a more groomed look, with mowed fields, trimmed fence rows, and paved footpaths. Burnside Bridge, another of Antietam’s fine old limestone bridges, crosses the creek at the park. Closed to vehicular traffic, this beautifully restored bridge is the park’s most notable landmark. In September of 1862, 500 Rebel soldiers, hiding on the hill on river right, prevented 11,000 Union troops from crossing the bridge for 3 hours. The Union infantry, led by General Burnside, were mowed down as they funneled onto the bridge’s narrow 12-foot width. Makes one wonder why they didn’t take to the creek.

Perhaps the soldiers were intimidated by Molly’s Hole. This tiny low head dam below the bridge actually forms a surfable wave! Although it’s hardly intimidating. However, further downstream one may be a bit intimidated by ‘Furnace’, the last and probably the heaviest rapid on Antietam. This long and lively drop carries you down to the C and O Canal National Park, where you can take out at Harpers Ferry Road bridge or continue to the Potomac and paddle upstream to another take-out.

Levels? Antietam Creek has a USGS gauge at Sharpsburg (in the Historical Park), but there seems to be a bit of disagreement about minimal levels between a local outfitter and Gertler's guidebook. So I might as well throw in my two cents, which end up somewhere between the other 2 opinions. For the confluence to Hagerstown run - 3.4, from Hagerstown to Devil's Backbone - 3.1, Devil's Backbone to the mouth - 2.8. Keep in mind that these are plastic boat levels, that is to say, you'll probably do some scraping.

Now for some late-breaking news from friends at the Monocacy Canoe Club. It seems as though the bottom section that is most popular is suffering some of the usual high-use boating problems. Some land owners are said to be up in arms, so use care if stopping and be respectful. The take out at Harpers Ferry Road bridge may not be available for use, necessitating paddling up the Potomac to another National Park Service take-out. Also, although I've not talked to him, I've been told the owner of the livery at Devil's Backbone willingly dispenses information to private boaters. You can link up to his web site though the Monocacy Canoe Club, which in turn can be linked to from our site. Happy paddling in the Old Line State.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2001 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.