Monocacy River

River of the month #84

author: Pat Reilly
date: December 2005

Let’s begin with the conclusion this time instead of working our way to it - Maryland’s Monocacy is all together a very nice flat water river. When compared to rivers in our area, it looks pretty darn good. So why don’t Maryland residents give it any respect? Members of the Monocacy Canoe Club have referred to it as the Monotony River. And Ed Gertler rates it rather average in his Maryland/Delaware guidebook. But having cut my teeth on Harrisburg’s local streams, I give the Monocacy an enthusiastic, above average rating. The reason? Our old friend, streamside development, or in this case, lack of it. Over its entire 57-mile course there are very few riverside dwellings or buildings of any type. Even when the river rolls past bustling Fredrick, the city is hardly noticeable from your boat.

The principle reason for this, according to my theory, is geography. In Harrisburg, we are somewhere between the Piedmont and ridge and valley regions. It is pretty hilly around here and as soon as you go north or west, hilly turns to mountainous. In this type of topography, it makes sense to build roads along river corridors. Take the path through the hills and mountains that nature already cut. But down in Maryland, just east of the last mountain range - the Catoctins, the Piedmont is getting pretty darn flat. Picture route 15 south of Gettysburg rolling through Maryland toward Frederick and DC. Down here road builders don’t need the rivers. So with few riverside roads, there’s little riverside development.

Land use laws may play a part too. I recall seeing brand new townhouses and apartments springing up in the Frederick suburbs. But they seemed purposely built a few hundred yards from the river. And streamside summer homes, cottages, trailers, shacks, etc. are less prevalent that on the average Pennsylvania river.

From the confluence of Marsh and Rock Creeks just south Gettysburg right on the Maryland border, the Monocacy flows quiet and flat through a landscape that is equally quiet but not all that flat, not along the river anyway. Wooded slopes border the stream alternating from one side to the other, many times with exposed cliffs of red or white rock.

Bridges are plentiful, every 2 or 3 miles, and when driving to and from and over the river, one notices that the area is generously populated with farms and small towns. There are few woodlots to be seen and topo maps indicate only a narrow buffer of trees along the river. That’s why the river corridor was such a pleasant surprise. Most of the time you’re paddling through the woods with no development to be seen, at least in the upper half of the river.

The upper-most put-in at Harney Road is all posted, you may be better off at the next bridge downstream below a broken old dam. At first you can’t even detect the presence of farmlands. But as you approach Frederick the scenery gradually opens up as the waters swell from tributaries. Now farms, always present, become more noticeable.

By the time you hit the suburbs of Frederick open land is almost always visible on one side of the river, usually river right where a small airport introduces you to the fact that you’ve reached the city. But the river only gently brushes Frederick while woods and parks (including the Monocacy National Battlefield) keep the cruising pleasant.

Past the city there is a touch of industry on river right while a low ridge takes form on river left. You may notice that you’re now paddling in an impoundment. It’s not all that easy to tell in this river as the Monocacy has so very few riffles. But that is about to change as the river turns left and cuts through the ridge. There is an old dam in the ridge gap by a strikingly large old mill - Michaels Mill. The dam is broken out on river right forming a strong wavy rapid. I was quite disappointed that I didn’t have a spray skirt when I ran through here (never thought I’d need one on the flat Monocacy) and had to carry instead of blasting through the wave train.

Once past the gap and dam you may catch sight of Sugarloaf Mountain jutting up from the surrounding piedmont. Geologically known as a monadnock (a mountain exposed after its surrounding have eroded away), Sugarloaf is not a ridge like mountains around Harrisburg. It stands volcano-like, a loan sentinel of a peak, the closest mountain over 1000 feet high to Washington, DC. Very unusual, and very popular with hikers and picnicers, the mountain has great views and is worth a visit. I was able to take time out during my bicycle shuttle for a quick dash to the top. It was crowded up there (you can drive up) even in February!

With Sugarloaf and its foothills on river left and open farmland on river right, the remaining miles seem more like Pennsylvania paddling. The now big Monocacy, no longer hiding in its little tree-lined corridor, feels like a real river. Soon it ends in an even bigger river, the Potomac, after flowing under one of the C and O Canal’s nicely restored aqueducts. Convenient public access can be found just above the aqueduct.

With all the farms surrounding the river, you’d expect water quality to suffer. I can’t speak for the Monocacy in the hot dry summer when a river really feels the burden of agriculture nutrient waste. But when paddling the lower section on a warm late February day, I noticed countless stoneflies hatching from the river and crawling all over my boat, my arms, my face, …everything. These harmless little insects are even less tolerant of polluted water than the better known mayfly. Usually appearing in the late winter/early spring, they’re always a welcome sight when paddling. And on that Monocacy trip, the stoneflies were even thicker than one usually encounters on our trusted Susquehanna.

With such lonely riverbanks, the Monocacy has good camping opportunity. Or if riverbanks aren’t to your liking, try one of the numerous islands, this river has more than its share of islands in the upper half.

That’s the way I explored the Monocacy, in 2 overnight trips, making camp at remote riverside spots. I remember how beautifully quiet the site was for the lower half of the river. The only manmade noises were the occasional car crossing a distant bridge and a few airplanes. No unnatural light either! Just a ¾ moon casting enough soft light through the trees to collect firewood and take a late walk. Too bad that moon was long set when I paddled out of camp at the pre-dawn hour of 4:00 am. I couldn’t see a thing looking at the water, but used the sky to keep to the center of the river. My headlight allowed for only 20 feet of vision and cut off the navigational ability to see the sky. So I kept it off and half paddled, half drifted into the blackness using my ears and trusting the gentle ole’ Monocacy not to throw anything threatening my way. It didn’t.

The Monocacy is pretty darn small at Harney Road; after all it’s just the confluence of 2 little creeks. But it collects tributaries rather quickly as it goes and steadily increases volume. 2.9 feet on the Bridgeport USGS gauge ought to get you down from Harney Road. Numerous bridges, most with un-posted access, offer opportunity for trips further down where there is more water. I don’t have much experience on the Monocacy in summer, but around and below Frederick I assume the river has a long season, probably all summer in a wet year.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2005 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.