Canoe Camping in the Paw Paw Bends of the Potomac River

Paw Paw Bends section of the Potomac River with canoes in the foreground

The first time I ever camped, it was in a canoe.

Since, I’ve camped from a car and from a backpack, and thoroughly enjoyed both, but canoe camping might be my favorite.

Traveling by canoe offers advantages. You can pack much heavier than you would backpacking, but unlike with car camping, you can enjoy the feeling of being away from the rest of the world.

Canoeing is fun and good exercise, but much less physically demanding than hiking. It’s even more fun if you love fishing, birdwatching, or swimming.

This particular trip was in the Paw Paw Bends of the Potomac River. 

The Paw Paw Bends

The Potomac River flows through Washington, D.C., though the Paw Paw Bends are about 150 miles upriver from our nation’s capital. This windy stretch of water meanders back and forth in lazy loops, forming a strange shape in the Maryland/West Virginia border.

Potomac River Canoeing Map:

The Paw Paw Bends are locally known for the Paw Paw Tunnel, which you can learn more about here. We didn’t have time to visit this time, but I gotta get there one day!

The Trip

We complete our trip over the course of 3 days & 2 nights on the river, though we stay overnight at Happy Hills Campground the day before our journey begins.

Day 1

How Canoe Camping Works

Our journey begins at 8:30 am on Friday. Mike Sweeny of Tom’s Run Outfitters meets us at our pickup location in Hancock Maryland. That’s where we’ll end up on the last day of our trip. 

Mike meets us at a boat ramp in his truck pulling a trailer full of canoes. He then shuttles us upriver, where we canoe back to where we started from. For 3 days, we’ll paddle with the current.

Our canoe team opted for a 3 day journey, but most canoe outfitters also offer 2 and single-day trips.

Bracing for the Rain

Mike and his wife, Becky, are retired school teachers. I find out when Mike describes the Potomac’s smallmouth bass as pugnacious, which is a good word. Our SAT word for the day, Mike tells us.

We’re prepared for rain, which began at 3 am, to continue through mid-morning. However, Mike informs us that the rain is supposed to last until 4. We check the weather one more time, and realize that the forecast has changed since we last checked it–as forecasts are wont to do–and we settle in for a damp, cold day.

We’re wet, miserable, and cold, until two things happen. We realize the water is about 85 degrees, so we jump in. We also break into our supply of beer & orange flavored Burnet’s vodka. It helps, but it was supposed to last for the whole trip!

Nighttime 

At approximately 5:30 PM, we arrive at our first campsite,  Bond’s Landing. Before bed, we cook noodles and spaghetti sauce on the camping stove. Robyn and I are desperate for s’mores. Bart and I have an argument which, in retrospect, is very embarrassing, about whether it’s possible to light a fire with wood that’s been soaked through with an entire day of rain.

The day is far from perfect, but we make the best of it. Robyn said she likes camping specifically for these small struggles. They can help to put things into perspective when we go back to our indoor lives. And despite how tough things get, we are able to overcome them.  

The sentiment doesn’t lessen the hollow sting of unactualized s’more desires, but it’s good food for thought.

Day 2

We begin the next day in much better spirits. After a good night’s sleep followed by a breakfast of fresh black coffee, s’more flavored pop-tarts (not as good as regular s’mores, but I take what I can get), and oatmeal, we hit the river.

On this day, our competition heats up. It’s a fishing tournament. We all agree to contribute $20. The one who catches the biggest fish wins the pot, minus $20, because second place, most fish, wins back their money.

This is Bart and my third year doing this trip, and each time we are unable to locate the campsite Mike recommends for our second night, called Cacapon Junction. So instead, we spend the night on top of a bank beside the river that Bart found the previous year.

On this night, we are able to light a fire, on which we cook hamburgers in pie irons. And afterward, blessed s’mores!!

When we first gather round, I intend to stay up all night roasting s’mores and telling scary stories, but after I realize how tired everyone, including myself, is, we turn in early after Robyn, Bart, and I roast 1 s’more each.

Day 3

This is a sad day for Bart, as he comes very close to catching a muskie, an ambition he’s held for much of his life.

As we a traveling a stretch of the river where muskies are rumored to have been spotted, a giant fin flashes in the water. From the canoe behind us, Aaron shouts about a monster fish.

The muskie bites, and we start to paddle the canoe quickly toward the shore so Bart can jump out of the boat and stand in shallow waters to angle the fish. But as Bart reels him (or her) into the boat, the canoe and the fish move quickly in opposite directions, and the line snaps.

Though it’s hardly any consolation, Bart had in fact, caught the record fish earlier that morning: a 15-inch catfish. 

Better luck next year!

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