Shhhhh! (In a whisper or low voice) Close your eyes. Take a listen. (5 second pause) What to you hear? Birds? Water flowing? Squirrels and Chipmunks digging in the leaves? Mosquito buzzing in your ear? You are hearing all the things that were heard by the first peoples to this area before a canal was even thought of being built.
Now that the C&O Canal has become a park and most areas are no longer used for moving goods and traveling on boats, we hear those sounds again.
As you walk or bike down the towpath you might notice a few different places animals might call home. We call an animal home a habitat. The side of the path close to the river is called a floodplain because it is an area that is often underwater when the river rises from heavy rains or when the snow melts. The plants that live here are often used to getting their feet, or roots wet like Sycamores and Red Maples. You might also see some birds and mammals that like to be in and out of the river and wetlands such as otters, muskrats, beavers, great blue herons and ducks.
Now look on the other side of the canal, away from the river, we call it the berm side. Sometimes the berm side has a rock wall where the canal company cut through to make the edge or where the river channel used to be. Most of the time, you see forest or an occasional clearing, where a lock house or a business like a feed store were built. When you explore this area you might see different kinds of trees, vines, wildflowers and ferns. Many of the park’s deer and squirrels live here, along with the foxes and songbirds. Have you heard the “Cheer, Cheer, Cheer” of a cardinal today or the “tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle, tea,” of the Carolina wren?”
The canal itself can be a pond, stream or wetland habitat depending on where you are standing. Some parts of the canal that still have water in it are favorite places for green heron’s to hunt for fish, snapping turtles to roam and frogs to call in the springtime. If there is enough water you might find someone fishing or canoeing down the canal!
When you continue your hike or bike trip today, use your senses to explore the park, count how many different bird calls you can hear (there are over 120 different kinds!), smell the fresh air and the scent of flower blooms like spicebush, blackberries or trumpet creeper, look for interesting trees that might have grown into the shape of a letter of the alphabet or a knot in a tree that looks like a face. We are glad you are here to enjoy your national park, where people have traveled through for centuries enjoying the beauty, and appreciate the wonderful natural areas that have been left for everyone to enjoy for many years to come.