Neil Wittmer canal community story

Since moving to Baltimore in 2015, the C&O Canal has become a place of movement, meditation, learning and adventure for me. I am a fitness professional and as such, much of my exercise comes in the form of gym sessions that are regimented, indoors, and occasionally monotonous.

In the past 8 years I have completed the full C&O Canal towpath from DC to Cumberland 6 times, with three of those ending in Pittsburgh via the Great Allegheny Passage. While each of these trips have each provided their own unique stories and misadventures (who loses their bike in the middle of a bikepacking trip?), here I will focus on one in particular: the time I completed the full C&O Canal and GAP trails with my Schnauzer-Poodle (Schnoodle!) Grisham in 2020.

I usually embark on these trips solo, mainly because it offers me a chance to decompress from my busy work life while being active and outdoors. This time I thought it would be great to experience the trail with Grisham. My wife Alexandra saw it as a great way for Grisham and I to bond, and she knew that his high-energy self would love the challenge of it all. Hiking the trails of Shenandoah and Acadia? Running sprints with me up steep hills? Swimming in oceans, rivers and streams? No problem! Grisham was always our adventure dog. He played and acted much bigger than his 22 pound frame and there was no trail too strenuous or hill too steep that he wouldn’t do. As long as his human parents were right there with him, you could expect to see Grisham out in front leading the way. With this in mind I thought, what better companion to experience my favorite outdoor activity with?

For five days we trekked together through the woods, moving from east to west. We averaged about 55 miles per day on the Towpath. The weather was beautiful for the entirety of the trip- clear, dry and never too cold. Although much of the foliage had dwindled by our late November departure date, the vivid red-orange leaves were in full crunch under our feet. The lack of tree cover allowed for stunning views of the Potomac as well as a window into the home of local wildlife-we saw plenty of squirrels, deer, and turkey!

Grisham initially hung out in his dog trailer behind me, but there were instances when he could not contain his desire to be on the ground as well; over the entire trip he probably RAN about 40 miles, which is impressive for any dog, let alone a little guy like Grisham. I cannot count the times when I had stopped to drink or eat and the look on his face said something like “Come on dad, keep up! There is so much in front of us to see!”.

The trip contained many highlights but a few really stand out; camping together at the Huckleberry Hill campsite outside of Harpers Ferry; our dinner at BuddyLous in Hancock where Grisham was able to enjoy a doggie feast of salmon, rice, ice cream and a biscuit; an impromptu hike over the Paw Paw tunnel just for fun, as hiking is something that we had always enjoyed as a family; sharing meals on the journey that I cooked on my camp stove; the satisfied exhaustion and SLEEP at the end of every trail day.

All of these examples combined with the everyday beauty, serenity, and feeling of camaraderie and accomplishment made for a trip that I will never forget. Sadly, Grisham passed away this past February after a rather sudden diagnosis of advanced heart failure. We still grieve that loss and have yet to replace his loving and adventurous spirit. I am so thankful that I was able to take him to my favorite place while he was still able, and it’s an experience I think of every time I find myself on the Towpath.