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After shuttling a vehicle, we pondered for a moment the best way to launch -- the current below the dam is shallow but swift, and the banks are lined with riprap. We helped each other lower the kayaks into the water and get seated while hanging onto the caged bank. (We looked like an advertisement for Wilderness Systems, with Kurt & Max in Tsunami 145's, Andrew in a 135, and I left my 140 at home to break in the new 120.)
Immediately after launching there's an S-curve with little rapids and an arched stone bridge to negotiate. If you haven't shaken off winter's paddling rust yet, this first challenge will do it for you -- going under the bridge Max decided to test the water temperature with an impromptu swim, but it's only knee deep there so we emptied his boat and were quickly back on track.
The neat thing about Antietam Creek is it's fed by both groundwater and tributaries so it remains navigable most of the year, and it keeps you on your toes with alternating Class I rapids & ledges and flat but flowing sections, all the while meandering through farmland and woods. There are also frequent strainers to watch out for, I ducked under fallen trees in a couple places although it was never necessary to carry over or around any.
As with any Mid-Atlantic stream, wildlife was abundant -- we saw nesting geese and fuzzy little goslings, large turtles, deer, and a couple owls. Funny how the geese get annoyed as you approach, and they fly downstream only to have you catch up to them again. Despite it being the weekend we didn't see any other paddlers until reaching the Potomac, we only encountered a few fishermen along the way. And some girls in bikinis sunbathing :)
Much of the land on river left is posted, but we found a nice spot for lunch on river right just after the Shepherdstown Pike bridge, on a shaded gravelly bank with a bench, below a cattle pasture that appears to be part of the battlefield parkland. After that you encounter the famous Burnside's Bridge that was built in 1836. Just below that, there's a weir that drops 3 feet. There were battlefield tourists milling about here, so we put on our game faces going over the ledge, thankfully no one capsized and then I turned around and surfed the wave below it for a moment.
As we rounded Horseshoe Bend the only detractor from an otherwise perfect paddle was a whiff of the Antietam water treatment plant. But soon enough we were past it and on the home stretch to the Potomac. But not before one last challenge from the creek -- a good Class II wavetrain called Furnace Rapids immediately followed by the Harpers Ferry Rd bridge, which you want to take under the left arch, otherwise you'll run aground in the shallows coming out of the rapids.
All in all Antietam Creek is a beautiful, fun and interesting paddle and we left feeling it was well worth the 100-mile drive each way.
Besides Antietam Battlefield, other things worth visiting in the area are Harpers Ferry, the C&O Canal towpath, and the hike up Maryland Heights for a commanding view the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.
When you reach the end of the creek under the C&O Canal aqueduct, turn right and paddle upriver on the Potomac about 100 yards, to the muddy banks used as the takeout.
Also there are NPS-owned group campsites near Burnside's Bridge.
To the takeout: drive south on Rt 65 (Sharpsburg Pike) which becomes Church St in the town of Sharpsburg, turn right on Main St then after 3 short blocks turn left on Mechanic St which becomes Harpers Ferry Rd. When you reach the bottom of the hill turn right on Canal Rd.
The river gauge is http://waterdata.usgs.gov/md/nwis/uv/?site_no=01619500 -- close to 3 ft is a good level and reasonably safe for novices.