Twenty-one years ago, former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas hiked the length of the C & O Canal that begins in Georgetown to point out its historic and natural value as a place to get away from reads and vehicles. Yesterday, under a hot mid-afternoon sun, the 78-year-old Douglas sat, in a wheelchair, at the beginning of that trail as a commemorative bust of him was unveiled.

Several hundred people, among them Senators Henry M. Jackson and Thomas F. Eagleton, Reps. Richard L. Ottinger and Don Edeards, gathered at the first canal lock to pay Douglas tribute as a conservationist, the man who had spearheaded the movement to make the stretch of canal into a park instead of proposed parkway in the late 50s.

There was music from the Canal Barge Musicians, a congratulatory telegram from President Carter and seven Supreme Court Justices gather under a tree near the bust.

"There are seven other Justices back in the shade because they couldn't take the sun," Chief Justice Warren Burger told Douglas.

"That' more than a quorum," Douglas replied. "I never was able to entice any of them the whole distance (of the canal) anyway, but I promise when I'm well we'll take the hike.

"As a matter of fact, I think we should rededicate the day to a hike, not for today, but another May 17th."

Douglas, who suffered a stroke in 1974 and resigned from the Supreme Court in late 1975 because of constant pain, looked frail and spoke with many lapses between his sentences. During one of the pauses, his wife, Cathy, who had unveiled the bust, whispered to him."

What I've been trying to say," Douglas said, starting up again, "is that many Presidents and numerous public officials have helped with the canal project. I thank you all for coming. I thank all those who have no portfolio but who have two strong legs and like to hike."

The crowd stood in a standing ovation as Douglas was wheeled through the gathering. Many people clasped his hand as he was escorted to a reception across from the place where the bust stood.

Almost as sought after as Douglas was the sculpturer of the bust, Wendy M. Ross, who works at Glen Echo Park in the Children's Experimental Workshop. People constantly trhust the program in front of her for her autograph. Ross got interest in doing a bust of Douglas last year after reading his autobiography "Go East Young Man." She worked from photographs intitially, doing the bust in clasy. Later she spent time with Douglas and his family.

"The Park Service really got interest in it and decided it should be cast in bronze," Ross said. "I think the most enjoyable part of this has been in taking with him. He talked about the '54 hike and traced his histroy all the way till the canal became a park. Always, he was describing the West where he was born, or anywhere he had managed to escape from the city. I think he's a great man."