With a couple of ear-shattering blasts on a long brass horn the captain of the Canal Clipper succeeds in securing our attention.
"Gather 'round so I can tell you how the canal got started back in 1828, then come on board for a trip back in time."
The captain, dressed in what must have been the leisure suit of the 1800s - overalls and a straw hat, tells us the story of the Chesapeake & Ohio canal's uncertain beginning. Then he introduces us to the other members of the "crew," including his broom-wielding, sharp-tongued sister who seems intent on keeping the captain in line. When he attempts to explain the details of how she came to have the name "Old Bat," she chases him off with her broom.
Old Bat commands all assembled to make themselves comfy on the wooden benches on the barge, a replica of the kind that once hauled coal on the canal. Then she sternly informs us of her rules.
"No smokin', no spittin' and no cussin'," she says. "Also, if you throw anything overboard, you'll git hung up by yer heels." The older kids giggle while younger ones wonder if she's really as mean as she sounds. Before they can change their minds about taking the trip, the captain swings up the gang-plank and pushes the barge away from the bank.
"I thought horses were supposed to pull this thing," pipes up one informed youngster. It seems that first we must pass under one of Georgetown's streets. The captain sits on the edge of the bridge and pushes the barge along with his feet. We hear him stamping on the roof, then he scrambles down just in time to avoid the underside of the bridge. Sure enough, the mules are waiting on the towpath beyond. The mule guide catches the rope thrown to him, hitches up the team and we're on our way.
At the outset of hour-and-a-half trip, city noises batter our ears - rushing traffic on Wisconsin Avenue, lawn mowers along the median strip, jack hammers on road repairs, and the racket of renovation on the old paper mill that sides the canal. Old Bat must shout the history of the canal.
We are all the more appreciative of the contrast, therefore, when we drift into the quiet beyond Georgetown. The canal is fringed with hints of wilderness, and the loudest noise, aside from an occasional airplane overhead, is the sound of water lapping against the canal walls.
Old Bat, who in truth is no older than 18 but who seems to thoroughly enjoy her role as mistress of the barge, settles her long skirts amongst us and pats her big straw hat more firmly on her head. She has mellowed since her introduction and she entertains us with some folksy chatter about barge life and about the ghosts that make things interesting on the canal.
One of the better-known ghosts is Francis Scott Key, who didn't take kindly to the canal's being built across his front lawn. He went to live somewhere else, she tells us in her broad West Virginia drawl, but he's known to come back to his mansion and lament the property's "roo-in-aytion."
Old Bat's tall tales include stories about her brother, the captain - one of the last, it seems - whose love of the contents of a jug gets him into no end of trouble. She passes around vintage photographs of the early days on the C&O Canal when barges transported coal, flour, grain and lumber to Washington. Some of the pictures show young children busy at work on the barge. Captions describe a way of life where the whole family and two sets of mules lived on the barge and worked the canal, a way of life that one of our pint-size passengers pronounced "neat."
After Old Bat fields a few questions from passengers, we lapse into meditative silence. The quiet is delicious. Even the children are lulled by the peaceful atmosphere and the gentle motion of the boat.
A few families dig into box lunches. Bringing a picnic is a good idea, because the second half of the trip is a little less lively than the first. If you don't bring your own, the Lunch'n'Box, a tiny shop on the towpath right at the boarding point, boasts a selection of reasonably priced, made-to-order hot and cold sandwiches.
After the mules are transferred to the opposite end of the barge, we begin the trip back to Georgetown. Among the diversions on the return is keeping an eye out for "Sam," a snake coiled up in a crack in the canal wall, or the duck with her brood of newly hatched ducklings, or the many turtles inhabiting the canal.
The return trip continues leisurely, but before leisurely turns to boring Old Bat swings out her guitar. She and the captain belt out rousing river songs and country tunes, accompanied by much clapping and footstomping by an appreciative audience.
Everyone joins in with "Oh, Susannah!" and about 10 verses of "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain." Old Bat organizes an enthusiastic round of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," and we almost succeed in drowning out the construction noises as we slip back into 20th-century Georgetown.