When Inez Pauley was growing up here in the 1940s, she would go across the Potomac River, the abandoned Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath to walk in the woods and "get away from town."

"I never saw anyone there," she recalls.

Pauley had moved away by 1954, when Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas led the Cumberland-to-Washington hike that launched the long drive to save the 185-mile canal as a national historical park. Recently, though, Pauley and her family came back to run the Mountaineer Restaurant here. And last Saturday they got up at 5 a.m. to assemble 144 brown-bag lunches for some of the participants in the C & O Canal Association's 24th annual reunion hike.

"I hadn't really realized so many people care about the canal," she said.

Spreading that message was one aim of Saturday's 11-mile stroll from Paw Paw upriver to Oldtown, Md. None of the several hundred hikers carried signs. There were few notables and more blisters than news. The group made its points without pronouncements, by spending a little time and money in the hills.

Many in the casual, cheerful group were veterans of many hikes, well acquainted with each other and the canal. But this was one reunion anyone could join. So there were lots of newcomers such as Kevin and Maria Siepel from Fauquier County, Va., who were drawn by a newspaper notice. Their 6-month-old son, Benjamin, rode on his father's back and dozed most of the way.

The National Park Service tallied about 150 cars at the Paw Paw campground, where local mayor Shirley Gross, incoming association president Nancy C. Long and Cathy Douglas cut a yellow ribbon to start the hike.

Nobody counted the crowd. That's hard to do when some are striding briskly along, and others are forever pausing to scrutinize beaver dams or fish refreshments out of assorted knapsacks, rucksacks, backpacks, canteens and plastic jugs.

The unofficial wildlife count, according to Tom and Ellen Richards and Blair T. Bowen of Arlington, included one raccoon, three white-tailed deer, a gaggle of Canada geese, one turkey buzzard, one blue-gray gnatcatcher, one parula warbler, one pileated woodpecker and "376 turtles" - a total somewhat in dispute.

Canalside wildflowers, said Bruce Wood of Washington, were "about what you'd expect." He noted some cut-leaf toothworts, white phlox, trout lilies, Dutchmen's breeches, squirrel corn and masses of bluets and violets. Other hikers delighted in telling each other the difference between poison ivy and ferns.

A lot of lore was bandied about. History buffs, spotting old blast-lines on the cliffs, talked earnestly and sometimes accurately about how canal gangs in the 1840s had cut their path through the 300-million-year-old Appalachian rocks. Near Oldtown, where the canal is full of waterlilies and fish, some long-time residents, when pressed, confided that canned corn is excellent bait for trout.

There were some drop-outs along the way. By mid-afternoon, though, most the 11 miles, but an extra few blocks to the Oldtown General Store for soft drinks, candy or beer.

Most hikers rode the rented school buses down winding Route 51 to Paw Paw. After a "happy hour" along the riverbank, some 225 jammed into the local volunteer fire department's cinder-block hall for a buffet supper prepared by the department's ladies' auxilitary.

It was "the biggest dinner we've ever done," said Pearl Robertson, president of the auxiliary. She wasn't sure how much ham, potaoes, beans, beets and so on were consumed, but "we made the tossed salad in a washtub - and I mean it was a number three tub, a big one."

At most reunion banquets, the talk has emphasized a cause. First, of course, it was saving the canal. Since Congress came through in 1971, the main concern has been keeping the Park Service from over-developing the slender park or otherwise marring its somewhat rumpled charm.

Right now, though, relations with the government are mellow. The veterans nodded when National Park Service director William J. Whalen, the main banquet speaker, said, "This park was truly created by you people." And when he declared that the canal should be "fully developed," few listeners even winced. They knew he was right when he called the citizens "our conscience" who helped NPs "make fewer mistakes."

For Nancy Long and other stalwarts, the most urgent issue now is preserving the 43 miles of railroad right-of-way and Potomac bridges west of Hancock that the Western Maryland Railroad has just abandoned. Because the line cuts back and forth between Maryland and West Virginia, the politics involved are intricate. There was some talk of that, but more was heard about the sunny day, flora, fauna and fellowship.

Whelan did urge the group to lobby Congress for more funds for canal restoration and repairs, and told them to bring more senators and representatives out to see the towpath's assets for themselves.

Some of the hike's organizers, though, seemed more interested in attracting less prominent recruits. Lyman Stucker of Alexandria, for instance, was talking all day about an 85-year-old man in New Jersey who had wanted to come but could not arrange transportation. "He said he'd just have to go hiking in his own area this weekend," Stucker said. "But he promised to be here next year."

Next year, for its 25th reunion, the association plans to hike all 185 miles again.