A barge trip on the C&O Canal is a journey back in time, to days when transportation was provided by the plod of one's own feet or the thud of hooves on unpaved roads. Now, those who choose to float along on the C&O Canal's barge know the luxury of quietly reflecting on the wonders of nature. They also get to know three of the barge's main attractions -- Anna-mule, Jezebel and Dazy -- who slowly pull the craft.

Three mules get room and board in Missy Lankler's barn. She feeds them breakfast and drives them to work -- they pull the C&O Canal barge.

"I think they'd kill me if they thought I was afraid of them," said the energetic young woman. "But they've learned to respect me."

Lankler, 26, a photographer and experienced horse-woman, grabbed the job when she saw an ad in the newspaper. "I wanted the job because it was unusual and the money was good," she said. "The mules' owner wanted someone from Potomac, and I knew no one else would do it."

Lankler has grown fond of Jezebel, Anna-mule and Dazy.

"They clown around like the Marx Brothers," she said. "They're celebrities; people stare at them and giggle, and when I pull into Mitch and Bill's gas station the guys break up. They're used to seeing thoroughbreds in Potomac -- not mules."

Lankler said this is the first season these three mules have pulled the barge. "They don't like to go to work, and after breakfast they get obstinate and fight to get back out in the field," she said.

Dazy is the most unruly. She's afraid of butterflies and leaves, and she doesn't like to be touched. She'll bend her knees and jump straight up in the air if you look at her the wrong way, said Lankler.

The mule skinners meet Lankler's van at Great Falls Tavern and lead the mules to a shady spot for grooming. When their coats are brushed and anointed with insect repellent, the mules are harnessed to the barge.

The mules have it easy now. In 1830 when mules worked the canal, the barge and freight -- which was usually lumber or coal, weighed 210 tons. They pulled in eight-hour shifts and then two mules resting on the barge would take over.

Now the 85-foot barge, including the pasengers, weighs 33 tons, and mule skinners, who walk beside them, offer leaves and conversation along the way. The barge trips are made on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only.

Karen Jackson, a mule skinner, said they accompany the mules on the two-mile round trip in case the animals decide to stop and eat grass.

"They're easily distracted and afraid of the dark," Jackson said. "We're also there for the visitors' protection."

During the 1 1/2-hour trip, three rangers, dressed in period costumes, play music and sing songs from the 1890s.

"The rangers play the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, harmonica or just whistle," said Jackson. "They also steer, handle the lines and take the barge through the locks."

Jackson said passengers always ask if the mules are getting tired or if they've eaten enough.

"They'r more concerned about the mules than the rangers working on the barge," she said.

Records indicate that mules have fallen into the canal, but that hasn't happened recently. In 1979, though, during a lively evening party, the barge hit a rock and sank. No one got wet; it took the craft three hours to sink.

Oct. 26 will be the mules' last day to work the canal unit next April. Lankler, who is moving from her parents' Potomac home to Georgetown, will visit the animals on weekends.

"I got attached to those critters," she said. "They even helped me judge my dates. If a guy objected to picking the mules up after an evening ride, I'd know he wasn't for me. Sometimes I prefer the company of mules."

Barge rides start at Great Falls, Md., at the end of MacArthur Boulevard. Information on the trips can be obtained by calling 299-2026.