Over Labor Day weekend I took my first self-contained cycling trip along the C&O Canal towpath trail, at last using my Surly (Beau) for his intended purpose. The trip was inspired by a sudden fervent desire to camp out among the elements again, like I used to, in the old days. And probably also a bit inspired by the tales my boyfriend (yes, you read that correctly) Crow told of his own self-contained travels along the Pacific Northwest coast and from Seattle to Montana. The summer is winding down and I used a ton of vacation on my U2 adventure, so I could only afford a few days out of work. A short Labor Day weekend adventure seemed a great way to get my feet wet in the whole self-contained cycling thing because, admittedly, I wasn’t sure if I’d like it or not.
Crow planned a ride along the C&O Canal towpath starting from Harper’s Ferry to Great Falls in Maryland. We originally planned for two days on bikes, then two days of hiking along the Appalachian Trail. I was excited by this plan because I’m fascinated by Civil War history, particularly the story of John Brown’s brief capture of the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, and also I’d never been on any part of the Appalachian Trail. As it turned out, we never made it on the Appalachian Trail (except to lug our bikes in the dark down a treacherous stretch of it to get from a parking lot to the towpath on Friday night). But we got a great dose of Civil War history, two days of carefree–albeit muddy–cycling, three great nights of camping, and one unplanned overnight at a beautiful bed & breakfast in Harper’s Ferry. All and all, it was the most relaxing, laid-back, mini-vacation I’ve had in a long time. And, admittedly, the company was even better.
We started our adventure on Friday night with a four mile ride in darkness to a family campground in Brunswick, WV. I wished I’d brought my bike light because the LED on my headlamp (which was previously only really used for astronomy fields as it has a red light as well) because I could barely see a foot in front of me and I had to depend on Crow’s brighter light ahead of me. I kind of just kept my eye on his rear wheel and hoped for the best. It was a bit scary. The C&O Towpath trail was already proving to be more rugged than the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath I was familiar with back home; I suddenly understood why Crow insisted I put my 38in tires back on.
So our first night’s campsite was not all that primitive. We had access to running water, showers, and a bathroom with flush toilets. I felt a little spoiled right off the bat and pretty much knew I had much less to expect for the next couple of nights. So I took advantage of the facilities. Except for the shower. Which maybe in retrospect I should have indulged in. Oh well. A shower does not prevent you from getting dirty later in the week.
Since I hadn’t gone camping in such a long time (since my husband, to be honest), I lacked a lot of camping gear. Between two trips to Appalachian Outfitters in the Cuyahoga Valley, I’d spent about $350 on hiking boots, a second pair of hiking pants/shorts, medium weight hiking socks (2 pairs), a titanium camping cup, a spork, and–the best find of all–a coffee filter that goes into the cup so that I could have actual, filtered coffee in the morning instead of that crappy instant coffee stuff I’ve had to use on so many trips before. For the win.
I was so excited to use my new, simple toy. I’d packed enough coffee for four days which made the pannier that held it, and everything else in that pannier, smell like German coffee. A small price to pay for ecstasy, I say.
The morning started off a little damp. We’d heard storms in the morning but they stayed south of us and we started to encounter what they possibly left behind. We managed to miss the rain itself, however, and the day eventually transitioned into a nice (albeit humid) sunny day.
Train tracks follow the towpath along most of the route, reminding you fully of the mode of transportation that quickly replaced the usefulness of the canals even before the C&O itself was finished. As we rode along the first part of our route, we encountered a spectacular tunnel through a mountain that the rail used. We stopped and got off our bikes to get a closer look at the tunnel when, to our luck, a train happened to be just about to come out. It was totally thrilling to see the train barreling out of the side of the mountain like that… I wondered what it would be like to experience it from the engineer’s seat. It looks most unnatural.
But I’ve always been fascinated by tunnels–I love when to drive through them in a car. They inspire me–much like skyscrapers and airlines–to marvel at humanity’s tenacity to overcome obstacles. In this case: Man need to get around mountain. Man bore a big hole through mountain. Man get to the other side.
The trail was wooded for the most part with the overgrown remains of the canal slightly visible along side. However, every once in a while, the towpath opened to reveal a lock and lockkeeper’s house or aqueduct. We passed through two aqueducts on the first half of the day, the longest of which was Monocacy. It was really cool to ride my bike across what used to be the canal channel on the aqueduct.
Our halfway point was a place called White’s Ferry where the only operating ferry on the Potomac River carts all manners of vehicles across the river to Maryland on what is basically a flat floor that moves by cable from one side of the river to the other. There was one little greasy spoon restaurant where we ate lunch and chatted with the friendly guy working there.
As all rivers are wont to do, the Potomac has apparently flooded in the recent past, at least as far as 1972. The water levels of these floods were marked on the side of the building. It’s really kind of hard to imagine the world submerged in water that high. Not that I don’t believe it, though. I saw similar markings on the side of a building in downtown Marietta when I was there for the Marietta River Rendezvous. It just reminds me how nature always wins the battle for territory.
As we innocently remounted our bikes for the second half of our ride, we had little notion of the mud slog that lie ahead. It started a quarter of a mile from where we started and it just got worse. And worse. Unimaginably. No joke. Some of these puddles took up the entire bike path and were pretty deep. When there was nowhere else to go, you had to ride through them, fighting a fishtailing back-end of the bike the whole time. Most of the bike path was split down the middle by a strip of grass as though it had been ridden repeatedly by covered wagons. Okay, I imagined that. It was more likely the park service cars. But still.
Navigating the little lakes amidst the bike path seriously hindered our progress and, quite frankly, severely burned out my nerves because I had to concentrate hard on keeping my bike from sliding. And my legs were becoming worn from pushing against the slippery mud that only spun my tires but did not propel me further any. We were both admittedly relieved when we finally found dry ground again some 10 miles later. Especially Crow whose bike did not have fenders. Yeah. His bike was caked with mud. And so was the back of his jersey… (While my bike and my person remained remarkably clean. Score one for fenders!)
The last stretch (about 10 miles) to Great Falls was absolutely beautiful. The canal was preserved pretty well and so you could see all manner of water life–turtles, ducks, geese, and the most regal of water fowl of them all, blue heron. We stopped to take pictures as we were inspired. I loved the laid back pace of our travel. It was nice to not be in a huge hurry to get anywhere. Even though we were hoping to get to Great Falls while the museum was still open, we took the time to stop and “smell the roses” so to speak. It’s been a very long time since I’ve taken it easy on a bike ride. I admit that often I’m just concerned about the destination more than the journey. It was nice to be brought back to to real reason I began cycling. To slow down. Crow’s mutual love of nature made it pretty easy to take this approach.
We arrived at Great Falls a little too late for the museum. But we stopped to take some pictures of the lock and canal boat before breaking at the concession stand for ice cream (an idea I initiated in a rare moment of ignoring the voices nagging me in my head about being too fat). The observation area for the falls itself was just a little further down the trail so we took off again after a relaxing break.
I admit that I was completely unprepared for the magnificence of the Great Falls. I suppose I was expecting something much less grand. I’ve seen water falls. I even live by Brandywine Falls in the Cuyahoga Valley. These falls were in a complete league of their own.
A boardwalk takes you to two major viewing areas right over the falls for an intimate sky walk. Rolling hills fill up the background which feels almost claustrophobic while hovering over the forbidding rush of water over rocks. But everywhere I turned was a photographic opportunity. I tried to contain myself. There’s always the urge to capture everything; however, whenever I take pictures, they never truly capture what my memory sees. Which was completely the case with my photographs from Great Falls.
It was great, though. The second viewing area of the falls was a bit more open. There were people kayaking among the many little falls down below. You could also see the observation area on the opposite shore (Virginia) where people could apparently climb down on the rocks.
We spent a long time just observing the falls. There’s something so entrancing about water. I could watch it for hours. Even still water like Lake Erie enthralls me. I used to go to the beach almost every night when I lived in Willowick to watch the sunset. It’s ironic that I’m really not that much of a swimmer. I prefer to watch from afar. (It’s that getting wet part that bugs me most.)
By the time we left the falls, I felt a little bit wiped out from the day. Though we’d had a late 10:30-ish start, the slog through the mud had really worn my legs down. Though we’d only gone about 40 miles at that point, I felt as though I’d just done 75 (and it took almost as long with all our stops). So we ended up setting up camp at the first campground we stumbled across (Swain’s Lock) which was unfortunately also a site for car campers. Blah. We were fighting with daylight, though, and I didn’t want to risk a 9 mile ride to set up camp in total darkness.
The next day, we had an even later start leaving camp–about 11am–and we were headed back towards Harper’s Ferry. We didn’t expect to be as pokey this time around since we’d seen the scenery on the way up. Our main concern was the muddy section, hoping it’d had time to dry up in the intervening day. It was another sunny morning so our hopes were high. We did stop multiple times, however, to get more pictures along the picturesque canal and to climb on some rocks by the river along the trail. Fortunately, the leg back to White’s Ferry, while muddy, was much more navigable than it had been the previous day so we made slightly better time (and my nerves were less frayed).
We pushed all the way back to Harper’s Ferry and I got to see the first four miles from Brunswick that I missed in darkness two days before. It was a nice wooded section, a little less dense than some of the other areas, and seemingly less remote. The trees eventually gave way to an open area with sweeping views of the river right before we hit Harper’s Ferry. It was a hotter day than the previous so I felt really envious of the people in tubes floating around the river. Had the weather held for us the following day, I might have been tempted to rent one and enjoy the river myself.
Access to Harper’s Ferry from the towpath is via an overhead footbridge. We parked the bikes at the provided bike racks (sort of–with all our gear we didn’t quite fit), and walked the stairs to the bridge. Harper’s Ferry is wedged between foothills (mountains?) with rail bridges sprawling out from it. Really kind of cool as trains come by quite often. It’s not easy to forget here that the railway still supports of a lot of our transportation of goods across the US. Harper’s Ferry still feels like it’s a hub of sorts. There’s even an Amtrak station there!
The whole village is designated as a National Park and is preserved in its nearly historical form. It’s actually quite quaint. Crow and I decided to grab dinner here in the less primitive setting. And, to be honest, at this point–in this heat–I was craving a beer.
We decided to spend that evening at the Huckleberry Hill campsite which was just 2 miles from Harper’s Ferry. My big disappointment was that there was not a good swimming area there. I’d been dreaming of jumping in the river to clean off. Which, by the way, just tells you how hot that day really was. I wanted to swim. Badly. But, alas, I was treated to a bath (in swim suit) at the water pump. The life of a camper! It’s funny, though, how clean you feel by just getting wet and using a little soap. I’m sure to the outside world, we both still smelled horrendous. I love roughing it! (Not sarcastic.)
The next morning began with on and off drizzle (after a night of hard rain). I thought it might clear up and for most of the day there were only periodic drizzle. We headed off back to Harper’s Ferry to do some site-seeing while everything was open. And, again, to eat lunch (including a beer) in civilization.
Facebook is in fact good for a few things every once in a while. My friend Scott, seeing that I was in Harper’s Ferry from my (frequent) status updates, informed me of a trail we could hike to an overlook with the perfect view of Harper’s Ferry. Crow and I decided to do this. So after getting our bikes packed back in the car (because we planned to hike that evening on the Appalachian Trail), we climbed this strenuous trail for the completely worth it view. I was pleased, too, that there were no guard rails by the rocky edge of the overlook. Thankfully, tourism hadn’t caused the parks to make this an idiot-proof zone. It seriously would have ruined the experience. And I’m smart enough to stay away from ledges, thank you very much.
It was early evening by this time and our luck with the rain ended. As we were finishing up at the overlook, it started to drizzle again. Then rain. And then it rained harder. By the time we both back down to the car, we were completely soaked through to the bone. On the way up to the overlook, we’d kind of agreed that maybe we should just pack it in and get a hotel room for the remaining night–no need to push ourselves to get to the first shelter on the AT. The downpour of rain definitely made this decision less difficult. The temperature had dropped significantly and, I am ashamed to admit it, I was not quite prepared with enough warm clothes for the evening in the outdoors.
We ended up staying at a bed and breakfast–the Laurel Lodge–in Harper’s Ferry. It was a great choice. Not only did this unique house contain an awesome view of the river valley, but the food the next morning was absolutely outstanding. And I’m no stranger to B&B’s. I think it was the rosemary peach pre-breakfast treat that won me over (I LOVE ROSEMARY!!). The proprietor was really cool too–another touring cyclist like ourselves. He also had some great stories about the original owner/builder of the house.
Our last stop before heading home, which I’ll blog a little about later, was the Antietam battlefield. We drove there and explored it in the rain. What an interesting trip into Civil War history…