Saturday, July 11, 2009

Overnight on the C&O Canal

(Or how to have fun even when plans go awry)

Well, I've had a strong urge to sleep outside and wake to fresh air and bird song for quite some time now, so I set my sights on an overnight cycle-camping trip on the C&O Canal this week. I'd had it in my head to load the bike and my gear up in my truck on Tuesday morning and head out to a spot fairly far out... at least mile 60 or so, out around Harper's Ferry, WV. Once I got there, I'd ride until I felt like stopping, and camp in one of the free hiker/biker sites which are about 5-10 miles apart on most of the canal. Then on Wednesday, I'd ride back to the truck and head home.

Then my truck failed the state inspection because of an exhaust leak. No problem, they said they could get it back to me no later than noon on Tuesday. Tuesday morning comes, with news that I am the lucky owner of a "California" Toyota, with a totally different system, which they're having trouble finding the parts for. At first I thought I'd just give up on the trip, but while I was out with Tybalt that morning, it was just too lovely a day to give up on it so easily. So I figured out Alternative Plan B - ride right from my door, up the W&OD rail trail, crossing over the Potomac River at Leesburg on White's Ferry. So that's where our story will begin.

White's Ferry is a small, privately owned operation that has a small, open ferry boat that chugs its way across the river, back and forth, all day long. It's pretty much the only way across the river upstream from the Beltway in this area, so it's suprisingly busy. You can see the ferry, the Gen. Jubal A. Early, in the picture to the left. The trip only takes a few minutes, and it's actually a pretty crossing on a nice day. And the weather was spectacular the whole time I was away. July in this area can be miserably humid, but not this week.

Once across the river, I was right at the canal, around mile post 36 of 184.5. But before hitting the trail, I needed to visit the small store and snack bar at the ferry landing, since I hadn't stocked up on bug repellent or food beforehand, and somehow missed the Safeway that I thought I would have passed on my way to the ferry. Just my luck... cash or checks only, and I had a whopping eight bucks with me. And the selection of food and other goods was mighty slim. I ended up getting some Chef Boyardee ravioli, figuring if all else failed, I could heat that up for dinner. Good thing I picked that up, as I encountered no other open stores along the way! I couldn't afford the bug repellent and the food, so I braced myself for a buggy night.

On the towpath, I quickly fell into a rhythm and began to really enjoy the ride. Up until that point, I really didn't feel like I was "away" yet, but once the tree canopy closed in, it felt a lot more like a getaway. And on top of it all, I got an early chance to do a good deed. No sooner had I gotten rolling on the canal, than I was passed by a large group of teenaged girls and their group leader, who called out "do you have a bike pump?" I said yes, and asked who needed it... they said "she's in back"... but the young lady was nowhere in sight. I rode on about another mile and a half before I finally came upon the girl walking her bike, and stopped to help. Imagine my surprise when it turned out she was from England, and here with some sort of camp activity group. Quick work with the bike pump and she was on her way, and I continued along my journey.

The towpath is really pretty all along its length, but I like it better the farther I get from DC. Fewer people, more trees, more critters. While I wasn't as far out as I'd hoped at the start, it was still beautiful. And there are lots of cool remnants of the heydey of the canal, such as the lock keeper's houses, and the recently restored Monocacy Aqueduct, both of which you can see below.

The ride up was beautiful, with the sun slowly sinking in the sky, casting longer shadows through the trees. By the time I got up to Harper's Ferry, I was ready to call it a night. After an abortive attempt to get more food or some bug repellent in town (who knew everything closes at 6:00????), I set out for the next campsite, just two miles upriver. The only problem being that a group of kids and their two adult leaders and pile of canoes and gear had taken over the entire site! Looking at my mile-by-mile guide, it looked like the next site was about 13 miles further up, and light was fading fast, so I hopped back on the bike and rode pretty hard. Luckily for me, it turned out there was a campground a mere 7 miles up, at Antietam Creek Recreation area (mile 69ish). A bigger campground than I had planned on... I like the seclusion and lack of car access of the hiker/biker sites, but at this point, I was just ready to get off the bike and set up camp. It turned out to be a nice and quiet location, with very few other occupants, although one group had actually dragged a couch out to their campsite, as you can see to the right. Not really my style of "camping" but what the heck, we all have our ways.

After a lovely and remarkably bug free evening, and a good night's sleep, I was all set the next morning to roll on back to DC. It was such a pretty day that I made what some would think was terrible time, as I kept stopping to look at things and take pictures and just enjoy being outside so much. The river above Harper's Ferry has a bunch of little islands and low, tree-shaded spots along the shore, and I just couldn't resist a short rest beside the river in one of them. The river exposes some amazing root systems along the banks, and I find them just fascinating.

I finally managed to have some good food in Brunswick, MD (mile post 55), at Beans In The Belfry, a cafe and coffee shop in an old church. I'd been there once before while riding the canal, so I knew there would be good food and good coffee. It's a really cute little town, and a fun cafe. All the stained glass windows are still intact and you can choose to sit in the choir loft is you choose. The turkey sandwich with cranberries on panini really hit the spot, since all I'd had to this point was that ravioli and some Clif bars (note to self, bring more than one flavor...).

Fortified the time being, I continued down the trail, only to almost immediately encounter the most interesting bit of wildlife I saw on the trip... the snapping turtle you see to the left there. When I saw him in the middle of the trail in the distance, I assumed it was just a pile of horse poop, which you see fairly often along the trail. As I got closer though, I figured out what it was. He stayed pretty much stock still the whole time I watched and photographed him, which was fine by me. Those jaws and claws look pretty imposing, and I'd just as soon not find out how potent they are.

The rest of the trip went smoothly, with just a lot of pretty scenery to see and a gorgeous day with blue skies and puffy white clouds overhead. I spent a good long while at the Monocacy Aqueduct, which is an amazing structure and a great restoration job. Take a look at some of the photos in the link below if you want to see. I also stopped at the site of the Catoctin Creek Aqueduct, which collapsed in the 20s or 30s, but which they plan now to restore, funds permitting. The amazing thing about that project is that they've already retrieved many of the stones that had fallen into the stream, and have them piled up awaiting the beginning of work.

Ride's end found me in Georgetown, having dinner with a friend, which was a nice little treat after a long day riding. I rode about 62 miles on Tuesday, followed by 75 on Wednesday, with the bike loaded for camping. It wasn't too heavy a load, as it was only an overnight trip, but it was enough to make the bike feel noticeably heavier. I hadn't mounted a front rack on the bike yet, so all the weight was on the back, which is less than ideal, but that didn't detract from the fun I had. In fact, I have to say if there's a theme to the trip, it's that if you don't let setbacks get you down, you can still have a lot of fun when plans go awry.

This was the maiden voyage, touring-wise, for the Goshawk, and it did beautifully. I could really feel the benefit of the wider tires compared to my previous trips on my Miyata 1000.

More pictures are here:

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