Monday, January 6, 2014

Riding the Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal (Part 1 of 7)

If you’ve ever wondered how far that bike path goes, last year, Cincinnati Cyclists Marty Sanders and Aaron Kent (AK) set out to cover 700 miles of the Great Allegheny Passage and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal by bike.  Over the past few years, Marty has become a veteran of these rails to trails trips while Aaron, even though a long time cyclist, was new to the idea of a week-long self-supported adventure.  The story is presented in seven parts.

By Marty Sanders

(Part 1 of Seven)

Gather around the fire my friends.  I’ll tell you the tale of 2 bicycles, 2 friends, 2 trails, and 700 miles of riding the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C&O). 

Both the GAP and C&O figure prominently in American history. The GAP is the end result of four different railroad lines that previously connected Pittsburgh, PA to Cumberland, MD which now is one of the country’s finest rail-trails.  One hundred and fifty miles long, the trail crosses both the Mason-Dixon Line and the Eastern Continental Divide.  In addition to transporting people, I assume this route saw lots of steel moving back and forth in its day.  The C&O Canal trail follows the Potomac River into Washington, DC.  Stretching 185 miles, the canal was necessary due to the Potomac's turbulent waters and The Falls.  A towpath ran alongside for the mules to pull boats between locks. The C&O Canal Trail traces the towpath.

A few months ago, I rode a rail trail in West Virginia. It's weirdly wonderful being able to disconnect mentally from your everyday life.  The experience of the ride becomes your daily grind.  When I get back from trips like these, I want another, and another, and another. I'm hooked.

I've known about these trails since I was a kid, but it never really clicked in my head to ride one until a co-worker who has done a lot of touring mentioned it.  I went home that night and did a little research.  By the time I was done, I was determined to ride the GAP and the C&O.  A few days later, I mentioned my plan to my friend AK. He was interested, but there was a catch.  He needed a bike that could carry gear. So we stripped the parts from a bicycle I had and, after fabricating a rear rack mount so the bags wouldn’t hit his heels, AK was a proud owner of a new Surly Karate Monkey.  AK got himself a used set of panniers and a few camping items, and he was set to go.  We did a few rides of considerable distance in preparation.  With one last go-thought of our supplies and equipment the night before, it seemed like we had everything covered.

Day 1 Pittsburgh to Ohiopyle

I used the four and a half hour drive between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to read over some literature that AK had printed out for our ride. Remarkably, we decided to stop at a McDonald’s, which I can proudly say is only the third time I'd stopped at one in two years.  All have been while en-route to rail trail adventures.  Every time the same thing, they screwed up my order.

We reached the outskirts of Pittsburgh in no time.  A few miles out from the tunnel, traffic was bumper-to-bumper. During the traffic jam we had the privilege of witnessing the Honda next to us learn a harsh lesson of tailgating.  Smash!  It drove up under a big silver pickup, luckily only a fender bender.  The truck didn’t have a scratch on it, but the Honda’s whole front end was crinkled up. AK and I both laughed a little at that one.

As we rolled out of the tunnel and into town, I reminisced on the last time I had been there. I was 13 years old on a Greyhound rolling into town at night. The river was lit up by the moonlight. This time though, it was 1 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon.  The sun was bright.  The breeze cool.  Perfect riding weather!

When we reached the parking lot, I noticed a ton of cyclists: touring bikes, hybrids, kids bikes with training wheeled, some with knobbies, others with slicks, some wore Lycra, others cotton and denim.  It was almost magical.  All these people from different places and backgrounds were brought together in one place.  The only thing missing was a giant plate of mashed potatoes shaped like Devils Mountain to complete the puzzle.  Ironically, we were parked under an old water tower that resembled Devils Mountain from the Close Encounters alien movie.

After checking over the bicycles again and again, we clipped in. It was a paved path out of town and we both settled in for the long haul. We didn’t really have any particular destination for the day.  We planned to ride till we got tired, then either get a room or camp.  Mile by mile, as we rode out of town across impressive steel bridges with ramps that allowed us to cross the ever present railroad tracks, the bike traffic thinned and AK and I picked up the pace.

Ten or so miles out, the pavement became finely crushed packed stone and we could hear screams. We whizzed past a fence that seemed to be the edge of an amusement park.  I could see two giant roller coasters from the trail.  One seemed not to be in use, but with the screams of the riders, the other was. 

Once Pittsburgh was behind us, little towns dotted our route along the trail.  As we got closer, bicycle traffic would increase.  Most of these towns cater to the cyclists, offering services virtually trail side.  We rolled on.  We kept a good average of about 15mph. It doesn’t seem fast, but when your bicycle weighs 75lbs it changes things.  You've got to stay on top of the nutrition/hydration and listen to your body. We stopped about every 15 miles to stretch and take in food. This seemed to work great for us.

We stopped briefly along the way at little huts designed for camping.  Each offered a nice view and serenity.  These areas also had pumps for treated water.  Although it was supposedly safe to drink, I stuck with filtered tap water along the way.  AK, however, was content drinking the brown stuff.  We rolled for hours, passing noteable sights along the way.  A lot of people were out checking out the natural water-formed anomalies that the waterfalls caused.  Really cool stuff!  As I rode I tried to remember the ones I wanted to stop at on our return.

Later in the day, we passed into a small town where people were tubing down the river and it reminded me of the time I floated down the Gauley River in a life preserver.  This same town had art everywhere.  As an artist and professional printer himself, I’m sure AK questioned my use of the word “art,” but I enjoyed this town.

Eventually we arrived at a Ohiopyle. It was about 7:30-8 p.m. and we were hungry. The town had a nice restaurant on the path.  I also spied a small motel and camping sign. We had covered about 70 miles on our first day.  Dusk was melting into dark.  We pulled the plug.

We sat down for a dinner of “Nasty Burgers,” drank a few glasses of water and each ingested an emergency vitamin pack.  The burgers were big and had fried green tomatoes and horsey sauce on them.  Yes please!  I enjoyed a few Bell’s Oberon beers at dinner and AK loaded up on coffee.

Dark came quickly and the restaurant was closing soon.  We said our goodbyes and headed back to see if the bed and breakfast had any rooms.  We had no luck there, so we rolled down to that motel and AK went in.  I watched through the glass.   AK's expression changed and he began to run his fingers through his hair like he was deep in thought.  The place wanted $200 a room!  As Aaron walked out, they offered a 10% discount.  Even though it was getting colder and darker, we declined and turned to the campground.. 

The sign read, “Campground ½ mile.”  It turned out to be a very steep hike-a-bike that was in fact a ½ mile to the top. We set up in the dark with me in my hammock and AK using a small tent. I put on my jacket and passed out quickly. I slept solid for about 3-4 hours before I woke to a chill.  I zipped up a little tighter and managed the rest of the night. 

(to be continued)

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