Friday, March 11, 2011

Bicycling all the way to DC


Sunday, July 20, 2008 at 9:52pm

I was asked at work to attend a conference with a colleague in suburban DC recently (in Dunn Loring, where I lived for most of 1987) on Wednesday, July 16. I realized this one-day obligation would provide an opportunity to do something I have wanted to do for a long time. Since Jeff B. was to attend as well, he could drive the government car over to DC, while I could bicycle the 184 mile C&O Canal on the way over and then ride back with him. Jeff agreed to drive over by himself, and my boss agreed to give me the necessary annual leave. Reservations were made for the Super 8 motel in Hancock, Maryland, and the Comfort Inn in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, both nearby the bike trail and about 65 miles apart. Having bicycled the entire North Bend Rail Trail in one day (75 miles), I felt I could handle the roughly 60 miles each day on the C&O for this three day journey.

With Anna now based in Morgantown, my adventure started the previous weekend. I loaded my best bicycle (a Giant Sedona, which some would call a hybrid or comfort bike, because it has some characteristics of both a mountain bike and a street bike) and sufficient provisions, while keeping a close eye on the Weather Channel. Originally, the weather forecasts had been promising, but as Sunday approached, the prediction for that day worsened.

We were awakened in the early hours of Sunday morning to the sound of rain. When we got up, I decided to make a change in plans. As much as I wanted to start in Cumberland, the overnight rain and the predictions of more that afternoon didn't sound like a fun way to start this long trek. Having never been on that end of the C&O (last year I took my bike over to DC—actually Rosslyn—for three days of work, and each evening I did a different long ride—to Mount Vernon on the first night, on the Capital Crescent bike trail from Georgetown to near Silver Spring and then back down through Rock Creek park the second, and then on the C&O canal from Georgetown to Great Falls and back the last night), I had no idea what the conditions on a good day were like.

I knew that the Western Maryland Rail Trail was paved, and ran 13.5 miles above Hancock (which is milepost 124 of the C&O canal) and 10 miles below. It basically parallels the canal path, and would give me a chance to ride the first day without getting too muddy. I decided to “punt” on my original goal of starting in Cumberland, so I had Anna drive me to the Super 8 in Hancock (with a stop at “Canoe on the Run” for brunch—a great restaurant near Wisp and Deep Creek Lake owned by my cousin). She drove my car back to Morgantown, while I watched the Weather Channel and waited for the storm front to blow through.

Late that afternoon, the sun came out and I headed upstream on the 13.5 miles of the paved rail trail, reading all the historical markers along the way. At the western terminus, I decided that even though it had rained, I wanted to examine the canal path, so I went beyond the end of the pavement. I ventured five miles dodging mudholes to a place I had read about called Bill's Place in Orleans, Maryland. It is a combination general store and local bar, which did not impress me all that much (although all the dollar bills pinned to the ceiling with messages written on them was a nice touch). So for the first day, I only went about 37 miles, but at least got a taste of what was ahead.

On Monday, I started again on the Western Maryland Rail Trail for the remaining ten miles, much of which runs close to I-70. You have the river and canal to your right, and a railroad and I-70 to your left through this narrow part of Maryland. It makes you think about how man has progressed with transportation, from the Indians who paddled their canoes on the river, to the mule-powered canal boats, to the “iron horse” of the railroad, to today's interstate highway. Massive changes came with each era, and I am afraid we may be nearing the end of our current gasoline-based vehicle era.

At the end of the paved rail trail, I took to some paved roads to check out Fort Frederick State Park. This large stone fort with classic bastions at each corner was originally used in the French and Indian War, as well as the Revolutionary War and even the Civil War. Ironically, by the time of the Civil War, Maryland had sold off the aging fort and a free black family lived there. It was worth the diversion to check it out. There was easy access from the park back onto the C&O canal path.

I continued my way down the canal, stopping to read all the historical markers and just enjoying this ride through the woods with the Potomac River alongside. At times, the river is in pools, but there are places where you can see (and sometimes hear) the riffles and rapids as it descends to the Chesapeake. During the entire trip, I saw lots of deer, rabbits, squirrels, groundhogs, herons, turtles, etc., but only one wild turkey. [As a WVU fan in Maryland, I didn't need to fear the turtles—ha ha.]

The town of Williamsport, Maryland is right on the canal, and I was surprised to learn that George Washington had investigated Williamsport as a potential site for our country's capital city. Can you imagine what West Virginia's eastern panhandle would be like if the District of Columbia had been located just above Martinsburg?

Another interesting place was the Killiansburg Caves area near Antietam. Some women and children took refuge in these caves during the battle, which was the bloodiest single day battle of the Civil War (Gettysburg saw more killed in action, but it was a three day battle as compared to Antietam). There were also numerous markers about the Gettysburg campaign, showing the troop movements across the river and canal.

Upon reaching Shepherdstown, I decided to cross the bridge and explore the town. It is a quaint small town, and the campus of Shepherd University is very nice. I eventually made it to Harpers Ferry, crossed the river to the West Virginia side again, explored that town (at least the lower area), and then headed to the Comfort Inn for the night. It had been a long day—64 miles of canal, but with my diversions to Fort Frederick, Shepherdstown, Harpers Ferry, and the one detour remaining on the canal where the National Park Service sends you off on some country roads in rural Maryland, I bet it was at least 70 miles.

On Tuesday, I headed back across the river to rejoin the Canal path (which in this section near Harpers Ferry is also part of the Appalachian Trail). I loved the roar of the water in the rapids below where the Shenandoah joins the Potomac. Anna and I have visited Harpers Ferry a few times, and once did an innertube ride down the Potomac through those rapids. I've also been through them back in the '80s and '90s during raft trips down the Shenandoah.

One of the interesting sites the last day was near the Dickerson, Maryland powerplant. Near the canal path they have created an artificial whitewater river for their warm-water discharge. The U.S. Olympic Kayaking team practices here. There were several stone aqueducts that were also interesting to see. These were necessary to carry the canal over Potomac tributaries such as Antietam Creek, the Monocacy River, etc.

Upon reaching White's Ferry (35 miles upstream from Georgetown), I decided to divert from the canal path. Rather than riding all the way into DC and then riding back out beyond the beltway to Dunn Loring (in the 90 degree heat), I chose to ride the “General Jubal Early” ferry boat across the Potomac. This ferry is the last chance to enter Virginia before you reach the beltway, and it is a unique ferry. Unlike the Sistersville Ferry across the Ohio River, this smaller one is guided across the river by a braided steel cable stretched from each bank. The town of Leesburg, Virginia, is less than five miles from the ferry landing, although it did require riding along Route 15 into town.

Leesburg is an interesting old town, and the Washington and Old Dominion Rail Trail runs through it. This is a paved bike trail that would take me from Leesburg directly to Gallows Road in Dunn Loring, through Herndon and Reston. I got to watch a lot of jets flying into Dulles Airport as I rode along, adding another form of transportation to this trip. Late Tuesday afternoon, I finally made it to the Marriott Courtyard at Dunn Loring, completing my three day “commute” via bicycle.

As I rode along, I wondered if the rising cost of oil was not putting some of us in the same position as those who built the canal. In the early 1800's, the new-fangled train was unproven, and yet canals had a long history of dependable transportation. Even George Washington was a big backer of the building of the C&O canal. Unfortunately, before it could be completed to Cumberland, the train had made it over the mountains (indeed, the legal wrangling over property rights between the canal company and the railroads caused the canal company to eventually be sold to the railroad, that ran it as a way to bring coal, farm products, etc. to Washington until 1924).

Having learned to drive during the original oil crisis in the mid-'70s (when you could only visit the gas station on a particular day if the last digit of your license plate was odd or even), I have always been aware of energy issues. There is only a finite amount of oil in the ground. Global oil production has been decreasing in recent years. England thought the opening of the North Sea oilfields would give them an unlimited source of oil, but already they can no longer supply their own needs and must import additional oil. There are other countries who once belonged to OPEC, but now cannot support their own domestic needs, and thus no longer export oil.

Even if we allow the Exxons to drill in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (remember the Valdez oil spill?) or off our protected coastlines (remember Santa Barbara in 1969?), this will not have an appreciable impact on gas prices, because these new American sources will not be limited to our own consumption. The oil companies want the government to release these last protected areas for drilling, but then they will sell the oil on the world market at whatever the best price they can get. This oil may ultimately go to foreign countries—it would not be reserved for the US market. We are in a global economy, and the growing demand in the former third world nations are driving the cost upwards, at the same time that the availability of oil is decreasing. When you add in the problem of oil speculators trying to lock in long term prices, the overall trend will be for oil to go higher.

I'm afraid the days of cheap gas are behind us, and we need to be working harder towards hybrids or electrics (hydrogen seems to me to be a bit too explosive for vehicles or fueling stations, and it takes way too much energy to separate it—at least at this time). Unfortunately, Detroit has been addicted to huge SUVs and now even the return of muscle cars (Mustangs, Challengers, Camaros, etc.) when they should have been building vehicles to maximize fuel economy (like my VW diesel). Check out the documentaries “Who Killed the Electric Car” and “A Crude Awakening” for more on this topic. Hopefully the next president will be more interested in real energy policies to help us transition into a new era. Energy issues are directly linked not just to environmental issues, but also economic issues.

As Jeff B. and I returned on Wednesday after the conference, he dropped me off at Morgantown's Sabraton exit. I got my stuff, put the front wheel on the bike, and rode down the Deckers Creek Rail Trail to return to Anna's house. Since I was still wearing my white shirt (sans tie) and dark dress pants after attending the conference, I probably looked like a Mormon missionary riding my bike through Morgantown.

I took the rest of the week off from work, and did some nearby bike trails in Marion County and at Cheat Lake on Thursday. On Friday, I ventured to Ohiopyle, PA and rode the 22 miles to Confluence, PA, and back. This allowed me to scout out the Youghigheny River and get a deal from a rafting company. On Saturday, Anna and I drove to Ohiopyle and did a trip down the “Middle Yock” in duckies (inflatable kayaks) and had a great time. One (of many) highlights was examining freshly caught rainbow and brook trout during our lunch stop. After spending most of the week riding bicycles alongside the water, it was nice to culminate the week by riding the river downstream. Over 200 miles of bicycling--it was quite a week!

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