It has been an absolute blast riding this week because of the weather. I have gotten on the trail early enough in the morning with the temperatures still in the low 60s. Some people may feel too cold under these conditions, but this kind of weather is ideal for me. I rode down to the city twice, and from there on to the Mt. Vernon trail and the Arlington Loop on the different days.
It feels like the effort level that I am putting into riding, especially when I am on a level surface, has gone down. I can feel very relaxed even when moving along quite briskly. The wheels keep turning easily, and I do not feel like I am pushing it to keep up the pace. The weather might have something to do with it. Hope it stays this way for the long ride.
As I was approaching Great Falls yesterday, I saw a great blue heron on the trail beside the canal. I expected it to fly away as I got closer, but it did not. I stopped my bike (front brake squealing!), pulled out my camera, and walked on the trail beside it taking pictures without a zoom lens. It did not flinch. This has not happened before. If the herons are this close, they usually fly away. I finally returned to my bike with the bird still hanging around. I wonder if the birds are getting too friendly for their own good.
I also ran across a big group of kids on the trail who made my morning! They were blocking the trail when I first saw them in the distance. But I was observed while still in the distance, and they all moved in a systematic way to a side and then turned to face the side of the trail I was riding. It was as if they were waiting for the show, similar to a march-past. And so a show was what I put on! I rode past them trying to show good form, crouched over the handlebars a little bit, and feet pumping systematically, and moving efficiently. As I rode by, keeping a good pace and thanking them for clearing the trail, they cheered me on enthusiastically. I heard at least a couple of “woohoos!” I am hoping that at least one of the kids was motivated enough by the encounter to consider asking their parents for a bike so that they could ride the trail. Any chance of this happening?
Here are some pictures taken from the rides.
This is a view of the trail in a section of Widewater that kept getting washed away until they built this structure. I do remember traversing this section before this construction. You essentially had to navigate a pile of rocks. People on bicycles would ride the Berma Trail which ran along the other side of Widewater in order to get past this section.
Here is a picture of a sweet chestnut fruit taken in a a park on the Mt. Vernon Trail. It took me a while to identify this fruit. I actually thought that chestnuts did not grow in the country any more because of the blight that wiped them out in the early 1900s. So this was a surprise.This is a view of activity on the Potomac seen from the Key Bridge as I was returning from Virginia.This is Lock 6 in the middle of the day when I stopped to eat a sandwich during one of the rides.This is a bridge across the canal near mile 12. It feels great to ride in the shade of the trees on a sunny day.And today I came across this shy fellow on the trail.I am now done with my practice rides. The bike I have been using will get its final wash for a while. I have put many miles on it and it has served me well. Now on to Pittsburgh!
It is very easy for me to fall prey to laziness. I need to train for my bike ride but I had been finding excuses to put my rides off earlier this week, as I had often done in the past.
The latest excuse that threatened to do the most damage to my training regimen was rain. While I have not been caught outside on my bike in a heavy thunderstorm thus far, we have experienced a few spectacular episodes in the evenings recently because of the extremely warm and muggy weather. (One such storm even sent water into the kitchen and I had to get some emergency work done fixing and cleaning the gutters.) Anyway, I had decided to finally bike on Thursday after the usual excuses earlier on in the week, when heavy thunderstorms struck on Wednesday evening. This was about to be my excuse to skip training on Thursday also. There was going to be mud on the trails, and even though I had tackled mud before, I was not in a mood for this kind of an experience.
When asked about why I could not find a location where I could ride on a surface without mud, I responded that I would have to drive a long way off to get to said location. But the thought stuck. Instead of dropping the whole idea of riding, I motivated myself to wake up early and drive an hour to the start of the WMRT near Hancock. The WMRT, which runs roughly parallel to the towpath, is covered with asphalt and runs about 22 miles to Pearre in Maryland, with Hancock roughly at the mid-point. So off I went!
Not only was the ride on the WMRT clean, but the surface was so smooth that I was zipping along very fast and making good time. Also, all of the reluctance that I had felt earlier on to training that day went out the door the moment I started riding!
I reached Pearre, the other end pf the WMRT, in record time! There was the temptation at that point to turn back and return to where I had started, since my only option to extend the ride was to get on the towpath which would have been impacted by the rain. But what little I had seen of the towpath from the vantage point of the WMRT on which I was riding was a dry trail. So I decided to continue further on the towpath.
The trail in that section was in a terrible condition! I found myself negotiating puddles of mud constantly. The trail for the most past consisted to two tracks with thick grass growing in-between. I tried to avoid the mud by switching tracks to avoid puddles if they were only on one side, or rode between the tracks over the grass where the puddles covered both tracks. All of this tended to slow me down considerably, especially the attempts to ride on the grass. But I was in no hurry. After about 9 or 10 miles of the trail, after crossing the old and unused Western Maryland Railroad bridge over the Potomac, I stopped to eat something and start the return trip.
I stopped occasionally to take more pictures on the way back.
My original thought was to get back to the WMRT at Pearre when returning so that I could avoid the challenges of the towpath. But as I kept riding my outlook began to change. I got more comfortable with the thought of riding through puddles. I should let this riding experience be more in line with the more challenging aspects of what I might experience during the long Pittsburgh to Gaithersburg ride, I thought. At Pearre, I stopped to take the picture below, and then continued on the towpath, with the thought that I would switch back to the WMRT a little later at Hancock.
It was a good decision. The puddles became less of an issue since trail was drier than I had expected. But, in addition to the bumpy surface, I had to deal with limbs from the trees that seemed to have fallen all over the trail. I had to stop a couple of times to remove branches that got caught in the frame of bike. Fortunately, there was no damage to the wheels. But I was also making good time, and there were also more interesting things to see from the towpath.
I switched back from the towpath to the WMRT at Hancock and took a short break, but then also changed my mind after the break about the trail I wanted to continue back on. I decided that I should really put myself to the test with the riding conditions, and got back to the towpath for the rest of the ride! The good thing was that this section of the trail had a surface of freshly compressed crushed stone. It was pretty comfortable, and the surface was dry. I made it back in good shape, but because of my adventures earlier that day, contrary to my original goal of having a clean ride, there was mud all over me and the bike at the end of the ride.
I wonder how much of rain and mud we will experience during the Pittsburgh ride. Since I have not had to ride in the rain so far I do not know how that is going to feel, but I am ready to take on muddy trails after the rains any time. And I am glad I got over my laziness on Thursday!
The dogs days of summer have hit the Washington, DC, area. The combination of the temperature and humidity makes the heat feel quite intense when you are in the open areas. I have still been riding my bike regularly. I start earlier in the day if I can, and ride through the hottest parts of the day. It is usually not too bad under the trees, although I have gotten the strangest pattern of tans on different parts of my body because of my exposure (enough said!).
But the ride last Friday was particularly brutal. I had decided to go further out on the W&OD trail in Virginia. The ride started off easily enough with my crossing the Potomac on the Key bridge into Rosslyn in Arlington early enough in the morning. I stopped on the bridge to watch the planes on their way into National Airport.
I stopped at Gravelly Point to take some pictures of aircraft coming in for landing at the airport.
After I passed National airport, I had to turn off on to the Four Mile Run trail and ride a few miles to the start of the W&OD. Things became more difficult once I got on the W&OD. There was minimal tree cover over the trail and the sun was beating directly down from on high. The asphalt that formed the surface of the trail was also increasing the intensity of the heat. As I rode out of Arlington, and past Falls Church, Dunn Loring, Vienna, Reston, and finally into Herndon, tackling the numerous ups and downs of the trail, and with the rhythm of the ride being constantly interrupted at the many busy road crossings, my energy levels dropped. Two bottles of water (one with and the other without dissolved electrolytes) were being consumed quickly. I managed to find a section of the trail with a little bit of shade just outside of Herndon, had my lunch to try to build up my energy level once again, and started on my way back home.
It was now getting to noon-time and the heat was really slowing me down. The number of other people I was seeing on the trail was dropping. Have you heard the song about mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun? Since I am not an Englishman, I must be a creature of the other sort!
I determined that I could not do the ride all the way to the turnoff for the Custis Trail in one stretch without a break as I had originally planned. Back at Vienna I plonked my tired self on a bench outside the old station building where there was a little bit of shade and tried to recover. I was fortunate to also find a water fountain to replenish my drinking supply.
I got back on the bike and did make it to my next stop, which was the start of the Custis Trail, without incident. I parked myself under the shade of the trees in the park and re-energized myself with a fruit and more water. All of my appetite had vanished at that point because of the heat. I was gulping down the water. The mixture with the electrolytes was gone, but I was able to refill the water bottles.
The ride from that point onward was easier because of the shade of the trees that covered the trail. Once I got back on the towpath I stopped at Fletchers Cove to get a bottle of Gatorade, something that was not a part of my original plan. That bottle did not last too long either. I made it back successfully, and the recovery process that evening was actually very good, although I decided that I was going the spend the next day, which was also going to be super hot, indoors! I am hoping for better conditions during our ride from Pittsburgh.
I was keeping a steady pace on my bike, slogging out the last few miles of the ride in the shade of a canopy of tall trees, when I happened on a section of the trail with blackbirds. A song about blackbirds came to my lips immediately, a song not exactly appropriate for the time of day that I was riding, but it did not matter (except that Sir Paul would probably have disapproved of my enthusiastic efforts). As I rode into the section blackbirds rose from the trail, and around it, and started flying ahead of me. And the further I rode, the more blackbirds rose from the shrubbery and trees. Soon the section of the trail in front of me was full of blackbirds all flying away from me over the tree-covered trail. I felt like I was keeping pace with them. The volume of my singing increased while the quality decreased and the birds kept rising into the air in front of me. This probably lasted a few seconds but it felt like a long time to me. It was like magic!
But there was more magic that I experienced earlier on during the ride. Summer is the season for dragonflies and butterflies. The butterflies were everywhere, while the dragonflies seemed to be concentrated in certain areas. I had to stop by the canal at the Dickerson Conservation Park to take pictures of the plentiful dragonflies and the few butterflies around. Here is a sample.
The magic actually happened at the Monocacy Aqueduct as I was pushing my bike on the walkway across the river. I had nearly crossed the aqueduct when the butterfly landed on the seat of the bike. It was quite comfortable in spite of the movement of the bike.
The butterfly then decided to land on the fingers of my right hand and stay there. I was unable to take a picture since that is the hand I hold the camera in for taking the pictures. At some point I parked the bike. I persuaded the butterfly to move to my left hand and tried to take a picture with that hand extended out, but I could not focus because of the nature of the lens on the camera. So I placed the butterfly on the metal handlebar basket, pulled a different lens out of the camera bag that was in the handlebar basket (without scaring the butterfly away), swapped lenses on the camera (placing the lenses on the ground in the process) while the butterfly continued to sit on the handlebar, convinced the butterfly to come back to my left hand from the handlebar, and finally got the pictures below. The butterfly did not even try to fly away during the whole process. It was magic!
But these were not the only creatures I encountered during the ride. Here are a few of the pictures I took.
Yes, that is a bald eagle in one of the pictures, but the picture did not come out well because of the lighting. I encountered plenty of life on and around the trail during that ride!
All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all Anglican Hymn
Take It easy, take it easy Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy….………………………..The Eagles
The constant jangling of the metal handlebar basket as I bounce along on my bike on the towpath is something that I have gotten used to. The sound is fading into the background as if I were wearing some noise cancelling headphones, but it is only what is left of my middle-aged rattled brain doing its thing! With regular six to seven hours of steady biking all by myself day after day, starting in the relative cool of the early mornings, and continuing through the middle of these hot and humid summer days; with the legs beating a regular rhythm on the pedals without end; with the steady concentration of the ride and your thoughts only broken up the occasional scenic stops, the snack breaks, and the infrequent interaction with folks you come across on the trail; it is all something that is becoming second-nature to me.
It has gotten to the point where I can recover from my long rides and do the same thing the next day without feeling the ill-effects of the previous days’ efforts. It does not matter if I had been riding on a flat surface on the towpath or if I have overcome some challenging slopes on the Virginia side of the river or on the Capital Crescent Trail the previous day. So I think I am about as ready as I can be for the long ride at the end of August.
I have biked all the way to Reston, VA, near Dulles airport, on the W&OD trail. This picture was taken at the place where I stopped for lunch and turned back to return home. I would eventually like to bike to the end of the W&OD trail. It is 45 miles long.
The picture below shows the scene at Lock 7 in the morning during a different ride. It is still cool in the morning at this point and I am riding towards DC. I eventually crossed the Potomac on the Key Bridge and took the Arlington loop. This is Swain’s Lock later the same day as I was returning to Riley’s Lock. The heat had built up by this time. The picture below was taken at the end of the same ride. The kids are on Seneca Creek near Riley’s lock. As I mentioned in another blog, there are kids everywhere! This picture was taken early in the morning the next day at the start of another ride. The location is north of Taylor’s Landing near Sharpsburg, MD. As I was getting my bike out of the car, a few vans full of kids and equipment drove into the parking area. When I inquired if I could help by moving my car out of the way, one of the adults told me not to bother. They were simply dropping the kids and their bikes off so that they could ride the trail, and the vehicles were going to pick them up at the other end of the ride. I like kids, but I did make sure to start my ride going in the opposite direction of where they were headed.
I passed the Dam 4 cave, and then Dam 4 itself, a couple of miles north of Taylors Landing. During this ride I biked all the way to Williamsport, MD, before turning back. There is a lot of work going on in the park in Williamsport and I had to navigate my way past a dump truck that was blocking the trail. The National Park Service is trying to get the canal in that section set up so that they can give rides to visitors in replica canal boats. On my way back, at Taylor’s Landing, I did come across a group of four older women who were riding from Cumberland to Washington, DC, over five days. They had actually roughed it out the previous night by staying in one of the lock houses. It was unusual to see such a group on the trail.
Here is a recording to the song mentioned in this blog.
As I get ready to bike the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal between Pittsburgh and the Washington DC area with my high-school friends at the end of the month, I am reminded of this letter that I wrote in the year 2009.
“Many of you have been reading about my experiences on the C&O canal for the last few years, and you might still not get a sense as to why this has become a part of my life. Truth of the matter is that most folks who live in this area are not even aware of the existence of this jewel in our backyard. The C&O canal is just not a major topic of conversation in these parts. But there is also another small dedicated group of people that is aware of this resource, and there are news-groups on the Internet where people like me visit to share stories and get information.
I have only traveled about 125 miles along the canal so far, and the towpath eventually ends at Cumberland, MD, at mile 184.5. Beyond the C&O canal, to the northwest, lies the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), and a trail that runs all the way up McKeesport, PA, the place where Mona did her residency a while back. The combination of the GAP and the C&O canal runs over 300 miles from McKeesport (near Pittsburgh) to Washington, DC. There are many people who walk and bike these trails for recreation these days, and the experience is awesome. There are villages, rivers, mountains, canals, railroads, bridges, viaducts, locks, aqueducts and tunnels to see. There is Nature. There is even a sense of history on the trails, with the stories of the civil war battles along the Potomac, and the stories of the little old towns that used to exist in the early days of the country, and a way of life that has almost completely disappeared.
I have never biked the trail for any long distance, and when I read the stories of people who have gone through the experience of doing the entire stretch I feel inspired. I am having a hard time describing why one feels this way. It is not that one is doing something that is important and will make a difference to humanity. I think this could be the purest form of entertainment and adventure. You experience nature in an unadulterated form, at your own pace, and without the benefit of any sort of motorized assistance. These days you do not even have to rough it out on the trail during the nights, since there are little towns with little bed-and-breakfast facilities and restaurants along the way. It appears that the popularity of the trail could be reviving some of the old villages in a little way.
Will I get a chance to ride the entire trail myself? I do not know, but it would not take much for something to tip the scales and for me to make up my mind to set out on my bike one fine day. Of course, it is not that simple. One has to be prepared. You have to carry supplies when doing such a trip. You have to be ready to face the unexpected. But if somebody out there wants to share the experience with me, I am ready to set out on this adventure! Any takers?
The link below is to an article written about the GAP in The New York Times.
Side story – Early this year, I got an e-mail from the President of the Allegheny Trail Alliance asking if they could use one of my pictures in the 2009 trailbook. I said yes. I had a hard time finding my picture when the trailbook came out. It ended up in black and white in a tiny format in a corner of a page. But that was good enough for me. One of my pictures has now been published! ”
Postscript: It is hard to believe, but many years later I am about to embark on the trip I talked about in 2009. I have to thank my good friend Koushik (who is riding with me) for motivating me to get off my butt and finally do something about it.
Also, I was approached once again this year to donate a few of my pictures to the 2016 edition of the trailbook for the GAP. A couple of my pictures appear in the guide.
I have put in quite a few miles on my bike on the trail this week. It occurred to me that, remarkably, I was not feeling bored in spite of the repetitive nature of the rides. I remembered a blog I had read from a webpage tracking a couple’s hike on the Pacific Crescent Trail. This particular posting was a guest blog by somebody who was traveling with them for a short stretch. He talks about what the experience of hiking means for him. I could empathize with some of what he was saying – about the silence and the thinking that goes on. You can cover a lot of ground, both physically and mentally, without even being aware of it.
A couple of days back I was cruising in the cool of the early morning, lost in my own thoughts, on a section of the trail near Carderock. Between the mind games and the focus on the act of riding (something that has become more automatic these days) I was having a ball. I was brought back to reality by the sight, out of the corner of my eye, of two older gentlemen who were walking in the other direction. When you are riding a bike at a decent pace people pass by quickly, but I did notice that one of the guys was smiling broadly, looking at me, and giving me a thumbs-up sign with both his hands. He was encouraging me on. I had to smile back. Or maybe I was smiling already, and this was his response. Did I look like I was on a mission and needed encouragement? Or was he simply happy to wish somebody on the trail. It does not matter. He had reached me somehow and raised my spirits even further. Everything was good!
With the distances I am covering, and with the coming of summer, I am seeing kids everywhere on the trail. There are summer camps and outings, with bike rides, horse rides, boating (tubing/canoeing), fishing, swimming, and other kinds of activities to keep the young ones occupied. It is great that the natural resources of the area are being taken advantage of so that kids learn about the great outdoors all around rather than getting stuck indoors staring at the screen of some electronic device the whole day.
But with kids on the trail there is an additional element of caution that is required, especially if one is cruising on a cycle. Sometimes they seem to be completely oblivious to what is going on around them. Last week I was passing a group of kids and everybody moved out of my way except for one lad who basically got on his bike a started riding straight towards me on the wrong side of the trail. I had to yell and brake hard. He finally moved away at the last minute. Who knows where he mind was at.
Then there was this group of kids on bikes who rode off the trail at Whites Ferry while I was trying to get on to it. They did not know enough to even get out of my way. I had to stop and let most of them get through first. Their adult leader apologized once he got them going properly.
A couple of days ago I rode up behind a group of adults and kids on horses. While most of the horses were well behaved and were keeping to one side of the trail, a couple of them were not cooperating at the back of the line. They were wandering all over the trail, standing across it to look at me (maybe they were curious) while their riders were trying to talk them into getting back into line. At one point one of the riders thought that the horses wanted to get in line on the other side of the trail (the wrong side), but that was obviously not their intention. The horses finally cooperated and I was able to pass on the left. On my way back on the trail, as I approached the same group and started passing them from the front, the little kids on the horses started shouting to me. They told me that the last two horses in line were in training and that I should be careful. The kids seemed quite concerned about my safety and they were so sweet about it. I yelled my thanks without slowing down too much. The kids are alright!
During the last couple of days I have run into more issues with people, both adults and kids, on the trail who do not seem to know what to do when a biker comes by. Sometimes people are not keeping to their side of the trail and they get very confused when a biker comes up behind them. I announce myself loudly so that people can move aside, and if at least one person in the group hears me I am usually in good shape. But sometimes somebody darts across the trail into my way at the last minute and I have to brake hard and yell. Just yesterday, a kid almost ran me off the cliff near Anglers Inn. He apologized while I tried to recover my composure.
But I want to come back to the thought I started this blog with, which is that it does not matter how many times you go over the same territory when hiking or biking. The experience simply does not get old. Just yesterday I was riding past a section of the trail that always catches my attention in the early morning light. As I have done several times in the past, I stopped once again to take a picture. Perhaps you have seen this picture before.
Then there are these other experiences from the ride.
And, yes, it is hot as heck outside right now. The folks in the picture below have more determination than I do!
We will see what the next week of riding brings.
The practice rides for the Pittsburgh to DC biking event continue. Since it could be quite hot at the time of the ride at the end of August, I thought it appropriate to not try to go out of my way to avoid the heat while training. We were notified of a heat advisory by the National Weather Service last Thursday, with predicted heat index values between 100 and 105 degrees. Since there was work being done in the house in the morning I could only get on the trail around 11:00AM. This was perfect for training! This being the first time I was subjecting myself to such conditions, I decided to be more cautious than usual, carrying extra water, and splitting the ride into two parts, with the ability to shorten the ride easily if I wanted to.
It was not too bad riding under the trees, but the heat did take its toll on me over the long run, and I was struggling towards the end. Even though I was hydrated and had eaten enough, I was tired and dragging. I was glad that I had decided to shorten the ride. The ride did have its interesting moments. I encountered some suicidal Canada geese parked right across the trail who refused to get out the way of the speeding bike. They just stood and stared. I am actually scared of these birds when they are with their young ones, as was the case here. They hiss and chase after you. Fortunately, no goosicide ensued. Then there was the squirrel that decided to take off across the trail as the bike was approaching, misjudged the speed of the vehicle, and unexpectedly made contact with the bike. It was fortunate for all involved that it did not get caught in the spokes. The crazy animal continued its mad dash across the trail. I did not stop to see if it was hurt. I saw an unexpectedly large number of great blue heron in the sections of the canal that were watered. I suspect that they were fishing. I could actually see reasonably sized fish swimming in the waters when I stopped to have a snack.
Friday promised to be less humid and I set out very early in the morning to do a complete ride starting at Williamsport, MD, biking past Hancock, MD. I was going out of my way to ride a new section of the trail. I had covered these sections of the trail on foot previously, but that was a very long time ago.
I had been hesitating to start rides far away from home for a while because I do not have a good bike rack for transporting the bike on the back of the car. The bike rack I am using is very old, designed well before the Prius with its broad spoiler came into existence. (Even today the options for getting a newer and more suitable bike rack that is capable of transporting the woman’s bike (that is another story) on the Prius are limited.) I finally ended up using the simplest solution, something that I should have thought of in the first place, which was to fold the back seats of the car and push the bike all the way into it from the back. This is possible because the Prius is a hatchback with a wide rear opening. The new strategy allowed me to drive further out from home, and on the highway, without having to worry about something untoward happening with the bike and/or the car during transportation. I will have to deal with the dust from the trail that collects in the vehicle later.
It felt especially thrilling to set out out this part of the trail on a still cool morning, remembering how it used to feel in times past, but this time making much better speed and covering more distance than I used to in the past.
In no time I had reached Dam 5 on the Potomac river. This is the point at which the canal ended for a short distance before starting up once again further northwest. Canal boats used to be pulled along the side of the river in this section.
Beyond that I passed McCoy’s Ferry and then Big Pool. Soon after I got to the spot where I could have taken an alternate route using the smoother WMRT that parallels the C&O canal for the next twenty miles or so. Instead, I stayed on the towpath thinking that the ride had not been too bad until that point. But it was about to get worse! A few miles out I came to Little Pool and a section of the towpath where they had just laid a thick layer of crushed stone on the trail. Unfortunately, the stone was new and had not been compressed enough to set into place. Previous riders had not yet created a track clear of loose stones. The ride became much rougher and uncomfortable.
As the trail passed the town of Hancock, I transferred to the WMRT for the rest of the ride. I rode the smooth asphalt into a mountainous section of the trail, passing though the Roundtop State Park. Looking down the hill through the vegetation, I could sometimes see the the towpath running beside the Potomac well below me. The trail itself ran through some very beautiful surroundings. It all felt awesome, but I was missing some of the sights on the towpath like the Round Top Cement mill because the WMRT ran above the ruins.
I turned back after riding for a little while longer, and after having lunch. This time I stayed on the WMRT till its very beginning before shifting back to the towpath. Got back to the start of the ride in good shape.
I recently wrote a blog called Splattered Mud where I talked about having fallen off my bike while riding the C&O Canal towpath. This happened a few days after it had rained, when I was trying to dodge a puddle that had formed on the trail. I did not have a picture to show at that time since I was not carrying my camera. But I did find a picture taken a few weeks earlier under similar circumstances when we were taking a walk. It is a pain to get past these stretches on your bike.