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.
Ever since I started biking instead of running, the distance that I have been covering in a single day on the trail has become significant enough that I find myself going over the same territory repeatedly, much more frequently than I am used to. This does not necessarily dissuade me from riding, especially since the biking experience seems to be more about the actual process of biking rather than slowing down to take in the surroundings. However, human nature being what it is, I am always on the lookout for new places to go to and things to experience. During the last few weeks I made my way over the Potomac River into Virginia and up to Mt. Vernon.
So it was that I ended up actively investigating new trails for my ride last Friday on Bikewashington.org. I saw that there was a way to get to the W&OD rail trail in Virginia heading west. I read more about the Custis trail that could connect me to the W&OD. (I had noticed the trailhead for the Custis trail during my ride to Mt. Vernon.) This trail was built in in the 1980s, apparently at about the same time as Interstate 66 (which is also called the Custis Memorial Parkway in these parts). Reading the reviews of this trail began to make me nervous. The 4 mile trail running next to the highway (behind sound barriers) was well laid , but it had too many steep ups and downs. People talked about the challenge posed by the layout of the trail, and of having to walk their bikes through certain sections.
It was with a little trepidation that I set out for the Custis trail on Friday morning, just a couple of days after having taken a nasty toss on the C&O Canal towpath, wondering if I would have to beat a hasty retreat. But I was underestimating my physical capabilities. The hills were tough enough, and I had to shift to low gears to tackle some of them, but I made it to the end of the trail unscathed. My initial speed for this section was quite slow (as I tackled the city streets of Rosslyn soon after the Key Bridge), but after that I managed to hit a healthy pace in spite of the nature of trail. I think that my confidence for the August ride just shot up one notch!
There were many miles to discover on the W&OD trail. The 45 mile trail extends west beyond the Washington Beltway (Interstate 495) and starts at its eastern terminus in Shirlington in Arlington, VA. As I navigated the trail attempting to realize the maximum distance I needed to cover for the day, I began to get a better understanding for the bike friendly nature of the town of Arlington. There are trails everywhere! There are bike signs with directions, similar to the road signs (but smaller in size), for every side trail heading off into the local neighborhood. I saw signs for the Four Mile Run Trail and the Bluemont Junction Trail, both major trails with good connections. These asphalt covered trails ran through woods and on the sides of roads. They even had a dividing line running down the middle for managing bike traffic. At street crossings there were specific traffic lights for bikes. There were water fountains for replenishing your drinking supplies in strategic locations. All of this was indeed a discovery for me. I see myself doing further explorations on a bike in Virginia.
I made it back to Maryland without mishap after tackling the Custis trail once again on my way back. The rest of the ride was uneventful. The hot and humid day caused me to drink much more water than I expected, and I was thankful that I had refilled my water containers in Virginia. There were hoards of people on the trail during the ride back. Now that summer vacation has started, there are kids out everywhere. One has to be more careful riding!
The training for the bike ride in August continues. This time I decided that I would do a focused ride where the objective would be to complete the distance I had set out to cover as efficiently and quickly as possible. I traveled light. I did not take a camera. Instead of sandwiches, I just took some breakfast bars and a couple of apples for sustenance in a backpack, along with a few bottles of water. The day was promising to be hot and humid. So I got an early start heading north from Pennyfield Lock.
The section between Riley’s Lock and White’s Ferry is considered by some to be the worst section of the C&O Canal to ride through after it has rained. The problem lies in the numerous puddles that form on the trail. These are so frequent that you have to be continuously on your toes navigating from one to the other. The puddles are formed and remain long after the rain has passed because the water does not dissipate through the clayey soil, and because there are depressions in the trail caused by its layout and by park vehicles that sometimes drive over it.
When you encounter an obstacle like this, you have to decide how best to try to tackle it. Each puddle is unique. If there is water all across the trail, you might just have to ride through it. Sometimes you see bicycle tracks on the sides of the trail that are above the water because that section is a little elevated, and you head for them. But you do need to be careful because there could be drop-offs on the side, and you are also leaning on your bike to make turns while doing this maneuver. You have to recognize and respect that laws of physics.
If you see a path in the middle of the trail between the puddles where the water has either been absorbed into the soil or has evaporated to some extent, you head for it. The problem you might encounter is that the soil is quite sticky and grabs at your wheels slowing you down significantly.
In any case, regardless of what strategy you employ, you end up with splattered mud all over the bike and on your legs, shoes, socks, and pants.
Anyway, I made it past the puddles up to Whites Ferry without any significant issues and slowdowns using a bunch of different strategies.
My incident happened closer to Point of Rocks, where I unexpectedly encountered a significant puddle of water across the trail. I had some good momentum going riding towards this obstacle, and was quickly trying to evaluate the situation and figure out what strategy to apply to get across it. I saw what looked like a track towards the right of the trail that was above water and headed in that direction. I did not make it!
Next to the mud track I was headed for was a puddle of water. I did not realize how deep it was (probably caused by the tires of vehicles digging into the trail). My tires lost traction coming across the section on the edge of the mud track that was above water and slid into the puddle. I lost control and the bike slid sideways out from under me before I could get my feet back on the trail and regain my balance. I was going too fast. I decided to go with momentum of the fall rather than attempting to resist it. I landed on my left thigh with the bike still under me. My water bottles went flying. There was mud all over my backpack and even on my helmet.
The bicycle was on its side but nothing seemed to have happened to it other than its gaining another layer of mud. Even the handlebars remained aligned. The muscles in my left thigh hurt where it had been in contact with the key chain and smart phone which were in my pocket. I had landed on it. I got to my feet and checked myself out. I realized that everything was still intact and that I had come out of my first fall on the trail unscathed. I could continue my ride, and I did just that. I got back on the bike and kept riding to the point on the trail where I had intended to turn back, and then headed back for home.
The ride back was uneventful, but my strategy for dealing with the puddles had also changed because of my experience. I was going to make it very simple when I got to these puddles and simply ride right through them, even if it meant that I would have to slow down significantly to limit the splattered mud. Momentum and mud be damned!
My lower extremities, and even other parts of my body and clothing were caked in mud when I got back. The bicycle got a thorough washing using the hose in the backyard. My thigh is still a little sore, but it is not something that will stop me from riding!
Considering the amount of riding that I have been doing recently, it is inevitable that the probabilities are going to catch up with me, and that there will be some mishap or the other at some time. I have had my first fall from a bike on the trail. I would be surprised if it is my last. But I cannot afford to be a scaredy-cat. All I can do is hope that the experience will help reduce the chances of having similar incidents going forward.
I have been doing some pretty long bike rides (at least in my opinion!) recently in preparation of the six day Pittsburgh to DC area ride with my high-school classmates that is happening at the end of August. I can pretty much do the maximum one-day distance that we will have to cover during that ride, but doing this kind of a ride consistently for a few days is going to be my challenge. After riding a few times I have found that it is possible to get into a rhythm with riding, and that my somewhat weaker left knee is getting stronger and more used to the effort. I am getting less concerned about getting cramps in the leg muscles. I am also learning how to tackle slopes, most of which we will encounter during the section of the ride from Pittsburgh into Cumberland, the halfway point.
I have been riding primarily on the C&O Canal towpath with one diversion a few weeks ago on to The Capital Crescent Trail towards Bethesda. A couple of weeks ago I ventured across the Potomac River on the Key Bridge into Virginia and biked on the Mt. Vernon Trail towards National Airport. I rode to the other side of the airport and during the return stopped at Gravelly Point to take pictures of the planes landing at the airport.
That little venture into Virginia tempted me to attempt to cover the entire distance of the Mt. Vernon Trail all the way from Arlington to Mt. Vernon, a distance of 18 miles. I planned the ride so that I would start off somewhere along the C&O canal, and transfer over to the Virginia side and ride to the end of the trail, finally returning to where I had started so that I could do my required quota for the ride. I started off at Anglers Inn.
Approaching DC, I saw this. I had to stop and take a picture of the black rat snake crossing the trail.
It had been a while since I had seen one these snakes. As I approached the snake with my camera, it appeared to pause on its journey across the trail to look at me (just my imagination, I guess 🙂 ). It eventually made its way into the bushes on the other side of the trail.
I crossed over the river on the Key Bridge at Georgetown on a very pleasant morning. The commuter traffic was headed inbound into DC while I was headed out of town. I descended to the Mt Vernon trail near Roosevelt Island and started to ride. Things were going smoothly. The wind seemed to be blowing against me, but the riding was easy. The trail ran along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, and after riding under a few of the bridges crossing the Potomac into DC, I soon passed National Airport. I was now entering new territory.
Th parkland that I had been riding through after I passed the airport soon ended at the outskirts of the town of Alexandria. I found my way through the city streets to Union Street. I rode through the touristy downtown area with its shops and restaurants. There was a bike lane on the road and the riding was comfortable. Just before the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the trail detoured away from the road and ran under the bridge. When I came up on the other side, I found myself at the section of George Washington Parkway on the other side of Alexandria. I found the biking trail once again running by the roadway.
The trail ran though parks, crossed swamps over boardwalks, , meandered through wooded areas with streams, bridges, and ups and downs, and even diverted through affluent suburban neighborhoods where a trail could not be laid. The Potomac flowed beside the trail, sometimes close by, and sometimes in the distance. I finally made it to Mt. Vernon and mile zero of the trail in time to park myself on a park bench and have my lunch. The last half mile of the ride was a particular challenge up a hill.
The ride back seemed to be easier on the legs, probably because of the direction of the wind, but it was also getting warmer and I was beginning to drink more of the water I was carrying. Instead on focusing on completing the ride as efficiently as possible, I took more time stopping and taking pictures along the way. Here are some samples.
I was still feeling strong as I crossed back into Maryland. I was able to ride up from the pathway next to Roosevelt Island on to the bridge over the George Washington Parkway and then on to the Key Bridge. I felt good because I had to get off the bike the previous time I had to cover this section.
I stopped at Fletcher’s Cove along the way to replenish the water bottles. It was getting quite humid and I was drinking more water than I had expected. (I even demolished the bottle of water that I had left in the car after I got back!) The rest of the ride was uneventful.
The spring flowers that lined the trail with different colors in different in sections,
Or the light tinge of green beginning to appear among the branches of the trees;
The big fat bird that I sighted in the distance,
That kept running away from me along the trail as I slowly caught up with it,
That eventually managed to lift its huge and somewhat ungainly body off the ground
and disappear into the woods around a corner;
The small turtle crossing the trail oblivious to the dangers posed by folks like me;
The big turtles perched on the logs in the waters of the canal warming themselves,
Or swimming in the clear waters with their backs sticking out above water level;
The incredibly bright red cardinals zipping across the trail in front of me;
The extremely loud pecking of the woodpecker ringing through the woods;
The fox crossing the trail and the canal as I approached;
The barred owl that rose from a tree just beside the trail as I went by,
Flying off to settle on a tree further away from the trail to stare at me;
The vultures that reluctantly rose from the trail as I approached,
Only to land on the trees above the trail to watch me go by;
The appearance of the two dogs that seemed to have no master,
One approaching me with an awkward and sideways gait,
Seemingly looking at me warily out of the corner of one eye,
And the other running away to the berm side of the canal to stare at me from the distance?
But the overall result was a great time riding my bike even though I did not stop to smell the roses, and even as I covered 20 miles in each direction along the towpath in preparation for the ride from Pittsburgh to the DC area happening later in the year.
Unless I focus on the above topic from the perspective of the seasons in one’s life, I could end up going back to a familiar place and repeating myself in response to the weekly challenge since I have addressed the subject of the seasons in other photo challenges. (You can check our my submissions the past under the topics of Change, and also Happy Place.)
But I have no interest today in really saying anything about myself. Instead I will simply focus on this season of Winter up here in the northeast United States, and our experience of it during a walk we took last weekend on the C&O Canal towpath beside the Potomac. We drove up to a section near Hagerstown, MD.
We ended up on a section of the trail in the area of Dam 4.
The swiftly flowing river appears to be clear of ice in these parts.
There is a still a layer of snow and ice on the trail.
I suspect that some of the snow on the ground is from the blizzard a few weeks back. The consistency of the white stuff has turned somewhat hard. There are larger ice crystals on the ground that catch the sunlight, and we found that the surface was mostly capable of supporting our weight without giving in. The traffic on the trail has been light before our arrival, and the snow has not compressed to ice (which would have made it a more slippery and dangerous path to traverse). That having been said, it is still more difficult to walk on the snow than on the dirt.
The surface of the trail is not characterless. There are the fallen branches that pop out of the ice.
The dried leaves that have fallen on the ice can stand out. I thought some of these even looked pretty.
The leaves can even start a melting process since they seem to absorb the heat of the sun faster than the ice around them.
The bladdernut pod has even created a cavity in the surface of the ice.
And there is plenty of other life around.
The snow flies (are they also called stone flies?) are everywhere over the ice.
There are plenty of bird sounds to be heard all around, from the cry of soaring hawks, to the loud “wuk, wuk” call of the pileated woodpecker. There are many small birds in the bushes all around the trail. These are difficult to spot unless one is looking carefully, but this little thrush was very cooperative. It sat around while I took my time to change lenses to take its picture.
Winter in our parts can certainly be more challenging than our other seasons, but there is still much to celebrate and enjoy if only you set you mind to it.
It is somewhat interesting to see the varied responses to this challenge. Some of you in lower hemisphere are in the midst of summer (and a hot one in some places), while others in the northern hemisphere seem to be experiencing weather indicating that spring is on its way. We are still in the throes of the winter season in our part of the world!
One of the conversations I had with a high-school classmate during a reunion trip to New Mexico was regarding how much more accessible the outdoors have become here in the US since the days of our your youth when we came over from India. It seems like there are many more parks and many more marked trails everywhere, created by all kinds of government and private entities, exposing us to more of the wonders of nature in the country. It is a great thing!
But sometimes it is the unexpected that thrills the senses. I was on my way to Cloudcroft, out of Alamagordo, driving up into the mountains on Route 82 from the high plains, when I came to a lookout point just before a tunnel. This was a few miles away from Cloudcroft. I could see White Sands behind me.
The parking lot was empty except for this older couple who had come to the location on a motorbike. The couple looked like a rough sort, and my first thought was caution. (I was guilty of stereotyping!) But the woman was friendly. She wished me hello and asked me if I had been on the trail. I said I was not aware of the existence of a trail at this spot. The gentleman then came up and told me about a trail that led from the lookout point down into the gorge between the hills where there was a stream flowing. He said there were waterfalls. He said that most people did not know about the trail, which was the best thing about this spot, and that he brought his grandchildren to the stream regularly. Since I was being flexible in my schedule I decided that I would try the trail. The gentleman told me that it started just beyond the lookout point, nearer to the tunnel, at a place where a black water pipe ran beside the road. He then offered to walk up with me to show me the exact spot. I grabbed my camera bag and followed. When we arrived at the location of the pipe all I could see was a steep slope going down from the location of the pipe. I told myself that I was not going to give that slope a try today. The gentleman laughed, saying that he would not attempt something like that at his age himself, and then showed me a somewhat hidden trail leading off to the right, beside the road, on the other side of the guide rail. He pointed to a cliff in the distance that the trail would pass and told me that there was a cave-like structure over there. The cliff looked steep. I was not convinced that would be passable but I was going to give it a shot. I climbed over the guide rail and followed the unmarked trail. Pretty soon I arrived at the cliff. Indeed there was passable trail.
This was just the beginning of a wonderful (though tiring) day.