G.A.P. and C&O 2008

 

 

Map courtesy of Allegheny Trail Alliance

Red Line is the GAP, Blue is the C&O Canal

325 miles total including

130 from Boston, PA to Cumberland, MD on the Great Allegheny Passage and 184 from Cumberland to Washington DC on the C&O Canal Towpath

May 29-June 4, 2008

Self-contained tour , mostly camping

by Lamar Martin and Liam Healy

 

This is also a test report of the convertible rolling duffle bag/touring trailer, designed and built by yours truly, patent pending.

 

 

I have ridden some or all the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park towpath many times and this 184 mile hard packed dirt trail remains high on my list of favorite places to ride. It is even better now that the Great Allegheny Passage connects with the C&O in Cumberland, MD, providing a continuous ribbon of quiet, peaceful greenway all the way from DC to McKeesport, PA, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. In the near future the GAP will extend all the way to the Pittsburgh International Airport. For this trip, I flew to PIT from ATL and had pre-arranged for a taxi ride from PIT to the small town of Boston located about 40 miles from the airport, using Bill’s Taxi, a Yellow Cab provider, for a flat fee of $70. This was very reasonable considering the drive takes over 1 hour with the city traffic and the cost of gasoline, at the time $4/gallon. The driver was very friendly and helpful, and I highly recommend this service for anyone interested in repeating this trip (call Bill’s Taxi for reservation, 412-855-4484).

 

In Boston, I met up with Liam Healy, who I first met on the Great Parks North Canadian Rockies trip in July 2006. Liam is a Navy Physicist and college professor who lives in DC. He had made reservations for the two of us at the Yough Shore Manor, previously an elderly care facility converted to an Inn. Economically challenged Boston has little to offer in the way of lodging or restaurants. Even though the room was small, with no A/C, and used a shared bathroom, the stay was made pleasant by the owner, a very nice, fun, and interesting lady who rides a Harley. She let us use the covered porch for our bike assembly/storage.

 

The photo on the right shows my convertible duffle bag/touring trailer packed and ready to roll with rain cover in place. Inside the trailer, along with my camping gear, clothing, etc., I also carried my soft-sided S&S Coupling bicycle case pictured below.

Front: Lamar’s titanium MTB bike with patent pending trailer

Back: Liam’s titanium touring bike with panniers

 

 I built a new bicycle just for this kind of trip. I started with a used Cove Hummer XC titanium MTB frame purchased on Ebay. The frame had been retrofitted with S&S Machine Couplings by Bilenky Cycle Works. I installed a carbon fiber rigid fork, Shimano Deore XT and XTR components with gearing and tires more suited for touring rather than mountain biking. A rear rack for connecting my patent pending trailer tow bar (and for carrying my Trek rack bag with fold out panniers) and a touring bike kickstand completed the perfect bike for this trip on dirt trails.

 

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View of the actual duffel bag/trailer used for this trip. With wheels and rain cover installed, and connected to a bike, it became the serious touring trailer that withstood rain, mud, rocks, roots and other hazards on this  325-mile trip, while carrying the 11 lb bike case plus all of my gear for a 7 day camping trip. The trailer with wheels, rain cover & tow bar weighs just under 15 lbs. The strength lies in the aluminum frame/chassis inside the bag.

 

The wheels remove with just a flick of the QR skewers and the external axles also remove by pulling a pair of clevis pins located inside the bag. These fit easily inside the duffle bag leaving just a normal piece of rolling luggage with  in-line skate wheels and retractable handle which made it a pleasure to pull through hotels/airports. The internal frame makes the bag semi-rigid and made loading and unloading extremely easy.

 

I use the soft sided travel case, shown here, designed especially for S&S coupled bikes, which has backpacking straps for carrying it, and when empty, folds to about 30” x 10” x 5” and fits nicely inside or on top of the duffel bag/trailer.  My carry-on bag for the trip was my Trek rack bag (just don’t forget to remove all tools, lube, and anything else the airport doesn’t allow in carry-on bags).

 

 

Note:  Based on lessons learned from this 325 mile torture test, future trailers will have the axle mounted externally, through fasteners in the bottom of the bag to the chassis inside the bag. This will allow easier disassembly, avoids making holes in the side of the bag, and gives the ability to install/remove rain cover with the wheels installed.  This duffel bag measures 32” x 16” x 15”, just 1” over the airlines’ 62” girth limit. Delta actually measured it and charged me $30 extra because of this 1”. Future trailers will use 30” x 16” x 16” bags to avoid this surcharge. The tow bar will be stronger and easier to attach/remove.

 

 

Now, with the technical and logistics stuff out of the way, here comes the fun!

 

The trip was beautiful. I really like the GAP, which reminds me of the well maintained 225-mile crushed limestone surface of the Katy Trail (from Clinton to St. Charles, Missouri) which I have enjoyed riding 3 times.  The GAP is also built on abandoned railroad beds (most of the way) and is in such good condition that it feels very much like riding on pavement, except from the crunching sound made by the tires, and a bit of dust.

 

Call me crazy but the roots, rocks and mud puddles of the old C&O Canal towpath, battered and worn by many decades of floods and ice, hold more appeal to the child within me than the well maintained, almost manicured, trails of the GAP. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the GAP, which is very scenic and peaceful especially as it follows the Youghiogheny River,  “The Yahk,” for short, and has many beautiful old RR  bridges and tunnels. During an 8 hour ride in the rain the GAP remained hard packed and well drained. The 3,294’ long Big Savage Tunnel with it’s electric lights is awesome for a rail trail (who pays the light bill?)!

 

Still, my first love when it comes to bicycling dirt trails, is the historic C&O Canal, with it’s wonderful old locks, aqueducts, hiker/biker camps, and of course, the 3,118’ long Paw Paw Tunnel which has no lights and is almost pitch black dark in the middle (bring a flashlight). This 184-mile long National Historic Park is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful routes for bicycling/hiking in the US.

 

We mostly camped but I spent one night in the hotel in Williamsport without Liam, so I could get my trailer repaired. There were 3 ladies there who were “credit card touring” on the C&O.  We saw them on the trail a couple of times and they were making better time on their bikes than I was, since I was only averaging about 8-10 mph pulling my 70 lb trailer (including 15 lb for the trailer, 11 lb for my bike case, and all of my gear). Next time I will ship my empty bike case from McKeesport to DC so I don’t have that extra weight and bulk to carry the entire 325 miles.

 

 


One of the hiker/biker camps on the C&O, after a rainy night.

 

A big change since my last trip on the C&O in 2003 is the Detour that starts at McMahon’s Mill and goes to Dam 4, where the Potomoc has completely devoured a section of the canal and towpath. This year we paused at a new sign for an optional detour, that gets you off the towpath well before the mill. In 2003 the last mile before the path reaches the mill was along a narrow, but ridable, ledge with a high steep cliff on your left and a straight drop off to the Potomac on the right. I rather enjoyed riding the ledge in 2003, so we stayed on the towpath, but soon found ourselves having to push our bikes over large rocks that have fallen from the cliff above making it impossible to ride for 100 yards, or so. I discounted all thoughts of turning back, thinking it would get better soon, which it did, but we were only in the saddles  a very short distance when the path became even worse, where we had to walk amongst rocks too big to push our bikes through, and carefully pushed our loaded touring bikes along the top edge of the stone retainer wall; one slip and our bikes and gear could have fallen into the river far below, and impossible to retrieve. It was a tense and strenuous task, which I do NOT recommend; do yourself a favor and take the first detour.

 

My bike and Liam’s panniers. Liam and his bike is still somewhere on the other side of this tree across the trail.

 

The biggest adventure was the last 5 miles in the DC area when a dangerous thunderstorm struck. We had no place to take shelter so we stood there and watched a tree get hit by lightning about 200 feet from us, the resulting smoke, a jogger who was barely missed by a 3-4” diameter tree that snapped and flew by him, and plastic lawn furniture floating  down the road which quickly became a white water river. We watched all this from a busy street corner near the entrance ramp to one of the DC bike trails. Once the winds let up we walked our bikes down the steep ramp to the trail stopping often to clear broken trees and limbs from the path. Approaching cyclists warned that there was tree down ahead, completely blocking the trail but we rode on to see for ourselves. It was indeed a very big tree that completely hid the trail but upon closer investigation, we could see a path to climb over, under, and through, to the other side. I  uncoupled my trailer from the bike and passed it through the maze of tree limbs to Liam, and then my bike. Then Liam came back for his bike and passed his panniers to me, one at a time, and then his bike. We were amazed that we had stood out in this weather unharmed. I know we had a higher power watching over us.  

 

I had some problems with my trailer but it made it the whole way with some temporary fixes on day 4 and 7. I love the design and am proud to say I have applied for a patent. It worked great as a standard rolling duffle bag in the airport/hotel/taxi/etc., but it also kept all my stuff clean and dry during two days of rain and mud and was fairly easy to tow and maneuver even on the worst sections of the C&O towpath.

  

Here's a slide show with additional photos from our trip (click the Refresh button to restart):

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