I’ve covered the first six-tenths of a mile/kilometer in a previous post [link] so my account of today’s ride- my first full day headed up the C&O Canal Towpath- starts at the foot of 34th Street NW in Georgetown next to Francis Scott Key Memorial Park.
My plan was to leave Daniel and Sarah’s apartment and meet my friend Brendan, who would ride with me today out to the Chisel Branch Hiker/Biker Campsite 30 or so miles/about 50 kilometers down the Towpath where I planned to spend the night, across the Key Bridge at the Key Park at eight. That slipped to nine as it took a bit longer to get everything wrapped up the apartment. But I finally came flying over the bridge and Brendan was there with his Surly Ogre waiting for me.
We wheeled our bikes down the couple of steps at the end of 34th
and crossed the bridge over the Canal. Down the ramp on the other side and we were on the Towpath and underway.
My plan today, as mentioned, was to make it up the Towpath to Chisel Branch Hiker/Biker Campsite. I had no particular expectation about how long it would take to ride the almost 30 miles/50 kilometers- I figured today would be a learning experience.
When I tour I am pushing almost 400 pounds/180 kilograms down the road made up of me, my bike, and my panniers, gear, water and supplies. Over the last couple of years this has translated out into an average speed of almost exactly ten miles/16 kilometers per hour regardless of the mix of terrain. This has all, though, been on pavement. Ten miles/16 km an hour has made for very predictable 50-60 mile/80-95 mile days while on tour, and in fact I use 50 miles/80 kilometers a day between notional overnight stops when I do my route planning. But being on an unpaved surface all day long was uncharted territory for me. So, as I have noted previously in this blog [link] I used 30 miles/50 kilometers a day as a planning factor for the C&O Canal Towpath, Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), KATY Trail, and Rock Island RR sections of this ride. I didn’t know if I’d make it that far in three hours or in eight.
One thing I did expect was that I’d likely be taking a lot more photos along at least the Towpath than I usually do along the roads I’ve cycled on generally. The scenery along the Towpath is relentless- beautiful stuff, either natural or built, just starts coming at you and it doesn’t let up. It seems like there’s always something to stop and take a picture of.
I worked out a signal with Brendan, who said he’d ride behind me and wouldn’t mind the stop-and-go. We agreed that I’d unclip one of my feet and stick my leg out before I began braking to a stop. This worked out pretty well.
I plan to post most all of my photos in the crazyguyonabike journal I’ve created for this ride [link] so the ones I put up here on the blog will be just a sample of what you will see there. On the other hand I won’t be working on that journal until I get back to Alaska in October. So what you read and see here is what you get for now.
Leaving Georgetown quickly behind we found the Towpath to be between two and three yards/meters wide and with a nice solid small gravel surface. That made for relatively fast riding (between stops for pictures). There were certainly other folks using the Towpath- mainly cyclists and joggers- but it was not crowded by any means. The paved Capital Crescent rail-trail ran alongside for a short while and then we ducked under it where it crossed the Towpath on an old Howe truss railroad bridge.
The Canal was always to our right. It took various forms
during the day. Sometimes it was filled with water, sometimes it was dry. Sometimes it was completely overgrown with weeds.
When there was water, it was generally a muddy sluggish looking brown. Sometimes, though, it would be completely overgrown with bright green algae.
At one point it was a bright reddish-orange color for a stretch, presumably from some kind of chemical runoff. I have to be candid- there were things I really enjoyed seeing during this first day and things that I didn’t really care for. The Canal was much of the time generally in the latter category. Although there were a few stunning sections, in particular in the Great Falls area,
most of the time the Canal is just a oozy weedy wet mess that looks like it would suck your shoe off in a heartbeat. It has in a lot of places that wet smell associated with decaying vegetation and the other stuff that winds up in it. It’s not actually off-putting but, like I said, there were a lot of times when it was far from my favorite thing about the ride.
The Towpath was in pretty great shape for most of the day. It was generally wide enough for two bikes to easily pass and the surface was pretty much free of roots or big rocks to watch out for. It was only past the Great Falls area about two-thirds of the way through the 30 miles/50 kilometers I would do today that Brendan and I began seeing stretches that were like a one lane vehicle road out in the country with grass growing down the center. Even these stretches, while presenting a bit more of a challenge riding-wise, provided a generally fairly smooth and level, if narrow, riding surface.
As we approached the Chisel Branch Campsite there was about a three mile/five kilometer stretch of fairly relentless mudholes that took some caution to traverse.
I had been warned that these would be an issue, and particularly as I proceeded further to the west. Today’s muddy places were pretty tame, though, although the few of them that simply could not be ridden around did gunk up my lower frame, hubs and the panniers just a bit.
Subsequent days on the Towpath, I would discover, would make today look like a ride in the park. The one thing I quickly discovered about the mudholes generally is that, while they may look pretty bad as you approach, especially when a puddle covers them, the mud is not deep and the bottom of the hole is flat and solid. I’ll have more to say about these obstacles later on in this blog.
I’ll also have more to say about the wealth of 19th-century Canal structures and other improvements that I passed as I pedaled along the towpath.
The amount of stonework involved in the various locks and other structures is just staggering. The Canal was not simply put together using Rock gathered from local outcroppings. The masonry used is virtually all cut and dressed stone, and while it is not ornamented in any way to make it architecturally “pretty,” it today strikes me as possessing a simple but deep beauty.
Other structures ancillary to the Canal such as the lockkeeper’s houses add to the visual delight.
Put this all into the amazing physical setting of the Canal route and it just becomes almost too overwhelming to adequately describe.
This post has run very long, and a lot of it is more about the Towpath in general than about what I saw mile-by-mile along the way. But, as I said up front, I’m not trying to provide a travelogue here. I’m just trying to give some sense of what was going through my mind as I cycled along on my first day out of six I will spend on this incredible and historic route. I will note, in brief, that I rode under the I-495 Capital Beltway (which shows, in being built over one of the Canal locks, the relative importance placed on historic preservation and freeway construction six decades ago),
and past the extraordinarily scenic Great Falls of the Potomac, which are covered in some detail in this post [link].
I’ll also note that, after Georgetown, there was only one location on the Towpath in all of my ride today where it is possible to purchase food to eat or buy a beverage. This a snack bar located just past the Great Falls Visitor Center.
The whole of the Towpath has limited opportunities if you find yourself hungry or thirsty and haven’t brought food and drink along with you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Before I wrap this post up I’ll give a shout-out to Brendan, who was really patient with all my stopping, a great conversationalist and had a wealth of local knowledge about things to see along the Towpath. He did the 30 or so miles/50 kilometers I rode and, while I was settling in to relax at a picnic table in the late afternoon, turned around and rode those same miles, mudholes and all, right back.
So, a fine day on my first day up the Towpath, and tomorrow promises to be even better.