Friday, November 22, 2013

GAPCO - Irons Mountain Campsite to Hancock

There is plenty to investigate.
Tuesday, September 24, 50 miles.

Day five of our adventure started with damp cold. I was fully awake by 6 a.m., and peeked out the 6 inch hole in my mummy-style sleeping bag. It was the only way I kept warm—wearing a hat and coat draped over my torso made up for an inadequate bag, especially because it was 39F. It turns out I was the only one who slept through roaring, frequent trains—ear plugs were my friend. It was some time though, before I could extricate myself from my cocoon. Andy grumbled something about oatmeal being ready, which didn't sound too appetizing. I heard Patty shuffling about. I slowly did exercises and a half hour later, I roused myself outside, bundled in all the clothing I'd brought. I must admit, it felt good to stand up after 10 hours in a tent.

One of the many lock houses on the C&O Canal. Photo credit: Patty
Mornings on GAPCO (except for the first one) were often foggy and cold. Without ample sunshine to immediately warm us—aided by aforementioned green tunnel effect—it would be a couple hours before Patty and I felt comfortable. I never expected such cold. I consoled myself with knowing we'd never have problems with insects. And surely, we didn't fret about full campsites; it was quite the opposite.

Patty tucked chemical warmers in her socks. How brilliant! Like the Starbucks Via coffee packets she rationed, I imagined she carried only a few warmers with her so I didn't bother to ask if she had spares. Her circulation was worse than mine. I hadn't wished for my down booties (stuffed in a closet) for 20 years, yet I could've used them at the campsite. Actually, to save space, I should've brought my own warmers—Patty had the right idea. I sufficed with thick fleece socks inside thin soled shoes, then switched to sandals once we got rolling. We all bundled in hats, mittens, and rain gear over tights and jackets—anything to ward off numb fingers and toes.

One of many great blue herons enjoying the canal "soup".
In spite of the weather, early mornings on the trail brought their own magic. What the Great Allegheny Passage lacked in wildlife, the C&O Canal portion made up for in abundance. We flushed deer off the path, We gasped at close calls with squirrels darting in front of our wheels. Great blue herons poised one-legged on logs in the duck weed-filled canal. As I watched I couldn't help but wonder whether herons are bothered by cold. Possibly they balance on one leg while the other is tucked into their bodies for warmth.

I immediately recognized the "Who, who cooks for you?" bird call as a barred owl. I rarely see them in Vermont. We stopped and gazed through the trees until we spied the owl sitting on a branch.

Turtles were plentiful. They made us all laugh, lined up on logs emerging from the overgrown canal. Acquired by the National Park Service in 1935, many canal sections resemble ponds; otherwise a forest has grown. Except for the raised trail—which often felt like a rail trail to me—the defunct waterway is left to the animals. Often, when the lighting was just right, the weed-covered water could be mistaken for grass.

Photo credit: Patty
A few gates were in place, but we easily navigated around them. Barriers cautioned cyclers and allowed vehicles access to boat ramps and picnic area on the Potomac.

Photo credit: Patty
Ah, the much anticipated Paw Paw Tunnel! It's an amazing engineering feat, with 6 million bricks covering 3000 feet. The tunnel is completely unlit. Patty set off first, then I went next, closely followed by Andy with his mega bright headlight. The trail was only 4 feet wide. My light dimmed and proved useless. Patty yelled "be careful!". The packed dirt roughened and between stark shadows cast by Andy's light, hiding puddles that we nearly waded into, I almost crashed into the arching brick wall. Then there was the rail on the left, keeping us from plunging into water. Frightened, I got off my bike. I wasn't going to risk scraping my knuckles or having an accident.

Photo credit: Patty
Finally, emerging on the other side of Paw Paw, we gazed back, truly appreciating the stone work. We crossed the dry canal and ate lunch within view of the tunnel's entrance. It was fun to watch cyclists and walkers enter or exit.

Another creature to add to our list: an interesting striped lizard with distinctive blue tail slithers out from a cement block while we eat. Maybe he smelled our food! I later identified it as a blue tail skink, a common lizard in Maryland.

A typical view of trail and changing trees. Photo credit: Patty
In Little Orleans we try to find a few groceries but come up short. Bill's Place, a bar with ceiling covered in one dollar bills, however does have an ice cream freezer. Never pass up an opportunity to enjoy an ice cream bar!

Riding on the C&O Canal is a delight. Mostly. Because the one bothersome thing is the amount of debris we constantly flick up from the trail. Stones and most especially sticks catch, and snap, rocket sideways, back wards, or momentarily cling, riding up under the fender. I stopped a few times to remove sticks from the freewheel. Another time a stone inadvertently pinged from my bicycle and hit Patty.

As hilarious and silly as these minor events are, the sound of flung debris can be unsettling. It wouldn't take much for a stick to get stuck and take out a few spokes.

This was my first thought when an extremely loud crack comes from my rear wheel. It sounded like a gunshot and all three of us come to a halt.

Andy and I dismantle the fender while Patty documents the scene. Photo credit: Patty
I'm afraid to look, but of course, I must. I am relieved that the only casualty is my back fender. It's broken in the middle and something caused the rear portion to shove forward and crumple against the frame. I laugh. Surely, my fenders are jinxed on this trip.

We leave a piece of fender in place. I need a big wrench to undo the kickstand or remove
rear wheel in order to reach the last bolt holding the fender. 
The problem with fenders is they're just as difficult to remove as they are to put on. It takes almost 30 minutes for Andy and I to dismantle the screws and bolts, plus reattach the rear rack; both fender and rack shared the same frame hole. I save a few parts and add the rest to our trash bag.

Onward we go, eventually arriving in Hancock. We look for a private campground, ready for a shower. One option is to stay in lodging connected with a bike shop, but the stacked bunks resemble a kennel. Literally, the housing is outdoors—not unlike a hostel—but inside a fenced off 20 foot high cage. There is no privacy plus with the impending cold I knew I wouldn't be as warm as sleeping inside a tent. It was truly a weird place and could only be for summer travelers. Instead, we forego bathing and stay in the city park. A corner is set up for overnight guests complete with picnic tables, water spigot, and reasonable seclusion set back from the road. Andy was uncomfortable; there were teenagers hanging around, mainly near a group picnic shelter. We confirm our stay with with residents. And true to their word, local police cleared out the teenagers at 9 p.m.

After a quick walking tour of town there is nothing like Jiffy Pop and wine to round out the evening. Love that bike tourist fare...

1 comment:

  1. I must admit I always dislike cycling in dark tunnels..I find it quite disorientating. We came across a number of them in Italy back in June...cycling from sunshine into a black unlit tunnel was not good.


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