On Friday, the first of June, my wife Jenni and I headed around the 8-lane deathstrip towards Great Falls. We had our bikes on the roof and our new camping gear loaded in the back of the car. The rain had held off most of the day, but here along the Beltway, it started to pour down. Oh, we had expected it; we saw the weather forecasts turning gloomier and gloomier as Friday approached. But our schedule was tight and this was the only weekend we had open, so we’d played the relatively safe odds that the weathermen were wrong.
Gambling just isn’t my strength.
We were headed to Great Falls to try camping from our bicycles along the C&O Canal trail. We’d camped before, but always out the back of our Chevy Blazer. And we’d ridden our bikes before; I had nice REI panniers, which, prior to this trip, had only been used to load up fruit from local farm markets. (I live in Pennsyltucky. There are farms here, though they’re quickly being turned into townhouses.) We needed lighter, smaller camping gear for a trip like this, so in the preceding week we burned up our credit card at REI buying a new tent, sleeping bags, astronaut food, clothes, and all that. Naturally, the day before the trip, we checked everything out and packed it all up. We were amazed at how much we could actually carry. My panniers did a bang-up job holding the sleeping bags and pads on the outside, leaving plenty of room on the inside for other gear. Jenni rode with a smaller set of panniers; they were enough to hold some food, clothes, and the tent.
As we neared Great Falls, the rain let up. It was starting to look like a nice evening. We told the ranger we’d be back in two days, saddled up, and headed north. The trail was nice along this stretch; wide and flat, and just a bit bumpy. We had visions of making Harpers Ferry by nightfall.
If you’re not familiar with this trail, you should know that it’s nicely equipped for hikers and bikers. About every five miles, there’s a free campground with chemical toilet and well water. There are a few campgrounds which charge a fee; these are accessible by car. Great Falls is a national park and charges admission; I have an annual pass, but if you don’t and you want to avoid paying for parking, consult a good map for locations of roadside parking areas further up the trail.
So, here we were biking up the trail, loaded with camping gear. I was nearly beaming with pride - my first carless camping trip! We passed the first few camping areas. As you might expect, the campgrounds grow smaller as one gets further from the city. Generally, each campground had a few sites, each with firepit and picnic table.
As we got about 15 miles north of Great Falls, the trail began to get rougher. It was clearly less used here; it was more of a two-track road than a wide path. I was riding ahead of Jenni, and it seemed I was constantly breaking spiderwebs. A couple of times I had to stop just to clear my head and my bike of the web strands. But this was the price of solitude, and it was worth it. The trees, the vegetation, the river, the jumping fish, the wildlife rustling in the brush - I could deal with spiderwebs. Oh, and the geese! The geese rule the trail. Apparently, this is child-rearing season. Everywhere we turned, we saw a family of them. Mother Goose would hiss at us as she stood between our bikes and her chicks (gooselets? goslings?). Mother and Father Goose would swim down the canal with awkward children between them.
The rain began to return. It was just spotty showers at first, just barely enough to notice. But it was also enough to wet the trail. The bumpy dirt was turning to slick mud. About 20 miles north of Great Falls, I heard the sound of a branch getting caught up in my wheel, and then a sharp ping. My heart sank. I hopped off the bike and checked it out. Sure enough, I’d broken a spoke on the rear wheel. I stood there a moment, contemplating my fortune. I hadn’t bothered to bring a spare spoke. Why, you ask? Well, for one thing, I don’t know how to replace a flippin’ spoke.
As I stood there, the trees began to roar. It was pouring again. I got out my little bike toolkit and tried to true up the surrounding spokes to give me some semblance of a round wheel, but I found that my tool wasn’t quite the right size for my spokes. That or I really don’t have a clue what I’m doing.
We saddled up and headed on. I figured, this being a popular bike trail and all, that there must be a bike shop along the trail. So I figured.
A few miles up, we found ourselves at historic White’s Ferry. There was a shop there advertising food and bike rentals. I went in and inquired, but I was told they had no bike supplies here. Instead, the nice lady told me to go to Poolesville, “just six miles up the road.” Well, silly me, I thought she meant six miles up the trail. So we headed on up the trail, figuring we’d end up in Poolesville in six miles.
The rain was heavy and steady. The trail became treacherous. It’s difficult to maintain balance riding on muddy ruts while loaded with camping gear and nursing a badly out-of-shape wheel. We passed one campground, assuming that Poolesville was just ahead.
Eventually, Jenni turned to me and asked me about the road/trail thing. I nodded; I had been wondering that myself. She pulled out the trail map we’d gotten at Great Falls. Poolesville was actually on there, and it was, indeed, six miles up the road from White’s Ferry. Trouble was, the road went in a very different direction from the trail.
We pressed on, looking for the next campground. The ride became smoother, though I tried not to acknowledge that. The ride became smoother still, and I began to hear a small hiss. Unable to ignore it any longer, I stopped and looked; yep, the tire was going flat. Nothing I could do about it here; I had packed a spare tube, but the rain was pouring down.
We finally made it to the next campground. There were only two sites here, and one was taken. Wouldn’t you know it, the empty one had no table. Well, we got the tent opened out and dove inside. I normally don’t take food inside the tent, but it was clear we were stuck for the night, so I brought some munchies in with me (bears don’t eat soy nuts and Balance bars, do they?).
In the morning, the rain finally subsided. I managed to fix the flat while my wife made breakfast - our neighbor packed out early, so we used his table. We checked the map and found our way to Poolesville, where we stumbled onto Bob’s Bikes in the center of town. Bob and his daughter gave us excellent service and had me back on the road with a nice, round wheel in no time. So he deserves a plug: http://www.bobsbike.com
We ended up back at Great Falls a day early. We’d had enough for one trip. We were tired and dirty. You know, I’d figured that rain wouldn’t be too big a deal; I’ve ridden in the rain before. Once I’m wet, I don’t care anymore. But riding on this trail in the rain is a whole different game. You pick up mud & grime everywhere. Your bike is covered, your gear is covered, and you’re miserable.
So we grabbed a picnic table at the park, pulled out the stove, and made our dinner from the night before. Camp food never tasted so good.
Lessons learned: Murphy lives on this trail. Be prepared for the worst. The going is treacherous in the rain, so unless you want a miserable trip along with the joy of scrubbing the mud off all your gear when you get home, pick another day.
But is it worth it? You bet. I can’t wait to try it again. This time, with a new spoke wrench.