To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the C&O Canal becoming a National Historical Park, we are featuring 50 Canal Stories throughout 2021. Each story will take a look at a person’s relationship with the C&O Canal. Whether an NPS ranger, a volunteer, or a visitor, everyone has a story to tell about the canal! If you want to share your story, submit it to us at the link here, email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or post it on your social media feeds with the hashtag #MyCanalStory.
Bill and Leslie Brettschneider, Bikers on the C&O Canal
A daughter, her dad and the Canal
“For your 70th birthday, I’d like to ride a Century with you.” My daughter’s comment set in motion a series of adventures that most recently included our journey on the C&O Canal towpath from Cumberland to Georgetown. Already an accomplished runner, Leslie had decided the best way to commemorate my first 7 decades was to join me in my lifelong pursuit. What began as a 100-mile ride in 2020, led to a 125-mile ride in early 2021 then followed by our GAP/C&O trek this September. We launched in Pittsburgh, traveled the GAP to Cumberland and 6 days from the start landed at Mile 0 in Georgetown. What follows are some insights and impressions gleaned from our 3 days on the towpath.
At the outset, we capitalized on some excellent guidance received from Aidan Barnes with the C&O Canal Trust. While I had ridden parts of the towpath in 1980, I had done so on a touring bike best suited for asphalt. Aidan’s observations regarding the towpath surface encouraged us to rent gravel bikes better rigged for the conditions we would encounter. While these mounts served well on the GAP, I had no idea how they would better handle the, reported to be, rougher sections of the towpath. Our itinerary would take us from Cumberland to Hancock to Harper’s Ferry to Georgetown – a plan apparently common to many, including a couple from Allentown, PA as you will soon see.
While we had met this couple on the GAP, we then became accustomed to seeing them either along the route or at the end of the day. Upon our arrival in Cumberland, Scott and Jennifer pulled in shortly thereafter. After capturing photos and sharing congratulations, Leslie and I enjoyed our hotel stay in Cumberland in preparation for our start on the towpath. The constant excellent weather ushered us onto the C&O the next morning. At the outset, I was lulled by the riding surface – “How rough can this be?” I wondered? In due time, that query was answered and I came to appreciate the 47 mm tires we were running.
Though I had noted a list of sites and sights to see, I was chagrined to learn we had completely missed the first several aqueducts. I was slow to process that we were riding over them. Note to self – stop riding and gain a vantage point to see the work and craft that went into building these wonderful structures. Alternately watered or overgrown, the footprint of the Canal and the echoes of working locks encouraged us onward. Eager anticipation of the Paw Paw Tunnel was dampened by the prospect of the detour due to the stabilization project underway. Undaunted, we rode through the tunnel as far as we could go and well-appreciated the lights provided with our rental bikes. Talk about dark! The scope and scale of the Tunnel is certainly impressive.
A welcome respite from the vibrations of the trail and the calories consumed was “Bill’s Place” in Little Orleans. Truly a slice of local community and culture, this unique establishment provided not only sustenance but also information on access to the paved Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMRT.) The journey into Hancock was smooth and fast. Our standing joke was – “Who is keeping up with who?” The arrival in Hancock brought us to a wonderful bike shop adjacent to the trail, a comfortable if care-worn AIR-BnB and a welcome meal – where again we greeted our new friends from Allentown.
Our travel from Hancock was facilitated by the continuation of the WMRT and the very welcome re-surfacing of the towpath all the way to Harper’s Ferry. Nonetheless, a massive tree downed across the trail required some lifting/climbing/crawling skills. Williamsport saw us greeting Scott and Jennifer while a later detour found us off the towpath with the return being a mulch-covered downhill where walking was the path of discretion. The reward was travel immediately adjacent to the Potomac River. This was a welcome change from the more tree-lined and isolated sections of the trail.
We pressed on toward lunch only then to be greeted by a 12% grade climb off the towpath and into Shepherdstown, W VA. A tasty meal was had at the Blue Moon Café – where again we greeted Scott and Jennifer who arrived looking like they were overdue for lunch. The improved surface of the towpath saw us promptly in Harper’s Ferry where the stair-climb up to the cross-river walkway was an interesting challenge given the loaded bikes we hauled along. Of course, our excellent Inn for the night was then at the TOP of the Harper’s Ferry hill. Local dinner again found us greeting Scott and Jennifer!
Our final day found us feeling ready to return home, particularly for Leslie who lives in Washington, DC. Lunch at White’s Ferry was well-timed even if a disappointment to see the Ferry no longer in service. It also seemed odd to see a sign that said, “Welcome to Montgomery County.” I couldn’t easily reconcile the peaceful greenery and quiet of the towpath with the hustle-and-bustle of the commercial and developed County with which I was more familiar.
The nicely restored canal, locks, buildings and towpath through Great Falls were well-appreciated and the final miles into Georgetown passed by quickly as the urban surroundings became progressively well-known. And then – surprise! We meet up with Scott and Jennifer near the very end of the ride. Together, the four of us negotiated the circuitous route that would take us to Mile 0 of the C&O Canal.
The hewn-stone portal of the “Tide Lock,” the remnants of the wooden lock gates, the broad expanse of the navigable Potomac all served to capture my attention in a manner for which I was unprepared. “Here is where this all started. Through this spot came and went the commerce of the canal – boats and operators and mules and supplies and . . .”. I believe it was the most captivating moment on the towpath.
Being familiar with DC, Leslie volunteered to guide Scott and Jennifer through the urban landscape to the Washington Monument. We negotiated the streets of the city, crossed Constitution Avenue onto 17th street and turned left on the Monument grounds. It was then that Leslie and I both looked at each other and shared “This seems odd. Familiar . . . yet strange at the same time. We’re back, and we’re changed.”
We had traversed a geography that at times seemed isolated and a bit tedious. We had passed through history from a time long-ago. We had done so on two wheels at a pace well above that of the original canal boats. Yet – at the same time we had enjoyed a connection with fellow travelers, perhaps not unlike the community and camaraderie of the canal boat operators, lock keepers and the many who depended upon this thoroughfare. We had immersed ourselves in travel well below the hectic pace of the Capital Beltway. We had woven a fabric as a daughter, her dad and the Canal.
The Canal is calling. Can you hear it? Your adventure awaits you.