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C&O; CANAL: THREE BIKES, FOUR DAYS Trip provided lessons in nature and history, plus lots of exercise

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You could call it a four-day biking trip along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.

Or you could call it a lesson in wildlife biology, Maryland history and maybe even small-town sociology. With plenty of physical education thrown in, and enough camping-related grubbiness to earn a merit badge or two.

The three of us dubbed it "The C&O; Cycle a Go-Go," to match our high-spirited and easygoing pedaling expedition from Cumberland in Western Maryland to the outskirts of Washington. The occasional mudhole or sore muscle notwithstanding, this self-guided excursion was amazingly simple to arrange and enjoy, for several reasons.

First of all, the C&O; Canal towpath could be considered a bike highway. It has a reasonable surface for riding on a wide-tired bike. It's long and straight and flat, so you don't have to mess around with maps and route choices.

It has free campgrounds for hikers and bikers every five miles or so, while passing near enough towns to offer meals and sightseeing opportunities. It never strays far enough from the Potomac River to impede the occasional dip.

In other words, it's nearly ideal. You just have to like to bike -- and not mind getting dirty.

The night before our cycling began, my sister, Julie, our friend, Veronica, and I got a ride to Cumberland, hauling bikes, gear and towpath information. We had from the morning of July 4 to 11 a.m. July 7 to make 170 miles (the trail is 184 miles long, but we'd arranged a pickup north of the Georgetown terminus). That meant riding about 50 miles each on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, then finishing with an easy 20-mile pedal Sunday morning.

We all like to ride, so we didn't worry too much about making the mileage. Less experienced riders, or those taking their kids (we saw two families doing the ride), might want to plan 30-mile days, perhaps confining the trip to the northern, more rustic half of the towpath.

We left our motel before 9 a.m. Thursday and did some hard pedaling all the way to a fast-food restaurant on the other side of Cumberland. As we stoked up on pancakes, people in the restaurant told everyone else how it looked like rain for sure. I remembered an Outward Bound instructor telling me the more you get rained on, the more you learn. But I wasn't out here to take a remedial course in perseverance.

The first day's ride took us south along the Maryland-West Virginia border on a trail of packed dirt and some small rocks. On our right was the Potomac River, looking healthy if brown; on our left, the canal water was a putrid, slimy green.

(OK, time for the obligatory explanation of canals, towpaths and so on. If, like me, you didn't come this far just to learn something, skip ahead.

(Canals were popular in 19th century America as a way to ship goods inland from harbors. Basically, they are long ditches dug next to rivers, with inlets to feed water from the river into the canal. Ships loaded with freight were pulled along the canal by horses or mules, which walked on an adjacent towpath. The C&O; Canal was completed in 1850 and used until 1924. More recently, it was made into a national park.

(Now back to the bicycling, leaving you on your own to learn about locks and aqueducts and how railroads meant the death of canals.)

Before our first lunch break, we'd chased a woodchuck down the trail (woodchucks, we learned, do not like to yield right of way) and scared a great big blue heron into the air. When we left the trail for a short ride into Paw Paw, W.Va, we were delighted by dozens of goldfinches flying low across a field. A bold rooster even enlivened the picnic lunch we rigged up from the Paw Paw 7-Eleven (the town's restaurant was closed for the Fourth).

With 25 miles under our belts -- and 145 to go -- I remembered what I'd learned on two previous bike tours: Much of the success depends on the quality of conversations with other riders, and the pleasantness of your own musings.

Face it: Few recreational riders find enough to contemplate in simply pushing the pedals, and the canopy of trees over the towpath rarely allows riders to gaze into wide scenic vistas.

So what to do for five or six hours a day in the saddle? We sang, together and separately. We planned future stops for meals and swimming.

Best of all, we cast the movie version of our trip, which would star Meryl Streep (10 years younger, perhaps using her "Sophie's Choice" accent), Julia Roberts (five years older) and Amanda Donohoe (given a complete makeover). We used up more trail time figuring out who would play the respective romantic interests (if you want to know, you'll have to see the movie).

The day's most exciting stretch came during a walk through the long, dark and spooky Paw Paw Tunnel. When we emerged, it began to rain and we cycled doggedly to a dinner stop in Little Orleans, where the mayor runs the bar and grill and people sign dollar bills that are pasted to the ceiling -- a guarantee you'll always have a buck to fall back on.

A couple of cyclists on the porch -- played by Richard Dreyfuss and a younger Mariette Hartley, if that helps -- gave us the cryptic advice that "the pork chops aren't as good as they say." Our beer and chili went down fine, though.

We shared a campsite -- basically a clearing next to the river -- that night with several other groups of cyclists, including Dreyfuss, who caught small fish. Campground amenities consisted of a pump to draw well water -- unpleasant in flavor -- and an outhouse, ranked about midway on the yuck scale.

We had a 10-mile ride before breakfast Friday morning, arriving eventually at Weaver's Bakery and Restaurant in Hancock, where we ordered pretty much the entire menu. (Waitress played by Susan Sarandon, as usual.)

Eating becomes so important on a bike trip because it's the antithesis of riding. It's easy, it's instantly gratifying, it's done while sitting on a broad-bottomed seat. It takes on reward status: We bike 10 miles, we get to eat. Oh, boy!

After breakfast, we met the mud. For several miles below Hancock, the towpath was a nearly nonstop mudslide, making me grateful for the wide, knobby tires on my mountain bike. Another cyclist said tires as skinny as 1 1/8 inches were OK for the trail, but the bigger the better, I decided after watching Veronica skid.

The mud was followed by the parade of the tree stumps -- one after another sticking up on the trail. Our motto: 'Tis a far, far better thing to lift your rear end out of the saddle voluntarily than to let a stump do it for you.

We stopped to look at Fort Frederick, an 18th century fort with costumed guides. More gratifying even than that slice of living history were the ice-cold sodas and a pump under which we washed ourselves and our bikes. A later stop in Williamsport allowed us to replace some of the screws that had come loose during the rough ride.

The day ended with a detour (explained in the park service packet) to avoid a virtually impassable section of the towpath. We took to the highway happily, welcoming the smooth surface and wide open views. Back on the trail, before stopping for the night, we got to add to our list of wildlife sightings: a couple of deer, bluebirds, tiny toads, a box turtle, a raccoon, more recalcitrant woodchucks and what might have been a wild turkey.

Saturday, after a breakfast stop in pretty Shepherdstown, W.Va., we had the sense of encroaching civilization. From there to Harper's Ferry, we dodged other bikers, parents and children, people toting inner tubes.

We pushed on to the town of Brunswick, where we caught the end of the Great Brunswick Races, featuring goofy homemade boats, homemade rhubarb pie and a bluegrass band (Alison Krauss and Union Station in the movie). The day ended at a campground across the river from Leesburg, Va., where we endured the occasional far-off siren, but got to see fireworks that had been delayed because of Thursday night's rain.

Sunday morning, as we began the 20-mile ride to our pick-up in Great Falls, it was clear the peaceful adventure was coming to an end. It seemed like half of Washington had turned out on the path to bird-watch, picnic or speed past us on stripped-down racing bikes.

At Great Falls, we skipped the chance to re-enact the past by paying for a ride on a canal barge and settled instead for an air-conditioned car with the softest seats we'd experienced for several days.

"The C&O; Cycle a Go-Go" was a wrap.

If you go . . .

The National Park Service will send a map of the C&O; Canal and environs, which shows the location of 30 hiker-biker campgrounds en route. You also can request a packet of invaluable information, including where to find grocery stores and restaurants, how to avoid two impassable sections of the towpath, and even what to pack on your bicycle. Call (301) 739-4200.

Call the NPS office to find out about towpath conditions, a good idea if there's been much rain shortly before your journey. We encountered mud on our summer ride; others recommend a fall trip, when the leaves are turning.

Thomas F. Hahn's "Towpath Guide to the C&O; Canal" ($14, available in bookstores) is a thorough guide to the towpath. A more terse booklet is "184 Miles of Adventure: Hiker's Guide to the C&O; Canal," by the Mason-Dixon Council of Boy Scouts of America. Call (301) 739-1211 to order; you will be billed for $2.25 plus postage.

Equipment: Although rumor has it that people have ridden racing bikes along the towpath, most riders stick to sturdy bikes with tires that have tread and are at least 1 1/8 inches wide.

Panniers (saddlebags) are great, but loading stuff in a gym bag ** and bungee-cording it to the rear rack works, too. Just secure it carefully and remember to protect it against mud.

Besides clothing and snacks, we brought blankets, foam pads/air mattresses (you'll be glad of them after a day's ride), a tent, flashlight, rain gear, fishing rod, camera and guidebook to the towpath. Also, we took a basic set of bike-repair tools, an extra tube, extra rack screws and large water bottles. We decided against bringing cooking gear, instead purchasing meals in towns along the way.

Getting there: The hardest part of the trip to arrange was how to get bikes, gear and selves to Cumberland -- about a 2 1/2 -hour drive from Baltimore -- and then home from Great Falls. We ended up begging rides from relatives, although it might be possible to use rental cars or buses (which usually require that bikes be boxed).

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