Family Bike Tour along the C&O Canal Trail

We've been home several weeks now from our trip, and it's given me a lot of time to reflect on the experience. It was an amazing adventure full of adventure, excitement, adversity, despair, and hard work. It certainly didn't go exactly according to plan, but ultimately it was a wonderful trip and I'm so grateful for the experience. I cannot wait to go on our next trip.

Many of you may have been following our journey on instagram and facebook. There was just so much to document, that I wanted to wrap it up in a narrative to get a deeper depiction of what happened.

 To recap - the plan was to do a four day, three night bike tour along the C&O Canal Trail. We started our trip in Hancock Maryland and planned to bike along the trail all the way to my sister-in-law's house in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Based on our previous tour - we wanted to cover about 30 miles each day.

Our group in the parking lot of America's Best Value Inn. Five Adults. Six kids aged 10 years to 10 months. Heavy bikes. My favorite part is George with the "spirit fingers"

Prior to the trip, I had done (what I considered) exhaustive research on the trail. I interviewed internet strangers, stalked people on instagram through hashtag searches, and pestered a couple of co-workers who had biked the trail. I thought we were prepared for the conditions. In some ways yes... but in others not quite.
Day One.

Ashley expertly handling the singletrack on day 1.

For whatever reason - I was under the impression that the trail was mostly a dirt path, or crushed gravel, similar to what we had encountered in our travels in Michigan and Illinois. In some stretches it was, but more often than not it was, what would be considered by most bicyclists "singletrack." Mind, it wasn't just one dirt trail, but more often than not it was two parallel dirt paths each about a foot and a half wide. This was ok for some in our party, but a couple of us were pulling trailers too wide to fit in the ruts so it slowed us down a bit.

Spirits high on day 1. With 6 kids, rest stops and potty breaks are a frequent occurence.

About nine miles in, on our very first day - my sweet niece Lane, the ringleader of the children who also completed our 2013 (119 miles!) as an eight year old, suffered a knee injury. It was devastating to Lane, and everyone else. Lane and her mother had to prematurely end the trip. The whole situation was so depressing for so many reasons, and obviously took the wind out of our sails substantially. The entire episode of getting Lane to safety, back tracking, making alternate plans, took about 4 hours. From that point on, many of us needed to adapt and work harder than we may have previously thought.
With very heavy hearts... we carried on. Not exactly sure how far we'd get the first night, the stop also interrupted our planned meal stops. It was warm, and humid, meaning we were drinking a lot of water. One of the nice things about the C&O is that in most parts, water is pretty abundant.
Earning our water. Ed with his racoon "NightKill" who decided he wanted to join his fellow racoon brethren and now permanently resides on the C&O

But you do have to earn the water. Wells and pumps are at most camp spots and are located about every 5-7 miles along the path. The wells are treated with iodine so the water does come out looking a bit brown, but the taste is certainly tolerable. It's cold, so it's got that going for it. We brought a lot of electrolyte tablets and powders which I'm not sure worked or not, nor did they really mask the taste. But, I'd probably buy them again.
Beautiful vistas abound - this water feature is called a "weir."

 the littlest bike-tourer this side of the Mason Dixon line. Jim was an absolute angel on the trip. You can bike tour with small children!

We had planned to get an early lunch/late dinner in Williamsport - and then bike another five miles to our camp spot. As fate and flexibility dictated, we ended up camping about 2 miles shy of Williamsport. I biked into town and got dinner (pizza, salad, diet pepsi (no coke!) and felt like an absolute hero when I pulled into camp!

after a long first day, roasting marshmallows took the edge off (while the adults enjoyed a swig or two of some diet beverages).

 Day 2.

 the first of many frogs/toads found on the trip. Jim Gaffigan absolutely nailed it when he said that "for kids, cousins are like celebrities"

After a decent night's sleep - spirits were pretty good as we made our way into town. We decided to treat ourselves to a McDonalds breakfast, (one of our favorite family bike touring traditions). It was awesome. We took over an entire wing of the the restaurant and several spaces in the parking lot. Immediately we set up shop, charging phones, filling up water bottles, and filling up the kids so that we could get some decent mileage under our belt.
  Ashley with a head full of steam as we came into Williamsport

As luck would have it, our visit to McDonalds coincided with the local branch also having a corporate visit. All hands were on deck there, and nothing went unnoticed. Not in a bad way, there were just people everywhere. At one point, I overheard this amusing exchange:

Employee - "I think there's a homeless person in the bathroom"
Manager - "Really?"
Employee - "Yes. (gestures to our bikes outside) - there's her cart"

While we were wrapping up, a sweet old man came up to us and said, "I just think it's so wonderful what you guys are doing. Traveling with these young kids. We saw you guys come into town and I knew it was you on bikes when you came into the store."

It was really sweet - and honestly, those kind words serve as an additional fuel source as doubt and other negative thoughts creep into your mind when things get hard and you ask yourself why you are doing this.
Pit stop. The kids found a miniscule frog and captured him in an old salad container. Poor guy. Only kept him through one stretch and let him go the next stop
We continued on and I thought that we had overcome our "Everest." Little did I know how a slight change in weather could add a whole different obstacle to our journey.

Let me say, that prior to this we had encountered "some" mud on the trail and while it did slow you down occasionally, it never was a real obstacle. But then, the heavens opened up and dumped on us and the trail.

Ed weathered the storm with a paper thin poncho and a beach towel

 Jim stayed the most dry of all of us - in his little penthouse/trailer - except for his poor feet. Due to our elaborate trailer set up it caused his feet to peek out which normally is fine, until it gets really muddy. REALLY. MUDDY.

After the storm had passed, we plodded a couple of more miles and made it to Sheperdstown, West Virginia. Upon the recommendation of some fellow bike tourers, we headed for the Blue Moon Cafe. I don't remember what I had, probably a burger. But between Lane's accident, plodding through La Brea Tar Pit -esque mud, being cold/hungry/dirty tired, being behind schedule, and then getting "shushed" by some nasty old hag in the restaurant (sorry, wound is still fresh) because of our kids - I was really in the depths of despair.

We audibled yet again, and decided to stay in a motel as opposed to getting back on the bikes and trying to get to the nearest campsite. I'll tell you, being flexible is the name of the game with family bike touring. The motel ended up being a wise decision on several fronts. They let us bring ALL of our bike stuff inside, which was nice. We got clean, and it was also right next to a dairy queen - so a blizzard sure helped morale after that day.

As luck would have it, it also stormed all night the second night. Big time thunderstorm and lighting. As we cuddled in our artificially cool room, Ashley and I couldn't help but shudder at the thought of being in the tent while we were attacked by that storm. Could have been the tipping point.

Day 3.

 Ashley and Ed gearing up for day three after a pretty decadent all you can eat continental breakfast

At this point in the trip, I think it's safe to say that my line of thought was much like Wesley as he and Buttercup were in the midst of the fire swamp. We had just discovered and survived the flame spud and lightning sand - painfully unaware of the rodent of unusual size I was about to encounter. But before the ROUS's...

My nephew Henry, "Don't mind if I do..."

 My niece Charlotte, obviously pleased with her haul

Due to the rain - we just so happened to notice a road going parallel to the trail. We audibled yet again, consulted our iphones, and decided to take the the side roads for a little bit to avoid some mud. Seemed harmless enough.
 George took this picture. Just as we were approaching Antietam.

 The side road started off amazing. Beautiful vistas. Pastoral. Green. Just lovely. Then the hills came. Like an unstoppable rebel force. As I look back on my video and photo footage there are notable voids in the documentation when we encountered hills. No one really feels like documenting the struggle while you are in the middle of it. Suffice it to say - they were big. Not to mention, we were all hauling gear, kids, and their gear. I no longer have any sympathy for anyone who complains about hills until they try to pull it off (and we did) with kids. Suck it up.

Right after taking this picture - the proverbial ROUS lept out from the woods and pounced on me

After our brief foray into hill climbing with loaded family touring bikes, we decided to face the music (mud) and picked back up with the trail. There was this large gravel pit. The kids immediately ran to conquer it and I thought to myself, "this is a great picture, better grab the nice camera."

I go through my belongings. Gone. No where to be seen.

To continue the Princess Bride analogy, I think at this point I've wrestled the ROUS and now I'm arguing with Prince Humperdink about making a life in the Fire Swamp, but I digress...

Obviously I'm heartsick, and frustrated. At the time we bought it, it was an expensive camera. It had some nice pictures on it, but just the stupidity of losing it and the financial and personal loss, combined with all of our other hardships just immediately came into my mind. I was so disappointed.

I said a prayer, unloaded my bike, and went to climb back up the hill we had just conquered to go look for my camera. After praying, I did feel at peace like I would find it. I felt optimistic. I also felt good because I had taken all of my stuff off my bike so I felt like Lance Armstrong on my bike... with or without PED's - you make the call.

Long story short, I didn't find my camera (then, spoiler alert!) and came back to the group empty handed.

We got back on the trail.

Ed and Jim - super happy little guys

After our lunch stop in Brunswick. I'm smiling because I had just slammed a Red Bull and a Snickers

Can I just say (yes, you can say whatever you want David this is your blog) that everyone who we've told about this trip has marveled that we took our children on a trip of this magnitude. In retrospect, and omitting an unforeseeable injury - the children really were the least of our concerns. They were all so good. They were happy. They were with their favorite people in the world (not their parents, their cousins), they were outside, they were happy! Consoling or "babying" our children was not really part of this trip. Honestly, the adults needed more support and soothing than the children. We worked together flawlessly and I'm super grateful for that.

Teamwork was the name of the game. I can't imagine doing this trip without the group we did. Everyone played a crucial part. The third day, post lunch ride was rough. The sun and come out along with the humidity, and had turned the previous  night's rain on the trail into some pretty thick mud. We had about 7 miles after lunch to get to our ideal campsite, and those were some intense miles.

We employed a similar tactic the third night as we did the first night. The group split up, and this time Ashley got to be the dinner-hero.

 Ashley, coming through in the clutch. Long live front baskets and inner-tube bungees.

Having dinner while we set up camp. We actually shared this campsite with two other groups. It wasn't too bad, though I would've preferred to be alone. The pizza was devoured in a locust-like manner.

With bellies full of pizza, the festivities of our last night camping continued as Aunt Rachel led the kids in some sparkler-fun. Rachel was a total trip-saver, and we were so lucky to have her on the trip. When Lane and Serena had to bow out, Rachel took up the reigns and was a huge help. Very grateful for her.

All the adults also got to enjoy a little dip in the Potomac. We also enjoyed a beautiful sunset. 

Ashley and Jim enjoying the sunset. Jim also enjoying what I can only hope was not poison ivy. I had a nasty run in with it that came to bear a couple of days later.

Back to the kids for a minute. There was a lot of wildlife discovery, which the kids loved immensely. None more so than George and his penchant for amphibians. I'm not sure which I felt worse for, the animals he found or George as he was forced to prematurely say goodbye. He loved this frog so much he kissed it. He kissed the frog. For the life of me I cannot imagine what compelled him to do such a thing. I can only attribute it to Ashley's genes. I wanted nothing to do with it.

Day 4.

At about 5 in the morning, it started to rain. It rained pretty solidly for the next three hours or so. We waited for the rain to let up a bit before we packed up camp. Eventually, we just had to wait for a slight decrease in the intensity of rain because it didn't feel like it was going to let up.
The kids helped us the most by being in good moods, overall pleasant, and not fighting too much with each other. They weren't particularly helpful when it came to breaking camp. :)

We were faced with another big decision. Having just survived the mud (just barely), the thought of doing our longest day (mileage wise) on fresh mud seemed like too much for us. We made another game time decision, and opted for a reduction in mileage along county roads. We planned an alternate course and felt good about not having to battle the mud, or the miles. 

Ashley and Jim feeling really good about our decision to abandon the trail.

We bike for a couple of miles, and said sayonara to the the C&O. As we left the trail, we were immediately reminded of what the terrain was like away from the river. Hilly. So hilly. It was never-ending. The roads that our route took us on weren't exactly ideal either. We were climbing some pretty big hills, with loaded bikes, with small children, with cars going 40 mph right next to us. They were low-volume roads, but did not have paved shoulders, so we were forced to share the road. Not ideal.

For the better part of the morning, we made a valiant effort at the topography and the traffic. But in the end, our nerves, and our legs got the best of us. We threw in the towel. We called in the rescue wagon. Serena came and picked up the kids, most of our gear, and Ashley and Rachel. Chris and I forged ahead.
We took refuge in a rich person's driveway. Waiting for our rescue.

After our group split up, it was just Chris and I to finish the trip. We had about 25-30 miles to go. Without the stress of worrying about our little ones on the busy roads, Chris and I made some really good time. It was a lot easier climbing the hills without pulling our gear, which made the descents a lot of fun. Stay tuned for some excellent GoPro footage.

Chris and I had one last pit stop - a little BBQ to grease the wheels and get us home. We cranked out the last 19 miles and joined up with the rest of the family.

Thinking back on this trip, there are a lot of things to dwell on. I could be tempted to focus on what went wrong, but when I think deeper about it what impresses me the most is how our group worked together. Everyone was really positive the entire time. We supported each other and cheered each other on. I'm proud of us for not giving up. For not giving into negativity and pessimism. We were rewarded with a very memorable experience that makes us a closer, stronger-knit family.

I loved this trip and can't wait to do another one. Two other quick things to mention, in conclusion.
I will be doing a more technical write up of logistics, planning, and gear, posted on my other blog.
I will also be putting together a movie compiled from the video footage I took during the trip. That will be circulated as well. 

Ending on a good note - and part of the reason for the delay on posting this blog, was that my camera was found! A lovely person found it on the side of the road, noticed that there were pictures of a family doing a bike tour, and turned it into the rangers station. The first time I called they hadn't heard anything about a camera. But I found the local ranger station, and after a few voice mails and follow up calls - I was able to get the good news. I'm very grateful for that person. It also reminded me of this video from Casey Niestat.


Bike Tour/Camping Extravaganza

Just over a week ago we returned from my "dream vacation." Shortly after getting into bikes and realizing what they were capable of, I have wanted to do a bike tour. When Ashley and I were sans child, we embarked on an ambitious 165 mile trip from Los Angeles to San Diego with our best friends the Nelsons.

It was a great trip, but it taught us a lot about touring and reminded me of how much we didn't know about bike touring.

Fast forward four years, two children later... and I still have the itch to do a multi-day family bike tour. I've read several books on bike touring with small children, and countless blogs on the matter - so I felt relatively prepared for our ambitious endeavor.

The plan was simple. Our family was to team up with Ashley's sister's family, the Cherrys and bike 110 miles in Northern Michigan and see what kind of adventure we could get up to. Four adults, five children under 9, what did the future have in store for us?

Here we are pre-tour. Leaving from the comfortable yet smarmy Econo Lodge in Gaylord Michigan. A variety of cargo mounting and child carrying options are on display here, most notably 8 year old Lane who biked the entire 119 mile trip...

We quickly made our way through the "Alpine Village" of Gaylord Michigan to pick up the Gaylord-Cheboygan Trail which would serve as the backbone of our trip. Looking to get a little local intel the night before, I inquired about the existence of said trail from our server at Bob Evan's. I was a little worried when he referenced it as the "snowmobile trail" with some level of confusion as to why we'd be riding our bikes on it.

I had looked at the trail on Google Earth countless times and read a few old blogs about people's experience with the trail, but to be honest it was still a complete shot in the dark and it could've turned out to be a total nightmare of a route...

It turned out to be completely amazing. From a technical standpoint, I believe the surface is called "crushed granite." A very hard, compacted dirt trail with a light sprinkling of gravel on top. The gravel was a little loose at the entry points, but overall it made for a wonderful riding surface. Most of the time the trail was cutting through the woods, and afforded all sorts of wildlife sighting and shady resting points.

The first day was almost all downhill which Ashley noticed immediately, but was completely beyond me. The downhill trek made for quick times and an inflated sense of pride and the kind of distance we could normally carry under such heavily laden bicycles.

We took plenty of pit stops and there were a few small towns encouraged timely snacking and drink replenishment. Wolverine, Michigan was one such spot.
Here the group recharges with some fresh gatorades and snacks while Ed naps in the back of the Xtracycle.

As we pulled into our campsite on the first night, I was really feeling proud of myself for our good luck and how beautiful our campsite was. I had made all the reservations on the Michigan DNR website, which allows you to look at the campground map and choose your sites accordingly. Without any foreknowledge, I just picked the sites that appeared to be the closest to the lake and in good proximity to the bathrooms.

All the bikes at our first night's camp - Burt Lake State Park in Indian River, Michigan.

Few things feel better after a full, hot day on a big heavy bike than a dip in a lake and a hot shower. Our campground provided both.

Matching Farmer Tans.

The kids loved the lake - obviously.

The other component of the tour that we decided to skip out on was packing all our meals. We did lunch (mostly) on the road, and ate breakfast and dinner in town, or rather - had people bring it to us. Wiser, more experienced family bike tourers might know that once you are in camp camp relaxing and clean, the last thing you want to do is get everyone back on the bikes to get dinner. When we were heading into town the last thing we wanted to do was curtail our momentum for a dinner break. Catch 22.

Delivery to the rescue!

Fortunately we found a place that delivered to the campground. The heavens had parted. What a treat to have nice, warm pizza brought to you while you set up camp! Some hard core-types might take issue with this. To them I say - why are you reading our blog - scram.

Some more highlights. From the first night.

Ed photo-bombing George's attempt to push Ashley into the Lake - backstory, Ashley is notoriously reticent to commit to the "full plunge" but told the kids they could push her in. Great mom/aunt.

Not too shabby Michigan, I like the vibe you are putting out.

Our little "angels" sleeping

There were tons of unknowns on this trip - one of the biggest being "how will the boys sleep?" We have a nice, but cozy three man tent. Prior to this trip, Ed had camped once and the boys had never slept in such close confines. I was sure it was going to be armageddon once night fell. But, after the initial wrestle of getting them to sleep, both guys slept like champions, tossing and turning as expected but not waking up once during the middle of the night, each night.  We really scored big time in that regard. I think we may need a tent upgrade for size, but other than that we were all engines go.

Our second day started off on a high note, as any day should after you slam a "Mac & Donald's" (as George says it) breakfast.

Here we are in the McD's parking lot. I must admit, one of the amazing things about this trip was the sense of pride and accomplishment that came from being a part of this massive, impossible to ignore, family-bike spectacle.

The second day of riding was more scenic than the first - giving us a great view of small tourist towns and lakes to the east of us all day. Made for some wonderful "break time" where Ashley most likely stepped into poison ivy.

Me, the boys, and the rig - the Xtracycle. A modern marvel.

Our first campsite was very close to the trail, but that was not the case the second night. The second day was much hotter, and two plus days of riding had caught up with us. We were getting mobbed by mosquitos, tired, hot, and wanted to get to our campsite.

Fortunately, our campsite again was close to the water - though it wasn't exactly sandy beaches. More of a swamp. Not the stinky malaria ridden kind. Maybe more of a "marsh" might be accurate.

Our campsite was on Duncan Bay, of Lake Huron. It was unlike anything I've ever seen. The entire thing was incredibly shallow, no more than a foot and a half deep as far as you could see. The result is really warm waters, and the largest child pool you could possibly imagine.

Fun for the kids, not quite as refreshing as the first day. Here George and I are about 100 feet out and I'm still only in 5 in deep water.

Safety First Ed, Safety First.

Ashley has never met a Kayak trip she wasn't interested in testing out. The campground had some for rentals and the gals took the kids out on a pleasure cruise. I walked through the bay.

I should mention that prior to this, every single blog I had read about family bike touring and camping  - the family's always encounter a "why are we doing this/let's go back/the trip's over" moment. Foolishly, I thought we weren't going to get to that point. Though, starving, being eaten alive by mosquitos drove us close.

The second night George and my nephew Henry were fooling around by the campfire. They were chasing each other and Henry ran away from George, without looking, right up to the edge of the fire pit. It was horrifying, and he was in a lot of pain. After a very confusing, stressful hour or so, we got Henry into town (thank you smart phones, taxis) to the ER. At that point, we weren't sure if the tour would go on. Henry's health was obviously the priority.

We ordered out again, from the same chain (BC Pizza), this time opting for their sandwiches. The sandwiches, by and large were unsatisfying if not atrocities to the sandwich genre, we got thousands of mosquito bites, and tucked in for an early night.

The news the next day was good. Henry had only a few 1st degree burns, and one 2nd degree burn on his arm. If properly bandaged and kept clean, the doctors said we could finish the tour. After some medication for the pain - Henry was feeling up to it so we all decided to continue on, though our spirits were slightly crestfallen after a hellish latter half of the second day.

The third day started off well with some freshening up, and a hearty breakfast at Bob's Big Boy.

Ashley spotted a turtle - the kids were so excited. Other animals we saw included: fox, deer, snake, hawk, squirrel, chipmunk - and I had a duel with a raccoon that was totally not afraid of me until I threw my hatchet at it "Who else want's some of Devo?" I was so mad that the dumb racoon wasn't cowering in my sight and I was half sure that I was going to get rabies and also furious that I was up in the middle of the night and getting eaten by mosquitos. All the pent up aggression came out in a furious throw of the hatchet. David 1. Racoon 0. 

The third night we found ourselves back in the friendly confines of Burt Lake State Park. This time, we planned ahead and ate in town. I will say this about our eating during the trip - we ate decadently. It was glorious. Food tastes so good when you are starving and you've been biking all day. After playing in the lake, and showering we just narrowly avoided a torrential downpour.

Because we had no where to go, we just waited out the storm by the showers. We were tracking the storm that soaked our campsite to the bone - and saw another,  massive storm just a few miles out. Rather than risk the most miserable night's sleep possible, we high-tailed it for a local motel that was honestly more rustic than our tents.

I don't recall if you remember this factoid, but Ashley was the only one keen enough to sense that we were going downhill entirely the first day. Since our route was a simple up and back, that meant that our entire fourth day, the last day... was all up hill. It was a long slog. The solution, lots of stops, lots of snacks, and get in a low gear and just crank it out. 

As we neared completion, spirits began to soar. We really had accomplished something.

This was what most of our view was like. So scenic. Not like many bike paths I've ridden where you are in sketchy  neighborhoods or in an industrial wasteland. We had amazing views and allowed for a lot of time of appreciating the outdoors and this beautiful world we live in. I am so grateful for that.

Ashley shows her key to rounding out a grueling bike tour - fresh "dietas".

I think this picture sums it up perfectly.

All in all there are some things I would do differently, but not much. On my other bike blog (long neglected) I'm planning on getting into some more of the nitty gritty technical stuff that I've been thinking about (gear, planning, etc.)

All in all, this was the trip of a lifetime and I hope that it is at least an annual event for our family. I would do it again in a heartbeat.