“We are gonna make it. We traveled all this way I just want to finish this dang thing,” my dad said as we peeled off layers of soaking wet clothing, covered in muck and grime, 35.5 miles from D.C.
The weather forecast for today had never looked good: 70% chance of rain at 7am and 70-80% rain for the rest of the day. So at 6am this morning just as the sun rose we departed from Harper’s Ferry, WV.
For the first 15 miles we were flying, but at 6:59am I felt the first few drops of rain. A few moments after it was pouring.
The trail turned to muck beneath us and my small, lightweight bike was skidding everywhere. My pants and gloves were soaked through, glasses foggy, and fingers frozen. Both my dad and Dave were wishing they had my shoes covers so water didn’t squelch out of their shoes with every pedal.
After a few more brutal miles we reached a road crossing and took shelter at the Historic White’s Ferry Grille. We had made it 25 miles to Leesburg, VA, just 35.5 miles from D.C.
I had no desire to continue riding in the pouring rain, mud, and cold. It looked like we were going to call the trip. But, after talking through the should of’s and the what if’s, we hatched a new plan.
We loaded our bikes onto the Historic White’s Ferry and headed to Comfort Suites in Leesburg for a fifth night stay with the promise of a break in the rain and a paved bike trail to D.C. (along the Washington & Old Dominion Rail Trail) in the morning.
My day which started with drinking muddy tail spray from Dave’s bike as we fought to keep pedaling through the mud ended with a trip to the movie theater and bike shop in Leesburg. And tomorrow we will finish this dang thing.
Our bodies were feeling the 200 miles of our first 3 days when we woke up this morning. Breakfast was a game of mental preparation.
Luckily the trail had dried out so mud was no longer much of an issue. We seemed to make a few more photo stops today, mostly to get out of the saddle for our sore butts.
My dad also took advantage of Dave’s muscle strength at each stop. Dave rubbed out my dad’s sore shoulder every 10 miles or so with the reward of an open invitation to join any future bike trip.
Mid-ride today a falling rock detour that took us through a neighborhood for a few miles. The paved road was a nice break but it also added a few hundred feet to our max elevation for the day.
Around 3pm we had nearly made it to our destination for the night. Staying in Harper’s Ferry meant carrying our bikes up a large spiral staircase in Maryland, across a bridge, and into West Virginia. The historic town of Harper’s Ferry, WV sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers and is nearly the midpoint of the Appalachian Trail.
Turns out everything in this historic town closes around 6pm. We had to order our dinner quickly because even the restaurants were closing shop. With no television or sports bar to watch the Penguin’s hockey game we opted for an evening stroll.
Tonight I will sleep at Town’s Inn which was built in 1840. Unfortunately, there are 3 flights of stairs to get to my room. I’m about to hobble to bed now.
Riding along the C&O Towpath took a significant amount of mental focus to avoid rocks, roots, and mud holes. Unlike the smooth, wide GAP trail from Pitt to Cumberland, the C&O Towpath features many surprises. Every so often one of use would let out an “arghhh” from an unavoidable mud hole that was deeper than expected giving a loud thud upon landing or a large, unnoticed branch that caught us at the wrong angle.
By far the best strategy for unavoidable mud is to charge through the puddles head on with significant speed. While this does splatter mud in all directions it also ensures that your bike stays upright.
What non-essential piece of gear am I very glad I packed? Shoe covers! Light-weight, waterproof booties to slide over my bike shoes with small holes in the bottom so my shoes can still clip onto my pedals but prevent my feet from getting wet. (You can easily unclip your shoe from the pedal by twisting your heel away from the bike.) My shoe covers took a beating, but my socks stayed dry.
Despite the rough terrain this segment may have been the most beautiful! Sunning turtles, turkeys, groundhogs, lilypads and beautiful flowers with. Today’s ride ran along a canal with a series of locks and even one canal tunnel.
While my dad and Dave de-mounted and walked through the Paw Paw tunnel which featured the water canal on our left with a narrow walkway on the right separated by a wood guardrail, I proceeded to bike behind them snapping pictures.
After surviving Paw Paw and several additional mud holes we took advantage of the Western Maryland Rail Trail, a paved bikeway that paralleled our C&O trail. That smooth ground felt wonderful as we coasted our last 10 miles into Hancock around 3pm.
Both the River Run B&B and Buddy Lou’s restaurant are highly recommended for others passing this way.
Luckily I did not view our day’s elevation profile before we started the ride. I felt like we were cruising on a flat trail with fairly ideal conditions given our clear sunny skies. That is until we reached the summit and I saw this elevation map:
Today featured a 1,414 ft climb over 50 miles followed by a 20 mile 1,787 ft descent. My dad and cousin, weighed down by heavier saddle bags, did take notice, but we all made it up to the top. Then, flying down the final leg of our ride at 18-20 mph into Cumberland was our reward.
Throughout our day I made use of my adventure photography skills for some riding action shots.
Route 40 Bridge
We rode over the Salisbury Viaduct, which offered amazing views of the countryside, a passing train, and huge windmills. We also traveled through several tunnels including the Big Savage tunnel, which is the longest tunnel on the trip at 3,300 ft. Finally, we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line.
Babbling Brook lunch stop
I keep my iPhone handy while riding for playing pump up music and taking selfies from the saddle.
I’ve heard that more people die annually while taking selfies than from shark attacks. Luckily my riding selfie skills served me well today and our biggest scare was a partially fallen tree that literally made a loud crack as we passed underneath. We got out of there fast!
After 5 hrs and 22 mins in the saddle, we made it to Cumberland.
On Sunday morning May 7th, while over 14,000 runners laced up their shoes for the Pittsburgh Marathon, my dad, my cousin Dave and I pumped our tires and clipped on our helmets for an odyssey of our own: a 335-mile bike ride from Pittsburgh, PA to Washington D.C. along The Great Allegheny Passage (www.GAPtrail.org) and The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath trails.
Day 1 of 5: Pittsburgh to Ohiopyle
At 10am this morning we gathered at The Waterfront (the trail starts from downtown Pittsburgh but we started slightly south due to marathon road closures). After a few warm up laps and pre-departure photos we started our journey.
A tail-wind carried us out of Pittsburgh over a paved trail at about 15-18mph before the trail switched to crushed limestone for speeds of 10-15mph. And that’s when my problems started.
As with any adventure there is always some unforeseen challenge. Mine were tire treads designed to give my road bike more traction but which fit so closely to the frame of my bike that this soft limestone sand would get stuck on the bike making it difficult for the wheels to spin. Psheee, psheee, psheee…we could hear my front tire make every turn. We also encountered a few fallen trees that meant carrying our bikes over and through.
Still we kept pedaling, past waterfalls, over bridges and old train stations. The newly budding forest was a beautiful bright green and the Monongahela river raged along the trail side. But after multiple stops to clear sand from my tire and the promise of muddier trails on our days to come we made a pit stop at Bikes Unlimited in Connellsville. (The photo below shows my road bike on the left where mud would get stuck and our pit stop switchover on the right.)
On my new trek hybrid we cruised the last few miles into Ohiopyle to stay overnight at the Yough Plaza Motel.
In a barrier reef system like the Florida Keys or Australia the reef track is slightly off the coastline and the coral reef is a boat’s drive from shore. However, Bonaire is surrounded by a fringing reef meaning that as soon as you walk into the water from the land you are at the reef! No need for a boat at all. And Bonaire has some of the best shore diving in the world.
The yellow-painted rocks shown below mark the names and locations of each dive/snorkel site. So all you have to do is drive your car or ride your bike 😉 and get in!
The coral reef is incredible! Notice the long trumpetfish and round angelfish hiding in the coral sea rods on the lower right photo below. Looking very close at the branching staghorn coral on the upper left, each little bump is an individual coral polyp or coral animal. At night time the coral polyp will extend their tiny tentacles from these little bumps to grab food floating in the water.
I love free diving down to photograph fish. The silver bar jack on the top left turns dark black when it is hunting (lower left). The bar jack often hunts over the shoulder of a goatfish and picks up small invertebrates that the goatfish may stir up from the bottom.
Watch out for sea urchins! The round animals below are covered in sharp spines and usually live on the ocean floor in the tidal zone where you enter the water. But if you simply look down and are careful about where you step these animals are easy to avoid. There are many different species of sea urchins and their spines may look like white tacks, long needles or even thick pencils.
Can you spot the little animals in the photo below? The first is a peanut-size mollusk (related to a snail) called a Flamingo Tongue shown in the photo on the left. This little animal feeds on sea fans and will eat large holes in the sea fan shown below. The second is a small transparent shrimp living in the anemone on the right. The shrimp and the anemone are symbiotic partners.
All the photos above were taken with a GoPro Hero 3 and a red underwater filter with an added macro lens.
Blue lights and blue light filter goggles were essential packing items on this beach camping trip. As the sun set below the horizon it was finally time to put these items to use. We were going hiking in search of scorpions!
Scorpions can be found in nearly every terrestrial habitat from caves to sand and even mountains. Bonaire is no exception. During my recent camping trip to Washington Slagbaai National Park we hoped to seek out these little arachnids.
Finding a tiny 4cm scorpion in a shrubby brush scattered with rocky crevices is a bit like a needle in a haystack. But scorpions have a little known ability that makes them surprisingly easy to find…they glow in blue light! More specifically scorpions fluoresce. They contain chemicals in their exoskeletons which absorb blue light and reemit it at another wavelength causing the appearance of glowing, just like a white t-shirt under a black light.
A short walk down our trail, while avoiding fallen cacti, we spotted our first scorpion. This guy seemed a bit shell shocked as we all gathered around to take photos.
By the end of the night we counted 8 scorpions. Some scuttled quickly and retreated into rocky holes, while others blatantly displayed their stingers as if challenging us to come closer. These scorpions might inflict a painful sting, but their venom is not particularly potent so the overall risk was minimal. Still finding one of these guys inside your sleeping bag at night is less than desirable. The solution: pack a blue light (or UV light) on your next camping trip and search for fluorescent scorpions on your own.
Why do scorpions fluoresce? We do not know. One theory holds that fluorescence may cue scorpions when it is safest to emerge to hunt, allowing them to avoid bright moonlight (which causes fluorescence) in addition to bright sunlight in daytime hours.
“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.”
When the sun rose the next morning, all the scorpions had retreated back into their crevices and we had a bit of time to snap some daylight photos in this beautiful national park before we returned to the CIEE Residence Hall. Scorpions hunting and beach camping made for a highly memorable trip.
Bon for ‘Bonaire’ and Doet meaning ‘doing’ or ‘to do’ in Dutch.
Bon Doet is the national day for volunteering on the island of Bonaire. Simultaneously various organizations, individuals, and student groups donated their time to improve the island through activities like beach clean ups and weeding cemeteries. I also joined the Bon Doet event but contributed my services underwater through the Coral Restoration Foundation.
Coral Restoration Foundation, based in Key Largo, Florida operates throughout the Caribbean including the island of Bonaire. This nonprofit organization raises baby corals in Christmas tree-like nurseries before transplanting the coral colonies to locations where the coral reef is degraded or absent but was previously abundant.
Selecting to corals breed in these nurseries is a complex process which includes testing the coral’s DNA to ensure that a diverse selection of coral genotypes are represented in each future coral garden. These coral fragments start out the size of a finger and grow to the size of a basketball over the course of 6 months to a year before being moved to the coral reef. While hanging in the nursery, the corals are cleaned each week by volunteers trained by the Coral Restoration Foundation.
In the coral reef ecosystem algae and coral compete for light and space. Therefore, volunteers will scrub the fishing lines and pcv pipe structures of each nursery to remove algal growth which can stunt the progress of the baby corals. With the moderate water currents carrying food and weekly cleanings by volunteers these baby corals are living in the marine equivalent of a 5-star resort.
Though it may sound like a mammoth effort for such a small animal, coral reefs provide a home to numerous fish, protect coastlines from wave action, and are even used for medical research projects. With so many long-term benefits I was happy to devote my time this morning to scuba diving with a scrubbing sponge and brush to remove algae from Bonaire’s future shoreline protection force.
And I learned a new method for attaching corals to a sandy bottom: bamboo poles zip tied together into a square with each corner hammered into the sand. This would be easy to implement in the Philippines too!
I was not sure what to expect when Martijn led Maddie and I onto a dirt road, inland and away from the ocean. I had been told we were going to an underwater cave, which I expected to mean a short cliff jump into the ocean and free diving down along the coastline to peer into an ocean cave before returning to the surface. I did not expect to leave my bicycle locked to an inland gate and hike through the shrubbery down to the mouth of a cave.
The descent into the cave required a bit of rock climbing. We lowered our bags, turned on our flashlights and carefully climbed down, finally reaching the water. Freshwater. This dark inland cave seemed narrow and small but as we donned our masks and snorkels for a swim one room led to another. Most of the water was shallow enough to stand but some pools were much deeper.
“Don’t pee,” Martijn instructed. This was a significantly challenging task. As a scuba diver, peeing in my wetsuit is usually my first step to getting warm when I hit the cold water. (Don’t worry the pee diffuses away. If this sounds gross you are clearly not a scuba diver. The longer you dive the more unavoidable it becomes.) Additionally, cold water actually increases your urge to pee. Your blood vessels constrict in cold water, which increases blood pressure. An easy way for the body to lower this pressure is by peeing. The official term for this phenomenon is cold immersion diuresis. Despite this increased urge, I did my best to refrain. The freshwater pool received only periodic circulation after intense rainfalls so I heeded Martijn’s advice.
Swimming further into the next room the water was deep enough for free diving.
“There is an underwater tunnel here. I will check it.” Martijn stated.
“Martijn!!!” Maddie and I exclaimed in protest. “Are you sure it’s here?” I asked.
The underwater tunnel was a 15-20 second breath hold and swim into another separate cavern of the cave. Martijn had done it before, but agreed to swim a practice dive down and back just to look for the exit to ensure his memory was correct. I followed him in a quick dive down and we shined our flashlights deeper into the tunnel.
“I’m going for it.” Martijn announced once we returned to the surface. Seconds later he dove again and kicked through the tunnel and out of view. ‘Did he make it?!’ I wondered. Only a few seconds after he left I saw his light shining back, confirming his success.
With a deep breath, I dove down and followed. Kick, kick, kick. I could see the walls of the tunnel all around me. As I cleared the midpoint I could see the shimmery surface of water with air above it. Martijn’s feet were also visible standing in the water. Made it!
Maddie opted to stay behind and shine her light to mark the proper way back. In the next cavern I was in for another surprise. This room had deep free diving well too. Diving down I couldn’t tell where the cave let out but it clearly connected to the ocean, because we could see the blurry swirls of salt water meeting freshwater once we dropped down past 10ft. After a few more dives to explore we swam back through the tunnel where Maddie was waiting.
“You have to try it!!!” I exclaimed as soon as I surfaced back on the other side. After a detailed recap of the tunnel swim and salt water well Maddie was convinced. This time I stayed behind as the light to mark the way.
It was entirely silent waiting there by myself. But I was not the only living creature in this cave. Shortly after they left, I started to feel little nips from cleaner shrimp or small fish on my toes. As the fish continued my pedicure, I closed my eyes and tried to imprint the tunnel passageway into my memory in case I returned again with another group of friends. When Maddie and Martijn swam back, we made our way to the exit.
“I have to pee so badly,” I admitted. My urge had grown increasingly noticeable while I was standing by myself and waiting.
With a guilty smile Martijn confessed, “I already did.”
“Martijn!!!” I admonished.
“I did too.” Maddie divulged.
“You guys! I’ve been waiting so long and you both just went ahead and did it,” I said. Perhaps the cave should have a warning sign that says, ‘Scuba Divers Not Welcome,’ because it seems we just can’t help it. My bladder was also significantly less full by the time we climbed back out. There will be more rain and all in all this adventure was a big success.
SJ Byce as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines. And Intern at CIEE Bonaire '17