“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.
I visited both of these states back-to-back this holiday season from snowboarding in Colorado to scuba diving in Florida. When I descended into the tiny airport of Durango, Colorado, the view of snow-covered mountains provided enough exhilaration to keep me warm despite the cold. This trip involved 6 straight days of snowboarding at Purgatory and Telluride Mountain Resorts.
Purgatory wins points for its affordability and proximity to Durango with enough runs to amaze an east coast native like myself. Telluride was a much bigger game with its high speed gondolas and incredible views.
Departing Durango was a reminder of its small town nature, these TSA representatives were happy to chat with all on coming passengers, but do not expect to move through quickly. Efficiency never seemed high on the priority list. Florida seems to be the most popular destination for Durango airport passengers.
One day later I was driving into Williston, Florida, a small town outside of Gainesville and gearing up to dive Blue Grotto.
Next we took a short drive to across the road to Devil’s Den. An opening from above allows light to stream into this huge cavern, which features multiple swim-thrus.
Our final stop on this Florida Springs scuba trip was Ginnie Springs which had multiple dive sites with caves, crevasses, and river eddies to explore.
Although Colorado’s below freezing weather was a major change from the 80 degree days we scored in Florida, carving down the mountain on a snowboard was enough work to keep me warm. Scuba diving in 72 F water may sound warm, but water can remove body heat 20xs faster than air and I was happy to have my 5mil wetsuit and 7mil hood for insulation.
Crystal clear spring water, light streaming into a dark cavern, carving a fresh powder line down a mountain slope or going swimming with snow-covered mountains at your back…its hard to pick my favorite part of these trips. Filipinos were always surprised to hear I have never visited New York City, but with so many incredible places in the USA some adventures are just higher on my list.
“Malayo ang hospital, mas malapit ang mga coffins.” The hospital is far, the coffins are closer, our guide joked to us as we entered the Lumiang Cave for our “Cave Connection” tour. The sight of these historic coffins paired with the immense cavern whose floor disappeared mysteriously to some vast depth was enough to convince two of our party to turn back. This 4-hour tour is not for the claustrophobic. It required a significant amount of physical athleticism and finesse to traverse. As we crawled multiple kilometers beneath the Earth’s surface, our guide’s initial joke gained validity: this was not a place to get hurt.
Our starting crew
The entrance to Lumiang Burial Cave, Sagada, Philippines
Hanging coffins at the entrance of the cave. Our guide was nice enough to warn us that should be get hurt the hospital is far but the coffins are closer.
If you search online for caving recommendations, most suggestions emphasize sturdy, heavy boots with solid soles. Exploring Sagada taught me that caves vary based on region and environment thus local knowledge is best. And proper foot ware in Sagada Philippines meant – Surprise: Flip Flops!!! Despite my initial skepticism, I was quickly convinced. Wearing flip flops meant suitable basic traction and protection from sharp rocks, but also flexibility to feel the rocks beneath your feet, to weight your body appropriately based on the surface at hand, and most importantly the ability to bend and adapt to small rocky footholds. Luckily, I had packed a pair of flip flops in my backpack. My Danish friends were not so lucky and opted for bare feet versus their large clunky boots.
Tess climbs down a narrow hole.
Our guide slid through here earlier holding the lantern above his head.
And she made it. Bye Tess
If you travel to Sagada and are looking for an adventure “Cave Connection” was a highlight experience for me. I would return and do it again in a heartbeat!! Php 400 pesos or about $8.80 USD per person bought an extremely essential local guide. Bring a headlamp (and a spare or at least spare batteries), water, a small pack so your hands are free while you walk, flip flops, and your municipal tourism registration card. Trust your guide, the hospital is far, but these people are experts!
Exiting Sumaging Cave: trip success!!
Our finishing crew from left: Guide Jimmy, Johannes & Danny our Danish friends, Tess from Manila & me. Notice we lost a few members from the starting photo. Caving is not for everyone.
“You must go to Boracay!!” Ever since moving to Romblon countless Filipinos have given me this firm command. Boracay seems to be a land of incomparable beauty and a sign of status if one is wealthy enough to vacation there.
The small island of Boracay features one of the World’s Top Rated Beaches. White Sand Beach lives up to its name, with incredibly fine grains of impeccable white sand free from rocks and rubble extending along the island’s western side.
This World Class Beach also comes with all the commodities of high class tourism: Think SouthEast Asia’s version of South Beach, Miami. After over a year living in a small Filipino community with no grocery store or mall, I could not believe that just a two hour boat ride from my home there is a Starbucks, a Subway, two McDonalds, access to any international cuisine you desire: Mexican, Indian, Korean…etc and a place where tourists walk around in bikinis, rather than swimming in tshirts and shorts as is Filipino style.
The glamor of Boracay is both amazing and overwhelming. Each morning the beach is carefully raked and devoid of any trash particles. Teenage artists set about building ornate sandcastles in hopes of making a few pesos from photographing tourists. And stand up paddle board operators, skimboard vendors, and lifeguards set up shop for another day on the beach. By evening restaurants cart out tables and chairs, transforming the beach into a romantic dinner atmosphere complete with lights, all-you-can-eat buffets, live music and fire dancers. What may feel like a picturesque vacation spot during the day, transforms into a hopping party scene by night.
To the north, tourists can also enjoy Puka Beach. It’s less crowded and relaxing vibe is in sharp contrast to the hype of White Sand Beach. While standing on Puka, I could glimpse Romblon Province’s Carabao Island to the north and was again amazed of the proximity of this mass tourist attraction to my island Province where I frequently wake up at 2am to try to get a faster internet connection.
Scuba diving, Zip lining, Sailing, ATV riding, Kiteboarding, Parasailing… Boracay offers it all. But when I took a short morning run away from the tourist traffic, the island felt like any other small Filipino community: women outside washing their clothes, little sari sari stores selling snacks, small market stands with fresh produce and hanging meat. Each morning the working class from these homes trek into town and begin a new day’s production in waitressing or selling sunglasses to passing tourists. “Ma’am Sir, Ma’am Sir!!” This endless call rings in your ears while you wander along the beach walk.
As the tourist zone of Boracay continues to expand, foreigners are buying up land and frequently forcing locals to be squatters on their own island. Running along a bit further, I was unlucky enough to come across the massive dump of waste produced by this form of mass tourism. Not quite so beautiful.
Boracay is incredible, but if you are planning a trip to the Philippines, do not let this glamorous island be your only stop. You will miss the sights endless fields of rice stalks bending in the wind, of crowds of people gathering to meet small fishing boats and buy their catch, of watching a local saunter up a 40ft coconut tree with no ropes or harness and handpick a young coconut for you to drink. You won’t see the Filipino water buffalo (aka Carabao) swimming in a mud hole or working in the rice fields. And you will miss the challenge of navigating footpaths to find a local waterfall.
Romblon province is only a short boat ride north, but it is rich in Filipino culture and natural adventures. And for me, it is home!
Sharks are fish too, and the whale shark, reaching 30ft in length, is the biggest of them all. Although their name and size sound intimidating (Imagine swimming next to a fish as big as a school bus!), whale sharks are gentle giants who feed on plankton. They are pelagic, migratory species, but their migrations have become well known in certain areas.
A visit to Donsol, Sorsogon in the Philippines in March, April and May is a near guarantee to see whale sharks! (Note: nature is unpredictable and there are no guarantees). Furthermore this small little town is a perfect example of successful eco-tourism.
Upon arrival visitors watch a short, entertaining orientation video. Do not touch the butanding (Butanding means whale shark in Tagalog). Do not swim in front of the butanding. Do not feed the butanding (in other areas of the Philippines whale shark feeding is permitted. This is BAD!! Check out this article to learn why.)
Oriented visitors are then assigned a Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO), a boat and driver, and a spotter. These 3 highly trained individuals are your key to seeing a whale shark. Once on board the BIO will give additional instructions to your 6-person boat team.
“When we locate a butanding, I will tell you to prepare your gear. All individuals will sit on the side of the boat with mask, fins and snorkel on. When I say ‘jump now’, you must jump. Do not hesitate. Do not jump until I give the signal. In the water you must follow me.”
Intense. Fast-paced. Exhilarating. I didn’t realize this was about to be the most action-packed snorkel experience of my life. We were the first boat to leave at exactly 7am on March 24. The trip began as a casual boat ride: our spotter scanned the water, while we relaxed (While everyone else relaxed, I was on the edge of my seat scouring the water and praying for whale sharks.) John even set up his camping chair to get comfortable. But with the first, “prepare your gear,” from our BIO, that chair was abandoned and the adventure had begun.
“Jump now!” Sitting on the side of the boat with our masks on and snorkels in our mouths, we all belly flopped into the water at the exact same moment. (If one person hesitates then you enter the water at different times and tend to land on each other. Luckily, we were a group of expert snorkelers and we executed the entrance maneuver in perfect synchrony.)
“Swim with me! Look down now!” There it was: my first whale shark. Check mark on the life list goal as it swam literally exactly below me. Our BIO was an expert.
Throughout the day we saw maybe 10 whale sharks! You lose count after 5. Some were just babies and others were gigantic. When the BIO says, “Dive!” we faithfully free dove down into the blue abyss and without fail a whale shark would pass by. This first pass is ideal for the head shot, but after we proceeded to sprint alongside the whale shark, keeping pace for a minute or two for some amazing video footage.
Jumping, swimming, diving, sprinting, climbing onto the boat, and doing it again. Seriously, the best whale shark adventure ever!
Bring your A game if you are headed to Donsol. Non-swimmers can also see whale sharks, but you will don a large orange life jacket and be one of the floating masses, scrambling for a fast glimpse of this majestic creature, while you try to avoid the elbows of your disposable-camera-equipped neighbor.
SJ Byce as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines. And Intern at CIEE Bonaire '17