Author Archives: benlcollins

3-Day Bike And Paddle Board Tour On The C&O Towpath And Potomac River

29 September – 1 October 2022

  • Day 1: Bike 39 miles / 4 hrs 12 min
  • Day 2: SUP 10.5 miles / 4 hrs 48 min & Bike 23.3 miles / 2 hrs 29 min
  • Day 3: SUP 2.1 miles / 1 hr 3 min & Bike 4.3 miles / 41 min

Day 1: Home to Cumberland Valley campsite

Day 1 route along the C&O canal on the bike

I left home on the bike towing the trailer loaded with camping gear and paddling gear. The portage down the steps at the end of the pedestrian bridge — to gain the C&O canal — was rather strenuous to say the least! It took 4 trips to get the bike, trailer, board, and dry bags down to the canal.

The riding was easy by comparison! Well, at least this first section up to Shepherdstown, where the most notable thing was the number of other bikers and walkers out (it was a beautiful afternoon!).

Past Shepherdstown, the riding was quieter. It’s a really lovely section. I did spy through the trees that the river was extremely low (almost at drought level), so there were far more rocks showing than on previous paddles. This didn’t bode well for the paddle boarding part of the mission.

Rocks, rocks everywhere on the Potomac

Shortly after the Big Woods campsite, the trail deteriorates to loose sandy gravel and ruts. It’s all rideable, but not very easy compared to the trail up to that point.

I fell off at one point. The deep gravel slowed the trailer down, which pulled at my bike and threw me off sideways into the grass. No harm done, the whole thing was quite amusing. Shame I didn’t have a video! 😉

Crash!

Next up was the impressive dam 4 – a low head dam across the whole river connected to a small hydro plant. I remember being here with my brother in 2014, on our tour of the C&O and GAP trails (part of a longer NE USA tour).

Dam 4

Past dam 4 is my favorite section of the trail, where you ride along the side of the river on the towpath. The barges traveled this section of the C&O canal along the river, because dam 4 backs the water up and makes for a deep, slow section, known as Big Slackwater.

Towpath at Big Slackwater
It’s a lot of gear! But honestly, it’s totally manageable as long as you don’t meet any hills…

Up ahead I could see some ominous red signs, barriers, and construction machinery. Uh oh! The towpath was closed. Thankfully, there was a diversion, so I didn’t have to abandon my plan to continue further along the trail.

The detour turned away from the river and climbed steeply up a dirt trail to a road. It was so steep that I had to face backwards and pull the bike up by the handlebars, right at my limit. It was too heavy to push. This was what I came for though, adventure and struggle. Loved every minute of it.

Detour!
Doesn’t look like much but it took a severe effort to pull this lot up the hill 😉

After the dirt road came a few miles of hilly country roads. It was excellent cycling, but hard work with the trailer. I also missed having my clip-in shoes, having opted to ride in trainers (so everything else was easier).

I was relieved to reach the C&O towpath again a few miles later. My quads were screaming with the effort and I was ready to reach camp.

I almost stopped at Opequon campsite because it looked excellent and was empty. But I stuck with my plan to reach Cumberland Valley campsite – it would give me more paddling miles tomorrow.

I made it to camp!

At camp, there were 4 other bike tourers: John, Dave, and Barry (a group from PA) and a younger guy called Mitchell. We had a really fun evening chatting and swapping stories. Dave brought out a bottle of salted caramel Tennessee whisky at one point, which smelt amazing. Even though I don’t like whisky, I was game to try this one and it was surprisingly good. A great night, lots of funny stories.

Day 2: Cumberland Valley campsite to Huckleberry Hill campsite

River Route on the SUP (day 2)

Day 2 paddling route

Day 2 started with a beautiful sunrise over the Potomac. The river looked serene and inviting. The beach was muddy and shallow, so not ideal for launching, but after assessing it for a while, I decided it would go. No way to avoid the mud though.

Early morning on the Potomac River, from Cumberland Valley campsite

Back at the tent, I blew up the board and had breakfast. It takes much longer to strike camp when you have to also transition from one sport to another.

River transport, trail transport, and home

John, Dave, and Barry were fascinated by my setup and plan to travel home via the river. They helped carry my stuff down to the river bank where I lashed the bike to the front of the board, and the trailer to the back of the board.

With that done, it was time to push off into the river!

With the extra weight, the board was definitely a little more wobbly than usual, but I quickly got used to it. I pushed out to the middle of the river kneeling, but then stood up once it was deeper.

My bike strapped onto the front of the board, with the front wheel removed
Super happy to be out on the river
I stopped for lunch at Opequon campsite, 5 miles downstream from where I camped
The board beached at Opequon campsite
Outstanding scenery along the Big Slackwater section of the river

I paddled past the closed section of the C&O canal towpath, where several teams of construction workers were hard at work to rennovate the towpath. It’s a beautiful section of the river to paddle. Wide, deep, and slow moving. It’s more like a long lake than a river at this point. Makes for relaxing, slow paddling.

Floating alongside the towpath at Big Slackwater

I took out at Big Slackwater boat ramp, about a mile upriver from dam 4. These low head dams are super dangerous for paddlers, and an almost certain death sentence if you go over one.

At the takeout

I’d paddled about 11 miles downstream, in four and a half hours. My hands and shoulders were tired, so it was a good time to transition back to the bike.

Bike Route along the C&O (day 2)

Originally I had hoped to paddle this section, but the river was so low, and so many rocks were exposed, that I decided it wouldn’t work for standup paddling. So I hopped back on my bike to ride the canal downstream again, to Killiansburg Cave campsite, where I planned to camp.

Day 2 bike route

Along the way, other hikers and bikers kept mentioning the coming storm (the remnants of Hurricane Ian). I knew that rain was forecast but wasn’t expecting anything worse. But since everyone else was planning to be off the trail, I was open to reconsidering my plan. I got a new forecast as soon as I had reception again, and since it still looked like only heavy rain, I decided to stay out for this second night.

I had an early dinner at Killiansburg Cave campsite but decided to keep going. It wasn’t as nice as some of the other hiker biker campsites.

Dinner – mountain house meal and a cup of tea

I rode all the way to Huckleberry Hill campsite — where I’d camped with the boys a few weeks earlier — and set up just as the rain was starting to come down. There was one other hiker at the camp, so I wasn’t the only mad one camping in the rain.

A wet and muddy camp at Huckleberry Hill campsite

Day 3: Huckleberry Hill campsite to home

It hammered with rain all night, and I woke up to huge puddles outside the front of the tent. The saturated ground couldn’t soak up all the rain.

Everything was wet and muddy, the water had even seeped into the front half of the tent. But I still slept pretty soundly through it all!

Home, sweet home
Boiling water for breakfast

Breakfast SUP session

Day 3 paddling route

This section of the river is just upstream from the remnants of dam 3 so, like it does at dam 4, the water gets backed up. Hence, it’s deeper than other parts of the river and suitable for paddle boarding, despite the severely low river. So I inflated the board and headed out for a morning paddle. Since I wasn’t moving camp, I didn’t have the bike and gear loaded up on the board this time.

Breakfast on the river

The mist and rain showers made for an atmospheric paddle, and the mountains over Harpers Ferry looked magnificent.

Looking downriver to Harpers Ferry

Strong gusts of wind made the paddling upstream arduous, and created small waves on the river to add some extra excitement. All in all, a great paddle.

Taking a break at “shell beach”

Final bike leg to home

Day 3 bike route

I struck camp for the final time, and rolled up the sopping wet tent. Everything was wet and muddy, but I was grinning ear to ear.

Packed up and ready to roll out of camp on the morning of day 3

There were two final obstacles before reaching home. First, hauling all my stuff up the stairs onto the bridge into Harpers Ferry. And then second, riding up the hill in Harpers Ferry to get home. Both were suitably hard and a fitting finish to the tour!

Recap Video

I took a few videos on my phone, which give the flavor of the trip:

Summary

A great few days testing out this multisport bike/SUP discipline. After the first bike/SUP experiment proved that the concept works, this one proved that it scales to multi-day trips.

It’s given me enough knowledge to know that the full C&O canal towpath and Potomac river could be traversed in this manner. Starting from HF, I could paddle to DC, turnaround and ride to Cumberland, then float back to HF. I would need to portage the rapids at HF and Great Falls of course, and the dams, but the majority of the river is flat and runable. I think it would make for a great 10 – 14 day adventure. One for the future!

Pedal & paddle: Bike SUP experiment

21 September 2022

Bike & Standup Paddle-board / 8.8 miles (bike) & 1.8 miles (SUP) / 3 hrs 7 minutes / River level 2.2 ft

Some brief notes from my bike SUP test mission. I rode along the C&O canal to Huckleberry Hill campsite, transferred to the river for a couple of miles, and then loaded up again and rode home.

Bike loaded on the front of the paddleboard

I’ve wanted to do this trip for a long time, to combine two of my passions: biking and paddleboarding.

Biking with a paddleboard

This is the easier of the two configurations. Paddleboards are heavy and bulky so the trailer is a great tool to use.

It would be hard to ride with the SUP backpack, they’re not that portable. For backpacking, packrafts would be a better option.

I have a Burley Flatbed trailer, which is ideal for carrying the SUP rolled up.

Towing the SUP on the trailer

The trailer is easy to ride with and barely noticeable, until you start riding uphill. And then it becomes VERY noticeable.

The ride up the hill from the C&O towpath was much harder than usual (without the trailer). My legs were like jelly by the time I got home 😉

Paddleboarding with a bike

This is the more challenging of the two modes of travel. You need to ensure the bike and trailer are strapped on tightly and balanced (left to right and front to back). Also, you need to leave enough room to stand and paddle comfortably.

I put the bike on the front, with the front wheel removed. I used Sea to Summit Hook Release Accessory Straps to attach the bike and cord to tie down the front wheel and the trailer. (I’ve ordered more of those straps for next time though.)

I used some packaging foam as padding under the bike, to protect the board from abrasion.

The bike mounted on the board

It worked really well!

I had to be slightly more careful when paddling, mainly because I didn’t want to fall onto the bike. On flat water I could barely notice the extra weight though, and the stability was not affected.

The small yellow dry bag held a few accessories like sunscreen and snack bars

Approaching Harpers Ferry. Maryland Heights is the mountain on the left skyline.

At the takeout, getting ready to transfer back to the bike to ride home

Check out this instagram post for more photos.

Other Bike/SUP Resources

The original inspiration came from these two NRS articles: Pedal to Paddle and How to Bike Shuttle Your SUP Trips.

Here’s an alternative approach to bike & SUP, carrying the board in backpack.

C&O Bike Tour with the boys (Shepherdstown to Harpers Ferry)

16 – 18 September 2022

At the beginning of summer 2022, my wife and I sat down with our boys and made a bucket list of summer adventures. We had a great summer and ticked most of them off. But there was one adventure — dear to my heart — that we hadn’t done yet. Camping.

The boys were desperate to go. They really enjoyed last year’s micro backpacking adventure. I was keen too, so it was time for another adventure.

Day 1: Shepherdstown to Antietam Creek campground (3 miles)

I rode from home along the C&O canal to Shepherdstown where I met Lexi and the boys. She picked them up from school and brought their bikes and the camping gear in the car. The plan was to ride back home over the next 3 days.

Super excited as we set off!

I used a Burley Flatbed trailer to haul our camping gear: the tent, 3 sleeping bags, 3 roll mats, cooking gear, spare clothes, 3 days of food, and about 12 liters of water!

Off we go!

Typical scenery along the canal

We covered the 3 miles to Antietam campground quicker than I expected. The boys rode really well.

I forgot that Antietam campsite required online bookings, so for a short while the success of the trip hung in the balance whilst I booked one of the last remaining tent sites, on my phone with very patchy data.

The campsite was fantastic (apart from the individual shouting obscenities at various times through the night. Drunk? Probably. Thankfully the kids slept through it.)

Day 2: Antietam Creek campground to Huckleberry Hill campground (8 miles)

We were up and away by 8 the next morning. A thick, wet fog hung over the river and the campsite so the grass, the tent, the bikes, and our feet were all soaking as we set off.

Soon after leaving the campground, we arrived at Antietam Creek Aqueduct, so we stopped to explore for a while.

Looking out at a foggy Potomac River

The river looked stunning with the fog.

Potomac River from Antietam Aqueduct

We stopped for lunch at Lock 37. Chicken wraps, fruit, muffins, and tea (for Dad) were on the menu.

Owen’s helmet had a lot of positive comments from other hikers and bikers

Along the way we stopped frequently to explore the river edge, collect bugs, and check out the cave near Dargan.

“Shell beach” near to Huckleberry Hill campsite
“Naan” the cicada came along for part of the ride
What’s more exciting to a 7-year old than a real cave?

The boys rode strongly all day and easily managed the 8 miles. The key was the frequent stops to explore, so that they never had to ride too far in one go.

We arrived at the campsite in the early afternoon, when no-one else was there. By dinner time, a handful of other bike touring groups had arrived and one hiking group.

The evening light over the river was beautiful.

That evening a park ranger visited the campground, to check everyone was ok and ask for more information about the drunk at Antietam the previous night. I was relieved that the ranger was out there, because I was nervous he might show up again.

Another unusual thing happened that night too. We heard a series of loud pops, then a few moments later, heard a tree falling down. It sounded like fireworks going off! Thankfully, it happened some way away from the campsite but nevertheless was a sombre reminder that there are risks to being out in the woods. It was dark when this happened and I meant to look the next morning, but completely forgot 😉

Day 3: Huckleberry Hill campground to lower town Harpers Ferry (4 miles)

We enjoyed a leisurely morning at camp, enjoying the quiet and chatting with the other campers.

Huckleberry Hill Hiker Biker Campsite

We returned up the trail to “Shell Beach” for another explore, before turning our bikes downstream again, and heading down the trail towards Harpers Ferry.

We stopped to explore the river edge by the ruins of Dam 3, where the flat water turns to whitewater, and becomes a section of rapids called “The Needles”.

We reached Harpers Ferry at around 11.30am.

Climbing the stairs up the pedestrian bridge with the loaded trailer was the hardest physical challenge of the trip. It’s a spiral staircase and I was at my limit hauling the loaded trailer to the top.

The boys were tired as we walked over the bridge into Harpers Ferry. It was a hot day and they had reached their limit. We bit off just the right amount.

Lexi picked them and the trailer up in lower town, and I rode the final uphill mile back to the house.

Tired but happy at the finish line!

All in all, it was a fantastic, memorable trip with the boys. Really, really good trip.

They seemed to enjoy it a lot too. I’m looking forward to our next adventure together!

Paddle from Taylor’s Landing to Shepherdstown, on SUP

9 September 2022

Standup Paddle-board / 8.34 miles / 2 hrs 18 minutes / River level 4.2 ft

Me! On the river! 🙂

Since moving to the Harpers Ferry area three years ago, the rivers have exerted a quiet, subtle pull on my adventure cravings. They form a natural routes between places; an alternative way to travel from A to B that complements other mountain activities.

I grew up windsurfing and sailing, but swapped wetsuits for crampons when I went to university and took up mountaineering. But recently, I’ve come full circle and am getting back into water-sports.

I first tried paddle-boarding in 2016 on the Chesapeake Bay (where jellyfish kept me focused on staying standing!). I’ve been hooked since.

Taylor’s Landing to Shepherdstown

The route from Taylor’s Landing to Shepherdstown

This route is a beautiful stretch of the Potomac river, with little development and only a moderate current and nothing more than a few ripples to contend with. It’s ideal for learning to paddle on rivers. It’s featured in Johnny Molloy’s book on the greatest paddling adventures in the area.

On this particular day, I was joined by my friend Chuck, which meant we could shuttle a car and avoid any upstream paddling.

View from the boat ramp at Taylor’s Landing

The water moves swiftly past Taylor’s Landing as the river is shallow and half way through a 200-degree sweeping bend.

Beyond here, it settles down, and we encountered nothing more than a few ripples and occasional boils and swirls. Certainly no whitewater.

But it is extremely scenic and quiet. We only saw two other kayakers in the whole 8 mile stretch.

Both banks are tree-lined the whole way, and at one stage we saw a bald eagle swoop by.

Chuck paddling on the Potomac
Typical scenery on this stretch of the river
Home on the water

The takeout is the Shepherdstown boat ramp, on the right bank of the river.

This was a great day out and I’m already planning more adventures on this and other sections of the Potomac. Next year (2023), I want to try low-grade whitewater on the SUP, so I can include the Harpers Ferry section of the rivers into trips.

Crowded Clough scramble on Kinder Low with Alistair (Peak District, UK)

29 June 2022

Hike & Scramble / 11.6 miles / 2,499 ft ascent / 5 hours 44 minutes

Hope Valley, Peak District National Park, UK

Alistair is one of my oldest friends. We met at the mountaineering and walking club at university and over the years we’ve walked across the Pyrenees together, done countless trips to the UK mountains (e.g. this Scottish adventure), traversed the mountaineer’s Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt, and spent 5 months together in the Andes of South America, nearly getting to the top of Aconcagua together.

However, since my move to the States 10 years ago, we’ve only seen each other once, briefly in 2014 for a short walk around West Kirby Marine Lake.

This year, June 2022, I was in Peak District for 2 weeks with my family, my brother’s family, and the UK grandparents, for a big family reunion after years of Covid restrictions. Alistair lives just around the corner, so it was easy to meet in the Peaks for a day walk together.

Alistair suggested a scramble up Crowded Clough onto Kinder Low and then walking a circuit around the head of the Edale valley.

We had great weather for it!

Alistair on the way up Kinder Low. Crowded Clough is the prominent dark scar, where the stream bed lies.

We began from the village of Edale, also the start of the Pennine Way, and headed up Kinder Low. It was great to catch up on news and reminisce about adventures past.

Looking back towards Edale

Near the top of the climb we entered the stream bed and began the short, wet, but entertaining scramble up Crowded Clough.

Alistair scrambling up Crowded Clough
Higher up on the scramble, which went up to the left of the stream. Fun!

Near the top we had the option to take the path towards the summit of Kinder Low, or complete the scramble up a final awkward chimney. Being the purists that we are, we opted for the scramble.

It was a few bridging steps followed by a heave and a struggle to push up and out of the bowels of the mountain. Here, Alistair demonstrates the sideways traversing technique to exit the top of the chimney:

We continued on over the plateau with the weird stones to the trig point at the top of Kinder Low.

Me and Alistair, some 23 years after our first summit together

From here, we continued around the head of the valley, past many Duke of Edinburgh youth groups (which is how I started my love affair with the mountains), to Brown Knoll, Lord Seat, and eventually Mam Tor.

Crossing the flagstones over Lord Seat

The section from Lord Seat to Mam Tor was more of a defined ridge line, as opposed to open moorland that we’d crossed earlier in the day.

On the ridge towards Mam Tor
Summit of Mam Tor

From Mam Tor, which was rather crowded, we descended to Hollins Cross pass, before turning north into the valley and back to Edale where our cars were parked.

Alistair on the way down to Edale

Back in Edale, we stopped to refuel at the excellent Penny Pot Cafe before our respective drives home.

One of the best parts of climbing mountains is the license to eat whatever you want after a big day!

Truly a top day out with a great friend. The best of days.