Category Archives: Adventure

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!

Harpers Ferry to Bear Chase Brewery

Hike / 23 miles / 4,160 ft. ascent / 11 hours 21 minutes

Twelve of us met in Harpers Ferry at 8 am Sunday morning for a long hike south on the Appalachian Trail to Bear Chase brewery.

The crew!

Lexi backtracked into town to retrieve one of the group who missed the start, so we formed a sub-group at the back.

We were all keen as mustard setting off and set a good pace up Loudoun Heights (1 hour to the junction, including all the backtracking). From there we continued south along the A.T. past the Harpers Ferry park boundary, past the power line break, and onto Keys Gap.

Me and Jacob at the park boundary
Our group passing the power line break. From left to right, Joe, Lexi, and Mike.
Me and Lexi on the boardwalk section right before Keys Gap

We stopped for lunch at the David Lesser shelter, probably an hour behind the lead group by now. We had hoped to catch up over the day, but we’d lost another half hour before Keys Gap searching for Mike’s phone (in his bag! 🤣).

Lunch break at the David Lesser shelter. From left to right: me, Jacob, and Joe.
Leaving David Lesser shelter to continue heading south
Yours truly at one of the scenic overlooks just past the shelter
Me and Lexi approaching the lookout near to Blackburn Trail Center (photo by Jacob)
Lexi and me at the very windy lookout, by Blackburn Trail Center
Spring!
Our group at the Blackburn Trail Center connector trail. We elected to skip a visit and keep going. From left to right: Lexi, Mike (back), me, Jacob, and John.

The big milestone in the second half of the walk was Raven Rocks, around the 18 mile mark. The trail starts to undulate again in the couple of miles before and I think everyone was starting to feel the effects of the previous 15 miles. I lent my poles to Lexi to help her manage a niggle in her knee.

Still smiling despite the achey joints
Raven Rocks lookout! So good every time
Me and Lexi at Raven Rocks
Views to the south
Me and Lexi leaving Raven Rocks lookout (photo by Jacob)
Crossing back into Virginia on the descent of Raven Rocks

Lexi opted to finish at Raven Rocks trailhead at mile 20, where she met our support crew and headed over to Bear Chase brewery in the car. I’ve stopped here twice before too, once on my own and once with Pete.

Me and Lexi at the Raven Rocks trailhead, mile 20.

Jacob and I wanted to walk the last few miles to a final lookout at Bear’s Den, before walking to the finish line at the brewery.

The evening light was beautiful for the final climb up to Bear’s Den. There was no one on the trail, but quite a lot of people at the lookout, since you can drive in from the other side.

Me on the ascent to Bear’s Den (Photo by Jacob)
Jacob and me at Bear’s Den lookout

It was cold and windy at the lookout so we didn’t hang around. We were both pretty tired and eager to get to Bear Chase brewery for some food.

Stunning sunset from Bear’s Den lookout, although we didn’t stay to the end.
Made it! Bear Chase brewery in the background.

What a day! This is a wonderful hike and it was fun to experience it with Lexi and friends.

Winter Hiking Season 2021/22

Recap post of significant hikes this winter season. It was a great winter hiking season!

We had less snow this year overall than last year, but we had a period of very cold weather through January and February, so that I wore the traction spikes on most of my walks (compared to only once last year).

December was unseasonably mild, and there was no hint of winter. I did a ton of great hiking with Pete, mum, Dave, and Lexi, but all under normal conditions. So those hikes are not listed here. See Harpers Ferry Three Peaks and Harpers Ferry to Raven Rocks.

Here are the seven snowy mountain hikes from this season:

4 January 2022: First ascent of Loudoun Heights of 2022

8.08 miles / 1,798 ft. / 3 hrs 2 minutes

At last, some snow! Barely a dusting, but it was still great to see winter arrive at last.

More photos on Instagram.

8 January 2022: Snowy Loudoun Heights

8.19 miles / 1,766 ft. / 3 hrs 28 minutes

A lovely walk up snowy Loudoun Heights. Couple of inches of snow. Bluebird conditions!

Looking towards Maryland Heights from the shoulder of Loudoun Heights
Harpers Ferry in the snow

More photos on Instagram.

16 January 2022: Loudoun Heights Extended

9.81 miles / 1,984 ft. / 3 hrs 57 minutes

I extended my usual walk by tagging the park boundary sign. It snowed during the walk, which is always a fun experience. As I walked home through town, I saw a car that had slid off the road into the fence and narrowly avoided dropping further down into the stream bed. Yikes!

Maryland Heights just visible still
The Yaktrax spikes were helpful today
A snowy Appalachian Trail
Washington Street looking pretty under fresh snow

More photos on Instagram. And video 1, video 2, and video 3 from the day.

25 January 2022: Icy Stone Fort Loop

8.57 miles / 1,633 ft. / 3 hrs 30 minutes

The prolonged period of cold meant that none of the snow melted and where it was stamped down on the trails, it turned into inches of ice. Definitely a day for the traction spikes!

On the way up Maryland Heights!

More photos on Instagram.

1 February 2022: Cold Loudoun Heights

8.18 miles / 1,771 ft. / 3 hrs 42 minutes

Cold! I’ve used my huge down mittens on most of the winter hikes this year. Indispensable!

Big mittens and a flask of tea 🙂
Majestic Maryland Heights
Heavy icing on the banks of the Shenandoah River

More photos on Instagram.

13 February 2022: Keys Gap return and Loudoun Heights

16.94 miles / 2,800 ft. / 6 hrs 57 minutes

A fantastic, long winter hike, the longest winter hike of this season. I’m counting this as 1 of my 12 challenge walks for 2022 (goal is to do 1 per month, 12 for the year. More on my goals for 2022).

Walking through a tunnel of white
View from the power line break

More photos on Instagram.

13 March 2022: Snowy Loudoun Heights

8.36 miles / 1,777 ft. / 3 hrs 43 minutes

The most scenic walk of this season. A surprise late season snowstorm dumped a few inches of heavy snow on Saturday. A cold night ensured it was still all there the next day. It coated everything. Stunning!

A winter wonderland!
Maryland Heights with a fresh coat of snow
Looking up the Potomac River to the confluence at Harpers Ferry

More photos on Instagram.

First Backpacking Adventure With The Boys

Day 1: Home to Harpers Ferry Campground, 2.5 miles, 8/22/21

I’ve wanted to take the boys camping for a long time but never quite gotten around to it. Something always came up or the weather didn’t cooperate. This time however, the stars aligned. I had a gap in the schedule, the boys haven’t started school and the weather forecast was stable (although rather hot!).

This is sad to say, but it’s been years since I’ve camped (something I plan to rectify!). I had fun digging my old camping gear though and packing for this adventure. Everything looked like new again. That’s the thing with good quality outdoor gear — it lasts a lifetime if you look after it.

In my pre-kids life I did a lot of camping so it was easy to plan what we needed and get everything together. The boys carried some of their clothes and water bottles in their bags.

We set off around 3 pm, full of excitement! The boys were embarking on their first camping adventure.

Leaving home!

Lexi walked with us for the first quarter mile to Nash Farm. Owen didn’t believe us when we said that mom was turning around here. “You’re joking right?”

All smiles as we passed Nash Farm, about quarter of a mile from home 😉

We strode on, down the trail from the back of Nash Farm to the river. Owen face planted twice on the way down, the poor guy. No harm done, just muddy knees. At the bottom of the hill I led the boys through the river tunnel under the rail tracks rather than crossing the tracks. It was almost bone dry.

At the canal headrace on the Potomac River, looking out towards Maryland Heights (which we climbed with the boys earlier this year)

We stopped to explore the Canal Headrace and enjoy views out to Maryland Heights. At this age, the boys are mostly indifferent to pretty views though. They prefer bugs or interesting graffiti.

We arrived at the campsite around 5 pm. I couldn’t find the caretaker, so we picked the furthest tent site and set up camp. The boys helped put the tent up, and then proceeded to trip over the tent pegs every 5 minutes 😉

The boys were super interested in how the tent went together

The tent is a 7 year old Mountain Hardwear Skyledge, which is a lightweight 2-person tent. It was comfortable with me and the boys, if a little cozy. I’ll consider taking the 3-person pyramid tent next time.

Our home for the night!
It’s a nice campground! We got the end tent site which was nice.

Once we’d set up camp, we wandered back to the river shore to explore for an hour or so. We built sandcastles and hunted for shells. It’s serene and beautiful in the evenings. Again, the boys were digging in the mud whilst Dad was admiring the view.

The Potomac River is beautiful in the evenings
Another dreamy view on the Potomac River
Cooking dinner!

Back at the tent we had dinner. I brought the MSR Pocket Rocket stove to heat up a camp meal for myself. The boys had sandwiches, fruit and muffins.

That night I had my work cut out! They were excitable and wanted story after story. All good fun and they fell asleep around 9.30 pm. I was nodding off by then too.

But sleep didn’t come easily because it was so hot in the tent. I ended up keeping both fly doors open and cracking the inner doors too. Thankfully there were no bugs so that wasn’t an issue. I eventually fell asleep properly sometime after midnight. I was woken up a couple more times but overall it was a relatively good night.

Stories before bed in the tent

Day 2: Harpers Ferry Campground to Home, 2.5 miles, 8/23/21

Morning of day 2 as the sun rises over the river

It was a beautiful morning when we woke up, with the sun rising over the river and pouring through the trees. We were all awake by 6.30 am when the tent got light.

Our first job was to retrieve our food bag that we hung last night. We didn’t hang it to protect from bears (low risk here) but I wanted to protect from rodents in the night. It was also a fun experiment to do with the boys. It worked a treat.

We hung our food bag in the trees to protect it from rodents.

Then it was onto breakfast. I had this hot granola, which was surprisingly good, and a cup of tea.

Making breakfast for Dad

Another family with young boys was camped a few sites down from us (the rest of the sites were empty at this end of the campground), so we stopped and played with them for a while before setting off on the trek home. We stopped for a paddle in the river too.

Last look at the river from our campsite before we began the trek home

We went a slightly different way home and met Lexi along the Armory Trail.

We took the trail that cuts up to East Ridge St, and then home from there. It was another super hot day so I was relieved it was only a short day!

Passing the canal headrace on the way home. Hot already!

Overall, this was a fantastic mini adventure. It wasn’t easy but it also wasn’t too hard. I’m looking forward to more trips with the boys in the future!

Aces high: an alpine climb of Mount Ypsilon, Rocky Mountain National Park

A photo essay from an alpine rock climb of Blitzen Ridge on Mount Ypsilon, 4,119m, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

September 2014

Mount Ypsilon

Mount Ypsilon, our route was the right skyline ridge

It had been over two years since I’d last climbed. I was out of practise and a good deal more uncomfortable with exposure than I remembered. Two days previously, we’d been repulsed by this route, grossly underestimating its length and deciding to bail relatively low on the ridge before getting stuck. Privately, an uneasy feeling had settled over me in the few days since, and I was not psyched about returning.

My climbing buddy Steven, with whom I’ve shared many great trips, was undaunted. A regular climber still, he was, without a shadow of doubt, the stronger climber of the two of us. He made a convincing case for going back for a second go at Mount Ypsilon, saying we owed it to ourselves to have another crack. I was still uneasy but agreed, knowing I would regret it if we didn’t but also that I would have to overcome my fears if we were to reach the summit.

Steven on lower reaches of Ypsilon

Steven on lower reaches of Ypsilon

Learning from our first attempt, we set off a full two hours earlier, before dawn. We hiked stealthily upwards in the cool morning air, zig-zagging up the steep trail to the base of the mountain, each lost in our own private thoughts. The forest felt more oppressive, as if my anxiety was manifesting itself physically. I did all I could to hang onto Steven’s coattails on the walk in, arriving at the mountain lake not far behind. The lake was nestled in the Mount Ypsilon’s alpine cirque, with the bulk of mountain in full view. From here, a steep gully took us straight up and on to the shoulder of the mountain and the beginning of the ridge to the summit.

Gearing up

Getting ready to climb at the start of the ridge proper

Already we had gained considerable height from the car park. But we were only just beginning and had a long climb ahead. At first, progress was easy, measured, as we walked up the broad ridge, scrambling over and between boulder fields. Gradually the ridge narrowed and became more defined, more intimidating. Ahead lay the climb proper and the four aces the route was known for. Four huge dorsal fins of rock on the lower half of the ridge that constituted the bulk of the technical climbing. As we scrambled to the base of the first ace, the exposure ramped up very suddenly.

The technical climbing began in earnest.

Steven leads up the first pitch

Steven leads up the first pitch

Doubt and anxiety swirled around my head, a constant presence over the hours of climbing along the ridgeline. Gradually, as I became more comfortable with the exposure, I began to enjoy the splendid position we were in. High up on a monstrous alpine ridge, alone and totally committed, surrounded in every direction by beautiful mountain architecture.

The traversing fun begins

The traversing fun begins

Me on top of the first Ace

Me on top of the first Ace (photo credit: Steven Cunnane)

Steve led each pitch since I long ago relinquished any claim over the sharp end of the rope. The route led up steep faces and corners, across knife-edge crests with several abseils to drop off the back side of the ridge’s jagged teeth. In all, it was 8 varied pitches of exposed climbing up to 5.6 grade.

Exposed middle pitches of the climb

Exposed middle pitches of the climb (photo credit: Steven Cunnane)

View back down the ridge from near the summit

View back down the ridge from near the summit

The final section of the ridge, past the technical climbing, was the most arduous of the day, both physically and mentally. Having been on the go for around 10 hours, we were both dog tired. The route beta had given us the false impression that it was a short, easy stroll to the summit beyond the final pitch of climbing. However, it turned into several hours of scrambling over loose rock, with continual focus required because of the big drops. It was stressful and only became harder as we climbed above the 4,000m line, as the altitude made our breathing ever more laboured. Still, we had no choice. Our only way out was to go up and over the top of the mountain.

Me on the start of the summit ridge

Near the top of the summit ridge (photo credit: Steven Cunnane)

We summited around 6pm, rather later than we planned, but elated to be on flat, safe ground again. (Or at least I was.) Relieved to just sit, to walk around and enjoy the magnificent scenery.

On the summit of Mount Ypsilon

On the summit of Mount Ypsilon

We couldn’t hang around for long though as the daylight was quickly fading and we needed to get as far down the mountain as we could before darkness set in.

The descent was over new ground; in fact, we had decided to take a different descent from the recommended one, based on what we had seen of the terrain. We opted to climb over the satellite peak of Mount Chiquita and down its broad shoulder. Despite being slightly further than the “standard” descent route (a heinous-looking steep gully), it appeared to be much more benign terrain with a gentle gradient, which was important as we knew we’d soon be descending in the dark.

Descending at dusk

Descending at dusk, in spectacular evening light

Our goal was to reach the bottom of the shoulder of Chiquita, where the tree line began, before dark. So we hotfooted along the ridge, hopping over the boulder fields, only pausing to catch our breath and witness the beautiful sunset. We managed it, only needing to get the headtorches out as we plunged into the forest.

Sunset from Mount Chiquita

Sunset on the descent over Mount Chiquita, after summiting Mount Ypsilon

Although I was mightily relieved to be off the mountain proper, and below the technical terrain, the forest presented its own set of challenges. The darkness was complete and our tired minds began to play tricks, imagining that behind every tree was a hungry bear, or rock crevice to tumble into. We stumbled onwards in the dark, knowing that as long as we kept going downhill we must eventually intersect the path we’d trekked in on that morning.

Stumbling around the forest in the darkness

Stumbling around the forest in the darkness

So it was that we slipped and slithered our way downhill, swearing profusely at the rather absurd situation we were in, convinced we were lost and likely benighted in the forest. I managed to get a signal on my phone and pull up Google maps which showed that we were closing in on that path however. Finally, after a harder struggle than we expected, we emerged into a clear corridor between the trees. Hurrah! The path! Salvation! A veritable highway to carry us home. We still had several miles to go, but compared to all that we had encountered thus far, this final section of the day was a breeze. We reached the car, tired, hungry but elated at about 10.30pm. Definitely one of the best mountain days I’ve ever had.

At camp that night

At camp that night