Sleet and Mud on the C and O Canal

Paw Paw with the sleet and rain.

Paw Paw with the sleet and rain.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is unquestionably a very scenic place. However, perhaps some of the most underrated picturesque times to take in all 184.5 miles are during colder months, after the leaves have all fallen and foliage-free views open up and stretch a little farther. For us, the views were nice, but our main hope was that the lower elevation going east would bring higher temperatures than the previous frigid and snowy couple of days spent covering 121 miles on the Great Allegheny Passage.

Our trip down the C&O took three days. Our destination for today was set for Hancock, MD. So, with persevering minds and grudgingly sore asses from two days on the Great Allegheny Passage, we saddled up and left Cumberland. A motionless and peaceful cold surrounded us as we set out on the towpath. At this point in the trip though, we were in the zone and nobody wanted to bring up how cold it actually was. So we  just pedaled steadily without stopping much except for a few clothing adjustments.

Along the way, we saw considerably more wildlife than on the GAP including countless deer, 2 raccoons, a rafter of turkeys, and three bald eagles – Ahhh the wilderness was alive! One of the coolest parts of the canal is along this section: Paw Paw Tunnel. Even with lights, the crests and troughs of the wavy path inside make for an interesting ride experience.

In Cumberland we had packed away some club sandwiches from the hotel for lunch. These sandwiches were a highlight for us because we’d mostly been eating peanut butter sandwiches, power bars, and some canned chicken and tuna. Shortly after lunch the sleet started… “Freaking awesome, this is actually worse than the snow!”

It sleeted for a while before eventually changing to a bleak, steady rain. We all had those big ponchos that come in a box that sporting goods stores sell. These were great but did not prevent all of the water from finding a way in and soaking through. The most uncomfortable part by far was having sodden gloves.

The last 7 miles of the day were finished in the dark. Shifting gears in the snow had proved difficult on previous days, but the freezing effects of the sleet, mixed with the mud from the sloshed trails proved equally as bad. Things just don’t work quite right when they’re frozen and it seemed like the trail was never-ending after sunset.  Our classy motel was at the top of the hill in Hancock – ugh! A hill climb to top it off!

Although, we got in late, at least the motelier was great. He gave us access to a hose to wash out the heavy globs of icy mud and debris we’d collected on top of our front derailleurs and chainstays. Although, handling a freezing hose in the dark was the last thing any of us wanted to do, our bikes absolutely needed to be washed. After emptying the soaked contents of our trailer to dry we ordered dinner from Fox’s Pizza and gorged on wings meatlovers, and soda.

The weather was better the next day for our 69-mile ride to Harpers Ferry. It was still really cold in the morning. For the most part, we cruised incident-free. Except, just outside of Hancock, we had our first crash when the bike and trailer slipped out on a wooden bridge that was covered in a thin layer of sketchty ice. Chris went slamming down. Luckily nothing broke, mechanical or human.

Although it snowed briefly at one point, the weather was nice – cold, but dry.  We finished just inside of sunset. Our legs had become very stiff and climbing the stairs to cross the walking bridge over the Potomac River was no fun at all. The need to get a steak and a bed in Harpers Ferry got us there.

The final leg was from Harpers Ferry to Georgetown, then back up the Capital Crescent trail to our pick-up point in Bethesda for a total of about 70 miles – made a bit longer by an on-road detour prior to the completion of the Big Slackwater project where the towpath runs tightly along the river. Riding on the road was nice but the roads were hilly.

The towpath was bumpy and soggy but we made good time. Surprisingly some of the roughest sections on the C&O can be found on this stretch. This amplified one of the more tedious factors of the trip – the overloaded kid-carrying trailer we were using for cargo does not play nice on bumpy surfaces. With a spring in the hitch, the bumps cause the trailer to pull back on the bike. On bumps, the rider-draining effect is like a tug-o-war between the bike and the trailer.

To deal with the jarring of the trailer it helped to go faster and keep momentum going. With this mentality, we raced through Montgomery County, MD and into DC. After a short stop in Georgetown to get ice cream, we pedaled down to Canal Lock 1, took a picture and rode back up to Bethesda in triumph.

We had made it a total of 322 very interesting and adventurous miles filled with solitude and scenery, and with no major glitches. It was an unforgettable experience and in the end, we concluded that this was indeed a perfect time of year to attempt a tour by bike from Pittsburgh to DC.

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  1. As President of the C&O Canal Trust, the official non-profit partner of the C&O Canal National Historical Park, I read the account of your adventure with great interest. Thanks for posting! All who wish to help us care for this national treasure are urged to visit

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