Sunday, October 24, 2021

Susquehanna River Ride 2021

 Photos by Joseph Insalaco

Cycling along a river should be easy and scenic. The Susquehanna River flows through a valley but the roads often leave the valley floor going into the mountains.  Our ride was full of scenic beauty, historic places, and interesting breakfast stops, but it was not easy. 

The Susquehanna River was not our planned ride for 2021.  For the past 2 years we wanted to cycle along the Danube River in Europe, but the COVID pandemic interfered with our plans.  So, we asked ourselves, what is the next best adventure for 2 cyclists that have taken annual trips for 20 years?  Keeping with the river theme we thought about other possibilities; ones closer to home and more likely to be achievable in spite of the pandemic restrictions.  Since we had already cycled along the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Columbia, and Saint Lawrence, we had to find another worthy river.  The Susquehanna quickly moved to the top of our list.  Its headwaters are in Cooperstown, New York and the river travels 444 miles to the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, Maryland.  

To start our trip, I drove from Falls Church, Virginia to Poughkeepsie, New York to meet my cycling companion Joe.  From there we cycled about 120 miles to Cooperstown, New York.  Joe lives on the top of a mountain so our ride started out on a great note as we flew for 4-miles downhill.   The next 45 miles had many additional great downhills that were only dampened by modest climbs. Wow, we thought, this trip could be easy.

Before we crossed the Hudson River, we enjoyed 2 interesting stops.  The first was Clermont State Historic Site where Robert R. Livingston, Jr. was Clermont's most notable resident. According to the park’s webpage, his accomplishments include: drafting the Declaration of Independence (guess the Thomas Jefferson guy just stole the limelight), serving as first U.S. Minister of Foreign Affairs, administering the oath of office to George Washington, negotiating the Louisiana Purchase and developing steamboat technology with Robert Fulton.  Quite a guy!

Our second stop was at Olana, the home of Frederic Church, a well-known painter, world traveler, a self-taught architect, farmer and landscape designer.  The Olana estate overlooks the Hudson. While it was a serious climb to get there, the effort was worthwhile. The story-book castle-like structure was very picturesque and the river view spectacular.

Once we crossed the Hudson River, we had a lot of climbing in the Catskill Mountains, as we headed to Cooperstown, New York.  Cooperstown, drew its name from the family of James Fenimore Cooper whose historical writings depicted life from the 17th to the 19th centuries.  Our first stop in Cooperstown was Otsego Lake, the headwaters of the north branch of the Susquehanna River.

While the lake was of primary interest, Cooperstown is better known for the Baseball Hall of Fame.  In 1839 Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown.  While baseball has been his legacy, he is also known as a decorated Union Army officer who is claimed to have fired the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War.  Another point of interest, just north of the town, is The Farmers' Museum.  Its land has been part of a working farm since 1813, when it was owned by James Fenimore Cooper.

Finally, we started our Susquehanna River ride as we left Cooperstown.   At this point, the Susquehanna River is a very modest stream, just a few feet wide. As the days progressed, we knew that the river would grow wider from this humble beginning. 

We enjoyed the many towns found along the Susquehanna. The town of Oneonta, New York was first settled around 1775 and its Walnut Street Historic District showcased many interesting old homes.  One of them was the Wilber Mansion.  It was built in 1875, as a simple, flat roofed structure. However, in

the early 1890’s, the building was transformed into a fancy Victorian Lady, with an imposing turret, wrap around porches, and stained-glass windows.  During our tour of the Walnut Street District, we were stopped by Malcolm, who shared his bicycling adventures and asked about our ride.  Malcolm cycled across the United States in 1989, back when Joe and I were still earning a living and caring for children.  He indicated that his next dream adventure was to kayak down the Susquehanna River.

We spent a night in Sidney, New York.  The town was named after Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith. A British naval officer serving in the American and French revolutionary wars, he later rose to the rank of admiral.   There we saw the Andrew Mann Inn that was built in 1787. The inn sits next to the Susquehanna River and served early travelers on the Catskill Turnpike Stage Coach Line.  Currently the Inn is in the early stages of restoration and not a place where we could spend the night.

Leaving Sidney, New York we had an interesting start on our way to find breakfast.  I raced out of the hotel and headed right and Joe followed yelling “wrong direction.”  This is not the first time one of us headed to the right and the other to the left (no political inferences please).  Once we got synchronized, we cycled about 5 miles to Bob’s Diner.  We both decided on blueberry pancakes that were 3 for $3.49.  Our experience told us to order just 2 pancakes each.  When they arrived, we wished that we had ordered only 1, and shared it.  Yes, they were that big. 


The Sussquehanna River next dipped south into Pennsylvania before heading back north to continue its journey in New York. In Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, a historic railroad town, we first visited the Starrucca Viaduct.  The viaduct was built by the Erie Railroad Company in 1847-48 to cross the valley. It is a beautiful stone structure extending 1,200 feet and is 110 feet high.  Next, we stopped at the Starrucca railroad station and hotel that was also built by the Erie Railway in 1863. The three-story Gothic Revival structure included a large hotel, called Starrucca House, with rooms for 200 people.  There we met the owner, Andrew and his son, also named Andrew, who are restoring the building.  Andrew, a German immigrant, purchased the building at a city auction.   It is a beautiful building, but according to Andrew, the town wanted to demolish the building for redevelopment. Both men said that they live there even though the building does not yet have running water or electricity.

On an early Sunday morning, with sleep filled eyes, we toured Binghamton, New York to see some of the fine sites the city has to offer. There was absolutely no traffic which made it a perfect time for city exploring.  The city was named after William Bingham, who bought the 10,000-acre patent for the land in 1786. From the days of the railroad, Binghamton was a transportation crossroads so our first stop was the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad passenger station.  The station was built in 1901, in the Italian Renaissance style.

Our next stop was the Broome County Courthouse built in 1897, in the form of a Latin Cross and topped with an  elegant copper dome.

Leaving Binghamton, on designated cycle routes, we saw more cyclists than cars.  We stopped to talk to Mike who became a “bike widower” when his back started acting up.  He was patiently waiting for his wife to finish her ride.  We also met, a 5-year-old boy on a battery powered motorcycle looking bike. He was delightful, full of conversation and enjoyed racing his bike in a deserted parking lot.

We had another interesting breakfast stop.  The closest restaurant from our night’s lodging was 20 miles away, outside of Towanda, Pennsylvania.  After leaving Towanda we crossed over the river and had to cycle 5 more miles on a very busy 4 lane road (with no shoulders) through the town’s industrial district to reach our breakfast spot--Pipher’s Diner.  Despite

the building being old and worn, it was full of customers and the 2 women owners efficiently provided great breakfasts. Typical of these types of diners, it was full of regular customers and we were an interesting diversion to their daily routine.

Our goal was to stay along the river whenever possible but that was seldom achievable.  For example, after breakfast at Pipher’s Diner we had 40 miles of challenging cycling. The roads left the lowlands and went into the mountains.  Our route had 7 significant climbs that led us away from the river.  The first 3 were very long but with reasonable degrees of assent on a major highway. At the top of each of these we enjoyed a panoramic view of the valley below. After these climbs, we dropped back down to the river and cycled for a while on country roads.  The last 4 climbs were also on the highway.  While these assents were similar to the earlier ones, their shoulders were in poor condition. 

Besides being in need of repair, they had lots of debris on them, making the climbs and descents challenging, and sometimes dangerous. Nor did these latter climbs provide a scenic overlook to compensate for the efforts to reach their top. Luckily, we ended the day with a nice descent into Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, for our night’s lodging.

In West Pittston, Pennsylvania, Joe came to an abrupt stop and pointed franticly at a shopping center sign “Insalaco Shopping Center,” his family’s name.  Joe said that when his family immigrated to the United States they first settled in this area.  He believes that it is likely that some of his distant relatives are still here.

For several days, Joe had been concerned with his rear hub bearings making noise.  We stopped at a bike shop in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where Rich, the owner of Around Town Bikes, stopped his project and replaced Joe’s bearings.  Before leaving, we decided to fill our bike tires using the shop’s floor pump and I had my first flat tire on this trip when my Presta valve broke off. If I was going to have a flat tire, I could not have picked a better place than in a bike shop.

We left our B&B in Berwick, Pennsylvania, early and looked forward to a later breakfast. However, breakfast came at a big price.  Seven miles into our ride we had a big hill with grades ranging from 12 to 18 percent.  What is noteworthy about this climb is Joe’s mastery of hills.  He cycled it all the way to the top, I walked.  Joe’s power must have been a carryover from yesterday’s 4 scoops of ice cream. After the following downhill we cycled into Bloomsburg and crossed the Rupert Covered Bridge.  The

bridge cost $1,637 when it was built in 1847 and was named after the nearby village, which was settled by Leonard Rupert in 1788. Breakfast was finally found at Woody’s Café in Catawissa, Pennsylvania where our loaded touring bikes attracted conversation from other customers. 

We stopped in Danville, Pennsylvania so we could cycle on the J. Manley Robbins Trail.  According to Rails-to-Trails “it is the oldest known rail-trail in the United States.” The 1.1-mile trail connects to the Old Reading Line Trail to form the 2.6-mile Hess Loop Trail.   The trail was developed by the Danville Bicycle Club in the 1890s on a former narrow-gauge railroad built by the Montour Iron Works in the 1840s. 

The Susquehanna River was a predominate feature of my childhood. Our next stop, Northumberland, Pennsylvania where I grew up, took me back to those early days.  Our house was on a hill, providing a daily view of the river.  The town is located at the confluence of the river’s north and west branches. The town dates back to 1772. Joseph Priestly settled here but it is unlikely that many know his claim to fame.  As a clergyman, he was forced to leave England because of his scientific experiments with alcohol that led to the discovery of the element oxygen.  We stopped by his home and several other properties

that were his legacy.  We also cycled by the Front Street Train Station, constructed in 1908-1910. The station closed in 1958 and remained closed until it was restored as a restaurant in 1981.  To obtain a birds-eye view of the river, we climbed to the nearby Shikellamy State Park Overlook. It is on top of a 360-foot cliff that overlooks the confluence of the north and west branches.

What began as a tiny stream in Cooperstown, the North branch has become a very wide river at Northumberland. Of course, to see this view required us to climb a very steep road.

Our longest day’s ride was from Northumberland, to Columbia, Pennsylvania.  We cycled 80 miles, mostly flat and almost always near the river.  However, the temperature was in the 90s which made for a long day.  On the way we had another interesting breakfast stop.  In Port Trevorton, Pennsylvania, we stopped at Lauver’s Family Traditions Restaurant.  As we entered all the chatter in the room stopped and the “old guys” just stared at us—2 guys in spandex with sweat dripping off their foreheads, walking into a room full of working men that led hard lives.  As an “ice breaker”, I said “we understand that this is a great place for breakfast.”  The men responded with several jokes about our clothing and quickly welcomed us to join them. 

At Harrisburg, Pennsylvania we reached the rivers widest point.  The Susquehanna grew from a small stream that we could leap over in Cooperstown, New York to a massive body of water nearly a mile wide.

Our ride from Columbia to Havre de Grace, Maryland, was only 50 miles but the morning patter of rain on our hotel window was not a good sign. The day was marred by rain, cold, hills and traffic. We also had to cross a bridge that was closed because of construction, got lost, and by the time we got to our hotel were wet to our skin.  Havre de Grace, Maryland is the end of the Susquehanna River.  Here it flows into the Chesapeake Bay and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean.  Our travels from Poughkeepsie to Havre de Grace totaled 610 miles with 22,000 feet of climbing.    Our daily blog showing our route, mileages, and lots of photos can
be viewed at

While Havre de Grace was the end of our joint travels, we still had miles to cycle to return to our homes.  My trip south to Falls Church, Virginia was much shorter than Joe's trip north to Poughkeepsie, New York.  I cycled 105 miles on my last day and Joe had 3 cycling days of 89, 99, and 56 miles.

Postscript:  Several months after this ride I returned to Havre de Grace to see what we missed.  It is a delightful historic town but filled with excitement.  Its vibrant downtown area had lots of unique shops and restaurants.  Public art was pervasive and the water views were spectacular.   

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Ohio River Ride 2019

Story by Jeffrey Heil
Photos by Joseph Insalaco

The name "Ohio" comes from the Seneca, Ohi:yo', meaning "Good River".  Numerous Native American civilizations lived along the Ohio River and used it for transportation and trading.  The Ohio River was instrumental in the westward expansion of the United States.  Lewis and Clark used the Ohio River to begin their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase.  During the 19th century, the river was the southern boundary of the Northwest Territory and part of the border between free and slave territories. Thus, it was the way to freedom for thousands of slaves escaping to the North using the Underground Railroad.

There are many journals of early Ohio River explorers and travelers.   We were most interested in Lewis and Clark’s travels because we had previously cycled their route from St. Louis, Missouri to Astoria, Oregon.   Meriwether Lewis started that journey in Washington DC where he received instructions from President Jefferson, obtained funding, and purchased equipment.  Lewis left DC on July 5, 1803 and traveled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where the Ohio River begins.  In September of that year, he loaded his boats, traveled down the Ohio River and met William Clark in Clarksville, Indiana. Together they floated down the Ohio to the Mississippi River then up to St. Louis.

The Ohio River, which flows southwesterly from Pittsburgh, to Cairo, Illinois, is a major tributary of the Mississippi River.  It is 981 miles long, and flows through or along the border of six states.  It took Lewis almost 6 months to reach St. Louis, we did it in less than 3 weeks.  Our road journey was 1,100 miles over 19 days with 17,763 feet of climbing.  Our daily journal, photos, and routes can be seen at

The Ohio River, before heading southwest, actually goes north from Pittsburgh.  Since we could not find a good route along its northern journey, we headed west over the hills from Pittsburgh to Lawrenceville, West Virginia.  There, we first saw the river and imagined floating a raft down to the Mississippi.

According to some of the early journals, the clay along the riverbanks was good for pottery and was the start of many settlements. The town of Newell, West Virginia was one of these towns where Laughlin Pottery was started in 1871.  Owensboro, Kentucky was originally known as "Yellow Banks" from the color of the land beside the Ohio River.  Marietta, Ohio dates to 1808 when a potter and his family settled there, making it one of the earliest pottery manufacturing sites in the entire Northwest Territory.  The town of Henderson, Kentucky also had its origins in the river’s clay.  It was initially called "Red Banks" because of the reddish clay soil of the bluffs overlooking the Ohio River.

We cycled in all 6 states that border the Ohio River.  We crossed the river several times, sometimes for better roads or interesting places, other times for lodging.   After we left Pennsylvania, we entered West Virginia but had to cross into Ohio for our first night’s lodging in Steubenville.  The soldiers of the 1st American Regiment built Fort Steuben to protect the government surveyors mapping the land west of the Ohio River, and named the fort in honor of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. When the surveyors completed their task a few years later, the fort was abandoned but the town survived.

In Sistersville, West Virginia we had planned to take the ferry across the river to cycle on the Ohio side.  When we got to the ferry it was “beached” and no one was around.  We cycled back into town where we were told that the ferry was no longer running.  We continued west on the West Virginia side to St. Marys, where we crossed the river and headed to Marietta, Ohio.  During 1788, pioneers established Marietta as the first permanent settlement of the new territory. After cycling an endless commercial strip to reach the old town, we visited a Gothic Revival house that was built in 1855. Over the years, the house hosted some of Marietta’s most prominent and influential citizens. Marietta is also home to a river boat museum.  Its collection includes the W.P. Snyder, Jr., the last steam powered towboat on the Ohio River.  While no longer steam powered, we saw many tugboats gracefully pushing barges 3-wide and 6-long up the river.

In Point Pleasant, West Virginia we sought out the Lowe Hotel, built in 1901.  The current owners purchased it in 1990 and restored it to its former glory.  Except for the window air conditioners and bathrooms, it is period correct. It is a family-run business and the family lives on the first floor.  Our hosts treated us to a room overlooking the Ohio River.  Wandering around the town, we discovered Mothman. His statue and museum were prominent downtown attractions.  Being totally clueless, we asked the hotel proprietor about Mothman.  He told us that a man that looked like a moth was spotted many times around town and predicted disasters, including the collapse of their bridge over the Ohio River in 1967.  After the bridge collapsed, Mothman disappeared but lives on with the town’s festival that brings in 15,000 visitors annually.  Additionally, Mothman’s prophesies were featured in 2002 movie, starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney.

Some days were full of diverse points of interest. For example, on our way to Huntington, West Virginia, our first stop was at a roadside historical sign that noted a Native American burial mound.  The sign was interesting, but as far as we could see, the terrain was flat.  Our next stop was at Green Bottom, the home of a Civil War General. Later, we came to Hillbilly Hot Dogs.  This restaurant was featured on the TV show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and looked “stereotypical hillbilly”.  In Huntington, we stopped at the Madie Carroll House.  The original section of the house was built prior to 1810 and is believed to have arrived by flatboat from Gallipolis, Ohio. As our eclectic day continued, we found a nice place for a late breakfast called Butter It Up.  Its name is derived from blending a tablespoon of butter into a cup of coffee before serving it.  We spent the night in Huntington and enjoyed its vibrant downtown, restaurants, and entertainment.  The town is home to Marshall University and young folks were everywhere.  (A 2006 movie “We are Marshall” depicts the University’s effort to recover after a plane crash takes the lives of most of Marshall University's football team.)

Joe does a wonderful job of planning our routes.  In the past, he has come up with some interesting ways to avoid traffic. We have gone through parking lots, industrial sites, the wrong way on one-way streets, on narrow paths that were trails in name only, over abandoned bridges, and through construction sites.  To avoid the busy highway into Ironton, Ohio, we cycled thru a cemetery, a first for us.  Ironton has miles of brick streets and very well-kept old homes. The town was founded in 1849 by John Campbell, a prominent pig iron manufacturer.  Between 1850 and 1890, Ironton was one of the foremost producers of iron in the world.

Many towns along the Ohio are noted for their flood wall murals.  Portsmouth, Ohio started its painting in 1993, creating a mural 20 feet high x 160 feet long. The mural project was completed in 2002 with 2,200 feet of art along the Ohio River. The project is the largest known work of art by a single artist.

One river crossing took us from Ohio to Maysville, Kentucky, where we planned to spend the night.  We had to cross the Simon Kenton Memorial Bridge built in 1931. Its main span is 1,060 feet long, and the total length of the bridge is 1,991 feet. Maysville is a neat little town with a vibrant downtown, many historic sites, and plenty of restaurants.  We stopped at the National Underground Railroad Museum, which is housed in a former safe house. Next we toured the Kentucky Gateway Museum that contains regional history and over 4,000 artifacts. We also saw the Russell Theatre which was the site of the world premiere of Rosemary Clooney's first film (“The Stars Are Singing”, in 1953).  Maysville also has flood wall murals depicting the town’s history.

“Believe it or not”, we visited a second town named Ripley. It was in Ohio, the first one was in West Virginia.  The Ohio town was named in 1816 to honor General Eleazar Wheelock Ripley, an American officer of the War of 1812.  There we stopped at John Parker’s house.  He was an American abolitionist, inventor, iron molder and industrialist. Parker, who was African American, helped hundreds of slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad. He was one of the few blacks to patent an invention before 1900. His house in Ripley is designated a National Historic Landmark and has been restored.  Next, we walked our bikes up a half mile hill that was too steep to ride. At the top we visited John Rankin's house and enjoyed a marvelous view of the Ohio River. John Rankin was a Presbyterian minister, educator and abolitionist. Upon moving to Ripley in 1822, he became known as one of Ohio's first and most active "conductors" of the Underground Railroad.  In contrast to Rankin’s home and view we next stopped at Ulysses S. Grant's birthplace.  The house was so small it could be included in the TV show that features tiny homes.

Our introduction to Indiana was interesting. Twenty-five miles from our destination, our route was marked “road closed in 3.5 miles, local traffic only”.  The detour, which would involve a big climb in the heat of the day, was not appealing.  We ignored the warning and kept cycling along the river and came to the second sign that read “road closed in 1 mile, blah, blah, blah.”  We also ignored this warning and eventually went thru the construction site, between barricades and road graders, but on fresh asphalt.  Thankfully, we stayed the course because our route took us to the town of Patriot, Indiana.  We arrived just as the town’s July 4th parade ended. The folks must have needed a boost to get through the post-parade letdown as we became the center of attention with our loaded bikes and Joe taking pictures.  One family approached us because their 3-year-old daughter wanted to share her “parade-float candy” with us.  Also, several teenage boys marveled that we had just cycled all the way from Cincinnati, Ohio.

While most of our time was spent cycling on road ways, we did enjoy some great trails in Wheeling, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky.  The Louisville Loop Trail was along the river and provided about 2 hours of traffic-free cycling that took us near West Point, Kentucky.  There, we stopped at a small farmers market to purchase fruit.  We met some nice folks who asked about our travels and shared some local history.  Before leaving, they gave us peaches and brownies.  The peaches were ripe, juicy, and delicious.  The brownies were also excellent and later served as our lunch.  Those nice people made our day.

We started out for Lewisport, Kentucky at dawns first light, but the thick fog made seeing anything difficult.  Other senses took over and the unseen were heard--birds chirping, cows mooing, donkeys baying, woodpeckers tapping, and dogs barking.   Horse’s hoofs clopped up the hill faster than we pedaled our bikes as a Mennonite carriage approached.  Later, we stopped at an old house that was undergoing renovation which belonged to Joseph Holt.  He was a member of the President Buchanan administration and convinced Buchanan to oppose the secession of the South. He returned to Kentucky and successfully battled the secessionist element to keep Kentucky in the Union.  President Abraham Lincoln appointed him Judge Advocate General of the United States Army. He served as Lincoln's chief arbiter and enforcer of military law, and supporter of emancipation.

After all that history and several serious hills, we found the River View Restaurant on the top of our second climb.  The view was fantastic and the food good (sandwiches, ice tea, and strawberry pie).  The owner and several patrons stopped at our table to hear of our adventure.

Owensboro, Kentucky also proved to be an interesting stop.  It is the fourth-largest city in the state by population. The first European descendant to settle in Owensboro was frontiersman William Smothers in 1797, for whom the riverfront park is named.  While Lewis and Clark wintered there, we made a short stop at a funky coffee shop for breakfast and visited Smothers Park and the International Blue Grass Museum.

Leaving Kentucky, we crossed the river to Illinois.  Our first stop was in Old Shawneetown, said to be the oldest town in Illinois.  However, all that remains is a stately old bank building.  Because of flooding, the town moved 3 miles further from the river.  As we got deeper into Illinois, we found a most welcomed sight on a long (70 mile) hot (90 degree) day. The Garden of the Gods Outpost served us much needed and enjoyed hot dogs and ice cream—a real treat.  The owner, Elizabeth, took good care of us.  Later she posted our picture on Facebook with a mention of our journey.  There we also met a family from Texas, who like us, were following the Ohio River, but in the opposite direction and in a car. They were interested in our suggestions of things to see and do along the river. After lunch, we cycled thru the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area—a 3,300+ acres of natural forested terrain, rock formations and bluffs.

We spent a great deal of time planning our routes to assure that each day ended with a place to sleep and eat.  However, our stop in Cairo, Illinois proved our fallibility.  The restaurant next to our hotel had closed and the nearest one was 8 miles away.  The “sympathetic” hotel clerk suggested that we walk across the highway to a Dollar General and get a supper that we could cook in the room’s microwave.   After a long look at all the “great” options we settled on frozen chicken pies, fruit cups, cookies, and chocolates.  Needless to say, we looked forward to the morning’s hotel breakfast, but alas, it proved to be equally unappetizing.  The next day we began our ride hungry and faced another challenge.  Our planned route to cross the Mississippi River into Missouri was closed due to flooding.  A motorist told us that this part of Illinois had been flooded for most of the summer and that access to the bridge had been closed for a month.   Since we were heading north anyway, we stayed in Illinois and went to Anna, Illinois, where motels and food were available.  This route took us thru Jonesboro, Illinois were Lincoln and Douglas had their famous debate and where Mom’s Café served us lunch and some motherly advice.

We wanted to cycle Missouri because it offered a better route to Chester Illinois, our next stop.  Staying in Illinois was fine until we got to within 15 miles of Chester.  There we encountered a stream of tractor trailer trucks hauling gravel to a barge loading site.  While not much fun getting to Chester, the town was nice.  Chester is the home of the creator of the cartoon “Popeye,” and is adorned with many Popeye related figures and artwork.  In addition, in 2002 we stayed there when we were cycling across the United States.  Back then we camped in the city park, cooked over a camp stove, and used a pit toilet.  This time we “camped” in an air-conditioned motel with hot showers, and had our dinner delivered. 

Leving Chester was our last cycling day as we headed to St. Louis, Missouri.  The transition between rural cycling and our first view of St. Louis’ tall buildings was surprising.  We were still in the country but looming in front of us was the city.  From St. Louis we loaded our bikes into a rental van and drove back to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where our personal vehicles were waiting for our travels home.  It was a wonderful journey following the westward expansion of our nation and learning about the Underground Railroad.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The End of Land

Photo Credits: Joseph Insalaco and Hans-Peter Tinguely

We met in 2002, on an Adventure Cycling bicycle trip across the United States.  Joe is from New York State, HP from Switzerland, and I am from Virginia.  Those many years ago, we had to get up every morning, pack our tents, and cycle.  There was a schedule and no debate.  Now our cycling adventures are more relaxed: off route stops are encouraged, short cuts accepted, long lunches at a micro-brewery are contemplated, and tents left at home.  In July 2018, we cycled the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec, Canada, where beautiful waters and challenging climbs abound. 

The Gaspésie (official name), or Gaspé Peninsula, is a peninsula along the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River that extends into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.  The origin of the name "Gaspé" means "end", referring to the end of the land. Our 11 day journey around the end of the land was 540 miles and included 36,000 feet of climbing.

We met in Ste. Flavie, a tourist town on the Saint Lawrence River.  The town dates to the mid-1800 and has many restaurants, hotels, a beach, and an artist community.  While Joe and I drove there, HP flew from Switzerland to Montréal, rented an E-bike and then cycled over 400 miles to Ste. Flavie for the start of our trip. 

Our Gaspé cycling began under overcast skies and light rain.  Not wanting to miss any highlights we made 2 stops within the first few miles.  At the Parc de la Riviere Mitis, we toured the museum and hiked the trails.  The museum contained some very interesting fossils and native artifacts.  We next stopped at the Reford Gardens.  The gardens have 3,000 species of native and exotic plants in 18 areas, as well as many sculptures, both traditional and modern.  According to our guide book, it is “the most renowned and internationally recognized gardens in North America.”  We agreed that the gardens were spectacular.  In contrast to day’s overcast sky and light rain, the flower’s vibrant colors popped, enhancing our enjoyment of the park’s beauty. 

Later, the weather cleared, the sun came out as we continued north east on route 132, the only route around the peninsula.  While we had GPSs and maps, none were needed.  For the most part, the traffic on route 132 was relatively light. However, every chance we had we diverted to the “old route 132” that went thru the towns and along the St. Lawrence. 

We met 2 guys cycling the peninsula in the opposite direction. They claimed the climbs were easier that way, but the head winds were tough.  One was a high school science teacher the other an oceanographer, both in their 20s.  We enjoyed their stories of wild camping, subsisting on the fish and crabs that they caught, and their nightly parting in brewpubs.  Their wanderlust was an interesting contrast to our indoor lodgings, restaurant meals, and early bed times. At their recommendation, we next stopped in the city of Matane and had lunch at the La Fabrique micro-brewery. 

In the town of Sainte-Felicite, we stayed at a hostel (Auberge de Jeunesse du Manoir des Sapins).  While the building was old, it was well maintained and staffed by some of the nicest people.  The down side of the hostel was that it did not serve dinner or breakfast and no restaurants were nearby.  HP went to the only (but not well stocked) grocery and found fixings for our dinner which he cooked in the hostel’s kitchen.

The next morning, we left the hostel without breakfast but found a restaurant about 5 miles away.  The early part of our ride had many hills and each one was a little longer than the last.  While none of them were steep, they were tiring.  The middle of that days’ ride was flat but we encountered head winds which weren’t so bad.  In fact, they helped keep us cool in the warmth of the afternoon.  About mile 40, in a 52 mile day, we got off the highway and cycled thru a “one-street” town that was nearly 5 miles long.  The town had hotels and restaurants, all calling us to stop.  However, we moved on, encountering several more hills before arriving at our nights lodging.

This night’s lodging was chosen to balance out our daily mileage.  We reached the Auberge Festive Sea Shack by dropping off the highway down a steep gravel road.  The Sea Shack is a compound of yurts, A-frame cabins, and tent camping on the beach. They have a circular open-air bar overlooking the beach, and a carryout food-stand that “cooked-to-order” some interesting meals. Blues/rock music played at a moderate volume over the compound and the bar had half a dozen micro-brew beers and ciders on tap.  An interesting sign posted near the bar prohibited smoking "grass" on Sea Shack property but further stated that “everything was okay on the beach”.  Except for us old guys, the average age was in the mid-twenties.  Most males and females were minimally clothed but full of tattoos and piercings.  However, several females were in dresses and hats that looked like vintage clothing from the 1930s. While it was relatively quiet, the Sea Shack is known for its wild summer concerts.  No concert was scheduled for that night but around 11 p.m. the music style changed and the volume increased to a loud pulsating cacophony of endless noise (yes we are old) that lasted until 3 a.m.

We decided on an early start and were tempted to make noise; however, we behaved and left quietly.  Joe and I pushed our bikes up the steep gravel road to the highway but HP road his electric bike.  He looked like a potentate on a sedan chair waiving and smiling at the peasants.  We started without breakfast but, after several climbs, we came upon a small café that was just opening for the day.  Antoine, the owner, roasted beans on-site and served us Brazilian coffee and homemade muffins.  About half way thru the day’s ride we finally found a restaurant for a full breakfast.  While the day started with climbs and headwinds, the cycling gods smiled on us. The road flattened and we picked up a powerful tailwind that pushed us at 20 plus mph to our night’s lodging.

The next day was a tough day, a long day, a constant climb day, and it was hard.  We went over the mountains that separate the Seaway from the Atlantic Ocean.  As soon as we left our motel we started climbing.  It was long and steep. After 2 more miles we had a short downhill before climbing again.  That was typical of the day.  The downhills even had up-hills and the up-hills had false crests requiring more climbing.  The few screaming down hills required diligence to stay out of the ruts and pot holes in the road. Our typical day had between 2,000 and 3,000 feet of climbing.  Getting to the Atlantic side required almost 7,000 feet of climbing.  On the brighter side, the views of the Atlantic were spectacular.  Even with his electric bike HP was tired and Joe and I were exhausted. 

Our first day on the Atlantic side was beautiful. We woke to blue skies, pleasant temperature and a fresh ocean breeze.  The day began with a long climb which took us inland from the coast. At first, our leg muscles reminded us of yesterday's 6,600 feet of climbs, but soon we warmed up and made the ascent in good shape.  Then a fast descent took us back to the coast.  Mid-morning we arrived at the bay L'Anse-au-Griffon and the Forillon National Park. This scenic park juts out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and is wild and rugged with scenic limestone cliffs. The park is also the site of a historic lighthouse, the tallest in Canada and one of many that were along our route.

Rather that cycling around the park’s perimeter, we chose to cycle thru the park on a trail.  The trail had a big climb but we were sheltered from the sun by the thick forest.   The seclusion and silence was only interrupted by the birdsong that encouraged us onward.

Exiting the park, we returned to civilization and got back on route 132.  We soon stopped to explore Fort Ramsay. The Fort was built in 1940 to protect the bay from a German invasion. A few miles further along the bay, we reached our day’s destination, the town of Gaspé.  The town is the peninsula’s administrative and commercial center. In July 1543, Jacques Cartier landed here and claimed the land in the name of the King of France. 

The next morning we left the town on a 6 mile paved trail that took us back to route 132.  There we met a jogger who told us that route 132 had some dangerous sections ahead and suggested a short cut.  Our ride quickly got very interesting. The short cut dumped us onto a soft-sand path.  We quickly found ourselves up to our knees in weeds and sand so deep it was hard to push our bikes.  Next, we had to cross an abandoned railroad bridge that required careful steps on the wooden ties.  On the other side of the bridge we had more soft sand before returning to route 132.  We felt like hobos, but taking this 2 mile short cut saved us 9 miles of questionable highway cycling. 

Our day continued with rolling (but gentle) hills until we got to another shortcut. This trail was labeled as the “cycle route” and went thru the Malbaie Salt Marsh.  The cycle route was just as challenging as the last shortcut.    In many sections the asphalt was washed away by the tide and in some places replaced by loose grave that made it difficult to push our bikes.  We could not believe that this was a designated cycle route.  On the other side of the salt marsh route 132 had another big climb.  We were told that this would be very difficult but after the past several days of climbing, we thought that it was not as bad as described.  At the top of the mountain we stopped at a café that provide a fantastic view of the bay and Percé Rock below.  After a locally brewed beer (only 1 each) we dropped down into the town of Percé, enjoying a fast 17% decline.  Percé, was a fishing village that is now a popular tourist stop.  The town gets its name from a heavily eroded rock, which is pierced (percé in French) by a large hole at one end. Indeed, the whole coast is a magnificent natural spectacle that's incredibly picturesque with rocky outcrops, towering cliffs, and surf. 

Our route first took us northeast along the St. Lawrence River, then out to the Atlantic Ocean. Leaving Percé we cycled along the south side of the peninsula by the Baie de la Chaleur (bay).  The bay is known for its warm temperatures where salmon spawn in the gravel banks of its tributaries.  In contrast to the earlier part of the peninsula where the climate and terrain were rugged, here we saw sandy beaches packed with sunbathers.   While we did not stop for a swim, HP likened it to one of his Mediterranean holidays.

We ended our day at the Gîte A l'Abri du Clocher. This B&B is located next to the Catholic Church and was once its rectory.  It had been carefully renovated and beautifully decorated by the owners Michèle and José. They still keep one room available for a possible visit by the bishop, even though he visits only once every four years.  The next morning our hosts provided us with a great breakfast of fresh fruit with homemade cream, homemade pastries, fresh crepes, coffee, and juice.  Our breakfast made for a good start to cycle into a rainy day. However, after an hour, the rain tapered off and the temperatures rose. 

For the day’s last 20 miles, we cycled next to the Matapedia River.  Mid-day, we took a break under a gazebo overlooking the river.  There, we sat in the shade, ate our lunch, and met Chery.  She told us that she was born and raised nearby and that the home where she lived was in her family for seven generations.  Many of the men in her family either worked for the railroad or were fishing guides on the river. 

We continued along the river to our nights lodging (Auberge de la Riviere Matapedia).  The fishing lodge was on the opposite side of the river, accessed by a long covered bridge.  Upon our arrival, Sophia, our hostess, made us comfortable on the veranda and brought us ice cold beers.  Waiting for our rooms to be ready, we watched the humming birds feed just above our heads and listened to the river flowing over the rocks.  Later that evening, the host prepared dinner for us and a family visiting from France. 

We had a good night’s sleep at the fishing lodge and woke to a nice breakfast of “pancakes”.  The pancakes that we had been eating were more like crepes than the pancakes we got in the US.  They were very dense, some were small but todays were plate sized.  Joe and I got an early start but HP delayed his start to socialize with the French family.  Our route continued along the Matapedia River and we stopped to watch the fly fishermen work their rods in a ballet of fluid motion.    The temperature rose during the morning and the humidity was stifling.  However, the last several miles were next to a lake and picture perfect.  The night’s B&B (Gite Grand-Pere Nicole) sat just across from the lake and a park.  Upon our arrival, our hostess and her daughter made us feel very welcome and the offer of the use of their pool was quickly accepted.

In the morning, our gracious host and hostess had a wonderful breakfast for us.  By the time we ate and loaded our bikes, the winds picked up.  Of course, it was a headwind.  Along the way we saw many cyclists sailing by in the opposite direction.  One of them crossed the highway to talk to us.  John left Vancouver 58 days earlier when he started his trans-Canadian bike ride.  He was proud that he had camped all the way and not spent one night in a motel.  We attribute this to his age. We, on the other hand were proud that we had spent every night in a “real” lodging.  We ended our cycling tour in Ste. Flavie, where we began.

Over all, our trip around Gaspe was 540 miles with 36,000 feet of climbing.  It took us 11 days of cycling with no layovers to make the loop around the peninsula.  Since HP’s journey started in Montreal, he cycled 1,000 miles.  Leaving Ste. Flavie, we drove to Montreal to drop off HP for his flight home, and Joe and I continued our drive south to our homes.   

Day       Miles        E-Gain          Daily destination
1          50.53       2,126 feet     Saint-Felicite
2          54.01       3,736            The Sea Shack
3          51.71       2,887            Saint-Madeleine de-la-Riviere-Madeleine
4          51.31       6,604            Riviere-Madeleine
5          28.77       2,692            Gaspe
6          41.71       3,267            Perce
7          70.32       4,151            New Carlisle
8          58.35       2,908            Nouvelle
9          55.47       2,799            Routhierville
10        37.40       2,115            Val-Brillant
11        36.60       2,511            Ste. Flavie
Totals  536.19     35,796 feet

Our daily bog with maps and more pictures, can be seen at: