Always take a bike

Subtitle: I choose bears over snakes

My “fah-thah” has a tough Boston accent. When my daughter and I were planning a bike ride in Pennsylvania’s Bald Eagle State Forest in June, he said, “But they-as be-yas they-a.” Translation: you could get eaten alive by a bear.

So I grabbed a cute string of bells from the doorknob at my sister’s house, strung it to my Camelbak, and we hit the road to the forest. My copilot Andrea and I had come something like 600 miles to central Pennsylvania, biked everywhere we had the opportunity, and we weren’t going to stop just because of a few potential bears.

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But we started in a place that is known more for bars than bears.

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If anyone tells you cities are a bad place to bike, take them to Baltimore. That was our first stop, and honestly bikes are the only way to go there because there’s no damned parking available! When I go I park my car for the entire visit and walk or ride everywhere. I took an old bike there last summer and enjoyed the ease of getting downtown from my brother’s house.

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This time I had a fantastic tour guide take me around Patterson Park to feed the ducks and see the pagoda on the hill.

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Then we took it a step further and biked from the Patterson Park neighborhood to the waterfront and around Inner Harbor (where there are bike lanes, Boston take note!) to a jazz/blues festival on Federal Hill. I was very happy to lead my niece on the longest ride she has undertaken so far, and I hope she remembers it and keeps building on it. Biking is independence! So what if there was a thunderstorm on the way home … we only had to get as far as Ale Mary’s pub in Fells Point.

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Shameless pitch here: if you’re in Baltimore this summer, take the Urban Pirate cruise from Fleet Street. The handsome young pirate (my nephew) is a good kid and you can say you saw him perform before he started headlining on Broadway. He will make it there.

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Next, we had the great idea of camping and mountain biking on the way from Baltimore to Central Penn. I had spent many hours reviewing many sources for the optimal beginner/intermediate terrain that would encourage and not frustrate my partner. It sorta worked out– instead of mountain biking we traveled among the Amish buggies on back roads around Strasburg in Lancaster County. Oh well, I have all singletrack trail I can handle back home.

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The back roads there were great unless we had to hold our breath to get by a newly-fertilized field. And, those buggy horses have one speed, whether going uphill or down, so when we passed one going downhill he never caught up. But listening to hoofbeats on the pavement behind you is a new motivation for pedaling faster …. sorta like hearing banjos.

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You’re wondering where the snakes come into the story? Right here: on the old Pennsylvania rail line (now rail trail) that runs along the Little Juniata River.Catharine-20130605-01238

When we first arrived at the flat, hard-packed trail and set out toward Williamsburg, it seemed a great place to recommend to my still-active parents who love to bike. Until we saw the first snake. It was big and black and right on the trail. It didn’t move as I approached. Something in my head was telling me “naw, that can’t be a snake, it’s just a stick.” But three snakes later it wasn’t funny anymore — I was a little rattled (ha, pun!).

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Despite the lovely setting, interesting opportunity to see remnants of the old canal system that linked Philly and Pittsburgh and the friendly folks on the trail, the 22 miles we did was quite enough for me. I spend a lot of time on trails and hope those four snakes fill my quota for a long time to come.

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Our next opportunity for biking was more to my taste. After a couple rainy days inside we loaded the bikes (and bear bells) to go to Bald Eagle State Forest. I had studied trail descriptions on Singletracks and other resources and felt prepared for a good jaunt in the woods. But things don’t always work out perfectly. Unfamiliar with the area and short on signs pointing us in the right direction, we ended up mostly on dirt roads, unable to find the trailhead. It happens sometimes.

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Still, it was gorgeous. A few long climbs and whooping downhills, a few dead-ends that dropped us at hunting camps, we learned to just enjoy the quiet of the misty woods. We finally found a bit of a trail that took us through vibrantly green ferns and along a brook. Again, I listened for banjos. Or a bear crashing through the woods. Nothing. Just crickets.

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Splattered in mud, the serenity of the deep woods was refreshing. But without bears (damn, my adrenaline hadn’t spiked in a week!). We’d need that happy memory for our next stop, back in a city.

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One of the reasons we went to Allentown/Bethlehem PA was so Andrea could do her thing, contra dancing. Although I sat it out (and fended off a few sweaty suitors) it was great to see her spinning around the floor. She was so good about biking with me that I didn’t mind making an effort so she could get her fix. But I knew we weren’t done with the bikes just yet.

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Our hosts in Allentown told us it would be challenging to find the trailhead for the Delaware and Lehigh trail to Bethlehem. They weren’t kidding. The urban setting combined with my GPS dyslexia to send us all over the city — through some neighborhoods we’d otherwise avoid — before we even found the park by the river. My companion wasn’t too happy with me by the time we’d zipped through the third or fourth sketchy neighborhood.

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Places we’d otherwise never see … not so great getting lost this time.

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But when we found it, the D+L trail was just as advertised: a great way to bypass streets and ride in the shade alongside the big Delaware River. No snakes, no bears, just a lot of people enjoying an offroad route to the Sand Island park and other destinations. Cities everywhere should look for opportunities to do this with their former industrial land.Bethlehem-20130609-01296

Needless to say, on the way back to the house I allowed her to take the lead. We didn’t get so lost.

So, in a 1,000 mile trip we biked only about 100 miles but we’d seen a lot. More than just trees, too.

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