The matter of the Big Savage Tunnel loomed over my preparations for the trip from the beginning. While I climbed up to Frostburg the wind turbines over the tunnel were plainly visible. Thursday I would finally confront the tunnel and its environs. It was quite the day, so this is a long post.
Frostburg is named after a family named Frost, but they did not exactly settle there to be ironic about the climate: it was a cold morning descent back to the trail, but then the rest of the climb began. I passed through a tunnel and then arrived at the Mason Dixon Line, where they have a monument and a paved line. (This was another echo of my Maryland section hike of the Appalachian Trail, since we began the hike further east on the same line).
It was announced that it would close for the season, as it does every year to prevent ice buildup, on December 1. The announcement headline said December 10, so I sent an email for clarification with fingers crossed, but the 1st it was. I did some research. Some say the GAP, as a through-route, is effectively closed with the closure of the tunnel: unlike the Paw Paw Tunnel, there was no alternate route given; the announcement simply said there was no detour. The map says there is “no easy detour.” Before the tunnel reopened the GAP would detour on ordinary roads, but they were apparently steep and relatively high-trafficked. Some bike shops offer shuttles from Frostburg to Deal, the closest vehicle-accessible trailheads, but they are not cheap. But some say it’s possible to just head over: a National Park Service site mentions a trail over the tunnel, as did some trail volunteer on a mountain biking forum years ago. On Flickr someone came over from the Pittsburgh side and snapped a few pictures along the way.
Based on my research and experience, the best way to take a loaded bike over is probably to take the trail that starts on the left by the helipad just uphill of the Mason-Dixon line. This seems to connect to the service road that runs up the ridgeline of the mountain. Between the 9th and 10th wind turbine there is a path on the left heading downhill which will then intersect with a path to the right that puts you right at the other end of the tunnel.
The way described above is not, of course, the way that I went. (Or at least, not the way I went uphill.)
I first went straight to the tunnel entrance and propped my bike against the closed doors, took off my wind/waterproof shoe cover things, and stretched some traction cleats over my shoes. I then started up the steep path that follows the utility poles next to the entrance and up the rest of the hill. It was usually about as steep as the steepest parts of the trail over the Paw Paw, so I kept a slow pace, taking brief breaks every few steps. When it got steeper the steps between breaks became fewer.
I made steady progress. Piles of rocks required sure footing and some planned maneuvering. I (very) stubbornly kept all the panniers on the bike throughout, finding gaps where needed as the path had more growth. At times a rock or a dead limb caused my front fender stays to break off (it’s a safety feature designed to keep you from flying over your handlebars if something gets caught while you’re riding…not particularly useful when pushing the bike up a mountain but good to know it works!).
As I got closer it flattened a bit, but then became steeper than before (or at least it felt that way). The steady “whoosh, whoosh, whoosh” of the closest wind turbine, seemingly so close, taunted my slow progress. Gradually I gained the last several feet I needed and emerged on the ridge among the turbines. As I reward I finished the last of the dried mango pieces I had packed along at the start of the trip.
Just across the service road the path loped down. It was softer and better-defined on this side. Despite a brief rocky stretch I made good progress while working the brakes to keep the bike from getting ahead of me. A few muddy roads beckoned off to the side: the utility poles continued straight down but then started up another adjacent steep hill. I knew that however many steps too far downhill I took would have to slowly be regained going up. I looked over my maps, along Google Maps satellite and relief screenshots and my GPS position on the phone, before deciding which one to take. The first one started bending up the mountain: wrong one. Backtracked and looked back at the maps: the downhill slope must have meant I’d already made it further downhill than I thought, so I tried the next path that seemed logical. In moments I reached the far entrance of the tunnel. Success! I could ride a bike again!
From there the trail sloped down a bit then the upgrade resumed, leading to a small tunnel. This one marked the Eastern Continental Divide, a milestone because up until now my path up the canal and the GAP consisted of a gradual uphill, and henceforth the trend would be a downslope. I picked up speed and went into Meyersdale, PA, the first chance for food and water after Frostburg. There was a market right by the trail but it was closed for the season, so I headed downhill to a pizza chain open in town and ate a large hoagie (the sandwich’s name being another (obviously trivial) tipoff that I had made it north of the Mason-Dixon line) and warmed up a bit before climbing back up to the trail. I hoped for a steady, easy descent all the way to the campsite in Ohiopyle: maybe I would even have time to get a ride to Fallingwater?
Nope! Instead I got a mild case of food poisoning from the hoagie, which is of course not great in the main but also took away from daylight hours I could have spent riding and meant I would need to get even more water, which also takes time. I would have expected as much from a lowly sub but from a hoagie it felt like a betrayal and I will have a difficult time ever forgiving that sandwich.
And now, as the hours continued to dwindle away, it began to snow.
I had planned to use the bivy at the campsite in Ohiopyle if possible, though they had yurts and cabins available too: even if it were cold they had heated bathrooms and showers at the site. As such and in case the Big Savage climb would be longer than I thought and I’d need to stay at a closer town, I hadn’t made a reservation at the site. The night before, snow appeared in the forecast, coupled with a low in the teens. I considered making a reservation but the website said it needed to be done three days in advance, though walk-ins to available cabins/yurts could be an option. I figured there was a good shot at a walk-in, but due to the hoagie and now the snow I decided to call the campsite and see if they could still reserve one for me. They could. The ranger told me the heater could take a bit to kick in. I’d never stayed in a yurt before and replied that I did not expect it to have heat at all so I was glad to hear it. She asked when I expected to get in, and I replied with what I thought was a very padded estimate.
Soon after, the snow temporarily let up. But soft trail conditions and a headwind slowed me down considerably despite the subtle downhill (though I guess declines always feel subtler than inclines). On the towpath it was generally easiest to follow the beaten path, but now on the gravel things were different: sometimes the existing bike tracks were signs of softer ground and my tires sank in. Sometimes they meant harder-packed trail and it was faster. I couldn’t really discern a visual difference to signify which was which. Often the best option was skirting the far edge of the trail on the leaves that collected there and at least gave some traction. I lowered my tire pressure to within a few PSI of the minimum but it did not seem to have much effect. The wind had not been much of a factor earlier in the day or indeed earlier in the trip, but after I emerged from the shelter of the mountain it would assert itself from time to time. For several miles the going was slower than it was on the towpath: not what I expected.
On the positive side, the parade of ‘ducts continued: having dispatched with the canal, it was now time for some viaducts! Rad. Also on the positive side, I went through a short tunnel that had only been reopened in 2015, avoiding another (smaller) detour.
The snow started coming down harder and began to stick, which actually helped with my traction issues. By the time I reached Confluence, PA, it was starting to blanket the ground. The map indicated that Confluence had the last options for lodging or camping before Ohiopyle, another ten miles away. Knowing that a heated shelter was at the end of it (and that I had a bivy and the zero-degree sleeping bag if things went really south) I decided to push on.
The cloudy twilight receded into night and I put all my lights on. Visibility was good, though I had to manage my glasses fogging on occasion, as was traction. I rode towards what turned out to be a small cat on the trail who ran off away from me; I hope it made it through the snowy night. The lights and enormous noise of a coal train rounded a bend on the other side of the river. The miles to Ohiopyle continued to tick down and soon, finally, I made it into town. There was some sort of meeting going on at a community center but the food stores all seemed shut (in hindsight down towards the river the general store was probably open) but I had some food with me and could get water at the camp so I went over a couple long bridges past town towards the camp, a few minutes after my earlier upper-bound arrival estimate.
On the second bridge I briefly stopped, turned off all the lights, and gazed up at the stars above while listening to the unseen falls nearby below. Almost there.
Switching the lights back on I found the trail to the camp. A quarter-mile uphill. One last trudge alongside my bike for the day. But then I was at the top. And so was my yurt.