Fire on the Ice: Winter Cycling on the NCR Trail


(all photos taken with my Blackberry Curve this morning)

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed doing is confronting nature’s elements head-on. It’s one of the quickest ways to feel as alive as I possibly can.

Thoreau put it this way in “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” in Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

This morning, life indeed proved mean, and I got the whole and genuine meanness of it.

Trina, my ever-adventurer friend, and I decided a few days ago it would be a good idea to go for an early-morning bike ride on the NCR Trail. For those of you who don’t know, this is one of those Rails to Trails projects, where old railroad tracks are pulled up and the existing path is converted to a walking/biking trail. The NCR Trail currently runs from Cockeysville, MD to the Pennsylvania line (about 20 miles), where it then turns into the York County Heritage Trail. It then continues north for another 21 miles to York, PA. The incline gradation ranges from 1% to 3%, so it’s a very easy ride. Easy, that is, in normal weather conditions.

Trina wanted to head out at 5:30, as she needed to be off-trail by 8 a.m. I did the math at what time I’d have to get up to meet her there at that time (we were starting at Monkton Station, nearly 25 minutes away), and I pleaded for a 6 a.m. start. We agreed that if we prepped well enough and got right on the trail when we arrived, we could bump it up to 6.

That still meant at least an hour of darkness before sunrise, and taping flashlights to our handlebars last time didn’t exactly work out like we had planned. So, we found some good bike headlights at REI for just $20. With a little bit of tweaking and $6 in bills to hold it securely in place around the bar, I found the light to be just exactly perfect for the ride.

The temperature was 17 degrees when we hit the trail a little after 6:15, and within the first mile, we hit serious patches of ice. We were not yet in any kind of groove, so it was tough navigating through this first icy stretch. By the time we hit the next patch, we were “warmed” up (there was no warming to speak of, but we had acclimated ourselves to the conditions), and we had better control of our bikes. It suddenly felt like we were in some kind of video game, where we needed to stay in the narrow paths of dry soil to stay on our bikes. One sudden move to the left or the right, and we’d lose control immediately.

This was especially hard to do in the dark. There were additional obstacles and challenges we faced, including fallen branches on the trail that our headlights couldn’t pick up until they were just a few feet away. To complicate matters even more, there were low-lying branches that were out of the headlight’s reach. A quick call to duck was all we were able to give each other. Some we missed, and some we didn’t.

When we reached the 4-mile point, we felt numb but pretty good. We decided to push on for another two miles, but almost immediately we hit a serious stretch of ice that was impassable. We figured we had reached our mid-way point and decided to turn around. I stopped to take a drink from my water bottle, which I had filled with tap water before we left.

No such luck. It was now a bottle of ice.

By this time, the sun had started to rise, and we were able to turn out our headlights and enjoy some of the sights along the trail (not to mention the low-lying branches!). The greatest surprise, by far, were the icicles on the rocks by the trail.




I wish we had had more time to really explore, but we still had miles to go, and by this time, we had lost all feeling in our toes and fingers. Besides, every time we stopped for pictures, it made it that much harder to get back into that cycling groove.

We made it back to Monkton with a few minutes to spare (and — no surprise — our SUVs were still the only vehicles in the lot), and we both felt euphoric that we had tackled the trail despite the bitter temperatures.

I haven’t lost that euphoria, even in the warmth of my home hours later. There’s just something about facing nature in her finest hour and taking in all she has to offer. It provides a good-natured, healthy perspective to the rest of your life, for living is so dear, and, as Thoreau suggests, there is much to learn when we live it fully.

3 thoughts on “Fire on the Ice: Winter Cycling on the NCR Trail

  1. one word- ok maybe two… insane and crazy… both meaning the same to describe your morning adventure LOL
    But happy it energized you and gave you the breath of life you needed. Just more power to you as I slept snuggly and warm in my bed 🙂


  2. LMAO! I asked a friend if she’d like to come walk with me and Wolf around 8 or 830 am for 1/2 hour and she said something like…um…8 and/or 830 is awfully early, don’t you think? I want friends like yours!!!


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