Guest Q&A: Galen Bratton
Read Time: 6 mins
Galen Bratton, the older brother of Human Powered Movement founder Adam Bratton recently completed his first multi-day bikepacking trip of the 184 mile Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail.
Although many have ridden this popular and completely car-free route, from Cumberland, MD to Washington, DC (or vice versa), the experience with his HS pals did more than just allow for a few days away from computer screens and onto two-wheels. It re-inspired the childlike wonder of riding bikes, it re-invigorated the need to move through nature, and it reinforced 40+ years of friendship.
We tossed a few questions his way to get a feel for what last week’s pedal powered comradely session meant to him and his HS buds.
Q: Who was on the trip and how do you know those goons?
A: 4 total. Two childhood friends and a co-worker of mine.
-Galen (yes another Galen) Dunkleberger originally proposed the idea. We grew up less than a mile apart and spent every day of summer playing in the woods, building forts, trying to dam up little creeks, etc. We've been great friends since day 1, literally, born 1 day apart in the same hospital, have been in each other's weddings, the list goes on. In Sept of 2022, we rekindled our woodland shenanigans and backpacked the 60 mile Loyalsock Trail near our home town. We had a blast and decided we needed to make an annual Galens-Adventure a thing.
-Shawn Bonner was also a fellow HS graduate in '98. We played soccer together, was in my wedding and has been a co-conspirator for many a-good time through the years. He's torn ACLs in both knees and wasn't up for the backpacking trip last year. We somehow convinced him to get an e-bike and come along on this year's adventure. (He also bought in on the casual vibe since the route was pancake flat, just 40 miles a day, and we'd be crashing at hotels and B&Bs each night)
-Finally, I was talking about this trip at work and a friend/co-worker, Allan Buccola, who grew up in Northern Virginia, said he'd wanted to do the C&O for years but could never convince anyone to do it with him. He's a long time runner, done some endurance/ultra racing stuff and is always down for a mini-adventure. He's 2 years younger than us PA boys but is still in my phone as "Allan Student" because I was one of his clinical instructors when he went back to school to be a PT... we've become friends and done some hiking and backpacking trips together since then. One thing led to another and he ended up completing the foursome.
Q: What exactly is the C&O and why did you choose it?
A: The trail is the old mule towpath for a canal that was supposed to connect the Ohio River to the Chesapeake, mostly to move coal. Building it was harder and more expensive than expected, and as railways became a cheaper and easier form of transport, construction stopped in 1850 after running 184.5 miles from DC to Cumberland, MD (far short of the Ohio River.) It went out of use 99 years ago and has since been incorporated into the National Park System. Still, in 20 years, they built 74 canal locks, 11 aqueducts to cross major streams, hundreds of culverts to cross smaller streams, and the 3,118 ft long Paw Paw Tunnel. It's open for bike, foot and equestrian traffic, though we only saw one horse on our trip.
We decided to do the C&O on a recommendation. The other Galen had a co-worker who is a "bike guy" and did it a few years ago; he had a good time and apparently convinced Galen it was doable with a little training even for us clearly "non-biker guys" as it has basically no elevation and has reasonably well maintained surfaces.
Geographically between NC and PA it made sense as a central rendezvous spot for everyone.
Q: What was your pace plan (speedy or casual) and did you stick to it?
A: We knew we were going a little out of our comfort zone as 40+ year olds who were at best below casual cyclists; so we agreed to do a less aggressive ride - we could have added the extra 150 mile GAP trail (Great Allegheny Passage) that connects Cumberland, MD and Pittsburgh, PA but didn't want to over-do-it. Initially just us Galens considered packing camping gear and staying at the regularly spaced free hiker/biker campsites right on the canal but once we convinced Bonner with his need to plug in the e-bike we slacked it even more and pre-booked a cabin, a B&B and a hotel along the way making our daily rides doable for us old farts at 45, 42, 40 and 57 miles.
Allan had always dreamed of camping it, so he ended up packing more gear and braved the rain and bugs each night in a tent while us PA boys had showers, beds and air conditioning. Truth be told, it was more of a 25 year HS Reunion/Brewery tour that just so happened to include a few hours of biking, cracking jokes and laughing in nature each day.
Q: Any challenges arise? Weather, mechanical issues, wrong turns, or trivial bro drama etc.?
A: Day #1 we started in a 90+ degree dusty conditions but by noon we were looking over our shoulders at a trailing thunder storm that was barreling down on us and the entire Potomac River valley. We got soaked and covered in mud before we reached the Paw Paw tunnel. After the wave of heavy rain it seemed to let up and I convinced the crew to head out in the "lighter" rain but 1/2 mile later it started dumping again and the lightning was increasingly more frequent and daunting. We turned back around and sheltered in the tunnel for a solid hour before the storm had mostly pushed through. We had some rain and thick humidity each day but never like that first day and usually more a short lived summer pop-up storms.
Fortunately for us "non-biker guys" we didn't have any major bike issues. Only had one flat tire (Day 2) where I backtracked a few miles to help out, but we were able to get the tube changed and back on track relatively quickly.
The biggest issue was keeping the e-bike charged (which I know you will smile about considering you started a thing called "Human Powered Movement!). The first day Bonner limped his reconstructed knees and his e-bike into our lodging as the battery died (45+ miles) with just a few 1000 ft without the pedal assist. That night, for some reason, it didn't charge all the way and at 8am he tells us "I only have 3 (of 5) bars"... yikes! We knew he wouldn't last the planned 43 miles even in eco mode with a heavy, unassisted bike. Kind of good we didn't have a breakfast option in the town we stayed as we stopped after 19 miles for a prolonged brunch at a diner just off the trail to eat stacks of pancakes, wait out another thunder storm and charge the battery as much as possible before our wet/stinky selves wore out our welcome.
Ended up running out of battery with about 6 miles left that day; I had the lightest bike so we switched out for the last few miles and I got to ride the e-bike but with out the e part for a few miles. We made sure it fully charged the next 2 days but still had to be strategic about a mid day lunch stop that allowed some charge time, which honestly was nice to give our butts a mid-day break off the saddle. For the last day's 60 mile push we did a second breakfast/recharge at 25 miles and a first lunch/recharge at 50 miles and still ran out of juice as we pedaled the National Mall on or way to our hotel.
We had a good group that got along well and didn't have any drama. It's funny that the first time my lifelong HS friends met Allan (and his glorious, grown for-the-ride, imperial mustache) was minutes before they all stashed their bikes in a luggage car at Union Station in DC and rode a train together for 4 hours to Cumberland, DC.
Q: You’re no stranger to long distance adventures on two feet (Completed the Appalachian Trail in 2005, cruised 1000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2008 and more recently bagged a few 14ers during a long weekend 100 mile on the Colorado Trail in 2022, etc), how did two wheels treat you this time around and which human powered transport do you prefer?
A: I definitely needed to train for this because biking has never been my thing. I stay pretty active and am in decent shape but had absolutely zero experience with prolonged time in the saddle. I don't even have a bike - I did most of my road training on Dad's hand-me-down 1972 Panasonic steel frame antique and snagged a few "gravel" rides on my wife's 10+ year-old low-end Schwinn with the seat completely maxed out. I simply started out with a few 15-25 mile rides and did at least one ride a week building up to feeling comfortable with 40ish miles. I live close to Durham's 22 mile American Tobacco Trail with its minimal elevation gain and very similar surface to the C&O, so an out and back was a perfect 44 mile simulation of what we would expect on our trip.
To answer the 2nd part of the question - I enjoyed the 15 mph pace of a bike tour, but my life changed on the Appalachian Trail and hiking (with or with out a kid or a backpack on) is my happy place. All things being even I'll stick with the 3 mph trail life! However, this trip did let me reach my human powered 24hr distance PR. I'd hiked the 53 mile hut traverse through the White Mountains of NH, and my longest training ride was 52 miles, but the last day on the C&O was over 60mi in a day so I feel pretty good about that. I'll figure you'll sucker me into riding a century with you some time soon!
Q: Since you freshly finished last week … did you check the box and will never return to the bike or are you hooked?
A: Freshly finished, yes. Pleasantly surprised my under carriage feels ... not terrible; but my quads haven't been this sore since spring training on the crew team in college.
When I got home my wife Emily asked me a similar thing, "So, are you a biker now?" I said "Maybe? I felt pretty good and really did enjoy the ride." Then we went to get the kids early at after school and what was the first thing they wanted to do after getting a hug? Ride bikes at the park, so we did, soreness be damned!! Albeit a few mph's slower than the 15 mph I'd gotten used to pacing, but biking none the less. I hate spending money so probably not rushing out to buy a bike tomorrow but I could see it being a thing.
Q: The most memorable/impactful takeaway from the experience (at least what you are willing to share publicly)
A: I don't get to see HS friends very often so just having the comradery, the shared effort and experience, as a whole, with them, was great. None of us had done anything like this before. We were glad we took the casual approach to spend some time together outside of riding. We hit 4 different breweries on the trip and felt like we'd done something to earn those sudsy calories.
The town highlight was the Elmwood Farm B&B in Williamsport, MD. Lettie, the proprietor, came and picked us up with a custom design 10 bike trailer, gave us a history lesson of the area on the ride to her farm/event venue and we got to meet the resident alpacas and farm dogs on our arrival. Apparently one of the farms buildings acted as a field hospital for Lee's army while retreating from Gettysburg and he and his officers stayed in the 1855 built home that was our actual B&B - today the basement has a pool table, a nicely stocked bar, a couple TVs and comfy lounge chairs and for us beat up old guys it seemed like heaven... to top it off she'd had a cancelation so instead of 2 of us sharing a queen bed and another on an aero-bed the 3 of us each got our own room - we were spoiled but weren't complaining!
Even better, it was less than a mile to the best brewery of the trip, Cushwa Brewing Co. We got pizza and flights and brought back some cans to enjoy back at the man-cave-esque basement. The next morning we had a home cooked breakfast and a shuttle back to the C&O trailhead. Another cool note was that we had to share the trail with runners of the Lock to Lock Marathon, Half and 10K that was in full swing at Lock House 44 when we arrived.
Q: What’s next on your outdoor adventure calendar?
A: We leave in 2 weeks for an 11 day family vacation to the parks in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona during the kids fall break. We've got a lot of day hikes, some rafting and biking jaunts planned but nothing crazy intense with our 5 & 8 year olds. But that'll be a good balance to "adventure" with the family next.
"The Other Galen" and I are committed to doing something every year so we have to brainstorm for 2024 a bit. We floated the idea of a kayak tour, maybe another mid range hike but in a more exotic location. TBD ... maybe another journal in the future?
Q: Parting words for the Human Powered Movement audience who have read this far?
A: There was a guy we met on the trail who was on his way from DC to Pittsburgh, he had turned 70 the day he started. Said he did the East Coast Greenway from Maine to Florida for his 60th. He probably subscribes to the "You don't stop biking when you get old. You get old when you stop biking" mantra which definitely has some truth to it.
So, keep moving people! Get out and try something new. You may just find a new happy place.
Q: When can I get my Bike and all of my bikepacking gear back? ... asking for a friend of course
A: No Comment
Journal - HS Reunion: 25 Years and 184 Miles Later
Human Powered Journal
Writings and musings of an active lifestyle
Adam Bratton is the Founder and Head Enabler at Human Powered Movement.
Guest Contributors are more compelling in written word and life in general.