Upcycling (and Downcycling) on the D&L Trail
All summer long I tell people to kayak into the wind first, do the hard work at the beginning so that the return trip, when you’re tired and have to go to the bathroom, is easy. Yet here we were, about to set out on a bike ride (my first in three months) doing the down hill portion—the easy part—first.
Less than an hour earlier we’d arrived in Jim Thorpe, PA and had checked into our cute boutique hotel room at Kelly Suites on Broadway for a one-night getaway to celebrate my birthday and our first break of the season. Two days earlier, when Mitch surprised me with his plan, I’d never even heard of Jim Thorpe, or of this impressive bike trail which stretches 165 miles from Wilkes-Barre, PA to Bristol, PA.
The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor Trail parallels first the Lehigh River and then the Delaware, following a route carved into the original landscape for the purpose of transporting coal to markets. It begins in the mountains—at one time rich with coal deposits, travels through the Lehigh River Gorge, alongside the steel dynasty towns of Bethlehem and Allentown, and ends a little beyond the place where George Washington crossed the Delaware River for his Christmas Eve surprise attack on the British. That’s a lot of history in 165 miles! For our short trip we’d see less than a quarter of it.
I’d made reservations for a bike shuttle the following day. It would drop us off at White Haven, 26 trail-miles upriver, so we could ride downhill back to Jim Thorpe. Since it would make no sense to ride a portion of the trail we’d be seeing the following day, we had to start our ride this day going downhill.
The Jim Thorpe trailhead is in the municipal parking lot, a quick one-minute ride from our hotel. After crossing over the Lehigh on a pedestrian bridge and passing a water treatment plant, the trail settled into position between the river and the remnants of the canal using what used to be the canal towpath. Some parts of the canal still held water while grass, bushes, and trees choked other parts. But the stone walls of many of the locks still stand.
I’m always awed by these huge human-made works. I can’t imagine looking at the water pouring down a river, tumbling over rocks and waterfalls and then thinking to myself, “This is a perfect place to build a canal.” Having the idea is one thing, but then having the guts to actually design and construct it is another level. The people who dreamed up these projects had no regard for nature, saw it as something to be conquered and subdued instead of respected and admired. Yet you can’t help but be impressed with their determination.
It turned out that, because the trail was on the actual towpath and canals couldn’t support much of a gradient, the downhill wasn’t a noticeable downhill. The crushed-rock trail surface was solid, however the tires on my touring bike slipped a few times and my tush would have appreciated a little more suspension. A mountain bike would have been a better, more comfortable choice.
That evening, at Molly Maguire’s (our second stop on our self-guided bar tour of Jim Thorpe), we talked to a retired couple who, instead of doing the bike shuttle, had ridden all the way to White Haven and back to Jim Thorpe. A little over 50 miles. And we were doing the shuttle. I felt like a wimp!
The next morning, we arrived at Pocono Biking at 9:30 am for the 10:00 am shuttle which squeaked and rumbled into the parking lot at about 9:55. The rig was an old school bus towing what looked to be a lawn trailer with railings. The staff rolled one bike at a time onto the trailer and then, alternating right and left sides, lifted the front tire over a bar about three feet high on the outside edge of the trailer. The tire of one bike rested on the next and the next. So quick and simple but I think if I would have had an expensive bike I might have worried a bit. Mitch wasn’t crazy about how they loaded his recumbent. (The journey to White Haven rubbed through the paint on his back rack because the trailer was missing its padding.) With this trailer and the accompanying school bus, they could handle up to 48 customers. Today we had about a dozen others with us.
The scenic drive to White Haven over narrow, hilly, winding country roads took longer than normal because we got behind a highway painting operation. By the time we unloaded at the White Haven Pocono Bike Shop it was about 11:30.
Before we could start on the trail, we needed to find a snack for Mitch. Then we lingered while he ate his snack. Then we went to the bathroom. The others from the bus ride were long gone by the time we returned to the trail head. But I could tell that Mitch, ever the competitor, wanted to catch them.
We passed a few right away – people obviously unaccustomed to being on a bike taking a break after less than a mile. A mile or two further three more had pulled off to the side for a snack break. We passed three more as they stopped to read a trail history placard. Finally the last one, a guy on a tricked-out trike, came into view—his fluorescent yellow safety flag waving back and forth as if teasing us. We passed him then stopped to admire a waterfall, and he passed us. But he didn’t get too far ahead. We easily overtook him for the final time.
“That’s the last one from the bus?” Mitch asked once the trike had disappeared behind us. Now we could relax and enjoy the rest of the trail.
The section of the Lehigh River from White Haven to Jim Thorpe is a popular white water rafting trip. The bartender from the night before had explained that the rafters plan their trips around the dam releases throughout the summer and fall. This day the water seemed subdued, excusing itself around the rocks and boulders instead of tumbling headlong over them. But along the bike trail, after every rapid, the bright yellow rescue backboards affixed to trees told a story of a different river.
We knew we were nearing Jim Thorpe because the trail traffic increased. More walkers and runners, more people coming towards us on cruisers, couples reclining on benches over-looking the river, enjoying the beautiful day. And the river widened slightly. No more yellow backboards.
We checked back in at the bike shop 2.5 hours after we’d started on the trail. One more night in Jim Thorpe would have been perfect. I’d liked to have explored the historical sites and ridden another section of the trail. But, needing to get back home to our fur balls and our business, we ate a quick lunch, loaded up the bikes, and hit the road.