Merrily rolling along the Shore

Ten cyclists pedal from Delmarva's cornfields to coast

July 06, 2008|By Diane Daniel | Diane Daniel,special to the sun

Say Maryland's Eastern Shore, and crab comes to mind. But on a recent trip, 10 traveling cyclists discovered that another four-letter food starting with C is more plentiful in the coastal areas of Maryland and Delaware. Corn, oceans of it, with soybean fields thrown in. "There's too much corn," declared 7-year-old Olivia Howe, arms outstretched toward the fields as we rolled by. "Everywhere I look, there's corn."

Granted, Olivia, who lives in Brattleboro, Vt., didn't always have the best view on our six-day bicycle trip. Much of the week she faced the back of her mother, Alice Charkes, 44, who captained the tandem bicycle they rode. And, as we told her, the best was yet to come.

Charkes and I had mapped out the journey to give us a tour of the countryside first and the oceanfront last, a loop that started and ended in Delaware, and passed through Maryland in between.

"It will be better for the kids," I told Charkes. "That way they'll have something to look forward to."

In fact, after a couple days of riding past farm after farm, the six adults were as ecstatic on reaching the beach as were the four youngsters. It was hard to believe that such deeply rural areas were so close to a series of populated beaches, from Rehoboth Beach down to Assateague Island.

This was the sixth kid-friendly bicycle tour Charkes has organized for friends. The first took place when her daughter was 18 months old. All Charkes' trips are self-contained, meaning no vehicles are involved. We carried all our gear, camped out overnight and usually cooked our meals.

My husband and I were the only ones on single bicycles. Barb Walsh, 47, of East Dover, Vt., captained a tandem ably stoked by her 10-year-old son Ren Chock. She and her husband own Brattleboro Bicycle Shop, and her mechanical skills came in quite handy.

Then there were our showstoppers, the Skerrett family from Fairfax, Vt.: Will, 41; Jennifer, 38; and their daughters, Elizabeth, 9, and Anna, 6. They rode a bicycle built for four and pulled gear behind them in a Burley trailer. The "quad," custom-made by Santana Cycles in Southern California, offered the family a chance for their first self-contained tour.

Dad rode in front, Mom in the back, and the girls in the middle, their feet resting on pedals a foot higher than those of their parents. To start, everyone's feet would move into formation when Will Skerrett would shout, "Pedal up! ...One, two, three ... go!" And they would slowly move forward.

Charkes' previous family rides have been in New England and Canada, but when she came across a mention of the Great Delmarva Bicycling Trail, a route showcasing 2,500 miles of rural roads in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, her interest was piqued. (We didn't make it to Virginia.) The region is flat, has miles of coastline and is within reach of a host of state parks, making it handy for auto travelers, too.

We enlisted the help of Delmarva Low Impact Tourism Experiences, an alliance of tourism groups, whose office marked the route on roads with the lowest amount of traffic. (The cycling map should be used in conjunction with a more detailed one, such as DeLorme's Maryland/Delaware Atlas & Gazetteer.)

Jim Rapp, executive director, looked over our route and pointed out places of interest. He also stepped in to save the day when we were told that we couldn't leave our cars for the week at our designated parking spot.

Charkes sketched out five days of 30- to 42-mile days, with one rest day. I recalculated, and added a few miles here and there. Our average daily distance was 47 miles, for a total of 235 miles.

So how do the kids do it? Although they're pedaling, they're not necessarily using force, Charkes said. "Imagine you're riding with Lance Armstrong," she said. "Your legs would go around, but he'd be doing all the work."

Ren, however, was old enough to help. "I could definitely feel him doing a lot of work," his mother said.

Then there's the entertainment factor. "Long bike rides are boring for kids; there's not much you can do to change that," Will Skerrett said. "But the friendships, the beach and the sites were the saving grace."

Of course, there were meltdowns along the way, not to mention melt-worthy temperatures, but it was apparent that these children, like their parents, enjoy playing outdoors.

Our first day out, leaving from Killens Pond State Park in Felton, Del., was all rural. We passed fields of corn, soybeans and melons, and held our noses when the smell of chicken coops and manure filled the air. As several old school buses without windows and some without roofs chugged by, we saw they were full of just-picked watermelons.

Our campground was at Trap Pond State Park in Laurel, Del., a beautiful, peaceful place and home to great blue herons, egrets and the northernmost stand of bald cypress trees in the country. The kids ran around for hours, and Olivia and Elizabeth, strangers before the trip, became fast friends.

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