Fox Chapel classmates travel bike path to education from Cumberland to Washington, D.C.

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It wasn’t the normal classroom setting for Patrick Cullinan. Patrick, 17, recently cycled along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath.

“To be able to ride along having a great time, but still learning about the geology and environmental aspects of the trail was kind of cool,” the Fox Chapel Area High School junior said.

Patrick and six classmates traversed the 184.5-mile towpath May 6-9 with a couple of teachers and parents. The trail, which connects Cumberland, Md., and Washington, D.C., runs along the north side of the Potomac River.

The group was led by Dave Battista, high school physical education and health teacher. Mr. Battista teaches the adventure sports physical education classes and thought this ride would tie in nicely with the students’ curriculum.

“We loved the idea that the students could get the physical exercise, of course, but we could also tie it into other subjects. It had the added bonus of being a traffic-free trail, but you are never too far from a town for safety purposes,” he said.

Mr. Battista and fellow teachers Dave Turner and Brandon Peifer accompanied Patrick and classmates Ian Gillespie, Treavor Moore, Chaz Okunewick, Emily Fabiszewski, Brian Bartels and Anthony Pirollo Two parent volunteers also were part of the group.

“We looked at it as an example of Expeditionary Learning, a way to conduct a mini-unit of instruction based around the C&O Canal National Historic Park. Each student had to also complete a ‘trail quest’ focusing on a specific subject matter,” he said. The areas were 19th century culture, technology/engineering, ecosystems and conflicts/wars.

The three teachers often go on outdoor adventures themselves, and the idea for the C & O trip started nearly a decade ago, according to Mr. Battista.

“For years, we’ve done backpacking and bike trips together. Dave and I actually scouted this trip out about 10 years ago, but then a hurricane came through and really damaged the trail,” he said.

When they decided to try the trip again, they wanted to travel the whole distance from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., along the Great Allegheny Passage, but they decided to attempt the shorter route.

The students had to complete an application process that ensured they were physically able to make the trip and could miss four days of school.

“We asked them, ‘Do you like to camp?’ ‘Can you get along with only one shower for the whole trip?’ ‘Can you make this trip?’” Mr. Battista said. In preparation for the trip, as a group, they rode a few training rides on the Butler-Freeport Rails Trail.

A van carried their camping gear and food, meeting them at the end of the day to set up camp. About 50 percent of the meals, usually lunch, were purchased in towns along the C & O trail.

Early May was selected for the trip because the students had half days and it was late enough in the year that the weather would be warmer.

The group started in Cumberland and biked 30 miles the first day. The next day, it was cold and rainy but the group traveled 45 miles. On day three, they traveled 61 miles and on the last day logged at least 60 miles — although they lost track once they reached Washington.

“The kids just wanted to keep biking and biking through the city. DC is a very bike-friendly city and they wanted to see all of the sights,” Mr. Battista said.

The group ranged in age from 15 to 62. Both Patrick and Emily are looking forward to next year when they hope to travel the complete 300-mile trip from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.

“I’m definitely going to do it again next year. I’m really looking forward to it,” Patrick said.

A camper, Emily said she had looked forward to the trip and became friends with all of the other students, even those she hadn’t known before the trip. She already is making a list of what she will do differently for the longer trip.

“My hands hurt so I will bring gloves, and I want to bring more food to make more meals instead of buying so many,” she said.

Mr. Battista said they are hoping to take on the trip next spring.

Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer:

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