Fox Chapel Area students pedal through elements; learn on the ride

Tawnya Panizzi
| Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Biking 200 miles is challenge.

Throw in cold weather, rain and a campground crawling with turtles and it becomes an adventure of a lifetime, according to Fox Chapel Area teacher Dave Battista.

“I told the kids to prepare for anything,” said Battista, who was part of a small high school group that in May trekked the C&O Canal Towpath from Cumberland, Md. to Washington, D.C.

“They laughed and realized it was true after the second day when we had sun, rain and freezing temps.”

Battista, along with teachers Dave Turner and Brandon Peifer, rode with seven students more than 185 miles on the towpath that aligns the Potomac River.

It was a perfect setting for “Expeditionary Learning,” Battista said.

During the quasi-unit of instruction based on the C&O Canal National Historic Park, students had to complete a trail quest that helped maintain their focus. Topics included 19th century culture, engineering, ecosystems and war.

The four-day trip was a test of physical and mental stamina, Battista said.

“We did up to 65 miles a day,” he said. “We were going about 10 miles an hour, camping overnight and on day two, the rain was coming down so hard we had to stop under a bridge for protection.”

But the rewards were worth it, student biker Ian Gillespie said.

“The greatest highlight was definitely biking through D.C.,” said Gillespie, a junior and avid cyclist.

“It was great to see our capital and ride around the city.”

Other students who made the trip include Treavor Moore, Chaz Okunewick, Emily Fabiszewski, Brian Bartels, Anthony Pirollo and Patrick Cullinan.

The C&O Canal Towpath, built between 1828 and 1850, is made of clay and crushed stone. Sites along the way include the 3,100 foot-long Paw Paw Tunnel, the Appalachian Mountains and the town of Harpers Ferry, where the John Brown abolitionist revolt is credited as one of the major events leading to the Civil War.

The group camped one night at Fort Frederick, a 585-acre park that served as Maryland's frontier defense during the French and Indian War. The fort's stone wall and two barracks are restored to their 1758 appearance.

“The history and the science of being out there, talking to other riders, is neat,” Battista said. “You're seeing first-hand where George Washington and his troops crossed.”

When they arrived in the capital, the group rode to the Lincoln Memorial and enjoyed other popular monuments along the National Mall.

“The trip was mentally challenging at points and we were forced to get a positive mindset as a group and just pedal through the elements to our camp,” Gillespie said. “We definitely succeeded in that as a group and it gave us a reference point the rest of trip to be able to look back upon that and realize we could overcome any other cycling issue.”

Tawnya Panizzi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-782-2121, ext. 2 or

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