Bill Smith says he has run enough miles in his lifetime to have circled the earth twice, and by the end of his life he hopes to add enough miles to do it one more time.
He's run in the Boston Marathon, Lake Placid half-marathon and countless other races, but for the 500 people who compete in the 90-Miler canoe and kayak race every September none of that matters. To them, Smith is the bagpiper who stands at the top of the hill on Bartlett Carry, playing marching songs to inspire them during the final stretch of the three-day race that starts in Old Forge and ends in downtown Saranac Lake.
This summer, Will Whiting and his son Erik completed the 90-Miler course in a one-day effort that started before dawn and finished after dusk. It is commonly known as a cannonball run. A veteran of the official race, the older Whiting has heard the bagpiper numerous times. His son had not. As they walked up the hill in the dark, the elder Whiting yearned for the soothing sound of the bagpipes.
Bill Smith has been playing the bagpipes at Bartlett Carry for about 12 years.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
"We were back in the boat and across the lower end of Upper Saranac Lake to Bartlett Carry," Will Whiting wrote in an account of the trip. "I told Erik that I could almost hear the bagpipe player as we crested the hill. I think he thought I was starting to lose it. He has never done the Adirondack Canoe Classic and has never heard him. The bagpiper was sadly missed."
Bartlett Carry connects Upper Saranac Lake to Middle Saranac Lake. This stretch of land that the paddlers carry their boats over is a traditional Adirondack carry, although the exact route has changed slightly over time. The land near the carry was first developed as a hotel in the 1850s by Virgil Bartlett. Since then it has undergone several transformations. Today, it is home to the Bartlett Carry Club, a cooperative ownership in which individuals own cabins on the property.
Smith and his wife, Marcia, have owned a camp on the property for 20 years that overlooks a narrow but fast-moving stretch of the Saranac River that runs between Upper and Middle Saranac lakes. The couple live in Bucks County, Pa. for most of the year but stay at the Bartlett's Carry Club through the warmer summer and fall months.
For the close to 20 years, Smith has meandered from his camp down to the carry during the 90-Miler, which takes place every September the weekend after Labor Day, to watch the racers come through. About 12 years ago, he decided it would be fun to contribute something to the race, so he began bringing his bagpipes - something he picked up a couple years earlier - and began playing for the paddlers to inspire them as they were coming through. It can be a difficult stretch for some paddlers because of the wear of the two previous days.
"I remember one poor fellow. This was before I started playing," Smith said. "It was a cold, windy day. It was wet and he landed his boat on the shore of Upper Saranac Lake and he hit a rock and put a hole in his boat."
But the man didn't give up, Smith said. Instead he covered the hole with duct tape and continued down the carry to Middle Saranac Lake.
"I can appreciate him doing that being a racer," said the 73-year-old Smith, whose heritage is Algonquin Indian and not Scottish as one might think.
Smith himself started running at age 42 to help his son Sean train for wrestling. Since then, the elder Smith said he's run 58,000 miles, marking the mileage in a journal after each workout.
"I'd like to get another 20,000 miles and then I'll have three times around the globe," he said.
His son, too, has continued to run and competes in long distance races, such as the Vermont 100.
A long-time employee of the Mobil Oil Corporation who worked as a chemical engineer and as an international salesman, Smith took up bagpiping after he retired. He was looking for something to do and he was drawn to the instrument. In the winter, he spends a lot of time playing with the MacGregor Pipe Band, located near his winter home in Bucks County. He plays in parades, weddings, funerals and, of course, the 90-Miler, which he does solely for the enjoyment and not for any payment.
During the 90-Miler, Smith plays mostly marches, an appropriate selection for the paddlers who are walking, or running, with their canoes and kayaks along the gravel road. Year after year, he plays mostly the same songs. Amazing Grace is one of the first, which he plays for 90-Miler organizer and paddler Grace McDonnell, who in recent years has come through at the head of the pack with her voyageur team of women. Smith also plays Dark Island, Scotland the Brave and Waltzing Matilda among others.
"He's become an icon and people expect him to be there or people look forward to him being there," said 90-Miler organizer Brian McDonnell, who is married to Grace. "His choice of music is what motivates a number of people up the Bartlett Carry hill."
Ray Morris, a Glens Falls resident who has competed all 27 years of the 90-Miler, said the bagpiper is definitely something he looks forward to every year.
"It gives us a lot of inspiration the last day to keep going," Morris said. "I think it's great. I know I appreciate it. It's something to look forward to for sure 'cause I'd miss him if he wasn't there."
Standing among the paddlers' support teams and the spectators, Smith is hard to miss. He dresses in traditional Scottish bagpiper garb, including a kilt. And his facial hair is unique, with the ends of his mustache hanging in two strips below his white beard.
But more than that, it's the music coming from his bagpipes that is hard to forget.
"It's a haunting soundand it carries," Smith said. "It carries a long distance."