Want to do the right thing environmentally? Want to pursue a healthier lifestyle, get great exercise, save gas money, enjoy non-polluting commuting and experience close-up the beauty of our lakes, mountains and forests at a perfect sight-seeing speed? Want to help stimulate tourism and contribute to the local economy? Want to soak up the history of our region in a safe, enjoyable, self-propelled way?
Then read on, gentle reader, and then, not so gently, demand action from our public officials. Communities across the country have capitalized on similar assets. It's time we did the same.
I'm talking about the 34 miles of old railroad line that connects the Tri-Lakes. Most of it has been unused for decades, just sitting there rusting and rotting. The first 9 miles of it, connecting Placid and Saranac, have been monopolized for more than a decade by a tourist train that often seems nearly empty, produces no discernible economic benefits and depends on taxpayer subsidies for its existence. It is also blocking a much more promising use of the line - a year-round public recreation trail that would open up the Adirondack Park for bicycling in the warmer months and greatly improved snowmobiling in the winter. If Lake Placid can find the funds to create a separate recreation trail to parallel the tourist train, all the more power to them. But if they can't, it's time to move on.
(Map by Nancy Bernstein)
For no cost at all, the state (that's us!) can remove the ties and tracks, sell them for salvage, smooth over the rail bed, and there we have it - a recreationway from Placid to Tupper, already suitable for mountain bikes. As finances permit, the trail can be upgraded to accommodate hybrid and road bikes.
Think about what we've been missing. The U.S. Travel Association reports that bicycling is now the third most common vacation activity. More than 27 million Americans have taken a bicycling vacation in the past five years. And these folks tend to spend money. Cyclists usually travel in groups of friends or family members. Having already chosen a slower-paced mode of travel, they will take time to explore the towns they visit and enjoy what makes them unique. They like to stop at museums, discover unusual shops, browse art galleries, sample local restaurants. They stay at inns, B&Bs, motels and campsites.
With a separate trail, or with the tracks removed, the section of rail bed between the Olympic Village and Saranac Lake could be covered on a bicycle in an hour of safe, peaceful, healthy, scenic riding. But that's just the start. With the bikeway extended the next 25 miles from Saranac to Tupper, you could cycle with ease through some of the loveliest lake country in the Northeast.
Starting at the Lake Placid train station and history museum, you ride past wetlands and woods, far removed from the unpleasant (even death-defying) prospect of biking the narrow, crumbling shoulders of busy Route 86, now the only way to cycle between the two villages. Once in Saranac Lake, you check out the unique cure-cottage architecture from the days when the village was a pre-eminent center for the treatment of tuberculosis. You take in the restored Saranac Laboratory, once dedicated to the study of TB, visit the art galleries on Main Street, lunch at a local bistro, then return to the restored Victorian train station and continue on toward Tupper Lake.
Now you'll enjoy something close to a wilderness experience. Beyond Charlie's Inn at Lake Clear, the trail skirts the St. Regis Canoe Area and the Rollins Pond complex. Along the way you stop to swim, or fish, or just relax amid the natural surroundings. At the western end of this incredible ride, the village of Tupper Lake provides a destination for outdoor enthusiasts. The trail terminates at the recently replicated train station near Raquette Pond, the perfect locale for bike rentals and a railroad museum commemorating the great days of Adirondack train travel. From here you can cycle over to the Wild Center, the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks; rent a canoe and paddle around Tupper Lake or explore the meandering Raquette River; hike to the restored fire tower a few miles away on Mount Arab; or bike to the nifty new trail up nearby Coney Mountain. Dine at a local restaurant and spend the night at a local lodging place. Next day, or a few days later, you enjoy the return trip to Saranac and Placid as you pedal east toward the High Peaks.
The rail trail will serve cyclists from April to November. Without the tracks and the need for abundant snow to cover them, snowmobilers will be able to enjoy the Placid-Tupper route in greater numbers over a much-longer winter season, thus securing Tupper's place as a year-round destination.
Nationwide, these rail-to-trail conversion have been hugely popular. For example, the 62-mile Pine Creek Trail through the "Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania" contributes up to $5 million each year to local communities, while the state's much longer Allegheny Passage Trail brings in $40 million annually from bicycling tourists. From Cape Cod to Minnesota's Paul Bunyan Trail, the success stories are legion. Now, here in the northern Adirondacks, it's our turn to utilize - in the best possible way - one of the region's greatest assets.
Dick Beamish is a Saranac Lake resident and founder of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.