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Rails-to-trails is the way to go

August 2, 2012
By Ken Youngblood

If you don't give a toot about tourist trains and you think the rails-to-trails bunch is spinning its wheels, then at this late stage, you are the only audience that counts.

Converting the 120-year-old rail bed between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake (34 miles), and from there to Old Forge (56 miles), is one of best ideas in a long time. They are calling it the Adirondack Rail Trail. I call it a no-brainer. I've bicycled enough rail trails across the country and into Canada to know that they serve as an economic food chain to the businesses along the way. People love these trails and are drawn to them in large numbers.

I attended the July 11 presentation by Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates at which the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy unveiled a study showing the costs and benefits of the proposed Adirondack Rail Trail. A close examination of the economic data presented would prompt anyone concerned about jobs, taxes and an influx of tourist money to leap off the fence to add their voice to this chorus.

What most stuck in my mind were the voices in the audience during the comments session. One Adirondack native said she was incensed that she had to take her money to trails in Vermont and Pennsylvania in order for their family to enjoy a quiet bicycle ride in the country.

A man in the back said he is confined to a wheelchair and has nowhere to go where he can exercise outdoors on a level, well-surfaced path in a beautiful setting, well away from road traffic. A man from Wisconsin spoke of how a rail trail there had revitalized a rural strip of scattered homes and villages all along the trail.

A woman who has spent much of her life trying to make her bicycle a principal means of transportation in Saranac Lake spoke of her frustration. In this perfect setting, she said, getting around by bicycle remains, after all the years, an iffy and hazardous proposition.

The impact of a rail trail goes far beyond dollars. Yes, the trail will become a golden thread connecting North Country hamlets, with thriving enterprises all along its route. But equally compelling, the Adirondack Rail Trail will connect the people who live along the way with a wonderful, healthful means to enjoy the outdoors. In the best sense of a word whose root is "communion," the Adirondack Rail Trail in connecting people will revitalize and strengthen the sense of community.

Pictures of the rail trails I've biked tell the story. For example, my wife and I were two of more than 100,000 people who annually ply the Virginia Creeper Trail, about the same length as the section of rail bed connecting Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. Both are equally remote from big populations.

Maybe 3 miles down from the trailhead at Whitetop Station (one of four stations turned into visitor centers), we came to the Green Cove station that sported a free museum celebrating those long-gone days when rail was king. But the museum was in the back room - I had to push my way through a crowd at the cash register buying rails-to-trails T-shirts and other memorabilia.

Then, after a quiet 11 miles of bicycling through a forest made shady by an ancient canopy of limbs, and along a brook that burbled its companionship all the way, we came to Taylor Valley - nothing much but a bridge to a meadow where an abandoned rail shed had been converted into a simple clapboard eatery. Hikers and bicyclers waited to make their way up the line of 50 or 60 people whose stomachs clamored for pasta carbs.

Our last downhill stretch brought us to Damascus. A town half the size of Tupper Lake had bike repair and rental shops sprinkled from one end of town to the other. In between, what had been tired old homes along rusting tracks had been gaily repainted and opened as bed-and-breakfasts. What looked to have been the shipping station was now being converted into a youth hostel upstairs, with live music down.

We ate and drank throughout the day, but our favorite stop along the tracks was a winery couched in tall oaks, where we could sit and sample the region's fine wines.

I wish I had taken a picture of that long line of hungry customers out in the middle of what would be nowhere - except for the Virginia Creeper Trail. But I did take photograph my wife putting her bike down for some of that chocolate cake we had been hearing about for miles down the trail.

Without that trail, how many of the several hundred trail users milling around us would be in this meadow in the middle of God's country? It's a small sampling of the economic power of a recreational trail.

Why are we still debating what surely will be, based on our ride down the Virginia Creeper Trail, a renaissance for some lucky North Country hamlets? The facts are in, and the debate should be over. The Adirondack Rail Trail is the way to go.

Even though I live too far away to ever ride the Adirondack Recreational Trail, I love my Adirondacks and have seen the good the ART will be for the Tri-Lakes community. So I signed the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates' petition to show where I stood. Even if you have never been on a bicycle, you can add your voice to the growing volume of other Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.


Ken Youngblood is a former Enterprise feature writer now living in Taos, N.M.



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