Herewith some questions with relevance for everyone who reads this newspaper and cherishes this neck of the woods:
-What would give the Tri-Lakes area a major economic boost?
-Draw tourists from throughout the Northeast?
Rachel and Dick Beamish bike on Norman’s Ridge near Vermontville, flanked by potato fields with Whiteface Mountain behind.
(Photo — Mike Storey)
-Provide an amenity that would help attract young families to come live here?
-Provide healthy outdoor exercise for people of all ages and physical abilities?
-Provide an environmentally friendly form of transportation that creates no air pollution, noise pollution or ecological disturbance?
-Tends to increase the value of nearby property and the quality of life overall?
-Would enable us to celebrate and interpret our cultural and natural history?
-Would make the Adirondacks a mecca for a type of recreation for which it is ideally suited?
More specifically, I'm referring to the transformation of an obsolete and mostly unused railroad corridor to a bicycle trail that would, for starters, link the communities of Lake Placid, Ray Brook, Saranac Lake, Lake Clear and Tupper Lake in a way they've never been connected before.
The Adirondack Park is justly famed for its thousands of miles of hiking trails and waterways. It explains why hordes of hikers and paddlers gravitate to the region between Memorial Day and Columbus Day. Now it's time to cash in on bicycle tourism, an activity that could attract as many visitors as paddling or hiking, and could have a hugely beneficial impact on our economy. With a 34-mile rail trail joining Placid and Tupper (a trail that is already 90 percent built thanks to the existing rail bed), bicycling will take its place as an economic driver during our warmer months, including the "shoulder seasons" of spring and fall.
When I was in my early teens, my father once borrowed my bicycle to do an errand. When he returned from the store, he reported that some kids had laughed at him as he pedaled by. The sight of a middle-aged man on a bicycle struck them as pretty funny. My, how times have changed!
A 2005 survey by the Outdoor Industry Foundation found that 29 percent of adults polled in New York state ride bicycles. That compares to 23 percent for wildlife viewing, 22 percent for hiking, backpacking and climbing, 19 percent for camping and 12 percent for paddling. And that was seven years ago. Since then, the outdoor recreation economy, including bicycling, has grown about 5 percent annually, despite an economic recession when many industries contracted.
What does that tell us? It tells us we have been missing the boat. With the tracks removed and salvaged, the rail bed between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake would be ready-made to accommodate this most popular form of outdoor recreation, at a minimum expense to taxpayers. A tightly compacted and well-maintained surface of crushed stone and stone dust could work nicely for road bikes as well as hybrids and mountain bikes. If other "rail trails" we've studied are any indication, this one would attract hundreds of thousands of bicyclers to the Tri-Lakes from all over the state and way beyond. It would also be used and enjoyed regularly by local residents: kids, parents, families, commuters, senior citizens, wheelchair users, runners, birders and snowmobilers in season. But the advantages of the Adirondack Rail Trail, as we call it, would not stop there.
This one-of-a-kind recreational amenity would serve as a trunk line for cyclists, who could cut off at various points to bike on the scenic, lightly trafficked country roads between the Tri-Lakes and the St. Lawrence River Valley. This extraordinary network, along with hundreds of miles of eminently bikable back roads in the Champlain Valley, have remained largely undiscovered by cycling tourists. The Adirondack Rail Trail, acting as a catalyst and a magnet, would help turn the Adirondacks into one of the nation's premier areas for bicycling. Once here, the cycling world would discover the other biking opportunities beyond the rail trail. But the converted rail bed would be drawing card.
Here are two local examples of what's possible. You bicycle a few miles from Saranac Lake west on the rail bed across Lake Colby and past McCauley Pond. At the McMaster Road intersection, you can cut off on the county road and do an extended loop trip past the St. Regis Lakes, Paul Smith's College, Church Pond, Jones Pond, Gabriels, Donnelly's Ice Cream and back to McMaster Road and the rail trail. Or from Saranac Lake you can bike the trail to Lake Clear Junction, have lunch at Charlie's Inn, follow New York 30 to Lake Clear and loop back on Forest Home Road to the rail bed. Or you can continue down Forest Home Road into the village. The possibilities are virtually unlimited.
What's especially appealing about bicycle tourists, from a commercial point of view, is that they tend to spend lots of money. They seek out overnight accommodations in motels and B&Bs. They patronize restaurants. They wander around town with their bikes, visiting shops, art galleries, museums and other points of interest, soaking up local atmosphere, hobnobbing with us friendly natives. Many will flock to the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, since it's an easy bike ride from the re-created train station at the Junction to this natural history museum of the Adirondacks.
And that's only the beginning. When the recreational trail is extended to Old Forge, it will become the nation's top wilderness bikeway, 90 miles in length, traversing some of the finest wild country in the eastern United States.
The opportunity is waiting to be seized. We've wasted 40 years already, and we're not getting any younger. It's time to put this magnificent community resource to full and proper use.
Dick Beamish lives in Saranac Lake, is the founder of the Adirondack Explorer magazine and is a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.