New Keene trail unveiled
Officials, residents celebrate opening of East Branch trail system
KEENE — As one of the builders of the first-ever mountain biking trail in Keene cut through a red ribbon on Sunday to celebrate its opening, an explosion of applause and cheers erupted.
More than 50 people watched the ribbon cutting, which celebrated the opening of the first 2 miles of the new multi-use East Branch trail system. When the red ribbon fell to the ground, a group of children mounted their bikes and pedaled away on the freshly-blazed path.
The ribbon-cutting event was the result of a more than year-long partnership between BETA and the Keene Youth Commission — which came up with the concept for the trail — along with the town of Keene, and Essex County, which owns the land off of state Route 9N where the trail is located.
The project initially started in February 2021 with a community interest in building a pump track and bike skills park like the Wilmington Bike Park, according to BETA Executive Director Josh Wilson. When BETA started looking for locations for the track, they found the county-owned property on state Route 9N. That’s when they realized the property could also support a trail system. By the end of last summer, BETA had a concept plan and a rough budget for the construction of the trail system and pump track.
BETA’s ultimate goal with East Branch is to construct around 6 to 7 miles of multi-use trails with a pump track near the trailhead, and the alliance is taking a phased approach to accomplish the project. The first 2.5-mile portion of the trail system opened on Sunday, and Wilson said that BETA hopes to continue work on the trail next summer. However, he said the type and extent of work BETA will do then is largely funding-dependent.
Wilson said that BETA was able to complete phase one of the East Branch thanks to a series of grants and grassroots fundraising efforts. BETA got some initial funding for the project from the Adirondack Foundation and the Northern Forest Center, which allowed BETA to perform a concept plan with trail builder Peduzzi Trails Contracting. After that, the funding kept rolling in — most notably, from a portion of a $250,000 donation BETA received and used to start the “Sterling Watchorn Trail Fund” fund — aimed at investing in “shovel-ready” trails projects that could be “transformational” to their communities. The inspiration for the fund’s purpose came from the East Branch Trail, which was also the first project to benefit from the fund. BETA used $50,000 from its Sterling fund for East Branch. That funding was matched by grants from the Stewart’s Foundation and the Dake Family Fund of the Community Foundation for the Greater Capital Region.
Wilson said BETA sees the new trail as one that fills a mountain biking gap in the region. BETA has constructed mountain biking trails in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Wilmington and Elizabethtown. Now, Wilson hopes the new trail between Keene and Jay will become a place for local mountain bikers and for hikers and skiers looking for more accessible trails than many of those found in the High Peaks.
Luke Peduzzi, the 29-year-old owner of Peduzzi Trails Contracting and leader of the East Branch trail system construction, has been building trails for 10 years. A Jay resident and a Keene Central School graduate, Peduzzi said the community effort behind the construction of the East Branch Trail stood out to him among the years of bike trail projects he’s led in the Catskills. He said the East Branch project was especially exciting for him because it’s the first project he’s done close to home.
“Everybody was invested and interested in it, so it felt like it was supposed to happen,” Peduzzi said of the East Branch Trail. “I mean, we worked for it, but the hurdles were all pretty easy to get through.”
Peduzzi broke ground on the trail on Memorial Day, and he worked long hours throughout the summer to make Sunday’s opening ceremony possible. But over the course of five volunteer construction days this summer, Peduzzi said he also worked with more than 60 volunteers of all ages. Wilson said that including planning, more than 500 volunteer hours have gone into the project.
Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr. on Sunday called the local communities, along with the Keene Youth Commission, the “heart and soul” of the East Branch trail system. When the Keene Youth Commission board first approached him with the idea for the East Branch Trail, according to Joe Pete, he told the board to be happy if they got a new trail within a couple of years. The first phase of the East Branch Trail — from concept to being mountain-bike ready — only took one and a half years to complete.
“It’s really a testament to the drive and motivation and the desire, and then the organizational skills and follow through, of a lot of volunteers,” Joe Pete said.
“Most things like this don’t happen this fast,” Josh added.
The trail’s name is community-based, too. Josh said people overwhelmingly chose the name “East Branch” for the trail system in a community-wide survey, and the first portion of the trail is called the “Leepoff Loop” in honor of Mark Nassan, the owner of Leepoff Cycles in Keene Valley. Josh said there was a consensus from the beginning of the project that the trail should pay homage to Nassan’s contributions to cycling in the town.
As the group of young cyclists lined up at the East Branch trailhead on Sunday for their inaugural ride, Nassan fell into the back of the line and egged the kids on to the trail, their shouts of excitement echoing down to the trailhead as they made their way up the loop for the first time.