Photograph by L. E. Baskow / Left Eye Images, Courtesy of Cycle Adirondacks
My family has a house in Keene, along the Lake Placid Ironman bike course. On race day we watch thousands of riders fly by twice, hunched over aerobars, as they complete the two loops of the 56-mile bike course. I used to cycle the same course, a set route that took me along the same roads, past the same landmarks. I did it because it was what all the bikers I saw were doing. Then one day I was drawn into a turn where the course went straight. It was like discovering a different Adirondacks—quiet roads, bucolic valleys and farms, all far from the region’s tourist centers.
Cycle Adirondacks, a bicycle tour inaugurated in 2015 by the Wildlife Conservation Society, was designed around this type of exploration. Cyclists register for a week of riding through parts of rural and small-town New York, on both sides of the Blue Line, places that you probably wouldn’t string together if you followed the herd. Last year the tour started in Saranac Lake, moved on to Star Lake, Boonville, Camden, Old Forge and Long Lake, then finished back where it started.
I signed up for the first four of the seven days—a 300-mile commitment—with the thought that the experience would be good for me, would help me make a life-changing transition. At the end of the summer, I would be leaving a longtime career and community and moving with my family to another state to start a new job.
Distracted by the changes looming in my life, I trained off and on for the tour, though sometimes covering 60 or 70 miles at once. I knew this wasn’t enough, but figured each day on the tour would be long enough for me to make the distances if I simply kept spinning my legs.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) operates the zoos in four of the five boroughs of New York City, as well as the Brooklyn Aquarium. Globally, it is the force behind anti-poaching initiatives. Its conservation strategy focuses on the Earth’s flagship species, from whales to gorillas and tigers. The WCS has also been working in the Adirondacks since 1994, based out of Saranac Lake. Its Adirondack Program engages in the research, education and advocacy necessary for the right balance between wildlife conservation and the development required for the economic health of the park’s 105 towns and villages.
For Zoe Smith, director of the Adirondack Program, staging a WCS bike tour in the Adirondacks was an obvious choice. “It’s one of 15 WCS priority regions and one of the most spectacular places in North America,” she said. “Where else can you explore some of the largest blocks of wilderness in the East and still experience small town amenities, in one day, on a bike?”
Cycle Adirondacks was organized around the core principles of the Adirondack Program. The communities that hosted the riders would receive grants to develop their schools and nonprofits. The tour would raise awareness about this balance by riding from town to town through the natural wonders of the park, each stop providing riders with opportunities to learn about the society’s work in the Adirondack region and worldwide. The trip would be a mix of education, exploration, advocacy and assistance.
On day one, 141 cyclists set off from the shores of Lake Flower in Saranac Lake. Cycle Adirondacks’ staff of four and a paid crew of caterers and other providers broke down the mechanical, medical and recreational services that support the riders, loaded everything onto vehicles and formed a supply train headed for Star Lake, our next destination. Detachments set up a rest stop with high-energy food and drink on the shores of Tupper Lake, then had a lunch of grilled chicken and tofu with fruit, pretzels and brownies waiting for riders at a grassy field in Cranberry Lake. Porta Potties were ubiquitous and strategically placed. By the time we’d covered the 68 miles to the Clifton-Fine Elementary School, in Star Lake, everything we left behind that morning had been reassembled: a huge inflatable finish-line arch, plus showers, sinks, toilets, an alfresco bar serving craft beer, and a stage for live music, massage tables and medics. Local crafters and entrepreneurs sold their products. Among them was Susie Smith, creator of DAK Bars, a whole-food energy bar made in the town of Essex on Lake Champlain. Tents shaded tables that each seated dozens. The food was served by local volunteers who assumed a great hunger on our part and dished generous portions. There were chicken, fish and vegetarian options, plenty of greens, plus luxurious desserts you didn’t have to feel guilty about eating. A mobile café took orders for coffee and smoothies. Meanwhile, support vehicles scoured roads for stranded riders, and a team of technicians was on hand for bike repairs. High-school students—Boy Scouts, wrestlers, soccer and lacrosse players—offered to carry luggage to our tent site. For better or worse, there was even a place to charge your phone.
Traveling alone, I brought my own small tent and set it up myself once I’d cooled down from the ride. Blowing up an air mattress seems easy when you’ve been breathing heavily for long stretches. For a premium, you could arrange for a vendor to set up large, rented tents, camp chairs and thick air mattresses that would await your arrival each day. Martin Hornung, 44, from the Bronx, had brought his wife, Celeste, along as a non-riding companion. A passenger van ferried her from stop to stop; private cars are strictly prohibited. Martin said he used the tent service as a way to keep up her enthusiasm. “She’s not used to this type of accommodations,” Martin lamented, “but she’s having a good time during the day.” He joined the tour to ponder a career change. He said he had turned to biking after a rough patch in his life. He had heard about the tour from his bike community in New York City and hadn’t spent much time in the Adirondacks prior. “It’s got the gears spinning in my head about what to do during the next phase of my life,” he said as he pedaled. “It won’t be about the money.”
Our destination on the second day was Boonville. Riding in the rain, we ascended the Tug Hill Plateau out of the aptly named town of Lowville. The Maple Ridge Wind Farm’s 196 turbines spun silently in the distance. We stopped to refuel at the Snow Ridge Ski Resort, in Turin, its base lodge at the foot of a stout set of trails cut into the plateau. Volunteers handed out fruit but also Doritos and beef jerky, extolling the power of salt after a long day on the road.
We continued on another 16 miles to Boonville’s Erwin Park, where the rain mercifully stopped. After chocolate milk, a hot shower, a massage, then beer and dinner, the discomfort of the ride was a memory soon forgotten by my legs and back. Much of this resiliency was due to the showers. They comprised a full-sized truck trailer and shattered every preconception I had about showering in a parking lot with strangers. The hot water was limitless and the pressure was better than most of the places I’ve lived.
At each stop we were met with people sharing local knowledge. Riders were issued a field guide that broke up the route into sections and discussed their conservation concerns. Exhibits were staffed by WCS experts who explained what was at stake around us as we rested and ate. Understanding communities came from mingling with local residents at our camp in the evenings. The trip to Boonville passed through a region that, come winter, contends with more snow than most people can comprehend: usually well over 200 inches a year but sometimes up to 400. Storm clouds pregnant with millions of tons of the stuff push in from Lake Ontario and make it as far as the plateau, then let loose on the land. Montague, west of Lowville, with a population of about 70, was once blanketed with 77 inches in a day. As I sat with a pint of brown ale from Good Nature Brewing, made 60 miles away in Hamilton, the Boonville volunteers at my table recounted their recent Woodsmen’s Field Days, a bona-fide lumberjack competition that draws competitors from as far away as New Zealand, then, when prompted, bragged about their legendary winters.
The tour’s riders were from 29 states and two Canadian provinces. The vast majority were over 40, but one was as young as 27. They brought every type of bike with them. I spied one I knew to be custom-made at a cost of at least $10,000, and another you could buy used for about a hundred bucks, or possibly find in a dumpster. Each day’s ride tended to organize itself organically. Based on when you departed, how fast you rode, who you were touring with and how you felt, you’d find yourself pedaling along with a cluster of other bikers. You can’t fake speed or endurance on a ride this long, so you tend to find your own comfort level and then fall in with riders of similar ability or inclination.
I’d begun riding at a brisk but sustainable pace with a trio of ministers, Randy Bauer, Eric Haase and Peter Wagner, all in their 40s. They met as children at a summer camp on Long Lake and became lifelong friends. For the tour, they camped together in what was possibly the largest Coleman tent ever made. Leaving Boonville in the morning on day three, Randy, Eric, Peter and I soon arrived at an intersection where you could make a left instead of a right and cut 22 miles off of the day’s 80-mile course. We chose the longer, charted route; it veered downhill, and we were soon riding at over 30 miles an hour. We were rewarded with blue skies over Lewis County farmland into forever, some of it cultivated by agribusiness but a lot of it by Mennonites in horse-drawn buggies who for sport might race the bikes that tried to overtake them. Sean Tulley, 47, and Judy Miller, 38, Army and Navy helicopter pilots, respectively, took up such a challenge on their tandem bike. They claimed to have beaten the horse after a tense bout of jockeying, but it could’ve been that the farmers had just arrived at their destination.
That night we camped in Camden, just outside the Blue Line, in the town square under a large mural of their historical reenactment Continental Fife and Drum Corps. The community entertained us with drills by its high-school cheerleaders and a performance by the corps. The local VFW post had a member at the finish line who invited each cyclist in for a drink and tried to sell us raffle tickets for firearms. How this was possible was not easily explained to Canadian riders, or the ones from New York City. It was also in contrast to the raffle two days prior at Star Lake, where senior citizens offered up a heaping basket of Adirondack souvenirs to benefit their social calendar. At that one I bought three tickets for a dollar each, and learned the next morning that I had won. I stood there awkwardly in bike clothes, now holding an oversized basket of wine and maple syrup and wondering how it would accompany me hundreds of miles. Sure enough, it was integrated into the supply train and was waiting for me at the end of the trip.
Day four, the tour rolled into Old Forge. People relaxing on the porch of a bar a few miles outside of town held glasses of beer aloft and called to us like Sirens. I pressed on. The town exuded the relaxed vibe of a summer vacation, but for a few of us, anyway, arriving meant a vacation’s end. The ministers and I climbed into the van back to Saranac Lake. We shared the ride with Vermont-based adventure writer Berne Broudy and a retired New York City police lieutenant who was the tour’s oldest rider, at 77. As we made our way eastward, the hills grew into mountains, the tallest of them crowding the horizon, visible past the far end of Long Lake. I was envious of the friends we’d left behind for three more days of riding.
The tour would explore Old Forge for a day, then go on to Long Lake and back to the shores of Lake Flower without us. Seventeen three-day riders would arrive to take our places for these final legs, bringing 151 cyclists into Saranac Lake after a week’s time. I wonder if the locals who saw the riders come and go could grasp all they had seen and taken in while they were gone. “It was magical,” Zoe Smith said. “It really energized us for looking ahead to year two. Our 2016 route will showcase new areas of the park: the High Peaks, the Hudson River Valley, Lake George and Lake Champlain.” I realized, when she said this, that next year’s tour will cover vastly different ground than mine did, that the tour could go years with minimal repetition. I immediately signed up my wife, Sarah.
Cycle Adirondacks was almost too much: it offered more than I could see, more than I could eat, and more than I could remember. But I recall some things well. The Salmon River Reservoir looked like an inlet of an ocean. Performers from the Old Tyme Fiddlers’ Association played for us as we ate lunch on the grass in Osceola. There was one hill on the way there that was so steep most people just walked it, waddling awkwardly on cleated bike shoes, good-naturedly cursing the route planners for their cruel sense of humor. Repentant, organizers have promised that nothing on the 2016 route will be this steep.
And I remember a man, working a sawmill alone on a small lot in the woods outside of West Leyden. The sound of the saw came to me first and followed me after I passed, a clue to what I had just seen. I pedaled on, glad to be out on the less-traveled roads. This very sight, the crucial balance between wilderness and commerce, is what Cycle Adirondacks was all about, what the WCS had brought me hundreds of miles to see.
Brandon del Pozo, cyclist, climber and hiker, is the Chief of Police of Burlington, Vermont. He divides his time between the Green Mountains and the High Peaks.