In pursuing their passion, a crew of mountain bikers creates a resource for all in the greater Lake Placid region.
By Alan Wechsler
I’m following Keith McKeever and his friends up a mountain-bike trail on a bright summer afternoon. The trail climbs smoothly but unrelentingly as it switchbacks up the side of Winch Mountain in Wilmington.
I’m feeling good at first, legs spinning, tires grabbing the soil. But after a few minutes I start to feel an ache in my chest, my breathing gets more labored, and my speed falters. Soon I come to a stop. Sweat drips off my forehead as I hunch over the handlebars and re-oxygenate my lungs.
Keith looks back as he turns up the next switchback. “Nice job!” he yells. “You’re almost halfway up.” Then he disappears around the bend.
The Adirondack Park is associated with many outdoor pursuits, but traditionally mountain biking has not been one of them. Fat-tire cycling options have, with a few exceptions, been sorely lacking in a park that prides itself on being one of the outdoor capitals of the East. Options were either dull dirt roads or trails so rugged, thanks to roots, mud, and rocks, that only experts or masochists would want to ride them.
Some cycling advocates in the Lake Placid region are trying to change that. Calling themselves the Barkeater Trail Alliance, or BETA for short, they have developed miles and miles of mountain-bike trails in Wilmington, Lake Placid, and Saranac Lake in cooperation with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), private landowners, and local municipalities.
“This whole effort is about getting people together to have really good trails on the ground,” says Matt McNamara, the main founder of BETA. “I hope folks discover us.”
Even before BETA organized in 2009, local bikers had labored for years to improve trail-riding opportunities. An earlier organization, the Adirondack Mountain Bike Initiative, was active for about five years starting in 2000. In Wilmington, Bert Yost and some other residents started adapting cross-country ski trails for biking.
“We were probably doing it off the books,” recalls Yost (meaning: without permission). Now sixty-five (he and his wife run Willkommen Hof bed-and-breakfast in Wilmington), he’s still an active mountain biker.
The trail building soon came to the attention of DEC, but rather than put a stop to it, the department incorporated the new trails in its management plan for the Wilmington Wild Forest. The early routes are now known as the Flume Trails. The network has its own parking lot, located just down the road from the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center.
After the opening of the Flume Trails, Yost and the other volunteers went to work on creating a network of bike trails in the woods on either side of Hardy Road, this time under the watchful eye of DEC.
“Their work has been great,” says Rob Daley, DEC’s supervising forester in Ray Brook. “We’ve been very appreciative of the quality and quantity of their work.”
Daley says DEC has come to trust the volunteers’ knack for laying out trails that are friendly to the environment and fun for cyclists. “I try, whenever possible, to defer to their eye,” he remarks.
These days, BETA does the bulk of the trail building and has taken the mission beyond Wilmington. Those who make up BETA are a wide and varied group. They include several teachers, a carpenter, a ski coach, and the owner of Leepoff Cycles in Keene Valley. McKeever, when not cycling or working on trails, is the spokesman for the Adirondack Park Agency.
McNamara, who also works at the APA, has been building trails since graduating from the University of Vermont in 2000 with a degree in environmental science. In 2006, after conservation work in New England, Alaska, Florida, and the Rocky Mountains, he moved to the Adirondacks and joined forces with Yost and others, offering his expertise to help flag and build trails correctly.
BETA is now affiliated with the Adirondack Ski Touring Council, though it retains a separate steering committee. It also has earned the support of local officials and community leaders. In Lake Placid, for example, the Lake Placid Club allowed BETA to build several miles of single-track trails in the woods adjacent to the club’s golf course. Art Lussi, whose family owns the resort, recalls that he told the bikers: “Let’s start small, and we’ll see what we think about it.”
Although Lussi says most of the trails are too difficult for him, he is impressed by the quality of the work and BETA’s passion. On some days, as many as forty volunteers showed up to work. “I love the fact that it shows this vibrant community in our midst,” he says. “It’s not just talk—they do it.”
Thanks to the efforts of BETA and an army of volunteers, there are now about twenty-two miles of bike trails in Wilmington, twenty-five miles in Lake Placid, and a dozen or so miles in Saranac Lake. While each network is impressive in its own right, BETA has something bigger in mind: finding a way to link the networks. Imagine if visitors could leave their hotel rooms in the morning and ride all day without their wheels touching pavement. Such large networks have proven wildly successful elsewhere.
A few hours to the east, for example, Kingdom Trails in northeast Vermont has become one of the most popular mountain-bike destinations in the country. Established as a nonprofit in 1994, Kingdom Trails has more than a hundred miles of trails for bikers of all abilities, most on right-of-ways across private land. The network has up to fifty thousand day-visits a year. Bikers pay a $15 daily fee and spend plenty of money at local inns, restaurants, and stores. Kingdom Trails Executive Director Tim Tierney estimates that the visitors bring about $5 million into the community during the biking season.
Could bikers bring that kind of magic into the Adirondack Park? Tierney, a former director of field programs for the Adirondack Mountain Club, says the right ingredients are here: dedicated volunteers, a supportive community, and a wide selection of trails from easy to challenging. “You have the starting point,” he says. “It can be done, just over time. It’s slow going at first, but once it gets rolling …”
But there are obstacles. BETA would have to get permission from landowners to cross private land. Also, state law prohibits the use of bikes on Forest Preserve designated as Wilderness, and Route 86 between Lake Placid and Wilmington is bordered by Wilderness on both sides.
McNamara points out that in the Catskill Park, DEC has allowed bikers to ride through Wilderness Areas on trails designated as Primitive Corridors. He thinks a similar system would work in the Adirondacks. “BETA has never advocated for an outright lifting of the ban on bikes in Wilderness,” he said. “Instead, it’s been recommended that Primitive Corridors be considered only on a case-by-case basis.”
He thinks such a corridor could be used to connect Lake Placid and Wilmington. And there already is a plan to connect Lake Placid to Saranac Lake: the town of North Elba has a grant to build a bike trail along state-owned railroad tracks.
But all this is in the future. Meanwhile, as I discover, mountain bikers can find plenty of excitement on the trails that already exist. I had called McKeever to see if I could join his gang for a Sunday ride and get a feel for the trails.
“You can meet us at noon,” he tells me. “We don’t like to get out too early.”
I arrive at his house in Wilmington at the appointed hour, and friends start rolling in by bike or car. They are a cheery and risqué lot, recounting parties of the previous evening and rides of the past week. McNamara cautions me: “There may be things you hear today that might not be fit for print.”
At the Beaver Brook trailhead on Hardy Road, cars sport license plates from Ontario, Connecticut, and Indiana. Evidently, word of the trails has gotten out. Locals say it’s not uncommon to see out-of-town riders. After we start pedaling, I am quickly impressed. I’ve mountain-biked in many states, including once across Colorado, and the trails here are made from the right stuff: hard-packed dirt that’s fairly free of rocks and roots, with neat twists and turns and enough obstacles to keep things interesting.
Trails are also well-marked, thanks to wooden signs provided by DEC, with names like Coniferous, Twisted Pine, and Make Believe (the last named after a former amusement park near Wilmington). At one point, we stop to watch the more daring riders launch off a boulder to get five feet of air.
After a few warm-up runs, we head up a long climb to the top of the Good Luck Trail, a scenic ridge that provides a stellar view of the Whiteface area. The trail is named for an old rusty horseshoe found when the trails were being built. You might want a little good luck for this route, as the last few yards before the top are intimidating—a hairpin turn next to a steep drop. I watch a few riders take the turn, then decide to dismount and walk to the summit.
Then we descend more single-track that flows over ledges and twists through a beautiful hardwood forest, leading back to the parking lot where cans of PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) awaited the thirsty. But the riders weren’t done. On the east side was an even more challenging trail, which ascends some 760 feet to about 1,700 feet above sea level. It’s here that Keith and pals quickly leave me behind as they climb for the top.
Once I catch my breath, I eventually find them sitting among blueberry bushes and reindeer lichen, gazing at Whiteface Mountain and enjoying the summer sun. The talk turns to the goal of linking the networks, which is BETA’s holy grail. “The challenge now is the promotion,” says Josh Wilson, a member of BETA and board member of the Adirondack Ski Touring Council from Saranac Lake
McNamara agrees. “My feeling is good trails speak for themselves,” he says. “People find them.”
Then they pick up their bikes and head downhill. ■