Bicyclists explore remote roads in northern Adirondacks.
By Kim Martineau
We had been biking down dirt roads all day. Mosquito bites covered our ankles and legs, and a desperate thirst had set in. Things looked bleak when a barking dog came charging at us from a hill. We slowed as a woman in a tie-dye shirt came running after the dog, apologizing profusely.
She was the first human we had seen after pedaling for a dozen miles over dusty, remote roads, past vacant houses posted “No Trespassing.” Those signs had scared us from knocking on doors to beg for water. But here, at last, was an opening. My husband Ethan grabbed it.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Do you have a spigot so we can fill our water bottles?”
“You can use our sink,” she offered, cheerfully. “Would you like to also use the bathroom?”
Ethan followed the woman and her rambunctious cocker spaniel up the hill and returned a short time later, with not only water but also a bag of oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies. Fresh from the oven, the warm cookies left chocolate smudges on our hands as we shoveled them into our mouths.
A few miles from Paul Smiths, the low point of our weekend ride had turned suddenly into a lesson in the goodness of humanity. I made note to remember this the next time I was squeezed sardine-style on a crowded subway car in Manhattan.
Starting in Vermontville north of Saranac Lake, we covered eighty miles in two days, a comfortable pace that left us time for mountain hikes, backwoods swimming, and barroom chats with the locals. We parked our car in a public lot off Route 3 late on a Saturday morning. Turning onto County 26, we pedaled up a steep hill and then were rewarded for the next forty miles with mostly flat roads winding past lakes and beaver flows: a bike path without other bikers, or anyone else. The occasional motorist waved in passing, and while we passed several signs that warned
“Children at Play,” we spotted only one: a little girl picking strawberries on the side of the road with a relative.
County 26 crosses the North Branch of the Saranac and goes through the summer community of Loon Lake, where E.L. Doctorow set his Depression-era novel of the same name. Just before County 27, we turned onto a dirt road leading to the state-owned Debar Pond. There, we encountered some folks from the Albany area who had come to see the seventeen-room camp occupied by a forest ranger (featured in the May/June issue of this magazine). While they strolled to the controversial camp, we hiked on the boardwalk to the pond, listening to the peepers and the splash of startled frogs as we upset the stillness. I stopped to admire some pink lady’s slippers, a wild orchid. By the time we checked out the camp, our friends had disappeared.
Back on our bikes, we soon crossed State Route 30 and headed up Red Tavern Road, scouting for the eponymous watering hole. We had packed bread and a jar of peanut butter, but the mosquitoes were too fierce to stop and make sandwiches. Stomachs growling, we were relieved when a parking lot and the neon allure of “Genny” popped into view.
Old-time country was playing as we approached the bar, decorated with a rack of antlers. All heads turned. “You two aren’t from around here, are you?” asked the bartender, a friendly-looking blond woman. That sounded enough like a welcome that we sat down and ordered two cans of Genesee and a bag of pretzels. By now the other patrons had returned to their 50-cent lottery cards. We wandered off to play some pool (35 cents a game) and Johnny Cash on a jukebox that’s still loaded with 45s (50 cents for five songs) and wished that entertainment were as cheap downstate.
The tavern started as a stagecoach stop in the 1830s, according to Curt Stager, a biology professor at Paul Smith’s College who profiled the place in Adirondack Life. It later became a pub and hotel that leased nine thousand acres of paper-company land for hunting. The tavern’s sportsman’s club still exists and owns ninety acres of its own where members hunt and fish. For the $20 membership fee, you can stay in the rooms upstairs for $20 a night.
It was a tempting prospect, but our legs were still fresh and we had less than eight miles to go to the village of St. Regis Falls. Soon after we left the bar, the sun peeked through the chalky-white sky. We stopped at a parking lot on the East Branch of the St. Regis to walk a pleasant mile-long loop in a preserve owned by the Adirondack Nature Conservancy. Our friends at the Red Tavern had told us to watch for deer, but we saw only mounds of fresh scat on the trail. Biking past nearby Everton Falls we caught a glimpse of a beaver lounging roadside in a brackish lagoon.
A wooden sign painted with a snowman welcomed us to St. Regis Falls. On our left, classic rock blared from a sportsman’s club, where a high-school reunion was in full swing. We continued to the town-run campground on the St. Regis River and found our cabin assignment on the chalkboard: “Weekender #5.” Inside, a picnic table took up most of the room, in humble contrast to the RVs parked next door, with their satellite television and padded lawn furniture.
We walked into the village and ordered a mushroom pizza at Dawn’s, a bustling, family-owned restaurant. While the pizza cooked, we wandered into Belile’s Riverside, a bar overlooking a dam where you could imagine a sawmill whirring during the town’s heyday in the 1890s. A retired logger named Jimmy gave us a short rundown of the town’s history.
We ate our pizza, made with homemade dough, on a boulder overlooking the river, watching two men in waders flick their lines over the water and release their catch. I later took a swim at the deserted town beach, and we returned to Dawn’s for dessert: a slice of homemade raspberry pie and a saucer-size brownie. In the twilight, we made our way back to Weekender #5 to take turns reading a Michael Connelly mystery aloud. Overcome by fatigue and the soothing rush of a nearby waterfall, we fell asleep a few pages in.
We awoke the next morning to raindrops pelting the roof and fog thick enough to obscure the falls outside our window. Nevertheless eager to explore, we took a footbridge across the river and followed a nature trail that grew wilder as the campground fell from view. We hiked a mile or two before turning around to make sandwiches.
By 9 a.m. we were following the St. Regis out of town on a dirt road lined with modest cottages. In front of one, a boulder-size snapping turtle dozed peacefully. Eventually, the houses gave way to sweeping views of the river on one side and lonely bogs on the other. At State Route 458, we turned left and crossed a bridge to check out the Santa Clara Flow. It was raining lightly, so we decided to pass up the half-mile hike up Pinnacle Mountain.
The weather was clearing by the time we turned onto Blue Mountain Road, so we took a detour on a rutted road to Duck Pond. Along the way we picked tart strawberries growing on the forest floor. We later took another detour, a grueling mile-long ascent up Azure Mountain. Near the restored fire tower, we dropped a handful of rocks we had hauled up for use in erosion control. Through pasty clouds, we tried to imagine the spacious views of the forested landscape below. Wandering over the scrubby vegetation, we stopped to scramble over a majestic boulder left by a retreating glacier.
Returning to our bikes, we guzzled the last of our water. Paul Smiths, we figured, was just around the bend. Still upbeat, we stopped at Quebec Brook and hiked along a moss-covered trail that follows the wild stream, but we turned around before reaching the end.
As we pedaled over the dirt road, our mountain-bike tires often skidded in the sand. Exhaustion crept in. At one point, I hopped off my bike to walk, but that only seemed to embolden the mosquitoes. I got back on my bike. The parched feeling in my throat worsened. A memory of my first Adirondack hike with Ethan came flashing back—Giant Mountain on a hot day with one bottle of water. That was almost the end of our relationship, and now, four years later, here we were again.
Suddenly, a ribbon of pavement appeared, as if welcoming us back to civilization. In another mile, on Keese Mills Road, the cocker spaniel, our savior, came rushing at us.
Restored by cold water and homemade cookies, we continued to Black Pond, where we spotted a loon in the middle of the lake. After an invigorating swim, we biked to Paul Smith’s College, a stunning campus on Lower St. Regis Lake—a world away from Columbia University, the busy city campus where Ethan and I work. From a comfortable couch in the student union, we watched the sky blacken and a brief storm roll through.
When the rain cleared, we rode down State Route 86 and turned left on County 31. Just past Jones Pond, we turned left onto County 30. Just before Onchiota, we turned right on the straight-as-an-arrow Oregon Plains Road, and then turned left onto Swinyer Road, which took us back to Route 3, where we had parked our car. We were racing the storm that appeared on the horizon and managed to return to our car just as black thunderclouds reappeared in the sky. As we drove off, a furious downpour began, but we were safe and dry and content. n