Exploring woods on 2 wheels
By Kathy Ceceri
People in Speculator refer to the outer loop of their new mountain bike system as “the family trail.” Everyone I talked to assured me the roads were wide, the dirt hard-packed and the downhills not too steep. Which was good, because this was going to be the first time my crew of road cyclists had ever taken their mountain bikes off pavement.
To up the ante even more, I’d convinced my motel-loving husband to haul out the tents so we could spend the night before our ride camping at the Moffitt Beach State Campground on nearby Sacandaga Lake. What we found was that the area was beautiful, the camping fun, and the biking … well, let’s just say the family that rides these trails had better have a lot of stamina.
The village of Speculator—with 348 full-time residents, the population center of Hamilton County—and the town of Lake Pleasant opened the trails in June 2002. The Adirondack Mountain Biking Initiative helped with the design of sign-in kiosks at trailheads and colored markers on single-track routes. Both the 13.7-mile Outer Loop and the more challenging 7.2-mile Inner Loop follow private roads on land owned by International Paper. (There is no logging truck traffic on weekends.) Last year, the system was expanded with the addition of single-track trails at the Oak Mountain Ski Center and on IP’s Perkins Clearing property, and more trails are planned for the future.
Our mission: To see whether the Outer Loop was easy and enjoyable enough for casual mountain bikers and kids. I wouldn’t say I was nervous, but we did get off to a rough start when, the day before the ride, I tried to take our van through the drive-up bank window, knocking my never-been-ridden Miyata right off the roof rack and out of commission, at least for this trip. The next morning we met Rick Swift of Village Rentals. Swift has added 30 mountain bikes to his stock of snowmobiles, tools and party supplies since last year. John, 8, and I each picked up a rental with front suspension; Dad and Anthony, 11, rode their own bikes.
Photographer Gerry Lemmo and his wife Lynne caught up with us at the Four Corners in downtown Speculator, and we all headed down Elm Lake Road toward the trails. First stop was a consultation with Dave McComb, whose house and maple sugar business lie a few steps from one of the kiosks. McComb, who helped place the many signs along the route, showed us on the kiosk’s topo map where to expect hills and wished us luck. Then it was into the woods to take some pictures.
Nobody warned Gerry and Lynne that we didn’t know what we were doing. As Lynne urged us to pedal together toward Gerry at the top of the hill, we struggled to downshift our unfamiliar bikes to make climbing easier. My older son was soon asking if we HAD to do the ride, never a good sign. Finally we identified the problem: John’s front derailleur was sticking, making it hard to shift. Dad whipped out his bike tools and set about adjusting his bike to fit John so they could switch mounts.
Then we set out in earnest. In no time the kids were practically out of sight. They had gotten the hang of powering up the hills and tearing down the other side with enough momentum to push up the next slope. Normally slow-but-steady John didn’t even seem to mind when a bump sent him mo-mentarily airborne. The Outer Loop headed northeast through a densely wooded tree farm, past small clearings and a cabin or two. I don’t know whether it was the heavy foliage or the fact that my eyes were glued to the road, but I never caught sight of Elm Lake, which is located about four miles from the start.
As for wildlife, we heard a lot of birds and saw a pair of ruffed grouse scoot across the road. Swarms of black-and-white butterflies darted around us, and a dragonfly tried to drag-race one of the boys before veering off into the brush. We also got an answer to the famous rhetorical question about bears in the woods: Apparently, they prefer the middle of the road.
Every so often we passed signs giving the mileage back to the ballfield in Speculator, but it wasn’t quite clear where we were on the trail map until we hit Outhouse Corners. Across from the latrine, a picnic table provided the only rest stop on the route. Gathering around the table in the tall grass, we doused ourselves with bug spray and ate our sandwiches. I lamented having forgotten my sunglasses and bandanna and, most important, the tissues and waterless hand cleaner for the outhouse. What’s more, the saddle on the rental bike was starting to do a number on my sit bones. I groaned as I swung my leg over the seat, though my husband helped me forget about the pain when he slipped yellow, orange and magenta wildflowers into a pocket of my backpack.
From here, the trail leveled out and turned west, heading for what the map called the “Iron Bridge.” A sign showing a bear and her cubs alarmed John, until I reassured him that no beasts could fail to hear us coming, what with his little brother out front, delivering a non-stop running commentary. The “Iron Bridge,” actually a trestle of wooden planks over the Kunjamuk River, took us onto Fly Creek Road, where we turned south and began a long, slow climb and descent that ended on Old Route 30.
The paved road proved nearly as bumpy as the dirt trail, though mercifully flatter. Beside us was the Sacandaga River, and on the other side, unseen but heard, the highway. After a mile we came to where the Inner Loop rejoined the Outer Loop. We considered taking the cut-off back to town to avoid riding on Route 30. But the trail was pretty steep, and even though it promised a chance to see little Kunjamuk Cave, we decided to save it for another trip. So, crossing an even more impressive steel bridge, we headed for the highway.
I’d hoped that here, where the grade leveled out and the shoulder was smooth, we’d make really good time. But I hadn’t figured on the headwind. It felt as though we were pedaling through molasses. (Cars whiz by at 55 mph, so parents will want to make sure to keep kids well over on the shoulder of the highway.) After another mile we stopped at a scenic pulloff beside the Sacandaga River to catch our breath. To the motorists, we must have looked like hot, sweaty, dust-covered Lycra-clad refugees fleeing over the hills by bike. But, a mile later, pulling into Four Corners three hours after we’d started, we were smiling. We’d survived our first ride in the woods. We were back in civilization. And the ice cream place was open.