Will a burgeoning hiker shuttle industry grow into regular service?
When outdoor adventure-seekers prepare for multi-day outings, measuring out food, sorting gear and packing bags, they also have to weigh their transportation options.
Unless they plan to travel round-trip and end up back where they started, travelers need to determine how they’ll get back to Point A once they’ve reached Point B. Luckily, visitors to the Adirondacks have a variety of choices for moving themselves, their vehicles or their gear.
Backpackers on the Northville-Lake Placid Trail are the main customers for Bob Jenny in Piseco. Jenny’s home abuts the long-distance hiking trail, which runs about 140 miles from Northville to Lake Placid. Jenny, who also runs Bob and Matt Campwood, started out offering passing hikers water or the chance to make a phone call. About three years ago, he began giving backpackers rides, charging about a dollar a mile.
“I love doing it,” said Jenny, who is retired. When there’s room, his wife will often accompany him on shuttle trips. “We love hearing the stories about all the hikers. The stories are wonderful.” Last year, Jenny gave 38 rides to hikers, starting in early May and working through the fall. His most frequent customers are section hikers focused on the southern end of the trail. He’ll often pick up hikers in Northville and drive them to Piseco, about 40 miles away; the backpackers then hike
back to their car over several days. Others choose to leave their car in Piseco and have
Jenny drive them to the start of the trail in Northville. He has also helped backpackers on the Northville-to-Durant section, but often recommends other drivers for those seeking
rides at the northern end of the trail.
This year, Jenny said, COVID-19 has caused business to fall off dramatically. As of mid-July,
he had gotten a lot fewer calls than usual and had only provided five shuttles. His method of transportation has changed, too. Instead of giving hikers a ride inside his vehicle, he asks them to ride in the back of his pickup. “Half the people say they don’t want to ride in the back of the pickup,” Jenny said. “The other half love it.”
Steve Stofelano, Jr., has also seen demand fall dramatically—in July he actually hadn’t provided any shuttle trips this year. The Wells resident said he is prepared to deal with requests on a case-by-case basis, quizzing riders on their recent activities and asking them to wear masks and sit in the back seat. Stofelano said in a normal year providing occasional shuttles for hikers lets him give people recommendations for their trips. “It’s just a way to get out, meet some people, and swap stories and introduce people to the area safely,” he said. “It’s been fun.”
Stofelano, a high school teacher with summers off, has been doing shuttles—about seven or eight a year—for more than a decade, and once hiked the Northville-Placid Trail himself. He typically provides a south-tonorth shuttle. Like Jenny, his season runs from May through October, and he charges between $1 and $2 a mile.
“Last year was funny,” he said. “It was heavy late in August—not heavy heavy, but busier than the first couple of years—and in September and even into October. People are trying to avoid the mud season and the humidity and the blackflies, so they’re constantly watching the trail conditions.”
Guides and individuals are not the only options for those seeking transportation. Outfitters like St. Regis Canoe Outfitters and Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters, both in Saranac Lake, and Mac’s Canoe Livery and Outfitter in Lake Clear will shuttle hikers as well as paddlers. David Cilley, owner of St. Regis Canoe Outfitters, has been providing transportation for more than 30 years.
“We service over 100 launches,” he said. “We’ve done shuttles all the way from Old Forge to the middle of Lake Champlain.” Sometimes the outfitters are just moving gear and sometimes they’re moving people or cars. Cilley said most of his customers are paddlers, but he’s happy to help hikers as well. Working with people who are combining paddling and hiking is not unusual. One customer scheduled for this summer was planning to paddle in the Axton area on the Raquette River, then hike to the Adirondak Loj near Lake Placid. The outfitters would move his car from his starting point to the Loj so it would be waiting when he finished.
Unlike the individual shuttle drivers, Cilley said St. Regis has set base rates for different shuttle routes, with additional charges for added passengers and other services. The outfitter has continued providing transportation services through the pandemic and said they are as busy as ever, if not busier. Employees are taking precautions to protect themselves and customers, including requiring customers to clean their hands before entering a vehicle and to wear a mask in the car. Car windows are also kept down when weather allows and the outfitter avoids having customers in the front seat. In addition, all equipment, including vehicles, paddles, PFDs, maps, ropes and boats, are cleaned whenever a customer comes in contact with it.
Shuttle drivers sometimes do more than just provide a ride. They may also offer recommendations on where to stay before or after their trip, updates on trail conditions, or try to guide customers on what they’ll need while they’re on the trail. St. Regis Canoe Outfitters will also pick up garbage, store gear overnight, or drop off food and other supplies, such as stove fuel. Jenny says he has only hiked a few miles of the Northville-Lake Placid Trail, but he is happy to give backpackers what advice he can, updating them on trail conditions, sites for resupply and other issues. Stofelano said he lost one Northville-Lake Placid Trail customer who didn’t care for his advice on the crossing of West Stoney Creek near Benson.
“I was trying to give them some advice on how high the water was and what they needed to be prepared for,” he said. He suggested that the backpacker might want to start their trip on the other side of the creek. “Because if you take the person to the trailhead, and they walk in for miles and they determine they can’t get across, I’ve taken their vehicle to the other end (of the trail) and they’re going to come back and there’s nothing they can do. They didn’t want to hear it and I never got the shuttle.”
Jack Drury, co-owner of Broadwing Adventures, a guide service based in Saranac Lake, has also had shuttle customers turn down advice.
“You can find some very humorous posts online of people that decided not to listen to what I had to say,” he said. But he has found shuttling hikers on the Northville-Lake Placid Trail rewarding. “For me, it’s really enjoyable because I get to share my knowledge of the outdoors and my knowledge of the Northville-Placid Trail.” Drury estimates that about 10% of the people he shuttles end up not finishing the trail. “Those are always interesting tales,” he said. “Sometimes it’s due to poor planning on their part and other times it’s hard for them to anticipate everything.”
Drury said the demand for shuttle services has been surprising to him and his business partner, Doug Fitzgerald. Over the last few years, they’ve done about 25 shuttle trips a year, either meeting Northville-Lake Placid Trail backpackers in Lake Placid and taking them down to Northville or points in between. “Occasionally we’ll go down into Northville and bring them up,” Drury added. He said he gets phone calls from potential hikers asking about mass transit and other transportation options. “They call us sometimes expecting an Uber-type experience at the last minute. So it’s been very interesting.”
In addition to his role with Broadwing Adventures, Drury is also co-founder of Adirondack Hamlets to Huts, a nonprofit dedicated to establishing hut-to-hut routes in the Adirondacks that allow travelers to take multi-day trips, moving from one lodging affiliate to another on foot, by bike or by boat. Joe Dadey, executive director for the organization, said that prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, they were hoping to launch a few routes this summer in the southwest corner
of the Adirondack Park.
These would have been predominantly paddle trips in the area of Blue Mountain Lake, but some could have incorporated hiking or biking sections, or offered travelers the option of taking a shuttle for a leg of the journey. Those plans were put on hold for now, but Dadey said he hopes Hamlets to Huts can begin offering a limited number of trips when the North Country is able to reopen. Also on the docket for sometime in the future is a Blue Mountain Lake-to-Raquette traverse, Dadey said. “Because it’s a traverse, people will either need to get a shuttle back to Blue Mountain Lake or their car will be shuttled to Raquette Lake so that at the end of their trip it’s waiting for them.”
Dadey said he hopes to see Hamlets to Huts grow in future years, driving the need for a cadre of drivers to offer transportation. Services could include everything from moving baggage from one night’s lodging to the next, allowing travelers to carry just day packs, to transporting bikes to the start of a cycling leg. “We’re going to rely on some combination of outfitters, lodging operators and then part-time people to help us move maybe people, maybe cars, gear like bikes and boats, and then personal gear and extra clothing and equipment,” he said. “We would love to provide some additional opportunities for income for folks.”
Dadey envisions a day when the Adirondacks will have enough demand for shuttles that the area can offer transportation on a set schedule, similar to what is offered in some national parks. “Ideally we can contribute to the generation of a critical mass of people needing shuttle services, where there can be some regular schedule of vehicles or even buses that you can throw on some bikes, maybe you can throw on some boats.”
For now, a regular shuttle is still just a dream. But hikers and paddlers and other Adirondack adventurers still have plenty of options for getting where they need to go.
— Gillian Scott, for the Explorer