Matt McNamara is gone. Disappeared beyond distant corners as infinite line choices appear before me like tributaries of unknown destination. There's rhythm if you're smooth and willing to leave the ground, or you can bash through, heels dropped and elbows out, watering eyes obscuring the chatter. The soul-shaking hits soon have my suspension feeling as if I'm pogo sticking on a 2-by-4, so I'm relieved when McNamara comes back into view, his tire pointed down a different trail.
This callus-factory of a descent is called Poor Man's Downhill—a local shuttle run that sheds 1,200 vertical feet over 3 miles as it drops recklessly off the Whiteface Mountain toll road and careens toward the Adirondack town of Wilmington, New York. I've come here, to a region known as the Eastern High Peaks—two hours south of Montreal; four hours and at least two dimensional planes north of Manhattan—to discover the trails that a tight-knit bunch of builders and riders has brought to life within what is essentially a state-owned national park.
With both public and private land within its border, the Adirondack Park is a preservation experiment unique both in vision and scope. In total, the 6.1 million acres within the park form a territory roughly equal in size to Vermont, while the patchwork of state lands—referred to as “Forest Preserve”—alone constitute an area larger than Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks combined.
Most of the Forest Preserve is classified as either Wilderness or Wild Forest, with mountain biking allowed on designated trails within the latter. Moving dirt in Forest Preserve requires inclusion in the management plans that the Department of Environmental Conservation maintains for each unit of state land, and working with the state's Adirondack Park Agency (APA) on execution. It's a bureaucratic process that would seem to require a great deal of patience and political savviness.
McNamara, who laid out many of the trails in Wilmington, knows it from both sides. He helped found the Barkeater Trail Alliance (BETA), and now works within the APA's State Lands Planning Division. We turn onto Ridge, the outermost trail in the Flume network. It's a mountain biker's logic problem: a mess of hero dirt and villain roots uphill and down that calls for a combination of reflex-resistant index fingers, prophetic line choice and impeccable cornering technique in order to maintain flow. It's the perfect place to take that friend who complains about the "dumbing-down" of trails.
We stop to eyeball an SUV-sized rock drop on Ridge that bypasses a longer section of trail. The landing is flat by any measure—a little too flat for my liking, especially so early in the trip—but McNamara greases it and then bears witness to my ride of shame. Ridge, like much of the Flume network, is mountain biking with the emphasis on 'mountain.' The lower trails are home to mellower grades and surfaces, but the whole network uses what the forest offers with little or no elucidation. In fact, if riding stopped, woods would quickly reclaim singletrack and leave little indication that it was ever there: One might call it ‘leave-no-trace’ trailbuilding.
"There's always some contentiousness about what's appropriate where," McNamara tells me. "Our goal in having features is to have them sit well on the landscape; to be a natural feature. When I lay trails out, I'm always looking at what the terrain has to offer, and how we can take advantage of it in a way that's going to make it really fun, and also really aesthetic."
Wilmington is a town of about 1,200, with a small, spread-out downtown that's mounting a resurgence out of a new coffee shop, pizza place and bike-themed Cadence Lodge. Tucked behind Little Super Market is the town bike park, representative of Wilmington's place at the heart of the regional-riding scene.
The push for legitimate riding in this part of the park was sparked in the early 2000s when the APA began work on the unit management plan for the Wilmington Wild Forest, which includes Flume and Hardy Road, where we're soon to pedal.
When it was approved in 2005, that management plan became the first of its kind to include a purpose-built mountain bike network. BETA was started soon after, in part to organize locals as a formal volunteer group that could receive sanctioning from the Department of Environmental Conservation to build and maintain trail. "It was all very new, so there was a lot of trust building with the foresters," says BETA executive director Josh Wilson. "We basically demonstrated that people would show up to build and maintain trails. They pretty quickly realized that we were serious and doing high-quality work."
That work continues at Hardy Road, where McNamara and Keith McKeever, who does public relations for the APA, tow me up All In. Hardy is the most popular network in the region, and it's not hard to see why. Builders have placed berms and landings where they're needed most, striking a delicate balance that pleases old-school purists and flow-trail hedonists alike. "It just takes a long time to get through all the layers, and finally get to Albany to people who are looking at the broader policy. It was only recently that they said features designed for riders are fine," says McNamara, as we wind uphill on a mellow-climbing grade.
We top out on a slabby ridgeline, peekabooing with dramatic views of Whiteface Mountain while weaving through generously arced corners among low, scrubby brush and scattered hardwoods.
McKeever sports a curly half-fro and a Smokey-the-Bear-Resist shirt. "Open space is better than money," he says, explaining his decision to move into the park in the early 2000s. He points out how the summit gathering area has been painstakingly delineated with dead tree limbs to contain the impact of tired riders. "This is a really unique habitat, and if we didn't concentrate on that, this whole area would look like trail," he says. "I don't want to recreate something into degradation."
McKeever's sentiment seems to be commonly held among locals: Development—even of singletrack—must be tempered to preserve the park's rugged character.
That evening, I meet McNamara and Wilson for a tour on the other side of Hardy. We climb Good Luck, a brief ascent that's steep enough to have me pushing for a non-existent cog. Outcroppings at the top demand flawless pedal timing and balance to clean. Local knowledge helps as well, but even observing Wilson's line up the final pitch isn't enough to get me through without a dab, and there's no starting up again midway. We stop with a view toward the peak we'd ridden that morning, where a recent acquisition by a land trust holds the potential for fresh trails and a singletrack connection from Wilmington to the town of Jay, which currently has no riding.
But for now, there's plenty to enjoy at Hardy. We skirt tight corners along the ridgeline before dropping down the other side of Good Luck, which deals out its share of rocks, roots and even a roller or two.
Having missed out on the post-ride trailhead scene, we head straight to the BWI (Big Wink Inn or Biking While Intoxicated, depending who you ask)—a post-ride refuge where we're greeted by a cheery group of locals, a stocked beer fridge and a mix of retro mountain bike, ski and Olympic decor. I sit down with Wilson, who delves into the state of BETA's building efforts and its relationships with other trail organizations. "Once we started BETA and there was some initial momentum from Wilmington building singletrack, that's when the ball started rolling."
It's pouring in Lake Placid as we convene with a handful of locals for the Wednesday Night Booze Cruise, which is about to be a little wetter than usual. Wilson coaxes us out from the shelter of a tree and onto the Lussi trails, which spill out from the borders of the Lake Placid Club golf course.
Soon we're drenched in warm rain and diving eagerly into coniferous darkness. BETA Pro Trail Crew staffer Devon Rosh yells something about this being authentic Adirondack riding, but I'm too focused on staying upright to catch it all. The dirt holds firm even as standing water gathers on much of the trail, the echo of rubber slapping puddles providing rhythm for our singletrack dance. We occasionally emerge onto double track or edge closer to the golf course, where light filters through and illuminates the terrain.
Occasional skinnies and wood berms—both obstacles of coronary significance in the wet—punctuate the deluge. It's punchy, twisty old-school riding with frequent enough grade reversals that I wonder if I should simply leave my seat up or down. I can't decide which. The rain is making it even more riotous.
"We usually would have stopped three or four times by now," says Wilson, his shoes squelching as we open our first beers in a meadow at the edge of the foggy, vacant golf course. I'm glad tonight isn't "usually," imagining myself four beers deep and falling off skinnies. These, of course, are the sort of man-made features that are forbidden within the Forest Preserve.
Lussi and Loggers’ trails are a spaghetti bowl of a network that began when locals set a singletrack route for an off-road triathlon in Lake Placid. Shortly after, and just as BETA started building in Wilmington, a presentation on the economic impacts of mountain biking by then-Kingdom Trails executive director, Tim Tierney, helped move the private landowner to give BETA permission to build singletrack in his woods. They raked, they rode, and the trails sprouted rapidly.
We return to Lake Placid a few days later, in time for drier conditions. Bill Frazier, a founding member of BETA, gives us a tour of Craig Wood’s trails alongside fellow Placid Planet Bicycles employee Shane Kramer, who just finished climbing 100,000 feet in a month and is still ready to eat our legs for brunch.
Though connected to the Lussi trails by doubletrack, the town-owned, machine-built runs of the Craig Wood network would seem a world away. We stop to watch local meat-hucker Alex Goff plummet off the 50/50, an optional rock-drop line on the Back Nine trail. He freight-trains past the landing on his first attempt, but emerges from the foliage grinning and hikes back up.
Goff is part of a younger generation pushing for more progressive trail design in the style of 19th Hole, which is a departure from the ruggedness of Flume, Lussi or even Hardy. Each corner holds a deftly shaped berm that begs to be railed at full tilt, and flow comes effortlessly as the trail splits balsam, beech and sugar maple that swirl past like emerald castles, still glowing kinetically from rain. We howl through the forest as our speed is rewarded with natural root kickers.
Later that afternoon, a blur of spinning pedals beelines toward us up the grass ski slope of Saranac Lake's Mount Pisgah. Adrian Hayden is fresh off a win in the Amateur U17 class in an Enduro East EWS qualifier, and rides with the sort of energy that only a U17 would in near-100-degree weather.
We follow him into the woods and watch as he sessions a sketchy log drop that repurposes the entry of a berm for a landing. He tracks through corners with idyllic form all the way down The Cure, a flow trail peppered with mellow jumps and a mix of drifty and cupped turns, named in recognition of Saranac Lake's past as a sanitarium town.
Nowadays, it's an authentic-feeling mix of hotels, restaurants, coffee shops and retail bisected by the Saranac River, which widens picturesquely into Lake Flower on the southern edge of the city. Its predominantly year-round population often endures the coldest winter temperatures in the continental United States, a grievance that I wouldn't mind suffering as we drop downhill on Zonkers and IPW—both natural, poppy trails that empty into a parking lot.
BETA received the green light to begin building at Pisgah in 2012 after the mountain won a grant which stipulated that it build a trail wide enough for competition skate skiing. The skate-skiing "trail"—which would have been more like a road—never materialized, but local riders got permission to cut singletrack within the proposed trail's corridors. There's now about 5 miles of mostly machine-built, yet very natural-feeling singletrack.
An expanding 6 miles of tech is on tap across town at Dewey Mountain, also built on a town-owned ski hill. But the motherlode of potential trail development lies within the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest, a conglomerate of smaller parcels of land that connect Saranac Lake to Lake Placid.
To break ground within the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest would be a milestone for BETA, which submitted trail proposals in 2010. A first draft of the plan wasn't released until 2017, but the provision for 35 miles of bike-legal trails might make the wait worthwhile. "It's in the final phase before they vote to approve it," says Wilson, optimistically.
"What's a Goshawk?"
Jen Kazmierczak rolls to a stop as we reach the rest of the group. "They're super territorial–they dive bomb," she tells me. "Bob's got a friend that got seven stitches from one," adds Jeff Allot. "It's usually right up here."
I'm anticipating the searing grip of talons while dropping into a pine-covered slope on steep, sand-softened singletrack. It's a strong turnout for the weekly Thursday night outing at Elizabethtown's Blueberry Hill trails, with a group of about 20 now jammed up on a couple tight switchbacks carved into the hillside. Everyone spaces out once through the turns and we begin to push up the ridge we just dropped.
The trails are ligaments on a skeleton of doubletrack scratched into a hill with roughly 1,200 feet of elevation. Development started a few decades ago when a municipal employee struck a bargain with the town. "He went to the town board and basically said 'If you buy me a bulldozer for $35,000, I'll pay for it in one summer by logging and leave you a network of trails,'" says Allot, who wears a cut-off tee and rides a titanium hardtail made by his brand, Solace Cycles.
"So that was the doubletrack. All the singletrack was done by a small group illegally, in the beginning." No berms, jumps or landings provide fig leaves to the organic terrain at Blueberry. After winding around the hill on a circuitous route, we grunt to the top of a steep climb and are received by a sweeping view of the valley below, the village of Elizabethtown occupying the foreground and Otis mountain—a small ski area which Allot owns—in the distance. Connecting the two zones is one of the local group's most pressing ambitions.
Joel's trail, a new, legally built out-and-back stretches to the summit where a clear day will afford a southwest view to 4,626-foot Giant Mountain. The return trip yields high speeds through poppy rollers and techy, root-riddled corners. Allott's aspirations for Blueberry include a bike ranch that will provide rustic lodging and a jumping-off point for exploring the region's trail network.
We're chased off the ridge by darkness and the call of unopened beers, pitching downhill into loamy, dimly lit steeps and then winding along below cliffs we previously stood atop on the aptly named Cliffside trail.
"We pride ourselves on Elizabethtown being rustic," Kazmierczak later tells me next to a sizzling trailhead barbeque. "'Unapologetically rustic' is how we describe our trails."
On one of our final days on the ground, we meet a group of 25-plus riders who've gathered from all over the region for Sunday's "Dirt Church" ride at Otis. The cohesion and commitment of the community in the Eastern High Peaks is evinced by the many riders who—despite heat and humidity—have made it to all of the week's outings. A pack of dogs accompanies us, seemingly as unperturbed by the swimming humidity as their owners.
Allott, who owns and operates Otis as a ski hill and festival site, tells me that the singletrack network started as skin tracks cut for a backcountry ski festival. "It wasn't too long before we were riding on those, and about five years ago there was a real switch—they weren't ski trails anymore."
Flowbee, one of the main descents, is a raked-in run with outrageous organic fluidity, a couple steeps and a handful of native features that have been exaggerated into drops. It concludes with options like a long, launchy-lipped gap, a boner log and a sizable drop.
The ascent is unrelentingly technical, at one point scaling a steppy ridgeline slab that puts one rider on his back and forces dabs from almost everyone else. A cheering section gathers beside the crux, giving encouragement and erupting in glee for each rider who cleans the move. It's a sign of the times here in the Eastern High Peaks: no one goes it alone.
Back within the Wilmington Wild Forest, the ring of McLeods striking rock and slicing into woody loam carries uphill as a group of 30-odd volunteers carves a rapidly lengthening ribbon of singletrack. When complete, the yet-unnamed trail will connect from the upper section of Poor Man's Downhill to the Flume network, providing a smoother alternative to the PMD.
Volunteer enthusiasm is clearly BETA's greatest asset. "The pride and joy of this community is amazing," says BETA board member Sophie McLelland. "Everybody who's a member is so proud of being a member. It's not about the money." The same can be said for BETA's three-man Pro Trail Crew, which is racking up volunteer hours on what would be a day off. "We're hoping to have a calendar shoot or something at the end of the year. You know, big calendar fundraiser—'The Boys of BETA'," half-jokes Dusty Grant, a mutton-chopped, self-employed carpenter who's taken the summer off to spend it full time with the Trail Crew. "This year was just one of those personal life challenges. When I turned 45 this spring, I said, 'You can either grow old or toughen up.'"
Josh Wilson presides over the effort with a light touch, quietly fixated on shaping the soil under his boots. Seeing the ardor of the volunteers, it strikes me that if we were anywhere but the Adirondacks, this new trail would be peppered with berms and jumps—the calling card of humans eager to interpret what the terrain should provide.
Instead, its character matches the forest around it. Loamy and fresh cut for now, sure, but soon root and stone will surface, distinguishing this from every other manicured singletrack in every other destination. Though they're at least as committed to trailbuilding as any other community, locals in the Eastern High Peaks take their responsibility to maintain the rugged character that defines their home seriously. Here, preservation policy is tactile. "The fact is that it really does protect and preserve these wild places," says Wilson. "It makes the Adirondacks a totally unique region. There's nothing else like it."