A long-awaited ride in northern New York and Vermont states left this rider realizing he was in a motorcyclist’s paradise
Story and Photos by Jeff Davison
Despite living 10 minutes from the U.S. border, I had never explored northern New York State, and only very little of Vermont. It was high time. Leaving Niagara, Ont., I was surprised at the beauty I had been missing. Pretty little towns adorned Highway 104, which I followed all the way across the southern shore of Lake Ontario, watching as it became neat farmland and new vineyards. East of Watertown, New York, was all beaver ponds and meadows (the remnants of beaver ponds), and beyond Harrisville, the increasing undulations and twisting roads began.
By Lake Placid, I was full out in the Adirondack Mountains. The town itself was unassuming, but the formidable ski jumps and the Olympic Training Center were reminders of 1980, when the world came to Lake Placid. Bicyclists tested their mettle on the steep roadways, as did a group of young men in an Ironman competition. The winding road clung to the slopes beside Upper Cascade Lake. The lake itself was once rumoured to be bottomless – a belief probably fostered by local guides trying to drum up business. In fact, the lake is surprisingly shallow.
A Different Kind of Riding
From here I followed Hwy 9N to the western shore of Lake Champlain, where I took the ferry from Essex across to Charlotte, Vermont. On board, a retired couple noticed me struggling to take a selfie and asked if I’d like help. They wore bicycling gear and had expensive mounts. They were returning from a day of riding in New York.
“We love it on that side of the lake,” the woman said. “The roads are so quiet and the scenery is beautiful. Perfect, really.”
“How far did you ride today?” I asked.
“Today, just fifty miles,” she replied. “Usually it’s seventy, but my husband’s rear wheel is acting up.” I learned that she had been an athletic coach at the University of Vermont in Burlington and now leads luxury bicycle tours in places like Arizona and Oregon, and even a wine tour in my own Niagara Region.
Having chatted the entire 30-minute trip, we bade one another farewell. Dusk was falling, and when I couldn’t quickly find a place to wild camp, I rode to Smugglers’ Notch State Park, my planned starting point for tomorrow’s ride. The campground was full, according to the park ranger, but I could try Little River State Park not far away. So I rode there, hopeful. At the gate, I was met with a “No vacancy” sign, but in the failing light I was not above begging for a tiny square just about anywhere. To my delight, a family had just left their site a day early and their spot was now available.
I learned this was not the only site that had been abandoned. Indeed, an entire farming community remained abandoned within the park, complete with stonewalls, cellar holes, a cemetery and the remains of a sawmill. Established in 1816, the community thrived as the railroad came through. But a disastrous flood in 1934 forced residents onto their roofs, and 50 people drowned. This spurred the construction of Waterbury Dam – an appropriate name, I thought, as some of the now deserted community was submerged. There were also lots of artifacts to be found among the leaves, such as glass bottles and farming tools. And there is a tradition among hikers of arraying the items along the tops of cellar holes or propping them up against trees near the trail for the benefit of others to come.
As I settled in for the night, I discovered that somehow I’d left behind several bungees for my lean-to setup, and I discovered (too late) as well that the batteries were dead in my headlamp. I prayed for a dry night and no need for light – I could buy these items tomorrow. There were signs throughout the park warning of an active bear in the campground, and once or twice in the night I was certain I heard it. I was grateful to realize it was a snoring neighbour, and grateful, too, that his growling might scare off the bear. Fortunately, I had not forgotten my earplugs.
Some Local Advice
As a rider of a Suzuki V-Strom DL650, I’m a member of an online forum called Stromtroopers (I’m just nerdy enough to love the name), and I had discovered a thread by some riders native to Vermont. They were planning a ride that would not only cover much of the state, but would include some gravel roads, mostly in good condition. Even though I could not join them, they were gracious enough to share their GPS files with me. So, in the morning, I set out at the start of the route in the ski town of Stowe. Elmore Mountain Road began as hardpack gravel, but soon became loose with some erosion. It was the perfect level for me – just challenging enough to practise my fledgling off-road skills; just easy enough to build my confidence. Elmore led to Stagecoach Road, which led to Waltons Road, each as rustic and nostalgic as they sound.
The route became a tar-and-chip surface from Montgomery to East Franklin (a mere kilometre from the Quebec border) to Alburgh, where it followed scenic Hwy 2 the…