MANNSVILLE — The annual IditaFAT, one of the biggest winter fat bike events in the USA, is s…
The thermometer on my car registered 18 degrees Fahrenheit as I drove into LaFargeville on a sunny mid-December day with the goal of hopping on the Sissy Danforth Rivergate Trail. It was by far the lowest temperature I’ve experienced riding a bike. But with five strategically selected layers on top, insulated socks and boots, mittens with pockets for hand warmers and a new bike that would make any cyclist gleeful, I was more than ready to get rolling.
That 18 would be the day’s high temperature. It was sunny and crisp as I dragged out my new seasonal steed, a “fat bike,” from my vehicle. I had ordered it in April during the national bike shortage as people stuck at home discovered, or re-discovered, the joys of riding. My Motobecane “fatty” arrived at my doorstep right on time for the cooler weather and ready to be assembled in mid-October.
Fat bikes are characterized by broad tires with a minimum width of 3.7 inches, but they can go up to 5 inches wide. The tires on my bike, with rims allowing a tubeless option, measure 4.7 inches in width. The bikes also have wide forks along with special hubs and frames to accommodate the tires. Many of them have only one derailleur, in back, but with an extremely wide gear range.
In the north country, the bikes are perfectly suited for winter. When the air pressure of the wide tires are lowered, they gain traction, and the ride is one of a floating sensation. The website bikesmarts.com described riding a fat bike this way: “It’s like having the traction of a tank combined with the comfort of a memory foam pillow.”
In 2015, endurance athlete and fat bike racer Patrick C. McFalls of Pennellville, Oswego County, told me for a NNY Living magazine story: “You feel like a little kid. It’s like riding a bicycle for the very first time every time. It’s incredible.”
Fat bikes were invented in Alaska about 20 years ago to cruise over snow-packed trails. But they also cruise easily over sand.
The nearby Winona Forest is one of the most popular areas for fat biking in the United States. The miles of groomed trails, with packed snow, make for excellent riding.
But on this day in LaFargeville, there was no snow. The ground was concrete-hard, but I was eager to give the bike a spin on the Rivergate Trail.
The Sissy Danforth Rivergate Trail is the result of a rails-to-trail project undertaken by the Thousand Islands Land Trust. It is a 27-mile multi-use trail with several access points. Two miles of this trail, which only allows non-motorized access, runs through TILT’s S. Gerald Ingerson Preserve, south of the village of Clayton and a mosaic of wildlife habitats.
The access point for the trail in LaFargeville is off Theresa Street. I parked at LaFargeville Agway, allowing for easy access to the trail directly across the road. It’s a short ride before the trail intersects with Middle Road and then Route 180, but the trail picks up again nearly directly opposite the Route 180 intersection. The sign indicating the trail is small, and at first it may seem like you’ll be entering someone’s back yard, but ride — or walk, snowshoe, ski or whatever — on.
The sound of my wheels rolling over frozen, snow-frosted leaves resembled the crunch of constantly stepping on corn flakes. The trail goes through woodlands, farmland and past ponds, all most appreciated on this day by stopping and soaking in the quietness and remoteness — until the cold effectively argued against such lollygagging.
Things were going smoothly until about the 5 mile mark out of LaFargeville. I came upon a train trestle over a ravine, with tracks still in place. I could easily roll across it, I thought, but a closer inspection of the situation urged caution. A fence barrier in front of me was apparently tampered with, allowing access onto the trestle. A closer look to the other side of the span showed a solid gate, blocking entry from that direction. I turned around and made a note to call TILT for an update on the trail.
Employees at the land trust said I made the right decision. There was a barrier to block access to the trestle, but it was taken down by vandals.
The Rivergate Trail project is a collaboration of many partners. Most of the maintenance on the trail is performed by TILT’s stewardship staff, with assistance from local ATV clubs.
In 1993, TILT began acquiring pieces of the old New York Central/Penn Central Railroad bed in Clayton, Orleans, Theresa, Redwood and Philadelphia. The rails-to-trails project, now 25 miles long, is named for former director, Louise “Sissy” Danforth, who was the inspired energy behind its development. It’s a multi-use trail in several sections that can be accessed from several points.
The trestle I came to, which spans McCarn Creek, is a target of a major fundraising effort by TILT for a project that will revitalize the Rivergate Trail.
In partnership with the village and town of Clayton and the Northern New York Community Foundation, the land trust is working to complete the connection of the Sissy Danforth Rivergate Trail to the Riverwalk in downtown Clayton.
The project’s goal is $610,000.
“We’re very optimistic about the fundraising efforts,” TILT executive director Jake Tibbles said in a phone interview. “We’ve got a lot of community members who are rallying behind the project. We feel, especially in the time of COVID, outdoor recreational opportunities are a sought-after commodity, especially for local folks. We’re seeing a lot of new interest in the land trust and this project because of it. More people are seeking our trails to hike and bike with family members and kids.”
As of Wednesday, $380,000 has been raised for the Sissy Danforth Rivergate Trail Community Connection Project.
“We have a generous commitment from the Northern New York Community Foundation to match, one for one, up to $100,000,” Mr. Tibbles said. “They’ve put forward a $100,000 matching grant which is in addition to the $380,000 we’ve already raised.”
Sissy Danforth, a former TILT director, died in 2006 at the age of 66.
“She was the brainchild of the trail,” Mr. Tibbles said. “It was something she was very passionate about and preserving that historic railroad bed, which was owned by the New York Central Railroad. Back in the day, that was the main access for a lot of people coming to the river, Clayton and the Thousand Islands.”
Mr. Tibbles said that TILT has worked on a lot of conservation initiatives that give back to the public.
“But this Rivergate Trail Community Connection project is one we’re taking a lot of pride in and to see it come back to life. It’s taking a historic asset, ramping it up and giving it back to the community.”
The railroad trestle over McCarn Creek is a key part of the project. To kick that aspect off, the land trust secured a New York State Parks grant for design and engineering of the span.
“We partnered with Aubertine and Currier and we took them out there, where they did a full-on structural assessment of the trestle,” Mr. Tibbles said. “We knew that was critical to get that structural assessment completed. It passed with flying colors.”
The structural beams and girders of the span are in good shape, Mr. Tibbles said. The columns appear to be limestone and the abutments are concrete walls.
TILT is working with architects at Aubertine and Currier for two designs of the trestle.
“Once those are complete, they will be put out to build locally,” Mr. Tibbles said.
From the trestle, it will be about 2 miles to the village of Clayton on the trail, which will have a new route.
“Essentially, you’ll come at the Harbor Hotel that will take you to the Clayton waterfront,” Mr. Tibbles said.
The initial phase of the new connection project was acquiring about half a dozen small parcels that connect the trestle to the village.
“We had to circumvent a section of railroad that was privately owned,” Mr. Tibbles said. “We just weren’t able to access that. We ended up working with the Antique Boat Museum, the Cantwell family, Green Futures and the village of Clayton and we were able to connect the trestle right to the Harbor Hotel in a continuous section that will be multi-use/pedestrian trails.”
Taken together, the Sissy Danforth Rivergate Trail is not continuous. Various ownership of the railroad bed sections would make a continuous stretch of the trail difficult to achieve.
“That was the dream of Sissy Danforth, and the prior board when she was running the organization,” Mr. Tibbles said.
From LaFargeville Agway, if one wanted to go in the other direction on the trail — east toward Philadelphia, where it begins/ends — a road trip would be in order. There are access points along the way along roads such as State Route 37. The website NNY Trails has a good description of access points.
Mr. Tibbles said property is privately owned between the old Hicks Ice plant off Route 37 (located near the intersection of Route 136) to LaFargeville Agway.
“There is no public access between those two points,” he said. “But once you get on the other side of 37, you can pick up the Rivergate Trail, which is now owned and managed by the Indian River ATV Club.”
Mr. Tibbles said that about three years ago, TILT went through the process of transferring those 18 miles of railroad over to the ATV club.
“It fits their mission,” he said. “We were very pleased to work with them on that. They hold all the maintenance and management of the trail. They’re an awesome outfit that take a lot of pride in maintain the trails for public use.”
The land trust, Mr. Tibbles said, also has a strong team in its trail stewardship program, with about 150 volunteers.
“We’ve built this great cadre of folks who believe in what we do and appreciate the outdoor recreation opportunities that the organization has been able to give back to the community,” he said.
Near the trestle that I came to, there is access to the relatively new S. Gerald Ingerson Preserve, along McCarn Creek. This 140 acre preserve, lying south of the village, is a mosaic of wildlife habitats: successional shrub lands, oak and pine along with maple forests.
A trail spur gains access to the area.
“That takes you up into those beautiful hardwoods and there’s a whole series of trails up there that the Ingerson family built back in the day,” Mr. Tibbles said.
Preserving the land also protects McCarn Creek, a tributary to French Creek, a key spawning habitat for fish species and which also servces as a filter to clean water flowing into the St. Lawrence.
The Ingerson family was inspired to conserve the land by their father, S. Gerald, who introduced them to the outdoors.
I put off checking out the Ingerson preserve until another, maybe warmer day. It could be a busy summer for the trail stretch that I was on. Mr. Tibbles said the Sissy Danforth Rivergate Trail Community Connection Project may have a contractor selected in the spring, and could be completed in late summer or early fall.
“A Guy on a Bike” is an occasional column in the Watertown Daily Times. Contact Times staff writer Chris Brock at email@example.com or at WDT, 260 Washington St., Watertown, NY, 13601.