Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Albany County Rail Trail

My friend, Claudia, introduced me to the newly paved section of the Albany County Rail Trail.  She said, "We need to walk it first, so that you can see all the interesting sections more slowly than you would on a bike."  Generally, walking a bike path is pretty deadly, but Claudia and I were long overdue for a visit, so I was glad to meet her in Delmar.  The path was, indeed, interesting, so, the following Saturday, I suggested to Bill that he and I ride it.

This rail trail has been in the works for a number of years.  It will eventually be paved for nine miles, from Albany to Voorheesville, a rural hill-town in Albany County.  For commuters along the way, the trail will offer an entirely new and safe way to ride a bike to work.  And for the rest of us, it will provide one more pleasant biking experience in the Capital Region.

(finding a starting point on the partially paved trail can be tricky)

Thanks to my first visit with Claudia, I was able to find the starting location for Bill and me. Just off of Elsmere Avenue in Delmar, we parked the car behind the VFW building.  Construction equipment left for the weekend gave us hope that continued progress is being made on the trail daily.

From here we had three miles of pavement, a bit short for a Saturday ride, at only six miles round trip, but enough on a cold blustery Halloween day.

(This section begins in a residential section of Delmar.)

Rail trails offer the casual biker a fairly flat ride.  My sister, a rail trail afficionado, has told me that trains in the old days could only run at a maximum 3% grade, which accounts for modern rail trails having very gradual ups and downs.  Heading north, as we were, the trail has a slight descent, not enough to make us concerned about the uphill return.

(Once past the houses, the trail passes through woodlands.)

With the foliage off most of the trees, we could see into ravines on either side, where the terrain became more rugged.  In the spring, early wildflowers likely grace the trail's edge.

(A tributary below flows into the Normanskill Creek and on to the Hudson River.)

Before long, we reached a bridge over the Normanskill Creek, which flowed calm and placid beneath, in a dull green-gray color. No migrating water birds could be seen, but I imagined that they landed here often during their travels.

(Bill approaches a bridge over the Normanskill.)

I was curious about a short path that went down to the water, just beyond the bridge, and left my bike to check it out.  A huge log parallel to the riverbank looked like the perfect spot to spend some quiet time.

My musings were squelched, however, when Bill pointed out a posted sign, indicating that this was private land belonging to the Noonans, a longtime Albany family of far-reaching political fame.  I remembered that the 60-acre Noonan compound, for sale with multiple family homes, had recently been in the news as a possible location for a Casino.  In the end, the state did not choose this property for a Casino; and we, the walking and biking public, could enjoy the water and woods here, even if only from a distance.

(Wouldn't this be a cool spot on a hot day, if it were not off limits?)

The real surprise on this short stretch of paved trail, is the raging torrent that the Normanskill becomes.  The water pounds through and over dark rocks--such an abrupt and dramatic change from the quiet section of the creek we had just passed.

(The Normanskill passes through a brief period of fury.)

This scene is unfortunately disturbed by the thruway overpass directly overhead.  Separating the natural beauty from the traffic noise above is next to impossible. Still, I had never seen this part of the creek until Claudia brought me here, and I could appreciate the width, breadth, and power of the water in this section as it heads towards the Hudson River.

(Gorgeous foliage and the thruway above.)
Continuing on, we glimpsed the creek a few more times. How close the trains must have come to the edge of the steep bank.  I had almost no room to park my bike and peer through the trees for the picture below. 

(Final views of the Normanskill before reaching Albany.)
Stopping to take pictures slows me down, and I saw Bill far ahead cruising amidst an entirely new geological formation.  Those long ago railroad builders had blasted their way through solid rock. Before the thruway stretched above, train travelers must have marveled at the variety of terrain within such a short distance.

(Bill is a speck in the distance.)

Eventually, we could see the Port of Albany, and businesses nearby.  A traffic light and a nice parking lot signaled the trail's end at South Pearl Street in Albany.

(An official trail head at South Pearl Street.)

I was not very familiar with South Pearl Street, and felt a little disoriented.  Where were we in relation to those state offices in downtown Albany, the destination for many future commuting bikers?  I decided to continue riding on the the street to see what I could see. Within a few minutes, I recognized the Ezra Prentice public housing complex, where "bomb trains" come within a few feet of the backyards in which children play.

(See those black train cars in the background?)

I had been here last year to attend a memorial for the victims of the Lac Megantic explosion in Quebec, where trains carrying oil-by-rail left 47 dead.  An anti-bomb train rally followed the somber memorial. The proximity of the oil-filled train cars to the houses was shocking when viewed in person, as compared to seeing this scene on television or in newspaper photos.

(Tidy yards with outdoor grills on the left, bomb trains on the right.)

I turned back, now that I knew where I was in relation to the new path, met up with Bill who had waited at the parking lot, and began the three-mile return to where our car was parked.

(A bit of sunshine lights up remaining fall color.)

When I reached the neighborhood of houses, I veered off the trail and rode on a parallel street, admiring these modest homes.  I passed a man raking leaves, another checking his car, everyone doing end-of-season chores.  I also passed front steps laiden with jack-o-lanterns.  Bill and I needed to get home.  Ghosts and goblins might be arriving at our house on this last day of October!

(Suburban charm)

Later that evening, I was still curious as to how far commuters would have to ride on busy streets before reaching their workplaces, and what plans might be in place to ensure bikers' safety.  To find out, I emailed the Conservation Chair of the Adirondack Mountain Club. who has been working with other groups to secure funds to extend the path.  He sent me a detailed map of how the trail will connect with the well-established Mohawk-Hudson Bike Hike Trail by the Hudson River in Albany.

He said that a cost projection needs to be determined and a grant written, since there's funding in the waterfront revitalization component of the Environmental Protection Fund.  Progress always comes down to money,  time, and the efforts of many concerned citizens working together, but, eventually, there will be a safe connection through the southern end of the City of Albany to downtown and the Mohawk-Hudson trail.

In the meantime, I have to thank Claudia for inspiring Bill and me to ride this finished portion of trail, while we wait for the other six miles to be completed through the countryside to Voorheesville.

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