Mary-Joy Lu and Alex Catchpoole worked in advertising in New York City for 20 years and decided to get out. This year they started a rail-biking business in Saranac Lake that has been successful far beyond their expectations.
Since opening Rail Explorers on July 3, they have sold nearly 10,000 tickets for a six-mile trip between Saranac Lake and Charlies Inn at Lake Clear Junction. In addition to themselves, Lu and Catchpoole employ 15 people (though the staff will be pared when they close for the season next month).
Starting a rail-biking business on these state-owned tracks was a gamble. The state Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Transportation have recommended replacing the tracks between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid — which includes the Rail Explorers stretch — with a multi-use recreational trail.
However, a final decision has not been made, and Catchpoole and Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which runs a tourist train between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, are fighting to keep the tracks in place.
Rail Explorers has enlisted its customers in a campaign to save the tracks, and scores of them have written state officials. The Almanack reviewed their comments for an earlier article. The following is typical: “I recently spent a day on the rail and can honestly say it was the highlight of my trip to the Adirondacks. I have been raving to my friends at home in South Carolina as well as those in NY. The rail explorers are a new and fun experience that should remain in the Adirondacks for a very long time.”
On Thursday morning, I took a rail-bike trip with Mike Lynch, a photographer and writer for Adirondack Explorer. You can take the trip in either direction, and a bus will shuttle you back to your car. We chose to start in Saranac Lake and end at Lake Clear Junction. When we finished, other customers rode the rail-bikes back to Saranac Lake. Tickets cost $25 a person.
More than a dozen other customers also had signed up for the trip. The Rail Explorers staff instructed us in the safe use of the rail-bikes. The tandem bikes are designed for two riders who sit side by side, each pedaling. The rider on the right controls the brake, which is operated by hand. Rail Explorers also has quad bikes, which accommodate four riders. The bikes have steel wheels that fit on the rails. The tandems weigh 400 pounds; the quads, 650 pounds.
I rode with Catchpoole in the only rail-bike left—a quad. As we began pedaling, I was surprised by how much effort it took. Once we got rolling, though, the pedaling became much easier. We had to put a little knee grease into the slight inclines, but overall I would describe the trip as only mildly strenuous. At times were coasting. With my GPS watch, I clocked our top speed at about 15 mph.
As far as scenery, the first highlights were crossing the causeway on Lake Colby and soon after passing Colby’s southwest bay. We also passed numerous hidden wetlands and McCauley Pond. Most of the time, we were pedaling through a corridor of tall trees — all pretty wild except for the occasional no-trespassing sign.
I asked Catchpoole if he ever sees wildlife on these trips.
“I saw my first black bear last week,” he said. “It just ambled across the tracks in front of me. We see deer occasionally. We see lots of birdlife. There’s an osprey that nests in a tree in the clearing back there. Some tours have seen bald eagles.”
Judging from the reactions of our fellow travelers and from the comments sent to the state, Rail Explorers customers love pedaling the rails. Catchpoole said it’s the only commercial rail-biking operation in the country. (The vehicles were made in South Korea, where rail-biking is big.)
“It’s unique,” Catchpoole said. “We get a lot of people who see us online and drive up specially for this.” He added that one couple drove more than seven hours from Pennsylvania.
The success of the business — which Lu and Catchpoole hope to expand next year—puts a new wrinkle in the debate over the future of the rail corridor.
Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates maintains that a long-distance rail trail would boost the local economy by attracting tens of thousands of tourists every year — cyclists and hikers in summer, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers in winter. In contrast, ARTA says the seasonal train that runs between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid does little for the economy.
But now Saranac Lake has a new business, also dependent on the rails, that is attracting tourists as well as employing local residents.
Lee Keet, one of the founders of ARTA, argues that the success of Rail Explorers underscores the recreational potential of the rail corridor. He contends that the corridor would attract many more tourists if it were open to the public for free.
“The hundreds riding the rail bikes are only a ghost of the hundreds of thousands we expect to use foot, bike, wheelchair, skis, snowshoes, and various other mechanisms to visit this pristine country,” he said.
If the rails are removed, Keet said, Rail Explorers could move to Tupper Lake or elsewhere in the corridor and offer the same type of experience.
Catchpoole said Rail Explorers is looking at other places to operate in the corridor and elsewhere in the state (including the Saratoga & North Creek line) — but with the idea of expanding, not relocating.
And if the state ultimately decides to remove the tracks? Catchpoole said he and his wife, who are natives of Australia, have invested too much time and money in the business to give it up.
“We’re fighting pretty hard to keep the rails, but if they tear them up, we’ll have to relocate,” he said.
The four customers we talked to after our trip agreed that the rails should remain. Dawn Lyndaker and Karen Roes said they had driven two hours from Carthage, near Watertown, just for the trip. The other two customers – Scott and Elaine McEwan – drove an hour from their camp on Lake Ozonia.
“It was a blast!” Elaine McEwan said of the trip.
Lyndaker said she would gladly ride the rails again. “The highlights were the scenery, the fresh air, and a good friend,” she remarked.
“It would be a shame to rip out the rails,” Roes said.
The state expects to make a final decision by the end of the year.
Photos by Mike Lynch: Rail Explorers customers between Saranac Lake and Lake Clear Junction (top); Alex Catchpoole, left, talks with a customer (below).