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I'm not quite sure what happened. I think this was one of those spur of the moment ideas that just sort of fed off itself until it went totally out of control. But wait, I am getting ahead of the story.
I should start by telling you, my wife Sudjai loves railbiking as much as I do. It has certainly made the sport a lot more fun for me, with no guilt over leaving a railbike widow behind. Even those times I'm alone, I know she is back there cheering me on.
Well, a while back our 22nd wedding anniversary rolled around. A couple of days before the event, Sudjai thought it would be fun to celebrate by camping overnight at a particular favorite place along our own 'personal' railroad that runs right past our Adirondack Mountain home.
The location is isolated. Ordinarily, only hikers and canoeists get
to see this beautiful spot. The bog river parallels the railroad for
a short distance, then passes under, opening up into a wide pond on
the other side.
About this time I probably should mention we have gotten a little soft, and most of our camping has been 'car camping'. Since we are not carrying it on our back we have become a bit loose about how much we take along. Sudjai made up a list of all the things she wanted for our one night outing, and gave it to me on the day of our departure. Rather quickly I realized that two railbikes, and the little rack we had on one of them just wouldn't handle the load.
In true railbiker fashion I am certainly not one to duck a challenge.
I thought to myself, "an hour perhaps, two tops, I'll whip something
together that will carry all the baggage." Now, I should have known
About eight hours later I stood admiring the mother of all railbike racks. It stretched out from the side of my bike like some great canker born of the little wood rack behind the bicycle seat. On the far side, the presumed weight was cleverly carried on the tiny outrigger wheel in such a way as to allow height adjustment, yet not stress any of the light outrigger tubing. I believe a 200 pounder could have jumped up and down on the middle of that rack. On second thought, perhaps he could have sat down carefully. At any rate, it certainly looked big enough.
Time check. Good thing the daylight hours still give a bit of a margin at the beginning of August. Plenty of time I thought. I hadn't eaten supper yet, but that was supposed to be part of the festivities at our destination. So, start loading up the bike. By this time I had collected a ground crew. At least, that's how I like to think of them. If one were truly honest they were probably more like the crowd standing below the man ten stories up on the ledge.
I began with the inflatable boat. After all, would you go camping anywhere with all that water and not take a boat? And, it was already inflated. Blue and yellow, it went well with the blue bike cowering beneath it. And why shouldn't it be inflated? This would save all that time and effort pumping it up after we got there. Additionally, it would hold all our other stuff together on the rack.
Next, the ice chest - my wife doesn't do things half-way. Then sleeping bags, air mattresses, tent, etc., etc. I am fairly sure there was a kitchen sink in there somewhere also. The 'ground crew' busily relayed the stuff from Sudjai, helping me find a place to stow it aboard. I think someone in that crowd collected bets, but I was too caught up in the rush to pay that any mind.
Finally, to a rising cheer, we were off. On reflection, I am sure they all thought we were more than a little off. The first mile goes upgrade. As I huffed along things started growing dim. No, I wasn't overexerting myself, the sun had already dipped behind the trees. Not to worry. A bright moon rose behind. Here we were, pumping off into the night with a monstrous contraption never even tested in daylight, with bad curves, and the washout still ahead.
Needless to say, all that extra weight puts severe stresses on a bike frame, and the dynamics of railbike operation change slightly. Several sharp curves and derailments later, we arrived at the big washout. By now, the flush of invention had worn off. I had sobered up enough to be prudent. We off-loaded everything except the inflatable boat, and hand carried all of it around the wash in the moonlight. I then rode the two bikes across. We loaded back up to face the last bad curves. About 20 minutes, and a half mile later, we arrived at horseshoe lake, the midpoint of our journey.
Horseshoe lake, though remote, is accessible by a dirt road. During
the summer months a succession of tent and trailer campers cluster
along the shore near the foundation of the old railroad station. We
crept past, not wishing to disturb any of the residents tucked cozily
Leaving Horseshoe lake, we both gave a sigh of relief. The worst had passed. The track from here stretched nearly straight, and sure. The air felt warm. The moon glowed bright overhead. And, our adventure began to feel more like what we had imagined.
Without further mishap, we arrived at the bog river. Moonlight rippled off the water. I set up the tent while Sudjai prepared our pre-cooked supper. It had grown late, and we didn't build a fire. The evening held enough magic just as it was under the blazing moon.
At last we finished our iced drinks, and crawled into our tent. Inside seemed almost brighter than outside. The entire fabric glowed. We lay there soaking up the cooling air, listening to sounds of the nocturnal forest. The frogs were busy doing whatever frogs do, all the while making a great noise about it. Now and again, the slap of a beaver tail cracked the night. Then came the sound of a tree crashing down in the woods across the river. I drifted off as Sudjai murmured something about hoping our food cache hanging off the bridge would be safe from bears.
Next morning we dozed as the sun rose higher. When the air inside became uncomfortably warm, we finally rolled out and had some breakfast. Sudjai asked me if I had seen the mountain lions. Apparently they had bothered her something fierce during the night, but I hadn't shared the same dream.
Sudjai went swimming. Then we took a cruise in our tiny little one-person inflatable, scrunched together in an intertwined position bordering on the indecent. Our idyll was interrupted by canoes coming upriver. They looked strangely at our craft, at length realizing that was not the means by which we had arrived at this location.
Naturally, they had to investigate our real transport. Railbikes never fail to amaze and delight nearly everyone. By this time more canoes arrived. There followed explanations, demonstrations, and trial rides.
When the last of our company departed, we grabbed a quick lunch, and began packing up. We decided we had better lighten the load on that bike rack for the return trip. Much of the food had already disappeared, along with most of the ice. We tied as many of the lighter items, such as sleeping bags and tent, to the outrigger of Sudjai's bike. As we started out I immediately saw an improvement in performance. It is surprising how much difference twenty pounds can make.
The trip back gave us little trouble. This time we passed Horseshoe lake in full daylight, making the obligatory stop to give gawkers and talkers their fill. Next came the curves, washout, then more bad curves, but by now, better prepared, we handled it all with grace. Homecoming seemed dull to the point of disappointment. We arrived triumphant to no welcoming crowds, no ticker tape parade.
It didn't matter. You could not have pried the grins off our faces with a crowbar. We had met the challenge, and it was us!
No trains have passed this way in many years. The trees arch overhead and the bushes are so close on either side it's like riding through a cool, green tunnel. The tracks are fairly clear because the shade keeps the grass down. You spot a partridge walking on the rail up ahead. It doesn't scurry off into the undergrowth until you are almost on top of it.
Moments later you enter a rock cut, round a curve and break out into a marshy meadow open to the sky. A few stubbles of drowned trees poke up here and there. Forested hills surround the area. Just off to the right a series of terraced beaver ponds reflect a distant peak. Early summer blossoms lend color to the view. Across the pond a pair of loons swim with purpose near the far shore. Overhead the sun is bright; the air is calm. Insects hum in the stillness. You ride along savoring the heady fragrances of this postcard place. The soft sweet scent of wildflowers lingers in the air. Your nose then catches the pungent odor of mud and decaying vegetation as you pass a corrupted beaver dam. Further on you catch a whiff of evergreen as the forest moves in on one side. You turn to catch a sudden splash ten feet away. Plunging from a rock, a giant snapping turtle leaves a growing circle on the pond.
Riding alone, or in the company of others, this might describe a small part of an unforgettable day railbiking in the Adirondacks.
I live with my wife Sudjai, and son David, in the remote, heavily forested Adirondack mountains of northern New York State. Our home is back in the woods, well off the beaten path on a beautiful, sparsely populated lake.
Most of my life, except when in the Army back during the Vietnam era, I have been self-employed. I design low cost superinsulated homes, and have worked on energy efficient building technology for more than 25 years. I manufacture ski and snowshoe bindings for wilderness use. My portfolio contains a bundle of US and Canadian patents in a variety of fields. I give talks on environment, energy, and alternative technology. And, I write and publish books and software. My wife weaves birchbark, and writes books. On the side, we have a few lakeside cottages we rent during the summer.
I tell you all this to quell any suspicions that railbikers have one track minds.
I grew up on this land surrounded by forests and fields, lakes and mountains. And, oh yes, a RAILROAD TRACK in my front yard. Don't get me wrong. Back when I was a youngster, I didn't miss out on swimming, boating, and canoeing. And I climbed Mount Arab, our own local mountain, more times than you could ever count. But, that railroad track was a real fascination.
When I was in grade school the old coal fired steam trains ran pretty regular. My mother would get so mad when the soot soiled her whites hanging on the line. My brother and sisters and I would go out front and stand on the big rock near the track. As the daily train came by, we would all wave to the engineer and anyone else on board. Then we would run over to the crossing and look for our squashed pennies. One time I even rode the train to Utica, and on to NY city. My dad had to flag it down at the little station up the road.
The years passed. Roads were better, more people had cars, and passenger service gradually dried up. Freight service went the same way a few years later, and the trains stopped running.
Please understand. I loved my wilderness surroundings, and still do. However, I also had a love for designing and building all kinds of gadgets. Those railroad tracks out front were just sitting there growing rusty and weedy. I couldn't let a resource like that go to waste.
I built my first railbike in the late 50's. The only time I've ever had to abort a mission, and pull my bike off the track was back on that first railbike. The NY Central still took a bit of interest in the line. I had to get out of the way of a highrailer full of suited railroad officials. They looked at me and I looked at them. They slowed down, and my heart sped up, but they never stopped.
My favorite railroad is, of course, the one going past my home. I have traveled this route many times. Each trip is a fresh adventure. In spring everything is coming alive. Summer brings rampant growth here in the east that can almost bury an abandoned track. Wildlife appears as curious about the strange sight coming down the track as most people. I had a deer amble out of my way, then, a hundred yards down the track, I looked back. That deer had returned to watch me as I rode away. In fall, the colors, and their reflection in the many lakes and ponds, is overpowering.
Railbikes are self-steering. You are free to look around and enjoy. Those iron rails winding off into the distant unknown can provide hours of delightful excursion. They often lead through wilds unexplored by most. You set your own pace so you have plenty of time to soak up the scenery.
There is something about riding a railbike that is quite unlike merely riding a bicycle. I have been building and riding railbikes for a long time, and love it. My wife and my father love it. All my friends love it. What makes RAILBIKING so much fun?
I am only making a guess, but maybe this is it. Active travel requires a level of steady concentration. The intensity will vary, low for taking a stroll, high when white knuckle driving on an icy freeway during the rush hour. For novice railbikers there is usually a short break-in period, though I really shouldn't use the word 'break'. After that, railbiking calls for a VERY low IQ. (IQ means intensity quotient, naturally.)
Then again, maybe the fun just comes from doing something wild, not done by many others.
All of this is not to say railbiking is without mishap. In fact, that may be part of the allure. Railbikes are mechanical contraptions. Parts come loose, fall off, or break, as is their nature. You should keep your bike in good shape, and check it out before taking off. It is a good idea to carry along a few tools and materials for emergency repairs.
Railbikes can 'derail'. This is railbike talk for "the blankity-blank bike came off the track." My wife's sister became so entranced looking at autumn leaves she leaned away from the outrigger. In slow motion, she fell into the bushes and scratched herself on a spruce stubble. She had a silly grin when we helped her up. No trip to the emergency room, but she did feel a bit foolish. Stay aware of what you are doing, particularly on bad track and sharp curves.
Many situations can cause derailments. Small trees and bushes growing close to the rail can snag your foot, jerking the bike off the track. Sometimes a sudden stop will make the rear wheel skid right off the rail. When you derail like this, your bike usually bounces along on the ties. You quickly come to an ungraceful stop. In any case, it's all part of the adventure.
Misadventures aside, (or perhaps, included) railbiking is an outstanding natural high. It is even better when you have a reliable railbike. That first railbike I built was pretty crude, and worked about as well. Later designs became better and better. The evolution of my railbike came out of my own head and experience. This was partly due to living in the sticks. And, until recently, I never came across any info on the subject. I heard vague rumors, and saw a few magazine articles about turn-of-the-century railbikes. I found no details, or references to current designs. Since publishing my design, I have discovered a world of other railbikers.
You probably don't want to reinvent the wheel. The quickest way to a happy experience is to pick a railbike design with a history of success, and go with it.
Naturally, I lean toward my own very successful design which you will find advertised within these pages. No welding is necessary. My front wheel guide makes use of side rollers. This gives you precision steering, minimal friction, and almost no noise. I use a simple handlebar lever to raise the guide slightly for crossings, or full up for normal bicycle riding. My adjustable height outrigger is an extremely rigid geometric design that is simple and lightweight. The outrigger has excellent ground clearance to avoid brush. Pull 3 pins, and the outrigger comes completely off and folds.
Look over the field. Pick a design from someone who has been doing this a few years. It should also be a design that is within your capacity to build.
Whether you're a newcomer or a pro, keep your guide on the rail and a grin on your face. Perhaps one of these days we'll run into each other on some deserted stretch of railroad track.
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