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From the June 2014 Conservationist

Taking a break while biking to the Boilermaker

Photo: David G. Pratt

Biking to the Boilermaker

By David G. Pratt

In early July 2008, east of Baldwinsville, torrential rain did its best to dampen my spirits. We were biking 50 miles that day, and my rain gear was not keeping pace with the deluge. Still, with wet socks on my feet and cold water running down my back, I was like a stubborn child refusing to come in out of the rain.


The rewards. There are the immediate rewards, like rides when I can actually feel a flowered, airy, open field yield to the dense humidity of thick swamplands. Or when I scare up a fox from a roadside bush. (Who is more shocked: he or me?)

A section of the Erie Canalway Trail
The Erie Canalway Trail takes you along
a section of the Erie Canal ruins.

But then there are the larger rewards, like the feeling of physical communion with the great outdoors that you can only experience on a bicycle. Ernest Hemingway said, "It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motorcar only a high hill impresses you..."

New York has a unique variety of great outdoors to experience by bicycle: from the mountains of the Adirondacks, through the majesty of the Hudson Valley, and out to the Atlantic Ocean on the tip of Long Island; from the glory of Niagara Falls, past the beauty of the Finger Lakes, and down through the hills of the Southern Tier; and on and on. Best of all, New York has a mapped system of bicycle routes crisscrossing the state that touches all of these. If you've driven much in the state, you may have noticed the signs-small and green, they simply have a bicycle depicted on the top and a number on the bottom. The NYS Department of Transportation website has valuable information about these bicycle routes.

Camping on the way to the Boilermaker
Camping can be an enjoyable part
of the experience.

On that 2008 bicycle trip, Todd Caffoe, Pat Concannon (two DEC coworkers), and I followed NYS Bicycle Route 5 for 130 miles over a period of two and a half days from Rochester to Utica, where we then ran the Boilermaker 15k Road Race-one of the largest 15k races in the country. Memories of that adventure prompted Pat and me to repeat the ride in 2013.

While we stayed in motels in 2008, Pat and I decided to "rough it" in 2013, packing everything we needed on our bicycles and camping at state parks along the way. My bike weighed more than 80 pounds after I had loaded a tent, sleeping bag, clothing, and anything else I could think of (note to self: next time don't forget the bug spray). We rode just under 100 miles in two days.

Enjoying the local cuisine
Getting a true taste of the local cuisine.

Early the first day, we grabbed sandwiches from a sub shop for lunch. Later, we sat on the lawn near Oneida Lake's south shore boat launch site, eating our sandwiches and watching a bald eagle soar over the lake. It brought back memories of when I was a kid in western New York and there was a pair of bald eagles nesting at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. My father and I made special trips to catch a glimpse of what was, at that time, a rare and special event. So when the bald eagle casually flew overhead at Oneida Lake-so close we could see where he was looking-I was overjoyed that the event was no longer rare...but there is no way it will ever stop being special.

I've camped in New York's state parks my whole life (I practically grew up in Allegany State Park), but I'd never pulled into one on a bicycle with all my camping equipment hanging precariously from hooks and bungee cords. In fact, on many camping trips, my bicycle arrived as luggage itself, hooked and bungeed to my car. I must admit, I enjoyed looking "hard-core" as we cruised along the coarse road to the campsite. (That is what the other campers were thinking, isn't it? Hard-core? Or crazy?)

After our first day's 45-mile ride, we arrived at a beautiful campsite in Verona Beach State Park on the east shore of Oneida Lake. I leaned my bike against one of the trees, (which are perfectly spaced to provide shade to the campsites while still allowing a lake view), and pitched my backpacking tent, making sure to angle it to deflect the westerly breeze off the lake. We had no car or RV, so our two tents, two bicycles, and one picnic table looked meager in our spacious spot. We spent time enjoying the view of the lake from the park's beach before bicycling to nearby Sylvan Beach in search of dinner.

A car show in Sylvan Beach
A stop at a car show at Sylvan Beach
made for a great evening.

Sylvan Beach is a quaint beach community with a small amusement park and a few restaurants. We filled up on a Central New York specialty: Chicken Riggies. This dish-which includes rigatoni pasta, chicken and a sauce reminiscent of my hometown's Buffalo wing sauce-deliciously replenished needed carbohydrate stores. We ate without guilt. We had earned it. After a walk around a vintage car show, we bicycled back to the campground in the dark with headlights on and taillights flashing.

The next morning we abandoned Bicycle Route 5 and took back roads. This was when we realized that Bicycle Route 5 is relatively flat-it parallels the Erie Canal after all. When we got away from it, we found all the hills that the canal builders managed to snake through with admirable efficiency. As Hemingway said, the hills I wouldn't have noticed in a car, I noticed on my bike-and certainly on my 80-pound bike. Our destination was Delta Lake State Park in Rome. Pat and I had been making an annual trek to Delta Lake for more than a decade. It has been home base for our Boilermaker weekends since we started running that world-famous race in the late 1990s.

In all the years we camped at Delta Lake, mosquitoes had never been a problem. That year, however, something was different-so different, in fact, that I crashed through the woods on my ill-equipped road bike, spitting out mosquitoes, to get to the camp store for some of that bug spray I forgot. The nice lake breeze at Verona Beach kept the mosquitoes at bay, but Delta Lake's campsites are in thick forest with little wind. I never set up a tent so quickly in my life. When the rest of our Boilermaker crew showed up in their cars later that day, one of them actually went into town and bought a screen tent-thus ending my hard-core bragging rights.

Loud, early morning wake-up caws reminded me that a group of crows is called a murder, but since the Boilermaker starting gun goes off at 8:00 a.m., the avian alarm helped get us moving. Since the race is on a Sunday, most of the Delta Lake Boilermaker campers packed up camp on the morning of the race so they could drive home that afternoon in time for their normal lives the next day.

Enjoying a summer bike ride
Bicycling is an excellent way to
experience a New York summer.

We, however, always took Monday off so we could return to Delta Lake after the huge Boilermaker post-race party and spend the rest of the day playing Frisbee, swimming in the lake, lying on the beach recovering, and playing euchre in a screen tent until all hours of the night. Monday morning would be for sleeping through the crows' caws, and a leisurely pack-up before we hooked and bungeed our bikes to a car for the ride home. We may be hard-core, but we know when enough is enough.

I've lived in New York for all of my 46 years. In the 24 years I've been at DEC, I've worked on hazardous waste sites, chased petroleum spills, and monitored industrial discharges. I've even had the privilege of getting to know and work with the very people who helped make the bald eagle's New York comeback possible. I'm honored to be part of DEC's efforts to protect and improve New York's natural resources, and I've found my way of experiencing those resources to the fullest: from the seat of a bicycle. I have seen, smelled, heard, felt, and, yes, even tasted much of what New York has to offer, and I look forward to experiencing more. I encourage you to explore the contours of the country from a bicycle seat as well; be it a local, afternoon ride or a weeklong trip through the mountains, New York has it all.

David G. Pratt is an environmental engineer in DEC's Avon office.