Hugging the west shore of Lake Champlain, the village (or maybe just hamlet) of Port Kent, NY, evokes better times. There’s one old estate in particular that overlooks the water, offering a spectacular view of Burlington in the distance. The building and grounds, laid out in a now seedy Victorian pattern, probably will fall into the hands of the condomeisters who’ve seized good chunks of the Vermont shoreline. Indeed, much of the New York side of the lake has given way to such development.
But when you hit Route 9 only a few miles from the lake, you pretty well leave the Orlando North ambience behind. There are workaday towns like Keeseville, and bits of curbside leftovers – including decaying motels, some of which have been converted to rooms-by-the-week, and all of which are visual essays on the first and second automobile epochs.
Some of the change from resort glitz to Adirondack hardscrabble comes from the effects of Interstate 87. When the “Northway” opened years ago, it became for most people the one and only north-south roadway between Albany and Plattsburgh. (It also entailed ripping off chunks of the “forever wild” Forest Preserve via a statewide ballot proposition, but that’s another story.) I would gladly live without I-87 and the rest of Interstate system, which like many other things done in the name of “national defense” has seriously damaged the continent. But at least I-87 siphoned off most of traffic that had clogged Route 9, leaving the latter to evolve (devolve?) into a road with a more human face.
In fact, I can honestly say that, excluding some short stretches on backcountry pavement, Route 9 was the finest bicycling road I found this summer. Why? Well, the scenery is unexcelled, for one thing. The western fringe of the mountains don’t get so much respect as the High Peaks or the central and southwestern lake regions. But I challenge anyone to find places more beautiful than the abrupt hills and tumbling creeks and rivers of the upper Hudson River watershed.
Even the town of Lewis has its charms. Though dominated by a quarry/gravel pit, this working class Adirondack community is a good place to spend a night. I stayed at a private campground, at a tenting site that was far enough from the road for comfort. If you want a short burst of civilization, you can pedal down to a combo (not condo) gas station, pizza-and-sub joint and grocery that functions as the town’s commercial nexus. The good folks there made me a decent veggie sub, and I even found a bottle of Lake Placid brown ale (brewed in Plattsburgh; cf. Saranac beers and ales, brewed in Utica) to wash it down.
This is as good a place as any to talk about accommodations. The cyclotourist has to be prepared for anything. I always pack a one-person shelter, of which there are many good designs on the market today; a super lightweight sleeping bag; and a small foam pad. Actually, for this trip I got a backpacker air mattress, only because it compresses into a much smaller bundle than good old closed-cell foam. But of course you’ve got to use some time and lung-power to inflate an air mattress, and it takes a little while to deflate and fold them up in the morning, too. Plus, air mattresses are a bit heavier than foam. So I think in the future I’ll go back to foam – I’ve found the accordion-style mats are cheap and ridiculously easy to deploy and pack up.
So where are you going to pitch your tent? Personally, after this trip, and after many past trips, I’m swearing off the public campgrounds. I dig the communal thing, the notion of the commons, etc., but the noise and congestion at these facilities have turned them into something quite unlike the wilderness experience.
For example, one night early in this summer’s odyssey, I camped at Selkirk Shores State Park, a beautiful spot northeast of Oswego, right on Lake Ontario. Some large group of yahoos (in the Swiftian, not the search-engine sense) was set up across a field from me; they hooted and hollered till 1:00 a.m., and – until I asked them to cease and desist, they even made late-night forays in a truck to fetch firewood from a well-thinned stand of mixed hardwoods behind my tent. Now, I don’t blame this hideous conditions on human nature; I think they stem from state indifference. Albany doesn’t see fit to keep park staff on site after 8 p.m. or so on weekdays; patrolling is left to the state troopers, who drive through every few hours. So there’s no pressure on the yahoos. I don’t want a police presence, though. I want the kind of supervision that a good ranger can offer – with a bit of friendly education.
But the beauty of the Adirondacks is that you can camp anywhere on state forest land for nothing, and without harassment. (As I remember the law, you can camp on one spot for three consecutive days without a permit. But be advised: this does not apply to Wildlife Management Areas and state parklands, only to designated state forest – not just the Forest Preserve of the Adirondacks and Catskills, but also the many state forests that dot the Southern Tier and other regions.)
Also, it’s a sign of the times that campgrounds with services, public or private, are damned expensive these days. The place I stayed at in Lewis cost $16 per night; state campground sites go for a little under $15; and one place in Vermont that I scoped out and rejected (it was essentially a sandy parking lot for RVs) went for $25! At that price you can get an inexpensive motel, a.k.a. dive. More about that option next time.