December 21, 2012

In My Opinion: A trail on the right track


---- — A little over a year ago, with Thanksgiving two days away and a snowstorm looming, workers took what was literally the last load of asphalt produced for the 2011 construction season and laid it down, linking a graceful S-curve path up a hill on the SUNY Plattsburgh campus to the swooping swerve of Steltzer Avenue.

Phase 1 of the Saranac River Trail, an idea more than three decades in the making, was finally complete.

And now, with the trail a full year into its useful life, the City of Plattsburgh can proudly call it an unqualified success.

For the past 13 months, city residents and visitors from all over Clinton County and beyond have walked, bicycled, run, rollerbladed, skateboarded, appreciated nature, played with their kids, and yes, just plain loafed along the trail’s gorgeous 1.3 miles.

SUNY students have hit the books, studied biology and taken mental-health breaks on the trail. Parents with strollers have enjoyed spring shoots and fall colors, free from worry about car traffic. And fly-fishing enthusiasts, who’ve always known where to catch the big ones along the Saranac, now often have an audience for their craft, thanks to the open river vistas the trail provides.

The trail has been celebrated both informally, by commuters like myself who’ve been able to ride a bike to work and avoid parking hassles, and formally. The local Alzheimer’s Disease Assistance Center put on two official walks on the trail, highlighting the trail’s venue for charitable events.

Last May’s official grand opening was a tour de force of community cooperation. Members of the city’s Common Council, without which the trail wouldn’t exist, were on hand to cut the ribbon, with Councilor and Mayor pro tem Jim Calnon a featured speaker. CVPH sponsored the event, highlighting the health benefits of the Saranac River Trail by bringing in nationally renowned walking guru Mark Fenton to give the keynote address. He was introduced by Mountain Lake PBS’s Thom Hallock, who donated his time to emcee.

SUNY Provost James Liszka, whose institution was a linchpin in making the trail project work, mentioned his hope that the trail will continue to expand west so that he may one day be able to commute to work on it. As if to emphasize that possibility, the Town of Plattsburgh and Clinton County sent a host of officials to the opening, including Town Supervisor Bernie Bassett.

Of course, the luminaries were overshadowed by the dozens of age-12-and-under competitors in the trail’s first athletic event, a Fun Run sponsored by Clinton County Youth Bureau.

The event, like the trail itself, demonstrated what can happen when the community works together. And the months since the opening have shown that cooperation is just the beginning.

The westward expansion is on the drawing boards, with plans afoot to design and build a Saranac River Trail Greenway through the rest of the city, the Town of Plattsburgh and Schuyler Falls and into the Town of Saranac — nearly 20 miles in all. The expanded trail promises to be the spine in a matrix of connected recreational pathways and waterways in the North Country.

Meanwhile, the City of Plattsburgh, under the leadership of Mayor Don Kasprzak, who kept the project moving forward whenever it hit snags, is continuing to find ways to improve the existing trail. The city’s new electronic kiosks feature virtual wayside exhibits of local history and nature along the Saranac River Trail.

A local group led by Ashley Cousens has, with the support of Kasprzak and the Sunrise Rotary Club, raised more than $4,000 so far toward the design of the Max Moore Memorial Treehouse, an all-access arboreal extension of the trail that will overlook the river near the Plattsburgh City Police Department.

In short, the Saranac River Trail in its first year of life has proven not just to be a great place to walk, to run, to bike — to move. It’s part of a movement, one that’s making our area a better place to live.

Luke Cyphers, an assistant journalism professor at SUNY Plattsburgh, is chair of the Saranac River Trail Advisory Committee.