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Scenic railroad offers portage for Adirondack paddlers

OLD FORGE, N.Y. - The soft plop and trickle of paddles breaking the cloud-reflecting surface of the Moose River was the only sound on a cool, still afternoon, until the wilderness peace was shattered by the shriek of a train whistle.

As the kayakers and canoeists paused to watch, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad train appeared from the forest and chugged along the river's edge, smoke trailing from the engine, passengers waving from an open boxcar.

In a couple of hours, the paddlers would emerge from a stretch of whitewater several miles downstream and carry their boats up a steep trail to wait on a wooden platform for the train to return and carry them back upriver.

'It's a beautiful trip,' said Deborah Canapp of Fallston, Md., as she watched the passing scenery late last summer from the open door of a boxcar piled with canoes and kayaks. She and her husband, Stephen, were RV camping at nearby Eighth Lake in the western Adirondack Park. 'We canoed down the northern section of the Moose yesterday.'

The 'River & Rail' float trip is one of several special packages offered on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, a historic route that originally was built to carry Vanderbilts, Roosevelts, Whitneys and other well-to-do families to lavish Great Camps in the Adirondacks. The railroad, built in 1892, had been long abandoned when a group of rail enthusiasts revived a four-mile section for its centennial in 1992.

Several different segments of track have since been rehabilitated. The train now runs 57 miles from Utica in central New York to Thendara in the lake-studded southwestern Adirondacks. Another 10-mile section in the northern Adirondacks runs from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid. Another leg, 10 miles between the Big Moose Station and Beaver River, is expected to reopen by October, thanks to $1 million in funding from the state, according to Doug Masters, director of marketing for the railroad.

The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society continues to lobby the state for funding to rehabilitate more sections of track so that the whole system will eventually be linked. 'Our dreams seem to be coming true slowly but surely,' Masters said.

However, some in the local tourism business are opposed to the track renovation, saying the cost of running a scenic railroad far exceeds the economic benefits, and that a snowmobile route along the rail corridor would generate more tourism.

The train route from Utica to Thendara follows the edges of wilderness lakes and rivers, crosses trestles high above rocky stream beds, and passes through mixed hardwood and coniferous forests that glow in radiant colors in the fall. It runs from Memorial Day Weekend through the end of October, with some special excursions at holiday times.