Biking the old railbed


Keith Mahoney04.20.02
Sunny, 55 degrees Fahrenheit

NEWPORT, VERMONT: I find the start of the bike trail on Prouty Drive, near North Country Hospital, and head out of town into a modest breeze on my trusty Raleigh Mountain Tour Bike.

The trail is on the old Canadian Pacific railbed that connected to Sherbrooke, Quebec. It's just over the ridge from the log cabin near Tomifobia, Quebec, where I grew up. Like all old rail lines, the grades are gradual, and curves gentle.

The first part of the ride north is along the eastern shore of Lake Memphremagog, past cottages and marshy areas held captive from their lake by the dam of the railbed. The view to the mountains west across the lake shows Elephantis and Owl's Head. Snow still sits on the northeast ski trails of Jay Peak, in the range further west.

After four wicked hot and sunny days, the colors of spring coming out are vibrant. Bright carpets of green lawns and hay fields, the fog of pale green in the trees from poplars and willows starting to leaf out, lime green of skunk cabbage up four inches along the Tomiphobia river, some deeper reds to be seen at the tips of birches, and some eager maples. So neat to see so far into the woods in this season, everything laid out to be seen among the bare-bone trees.

The Vermont bike trail ends at the North Derby Road, with signs directing you to check in at Canadian customs if you want to keep heading north. I turn right, catch a brisk tailwind, and pull into Beebe Plain about four minutes later. I cruise up to the Canadian Customs building, speak briefly with the agent on duty, and head along Main Street, Beebe, Quebec, to tie back into the bike trail, located at the north end of the village on the right, just past a life-size grizzly carved of wood.

From this point on into Tomifobia (about two or three kilometers) the trail is very hidden from view, tucked into the woods amongst some small ridges. On the right, the Tomifobia river valley starts to open up, and the trail comes to the main (tar) road into Tomifobia.

To this point, the surface of the trail is fine crushed rock, in my opinion the best trail surface to be found. It is well-packed, groomed so that that two cyclists may ride abreast, or pass in opposite directions with ease. The surface is level and smooth, a joy to travel on.

This all changes as you come into Tomifobia village.

The rails and ties have been removed, but for the next 5 or 6 kilometers, the surface is ballast; large, irregular, sharp-edged stone measuring 4-7 centimeters across.

I was only able to stay on the trail because I was riding a fat-tired bike with lots of rubber, and was willing to accept the shudders and shakes of the less-than-optimal surface condition.

Hikers beware, this is ankle sprain territory. You will need to keep your eyes to the ground. Still, it is passable, and I've ridden on worse trails.

To remain on the trail, you have to climb a steep pitch up to a road, and down the other side when you come to the end of town. There were another four or five km of rough stuff to negotiate, with one more road crossing, before the trail becomes well-groomed again.

The trail from Tomifobia to Boynton is about eight km, the first half rough ballast, the last half smooth, and for much of that distance the river snakes along beside you, opening here and there to a small field, and a ridge rises abruptly on your left, giving a cozy, tucked-in feeling to the trail.

The entire length of the trail, on both sides of the border, is pristine. I did not see a candy wrapper, nor a cigarette butt, neither bottles nor cans. The vistas are longer, especially along the shore of Memphremagog, on the Vermont section, tighter in and intimate along the river section in Quebec. I was fortunate to know the area well. This trail continues north through Ayer's Cliff and beyond, but I will have to write about that when I have had the opportunity to ride it.

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