by Stewart Dutfield
The Albany County Rail Trail is a wonderful community resource, and many readers will be familiar with its nine-and-a-bit miles from Voorheesville through New Scotland and Delmar to South Pearl Street in Albany. It's open all year round, but what about conditions in winter?
Taking care of the trail really is a community undertaking: Albany County Department of Public Works does much of the heavy work such as removing large fallen trees, improving drainage and repairing the trail surface. The towns and villages along the route also contribute, while a 30-strong team of volunteers from the Mid-Hudson Land Conservancy monitor the trail on a weekly schedule (you might have seen their reports on the Facebook group). Albany County does not maintain the trail in winter, which makes sense if you imagine how to keep a track safely cleared through snow and ice as water repeatedly melts and then refreezes. If users expect the trail surface to be safe at all times, just one broken ankle or crumpled Colnago may escalate demands for road salt and exclusion of skiers and snowshoers, at ever increasing expense to the County and the environment. The DPW is responsive to concerns about the rail trail, but we volunteers recognize that if the County finds it easy to maintain the trail, then we are likely to get more trails to play on!
One of the many virtues of the rail trail is the variety of people who use it. In winter, skiers generally make tracks in undisturbed snow until too many boot prints spoil the fun. Snowshoeing is great except in deep new snow or on hard ice pitted with boot prints. Most postholers stay clear of any ski and snowshoe tracks, and quite a few fat bikes use the trail. When running or walking in snow, please keep your footprints away from ski tracks. By and large, everyone gets along and we all have fun in our different ways!
Conditions can vary from day to day in winter. In the photo that shows what appears to be an icy bridge, the footprints and tire tracks indicate that the trail surface was completely safe. At other times there might be unexpected black ice (be alert on the slope down to the Normanskill Trestle, where the DPW has been working hard to reduce water drainage that can freeze across the trail).
So, be prepared for whatever you encounter; don't expect the trail to be clear for you to do intervals just because they're on your training schedule! While microspikes and snowshoes can provide traction, runners might try the screw shoe (not to be confused with the co-respondent shoe) that you can make from an old pair of sneakers and some hex screws: skyrunner.com/screwshoe.htm shows you how.
Sometimes the trail will require care in winter, especially if old snow has turned into hard ice pockmarked with fossilized bootprints. One spring day I took almost an hour to "run" from the Normanskill Trestle to Delmar where my son was playing a baseball game. On another occasion this past winter, I snowshoed carefully down an icy trail wondering whether I would have been better off going somewhere else, only to notice the light turn suddenly pink; I stopped to take a sunset photo which made the slightly sketchy footing worthwhile.
If you're well equipped for the conditions, consider a side trip on the connecting loops around the Noonan Preserve and from the Hilton Barn onto the Bender Melon Farm (mohawkhudson.org/our-preserves/bendermelonfarm). More options close to the rail trail include other MHLC preserves (mohawkhudson.org/our-preserves/find-a-preserve) and the Fischer Boulevard property, Five Rivers Environmental Education Center (www.dec.ny.gov/education/1984.html), along Rockefeller Road to Normansville and into the Capital Hills Golf Course (open to runners all day in winter), and the wonderful Pine Hollow Arboretum (pinehollowarboretum.org).
Once winter is over, running returns to the rail trail in a big way; on April 16th, 2022 the Helderberg to Hudson Half Marathon will once again take place over the original fast downhill course from Voorheesville to Albany. You can keep up to date at http://www.helderbergtohudsonhalf.com, where entries and volunteer opportunities should be available in mid-December.