Sarah Ellen Smith was standing alongside the Black Creek Road in Clayton with what she thought was a useless bicycle.
Back in January, she had also thought something else would be useless — a project recommended by a friend that has brought her back to this same lonely spot for the past six months.
Both things turned around. The chain on her 1980s Spalding bicycle, which she had driven to the site, was easily re- attached to its crank ring one morning late last month. Minutes later, she was riding away, with camera at the ready, for her continued mission on the Sissy Danforth Rivergate Trail.
Riding to Black Creek Road from the village of Clayton to join her roadside at the trailhead were a Guy on a Bike and Elaine V. Tack, volunteer and trustee of the Thousand Islands Land Trust. It was Ms. Tack who back in January had an idea.
“I asked her if she would take on this year-long project of documenting the Rivergate monthly” on YouTube, Ms. Tack said. “Not many people know about the trail.”
The 27-mile long Rivergate Trail, an old New York Central/Penn Central railroad bed, runs from the town of Clayton to the village of Philadelphia. The rails-to-trails project is named for former TILT director Louise “Sissy” Danforth, who championed its development. She died in 2006 at the age of 66. It's a multi-use trail in several sections that can be accessed at several points from Clayton to Philadelphia from roads intersecting it. TILT purchased its first section of the trail in 1994, and it opened two years later.
Clayton residents can be excused for not knowing about the trail. Just to get to the Black Creek Road trailhead is a meandering trip of about four miles from the village riverside, a situation TILT hopes to improve. In December, the land trust purchased 142.3 acres southeast of the village along Black Creek Road from the S. Gerald Ingerson Trust — managed by Gerald F. Ingerson and Mary Ingerson-Mulchy of Alexandria Bay — for $50,000. The purchase price was covered by a North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant.
Ms. Tack said TILT hopes to extend the Rivergate Trail through that new property, a distance of 3½ miles, to bring the trailhead closer to the village. That section will be pedestrian and bike only, said Ms. Tack, who is also a board member of the advocacy group Parks & Trails New York.
There is a path on the old railroad bed that goes directly into Clayton, but it is on public and privately owned land and, a Guy on a Bike found, in much rougher shape. It runs behind Cerow Recreational Park and Guardino Elementary School. Ms. Tack envisions the day when the area is smoothed, cleared and teeming with scores of village residents and tourists.
With a surface of dirt and crushed cinder, Rivergate Trail attracts users ranging from walkers and cyclists to ATVers, skiers and horseback riders. Most of the maintenance on the trail, according to TILT, is performed by the ATV clubs Rivergate Wheelers, the Lodge ATV Club and Indian River Lakes ATV and Snowmobile Club.
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At first, Ms. Smith didn't think much of Ms. Tack's idea of a photographic journey.
“I'm thinking, 'A straight cinder trail; what on Earth can you take a picture of?'” Ms. Smith said.
But if one slows down, unplugs, looks and listens, she realized, there is a lot.
“For one, it's the ferns,” she said. “My gosh! There's probably 50 different types of ferns between here and Fox Hill Road. That's like a mile.”
Ms. Smith posts about 60 photos a month on her YouTube videos, which also feature the sounds of surrounding nature and descriptions told in Ms. Smith's calm, soothing voice. She takes about 1,000 shots a month with her Canon EOS 7D camera, visiting about three times a week. She limits her treks, mainly on foot, to the Clayton to LaFargeville segments of the trail, a distance of 5½ miles bordered largely by wetlands. She has walked there and back several times. She would like to devote more time to the project.
“I generally don't have a whole lot of time,” she said. “I could devote days to this. But I have a job.”
She and partner John Arnot own St. Lawrence Pottery, Route 12, Clayton. Mr. Arnot is the potter and Ms. Smith paints the pottery, creates jewelry and other artwork.
“I'm not a wildlife photographer by any stretch of the imagination,” Ms. Smith said. “Usually, I'm like, 'Wow! Would you look at that!?' And I'm like, 'Oh yeah — I have a camera!' I'm an artist before I'm a photographer.”
We rode about a half mile into the trail until the artist's eye spotted something and she dismounted. It was an old wooden railroad mile post. She noticed that the vine clinging to it had bloomed, and she snapped a photo.
Ms. Smith often strolls off the path into the outskirts of the trail — something others should be careful of because of the abundant amounts of poison ivy. Ms. Smith said she has found she is immune to the effects of the plant.
“It's a nice ecosystem that runs along on either side,” she said. “And it's different on either side.”
We neared a swamp, where Ms. Smith has been trying to photograph an elusive beaver. It remained so on this day.
She pointed to a dead tree with hollowed out cavities; a swallow seemingly stood guard at its top.
“That little swallow keeps coming back,” she said. “He's got a little hole in there. He dive-bombs me. There's a turtle over there I'm trying to get a good picture of, and the swallow keeps swooping down, right near my head.”
We entered an area where growth on one side of the trail is short, allowing a vista of a green and brown field overlaid with a hazy blue sky coated with high-level thin, white clouds.
“I was away for 30 years, and the one thing I missed is the north country sky,” Ms. Smith said. “It's just incredible.”
The General Brown High School graduate left the north country in 1978, went to college in Quincy, Ill., then became a rafting guide in Maine. She also raced sailboats in Florida. Through it all, she was a freelance artist and also did ad agency work and architectural rendering part-time. For nearly 10 years, Ms. Smith was an artist in residence at Creative Clay in St. Petersburg, Fla., and traveled to advocate for artists with developmental disabilities. She has also taught at the Thousand Islands Arts Center in Clayton.
Although Ms. Smith doesn't consider photography her primary art outlet, she has shot in some exotic locations. In 2007, she joined a group of photographers on a trip to Uruguay by invitation from the Ministry of Tourism of Uruguay coordinated and arranged by Nova Southerastern University in Florida.
For her Rivergate project, not all of her shots are of the natural world. Part of April's YouTube video highlighted garbage along the trail.
“That was really interesting,” she said. “Here's this remote thing, but some people know about it because they dump their garbage on it.”
The garbage ranged from Styrofoam takeout boxes to beer cans. But some items seemed absurd to Ms. Smith.
“There was a bottle of Thousand Island dressing,” she said. “How did that get there? Was somebody eating a salad and say, 'Oh, I hate this dressing!'”
She was especially bothered by a particular piece of garbage that kept cropping up at various points off the trail: the remnants of deer after they were harvested by hunters. The offal was placed in plastic bags and tossed off the trail.
“Why would they leave it in a plastic bag?” Ms. Smith wondered. “You would think they would just let it go, because that way, the coyotes or whatever could eat it.”
Other signs of humanity have been more gratifying for Ms. Smith. She meets the occasional family with children. They get encouragement from Ms. Smith to walk all the way to LaFargeville where, she tells them, there's an ice cream stand.
She said she has had nothing but good experiences with the ATV riders she meets.
“They are very friendly and courteous,” she said. “They slow down, and a lot of them say hi and ask if I need help.”
They may just be wondering about this roaming woman with camera on the trail. But not to worry. Ms. Smith has found her stride and she's looking forward to uploading another half year of trail photos and thoughts on YouTube.
She may be just getting started.
“I'm thinking about doing another spot next year because I'm loving this so much,” she said.
A Guy on a Bike is an occasional column in which the rider introduces you to people and places along roads you might easily miss. If you have a suggested ride/column idea, contact email@example.com, or write to Chris Brock at the Watertown Daily Times, 260 Washington St., Watertown, NY 13601.