Columns, Rural Ramblings

Blind and Sighted Duo Complete Benefit Tandem Bicycle Ride on the LVRT

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Ferdinand Lauffer and Martha Steele begin their Lamoille Valley Rail Trail ride from the restored rail station in Swanton.

by Martha Steele, Community Journalist

WESTMORE – “One, two, three, go!”

With that command, I told Ferdinand Lauffer, the sighted captain of my tandem bicycle, to mount the bike in unison with me for us to start pedaling. It was June 10, and we were on the first day of a two-day, 93-mile ride across northern Vermont from Swanton in the northwest corner to St. Johnsbury in the Connecticut River valley. Our ride was along the newly completed Lamoille Valley Rail Trail (LVRT), the longest rail trail in New England that runs through 18 communities. Because some sections of the trail had only been recently opened, we were among the earliest riders to traverse the entire trail.

Ferdinand and I were riding the trail to benefit New England Ski for Light (NESFL), an all-volunteer organization that provides sighted guides for blind or visually impaired individuals who want to participate in outdoor recreational sports, such as cross country skiing, hiking, kayaking, or cycling.

I am blind from a disease called Usher syndrome, characterized by progressive vision and hearing loss.

Ferdinand, who lives in Berkshire, is a long-time sighted guide for NESFL.

I had not been on a bicycle in many years, nor had I come close to a ride of this length in decades. Although I am 71 years old, I sometimes think I am still young. I relied on my memory of youthful jaunts when I routinely cycled 100 miles in a day, so I thought a 93 mile ride over two days would be a cinch. After all, this is a rail trail, and such trails rarely exceed grades of four percent, obviating the need to climb any steep hills. But, I would soon learn that the ride was more challenging

than I expected.

At the start of the trail in Swanton, Ferdinand and I went over commands to ensure safe mounting and dismounting of the tandem bicycle. With our communication protocol established, we took off under overcast skies. I felt exhilarated to be back on a bicycle, pedaling and feeling the wind across my face. About a half hour into the ride, rain began to fall. We kept cycling despite a brief torrential downpour.

Ferdinand described our surroundings as we cycled. Because I am a birder, I could usually tell what habitats we were passing by the birds I heard. A Blackburnian Warbler sang, and I asked Ferdinand if we were passing a coniferous stand. He confirmed my assumption. House wrens signaled that we were approaching town centers or residential areas. Red-winged Blackbirds, Yellow Warblers, Swamp Sparrows, Warbling Vireos, American Redstarts, and Common Yellowthroats indicated the presence of a possible marsh. Ovenbirds, Hermit Thrush, Blue Headed Vireo, White-throated Sparrow, and a wonderful Scarlet Tanager announced a woodlot. Indigo Bunting, Savannah Sparrow, Alder Flycatcher, and Song Sparrow suggested we rode along an open field. By the end of the ride, I would identify 43 bird species among the diverse habitats we passed.

But about halfway through the first day’s ride, I was reminded that I was not young anymore. The trail was largely level or only slightly rising or declining. It therefore required that we be constantly pedaling without the relief long downhills typically provide on many bike rides in New England. My derriere was getting very sore and indeed soon became painful with each pedal. I called out to Ferdinand for frequent “pedal stops” in which we would stop pedaling for five seconds or so to enable me to stand on the pedals for a brief reprieve.

At approximately the 35-mile mark, we replaced my seat with a smaller seat to try to improve my comfort. We were still 15 miles from our evening destination, the Governor’s House in Hyde Park, a wonderful bed and breakfast. But the damage had been done, and I had to frequently dismount and walk. Our progress was painfully slow. When we finally arrived, the innkeeper, seeing my distress, went out to get us a pizza to eat at the inn so that I would not have to ride anywhere for dinner.

After a tasty and sumptuous breakfast at the inn the following morning, we started off under delightful conditions: cool, clear, and dry. I was sore but pleasantly surprised that the discomfort was more muted.

The morning passed largely through woods as the trail followed the Lamoille River, frequently crossing it on newly reconstructed bridges. I enjoyed many Ovenbirds and Red-eyed Vireos along this part of the trail. In the town of Wolcott, we arrived at the Fisher covered bridge, still undergoing some renovation but open for us to cross. This bridge was the last covered bridge in the country to accommodate regular rail traffic.

We soon arrived in Hardwick, where we rested for the next eight miles of a steady climb to the highest point on the trail, an elevation of 1,709 feet. In Greensboro Bend, Ferdinand spotted a man watching us from his front porch. Ferdinand stopped and asked the man if he would refill our water bottles, which he happily did. We took every opportunity to tell people about our charity ride and wish them well on their own journeys.

From the height of land in Walden, we descended ecstatically through open meadows and coasting while standing up, far more comfortable than sitting. We soon arrived at Joe’s Pond and West Danville for another water stop, this time getting refilled by residents of a summer cabin along the lake.

From there, it was all downhill to St. Johnsbury, largely weaving in and out of wood lots and farmland, generally shadowing Route 2. We coasted into St. Johnsbury around 5 p.m., tired but immensely satisfied at our accomplishment.

The LVRT is a beautiful and scenic trail, sure to become more popular over time. I am deeply grateful to Ferdinand to captain me across the state and open this wonderful part of Vermont to me. He is one of hundreds of volunteers across New England who enable people like me to enjoy the outdoors that we love. If you are interested in becoming a sighted guide (no experience needed but you should be at least an intermediate level participant in the chosen activity), please visit nesfl.org.

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