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Like a zipper gathering together the folds of the surrounding countryside, we pull past the New York state line and move through Buffalo, New York's second largest city; Rochester, perched on the banks of the still-icy Genesee River; then Syracuse, site of the annual Great New York State Fair. Each is bustling with activity, yet the busy residents pause and wave to us as we amble through their towns. There's just something about a train that makes people stop and watch as one passes, pondering the mystery of its destination and the adventures of the passengers on board.
The Hudson River.
At Utica, the Amish families depart, drawing their cloaks against the raw wind as they cross to the clean, modern station. An antique steam engine parked just beyond the platform reminds riders of the train's evolution.
We forge past Schenectady, crossing the Hudson River, something train passengers have done since 1866 when the Hudson River Railroad built the first bridge here. Unlike modern lift bridges, the Hudson River Bridge was a turntable bridge, pivoting horizontally like a gate to allow boats to move past. Across the river, Albany looks clean and neat, like the train set I had as a kid, the buildings rising tall above the mirror reflection of the waterway.
Albany-Rensselaer is one of only two places in the country where one train becomes two. Crews divide the Lake Shore Limited and attach a new engine to the second section to form two separate trains. One will head to New York, the second will continue on to Boston, while I will remain here.
Kicking off its journey from New York's Penn Station, the Adirondack meanders along the Hudson River shoreline past places that mark military victories, cultural triumphs and natural beauty, before arriving in Albany-Rensselaer where I board.
National Geographic Traveler Magazine named the Amtrak Adirondack route "one of the world's ten best rail trips" referring to the train as "a little jewel whose scenery makes the prettiest train trip in the Eastern US." Since the National Geographic folks are a touch more well-traveled than I am, I'm inclined to believe them.
An abundance of fir trees skirt the tracks now, an indication that we're headed north where only pines and hardy deciduous trees thrive. From Chicago to Albany, warmer temps had eroded the snow cover, but here a fluffy white blanket covers the fields like a downy quilt.
Skene Manor, a Gothic-style mansion named for Whitehall's town founder, Philip Skene.
I strike up a conversation with Christine, the effervescent Assistant Conductor, who introduces me to the crew. Every one of them generously shares their travel tales and expertise about the route. About 75 miles north of Albany, we roll through Whitehall, New York. Perched like a hawk on a bluff overlooking the town sits Skene Manor, a Gothic-style mansion named for the town's founder, Philip Skene. The crew tells me that in autumn, Skene Mountain seems on fire with gold and crimson leaves.
For the next 50 miles we'll trace Lake Champlain's western shore, passing historic Fort Ticonderoga at the south end, stretching all the way to Quebec in the north.
Lead Service Attendant Scott fills me in on "Champ," the local's version of the Loch Ness Monster. Reportedly measuring between fifteen and fifty feet, Champ's been hanging out in the lake and causing trouble for some time. One would think that these sightings might be limited to those with more "active imaginations" (i.e., unicorn and leprechaun spotters) but even upstanding citizens like Samuel de Champlain claim to have seen him as far back as 1609. In 1819 local farmers reported missing livestock with "drag marks leading to the shore." I scan the open water for the critter, but all is calm.
Perhaps Champ is feeling shy today. In the meantime, the crew points out several bald eagles soaring high above the lake, as well as a lone eagle majestically perched atop a beaver dam.
We make a few brief stops in small towns along our route, first at Port Henry, where the historic chateau-style station doubles as a local community center, then at Westport, where the Depot Theatre still hold professional performances.
Slick stalactites of ice form natural twisting sculptures along the mountainside.
From Westport, the train climbs upward into the Adirondacks, the gradual incline barely noticeable but the scenery impossible to ignore. To our right the jagged mountain stone is ornamented with slick, white stalactites of ice, natural twisting sculptures formed by melting snow seeping down from the mountaintop. To our left, Lake Champlain's churning blue waves brush trees and shoreline in a graceful dance. We are fast approaching Port Kent, home of the Ausable Chasm, otherwise known as "The Grand Canyon of the East." Formed by the Ausable River millions of years ago, its drawn visitors since the 1870s as the nation's first tourist attraction.
We pause long enough at Rouses Point for Conductor Jeff to manually switch the tracks, and soon after, reach Cantic, the Canadian customs checkpoint where officials board the train to check passports. Outside, the sun's just setting, purple clouds huddled together in a violet sky. After a time, we're underway again, and as we creep into the first small towns, I notice that all the signs are written in French.
Even though it's the coldest day the city's endured in weeks, I'm still eager to go exploring. Clipping my mittens to my sleeves and donning extra long underwear, I plunge head first into the experience that is Montreal. [continued...]