On the Right Path

When Michelle Benjamin got involved with the Catharine Valley Trail more than 10 years ago, she had no idea the joy she’d experience while watching it grow. From concept to reality, Benjamin has been with the project from the start, and is now president of the Friends of the Catharine Valley Trail.

“I’m one of the lucky ones who has been with the project from the beginning,” said Benjamin. “I’ve been so excited to see it develop and all the pieces come together.”

Originally the idea of the late Elmira lawyer Ed Hoffman, the trail, when completed, will connect Watkins Glen with Mark Twain State Park in Horseheads. Hoffman started developing plans for the trail in the mid-to-late ’90s and began talking with New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation to find funding.

“When completed, the Catharine Valley Trail will be a 12-mile, multi-use pathway,” Hoffman. “Most of the trail is on portions of abandoned Northern Central Railroad and Chemung Canal towpath corridors in New York’s Finger Lakes Region. The trail spans Schuyler and Chemung counties, passing through the communities of Watkins Glen, Montour Falls, Millport and Pine Valley to Horseheads.”

Although Hoffman passed away just before the first section of trail was completed, his vision lives on and is enjoyed by many people. “The trail certainly would not have happened without Ed’s dedication and the groundwork he laid,” said Benjamin. Hoffman’s widow, Joy, is still very involved in trail efforts, as she attends every ribbon cutting and opening event, Benjamin said.

While the trail is owned and maintained by New York State Parks, Friends of the Catharine Valley Trail is a citizen group that advocates getting the trail done and lets people know about it. “We publicize the trail,” said Benjamin. “We have events on the trail, make brochures, write newsletters and maintain the website.”

What makes it work
Made with crushed limestone, the trail is ADA wheelchair accessible, so it’s wide and perfect for biking, walking, and running, said Benjamin. Because the ground is level, it is ideal for wintertime activities like cross country skiing and snowshoeing.

“There are wooded sections, and then there are sections where you’re walking along creeks and creek beds,” said Benjamin. “Some sections are a little close to the road, but a lot of times, it veers away from the road so it’s quite serene and peaceful.”

Every year, New York State Parks tries to finish at least one section of the trail. In 2008, a section entering into the village of Watkins Glen was completed, with the trail reaching the lakefront. At the annual meeting for the Friends of the trail, “dedicated Trail Stewards” had the opportunity to walk the path from Seneca Harbor Park on Harbor Drive down Decatur Street to the Watkins Glen High School.

In 2009, New York State Parks worked on the section from Millport to Mark Twain State Park.

Although she has yet to walk the entire trail, Benjamin has walked certain sections. “I’ve walked a few miles at a time,” she said. “If you’re going to walk, it’s going to take a while. I see more and more bikes on the trail.”

Education on the go
Whether walking, biking, riding in a wheelchair or snowshoeing, the trail can serve as more than just a fun afternoon – it can also be extremely educational. “Every completed section has a kiosk which has maps and some historical information,” said Benjamin.

In Millport, for example, the information in the kiosk covers the mills that used to be there. It also informs the public about the history of the railroads and canals that used to be in the area. To complement the kiosks, the Friends have published a brochure series, which is available on its website, www.cvtfriends.elmirampo.org.

“We have a general brochure,” said Benjamin. “We have a transportation brochure that tells how we’ve gone from canal to horses to railroad to cars, and we also have a geology brochure,” which discusses the history of the region and how it came to be.”

While kids may not appreciate the history aspect of the trail quite as much as their parents might, there is a brochure made especially for youth that will help them learn in a fun way. “We have a little checklist of the animals you might see along the trail. The plants, the trees – you just check them off as you’re going along,” said Benjamin.

Many contribute to completion
As far as funding goes, New York State Parks provides most of the money needed to make the Catharine Valley Trail project a reality. “A lot of that has come through state funding with federal funding,” said David Peterson, a representative of State Parks. “So, they’ve matched part of that. Some of the construction we’ve had has come through federal transportation dollars as well.”

Although the money from Parks pays for the construction in terms of materials and staffing to physically build miles, a lot of the completion of the trail is a community effort.

“There are a lot of towns and villages and even two counties involved because of the way the trail runs from Schuyler County down through Chemung County,” said Benjamin. “There have really been a lot of intergovernmental efforts to get things done on the trail as well. If there was a mowing project or a cleaning project or guardrails needed to be installed, a lot of different towns and villages have chipped in as well.”

Although both history and nature walks are regularly scheduled, special events draw large numbers of people, especially runners. Every June, the Live Like Liz 5K run/walk for ovarian cancer awareness brings roughly 400 people. And last August, the Finger Lakes Runners Club sponsored the first-ever path marathon there. The local district of the Lions Club also puts the trail to good use for its fundraising events each year.

“We’re seeing more and more groups utilizing the trail as well,” said Benjamin, “whether in a formal aspect like with a public event or even just tourist groups coming through.”

Facing the Future
The Catharine Valley Trail is always searching for new “Friends” to advocate for its completion and continued presence in the region. “Trail Stewards” help improve the quality of the experience for all visitors. According to the website, “Their principal roles are to use their local knowledge to assist others in emergency situations, to recognize and report problems with the Trail, and to offer visitors information about the Trail, local services, activities and attractions.”

If you are interested in becoming a “Trail Steward” or member of the Catharine Valley Trail, visit www.cvtfriends.elmirampo.org for information.

Or if you simply want to relax, get back to nature, and explore the historical beauty of the Finger Lakes Region, take a stroll down the trail. It will surely become a lifelong “Friend.”

by Kimberly Price

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