Riding the rails

The Skunk Train now has railbikes!

The Skunk Train Rail Bikes

 What exactly are railbikes? Rather a lot like they sound, railbikes are pedal-powered vehicles designed specifically for use on railroad tracks. A resurgent trend rolling around the globe, these contraptions have been around in various shapes and forms since the late 1800s.

 The antecedent to the railbike was the Sheffield velocipede, patented by George Sheffield in 1879. This light, hand-powered vehicle allowed railroad workers to more efficiently inspect long stretches of track, eventually giving way to the more well-known handcar. Soon, the idea of traveling along the rails using just muscle power sparked the creation of bicycle-like machines that private individuals could use. By the early 1900s, there were even several patents for gizmos that could take any street-worthy bike and adapt it to the railroad lines. The popularity of this particular form of transportation went downhill though due to the rise of cars and motorcycles.

 Fast forward to modern day.  Now that trains are no longer the primary mode of long-distance transportation, there is more and more abandoned track just begging for someone to come along and use it, and with more folks looking to get outdoors and active, cycling the rails has experienced a veritable explosion of popularity in recent years around the world. There are all sorts of variations out there too, with models that ride upright like a normal bike, recumbent models that ride low to the ground, two seaters, four seaters, single seaters, and who knows what else!

 Our very own Skunk Train up in Fort Bragg joined the fun with custom-made railbikes just last year. These recumbent two seaters have an optional motorized assist to help out on the little bits of hill, making them more accessible to those of us that don’t work out every day. So far, they’ve been incredibly popular, and we’d been hearing about them from so many people that we decided we needed to check them out for ourselves.

 Always up for an adventure, we arrived at the train depot for our orientation full of excitement. The young man at the ticket counter smiled at our enthusiasm as he handed us our tickets, brochure, and a map to the starting point. We drove the couple of blocks over, and since we had arrived extra early, we got to chat with the guides as they got all the bikes ready for the group tour. Once the rest of the riders arrived, we still had to wait for the morning train to go by, but finally, the track was clear, the guides lined up the bikes on the rails, and away we went. We pedaled like mad to get in the flow as the group spread out, perhaps keeping our thumb on that battery backup most of the way. Gliding alongside Pudding Creek and through the trees, we felt like giddy little kids, eager to experience everything this new mode of fun had to offer.

 Our initial excitement at being out on the railbikes was not diminished at any point during the whole of the beautiful 7-mile round trip ride. We delighted in the intimate view of nature the rails afforded us, pointing out to each other the nesting pair of Canadian geese on the creek, two deer peering out from the screen of redwoods, blossoming wildflowers tucked in amongst the lush spring grasses, and turkey vultures gracefully supervising everything from above. Also, seeing the old rail ties roll by right under our feet made us feel personally connected in some little way to the rich history of the logging community for whom this line was extremely vital for close to a century.

We had a peaceful moment at the turn-around point, meandering around the meadow-like space and gawking up at the redwoods. Once we flipped our machines around, the ride back seemed to fly by, and before we knew it, we were slowing to a stop right where our adventure had begun about an hour earlier. We disembarked amidst cheery adieus from the guides and other riders and strolled off for a well-earned lunch, still just as enamored of the whole experience as we had been at the outset.

 So are the Skunk Train’s railbikes worth adding to your itinerary during your next visit to Mendocino? We would most definitely respond with a resounding, “Yes!”

Written by Laura Hockett