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East Amherst man spearheads upcoming hiking series on Finger Lakes Trail

Marty and Donna Ruszaj have always embraced healthy, outdoor living, so when they discovered regional hiking clubs four years ago, it was a natural fit.

The East Amherst couple – both chemists in their mid-50s who are featured in Saturday’s What are you Eating? story in WNY Refresh – have been hiking for four years in Western New York with the Foothills Trail Club. Two years ago, they also latched on to an affiliate club, the Finger Lakes Trail Conference, so they could hike a little farther afield.

Members of the two organizations regularly set out on parts of the 177-mile Conservation Trail, which meanders southeast from Niagara Falls to the Pennsylvania border.

“The Conservation Trail is just about in our backyard, where Paradise Road intersects near Casey Road in East Amherst,” Marty Ruszaj said. “It’s part of the old Peanut Railroad Line. That’s an east-west line that goes into the Clarence Bike Path. We saw that this trail always existed near our house and low and behold, we found that this trail was part of this 1,000-mile section of trails which weaves through New York State, which is the Finger Lakes Trail.”

That trail, founded in 1962, is a continuous footpath that spans from Allegany State Park to the Long Path in the Catskill Forest Preserve, conference board member Dick Hubbard said in an email. “Six branch trails connect the Niagara Frontier, Genesee River Valley, Southern Tier, the Finger Lakes and Syracuse regions.” The trail connects to the Appalachian Trail in the Catskills and to the Bruce Trail at the Canadian border.

Donna Ruszaj (pronounce Rue-Shy) said she and her husband have always enjoyed hiking and wanted to turn the experience  into a social activity, too.

Hiking with the Foothills and Finger Lakes trail clubs has done the trick.

“It’s been a really good experience and it got us into really good shape,” said Donna Ruszaj, a North Tonawanda native who works at the University at Buffalo.

She met her husband, who grew up in the Kensington-Bailey neighborhood, in a lab where they both worked three decades ago. They’ve been married 28 years.

Marty Ruszaj called the Finger Lakes club “the granddaddy” of other upstate hiking affiliates, which are independent but often work in conjunction. He is acting chairman of the Finger Lakes Conference’s 2015 Cross County Hiking Series, a six-month series that starts April 18, will take place one Saturday a month, and lead participants on walks of 9 to 12 miles through rural terrain in Allegany, Wyoming and Livingston counties.

“The hikes will pass through the Genesee River Valley entering several state lands and forest,” he said. “Participants will be able to select their hiking pace from fast, medium or slow. A modest fee of $40 covers transportation by bus that will shuttle hikers from their cars to the beginning of each hike. You then hike back with your group to your vehicle.”

Hikers vary in ability, he said, and range in age from teens to late 70s. The journeys are led by experienced hikers familiar with the terrain. “Sag Wagons” will provide healthy snacks and water during parts of the hikes, which can last up to five hours.

Sign up online by April 5 by clicking here.

“They divide the group into hiking speed – people who walk at about the same pace you do – so the first time out, you find the people that you’re most comfortable with and walk with them throughout,” Donna Ruszaj said.

Last year, about 150 people signed up for the series and the number of hikers who showed up each week approached 100, depending upon the weather, Marty Ruszaj said. Smaller groups which tend to walk at the same speed usually number about a dozen; slower groups head out on most treks about an hour before faster hikers.

“You split it up so there’s not huge groups attacking the trail,” Marty Ruszaj said.

“The change in elevation at the greatest is maybe 1,000 feet,” he added. “If you’re a seasoned mountain climber, it probably isn’t that much. It still can be somewhat strenuous depending upon the slope.”

Hikers hold a picnic after the series ends.

The couple said the Foothills Trail Club has its own website,, and has scheduled hikes most days as the weather improves. Some are during the day during the summer, some are evening walks, and there are longer hikes on weekends – all over Western New York. During the winter, the group adapts and snowshoes.

“Some of the hikes are city hikes,” Marty Ruszaj said. “They’ll meet somewhere in the Elmwood Village and go to the waterfront, something like that.”

Two weekends ago, the couple hiked Letchworth State Park with the Foothills group.

It’s all good for the Ruszajs, who have marveled during hikes at Acadia National Park in Maine, atop Algonquin Peak last fall in the Adirondacks, and the far corners of western and central New York.

They hiked the Niagara Gorge earlier this month.

“We enjoy going to Niagara Falls and other places around here,” Donna Ruszaj said. “I particularly like the Erie County Forest. You walk through a lot of pine forests. You get some get exercise from climbing up some hills. It’s just really pretty.

“Anytime we’re near water, in the hills or mountains," she said, "that’s pretty much where we like to be.”


Twitter: @BNrefresh

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