Hosted by AmericanTrails.org
By Bob Searns, American Trails Board
Along The Mohawk River Near Schenectady
It was the "Moon Shot" of the 19th Century. When first conceived in the 1600's, the notion of digging a waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes was almost incomprehensible. That was a time when horse-drawn wagon was the most advanced means of overland travel.
In 1816, undaunted, Dewitt Clinton and other visionaries of his time decided it could be done. Nine years later the Erie Canal opened, a continuous waterway running 350 miles from Albany to Buffalo. Today, a bike trail is being built along that historic corridor using much of the old towpath. Completing the trail the entire distance will probably take much longer, but the vision is there.
To foster that vision, the New York State Parks and Conservation Association sponsors a ride that covers the entire corridor. Part of the ride is on bike paths; part is on highway shoulders; and for part of the way, near Syracuse, you ride on a single-track path beaten through grass. Following is an eight-day diary of that incredible trail journey.
Saturday, July 7: We arrived in Buffalo, and 150 riders gathered at the Nichols Prep School. At dinner Carl Burgwardt, curator of the Peddling History Bicycle Museum in the nearby town of Orchard Park, told us that it was bicycle technology that led to the airplane and the automobile. He also told us that the American road system was first championed by League of American Wheelmen to facilitate bicycle travel. It is ironic that today bicyclists must fight for every sliver of peddling space, even though one of every eight people on earth owns a bicycle the same ratio as 100 years ago!
Right around sunset it started to rain and many of us decided to sleep in the school's hockey rink. Somehow the intrinsic energy of a hockey rink is not conducive to sleep, so I sneaked out to the dugout on the ball field and camped there. It rained all night.
Fields Near Lockport
Sunday, July 8: We set out toward the Niagara River in a cooling, misty rain. We rode through the old Buffalo neighborhoods that housed generations of Polish and Italian workers and merchants, past churches, taverns, bowling alleys and restaurants. At the river we picked up the Niagara River Trail which now runs along the Buffalo waterfront from Lake Erie toward Niagara Falls. We passed rusting industrial sites being taken over by foliage. Even in the rain there were people out on the trail, families on bikes. I was especially intrigued by a heavy-set middle-aged man in coveralls (Buffalo is not a "spandex" place) and his daughter, both on roller blades.
Further along, there was a Sunday morning revival session going on right in the middle of the trail. A woman was preaching hell fire and brimstone while the crowd nodded amen. I cut a detour onto the grass and slipped around behind, being careful not to spill my bike.
Shortly after that the trail turns east and follows Tonawanda Creek. That was the beginning of the Canal; the trail winds along the creek bank fronting more homes through Amherst, NY, and on to Lockport. At Lockport we see the first locks of the Erie Canal and break for lunch. On a map I notice a waterway called Murder Creek and recall that this area was once "home" to Tim McVeigh.
We followed the towpath out of Lockport through Gasport, Middleport, and on to Medina. We waved at pleasure boaters cruising lazily along the canal. The rural landscape there was amazing. Fields of corn, beans, and alfalfa stretch to the horizon. There were no power lines, metal buildings, or other 20th Century artifacts anywhere in sight. The landscape looked exactly the way it must have 100 years ago. The steel truss lift bridges crossing the canal, and the American Gothic homes and churches also date back to another era. Economic stagnation sometimes has its benefits.
Along The Erie Canal, a section still used by boats
We reached Medina early in the afternoon and pitched our camp at a middle school playground field but not before stopping to enjoy frozen custard, a Western New York delicacy. I met up with Jeff Olson, a major trail and greenway guru and the one who instigated my taking this trip. Right before sunset we made a beer run on our bikes. The girl behind the counter could not believe we were riding across the state. She said she wants to get a bike.
Monday, July 9: The sun was out as we set out for Pittsford. We discovered a hidden waterfall off the road in the town of Holley where a girl and her mother were fishing. We stopped for lunch in Brockport at the Mythos Cafe, a great Greek restaurant complete with baklava and Turkish coffee. When you bike fifty miles you can eat with impunity! Later that day, riding along Rochester's extensive greenway system, we debated taking a side trip up the Genesee River. We opted instead for an impromptu scrimmage at a trailside soccer field. In late afternoon we arrived at Pittsford where shops and restaurants occupy the old canal-side industrial buildings.
Tuesday, July 10: Along this stretch of smooth, paved trail we passed more fields and hamlets. Savvy developers have taken advantage of the canal trail amenity, and there are new town homes mixed in with the older building. Some folks took a detour to visit the farmhouse of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church. That night we camped in Waterloo. A bunch of us found a great Italian restaurant and once again ate well without remorse. That night during a huge thunderstorm the rain pounded, and the lightning hit so close it rattled my tent. I wondered if lightning can pass through a rain fly.
Wednesday, July 11: I rode alone mostly on back farm roads that parallel the canal corridor. It threatened to thunder again as I rode through the Montezuma Wildlife refuge. The rain held off and by noon I made it to Camillus for a visit to Sims Store, a re-creation of a 19th Century general store along a restored section of the old canal. By mid-afternoon I rolled into the downtown Syracuse plaza, and stopped to listen an Italian crooner who was belting out vintage Como, Sinatra and other Solo Mio material.
Thursday, July 12: We rode through Old Erie Canal State Park that follows the historic old canal on the old towpath now a trail running along through a serene 19th Century landscape from Syracuse to Rome. We also visited the restored locks and dry docks at the Chittenango Canal Museum.
Erie Canal Towpath Near Fairport
Friday, July 13: Departing Rome, we entered the Mohawk Valley. The Mayor and police met us just outside of Utica, and with his Honor leading the way on his bike we rode into town. The police then escorted us to the Utica Club brewery where we sampled Saranac Lager and other brews thoroughly. Utica's Finest, on bikes and in squad cars, then escorted us out of town. Fortunately there was no traffic on the back roads.
By late afternoon we arrived in Canajoharie in the heart of the Mohawk Valley. Tom Porter, a Mohawk holy man, spoke to us about what the valley was like when it was still part of the Iroquois Nation. He told us of his grandfather's pain when, at fourteen, he was taken from his family and sent to Arizona to "Indian School," and how he escaped to find his way back. He reminded us of how the fathers of our country learned much about our democratic form of government from the Iroquois, and how we had better wake up soon before we destroy Mother Earth's capacity to sustain us.
Saturday, July 14: From Canajoharie to Schenectady we followed the Mohawk through the "Big Nose" and "Little Nose" land formations. The only water-level passage through the Appalachian Mountains, this was the gateway to the west in the 18th Century and the site of decisive battles in the Revolutionary war. Segments of the original stone and wood locks of the Erie Canal can be seen here. We camped out on the Union College campus in Schenectady.
Sunday, July 15: The home stretch from Schenectady to Albany followed the paved Mohawk-Hudson Bikeway along the Mohawk, then south along the Hudson. Part of the trail runs on top of the old Mohawk and Hudson, the first intercity railway in the U.S. We passed high school girls running cross-country on the trail while cursing their coach for working them so hard. Jeff and his seven-year-old daughter joined the ride again and we cruised on into Albany triumphantly ending the ride near downtown.
"Mega trails" are pathways that cross entire states, even nations. The concept of mega-trails seems to be coming into its own. I learned from the Erie Canal trip that the notion of an "interstate highway" of trails is a concept whose time has come. It is not a new idea. After all, the first person to cross the country using his own mechanized vehicle did it on a bicycle. More recently, the proposed interconnected national network of trails using old railroad lines such as Missouri's Katy Trail has set an excellent example. The Appalachian Trail, the Colorado Trail, and the Arizona Trail are mega-trails. When completed, the East Coast Greenway and the American Discovery Trails will also be mega-trails.
A decade ago, I doubted the validity of long distance trails. Who would ride that far? At first, I wasn't sure I could go the distance on the Erie Canal, but 73-year-old Howard Harris convinced me. He's ridden all over the county and made the trip handily. Being over twenty years his junior, the 150 or so of us 40- and 50-something riders had no excuse. But we all made it, mostly without mishap except a couple cases of road rash and a flat tire or two. More importantly, we all made it without undo strain while thoroughly enjoying the ride.
In addition, we all went home with a new appreciation of New York's cultural landscape that you could not experience from a car or plane, and a proud sense of accomplishment that we had conquered an entire state by muscle power alone.
Some of the towns along the Erie Canal are struggling to maintain their economic integrity and indeed their identities. With the glory days of canal commerce, and the early 20th Century industry that followed, now long gone, these communities need a new shot in the arm. It struck me, as a bunch of us riders went out for dinner at Amandrea's Italian Restaurant in Waterloo, NY, that collectively the tour probably spent $2000 in that small town on one meal alone. If you figure lodging at the local hotels and B&B's— even though many of us slept in the town park that night—that figure might have topped $8,000 to $10,000. The point here is that there is a growing market of long distance bike tour enthusiasts likely to expand even more as aging yet fit baby-boomers move into retirement. Yes, bicycle tourists buy more than just granola bars and bottles of water, though we bought a lot of those too.
Mega-trails like the Erie Canal Trail are perfect facilities for this kind of recreation. Once the entire trail from Albany to Buffalo is completed, the corridor will no doubt draw tens of thousands of visitors annually, bringing both tourism dollars and redevelopment to communities like Pittsford and Fairport that showcase the canal trail as a hometown amenity.
I now have two states under my belt— Missouri and New York, thanks to their mega-trails. I'm working on Colorado this year and hope to be able to draw a "have bicycled the distance line" from coast to coast in five years or so. By then, I hope that we will be well on our way toward creating a coast-to-coast trail and greenway network.
Bob Searns, Chair of the American Trails Board, is a greenways and trails development consultant, and Founding Associate of The Greenway Team, Inc., a company that assists communities and organizations across America.
For general information on the Erie Canalway Trail, visit these websites:
The following resources also are available from Parks & Trails New York:
Read more about long-distance rides and trails at www.AmericanTrails.org/resources/long