Biking the Erie Canal

Peter and I just returned from biking 400 miles along the Erie Canalway Trail across the state of New York. We rode about a third of the trail last year, starting in Albany and heading west.  A few days in the heat and humidity of July 2013 was enough for that trip, so we planned to resume in May 2014.  This year we picked up where we left off in Rome NY, and continued west all the way to Buffalo.  The distance we covered was 127 miles over 4 days (2013), plus 252 miles over 6 days (2014), with many detours and stops for exploring along the way.

May was a perect time of year to ride the canal. I called it the “No sweat ride” because every day was 70 degrees and sunny, with very little threat of rain. The nights got cool, which made for great sleeping weather, especially since we planned to camp the whole way.  This segment of the trip included 6 nights outdoors, including a campsite at Delta Lake State Park the night before we hit the trail.

The "No sweat ride"

The “No sweat ride”

Day 1: Rome to Green Lakes State Park

White Cedar growing over Round Lake

Green Lakes

We started in Rome NY at the Amtrak station. It looked safe enough, so we secured my car and hoped for the best. Riding the first mile into town, we already needed lunch, and found a great little Italian shop called Rocco Gualtieri’s where we stocked up on salami and cheese.  (Which we didn’t actually eat for lunch, so we wound up getting sushi at a place near the edge of town.)

Fueled up and underway for real, we passed through the Old Erie Canal State Park, a kind of linear museum that preserves much of the old canal history.  Canastota was the first town we stopped in, and saw our first mural.  Seeing that we were approaching Syracuse, and not wanting to stay the night in the city, we pulled into Green Lakes State Park to find a campsite for the evening.  The park is beautiful, and we had many roomy, wooded sites to choose from.  With plenty of time before dark, we walked around the scenic and peaceful lakes.

Day 2: Green Lakes State Park to Weedsport

Leaving the relative wilderness, we rode into Syracuse and were immediately confronted by several monster hills.  Navigating some of the east side neighborhoods was less than intuitive.  After insisting on coffee at Dunkin Donuts, we made our way to the city center.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a sign for the Erie Canal Museum, which we’d almost passed, so we stopped and locked up our bikes to go inside.

After a museum tour, we found a booth at the classic Miss Syracuse Diner across the street for a hearty second breakfast. Now we’re talkin!

Miss Syracuse Diner, moved several blocks from its original location.

Miss Syracuse Diner

Following a walking tour brochure, we took a long walk through Clinton Square and some of the historic district.  Of the many old buildings we saw, the most magnificent was a classic Art Deco structure now home to the local power company, Niagara Mohawk.  It had fins, wings, and chrome everywhere, and a giant statue on the main tower.  Imagining it could be just as spectacular inside, we wandered into the lobby, where a surly guard yelled at us for taking pictures. Oh well, it wasn’t as impressive as the exterior anyway.

The trail took us up to the Onandaga Creekwalk, where the waterfront was being developed in a pedestrian-friendly way.  That was our last gasp of tourism, before the route took us along miles of ugly and busy roads through an industrial section of Syracuse.

Happy to see the stone dust trail again, we went through Camillus Landing, the trail’s official halfway point, and several other small and charming places.  We reached Weedsport and enjoyed some well-cared-for, clearly renovated neighborhoods on the way into town.  Spying umbrellas indicating outdoor seating, we stopped for a good meal at a local diner next to the Old Brutus Historical Society, where they were playing folk music and serving pound cake.

Donning our headlights, we rode a couple miles outside of town and found a grassy spot along the trail to camp.  Our neighbor the Beaver was not too happy about our chosen site, and slapped his tail in the canal all night long to protest our presence.

Day 3: Weedsport to Macedon

After the third jogger had gone by, we rallied and packed up camp early, and soon rolled into Port Byron.  A quick tour around town led us to the most likely spot for breakfast called Magdy’s Eats & Sweets, with a pink storefront.  Our waitress mentioned an aqueduct in her home town, Montezuma, that she promised was worth a visit.  We took a small detour on our way past, and hiked the trail to see the ruins of Richmond Aqueduct.

Mural in Port Byron

Port Byron

The route continued as a long on-road section, which was to cross the canal twice.  After the first crossing, we encountered a Road Closed sign indicating flooding beyond.  Considering it hadn’t rained in several days, while watching several cars completely ignore the sign and head down the road, we continued on keeping Plan B in mind to detour if necessary.  Plan B didn’t need to be executed, but we did find ourselves pedaling slowly through 4-6 inches of water for about 100 yards near the second canal crossing.  It washed the dust off my new bike, and was kind of fun!

The roads continued through some very charming countryside. Amish farmers worked on various jobs and animals grazed as we passed. The most impressive clothes line I’d ever seen operated on a pulley system across a wide chasm, and was loaded with clean laundry. Another farm had acres upon acres of flowering bushes, what I thought might be Crepe Myrtles.

We took a short side trip to visit Lock 26, passing a pretty lake with a large Christian cross at the end.  (I found the sign with the story on the way back. The cross was in tribute to the hard-working God-fearing family who owned the property; presumably the same family who posted all the threatening No Trespassing signs warning away strangers.  Hmmmm….)  The lock tender at Lock 26 was on the job, but since the canal was closed he relaxed with his feet up and chatted with us while we refilled our water bottles.

Clyde was kind of run down, but they did serve us a great Italian hoagie.  We walked around Lyons too, discovering many murals and the hospitable fire station (camping and showers, just ask!).  Later coming into Newark, we asked about the Hoffman Clock Museum, which is located in the local library.  Luckily it was still open, so we spent awhile poring over interesting clocks, most of them ticking along and showing the correct time.

Hoffman Clock Museum

Hoffman Clock Museum

After a stop at a Newark grocery store for snacks, we watched clouds rolling in, and several townspeople warned us rain was coming.  It gave us pause, though we weren’t really ready to stop for the day.  A quick check of the radar renewed our hope, and we continued on to Palmyra, dodging the rain entirely.  Dinner consisted of a large pizza at Mike’s, after which we headed for the campsites at Lock 30.

Day 4: Macedon to Spencerport

Waking up to the sound of phones ringing, Lock 30 quickly launched into operation.  Two New York state work boats, one buoy tender and one barge with a crane, were headed down the canal to prepare for its reopening. We’d been disappointed to see no boat traffic, and even the lock tender seemed happy that things were moving again.

Today we were going through Rochester, so I’d started a text-message thread with my friends Marc & Anna to see who might meet us for lunch.  Marc said he could sneak out of work for awhile, and met us along the canal in Pittsford.  He pointed us to a Mediterranean restaurant that served great pasta for cheap, then recommended ice cream.  Though there were several ice cream and gelato shops nearby, we followed him down the street to the Pittsford Dairy Farm for the good stuff.  As we watched them packaging containers through the window, a guy came out and let as taste fresh mango ice cream straight from the bottom of the bucket – wow!  For the final treat, we headed for a bakery where we ate sugary treats and bought a baguette for the road.

Though tempting to explore more of Rochester, we found the city roads noisy and unappealing, so we stayed on the trail. Crossing the Genesee River, we noted a flood gate that was broken, thereby stopping traffic on the canal.  A crew was working on it, but the outlook was several days for boats to get past the bottleneck.

We ended our day in Spencerport, perhaps the most cyclist-friendly town along the route. The director of the Depot gave me the code to unlock the facilities over the phone, and I enjoyed the most satisfying shower of the entire trip.  She pointed us to the front yard by the fir tree to pitch our tent, but it was awfully bright under the street light, and we moved to a darker spot.  Not far enough to avoid the air raid siren though, which fortunately didn’t blare until the next morning (they use this old relic as the town fire alarm).  We had a mediocre shrimp platter and good local beers at the waterfront restaurant before turning in.

Boardwalk in Spencerport

Spencerport

Day 5: Spencerport to Gasport

Spencerport has a great coffee shop, Cafe Macchiato, which served us egg sandwiches on croissants and cinnamon buns before we hit the trail.

Not far out of town, we passed the Adams Basin Inn, a B&B which purportedly houses the only remaining tavern room along the canal.  Just as we rode past, the bridge bell started ringing as a yacht approached, so we turned around to watch the lift bridge in action.  Several people came running up the hill from the inn to watch too, it’s probably the most exciting event in Adams Basin!

We detoured into Holley to trace the old canal bed, which made a couple sharp bends in that area before it was enlarged.  And we stopped at the trailside bike shop in Hulberton, enjoying a long chat with its enthusiastic owner.  Come back in a year or so, and he’ll have a full shop going with beds and showers for bike tourists.

At this point of our trip, the prevailing west winds started kicking up.  Cyclists most commonly start the trail in Buffalo and end in Albany, and these winds are one of the reasons why.  I struggled, feeling like I was getting kicked back just as I got going, and it definitely slowed down our pace.  But we had decided to finish the trail by Friday instead of Saturday, and we had a lot more miles to cover.  I wanted to stop, but I also didn’t want to get punished if the headwinds were just as bad or worse the next day, so we took a lot of breaks and pushed on.

Nothing to see in Knowlesville except this bridge!

Windy day

Albion didn’t have much to distract us, and Knowlesville even less.  We rolled into Medina thinking we’d have dinner and a shower, and camp somewhere in town.  But a guy flagged us down on the main street, asking about our travels and sharing his local knowledge; after many years of navigating the Erie Canal, he’d never found a good place to camp in Medina.  We ate a hearty dinner at Rudy’s Diner, then rigged up headlights to ride some more in the dark.  Wanting to chalk up as much mileage as we could to make our next (and last) day easier, we didn’t stop riding until almost 10:00 pm.  Fortunately the winds had died down some after dusk.  Peter picked a grassy spot where we fast-pitched the tent and crashed hard.

Day 6: Gasport to Buffalo

Because I’d taken notes when our friends rode the canal in August 2013, I knew of a place in Gasport for breakfast.  Talk of the Town treated us well, and the winds were less noticeable as we left town.  Navigating some on-road segments, I followed Peter’s predictable right turn when we reached the ice cream shop in Pendleton.  The apple pie sundae made us both happy.

Bye!

Right turn for ice cream!

From there a somewhat cracked and bumpy paved trail wound its way into Tonawanda.  We were both feeling a little weary by this time, and skipped the distractions in town to reach the end of the Erie Canal with great satisfaction.  When we found the spot where the canal met the Niagara River, we paused a long time, took pictures, and decided to celebrate with a beer.  Heading back towards town, we found the Yummy Thai restaurant and skipped the Thai beer but ate a great meal.

The Erie Canal ends in Tonawanda, but the Canalway trail does not.  Emboldened to push on another 12 miles to Buffalo, we realized it was going to rain for real this time.  We’d both hauled jackets and rain pants the entire way, and gladly not needed them until now, so we put on our waterproof gear.  The trip south along the Niagara River was gloomy, wet, and increasingly cold.  We decided it was typical “lake effect” weather, and we were well prepared for it, but still we were glad to finally reach Buffalo and dismount for good.

I knew from poring over maps that the final mile of the Erie Canalway went through a Naval & Military Park Museum, so I wasn’t too surprised to see ships, submarines, tanks and fighter jets along the waterfront.  I was very surprised when Peter’s memory kicked in and he said, “Hey, my Dad served in the Navy aboard that ship!” (pointing at the U.S.S. Little Rock).  It was closed for tours, so we agreed Peter would come back to visit the ship the next day while I ran the shuttle.

Discussing our exit strategy, we found the Amtrak station on Exchange Street.  It was too sketchy an area to leave our bikes locked up outside, so we checked into the Courtyard Marriott one block away.  They had only opened the hotel a week before and went out of their way to give us great service, even allowing us to secure our bikes indoors behind the loading dock.  After we took showers and figured out the next day’s agenda, we hopped on the trolley and went uptown to Dino’s Barbecue, where we celebrated with a couple of long-awaited and much-deserved New York state brews.

We've biked the whole canal!

Erie Canal meets Niagara River

Link to photo gallery

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~ by pasadenagina on June 1, 2014.

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