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Biking the Erie Canal Trail

by paul spencer Mon Oct 20th, 2008 at 04:14:49 PM EST

I like to visit Niagara Falls about once every ten years on average; so, when two friends suggested a bicycle tour along the Erie Canal, it seemed a good time to keep my string going.  We planned it for the Autumn season to try to capture the Fall colors, too - plus side-trips to see some old Buffalo friends and neighborhoods, some Finger Lakes wineries, Cooperstown (baseball and James Fenimore Cooper), Albany (Nelson Rockefeller's imperial capitol), and Fort Ticonderoga (first victory of the colonists against the British troops).


Bob and Nina tried this trip previously and ran into The Big Summer Storm, which literally made the roads - let alone the trail - impassable. They used the successful parts of their experience to schedule the daily rides and to reserve motel rooms and B&Bs along the way. Plus they had found a couple of exceptional restaurants which turned out to be as good as advertised.

Mirta and I arrived a day earlier, so that we could reconnoiter the Westside neighborhood where she grew up and where we lived when we were first married. Her family's old apartment was torn down, but the concrete steps that her father and I built on the neighbor's house were still there.

The trail starts in the northwest corner of Buffalo, where Lake Erie starts to run into the Niagara River.
This area was the hub of water traffic from the Great Lakes drainage to the Northeastern states for many years with grain elevators, docks, cranes, warehouses.  Initially, freight was transferred from lake-going ships to barges for the canal trip (opened 1825); but, when the railroads arrived, the canal was nearly abandoned.  The port itself was busy into the 1960s, because lake transport was still the cheapest means to move commodities.  The canal, too, had some resurgence with the advent of powered barges (originally, canal barges were towed by men, horses, mules).  Now there are a couple of grain elevators left for 'show', but the area has been turned into The Waterfront, complete with yacht club - somewhat emblematic of the change from a manufacturing nation to a tourist destination and playground.

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The first leg of the tour is along the Niagara River - so why not visit the Falls?  I prefer the U.S. side, because it is an official park.  Probably one of the few times that this can be said, but the Canadian side is 100% commercial with casinos, tower restaurants, t-shirt shops, etc. wall-to-wall; while the U.S. side is nearly natural (one small restaurant/gift shop concession), has several perspectives, and is intimate with the power and the beauty of the Falls.  Even the bordering village is older, more sedate, and less conspicuous.

The canal starts in a suburb north of Buffalo named Tonawanda (many aboriginal names for places in New York state - and, perhaps oddly, many names from Greek and Roman history, such as Rome, Troy, Utica, Attica, Syracuse, Ithaca).  The canal was overhauled twice, and parts of the renovations utilized the original canal.  This is the case at the western end, which has relatively modern locks, a fairly deep channel, and reenforced banks.  The next pictures are from Lockport, which has been an important part of the canal since inception.
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Parts of the bike trail use the actual towpath from the original canal - maintained for hikers and bikers.  Other parts are abandoned, and the bike path takes parallel state and county roads.  New York state marks these trails very well, and this particular one is popular enough to organize tour groups.  So the tour organizers have spray-painted symbols on the roads and trail/road junctions that show the pathway.

More surprising to me - the bike 'lanes' on the state roads were generous.  Here in Washington, they are about bike width. Moreover, there were traffic warning signs on bridge approaches, where the lanes shrunk, to "Share the Road" with bicycles. Had to share this picture, apropos of nothing, but note the bike lane width.

The trail itself is fine, tamped gravel for most of its length, and the elevation gains are slight.  On the other hand early October in New York is a crap-shoot, for sure.  However, the temperatures were cool enough to minimize perspiration, but not genuinely cold.  We did hit a headwind on a couple of occasions, plus a couple of sprinkles; but, considering the weather that we could see in the distance, we were luckier than we deserved.  (Actually, on the last day, coming into Albany, we did about 15 miles in moderate rain, plus a headwind.  But, when you're headed to the barn, you just don't mind that much.  We looked a little out-of-place, wheeling into the Crowne Plaza Hotel, but you get that stare in this part of New York no matter what you look like.)

There is no good way to bike through the Syracuse area, so we day-tripped around the Seneca and Cayuga Lakes' area via van, then moved on to the east-side of Syracuse for the next day's ride.  Upstate New York is dairy country, but wineries and vineyards are almost one-after-the-other around the Finger Lakes.  The grapes are often Concord, Catawba, Muscat, or Niagara; and the better wines are sweet.  (Most of the dryer wines that we tasted were somewhere between bearable and disgusting; but, if you don't like maple syrup, you probably won't like the 'good' wines here.)

You may know that these lakes were scraped out by the glaciers of the last Ice Age.  The retreating ice was, of course, headed North, so the lakes are more-or-less oriented North-South.  The local geology is mostly shale, which seems to break and crush readily, so it's easy to see the necessary condition for the gouging.  These pictures are from a creek that empties into Seneca Lake and that has moved upstream - 'they' say - over a kilometer from its original position at the end of the local Ice Age.  (Notice, too, the foliage.  We saw a fair amount of color in most locations, but these are my better pictures.)

Back to the dairying - for reasons of topography and politics, the local farms are very reminiscent of the French operations that I saw last Spring - at least as I understood them.  Reasonably sized fields; herds outdoors; crop rotation featuring clover or legumes; occasional mild manure smell (ever been near a 'feedlot'?); birds; large woodlots; orchards; agricultural implements on a human scale (as opposed to an industrial scale) - all in all, very attractive - except for the McCain signs.

Mid-state NY is somewhat more 'hilly', but the canal starts to meld with the Mohawk River, which is meandering toward the Hudson River.  Little Falls is really just a few cascades on the river, but, of course, that necessitated a lock, which turned out to be the deepest one of the whole project - about 13 meters.  The town was inundated in The Big Storm of two years ago, and we stayed in a B&B next to the river with a 'French' restaurant (very good, but not of Lyons quality, no doubt).  There was not a plumb wall or level floor in the whole building.  If I had dropped a bowling ball on one side of the room, I think that it would have crashed through the wall on the other side from gravitationally-derived momentum.

After Little Falls, we had our one Tour de France experience.  In Canajoharie the painted signs took us up a LONG, steep hill which finally dumped us into a high school parking lot.  We figured that some local high-schoolers had pranked us, but it turned out to be much more pedestrian.  The tour(s) have become large enough that they have to use places like high school gymnasiums or athletic fields as campgrounds.

From Schenectady to Albany, the trail is mostly asphalt or city streets.  (Bob thinks that we passed Mario Cuomo jogging on the trail with his bodyguard.  I was intently watching the 'bodyguard' who seemed to be purposefully hogging the trail.  Only time that I had noticed any such behavior on the entire trip - but, as Bob mentioned to me, in the urban sections, people rarely made eye contact, let alone a salutation; in the rural sections, people were almost invariably sociable.)

OK - the bike trip story is finished; but, if you haven't seen Nelson Rockefeller's imperial capitol, here you go.  I'm not sure that you can capture the scale of Nelson's Edifice Complex without being there.  Suffice it to say that Salem OR, Olympia WA, Springfield IL, etc. do not compete with Albany.  I guess that they don't call New York the Empire State for no reason.

Quick notes on Cooperstown: dependent on tourism, but very well done.  Several good restaurants.  First couple that we meet at the B&B are from Marysville, WA and know the son of some good friends from Stevenson.  Baseball Hall of Fame - pretty cool.  Bob says that of all the sports HofFs in the U.S., this is the best by far.  Highlight is George Carlin comparing baseball with football: "In football a field general marches the team down the field [military metaphors, etc.].... In baseball you want to be safe at home."  Fenimore Museum - beautiful location on Lake Otsego; sensational raspberry cheesecake - not too sweet; good Native American artifacts exhibits, plus 19th century U.S. paintings.

Fort Ticonderoga - Strategic control site at south end of Lake Champlain which reaches almost to the St. Lawrence Seaway, short portage to Lake George, which is the headwater of the Hudson River. Colonists under Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold snuck out on the 'peninsula' at night and captured British garrison "without firing a shot".  They kept the fort for almost 2 years, but, more importantly, took the cannons to Boston, where Washington used them to drive the British forces out.  Another beautiful location near the northern end of the Adirondacks - lots of Autumn color, but I didn't capture it in pictures.  (Met two cyclists from Tacoma, WA at the ferry dock - WA folks must not know that there's a financial problem going on - probably too remote.)

That's about it.  Went back to Buffalo for 'beef on weck' and old-friend Rosalia's (twin sister is Rosaria) cream puffs.  Visited Chicago for three days on the return for what Mirta called the "Museum Death March".  (Picture is from the 95th floor of the Hancock Building there.)

Display:
N'Yahweh (thanks) for a view of what Rotinossonni (Haudenausaune) Country has become. Used to be just deer and buffalo (yeah!, there were real western buffalo at the salt licks of Onondaga) and longhouse villages with Strawberry and Green Corn festivals and kids sneakin' off into the woods for a bit of nookie.

Edifice complex?  well, it was his State.

Sadly, i've never been to the Baseball Shrine at Cooperstown.

Well done, and glad you enjoyed the journey.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin

by Crazy Horse on Mon Oct 20th, 2008 at 05:14:06 PM EST
from the 1970s, when I lived there. I actually saw a number of Herons, an Egret, and a Bittern along the Canal - and a large flight of geese over Fort Ti. When I moved to the Pacific NW in 1979, there was hardly a large flock to be seen, let alone an Egret.

paul spencer
by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Mon Oct 20th, 2008 at 05:32:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think I can see my house from here...

What is a museum death march?  What is beef on weck?

I might have to add waterfalls to my list of fears.  

I love the fall foliage, though!

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Mon Oct 20th, 2008 at 05:29:54 PM EST
probably any museum tour where I am involved. I tend to read every description and study the exhibit and generally 'get my money's worth' of the price of admission. Plus we walked all over downtown.

'Beef on weck' is thin-sliced beef on a Kummelweck (sp?) bun (caraway seeds and salt on a hard roll) - a Buffalo-area specialty.

Separate matter - I'm about 1/4 finished with Natasha's Dance. Unfortunately, it's like War and Peace in that there are all these myriad Russian names to track.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Mon Oct 20th, 2008 at 05:41:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My wife could sympathize with Mirta.  Now my knee and lower back set some limits to the voraciousness with which I consume museums.  Great diary.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Oct 21st, 2008 at 12:55:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
  1.  I like to go to a museum and sit and look at something.  Also, I have found that it is best, when going with others, to split up and agree to meet back at a set place at a set time.  Otherwise it does drag.

  2.  Russian names, Russian schnames...  First off, it's not a novel, so there really isn't a lot of tracking to do.  Secondly, it is the diminutives which generally give people trouble.  But those are pretty easy to guess at, really.  I myself have not and do not intend to read War and Peace.  But I thought Natasha's Dance was very accessible.


"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Wed Oct 22nd, 2008 at 06:01:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
some kind of  :)  thing on certain lines when I'm corresponding with you. Here I thought that that was a particularly good joke about the Russian names. So - I am enjoying Natasha's Dance period - no qualifications, no 'jokes'.

Saw your comment in the OT concerning the antiquities issue in Iraq, so I'm going to assume that you saw that at the U of C museum. What an amazing collection for a university - it seems to show that, in some circumstances, it's better for the artifacts to be 'stolen', so that they can be preserved, displayed, and discussed as in that collection.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Wed Oct 22nd, 2008 at 09:16:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... Iroqouis Empire, which, according to a book I read last year(1), wasn't really an Empire.

(1. Jennings, Francis, The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire, 1984, ISBN 0393017192)

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Oct 20th, 2008 at 05:48:15 PM EST
Iroquois Confederacy, which was sometimes 6 Nations, including the Tuscarora.

The state employees who write the pamphlets, etc. seem to think that the rubric came from the commercial success of the Erie Canal.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Mon Oct 20th, 2008 at 05:55:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Tuscarora were Iroquoian, but for long lived further south, in what became North Carolina. The usual abuses from encroaching settlers led to a war between 1711 and 1713, after which the defeated Tuscarora were invited north by their five brother nations.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Oct 21st, 2008 at 07:10:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
We could get into a detailed discussion of this topic, but Jennings suffers from "anthro ego" disease.  Basically, the Rotinossonni never claimed to be an empire; the early anthros did, romantasizing the natives as some kind of heroic natural Romans.

One of the first true anthropological studies in the New World was written in 1851 by Lewis Henry Morgan, "League of the Iroquois."  His works were read by Marx and Engels in detail.  While he got many details of daily life more or less, he widely missed the basis of Rotinnosonni culture.

While not being an empire, just ask Franklin and his comtemporaries whether they were crucial to the structure and relations between the colonies themselves, as well as between the colonies and England.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin

by Crazy Horse on Mon Oct 20th, 2008 at 06:07:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Jennings argues that the 'Iroquois Empire' was not an Empire ... claiming that it was an Empire was a convenient fiction for the New Yorkers in power struggles against other colonies.

Irrespective of how successfully he chronicles the League, AFAIR, the colonial records include the doubly inflated claims made on the basis of an inflated claim of the extent of Iroquois dominance and the inflation of peace treaties into a vassal status with the English crown.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Oct 20th, 2008 at 06:33:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for this fine bikelog, Paul. In that beautiful photo of the Seneca Lake creek (14th from the top), there are orthogonal carvings halfway up the cliff face on either side of the fall. Do you know anything about their history?
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Oct 21st, 2008 at 07:16:25 AM EST
I do not. But I would guess that they are geological, since the cliff face is constantly receding.

paul spencer
by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Tue Oct 21st, 2008 at 11:37:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You were in my backyard. I live on the Westside of Buffalo. I bike that trail all the time. It's actually  spectacular to the south along Lake Erie as well. Just north of Niagara Falls it's also amazing, especially Devil's Hole, which has some breathtaking rapids. The bike paths around here are sometimes converted old roads. They have put millions of dollars into the bike paths.

I once crossed the border into Canada on a bike with my wife, and I found the riding so nice and even that we went 35 miles without realizing it. We stopped at a beach on Lake Erie and had a picnic. We were 1/6th of the way to Michigan. When we got back up, our legs had cramped, and we couldn't bike more than 5 miles at a stretch. We ended up getting back to Buffalo at midnight.

by Upstate NY on Tue Oct 21st, 2008 at 09:28:37 AM EST
One more thing about Cooperstown. They have an amazing opera and theater house there, Glimmerglass, which remarkably enough draws top talent from all over the world.
by Upstate NY on Tue Oct 21st, 2008 at 09:31:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
this time of year. Beautiful site, and we heard that the acoutical quality is very good. If I sang opera (oh, I do), I would want to perform there just for the regional ambience.

paul spencer
by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Tue Oct 21st, 2008 at 11:40:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
tried for a meet-up.

We went to Santasiero's for lunch, and I have to say that they've lost the touch on their sauce. Same old local hang-out, same bar - the old folks must have died off, 'cause the food was mediocre.

Went to Wallenwein's in East Aurora for beef-on-weck, and it was as good as ever.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Tue Oct 21st, 2008 at 11:43:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That would have been nice.

It seems you know more about this area than I do, because I have been to Schwabl's. Now there's a new place to check out.

by Upstate NY on Tue Oct 21st, 2008 at 01:49:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
we went there in 2002, and it was not as good as in the old days - and the fries were brittle and cold.

Try Tony Rome's in West Seneca (not Roma's, as in the chain). Very good beef-on-weck, as well as a long list of Italian specialties.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Wed Oct 22nd, 2008 at 09:19:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ack, I hate to do this but: some background on EMPIRE and "The EGG" in Albany.

They demolished 10 city neighborhoods to build that monolith. They ripped the heart out of Albany. And made this soulless paean to bureaucracy. It's bad enough that you have beautiful gothic buildings right next door that house the state's higher education system (actually, no one in the state has any idea what goes on at SUNY central), but then to build a monstrous city within a tiny city... takes your breath away.

Albany was the brothel town for Troy, NY, which was the rich twin of Albany from 1825 to 1900 or so. The boat trade on the Hudson took place in Troy, and the sailors and traders spent nights gambling and whoring in Albany. The neighborhoods that were blown to bits by the empire were still organized under the traditional system. When I lived there, the grande dame of old Albany died at the age of 90, and her biography was beautiful, in a way. She organized 3 or 4 neighborhoods. Gambling, prostitution, all of it, with political backing of course. She ran it like a commune. The money and kickbacks and profits went to her. No one was ever starving or in bad straits. You could drink and gamble to excess. If you needed a meal or help for the family, you went to see her. Her "empire" with a little "E" was an obvious target for reclamation.

Nowadays, you see Troy used for Hollywood movie sets (such as "Ironweed" and "Age of Innocence" and Albany is pork city, i.e. lots of businesses brought in with taxpayer money).

by Upstate NY on Tue Oct 21st, 2008 at 09:37:46 AM EST
and wall-to-wall during the week - for essentially the reason that you cite. The lobbyists and 'consultants' pour in on Monday and pour out on Friday.

You can well believe that I only included those pictures for their emblematic quality - not for their architectural quality. I don't know of another state capitol that even comes close to the grandiosity, do you?

By the way - I saw a lot of yard signs for Eric Massa in the suburbs, so I take that as a good thing(?).

paul spencer

by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Tue Oct 21st, 2008 at 11:49:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Rochester is pretty liberal, even the suburbs. Unfortunately, most of the voters in that district live south of I-90, and you see quite a few confederate flags when you drive through those villages.
by Upstate NY on Tue Oct 21st, 2008 at 01:50:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I've never seen photos of Albany that I can remember before this, and the architecture certainly has a uh, commanding presence.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Wed Oct 22nd, 2008 at 03:08:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Only been once to Niagara for filming there, but the falls convey enormous natural power. The same trip we visited a Shaker Village near Albany which left a more lasting influence.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Oct 21st, 2008 at 12:21:44 PM EST

... the Canadian side is 100% commercial with casinos, tower restaurants, t-shirt shops, etc. wall-to-wall; while the U.S. side is nearly natural ...

My cultural stereotypes have been deeply disturbed :-)

urban sections, people rarely made eye contact, let alone a salutation; in the rural sections, people were almost invariably sociable.

Strangers relieve the boredom :-)  

Good to see another personal experience diary - from a male ! :-)


Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Tue Oct 21st, 2008 at 03:15:43 PM EST
When I take bike trips through Canada, inveitably I pass a man-made lake surrounded by campers, mullets and confederate flags.

I'm not joking.

That's not to say Canada isn't a diverse country, with impressive metropolitan cities. It is.

But there is certainly a good mix of political views.

by Upstate NY on Wed Oct 22nd, 2008 at 01:31:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]

My image of Canada is very influenced by Mike Moore's comparison with the US in his Columbine shooting film. Doors unlocked in a city !

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.
by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Fri Oct 24th, 2008 at 05:18:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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