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A Different Way to Travel NY State: Cycling the Erie Canal

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Erie Canal Cycling

Stress-less Cycling along the Erie Canal

Erie Canal, Photo by Eric MollThe Erie Canal was pretty instrumental in the early economic growth of Rochester, as well as Buffalo and even New York City, but its downfall was rapid once highways showed up to replace it. I-90 actually takes the same basic path as the Erie Canal. It finished the job started by the railroads, one of which also takes the same path as the canal. It turns out that the only sort of people still getting much use out of the canal are those who generally like to avoid highways whenever humanly possible: bikers, hikers and joggers, not to mention cross-country skiers and people who ride horses and so on. For these people, the Erie Canal is still the best way to travel across New York State. It’s popular both with long-distance cyclists leaving Maine with dreams of California and the Pacific Northwest and also with their less ambitious counterparts. I’m in the latter category, using the canal for day trips rather than actual touring.

Riding along the canal, it’s easy to imagine it as a slow, languid river. It’s only when passing locks, either the overgrown/rusting historic sites or the ones that are still being used to raise or lower boats that you remember that the whole thing was cleared and dug by men and mules. If you were public schooled anywhere in New York, you probably learned more than you ever wanted to know about the building of the Erie Canal. Because William Jefferson Clinton was president during the time I attended elementary school and received my state-mandated education about how the canal project was started by Governor DeWitt Clinton, I usually imagine Bill, at his portliest, wearing a tweed jacket, top hat and possibly a monocle or pince-nez, overseeing chain-gangs of sweaty barebacked men with handlebar moustaches who toil through mosquito infested swamps. I recall something about terrible tolls from malaria along the way—workers’ bodies buried under the canal every 200 meters, that sort of thing. Maybe not 200 meters, maybe like every mile or something.

Swamp fever is of almost no concern on the modern Erie Canal. In fact, with less time spent adjacent to noisy, busy roads than the Seaway Trail, which runs from Charlotte to Irondequoit bay, fewer joggers and dog-walkers than the Genesee River Trail, and smoother surfaces than the Genesee Valley Greenway or the Lehigh Valley trail, the canal is pretty much the best place for truly stress-free cycling.

erie canalThe path is long, straight, and well shaded by trees in most places. Expect more houses and joggers as the canal passes through Rochester (and over the Genesee River), and also along its western limits in Buffalo, as well as Albany. In the Rochester area, the trail becomes less crowded east of Fairport—almost lush in the summertime with overgrown forests hanging low from the weight of grape vines. As the suburbs fall behind, wildlife starts to appear. Chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels and various small birds and larger raptors can be seen all day. Around sunset, when the numbers of boats and cyclists really drop off, the more solitary and majestic creatures can be seen. I have personally seen the same pair of Great Blue Herons on several different occasions. The male seems acclimated to bikes and tends to stand in the water with an apparent air of unconcerned contemplation as I ride within five feet of him. When I try to approach on foot, he unfolds six feet of blue-grey wing and soars to the other side of the water, croaking in protest.

Especially in the evening, it’s possible to ride for miles on the canal without seeing a single boat. Commerce on the Erie Canal is pretty sparse these days. There’s actually been a tiny resurgence in commercial shipping over the last few years due to the high cost of fuel, but it’s piddles compared to the tonnage moved up and down it in its heyday. Economically, the canal is more important as a place for automobile-driving tourists to take pictures, buy kitschy canal memorabilia and pay too much for lunch than it is as a shipping lane. Pretty much every town along the canal has some sort of “Canal Days” or “Canal Fest” at some point during the summer.

The boat traffic is mostly pleasure craft. Judging from the homes and docks along the canal, it must be pretty passé to have canal-side property and not own a boat as well. Party boats seem to be the most numerous, some of which are elaborately decorated according to some theme (tropical riverboats with bamboo and fake leaves, for example), but there are also some pontoon boats, houseboats and yacht-style ships.

canal signUnless you count the dozens of people who take 60-minute dinner cruises on floating restaurants sporting corny names like The Colonial Belle, there are usually more people traveling on the paths alongside the canal than there are on the actual water. There are enough touring cyclists traveling the canal at any given time to create a kind of community. If you’re starting a tour, don’t expect anything as developed as you’d find among hikers on the Appalachian trail, with established hostels and so on, but expect to meet plenty of other cyclists. Bike shops along the way, such as RV&E Bikes in Fairport, provide repairs, spare parts, and day rentals for short trips. During the second week of July, hundreds of cyclists participate in the Cycling The Erie Canal Tour and ride from Buffalo to Albany. It does cost money to formally participate in the ride, but the ticket includes perks like meals along the way, campsite reservations, and tent and air mattress rentals. Registration for the next ride begins on January 1, 2012.

Eric Moll is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our new City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.




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