The Erie Canalway Trail: A Real Gem

Hats off to the New York State Canal Corporation for developing and maintaining a trail that parallels a significant stretch of the 360 mile Erie Canal that runs between Buffalo and Albany, NY.  The nearly 100 mile stretch that runs from Lockport to Palmyra was my playground for nearly two days of riiding.  Though I’m typically not a fan of flat, unpaved trails, this was a real treat and a nice break from riding on roads.  The sights and sounds of the canal are varied and interesting. Lift bridges, locks, small covered barges, canal towns (e.g., Brockport, home of Jeff Cherwonik, one of my Technomics colleagues) rich in history and vast apple orchards are all part of the landscape of this trail.  By the way, my favorite town welcome sign along the canal reads “Gasport, population just right.”

The trail varies in width and is at points narrow enough to carry on a conversation with people traveling in boats, barges, kayaks, etc.    This is made possible by the path’s proximity to the canal and speed limitations imposed on motorized boats.  I crossed paths with a variety of other cyclists, day and touring, over the course of a couple days.  There were a couple guys from Minneapolis riding from Cleveland to Maine and there was a local guy, Jack, who rides his recumbent on a section of the trail 4-5 times per week.  Jack described himself as Walter Mitty-like and I totally buy it.  He was very familiar with the Northern Tier route we’ve been following by virtue of being a fan of blogs other touring cyclists post on the Crazy Guy on a Bike website.  He was sincerely interested in any/all details I was willing to share and genuinely appreciated my willingness to stop and talk.  There was a Canadian husband, wife and small son that were doing various day rides on the trail.

I ended my first day on the trail at Jeff’s house in Brockport (less than two miles from the trail).  Had a good visit and meal with Jeff, his wife and their family and hit the trail the following morning for a day that included 40 trail and then 36 road miles leading to Sodus Point on Lake Ontario.  I was the beneficiary of some serious generosity from one of the many RV owners who were ‘camping’ in the campground I called home for the night.  Upon arriving, Diedre (Albany resident with thick Irish accent) offered me a beer.  In the morning, she greeted me with a cup of coffee and fed me, her husband, a couple who are their good friends and another stranger (a cowboy from Oklahoma traveling the country in his pickup) the best breakfast I’ve had this trip.  Like many that Hank and I have encountered during our travels, they were all very interested in details about our trip.

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BIG CITY, BIG FALLS, BIG CHANGE

The great scenery (kite surfers included) and relative calm of my ride along Lake Erie came to an abrupt end when I entered Buffalo via some ‘interesting’ neighborhoods that were vehicle, people and noise filled, a stark reminder of just how great the countless small towns we’d visited across the country proved to be. I’d left the land of “we don’t lock our homes and cars.”

Truth be told, I believe I only have myself to blame for my route into the big city.  For better or worse (mostly the former), we have solicted advice from locals and consulted our good friend, Google, in search of alternate routes at different points during our ride.  Call us stupid, but neither Hank nor I realized that Google provides driving, walking and cycling directions from point A to B.  Anyway, the Adventure Cycling Association maps we’ve been using suggested one route and and the advice I got from a guy and the related details from Google lead me to follow a route that seemed more fitting for a video game in which you get points for avoiding obstacles … cars, potholes, dogs, scary people, etc.

Eventually I made it into the city in search of the area that’s home for Food Truck Tuesday, which turns out to be a real happening in a re-developed part of Buffalo that includes a brewery and distillery.  However, I didn’t make it without getting lost and stopping at a firehouse for directions that came with a warning that three ‘bad’ blocks stood between me and my destination.   Regardless, I made it and enjoyed everything the happening had to offer. In doing so, I made friends with a cop who confirmed that there were no campgrounds in the city, but that there were reasonably priced motels within a few miles and convenient to my route out of town to Niagara Falls the next day.  I also made friends with a guy pushing his BBQ sauce outside the brewery.  I declined his offer of two free bottles (didn’t want the extra weight) and agreed to be photographed holding his product for FB advertising sake.

I escaped Buffalo for Niagara Falls and beyond the next morning via a route that was  just as suspect as my entry route. In fact, I stopped at a police station along the route to inquire about the surroundings … “bad neighborhoods until I cross the train tracks but no one should bother me.”

Despite the route calling for me to experience the falls from Canada and ride roughly 20 miles before returning to the US, I opted to stay on the US side.  The views were great, but the place was packed with other tourists, a good reason to get some pictures and head down the road to Lockport, the first town on the Erie Canal and origin of the Canalway Trail that I’d follow for roughly 100 miles over the next couple days.  My ride from the falls to Lockport was a good introduction to NY’s hills,  which would come into play when I leave the canal trail.

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LAKE ERIE: RICK’S NEW AMIGO

Forth largest of the five Great Lakes in surface area, Lake Erie proved to be a worthy riding companion in the absence of Hank.  For the better part of a couple days, I followed roads in OH, PA and NY that kept me relatively close to the water.  My proximity to the lake and the associated views was the good news.  The lake-induced head and cross winds was the bad news requiring the power of positive thinking.  My first day solo proved momentous in that I consumed road in three states — 11 in OH, then 37 in PA and finally 23 in NY — in route to Barcelona, NY.

PA and NY brought a welcome alternative to the acres and acres of corn and soybeans that dominated the landscape in IA, IL, IN and parts of OH in the form of grapes.  In fact, those nasty winds had me wondering whether wine-filled water bottles might just be what the doctor ordered.  I flirted with paying a visit to a PA vineyard tasting room just off the road, but decided it might be a habit-forming obstacle to cycling success.  I sought advice from another cyclist headed from Albany, NY to Nashville, TN to master the mandolin (it’s sticking out of his front right pannier … note that he’s playing air-mandolin) and watch the eclipse.  He supported my decision.

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NY brought me very close to the lake; in fact close enough to enjoy lunch, dinner and a sunset next to the water.  Pretty sweet payoff for a long day in the saddle.image

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Ohio


A storm literally blew us into Ohio.  The preceding winds of a fairly large thunderstorm system provided the speed to outrun the heavy rains and we landed in Napolean.  Our motel choice was suspect, but it was about to really rain.  The next morning our negative impressions were confirmed when we spoke with the officer from code enforcement.  You get what you pay for.


The skies were getting quickly cleaned up by a honking west wind.  This was one of the strongest sustained winds we experienced the entire trip and it was a tailwind.  Breaks down by the river, ice cream and short time in the saddle were the benefits of this friendly gale.

The Maumee River at Grand Rapids, Ohio

Fantastic Ice Cream – raspberry shake was epic


The flags were taking a beating in this wind.


We were able to meet up with a couple we went to Wake Forest with and who have been close friends ever since.  Scott and Preston Beck picked us up in Vermilion on Lake Erie and helped us skip 45 miles of Cleveland city riding.  Instead we ate beef tenderloin, admired Scott’s latest woodworking projects, and got to visit Chagrin Falls and see Preston’s shop.

Vermilion Beach at Lake Erie


Preston and Scott Beck at the shop


This whole thing has been one big shopping trip, boats, tractors…



Birdseye and other maple – Scott mills his own lumber and has pursued this art form since college.


Rick and I wrapped up our riding time together as he continued on to Bar Harbour, Maine and I head south towards Pittsburgh.  We will try to keep posts going to chronicle Rick’s travels and will hopefully collaborate on some end-of-trip notes after he has finished.  We rode just less than 3,000 miles and Rick still has over 1,000 more to go.  

We had talked about doing this trip for 30 years and I am sure I speak for both of us that it surpassed our expectations which were high to begin with.  We are indebted to our wives for doing all the work while we have been peddling.  Rick and I were so fortunate to spend time together experiencing such a challenge and an adventure.  We are so lucky to have a friendship of more than 45 years.  You can never ignore how much fun it is to ride a bike, but the larger story of people, their places and communities, defined this cross country tour. 

Until the Next Adventure

City Parks #2

Since the post we have stayed in two other very unique city parks.  In Iroquois Illinois (pop 823) we hoped to use the city park for pitching a tent. We unexpectedly had accomodations that included air conditioning, cots, shower with towels (neither of us are carrying towels so this is big), and a fridge.  The trustee of the town, Joe Vaughn, could not have been nicer.  This was not listed anywhere in our materials so it was a real windfall.  We ate dinner and breakfast across the street at the Iroquois Pub where we met folks who farmed 7,000 acres and the folks who sell farm equipment.  We learned the big combines are a $500,000 investment and that they drive themselves via GPS.  


First he wanted to buy a boat now he wants a tractor
Riding out of Illinois and into Indiana was not marked anywhere except on our maps.  I lost one of the screws in my right shoe cleat (which makes it hard to clip in and out of pedals as the cleat pivots).  The “bike shop” in Rensselaer did not have replacement parts but luckily a guy living on the route drove me to an industrial fastener supply store and the problem was solved with a flat head hex screw. (You can look it up).  Again, this was an example of someone going way out of their way to help us.  Raccoons got into our food at the next camp, fortunately we had put our eggs and sausage in the refrigerator in the camp office.

Cambridge, Illinois – magnificent county courthouse


Indiana like Illinois is quite flat with the same corn/soy bean fields.  Our weather has been rather incredible with only one day of riding in the rain.  Today we dodged big thunder storms with substantial lightning only getting rained on at the end of the day as we rolled through Wabash.  You feel quite vulnerable out in the open because you don’t know how these storms will move.  We watched from a pavilion at a K12 public school as a storm moved passed and then seemed to wrap around and come back at us from the opposite direction.  We ran into these two fellows, Tom and Fred, who were out marking the road for a fundraiser bike ride coming up this weekend. 


  Today I saw this guy working by himself on a cell tower.  See him?


At the boarder of Indiana and Ohio is a little town called Monroeville which has a biker only hostel with shower, washer etc. that is managed by an 82 year old guy named Warren.  It is on the edge of a large complex of playing fields and open space and is the home for county fair which starts tomorrow.  Warren is part of the Four Presidents Corners Historical Society and he invited us to talk to the group at tonight’s meeting.  I think we entertained them as much as they did us. Terrific people.

Warren our host

City Parks

Since our layover in Muscatine, Iowa we have had cooler temps, lower humidity, and steady winds from the north/northeast as we cross Illinois.  We really did not have any image of Illinois going into the state, but the image is flat corn and soybean fields with very small towns.  All of our camping/lodging options have been city parks.  There is no cost but often they are loud being located near city center or playgrounds, pools, and ball fields.  Some are setup for camping while others permit overnight stay but don’t facilitate. People wander in and out, mostly in cars or pick ups late into the night and early in the morning.  

This beaver was huge, not sure where he was headed. Strange juxtaposition with the little liquor bottles …


After crossing the Mississippi at Muscatine, we had a rolling ride through the floodplain (which is vast), through more road work, and into Orion.  The next day took us a long 71 miles (due to those winds I mentioned) to Henry on the banks of the Illinois River.  Though a couple of large companies prop up the economy of Henry, it is a bit down at the heels.  Our riverside city park gave us view of barges traveling the waterway and a beautiful sunrise.  Day three in the Land of Lincoln gave us more wind, corn and soybeans and a night in Odell’s city park.  The park is fabulous but the bathrooms are locked and there is no water and the rail line runs on the edge of the park carrying high speed Amtrak trains as well as freight.  In all three towns, strangers bought us a drink.

We will be in Indiana in four days and Ohio three days later, these small states are a little quicker to cross.

The guy on the machine asked Rick if he was fat like him when the ride started.


Orion had quite a park – we performed two shows a day.

Sunrise on the Illinois River

This is what 90% of central Illinois looks like.

Iowa – more hills than corn

We never expected to do some of our hardest riding here, but we have.  The previously mentioned RAGBRAI ride does 13,000 ft of climbing.   Starting with the climb out of the Mississippi River basin we continued our travel through the Driftless Region of Minnesota into Iowa.   This is the area the glaciers missed so the topography has not been flattened.  The feature is one of rolling hills – they are relatively short, but steep and they go on and on.  You crest a hill only to look ahead to another and you do this all day.  Optimally, the momentum from one hill is enough to get you close to the top of the next.  You end up doing a lot of shifting and standing (known as honking) or time with Granny.  The scenery is corn, many times breathtaking in its vastness, but still corn. 



Road work has been going on throughout our trip as many of these states don’t have much time to work when its not winter.  Each time road crews have responded supportively to us – one time stopping the spread of soft material and another letting us go ahead of cars on drying oil.



Winds were not favorable but the temperatures were – until today.  There is a big storm system coming in tonight with rain and possible additional flooding so we are laying over in Muscitine – just west of Illinois.  Winds from the south have pumped in very humid air and a cooler mass is coming from the north.  We spent last night stealth camping in a park in Wilton after finding the only motel out of commission.  Bathrooms in city parks double as storm shelters.

Old Man Riber and North East Iowa is Hilly

We continued down the Mississippi River Valley between the bluffs and into Iowa.  The road was rolling to flat, connecting the small towns along the river.  The same storm system that nailed us outside of Red Wing brought torrential rain along this corridor and a tornado to one small town.  We saw multiple signs of “blow outs” off the bluffs that pushed stone, soil, trees, and other material onto the highway.  The most amazing thing was how fast the road crews had it cleaned up – you can believe this would have made the shoulders impassible.  Heading into Lansing, where this year’s RAGBRAI is finishing we ran into a youngster, Austin who gave us directions to the best ice cream at the Skinny Dip.  Austin has 6 bikes he told us, most don’t have brakes.  Rick made him promise to get a helmet and wear it.  The RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) was created some years ago by writers from the Des Moines Register it has grown into a mass of thousands of riders who ride, camp and descend upon very small towns.  Somebody said there were 10,000 in this year’s group, these were the same ones who said we were going the wrong way.  People find ways to make it work and it is one big, rolling party. 

Notice there are no cables to the front brake


Exiting the river corridor was a work out.  The road took us on three climbs to the top of the bluff – the first two times it brought us right back down to the river losing all the elevation gained.  The final climb was on a highway where the shoulder disappeared right towards the top which is where you need it most.  We noticed that the grades got much steeper towards the top – road builders either ran out of time or money.  This is where the real fun began with the Iowa roads.



Some of the parking for RAGBRAI

Road Detritus 

(Detritus is an ecology term which refers to once living organic material that is breaking down. It augments the energy pyramid that is based on plants.  We have not been able to post for several days due to lack of wi-fi at campgrounds and city parks and very hilly riding which took up all the time and energy.)

After nearly 2000 miles its time to share what is seen on the shoulders of Americas highways and byways.  Some items have surprised me and others not at all.  There is one category of roadside flotsam that we never saw in the early years of cycling.  (Think about it). As we started in the Pacific Northwest the number one item on the side of the road was wood – pieces of bark, cedar, Douglas Fir etc.  This gives way as one heads into the largely treeless plains.  The next most prevalent items are broken bungee cords or flat rubber tie downs.  Given the amount of this stuff on the road I would never recommend it for securing anything.  Bolts, trailer pins, and other metal screws and nails are enough to keep you from ever risking the shoulders.  Interesting that you see lots of bolts but very few nuts.  Where are all the nuts…?  I was surprised that there was not much roadkill but after thinking about the number of scavengers especially bird, it made sense.  In the west and Midwest you have large scavenging birds – ravens, magpies, vultures that clean up stuff fast.  There are sections of road where reptiles and amphibians get squashed in big numbers  Turtles, including an occasional alligator snapper, and frogs get squashed in big numbers. There have been very few snakes on the roadside, I expect they are so easy for the avian scavenger to pick up – two rattlesnakes and a handful of garter snakes

 
Speaking of birds there are a number of bird bodies along the road ways.  They are all types, large birds hit probably after taking off too late from a carcass and small song birds and woodpeckers that fly low and misjudge.  I try to identify each one I see out of respect.  There have been noticeably more along the Mississippi.

Cedar Waxwing

Barn Swallow (I’m pretty sure)

Indigo Bunting

A badger (which I have never seen) this is a big animal, check out the claws.



There is not as much trash as I expected to see and the smallest communities have groups that have adopted stretches of highway.  The category that did not exist before – electronic debris.  I’ve seen everything from USB cords to headphones to remotes.



Rain in Winona – so no Rider

Out travels take us down along the Mississippi between high bluffs that the glaciers missed.  The south eastern part of Minnesota and a bit of connected Wisconsin and Iowa are part of an area that retained its topography.  We always watch the Tour if available so we don’t hit the road until 11:30 on those days. (This is not the typical bike tourist way but we have always started later and ridden later)  Leaving Red Wing on highway 61 we rain into a young iron man triathlete.  The kid was so thin you could have thrown him into a dart board.  He is headed for Hawaii for the big race soon so I asked him if he wanted to take some of my stuff for training purposes.

Downtown Red Wing



It was easy rolling and flat route where we tend to ride for 25 or 30 miles before stopping. The bluffs kept the sun off us which was a huge advantage.  We stopped at the National Eagle Center where they have four live bald or golden eagles – not behind glass- out in the open where you can really study them.  They are tethered but you have never been closer to an eagle.  One third of birds in North America use the Mississippi flyway.  The importance of the midwest for bird habitat has been one of the most impressive aspects of this ride.



75 miles landed us in Winona, a college town and home of Winonah canoes.  A twilight ride took us into Prairie Island Campground operated by the city where we sit waiting out thunderstorms that began early this morning.  (Not a good sign). The only good thing to say about this campground is that it is part of the city wireless network.