SCHENECTADY — Earlier this week, Donna Larkin, owner of Upstate Kayak Rentals, had customers who came up from Brooklyn. Curious about how the couple found her, Larkin learned that a simple Google search led the couple to her business, which operates 13 rental locations, including eight on the New York State Canalway Water Trail.
Larkin, along with local and state leaders, expect the state’s Canalway Water Trail to pop up on a lot more visitors’ radars now that the U.S. Department of the Interior has designated the 450-mile paddling route as a National Water Trail.
Officials representing the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor gathered Thursday at Mohawk Harbor, where Upstate Kayak operates a full-service rental location, to tout the waterway’s national designation and its potential impact on tourism and the local economy.
“This new designation will help expand opportunities for residents and for visitors to experience this canalway’s recreational activities and its historic sites, all while boosting our local economies and small businesses,” said U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam.
The national designation for the Canalway Water Trail is part of larger investments that Tonko said he has championed, including efforts to pass the National Heritage Area Act of 2021 in the U.S. House of Representatives to reauthorize the country’s 55 National Heritage Areas for 15 years, as well as his support for a $29 million investment in those same areas.
The Canalway Water Trail qualified to be a National Water Trail as a result of several initiatives, including the creation of a water trail guidebook and waterway map, the fostering of paddling communities and a stewardship program in which more than 60 volunteers have led efforts across the canal system, ranging from waste pickup to water quality assurance to invasive species mitigation, according to Mona Caron, a program manager for the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor.
New York’s 450-mile route was the largest addition this year to the National Trails System. A spokesperson for the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor said it is difficult to estimate how much additional traffic will come to the canalway as a result of the designation.
The canal system has more than 150 public access points along land-cut canals, and interconnected lakes and rivers, and it includes the Erie, Cayuga-Seneca, Oswego and Champlain canals.
Marcus Anderson, deputy director at the Underground Railroad Education Center, helped coordinate an outing for five teenagers to kayak on the Mohawk River Thursday. He said the national designation helps pique interest in the canalway.
“It definitely does,” Anderson said after the students returned to the harbor, most of the students having never kayaked before. “They enjoyed it.”
Completed in 1825, the Erie Canal was once a critical piece of commercial infrastructure in the state. Now, the system’s future is as a centerpiece of the state’s tourism industry, said Brian Stratton, director of the NYS Canal Corporation.
“Once dominated by tugs barges, ships, freight and commerce across the Eastern seaboard, today is mostly made up of pleasure boats, kayaks and paddle boards with very happy people eager to get out and explore all that New York state and our great Mohawk Valley and Capital Region have to offer,” Stratton said.
Investment in tourism-focused destinations can have a huge economic impact, Stratton said. Case in point, he said, the $600 million Mohawk Harbor in Schenectady is the largest investment on the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor.
Mohawk Harbor has been a transformational project, said Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy.
“It was an abandoned, derelict Brownfield site that was a negative influence not only in this city, but on the Capital Region and really the state as a whole,” McCarthy said. Now, Mohawk Harbor is a “signature project here in the city of Schenectady.”
The hope is that the national designation for the canalway is a boon to the state’s tourism economy and its commerce more broadly, said Bob Radliff, executive director of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor.
“We want paddlers to put New York’s canal system on their bucket list and visit communities like Schenectady,” Radliff said.
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.