Weary of biking, my husband and I come to a rest at a small, grassy park overlooking the Erie Canal.
It is a hot, steamy day, and the water is calm, languid. A woman naps on a park bench. Several men and teenage boys fish on the riverbank. I wonder where, exactly, we are.
I walk over to the informational kiosk. It informs me that we’re in Newark, a village in central New York that’s about 35 miles south of Rochester and 48 miles west of Syracuse.
The kiosk also informs me that the Erie Canal was once “a vast commercial enterprise that required an army of men, women and children to maintain and operate: surveyors, engineers, lock tenders, toll collectors, bridge operators, repair crews and bank patrollers (whose job it was to find leaks in the canal bank), all earned their livelihoods working on the canal.”
This portrait, of a vibrant and busy water highway that fueled the growth of upstate New York and linked the Midwest to the Atlantic states, stands in stark contrast to the sleepy scene before me.
Today the Erie Canal is primarily used for recreation — by boaters and walkers and bikers such as ourselves — and serves as an unusually scenic path across the state, cutting through big cities, small towns, rolling farmland and lush woods. It showcases upstate’s beauty and efforts to rebuild and revitalize, and also provides glimpses of a glorious past and subsequent decline.
During my vacation at the end of June, my husband and I biked the Erie Canalway Trail from Buffalo to Amsterdam; we decided to lop off the final section of the trail, the 35-plus miles from Amsterdam to Albany, because we’ve already biked it.
The trip took a week and made for some long, physically trying days; neither one of us are hardcore cyclists and have little experience biking longer distances. We experienced a few flat tires and some aches and pains, but we managed to stick to our itinerary, visit some old friends and explore the trail and some of the nearby communities.
Our longest day of cycling was 67 miles, and it came with a great reward: a night at my friend Greg’s apartment overlooking the clear and sky-blue waters of Skaneateles Lake outside Syracuse.
As to why we decided to bike the Erie Canal, well, that’s a good question.
At the end of our first day of riding, I posed it to my husband. It wasn’t that I hadn’t enjoyed biking all day, although there were certainly times when I felt frustrated and tired. It was more that I couldn’t recall why we’d elected to take such an exhausting, sometimes monotonous vacation. You can’t bike several hundred miles and not have it feel a little repetitive at times.
Now that the trip is over, I can state unequivocally that we had a great time.
We wanted to go on a journey, and we did.
We liked the idea of biking across New York, and we decided to start in Buffalo (we rented a truck to transport our bikes out there) so that we could end our trip closer to home, rather than farther away. The Erie Canal is historically significant, and it took us to numerous places we’d otherwise never visit, such as Newark and the western New York village of Medina.
In Medina, we stayed at the boutique Hart House Hotel, located in an attractive brick building that was once a custom shirt factory with a wealthy clientele that included Bob Hope and John Jacob Astor. Our room was stylish and comfortable — there was even a vintage Schwinn Bicycle Co. poster on the wall, which made it feel as though the hotel could read our minds — and we were pleased to discover that the first floor housed a small meadery. Mead is an alcoholic beverage made with fermented honey and water, and we sampled several different kinds before heading off to a nearby Mexican restaurant recommended by the bartender.
The Erie Canalway Trail is 360 miles long and follows both the sections of the Erie Canal that are still operating, as well as the original Erie Canal, which was active between 1825 and 1917 and is more rustic and overgrown. While biking along these older sections, we saw dozens of turtles, deer, rabbits, carp and other fish, and one very large snake.
A lot of the trail is paved, but much of it is not — long stretches of the path are crushed limestone, which is easy enough to bike on, but not as smooth or fast as pavement. There are some on-road sections, which are fun to bike on when you’re out in the country and less fun when navigating traffic in busy cities. Most of the trail is fairly flat, but there are some hilly sections.
On the trail, our main resource was the excellent guidebook “Cycling the Erie Canal,” a publication of the nonprofit organization Parks & Trails New York, which contained maps, travel notes and phone numbers and addresses of bike shops, museums and restaurants.
Parks & Trails partners with the New York State Canal Corp. to help develop and promote the Erie Canalway Trail and also sponsors the annual eight-day Cycle the Erie Canal ride, which begins today in Buffalo and ends July 17 when approximately 650 bicyclists are expected to arrive in Albany.
My husband and I weren’t interested in doing an organized group ride, which is why we planned our own trip and did it by ourselves. When we started out, we anticipated meeting cyclists like ourselves — people who were biking from one end of the trail to the other. But most of the riders we saw and spoke to appeared to be local cyclists, and long sections of the trail were very quiet — empty, for the most part, of people.
On our second-to-last day, we ran into a group of women from the Boston area at the Travelodge in Little Falls who were also biking from Buffalo to Albany, and we asked them how the trip was going.
They were in good spirits, but had experienced some frustration in cities, where the trail is not always well marked or easy to follow. (“How long did it take you to get out of Buffalo?” one of them asked. “It took us three hours!”) But they were also surprised that there weren’t more end-to-end cyclists on the trail. “It’s underused,” one woman said.
There’s no good reason for this, as the trail is a great amenity and biking end to end is quite doable if you’re in decent shape. Biking 360 miles isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly some people’s cup of tea. Curious to learn what was being done to make people more aware of the trail, I spoke with Robin Dropkin, executive director of Parks & Trails.
She told me that in 2015 Parks & Trails launched a new website, also called Cycle the Erie Canal, with information about the trail and an interactive map, and in 2012 created the End-to-End recognition program, which provides cyclists who bike from one end of the trail to another with a certificate, decal for their car and inclusion on an honor roll. Needless to say, I was happy to learn that my husband and I could join the ranks of the almost 2,000 people who have shared their trail experiences on the End-to-End program website.
“We’re steadily trying to promote the trail,” Dropkin said.
Toward the end of our ride, I was ready for it to be over — to sleep in my own bed, to drive a car, to do something other than ride a bicycle for hours every day. Now that it’s over, I sort of wish I could go back. I don’t know that I’ll ever ride from end to end again, but there are certainly some sections — some people and places and things — that I’d love to revisit.