For a number of years now I have been dreaming and plotting to ride my bicycle across Canada. It felt like an phenomenal idea but I held some doubts about whether I could do it or not. Two summers again, I decided to embark on a two-week trial run by cycling from my current home in Boston to the family home in Ontario. The majority of the trip followed the Erie Canal in upstate New York. While my partner accompanied me for the trip there, he isn’t able to ride this time. Everything confirmed to me that cycling across Canada was not only possible for me but it would be an enjoyable adventure. I would also love to do the Erie Canal again. Maybe another summer.
Here’s the report:
The big trip of the summer has finally come and gone. And what a trip it was. I probably would have a better story to tell if I had kept an account as we travelled but a retrospective is better than none at all.
It was a little hard to sleep friday night for all the anticipation but morning arrived soon enough. The weather was great. I just wasn’t prepared for how unwieldy the bike would feel with all the gear loaded on. The panniers on the front axel made it especially strange. Nevertheless, it was all smiles.
The plan was to take it easy the first few days, a chance to get used to cycling all day and day after day. 30 miles in or so it seemed that we should have planned for more miles per day. But then we hit the first big hill and they just kept rolling out before us. If that wasn’t enough, the sky started to threaten us with rain. Below is what Mike looked like after a particularly brutal climb.
Unfortunately, heave raindrops and ominous looking clouds cut the rest short. We climbed some more and just made it into Princeton MA as the rain really came down. Like so many New England town they have a picturesque village green lined by churches and various municipal buildings. We took shelter under the gazebo, which gave us a magnificent view of hilly country we just cycled.
The rain pattering on the roof, Mike took a nap; he claimed it was one of the best in his life. Still the rain showed no indication of passing so we ditched our camping plans and headed to the nearest hotel an hour or so down the road. Riding in the rain isn’t too bad when you know a hot shower and a soft bed await you at the end. Heading for a hotel felt only reasonable but it triggered a string of excuses so that we did not camp one of the eight nights we were on the road. When we weren’t too tired to make it to a campground, we rationalized we deserved comfy sheets for our hard work during the day.
As a whole, the trip from Boston to Aylmer, ON was awesome, especially along the Erie Canal which stretched over the majority of our trip. However, I would highly recommend taking the train to Albany, NY and catching the canal trail from there instead of cycling across Massachusetts. The hills go on and on. Sweating, panting, and cursing you crest a hill only to see you’re going to lose all the altitude you thought conquered. And so it goes all day but the scenery is sure to take your breath away or what’s left of it.
That is me shaking my fist at the sign. We had climbed all day, which the signed seemed to negate in one swoop or at least promise worse to come. Unless you find yourself with some masochistic tendencies, I’d suggest you take a car. At the very least, stay on major roads! Crossing the state boundary into NY the most direct route was a a bad idea when Prospect Rd turned into a crazy gravel road, a trail really, with impossible inclines and turns that Mike claims he’ll never forget as long as he lives. In case you can’t tell, he is flipping me the bird in the first picture for my excellent route planning.
All of the hills led to a lot of silliness.
Another coping mechanism for me was to point out every cow and dairy farm I saw or smelled. With great restraint, I only took pictures of a few. Whose nerves aren’t calmed by cows peacefully grazing in a meadow, especially if there’s a brook meandering through it?! When the time comes to put me out to pasture, put me here. Literally!
We made it to New York state on day three with the hope that the worst of the hills were behind us. Abruptly and rudely we found out otherwise. The hills persisted pretty much into Albany where we had the joy of crossing the Hudson River over a bridge that was under construction. The pedestrian walk was closed and only one traffic lane open; with a huge construction truck on our tail, it was like being pursued by a pitbull up a hill and down into a multilane highway. No time for pictures of that harrowing experience.
It was such a relief to finally get onto the trail, the promise that beckoned over every hill we crossed. And what pleasure to cruise along unhindered by climbing!
The modern version of the Erie Canal is still in use (mostly recreational boating) and well maintained so we passed a lot of very interesting canal infrastructure. There were the expected locks and gates but also many aqueducts where the canal passed over rivers and creeks. I didn’t take pictures of any except the one instance where the canal passed over a road! I obviously had to take a walk underneath the canal; sadly, that portion of the canal was partially drained for repairs and closed to boats or I might have waited for one to pass over my head. How often can you say, “I was walking along the road and a boat floated over my head”?
The towns along the Erie Canal are so quaint and gorgeous that you could spend hours exploring them. We did relatively little of that but travelling on a bicycle there’s ample time to soak in the sights and surroundings.
Syracuse was generally a nightmare to get through weaving along roads as there was no trail like Rochester but I captured a nice moment downtown.
The bridges across the canal in Rochester appeared as if from a film but I didn’t get a picture of them. Here is one taken from on the canal by another traveller.
Little Falls was another town that just seemed to revel in its beauty, particularly the way the cliffs surrounded it.
The canal has been widened and straightened four times since the original stretch known as Clinton’s Ditch. Consequently, the modern canal does not always pass the same towns it used to. Where it does, the towns and villages were beautiful and thriving. The best stretch was therefore from Fairport to Lockport. If you can ever only cycling a portion of it, do that. There were restaurants, shops, and parks along the canal. I especially remember cycling through Fairport in the evening. The restaurants were full and lively, many people were taking strolls, biking, kayaking, and boating along the canal. To top it off, there was a summer concert in the park on the water. I didn’t get pictures but it was an experience best appreciated in person.
Lockport is also noteworthy because it boasts the largest shift in water levels on the canal. Today it is handled by two consecutive locks where in the past five were required. In the picture my bike is over the first waterfall and there are another four above.
Towns where the canal had been abandoned for another route the remaining structures often languish as I expect limited funds are available to fix the decaying remains. The best exception was in Jordan where the town partially filled in the canal to create green space, a garden, and interpretative markers. I learnt that in its heyday, they used to drain the canal for the winter and the residual water would freeze over so that people could skate to other villages along the canal. Sounds rather exciting if you ask me. At the far end of this garden, there is a creek that is still running; in the past it would have flowed under the canal.
The trail along the Erie Canal is three-quarters finished and simply glorious like an endless driveway or lane without cars. I especially enjoyed the portions with a little grass on either side, tree cover overhead, and seemingly going on forever. I could almost imagine myself travelling during colonial times with just a trail cut through the woods. It wouldn’t have been as smooth and well kept up but it required little imagination; and as if imagination became reality, on my return trip I ran into an Amish horse and buggy on the trail! You just can’t make this stuff up. I think they were going fishing. Mike and I had come across an older Amish couple fishing at a lock just up the trail outside St Johnsville when we passed the first time.
A couple of portions were like traveling along a really long cowpath. You might not be surprised to learn I find cowpaths particularly calming for some reason so I was happy.
On some portions of the abandoned canal the water turned green like we were on the bayou or something. At other times the path was cut out of the cliffs.
The last day on the canal we travelled mostly along open waters where Mike finally got to do his phoenix pose to imitate the phoenix rising on his jersey. With less pre-trip training than me, it was à propos for the way he got up each morning to ride again.
The lowest point on the trail for me was probably when a bee stung me in my helmet. It got trapped inside as we were riding along and stung me as if it was my fault; should have watched where it was flying! My eye was already watering and hurting because I scratched it the previous day riding without glasses. Lesson learnt and thankfully no more bees got caught in my helmet.
We eventually made it to Niagara Falls on a blisteringly hot day. It was a shorter but rewarding day.
On our ninth and final day, we were a little over a hundred miles from the finish line but it seemed the weather was intent on preventing us from finishing. For about half the day we faced 25-30km/hr headwinds. When they hit on the side or at an angle, you have to lean into them not to topple over. Next we waited out a downpour that lasted on and off a couple of hours. The winds died a little but it was not an easy task to complete. Things got a little tense for a bit when I wouldn’t give up but we rolled into Aylmer as the sun was setting tired but happy.
We spent a lovely and relaxing week in Aylmer before Mike flew back to Boston. A couple of days later I repacked my bike and raced backed to Boston myself. There is not much to report expect to say the first few days on my own were terribly lonesome. Travelling with another person to share the experience makes the trip more than twice as fun. Taking the same route back was especially difficult but I got used to it. I’m happy to confirm that I camped three of five nights. One night was on the canal with an evening concert on the other side of the lock; it was especially nice.
Cycling along the canal and many of the smaller roads, you see a lot of beauty. Here are a couple of pictures of random things that drew my attention as I cycled along. First, I’m always fascinated by churches and other religious paraphernalia I come upon, including cemeteries. To me they are sites rich with emotional history and not a few ghosts of the past floating about. When I caught a glimpse of the statues by the road at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs, Auriesville, I just about crashed into a gate on the trail. I managed to swerve in time so only one pannier got knocked off the bike. I didn’t explore the large complex on the hill but you don’t often see so many statues in the countryside. (www.martyrshrine.org)
Second, I came across a lot of what I presume is wild lavender though it might be something else. The first picture was particularly special as it was in the morning and a misty fog was still hanging in the air, highlighted by the sunbeams streaking through the trees. Just around the bend was a single-lane bridge crossing a nice river. The picture doesn’t do justice to the moment. As an aside, I passed a number of Amish and Mennonite farms in this area (no pics).
The trip back was 650 miles and the trip there a little more so I biked a good 1300 miles. The Erie Canal trail is much shorter. If you ever have a chance to bike a portion of it, take it! (www.ptny.org/canaltour)
To end with some final thoughts beyond pictures. When you cycle all day, food takes on another level of awesome. For example, I like tomatoes but pulling over at a farm stand for a fresh tomato is like biting into manna from heaven.
You also get to meet a lot of interesting people that would never happen when passing through by car. People see a loaded bike and they want to know your story; they share their’s in exchange. Hemingway is supposed to have said, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” I believe the same goes for the people and communities you meet and pass. A bicycle stretches our boundaries beyond the confines of where we walk but slows our travels to enable encounters only glimpsed by car, plane, and train.
But cycling is not without danger so ride defensively when you bike and give cyclists plenty of room when travelling by car. The fewer white bikes we see the better. (ghostbikes.org)
And to conclude, a glorious sunset to welcome me back to Boston.