Cycling Three Historic Northeast Waterways in Three Weeks
By Peter J. Marsh
Riding the Erie Canal aqueduct is accessible to all types of cyclists.
If you are a regular reader of Bicycle Paper, you may recall I’ve written about my discovery of the lost art of canal biking in my home city of London, and followed it up by riding across southwest France on the canal from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Here in the Pacific Northwest, there are plenty of scenic river valleys where one can enjoy a peaceful “riparian ride” too, but without canals! Last summer, I began looking for a North American route that would offer the pleasure of riding day-after-day, undisturbed along a quiet towpath.
I learned that America was also caught up in the canal-building mania of the early 1800s, but it was confined to the northeast U.S. region, but then was overtaken by the railroad boom before the Northwest was settled. So there are canals in Ontario and Quebec, and New York is the home of the famous Erie Canal. Hopefully, you’ve heard of this monumental waterway at some time during your school years, but did you know it is now showcased as a 365-mile cycling route?
That was enough to get me excited, but it was still a very long way to go for only a one-week ride. More web research and a look at a smaller scale map opened up the idea of a much longer route following three active historic waterways.
It would begin in Québec City and follow the Route of the Explorers up the Saint Lawrence River to Montréal. From the center of French-speaking Québec, I would turn south across the St. Lawrence Seaway and onto the short Chambly Canal to the U.S. border and Lake Champlain. Then I would enter the Lakes to Locks route that runs above the 100-mile long lake through rural upstate New York to Fort Ticonderoga, where the lake drains south to the Hudson River via the 60-mile Champlain Canal.
At the head of the Hudson, I would swing west onto the Erie Canal and follow it all the way to the city of Buffalo on the east end of Lake Erie. From there, I could catch a train back to Portland on my first long distance train ride in America. It was only then that a Canadian friend informed me that there was another reason to stop in Buffalo — it is the gateway to Niagara Falls!
So that was the plan: leave at the end of August, fly to Montreal with my folding Bike Friday, ride three waterways in three weeks, find a suitcase or box in Buffalo, pack the bike, then arrive back in Portland in time for my monthly stint editing the October issue of the Columbia River boating paper.
Route of the Navigators
The first discovery was one that I was prepared for: Montreal is a very hip town that attracts thousands of young, fairly low-budget travelers, so the hostel was filled with an international crowd that I watched arriving as I assembled my bike on the sidewalk. They stepped out of a taxi, rolled their suitcase a few steps and checked in. There was hardly a single backpack in sight; apparently, hiking is considered very unfashionable these days on a “backpacking” vacation.
I was soon away from the tourists, riding above the mighty river in the Quebec farming country on the 200-mile Route des Navigateurs. The small farming towns with wonderfully long names were full of traditional architecture, especially the wrought-iron balconies that looked closer to New Orleans than New York. I practiced “clandestine camping” until the night it thundered and poured, when I found a picnic shelter to camp under.
However, there was a minor communication breakdown. I could read all the French signs, but I couldn’t understand a single word the locals spoke. They, however, seemed to understand me just fine and chatted very amiably while I looked interested. Québec City really is a perfectly walled city built to survive an attack by French or American armies that were intent on re-drawing the map of this region that saw a century of warfare to determine which flag would fly over it.
From the Québec hostel, it was just a block to walk to the city wall, so I followed it all the way around the town to the Plains of Abraham, where Englishman General Wolfe, who is buried in my hometown of Greenwich, gave his all for king and country, and won a great victory, though the French who supposedly lost stayed and prospered. On the way back, I stopped to gaze up at the impressive Château Frontenac — a world-famous hotel that opened in 1893 on the bluff above the river.
The next day I found a ride-share with a motorized traveler and was back in Montréal by noon with enough time to ride through the Mount Royal Park up to the highest point where there is a giant historic wood chalet (Chalet du Mont-Royal) that offers a great view. Then I went back down and along the 15 km Lachine Canal that bypasses the rapids in the river — the trail was full of runners, inline skaters, etc., but in two months the canal would be full of ice skaters.
A week into the tour, I finally reached my first quiet stretch of Canadian canal towpath before reaching the U.S. border. On my last night in Quebec, it looked like rain and the mosquitos were out in full force when the owner of a convenience store in a small town offered me an old RV to camp in. Truthfully, I didn’t actually understand him until he led me out behind the store and pointed it out!
Lakes to Locks Passage
As if it was planned, I passed the sign welcoming drivers and cyclists to the 150-mile Lakes to Locks Passage. I shopped at a co-op in the funky center of Plattsburgh, home of the state university, and stopped at a long sandy beach of Lake Champlain where the students were enjoying the last days of summer. Riding resumed through the very old, post-industrial towns bordering the lake with names like Mechanicville and Stillwater — where America’s Industrial Revolution began.
This sounds idyllic, but there was a catch here too, this time geographic. The route south didn’t follow the lake, as all that real estate was taken up by vacation homes. Instead it wandered into the foothills of the Adirondacks, resulting in some short steep hills I could hardly walk up. There were plenty of camping spots, but I was only putting in 40-50 miles a day. I sat down to eat before deciding I could manage the short but hilly detour to Fort Ticonderoga, which was naturally on high ground overlooking the south end of the lake.
The fort was built at the center of the revolutionary battle to control the lake and the approach to New York. This is the oldest scene of American history I have visited, built about the time Lewis and Clark were born. The end of the hill country was at hand, and I was soon into the river valley where the Champlain Canal runs parallel to the roadway, often just a stone’s throw away.
I rode into Waterford at the head of the Hudson River, the gateway to the Erie Canal, as a nautical event was concluding. It was the 15th Annual Tugboat Roundup and there were still many traditional workboats moored along the town’s waterfront, 250 miles upriver from New York. Waterford dates from 1794 and claims to be “the oldest incorporated village in the U.S.”
Its growth was closely tied to the 363-mile long original Erie Canal, the longest uninterrupted canal in the world. It begins at the upstream end of the Waterford docks, at the famous Waterford flight of 26 locks — an engineering marvel with a ladder of 26 locks that was built in 1825 and lifted the horse-drawn barges about 500 feet onto the flat land that runs west to Lake Erie.
Erie Canalway Trail
I elected to camp on the grass beside the first lock, where a splendid old tug was moored. I slept well and soon after sunrise I was invited to a coffee on the 73-foot Urger tug, the flagship of the NYS Canal System fleet. It was built in 1901 and is powered by an antique Atlas diesel. This was my introduction to the history of the canal and the cities that sprung up on its banks along the Mohawk River. It was a couple of days before the spirit of the route began to slow my progress, as I stopped to read signs at every town explaining what it produced or packed to send to New York.
For a century, the canal was the main carrier of bulk and oversize cargo between New York City, northern New York State and the Great Lakes. It was built using only man and horse power and required 83 locks to reach Buffalo. As early as 1850, there were 4,000 boats and 25,000 workers on the canal. I could easily feel a connection with the families who lived on the barges, traveling from town to town. The father would serve as captain, while the mother cooked for the family and crew, and the children, when old enough, would serve as helpers or “hoggees” who led the mules.
For two days, navigation was a breeze with the map and guide, through decaying rust-belt cities like Schenectady, Uttica and Rome, until the towpath abruptly ended in a ploughed field. I backed up and found a small sign pointing south, but was not aware that I was actually crossing from the much-improved New York State Barge Canal of 1915 to the old Erie Canal of 1825 because the new route was built for powered barges with only 36 big locks and incorporates several rivers that were avoided previously.
Buffalo is the gateway to Niagara Falls, and well worth the detour.
The old canal is no more than a ditch in the woods in places, next to a busy railway line. But the riding was fun and several of the towns had managed to resurrect short stretches of the old canal and have restored old boatyards, stores and locks. Picnic shelters provided a roof to sleep under as I rode on the gravel towpath, nearby roads, around old well-preserved canal towns and the cities of Oneida and Syracuse. It took me a week to reach Lake Erie, about the same speed as a big powerboat, apparently.
The flat ride is interrupted by a steep rise caused by the rock formation that created Niagara Falls. That requires another steep ladder of locks that the trail shadows. An urban stretch of road through the suburbs brought me to the hostel in the center of Buffalo. A lifesaver for cyclists, the hostel really relies on motorized tourists visiting the falls. I elected to stay for four days and booked a seat on the Amtrak train for the following weekend.
The next day, I rode the bus to the Niagara Falls to give my legs a break after more than 900 miles of hard riding. I had a great time crossing the border to get the full view of this unforgettable natural wonder. For the following three days I amazed the hostel staff by riding around their hometown and finding amazing architecture everywhere I looked. This ranged from the Frank Lloyd Mansion to the Art Deco city hall and along the re-discovered lakefront where the old canal had been excavated.
The ride home created another unique experience. I bought a Samsonite suitcase at a thrift store for $1, packed the Bike Friday into it, and carried it onto the train at midnight with a hold-all bag, carrying my gear in the other hand, and a small backpack full of food. Luckily the train was less than half full and I was able to stretch out on a double seat and sleep on the floor in the observation car. Three days and nights later I reached Portland, where my employer picked up and deposited me in the office to start editing the paper.
Peter J. Marsh is an outdoor and nautical writer. He was the editor of Oregon Cycling from 1988-1991. He wrote Rubber to the Road — a guidebook to bike rides around Portland (rubbertotheroad.com). He lives in Astoria, Ore., when not traveling the world on his bike. More of his writing can be found at sea-to-summit.net