Begun in 1817 and completed in 1825, the Erie Canal was the greatest engineering triumph of the time, significant to the development of the nation by opening up trade routes to the west. At a length of 363 miles, the Erie Canal was the longest canal yet constructed in Europe or America, traversing marshes, forests, rock, and valleys with the aid of 18 aqueducts built over ravines and rivers and 83 locks to help watercraft rise over 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. The original canal was 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, but the Canal went through two enlargements, one from 1836-1862 and one from 1903 to 1918, the last enlargement resulting in the formation of the “Barge Canal,” which was 12 to 14 feet deep and 120 to 200 feet wide and connected the Erie Canal with the Champlain, the Oswego, and the Cayuga and Seneca Canals completing the state system. Legend and lore surround the Erie Canal – travelers wrote about it in their journals and artists painted it. The Canal enabled many to travel where no one had gone before.
In a way, that is how I felt when Kyle and I first embarked on our cycle journey from Syracuse, following the Canalway Trail (currently the trail is 270 miles long and around 75% complete, with some sections on-road) out to Lockport. With this being my first cycle tour, Kyle and I had reasoned that the flat off-road portions of the trail would be an ideal learning ground. There was also another justification for beginning on the Canalway Trail. In Fall 2014, I participated in the UAlbany Planning Studio where I and 11 other students contributed labor and expertise to the process of updating the 20 year old New York State Canal Recreationway Plan. Throughout the semester we interviewed stakeholders from all over the Canal, conducted a public meeting at Glens Falls, and submitted three reports with our findings and recommendations to the New York State Canal Corporation (you can view these reports on my project page attached as work samples). Now I would actually get to experience recreation on the Canal firsthand.
While my trip certainly wasn’t representative of the trail as a whole (it starts in Waterford, not Syracuse) and it was a bit rushed (we had a wedding to get to in Buffalo), here are some of the trip’s memorable highlights (both good and bad):
• People – I can’t stress enough how wonderful it is to meet and talk with people along the trail. The stories you hear and the characters you meet make the trip truly memorable (you can read about some of these stories and people here).
• Exploring Canal Communities – Our studio nailed it on the head when we said revitalization of canal communities is a key way to encourage and support recreation along the canal. One of my favorite aspects of this portion of our trip was getting off the dirt trail and exploring communities. My favorite communities were Fairport, Brockport, Pittsford, and Jordan (always will have a special place in my heart) but each had their charm. The communties that stood out to us had embraced the Canal as a defining feature, often with signs and amenities along the Canal itself. It was just too bad that most of these communities were all bunched together rather than distributed throughout the trail!
• Heritage and Culture – Of course, a key reason to cycle the Canal is to get in touch with a national treasure. I am disappointed we didn't have more time to check out museums and heritage sites along the way but impressed with the interpretive signage found all along the trail. We stopped many times at these signs to read and learn about the Canal as we took a water break.
• Camping at Locks – I got a huge kick out of camping next to a lock at Lock 30. It was cool to see a boat go through in the morning and pleasant to relax beside in the evening. Also, it was free with restrooms, picnic tables, water, etc.
• Wind and Cold – Obviously the Canalway Trail has nothing to do with the weather we experienced, but we sure had a tough week! One night it even frosted after giving us headwind all day. Luckily, we were able to find a motel and make some chili in our room that night.
• Loose Gravel – We suspect that some trail maintenance was conducted early this spring because there were parts of the trail with impossibly loose gravel that was hard to navigate or even stay upright with our touring bikes. Several times we had to abandon trail and brave the strong winds gusting about the surrounding farmland.
• Wayfinding – Maybe I am just spoiled from biking the Katy Trail in Missouri, but it would have been nice if there had been more mileage charts and service charts incorporated into the interpretive signage we found throughout the trail. At some points, there would be a map that obviously assumed we were biking the other direction! In other words, the "you are here" star would be at the left edge of the map with the rest of the map charting out where we had already been. Would have been nice if that had been more centered.
• Repetitive Scenery – Ok, this is in no way meant to discourage anyone from cycling the Canalway Trail, but I would be lying if I didn't see there were a couple days in a row with pretty much the same scenery the entire way. Combine this repetitiveness with cold, wind and loose gravel and you have a recipe for some absolutely miserable cycling days. However, the good days made it all worth it!
In summary, the Erie Canalway was a great way to start our trip. I look forward to see what the Canal will become as time moves forward. Now, onward!
*Credit to ErieCanal.org for facts and numbers in this post.