Exploring New York’s Erie Canal

With 524 miles of hand-dug waterway to paddle, 234 historic urban centres to explore and more than 100 excellent wineries to tipple at, this little-known region is full of charm.

“I don’t know if they’ve said so,” Larry Barnes began, “but this place would still be a dump if it wasn’t for them.”

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Barnes is a volunteer at Camillus Erie Canal Park, in the town of Camillus, New York. The “them” he is referring to are David and Liz Beebe, the caretakers of the park, and “this place” is the only remaining navigable aqueduct in New York State, located on an abandoned section of the Erie Canal.

The Beebes are characteristic of many people who live along the 524 miles of the hand-dug Erie Canal that cuts a west-east swath through New York state: knowledgeable and deeply passionate about their relationship to the canal, committed to taking care of their small portion of it — and a bit mystified that a waterway once so central to US commercial life could be so little-known among modern-day travellers.

Barnes explained that the Beebes led the effort to clean this part of the canal, salvaged the original stones from the aqueduct and then raised the funds to restore it. “Liz was the first person to cross the aqueduct in a kayak,” said David, who even remembers the exact date: “15 August 2009.” Liz just nodded, too busy to talk. Dressed in mid 19th-century garb (she and David also run the park’s replica of a mid-1800s general store), she was piloting a slow-moving pontoon toward a dock, where visitors disembarked to see the aqueduct up close.

The thing is, though, there are not many visitors. “Boy Scouts”, said Liz, after she tied up the pontoon.“We have lots of Boy Scouts.”

It seems that few travellers know about New York’s Erie Canal region, despite the canal’s designation as a national heritage corridor by the US National Park Service and despite the important role that many of the 234 towns along its banks played in US history, especially during the abolition of slavery and the women’s suffrage movement. When it opened in 1825, the canal also made the transportation of goods easier, cheaper and faster and helped precipitate the country’s westward expansion.

“Today kayakers can run the canal from the town of Buffalo in the west of the state all the way to Troy in the east — a distance of 262 miles — without portaging once,” said Dan Ward, curator of the Erie Canal Museum, which houses the world’s most complete collection of canal-related artefacts and ephemera. It is also located in the only remaining weighlock building in the United States, where boats were weighed when travelling on the canal during the second half of the 19th Century.

However, one of the most interesting and accessible stretches is the 87-mile route between the cities of Rochester and Syracuse, which cuts through the top of New York state’s overlooked Finger Lakes wine region. With international airports on each end, you can easily fly into Rochester and out of Syracuse, doing a combination of leisurely driving and paddling for five to seven days between the two cities. 

Rochester, New York’s third largest city, has a number of attractions to see before you hit the water, including the George Eastman House, a photography and film museum with the largest holding of photographic equipment in the world, as well as major collections of early French photography and work by nature photographer Ansel Adams; the graves of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and suffragist Susan B Anthony (her house is now a museum), both buried in Mount Hope Cemetery; and the National Museum of Play, a museum devoted to toys and games. In the city’s historic High Falls District, pay a visit to High Falls — the picturesque waterfall that generated the power to grind wheat for Rochester’s main industry, flour production – and try the local beer at the newly-opened Genesee Brew House, where an outdoor terrace and roof patio overlooks the waterfall.

If you decide to spend a night in the city before launching onto the water, then the Woodcliff Hotel and Spa, a 20-minute drive east from downtown Rochester, is your best option as it is only a short drive to the town of Fairport, the put-in point for the kayaking part of your adventure. Fairport is also one of the most picturesque towns on the canal with its almost 100-year-old, fully operational lift-bridge and downtown dock.

Pick up a kayak at Fairport’s Erie Canal Boat Company. The shop offers daily and weekly rentals, as well as a boat livery service, meaning that staff will drive your car to any pull-out point along your paddling route. They can also help you identify campsites, hotels and bed and breakfasts along the route and work with you to determine the drop-off point for your kayak at the end of your trip. “The canal is prime for paddlers of every skill level,” said owner Peter Abele, since the water is always calm and motorized boats are prohibited from exceeding a five-mile-per-hour speed limit.

As you start your journey on the water, you will likely see walkers, hikers and cyclists taking advantage of the 365 mile-long recreational Canalway Trail, which parallels the waterway and plans to expand to be the longest multiple-use trail in the country at 524 miles. As you get attuned to the landscape, you will see green herons, great blue herons and kingfishers flying over the water or stalking prey; snapping turtles sunning on rocks; and muskrats, beavers and mink skittering to and from their dens. And you will likely be the only boater.

From Fairport, spend your first day paddling 12.4 miles east to Palmyra and overnight at the Liberty House Bed and Breakfast, a beautiful Victorian house with decent rates  Before heading out for your second day of paddling, take a couple of hours to immerse yourself in this small town’s history. The first copies of the Book of Mormon,twere printed here in 1830; Winston Churchill’s great-grandparents are buried just west of the town; and Henry Wells of the bank Wells Fargo had his first business here in the late 1820s. Today you can visit five side-by-side museums, including a replica general store, print shop and history museum, to get a glimpse into the past.

It is another eight-and-a-half-mile paddle east to the town of Newark, where you can overnight at the Vintage Gardens Bed and Breakfast if you do not want to camp along the banks of the canal. The five-room inn has two rooms with claw-foot bathtubs (the Asian Lily suite’s tub is extra large), perfect for soaking tired muscles.

Rise early the next morning and paddle 17 miles southeast to Waterloo village, located on a section of the Cayuga-Seneca Canal that links two of the state’s Finger Lakes — Cayuga and Seneca — to the Erie Canal. You have just entered wine country, but before you head off to tipple, take some time to explore John and Paula Kenny’s quirky Canal Side Experiences.

In addition to offering canal-side camping and houseboat rentals, John and Paula host pontoon excursions to the lakes, and have a wide range of activities on their property, including pottery, painting and radio-controlled car racing. They can also point you in the direction of the small but significant National Memorial Day Museum, which explains the importance of a holiday created to honour the sacrifices of soldiers who fought in the Civil War.

The next morning, tie your kayak onto the car and drive 12 miles east to the town of Seneca Falls. This is the site of the world’s first women’s rights convention, held in 1848, and today, the National Park Service manages an interesting museum and memorial that commemorates and interprets its significance.

Drive onward 28 miles to Camillus to meet the Beebes. As the caretakers of this area, they are happy to let people pitch their tent behind the Sims Museum, the general store replica and are great company, full of stories about the history of the canal and their own role in its continued evolution.

On your final day, drop off your kayak at the pre-arranged point and drive 10 miles onwards to Syracuse. If you have time before your flight, you may want to explore this college town’s Erie Canal Museum, and appreciate how you have become part of the canal’s story.

If you are planning to paddle between mid-November and early May, check with the New York State Canal Corporation for conditions and operation schedules. The canal is often drained during the winter months to prevent cracking and to allow for repairs.

Another way to experience the canal by boat is by renting a houseboat or a packet boat for a week. Bob Stivers’ houseboat sleeps eight and the rental includes driving lessons (the boat can also stay docked on the water at Stivers’ marina in the town of Geneva).

There are many towns along and just off the canal that merit a visit, and if you extend your trip, Auburn is a particularly interesting one. Home to Swaby’s, a tavern that features an electric chair that was actually used at the Auburn Prison, and the Seward House Historic Museum, home of 19th-century statesman, William Seward, the town is both quaint and quirky.

An excellent map of the canal can be found online.

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