Author Archives: Jac Thomas

Top Biking Expeditions (and How to Prepare for Them)

This is a guest post from Jason L., who is a personal trainer and runs a personal training website, strongwell.org, that is dedicated to fitness for seniors. He recently went on his own cycling adventure and wanted to share what he learned in planning his trip…

You don’t have to veer off the beaten path to find adventure on two wheels. These gravel, dirt, and (sometimes) paved trails are family-friendly when you want to head out for a few hours but also offer ample opportunity for an all-day escapade. But first…

Prep for success

While there’s no better way to see the world than from the seat of the bike, it can take a toll on your heart, lungs, and joints. Before you pack, make sure you are up for the task. Condition your body by gradually increasing the amount of time you ride each day. For instance, if you have a few months to prepare, start riding seven to eight hours each week and eventually work your way up to a full 16 hours before your trip. You’ll also need to get your gear together. Pack light and check out these tips from the Adventure Cycling Association. Finally, don’t forget to safeguard your home while you’re away. HomeAdvisor goes into great detail on how to safeguard your property against crime here. While it might seem like an extensive list, many things, such as keeping the shrubbery trimmed, are basic home maintenance projects you should be doing anyway.

Fuel up

Even though you’re relying on foot power, you’ll have to fuel your body for a successful endeavor. Riding on gravel roads and dirt trails takes considerably more energy than a leisurely jaunt through the neighborhood. Each day, make sure you eat a good breakfast with plenty of protein and carbohydrates. Dave Briggs, an outdoor adventurist who prefers to travel by bike, says portable foods such as bananas, peanut butter, and canned fish, are excellent additions to your pack. These items, along with a few select others, keep your body strong and your mind sharp no matter what Mother Nature throws at you on your journey.

Onward

Island Line Rail Trail (Vermont)

Image via Flickr Creative Commons | Richard Due

Bicycling.com calls this trail, “the closest thing to walking on water.” Island Line runs through Lake Champlain and offers breathtaking views of the Adirondacks and Green Mountains.

Paseo del Bosque Trail (New Mexico)

At just 16 miles long, the Paseo del Bosque can be tackled in just a few hours and offers the option to cruise on the pavement or along the parallel gravel trail. It’s just west of downtown Albuquerque and passes the zoo, Rio Grande Botanical Gardens, and Albuquerque Conservation Center.

Great Allegheny Passage Trail (Pennsylvania)

Image Via Flickr Creative Commons | howderfamily.com

More than 330 glorious (uninterrupted) miles connect Washington to Pittsburgh via the Great Allegheny Passage Trail and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath. During this multi-day journey, your entire family can see an ever-changing countryside via a comfortable, nearly-flat pathway that’s dotted with plenty of food and lodging options.

Acadia National Park (Maine)

For a relatively quick ride, consider the 45 miles of hard-packed gravel roads of Acadia National Park. The 16-foot-wide vehicle-free route was created by John D Rockefeller in 1913 and finished in 1940. Throughout the trip, you’ll be greeted by Somes Sound, a number of breathtaking waterfalls, and a postcard-perfect view of the granite coast.

Cowboy Trail (Nebraska)

Image Via Pixabay

Meandering between seven counties and featuring a mix of concrete and crushed stone, cowboy trial draws bikers and equestrian enthusiasts alike. More than 200 miles of trail will lead you through multiple terrains and past hundreds of different bridges.

Even if you don’t plan to get away for a cycle-centered vacation, you’re never far from a two-wheeled adventure. For more information on trails to explore, visit TrailLink.com. No matter where you’re going, remember, never travel alone, keep an emergency kit on hand, and pack an extra battery for your mobile phone.

A Bike Friday Introduction: Trial By Travel

Hello, my name is Jac Thomas, and I am the new Bike Friday Community Manager! You may have interacted with me already and not even realize it, as I run all of the Bike Friday social media accounts, as well as helping with other kinds of tasks where Bike Friday communicates with our customers and fan base (such as writing the newsletter). I only began this position a little over a month ago, but I have really enjoyed becoming the part of the team. I’m a native Oregonian, lifelong cyclist and I joined Bike Friday because I share a lot of the same values as the company. I’m really excited about the prospect of using my skills in marketing to help get more people riding bikes!

For me, the whole month of October was a bit of a whirlwind. Starting a job is never ‘easy,’ even if I had found meshing with my new coworkers at Bike Friday to be one of the most seamless transitions I had experienced in my career. It almost felt like that familiar feeling of stepping onto a bike that fits you just right for the first time. Still, the process happened quickly. I started at Bike Friday just over a week after initially submitting my application. Both the Bike Friday management and myself wanted to have as much time to let me learn from my predecessor (Matthew) as I could. But before I knew it I was taking over as the Community Manager for Bike Friday and all of the responsibilities that came with it.

However, less than a week into my new role and I was getting ready to leave- I had been planning this trip to Costa Rica with my girlfriend since well before I had begun the position, and the Bike Friday team graciously allowed me to follow through with my planned trip despite the interruption to my training schedule. However, this new position provided me with an opportunity to add a new element (or two) to this adventure when Hanna Scholz agreed to let me take two pakiT’s along with us! To me, it was an amazing opportunity to experience what Bike Friday is all about by experiencing a folding bike in a real world scenario. I had ridden Bike Friday’s before, but I wanted to get the full experience of using them for their full purpose so that I could better relate with those of you who’ve taken these bikes half way around the world and back!

Having the pakiT’s added a lot to our trip, even though we never got the chance to go on any long rides, the pakiT’s were a perfect way to cruise around the areas we visited. Some of you may have seen some of the social media content that I took while I was down there, but I wanted to take a chance to share some of the cool moments from this trip with all of you! I’ve had a few weeks to readjust from my trip and go through some of the (many) photos I took while I was there, so I am finally ready to present them to you! I hope it will provide some of the high quality travel blogging content that the Bike Friday Blog is known for, but also give you a chance to get to know the new Bike Friday Community Manager!

Our trip began and ended in San Jose, the capital and largest city of Costa Rica. We actually stayed on the outskirts of a neighboring town, Alajuela, in a cozy bed and breakfast during this first stint, which allowed us to get acquainted with our surroundings. One of the first things we realized, was the state of the roads in our vicinity were not quite like those of our hometown in Eugene, Oregon. Most streets were much narrower than we were accustomed to and there wasn’t a single bike lane that we spotted during the course of our trip. However, we knew that we’d have more of an opportunity to use our bikes once we had ventured out of the cities and into the country. Our main goal during our time in the city was to catch a soccer (futbol) game, which was an amazing experience, but not the focus of this blog…

However, with our urban adventure in the rear view mirror, we headed out west towards the rainforests and volcanoes that lay ahead of us! It didn’t take long for the scenery to change dramatically. The buildings disappeared, replaced by thick foliage while the roads became windier and somehow even more narrow than they had already been. We truly felt like we had left the city behind once we were up in the hills and could see the vast plantations (the crops appeared to be mostly coffee, but there were also mangoes and some pineapples as well). We were hoping to catch some scenic views, but unfortunately low lying clouds disrupted some potentially awesome shots. That being said, we still took every opportunity to bring out our bikes and ride around that was presented to us. The first of these opportunities was in a small town on a hilltop, and while the views were obscured by the fog, it still felt great to pull the bikes out of the car and explore on two wheels!

However, most of our roadside riding opportunities did not provide much room to stretch our legs in the same way. Roadside attractions come and go without a lot of notice in Costa Rica, so you have to be ready to act fast when you think there’s something you’d like to see. Luckily, the places we did stop were pretty spectacular and so we got into the habit of being ready to pull off the road at a moment’s notice.

Our next stop was completely unplanned but may have been one of the highlights of the trip. We stumbled upon an incredible butterfly and hummingbird conservatory about halfway between San Jose and Lake Arenal (our destination for the night), where we were able to get up close and personal with some of Costa Rica’s most fragile, yet beautiful and colorful animals. There wasn’t much room to bike around, but we still got the bikes out anyway, if just to ride around for a few minutes in the otherwise empty parking lot. This stop kind of set the tone for us, and is when we realized that the coolest things we could see were often just sitting on the side of the road, waiting to be discovered!

The rest of the trip to Arenal was much of the same (in the best way): look for great places to take the bikes out for a few minutes and break up the monotony of the drive (though I would not generally describe the winding roads of Costa Rica as monotonous, it still felt good to get out of the car). It provided some good photo taking opportunities, but we knew we had to make it to our AirBnB before dark so it didn’t leave us much time to lollygag around.

Our destination turned out to be a real hidden gem, we really lucked out with where we were staying, which was on a peninsula overlooking the amazing lake. We spent most of our time exploring the volcano, national parks and rainforests that surround the lake, but we also had a great time just enjoying the lakeside from our pakiTs! Those of you who were tuned into our social media accounts at that time may have seen a live video I took of our short ride from where we were staying down to the shores of Lake Arenal (unfortunately, all footage of this was lost into the ether of the internet, or I would gladly share it here).

Lake Arenal is such a beautiful lake, full of wildlife and completely separated from any kind of typical tourist destinations, giving it a very authentic feeling. If you ever make it to the area, biking a lap around Lake Arenal would be a great way to spend a day. Though we didn’t do it (never enough time!), it was proposed to us by more than one of the locals.

The trip continued west, and along the roads there were more reasons to stop and enjoy the scenery. As we left Lake Arenal, we pulled over at a clearing that overlooked the lake so we could have one last look. There were a couple of vendors there who took interest in our bikes, and after a conversation about where we were from and what we were doing there, they asked if they could take the pakiT’s for a quick spin. Their smiles immediately erupted and they seemed to be in love with the bikes. I gave them a demonstration of how the bikes could fold up, and the audible gasp they gave in return was one of the funniest moments from the trip. Most (younger) people in Costa Rica can speak at least limited English, though I was glad that my partner spoke enough Spanish to help with translations (I had taken Japanese in high school, not very helpful in Central America…).

We attempted some more detours as we moved towards the coast, but unfortunately they were less successful. We tried to go to another National Park, but unfortunately our car got stuck on the hilly roads made of clay that led us there…We eventually got unstuck and turned around, but it made us ready to hit the beaches of Guanacaste, so we made a beeline for the beach!

Our place in Tamarindo was less luxurious than our lakeside bed and breakfast, but it made up for it by being a very short walk away from the beach. Our pakiT’s were unfortunately not set up for beach cruising, so they only made it to the beach one time (again, some of you may have caught this adventure on our social media, but alas if you missed out it is lost forever). However, the town of Tamarindo was perfect for short bike rides, and we took them out a few times to cruise through the city. We even found a cool little skate park where I zipped around while my partner took pictures! All in all, Tamarindo (in stark contrast with Lake Arenal) is a tourist haven, which was alright with us, mostly because we were ready to simply relax on the beach for a couple of days.

Unfortunately, that was essentially the end of our adventure, we drove back to San Jose and had one last meal in Alajuela before getting our things all packed and ready to go. Costa Rica is such a magical place filled with incredibly friendly people. If you’re looking for the next place to bring your Bike Friday, I would highly recommend looking in this direction! I’m not sure if it would be much more difficult to tour the country by bike rather than by car, but I also have to say I really enjoyed having the pakiT’s available to us. It made us far less reliant on our rental car than I think we would have been otherwise, and it added a new element to our trip that I had never experienced before. That may be one of my favorite things about that pakiT, is that it is capable of adding so much to your adventure while still being able to fold to where it’s small enough not to add any kind of hassle. I look forward to bringing Bike Friday’s on all of my future adventures, and I look forward to writing about them here!

Holiday In Hokkaido

I have done some solo bike tours with my Bike Friday Tikit and taken it to some unique trips like Taiwan, Tasmania, & Iceland. These trips have made me realized how a high performing folding bicycle can be so liberating and allow me the freedom to enjoy the wonders of creation. I am thankful to be given the chance to own the successor to the Tikit, the new Bike Friday Pakit. One of the things that really intrigued me about this new bicycle is how much lighter it is compared to the Tikit and most importantly being a belt driven model really helps a lot in packing a bicycle for travel, cleanly! No more greasy chains! While the Brompton still trumps in the aspect of it’s folded compactness, the amount of effort to dismantle and pack the Pakit for travel is much faster and easier compared to the Tikit, and yet being much lighter than the Brompton. After much test rides with the Pakit, I must say the quality of the ride is the “Bike Friday Ride”! Think of it as a mini Bike Friday Pocket Rocket or a mini Roadie.

I am someone who personally loves to travel to Japan and have done some backpacking trips, photography trips, and even a short ride with a Brompton from Fukuoka to Hiroshima. I have been to Hokkaido, Japan, a few times but never the north eastern part known as Shiretoko, a UNESCO heritage site. Shiretoko is well known for it’s beautiful forestry and mountain scenery, and if you’re lucky, you might spot Ezo Bears. So come October 2017, I had a short window to do a simple bike tour and I booked my air tickets just half a day before my flight, decided that the Pakit will be the choice of Bicycle to pack for the trip, and scrambled to pack the Pakit into a soft bag meant for the Brompton. It’s an interesting bag to use and it even accommodated my Bike Friday Tikit during my Tasmania trip. October is also a good time to experience the Autumn colors in Hokkaido. The aim is to explore Shiretoko and ride through 3 major mountain road passes, one is 700m Shiretoko Pass, 600m Lake Mashu and the 3rd being about 500m high Bihoro Pass. This will be the 2nd time the Pakit is packed for an overseas ride and my 1st trip to Athens & Santorini with the Pakit has prepared me well for this Hokkaido expedition. It will be an interesting challenge to see how the Pakit holds up despite being a commuter bike, especially for the climbs, and considering my Pakit configuration is a Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub.

Aaron getting ready to board the bus and start his adventure!

I flew from Singapore to Tokyo, did a transfer to a domestic flight towards Memanbetsu Airport, and boarded the bus bound for Abashiri, Hokkaido. There’s the soft bag meant for the Brompton but with a Pakit inside!

Pakit packed in a soft case meant for a Brompton, bike is protected with packing materials from Bike Friday. Pedals were protected with socks provided during one of the many flights during my overseas trips.

Day 1 Abashiri – Lake Notoro:

During the flight to Hokkaido, I met a teacher from Singapore whom is bringing his students to explore the northeastern part of Hokkaido as well. He was sharing me that there’s a Lake, Lake Notoro, that is filled with lakeside fields of red glasswort during this autumn season in Hokkaido. Upon landing in my Hotel in Abashiri in mid afternoon, I scrambled to get the Pakit fixed up in less than 15minutes, and rode about 13km to Lake Notoro. Truly I was greeted to the beautiful sight of a lake blanketed in red. Took some time to explore the area using the boardwalk and the rest of the day was going back to the hotel to get myself ready for the next few days ride of 500+km exploring the northeastern side of Hokkaido.

Day 2 Abashiri – Utoro:

The 2nd day’s rides aim is to reach the town of Utoro where I will base myself there for 2 nights at a hostel and eventually do a short trek in Shiretoko. The bag of choice is my trusted Arkel tailrider which fitted perfectly well on the Pakit’s rear rack. I carried a light 20 litre backpack from Decathlon for some additional baggage space. Hokkaido to me is a lot of countryside land. Not much cars to fear on the roads, and if so the Japanese drivers are friendly and keep a safe distance from you the cyclist. And if the needed arises, there might be wide pavements for you to ride on. The trip starts from Abashiri and Cycling along the coast on well paved roads, overlooking the Sea of Okhotsk, to the town of Utoro. It’s nice to be able to wander to some smaller roads at times and experiencing some of the farmland roads, quieter and more scenic.

I also enjoyed visiting some of the Japanese train stations that are along this coastal road. So much wooden charm to them. I reached the town of Utoro just so during sunset and witnessed the sight of the Shiretoko mountain range I was yearning for so long to explore, basked in the purple hues of sunset and highlighting its peaks! Below will be the town of Utoro where I will be spending 2 nights in a hostel. Thankfully manage to squeeze the folded Pakit into the dormitory room just beside my bed. One thing to note about the hostels in Hokkaido is they are really clean and comfortable to stay in. It’s a cold autumn ride, and what better way to end off a day by going to a Japanese onsen in my hostel!

Day 3 Utoro – Shiretoko Goko Lakes:

Thus begins the day where it will be a 30km round trip, cycling up the mountainous roads to explore Shiretoko. There are 5 natural lakes in the Shiretoko area ( Shiretoko Goko Lakes ). You will need to go through a 10min lecture by the park’s staff before you can do the trek, in the event if Ezo bears appear. No bears were spotted during my trek. Thankful for the good weather and it’s a lovely 2hr trek discovering the tranquility of the lakes and it’s surrounding nature.

Cycling Hokkaido can have some close encounters with other inhabitants. Dears are fairly common to be found and I got pretty close to 2 of them. I got a pretty close encounter with an Ezo fox while riding.

Day 4 Shiretoko Pass – Rausu – Shibetsu:

The next day was the major push up the Shiretoko mountain pass, the highest elevation being 700+m above sea level. It’s about a 15km climb before a descent for another 15km to the town of Rausu. To my surprise the Pakit climbed well, sometimes I was only maintaining on a gradual climb on gear number 2 of the 3 speed hub. As I got higher up in the mountains, the autumn colors was such an inviting sight. The experience of cycling this mountain road was just too beautiful. Can’t help but to take a hero shot with one of the highest peaks in the backdrop, Mt Rausu. Kinda cold at the mountaintop and I was told to check out a free public Japanese onsen when I am close to the foot of the mountains. It’s something new for me, as for the guys side, you are literally naked and soaking yourself in the onsen in an open space, only shielded from others sight by trees. It’s quite fun actually, so since many other Japanese men was inside and it’s a pretty common thing there, I thought i will just join in the fun and have a good hot onsen bath.

Day 5 to 6 Shibetsu – Lake Mashu – Lake Kussharo:

Hokkaido is well known for it’s dairy products. Happened to have breakfast at a rest stop and was very surprised to get a JUMBO milk cup. This was appropriately followed by cycling through  farmland inhabited by cows in Betsukai. Eventually this led to the next major climb up to Lake Mashu, a place I visited back in 2013. It was quite unfortunate that it was raining and the entire lake view was covered in fog. Nonetheless, I must say I was still able to handle the steep ascent well on the Pakit. Oh and those H bars on my Pakit really helped on the climbs as well. Reaching the peak at approximately 600+m and once again enjoying much of the colorful autumn foliage, the descent lead me to Lake Kussharo, another place which I have visited before. By then the rain has stopped and I was able to enjoy Lake Kussharo in Autumn season (my last trip was a winter season). Then I proceeded to stay in one of the best Youth Hostels that Hokkaido has to offer, Kussharo Genya Youth Hostel. One thing I really like about the stay here beside the cleanliness and pricing, is the very homey feel, nice decor, and wonderful food served in the hostel.

Day 7-9 Lake Kussharo – Bihoro Pass – Kitami – Abashiri:

The 3rd and final mountain pass will be Bihoro pass at approximately 500+m above sea level, a pass which I have seen on many Japanese travel books. I wouldn’t say it’s a super tough ride. Maybe because the Pakit is lighter than my Tikit and I had an overall lighter packing for this trip. I realised I was on gear 2 of the 3 speed hub most of the time for this mountain pass as well. The star attraction of this pass is to be able to view Lake Kussharo from the mountain pass in all it’s glory. Occasionally the wind, rain and cold dampened my spirits during the climb, but it was all worth it.

Following the descent from Bihoro pass will be towards more city areas like Kitami and eventually ending with my starting point of Abashiri. An accumulated distance of 570km and an elevation gain of 5700m for this North Eastern Hokkaido cycling trip from 4-12 Oct 2017 on the Bike Friday Pakit. I think the Pakit held up very well for light touring and the choice of having the Primo Comet tyres helped to absorb most of the road vibrations. No puncture or any mechanical errors or sorts. I will be back again someday, exploring the many unique places in Japan.

Keep the River to Your Right: 3 Historic Waterways in 3 Weeks

If you are a regular reader on this site, 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! In 2014, I began looking for a North American route that would offer the pleasure of riding day-after-day, undisturbed along a quiet towpath.

Peter M. with his trusted Bike Friday

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.

One of the many locks encountered on the route. Photo courtesy of Peter J. Marsh

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.

Château Frontenac, Québec, Canada. Photo courtesy of Peter J. Marsh

However, there was a major 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 tried to look 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 close to 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

The 73-foot long Urger tug.

 

Back in the USA, 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 NY 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. At the end of the lake, 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 in the late 1700’s at 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 south 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 right at the upstream end of the docs, at the famous Waterford flight of 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 tug Urger– 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 really began to take a hold and slow my progress, as I stopped to read signs at every town explaining what it produced or packed to send to New York city.

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, my 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. The new route for powered barges didn’t need towpaths anymore, has 36 big locks, and incorporates several rivers that were avoided previously.

Buffalo is the gateway to Niagara Falls, and well worth the detour. Photo courtesy of Peter J. Marsh

 

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 the one big modern powerboat, I encountered.

The flat ride is finally interrupted by a steep rise caused by the rock formation that created Niagara Falls. This requires another steep ladder of locks up to an urban stretch of road through the suburbs that brought me to the hostel in the center of Buffalo–in a rainstorm. A lifesaver for cyclists, the hostel really relies on motorized tourists visiting the falls. I elected to stay for four days and booked a cheap seat home to Portland 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, then 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, carrying my gear in a soft bag 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 later sleep on the floor in the observation car. The ride tried my patience with its frequent stops on sidings, but I rationed my food carefully; three days and nights later I reached Portland, where my employer picked up and deposited me in the office to start editing the next issue of the Freshwater News.

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