“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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
excellent map of
the canal can be found