Niagara Falls Narrative

September 25, 2015:

I rode the Lake Erie shoreline for most of the day, then followed a bike path nearly the entire length of the Welland Canals. The appeal of the Welland Canals is the massive lake freighters and the process of lifting or lowering them from one lake to the next. The freighters tower over the canal like oversized toys in a bathtub. Maneuvering these behemoths through the canals requires an extraordinary amount of skill, especially when another freighter is passing in the other direction and swirling the water with its giant props or when a strong wind pushes the freighter toward the wall.

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If there is a complaint about the bike path, it would be the lack of facilities. I didn’t see a drinking fountain or bathroom the entire distance. Park benches were rare and picnic tables non-existent.

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This was the view outside my room window. I was in Thorold at Lock 7 and in sight of Lake Ontario. The series of photos gives a sense of the depth of this lock. At the low water point, all but the topmost windows of the freighter are below the lock walls. By the time the ship was raised to its highest point, the ship towered over the canal in a precariously top heavy manner. The motel has all of the arrival times for ships passing through Lock 7, so it is possible to time dinners, drinks and other activities around lock times.

I took advantage of the schedule to eat dinner at an Irish pub in downtown Thorold. I couldn’t find the beer menu, so I asked. The waitress ran down the list of beers: Bud, Bud Lite, Michelob, Blue Moon. I must have stared at her for a beat, which prompted her to mention Guinness Stout and Smithwick’s Irish Ale.

 

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Two large breakwaters jut into Lake Ontario from shore to guide ships into and out of the Canals. I followed a bike path up the eastern breakwater to a lighthouse and excellent views.

Back at the mainland, quiet rural roads ran past acres of vineyards. My timing wasn’t good, the grapes had already been picked, but the tidy rows of grapevines were appealing nonetheless. This was not, however, the most scenic part of the day’s ride. That began when I reached the Niagara River.

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The river has many moods. Turning north, I rode the bike path to Niagara on the River, an upscale shopping and living village. The river here is wide and the water relatively quiet. Sailboats and fishing boats are common. Two historic forts: Fort George on the Canadian side and Old Fort Niagara on the US side, guard the entrance to the river. Turning south, upstream, the river narrows and the water gets faster and rougher. The gorge is a beautiful blend of trees and rock outcrops. And the Whirlpool is a swirling mass of water that makes a right angle turn before continuing downstream.

The bike trail can be busy during peak season, especially with rental and tour bikes. Stay alert, especially near the winery stores. The rental companies and the wineries have a very close relationship.

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There isn’t much to say about Niagara Falls itself that hasn’t been said many times before, but the Canadian side definitely gives the impression of one large lake spilling into another large lake. The sheer power of the falls is spell binding.

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Beyond the falls, I got a kick out of watching an Elvis impersonator work the crowd in a courtyard below the main Niagara walkway. The international people watching was fascinating and the main commercial strip on the Canadian side has a tacky, curios shop, cheap diner, sleazy-bar fascination. I would have explored it happily, but I had a train to catch east of Buffalo.

Buffalo, NY is not a prosperous city and riding a bike through some neighborhoods after dark can be a little sketchy. Two mistakes and the fact that I had to catch an Amtrak train near midnight, on the other side of the city, placed me in the heart of Buffalo well after dark.

The first mistake was lingering too long at the falls. When it finally registered that I had another 25 miles to ride, after completing 50 already, I immediately bolted for the border across the Peace Bridge. That was mistake number two. Bicyclists are treated like cars on the Peace Bridge, which meant standing in a long line of idling motors while each car passed through customs. Much better, I later learned, to stay on the Canadian side and ride south to the Rainbow Bridge near Fort Erie. Bicyclists and pedestrians have their own processing lines and exiting customs on the US side would have put me on a nearly straight line to Amtrak.

So I bolted upriver on the US side at a pace that was better suited to a 25 mile ride than the last third of a 75 mile ride. I raced the sun with the primary motivation that every mile ridden in the fading light was one less to negotiate after dark, but by the time I came off a bike trail with the ominous sign “Be Safe. Walk with a Friend,” it was pitch dark. I was lost, in a very busy part of town and a minority of two.

I carry implicit bias. I’m not proud of it, but bicycle touring is, if anything, about opening up to the world. I decided to use this opportunity to chip away at that bias. Rather than address the one other white person near me, I turned to three young men walking my way and asked for directions.

I don’t know all of the social norms I broke at that moment, but some combination of an older white man on a bicycle asking directions of three young black men in the middle of the night stopped those men cold. They stared at me with blank faces as they processed the situation and assessed their own responses. One of the men eventually took me at my word and pointed to the bridge he had just crossed. “Cross the bridge, turn left and ride through campus,” he said. I thanked him and crossed the bridge, but now I was processing two questions. “What just happened?” and “Did it ever occur to me that those three men were college students?”

 

Returning to Buffalo:

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Eleven months later I resumed my march to the sea. I flew into the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport around 11 pm. My bike, shipped earlier, was at the hotel. Assembling a bike in a hotel room is a tricky affair. I had only a multi-tool and a screw driver to do all of the work, and I kept the bike inside the box as much as possible to prevent chain grease from staining the carpet. The assembly process took until 2:30 in the morning. I woke at 6:00, ate breakfast and hopped on the bike, but the start of the trip was more a shopping expedition than tour. I stopped at three stores in search of white gas for my cook stove and a drug store for sun glasses. Eventually I made it back to the route and began my trip down the spine of the Allegany and Appalachian Mountains to Virginia, then east to Yorktown. That’s another story.