Passionate Pursuit – Cycling the Erie Canalway Trail

Joan and her partner.

A long distance bike ride can be an exciting adventure. The Canalway Trail is a network of approximately 380 miles of multiple—use trails across upstate New York. In the summer of 2014, two Excelsior College staff members, Joan Mikalson and Anne Connor, made the bike trek from Buffalo to Albany, NY alongside their significant others. Today, they share their story with Excelsior Life.

Excelsior Life: Can you tell us about “Cycling the Erie Canal” and how long you traveled each day?

Connor: Cycling the Erie Canal began in Buffalo, NY on July 13 and culminated in downtown Albany on July 20. This is an annual event sponsored by Parks & Trails New York, a non-profit organization that promotes the development and maintenance of greenspace in NYS.

About 500 riders participated. The ride distance was about 400 miles, and we averaged 50 miles per day. Most nights we camped at schools, so we had access to electricity for charging phones and cameras, showers, swimming pools, etc. We also stayed at Burnet Park in Syracuse (camping with the zoo animals!) and at the Fort Stanwix National Historic Site in Rome, NY.

Tent City, a stopping point along the Erie Canal journey
Tent City, a stopping point along the Erie Canal journey

 

Mikalson: The average age of cyclists on this trip was 53. We saw entire families, many singles, siblings and lots of repeat riders. A ninety-year-old bicyclist rode 4,200 miles this year, who had a double knee replacement rode with his daughter. Nine riders were aged 75 or older. I was amused to meet three other women named “Joan,” a name that’s slipped out of vogue these days. We had fun comparing stories on how we got our names.

 Excelsior Life: How long have you been cycling as a hobby?

Connor: I’ve cycled for about 40 years. Over the last five to six years I have been able to spend more time now that my children are grown. I ride outdoors several times a week from April to November and indoors in the winter. I’ve enjoyed biking with several other Excelsior College staff over the last few years on our weekly evening rides around the Albany, NY area.

Joan Mikalson at the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, NY
Joan Mikalson at the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, NY

Mikalson: I’ve been a cyclist for the past 20 years. I started cycling as a way to stay active with my two sons. I purchased a used hybrid bicycle from the classified ads (one with fat tires). At the time, I was a single parent and we had just moved to Amherst, MA, where I was in a doctoral program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The town of Amherst had a great bike path. I eventually felt confident enough for a “road” bicycle with skinny tires and my first set of bicycle shoes; I was hooked!

Excelsior Life: Who attended this event with you?

Connor: I rode with my husband, Jack Connor. We decided to do the ride this year to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. I didn’t realize that Joan was planning to ride until I’d already signed up.

Mikalson: When Anne and I were chatting about bicycling one day in the halls at Excelsior College. We were surprised to discover that we had both scheduled the same Erie Canal ride. I was also joined on the ride by my partner, Brian Hagenbuch.

Excelsior Life: How did you get prepared for this journey?

Connor: I prepared for the journey by riding. The most important thing in preparing for a long ride is seat time. The right equipment such as padded shorts is also a must.

Picture from the Farmers’ Market in Watervliet bike stop.
Picture from the Farmers’ Market in Watervliet bike stop.

 

Mikalson: I am thankful the organizers of the event were quite explicit in stating this was “not a race and not a ride; it was a journey.” They were right. About half of us started from the Albany train station. The organizers loaded our bicycles on trucks and we boarded five motor coaches for the slow ride to Buffalo. It took four hours to reach Buffalo by bus and forty hours to return to Albany by bicycle!

Excelsior Life: What were some of the highlights from your trip?

Connor: I enjoyed meeting and riding with people, young and old, from all over the world. The folks in our tent area were from Minnesota, Arizona, Michigan, Tennessee, Western New York, and Australia! One day I rode with a young man from England who took the past year off to travel the world by bike to raise money for the Red Cross. He had logged over 12,000 miles on his bike since last September. In addition to the people and the beautiful scenery, I really enjoyed learning about the history of the Erie Canal and NYS. We stopped at many museums and historic sites along the way, including the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, the Arkell Museum of Art in Canajoharie, the Joseph Smith House in Palmyra, the National Women’s Rights Museum and Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls.

Mikalson: The greatest highlight of the trip had to be the people – from the riders on the trip to the “receiving line” in communities along the Canal. It became obvious by the third day into the trip that these cyclists were all cut from the same fabric and shared the same “can-do” attitude of sheer optimism.

For example, an adult woman with cerebral palsy completed the trip on a tandem bicycle with her dad. A man in his 70’s made the trip because he wants to live long enough to know his grand kids; he had recently lost 50 pounds and quit his habit of daily martinis. He had a video camera strapped to his helmet and planned to learn film editing when he reached home. Another man had spent the last 12 years caring for a wife with Huntington’s disease, and had just lost her to a nursing home. A man from New Zealand landed in the States and bought a bicycle at Walmart for the trip; at the finish, he gave the bicycle to a couple’s ten-year-old.

Another highlight was the amazing folks from the Canal town communities – they proudly welcomed us all along the trail with stories about their history, home-baked snacks, beverages, and stamped post cards; we were their celebrities. The volunteer firefighters in Pattersonville made us a water arch and held a cookout for our arrival.

A wet and muddy day
A wet and muddy day

One of the most challenging days on the trip was day three, with thunder and heavy rain. While much of the trail is paved here, the western portion of it runs along the original tow path covered with limestone grit. It was much like cycling through wet kitty litter and sticks to every part of your bicycle frame. We hosed off our bicycles three times that day. My partner had two flat tires in the morning and I had two flat tires in the afternoon, but we survived. The tour providers convinced us, “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

It was great fun to reach our own home city, Schenectady, on day seven and to continue on to Albany for the culmination of the trip. My front tire had a slow leak so we stopped at home to switch from our hybrid to our road bicycles, without the added weight of panniers.

Excelsior Life: Would you do it again?

Connor: Although I plan to tour some other locations on my next few long rides, I definitely would do the Erie Canal tour again. It was very well organized, the food was plentiful and excellent, the route was well-marked and safe, the organizers were great people, and all in all it was a fantastic time. I would recommend it to anyone.

Joan and her partner.
Joan and her partner.

Mikalson: The Erie Canal Cycling trip was an experience of a lifetime. We have never been so pampered on a vacation!! All we had to do was bicycle! We werefed breakfast and dinner, and our tent and blow-up mattress were ready for us each night. One of the best features was the “shower truck” – a tractor trailer equipped with heated showers. And there were three on-call massage therapists at each stopover.

We will definitely do this trip again, but we’d like to check out other multi-day cycling destinations. During the week, we learned about ride options by observing shirts proudly worn by riders, such as a ride in the Finger Lakes, another through the Hudson Valley to NYC, and one along the beach in Key West.

 Excelsior Life: Where would someone find more information about this event?

Connor: You can find more about the tour at the Cycling the Erie Canal Facebook page.

 

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