Bikepackers

Along the way, we stopped at an old canal site.

Okay, I got carried away and put a bunch of photos here. I suppose some words would be nice too.

Our group set out to ride a section of the Erie Canalway Trail and decided to begin in Albany and ride west for two days, turn around and ride back. Three nights camping on the trail at two campgrounds. The first night, we met at a hotel in Rensselear.


Riding the trail

Riding the trail

We started out by parking at the Albany/Renssalear AMTRACK station’s long-term parking lot. From there we rode out on the trail, which was conveniently nearby, just across the river. I’m not really clear whether at that point, it was the Hudson, or the Mohawk, but we had to cross a couple of bridges on sidewalks.

But soon we were on a nice trail alongside the river and off riding. Our first day was to be 37 miles to Schenectady and the Arrowhead RV Park/Campground. We rode on the trail and it gradually got less urban and more rural as we went. Much of it was in sight of the river/canal, but often we were riding in a wooded, shady place. The weather was delightful for October and held up all four days. Not hot, not cold, perfect fall weather.


Folding bikes

Folding bikes, perfect for bikepacking?

Occasionally, there were sections where we had to get off the trail and ride on the road. Mostly, it was on NY Bike Route 5, which had wide and clear shoulders. Sometimes it was because the trail just ended and there was a gap, sometimes it was to get to/from our campgrounds. Once there was a closed section of the trail where a bridge had been washed out in the spring.
The ride was enjoyable, but the distances were a bit rugged. We had to get to our campgrounds and couldn’t find any closer together. At least not with running water and showers.

Our first stop at Arrowhead was a nice campground. The manager was really nice and we met one of the RV residents who came over and talked with us a lot. It was nice to hang out and swap stories with him.


Lots of leaves

Lots of leaves

The second day we headed out and promised to return in two days. Riding out on the trail, it continued to get more rural with fewer interactions with towns. The trail also got tougher. Nearest Albany, the trail was paved. Later on, it became crushed stone, much like I’m used to near Lockport. As we went on, though, it became harder to ride. The stone path turned into a double track with grass growing up in the middle. It wasn’t as bad as the Greenbriar Trail, but it did make riding more difficult as the day went on.

By the end of the day, three of us were riding together and probably the last on the trail. What was supposed to be the last 3 miles, seemed like 15. But we made it into the St. Johnsville Marina and got set up for the night.


Schenectady

Schenectady

The marina was excellent for camping. We were allowed to set our tents up on a big grassy area next to the docks, which had a shelter complete with a refrigerator we could use and outlets to charge our phones. We settled right in.

Being right on the water, there was a gentle breeze, which wasn’t cold, but kept bugs away and the dew off the tents. It was pretty good camping.

Traveling and camping with a group like this is fun. I suppose a lot of it is the people. It helps to have a bunch of like-minded cyclist campers who get along. I suppose another group might not work as well, but we got along great. I had met most of them earlier in the summer on the GAP trip.


Lock 8 on the Mohawk

Lock 8 on the Mohawk

This was as far as we were going to go. In the morning, we were to turn back towards Albany and retrace our tracks. We headed out into the little town near the campground and stopped at a store for breakfast.

When I left, there were two people still behind me, but I immediately missed a turn. By the time I got back on track, I was way behind. I turned onto what I thought was the trail, but the gravel was even worse than I remembered. But it was late and I was tired, maybe I forgot that. I went a while and came upon an old, original canal lock site (Old 33) and a small campsite next to it. Now, I know I didn’t miss that the night prior. I was happy to see the lock and stopped and took some photos of it. But unfortunately, the trail from there on was mud with standing water in the tracks. No way was I getting through that loaded down with all my gear. So, back I went the way I came.

About half way back to the road, I came across a building, sort of an old farmhouse, with a road next to it going uphill. I recognized the road. We had stood at the top the day before and wondered if it was the way to the campground. We had decided it wasn’t, but I knew the real trail was at the top of this road, only a couple hundred feet away. It was uphill, but not too steep, the rocks where runoff had washed out finer stone were potato-sized, but I rode up it with only a little slipping and sliding and headed off down the trail in pursuit of the group.

After a while, I got to wondering if the group had stopped to wait for me. What if they had stopped where the trail met the road from the campground? I could have gone around them with my detour and left them behind. Or not. To be sure, I called our ride leader, Bean, on the phone. Trying to describe where they were and where I was, was a comedy skit in the making. The two people who I rode with the day before and knew what I saw when we looked down the road by the farmhouse were not with Bean. The only way I could describe the trail section was “where we saw the Amish buggy.” We finally decided they were still ahead of me and I had to keep riding. We met at the next cross-roads.


Haunting cyclist

Haunting cyclist

Our second night at Arrowhead was uneventful, but we were met by our RVing neighbor, who had cooked up a big pot of goulash for us. Let me tell you, we sure appreciated that. I brought no cooking gear with me and little food. After the Greenbriar Trip, I wasn’t keen on pulling my trailer and wanted to keep it simple. I knew the trail was never far from small towns and buying food would be easy. I also don’t have much of an appetite after riding all day. My stomach seems to contract and I am not hungry. Well, by day three, I needed my food and I was ravenous. That goulash hit the spot. It was my big meal of the trip, big as the hawaiian pizza and chicken wings I had at the motel before the trip. But even so, I couldn’t finish it. I filled up fast, but it felt good to be full.

One of the group had to work Tuesday, so we decided to get an early start. They turned in early, but there were still some die-hards at the fire until late. Funny thing about camping – late might have been midnight. Well, it’s all relative. All I know was I was tired enough and the weather was just cool enough that I could curl up in my sleeping bag, get all cozy and sleep like a log. I’ll have to try that at home, just turn off the furnace and get out the sleeping bag. Think that will go over?


Church on Route 5S

Church on Route 5S

We got our early start. Most of us got up and skipped breakfast or coffee and went straight to the nearby Dunkin Donuts to grab a bite. See, they’re coming around to my way of thinking.

Off on the trail again and soon we were into the grassy, double-track again and I was in the rear again. After a while, I had enough. I’d already seen this part of the trail once. I used my knowledge of the New York roads and jumped off the trail at a little farm road and picked my way down it’s rocks until I got on the local road – Route 5S, which happens to be NY Bike Route 5.

In this section of the trail, the Thruway (Route 90) runs parallel to Route 5/5S and the canalway trail. Presumably, the canal is somewhere nearby too.

Once I was on 5S, the going got much easier. It had a good clean shoulder and there was very little traffic. All the traffic is on the Thruway, only local traffic is on 5S. So I made good time. I also enjoyed it a lot. The scenery was great, not overhung by tree branches and littered with leaves and black walnuts. It was like being in a different world, even though the trail was just over there, where you could see it every so often.

I saw some of our group waiting to regroup up one of the lanes that cross the trail and come out on the road. I waved, but wasn’t sure if they saw me, or not. I didn’t care, I was having a great time and before long, I’d be waiting for them!

A little further down the road, I saw two of our group waiting on a small bridge on the trail. This time I got their attention. I rode a couple tenths of a mile further and came to where the trail and road crossed. I stopped on the side of the road to take some photos and sure enough, they came along. After a bit I think I met the whole group, but they went on with the trail. One other rider, Gumby, (Yeah, we have trail names.) had enough of the trail and decided to strike off with me on down 5S.

We had a great time. There were more uphills to climb, but the downhills afterwards were just glorious on the paved road. We came to a farm fruit stand and bought a bag of apples. I don’t know what kind they were, they were small, but sweet and tasted awesome. Before we knew it, we were rolling into Fultonville where 5S and the trail are side-by-side and we all met up there.


Local resident

Local resident

After that, the group decided to take a more direct route back to Albany to save time. We still rode the trail for a while, but after we hit Schenectady, we used more roads and local streets. We made good time.

We stopped in Colonie too for a break at a Wendy’s. A fellow pulled up and parked next to us. “I saw you and your bikes and I had to turn around and come back to see them.” He said. We had a great time chatting with him and showing him our bikes and camp gear. Meeting people on the road/trail is always great fun.

One section nearer Albany, we used a bike path somewhere near uAlbany and got help from a local mountain biker who showed us the way through the interchange near some expressways.



Riding through Albany

Riding through Albany

Pretty soon we were in the city of Albany. Traffic was light, since it was a holiday and we rode through some interesting areas. uAlbany, the State Capitol buildings, and into the downtown area. We got off the main street and onto a one-way street that took us right where we needed to cross the bridge to the Amtrak station. We came down off the bridge on the way out, but coming back meant climbing up an endless sidewalk along a cloverleaf exchange to the bridge. Couldn’t be less cyclist-friendly. But we did it and got to our cars by about 12:30pm. Way ahead of schedule!


Our Bikepacking crew

Our Bikepacking crew

We met up afterwards at this firehall-turned-bar with the truck bay door opened for the nice weather. A bite to eat, a couple drinks, and we all said our goodbyes. Until next time!

Impressions:

This part of the Erie Canalway Trail is quite different than the the section I live next to. The connection with the canal and it’s history is not always as obvious as it could be. I saw old sections of the canal twice that we only saw by accident, once because we were meeting Annie’s family to pick her up at one, and the other because I made the wrong turn. (The Erie Canal was rebuilt three times to enlarge and modernize it. Only the last time rerouted it into a channel in the Mohawk River.) There are many other old ‘ruins’ of the original canal that may be only feet from the trail but lie there unseen. Often, I looked over and would see what looked like a low area with overgrowth like a swamp and wondered if it was the old canalbed.

It’s also oddly disconnected from the surrounding communities. Touring by bike can be self-contained, but part of the fun is seeing the area. A couple of places, like Canajoharie and Fultonville were right on the trail and had a lot to offer. Other towns were hidden by trees and brush and maybe around the bend when we crossed a road. Some signage to local attractions or amenities would go a long way.

The New York State Thruway was built along the canal right-of-way. The two are forever intertwined. In a way, the Thruway is the modern canal. But at times, it seemed like we were riding the Thruway Trail. You were never so far away that you couldn’t hear the trucks going by.

And, of course, the lack of camping hurt. This ride would have been much more enjoyable if we didn’t have to ride 35+ miles, fully loaded on rough trails to get to a decent campground. Even some more rustic campgrounds spaced appropriately would have been an improvement. (Sorry, ladies, we can shower every other night and survive.)

And, last but not least, the trail surface really needs improvement. I realize that this area of the state has had some flood damage in recent years, but a few truckloads of stone dust isn’t asking too much, is it? It really hurt to ride by stone quarry, after cement plant along Route 5S and think a little of that couldn’t get delivered to the trail.

As it was, we fell short of Utica, one of the cooler cities along the Mohawk Valley. If we were to do this again, it might be smart to start outside Albany and travel further west.

All-in-all, it was a fun trip, if a bit exhausting, and worth it for the company. We had a great group of people and I enjoyed my time with all of you.

A link to all my photos is here or here

Here’s a few renditions of Erie Canal songs.

Bruce Springsteen – Erie Canal

Pete Seeger – E-ri-e Canal

Edward Meeker 1913 – Erie Canal

I like this old version!

Greg Klyma – Erie Canal

Greg is a Buffalo native who now tours the country performing. He is a regular at the Kerrville Folk Festival.

The Heenan Brothers – Erie Canal Song

The Heenan Brothers are a Lockport trio that play “Canal Blues” locally. This was recorded October 26, 2013 at the Erie Canal Discovery Center in Lockport NY as part of a celebration of the 188th anniversary of the opening of the Erie Canal.

Pete Seeger – Low Bridge (The Erie Canal Song)