Cycling the Erie Canal: Reflections Back on People and Their Stories Along the Way

Jul 16, 2013

Bicyclists on the last day of Cycling the Erie Canal ride along the Mohawk River toward the Hudson and Albany.
Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News

The Cycling the Erie Canal bike trip ended this past weekend.  Parks and Trails New York organized the 15 annual event.  A wide variety of people participated from 36 states and several other countries.

It was a week ago Sunday that more than 500 riders gathered in Buffalo ready to kick off Cycling the Erie Canal.  For Matt Gurzinski of Ohio it was a chance to spend time with his father.

“I live in Ohio and my father lives in Massachusetts, so we were looking  for a trip somewhere between the two states, so we decided on the Erie Canal.  The other major factor was the flatness of the ride, nice easy grade along the towpath trail.”

Matt brought along his 5-year-old daughter, making it a three-generation trip.

“My daughter’s a trooper, she pedaled along and as long as we kept her full of snacks and ice cream, she was great.”

Abby Seale and her group from New Hampshire took the family thing to a new level.  She was riding with her three sisters, a cousin, her father, grandfather and an uncle.

“I like riding along the river and all the different scenery.  It’s not the same thing over and over.  I actually liked the hilly day yesterday (Friday), thought it was a good change-up”

She admits to not training much before heading out on the trip.

“I think as the week has gone on I’m getting stronger and stronger.  But it’s been a good challenge; I’m sore, which is good and  tells me I’m  working myself.”

She credits her grandfather for getting the family on the journey.  He took each of his grandchildren on a trip.

“All of them have been adventure type of trips where you start someplace and end someplace.  And you have to do certain things along the way.  It’s a maturing thing.”

The educator and minister refers to his Christian faith in having the family bond together as they enjoy the activities.

“I get a tremendous amount out of it.  I got friends for life.  They turned from being just regular grandchildren to my dear friends.”

Another family traveled even farther to take part in the Erie Canal ride.  Sherrie

These riders from England bought these colorful bikes at Wal-Mart right before the ride.
Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News

Barfoot was in Hampshire, England when she decided to ride, bringing along her 14-year-old daughter Jemimah and her 15-year-old friend Grace.

“It’s been pretty good.  You know you don’t appreciate history I don’t think when they’re this age,” said Sherrie Barfoot. “ I actually grew up in Weedsport and I didn’t appreciate all that the Erie Canal is and I’ve been wanting to do this for quite a long time.”

When the three arrived from England, Grace explains, they needed to get some bikes.

“We went to Wal-Mart and bought them on the day we came.”  And are you taking them back? “No, we’re going to give one to Sherry’s mom and give the others to charity.”

Grace and Jemimah pedaled those pink cruiser style bikes the whole 400 miles, along with Shari and her brother Mark.  Not sure the kids focused entirely on the scenery or the history.

“My favorite part is when you have lunch, I think.  I like the lunch.  The worst is when it’s hilly,” said Grace.  Jemimah added, “my least favorite part is the cycling and my favorite part is when it’s over.”

Tent Cities and breaking down the campsites were part of each day's morning plans.
Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News

Each morning the families, couples, friends or individual riders broke camp, loaded gear on trucks to the next stopover, managed breakfast all before riding.  Setting up camp, meals and showers were all part of the afternoon routine.  Once on the route, riding was different each day.  Rick Pressley came from Seattle after hearing about the ride 10 years ago.

“It surprised me; I expected more of it to be on the trail.  There were sections of it that went along through backroads, through the farms and I loved those as much as anything.  That’s my favorite kind of riding, on very low-traveled roads”

He met his daughter Hannah for the journey.

“We got to see each other once a year, maybe twice, if we’re lucky.  So to have this extended time was great.”

Another set of West Coast riders, Arthur Kessner and Tina DeBenedict from Berkeley, California, were looking or a relaxing escape.

“No cars here and you get to look around instead of worrying about the cars.

The parts of the trip along water were was some of the history.

“I wanted to know more.  I didn’t know the Erie Canal was mostly built by Irish immigrants and I didn’t know that.  I grew up in Queens and they inculcate you with this material, some of it stays with you and most of it vanishes.  It’s interesting to know who the workers were and where did they live”

Arthur, an avid bicyclist, Tina more of a runner, managed the challenge fine.  Many riders regularly do bike trips...In fact Rob Schraft found his companions on another trip.

Hannah and her father Larry Wakeman joined Liz and Rob Schraft. They came from Missouri.
Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News

“We saw some people; this was four years ago, wearing “Cycling the Erie Canal” Jerseys.  We went to college in Seneca Falls, when Eisenhower College was still there back in the 70s, so it was perfect.  We met Larry and Hannah on the Katy (bike trail) and we kept talking about it, so this year they decided to come. So we’re a Missouri contingent”

Rob and his wife Liz joined Larry Wakeman and daughter Hannah...both pairs riding tandem bikes. 

“It’s a lot of fun and I love spending time with him and I feel like our relationship is stronger than most other fathers and daughters and I really like that, said Hannah.  “What a privilege, added Larry.  “ I talk to a lot of dads whose daughters are off doing something else, have no time for them.  I feel very privileged that Hannah likes to ride and that we have an opportunity to do this together.”

They enjoyed seeing the canals and waterfront communities...scenery they don't get biking in Missouri.

Larry Levine from Malta and his riding partner almost didn't make it to the start.  When he stopped for gas driving to beginning of the ride, another driver just about ended the trip

“I’m standing there and see this enormous boat take on my bikes.  It just bent them in half, the bike rack exploded, literally exploded.”

The mishap made them even later for registration...but it ended pretty well

“So he gives me his insurance company and says go over to Fairport Bike Shop.  And in an hour we bought two new bikes, a new car carrier.  I got the bags I wanted.  Now I’ve got all the equipment I should have had…all on this guy.”

The final night was a time to have some fun, laugh at foibles and fables from the trail, that would end with a final ride into Albany Sunday.  The ad-hoc talent show included a skit by the Texas, Maryland Scout troop.  Michael McClelland enjoyed time with his buddies ...and sights along the way.

“Going up the locks in an actual boat was interesting to do.  I like this kind of candy, seeing the Peppermint Museum (in Lyons).  Seeing museums like that and going on the canal and finding out about the history of the canal and all these cool places and all these big corporations that started out as these tiny shops along the canal.

They take a yearly bike trip...and Scoutmaster Dave Schaller doesn't have to do much convincing.

“The kids really enjoy the bike trips…and there’s bragging rights and saying I rode across the state of New York, 400 miles, which is a neat thing to be able to say.”

From the scout troop and other teens, to families with kids as young as 4, ages on the trip ranged all the way up to Stuart Levingood from Pennsylvania.

89-year-old Stuart Levingood of Pennsylvania was said to be the oldest on the ride.
Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News

“89 years old…I ride at home almost every day of the year.  I guess I was in good shape when I came.”

The group was warned in advance that we'd hear the Erie Canal song at that last night's send-off.  The final day gave people a sense of accomplishment, relief that it was over.  But there was also a bit of sadness to be finished with the routine, the new friends and riding mates, and the great experience, experiencing the Empire State along the Erie Canalway Corridor.

More information on the ride and the Canalway Trail is at