We slept at the Crystal Beach Motel, which was friendly, inexpensive, and clean. It would be a great choice for the start point of a weekend bike trip in the Niagara region. About 9am Jim, Tania and I started on the path to Fort Erie, about five miles east. Fort Erie was the scene of the bloodiest battle in Canada’s history. American troops captured it during the War of 1812 and by the time they were finally driven back across the river, over 1,000 British soldiers had died. Things gradually calmed down after that, and by the 20th Century we were so chummy with Canada that we named the Niagara River bridge Peace and the cross-border bike trail Friendship. Our relations too on a slightly darker cast when the Homeland Security Administration started managing the border. Now you need a passport to get back into the U.S. We heard stories about people’s computers being confiscated with no reasons given and no return possible. Jim decided he wanted to drive the truck and do the talking, so he met Sara at the bridge entrance while Tania and I rode across on our bikes.
Riding across the Peace Bridge on a bicycle was a good thing to do once, but next time I’d walk it. The traffic is heavy, with lots of trucks. There is no sidewalk rail between you and the roadbed, and an open steel railing separates you from the water. This means riding across is a white-knuckle experience; you are over 100 feet in the air on a long four-foot strip of concrete with bloody mayhem leering at you on both sides. Then you have to talk to black-shirted Homeland Security officers who have guns and cop equipment hanging all over them.
Getting through Homeland Security is confusing for cyclists, too. We walked our bikes up to a gate that was locked and untended, and it took several minutes to realize that I could reach through the bars and unlatch it from the inside and no one would care. Then we walked directly into the holding pen for people whose entrance papers had been confiscated and were waiting to be questioned. There were sixty or seventy people packed into a small waiting area, most of them from other countries and all of them looking seriously bummed. We had no indication of what to do until an officer took us aside and explained that since our passports had not been confiscated, we could walk straight up to the desk and we didn’t have to wait in line. A cursory glance, two questions, a swipe of the passports through the computer, and we were on our way. It was a preview of what America would look like if we lost the Bill of Rights. I found it scarier than the bridge.
We rode into Buffalo’s Columbus Park neighborhood, a lovely and historic section of the city that is endangered by a proposal to build a large new entrance plaza. The Peace Bridge entrance is undeniably messy, but improving security isn’t the main reason for the proposal. They want to be able to handle even more semi trucks. And here’s the punch line: there is plenty of land available for building in Canada, but the Bush Administration won’t consider putting it over there because Canada won’t honor certain scarier provisions of the Patriot Act.
On U.S. soil, anyone seen observing a Homeland Security site who looks “suspicious” can be seized and fingerprinted with no charges and no due process. Canada won’t go along with this misbegotten rule, so the Bush Administration is proposing to tear down 70 to 90 private homes in a thriving historic neighborhood in order to get their way. Local, state, and national groups are organizing to stop the proposal. You can learn more here.
After the bridge, Buffalo’s Riverwalk path immediately got us off of city roads. We re-joined Jim and rode north along the American side of the Niagara River. We stopped for lunch in Tonawanda (loganberry milkshakes) and then turned east on the Erie Canal Towpath, which would be our route for the next six days of riding. The towpath is an off-road bike path for most of its length and is one of the best rides in the Northeast, in my opinion, but the stretch from Tonawanda to Lockport uses a lot of surface roads and is hard to follow. We had maps that were also hard to follow. We were delighted to learn that someone had helpfully spray-painted arrows on the pavement to guide us. Jim cleverly referred to these arrows as “sperm man.” It could just have easily have ben “lollipop man,” but there you are. Tania and I would hear him call out, “Sperm man says turn left!” Sperm man never failed us.
The towpath trail goes off-road for a long stretch at Lockport, which is also the place where the canal descends the Niagara escarpment in a series of five connected locks. East of this point it’s a much more pleasant ride, with the glassy water surface to the south and changing views of farmland, woods, and small towns to the north. Some enterprising soul with an arc welder had turned the drum of a cement mixer into a large sculpture of a chicken just west of Middleport. The sculptor needs to go back and work on the head and tail and give the thing a rooster-colored paint job, but he has made an excellent start.
We continued on the towpath to Medina, where Sara took Jim north to a campsite at a state park on Lake Ontario. Tania and I checked into the Medina Stone Farm, a beautiful 1863 brick home with a menagerie out back. Ron and Nancy, who own the property, perform old-time country music under the name OneSong. They were preparing to host a dance the next night in their huge renovated barn. We would have loved to go, but we had a previous engagement on Saturday afternoon in Rochester: the first of two parties where our friends from the Finger Lakes Land Trust will help us celebrate the near-completion of the ride. And so to bed.