A brand new adventure with Riley as he journeys toward Lady Liberty
Runyak for Liberty
On the final day of the Horseshoe to Horseshoe Expedition, I veered off course toward Niagara Falls and wrote the following:
"Over two miles ahead from where I launched, the Niagara River divides into two channels, the Chippawa, and the Tonawanda. Between the channels rests Grand Island, NY. I would be taking the Chippawa Channel, but I had a reason to paddle toward Grand Island.
In the back of my head I'm saddened to see the Horseshoe to Horseshoe Expedition coming to an end, and have thought of what I'd do come the summer of 2013. One idea that has entered my foolish head is to paddle 370 miles from Tonawanda, the western terminus of the Erie Canal to the eastern terminus, on the Hudson River.
From there, following the Hudson, New York City is another 145 miles. Circling the Statue of Liberty seems crazy enough to be an ultimate goal. Presently, I will not commit to doing it. I'm not willing to say it will happen, but if I do, I’d need a starting point from the Niagara River. The best starting point from Niagara River would be Grand Island, NY.
Anyone following my travels knows continuity says I must go to Grand Island now by kayak, and if I return, I can start where I was today.
When close enough to Grand Island I touched two possible starting points in case I should continue, and then headed back to the Canadian side of the Niagara River.”
Well, its nine months later and today I set out to test whether runyaking to the Statue of Liberty is possible. Of course kayaking to NYC is possible, but physically can I runyak it? Two-day excursions would be out of the picture being far from home. The true limitation would come down to how far could this senior citizen run in a week? Setting fifty miles of running over five days as a basis, I headed for the Erie Canal.
I’d made it to the Falls solo, but I decided to ease the rules a bit and invite my wife, Hope to come along. Another difference, before I was following the waters of the Flint River. I guess that won’t be the case once off the Niagara River and in the Canal.
With two kayaks, both fitting inside the mini-van, Hope and I arrived on Grand Island, NY looking for the place I’d touched last September en route to the Falls.
It turned out to be inside a state park. “Dang,” I thought, “there goes another rule, in that I’d never paid fees for entry, launching, or parking.”
Pulling up to the park entrance booth and knowing I wouldn’t launch until the following morning, I asked if an entry pass would be good for twenty-four hours. The nice lady in the booth said the pass was only good for the day purchased but allowed me enter and “check out” where I’d launch without paying.
After finding the place I’d previously “touched” we left Grand Island and booked a hotel near the Buffalo airport, unsure of how many days we’d be staying.
Runyak for Liberty Day 58, June 27, 2013
I arrived back at the state park quite early the next morning. The gate was open and nobody was taking money! I was ecstatic when placing Swiftee near the river for my parameter of never having paid entrance, parking, or launching fees was still intact.
My smugness remained while driving back to where I’d finish kayaking, a mile or so up the Erie Canal in North Tonawanda, NY. Hope, not wanting to paddle the wide Niagara River opted out of the paddle, saying she’d while away the hours at the North Tonawanda Launch until my arrival.
I’d picked up a serious cold before leaving Michigan so the run of nearly ten miles to Swiftee was a combination of sniffling and sore throat. I ran at a slower than normal pace, 12min/mi; not because I was sick, but in an effort to conserve leg energy for later in the week.
After launching from Grand Island I paddled into the Tonawanda Channel of the Niagara River. Not two miles into the paddle I came upon five kayakers paddling the opposite way toward Buffalo. We stopped and talked several minutes.
They were a kayaking club from Grand Island that paddles every Thursday. They wanted me to paddle with them. I let them know I’d like to, but I was on a mission and time was of the essence.
Further explaining my adventure and how far I’d come they were very impressed. What I remembered most was of the women saying, “You must be very brave.” What, me brave? That’s never crossed my mind. Sages will tell you there’s a thin line between bravery and stupidity. I fit more closely into the second category.
Two miles later, I paddled under a very large bridge that connects Grand Island, NY to mainland. Its’ part of I-190 but had a pedestrian/bicycle sidewalk. I’d ran across said pathway earlier to get to Swiftee.
From the bridge to the Canal entrance, Niawanda Park was on Swiftee’s starboard. I’d run the length of the linear park on a paved trail earlier. While paddling, and wearing a captain’s hat, I got my kicks by yelling “Ahoy!” from my tiny boat to those on the trail.
When arriving at the canal entrance I approached it with some caution for one of the kayakers I’d just met warned that the entrance was tricky, and that I needed to be careful. I didn’t find anything that would cause concern. I even took a moment to video the terminus.
A couple miles later I spotted Hope and the van. Feeling run down from having a cold I was glad to finish.
Day 58 - 9.5 miles run 7.9 miles yaked.
Runyak for Liberty Day 59, June 28, 2013
The forecast for the day was to be a wet one. Paddling on the Great Lakes the past three years, I watched weather reports closely for wind and storms. On a canal I need not worry much about weather as previously. I’ve driven so far to get here I will deal with whatever Mother Nature presents for the day.
Paddling out of North Tonawanda I noticed the canal looks much like rivers I’ve paddled but with more boat traffic. There is a slight current and it’s in my favor. That means, although hard to believe, some water molecules of my home watershed, the Flint River still presses against my paddle.
With rain in the forecast Hope again decided not to put her kayak in the water. She found things to do that kept her busy near the West Canal Marina launch.
To find landings for Swiftee I’m using the New York State Canal Corporation’s Interactive Canalway Water Trail Map. I’m finding it very valuable, for it even provides photos of the landings. The North Tonawanda Launch where I launched today is the 2nd landing available on the canal going east. At the 5th listed, West Canal Marina, I spotted Hope and landed. I did not exit the boat, for standing by Hope, on the dock, was a West Marina County Park employee. From speaking to him I learned there was a bridge between his facility and the 6th landing, Amherst Veteran’s Park, on the opposite side of the canal. I decided to paddle there and run back via the bridge.
There was no such bridge. The park worker turned out to be ignoramus or just having some fun at my expense. I’d now have to find another place to land.
The next landing, 7th on the map, Lockport UpperTerminal Launch, was too far away. Using it meant I’d exceed sixteen miles of running for Day 59. I’d have to find a place somewhere closer to land. I need to keep the run miles close to ten a day if this Runyak for Liberty “test” stood a chance.
On route to this impromptu landing I was hoping to find, I spied something floating in the middle of the canal. A turtle sitting on a small piece of debris? I paddled closer. My second guess, although far-fetched was a turtle floating on a dead opossum. It turned out to be something even more disgusting, a dead snapper all bloated up dwarfing its shell.
A mile from where I’d find an exit point I saw the first evidence that I was on a canal and not a river. I truly didn’t understand its full purpose but it’s some sort of gate. For flood control maybe?
The spot where I landed was nothing fancy. In fact it was downright precarious. It was where a pipeline crossed the canal and boulders covered it. I paralleled the rocks, carefully exited Swiftee, and then climbed up the steep embankment to where Hope was waiting with the van. But to get Swiftee to the van from below was an invitation for disaster. Instead I cabled and locked him to the pipeline warning sign for the night.
All I had to do was get in the van and drive away to the hotel, right? Of course not, this is runyaking, I had to run eight miles back to West Canal Marina to complete the runyak cycle. But at that moment I was too hungry. We drove to the nearest town, Lockport, for lunch. On the way there it began raining. It wouldn’t stop.
After lunch and back to where Swiftee was, cats and dogs continued falling from the sky. Their carcasses piled up throughout the entire eight-mile run. Hope in the van, me on foot, leap-frogged the entire way. Occasionally she’d pull off the road, I’d open the hatch, and use it as an umbrella to take a break from the downpour. Nice to have a spouse that understands runyaking and doesn’t tell you, “get your ass in the van, Fool.” She surely wanted to, especially knowing I had a cold, and the last place I needed to be was out in a chilly rain.
Coughing and sneezing, I continued until the runyak cycle was complete. When back at the hotel I stood under a hot shower for nearly thirty minutes to get my dermis, epidermis, and hypodermis all back to their normal temperatures. Two days and over forty miles of runyaking have been completed, but the Runyak to Liberty “test” is being threatened.
Day 59 - 11.5 run 13.4 yaked
Runyak for Liberty Day 60, June 29, 2013
Waking up on the sixtieth day of the journey I still was suffering from a cold but felt I was over the hump.
The area I’d be kayaking, Lockport, had received so much rain it was dramatized in the local news. When in Lockport yesterday we waited in the van for the rain to ease up before going into a restaurant. We gave up waiting and made a run for it. Deja vu – it did the exact same thing the day before. I missed getting wet while runyaking the first day, unlike the second.
The news reported that Lowertown Lockport was under water. Video footage showed kayaks paddling down the streets. So, when I awoke on Day 60, Hope watching the news, was worried to death. Again she wouldn’t be kayaking; she didn’t even want me going to Lockport.
Worrying is a major pastime for Hope. She gets upset when I don’t worry along with her. I never go totally Alfred E. Newman, “What, me worry?” I prepare for danger, but I’m not going to start worrying before seeing anything imminent. Sarcastically, I told her, “Well, I guess we might as well give up, pack up and go home.”
In the Lockport report it stated the “Lowertown” area flooded. We had no idea what or where Lowertown was. I’d soon learn the section of Lockport where we’d eaten lunch yesterday was in the upper part. It was bad enough there; we drove through water eight inches deep.
Today we drove to Lowertown and found everything looking quite normal. So, I ran from Nelson C. Goehle Public Marina, the 7th landing, near Lowertown to where I’d left Swifty. The most dangerous part of today’s runyak was descending the rocky embankment, unlocking Swiftee, and launching from boulders.
Without incident and in a matter of an hour Swiftee and I approached the town of Lockport. Before us was the first of many locks that we’d encounter… if the test is passed.
Paddling closer to the lock there was a sign stating, “Wait for Green Light.” Seeing a small distant red light I waited… and waited. After fifteen minutes I thought this is b.s. and began paddling toward a dock adjacent to the lock. The lockmaster must have wondered why I was floundering in the canal. He exited his post and began approaching Swiftee and me with papers in hand.
I spoke first, “I’m a virgin, break me in easy. I have no idea what I’m doing.”
He was gentle, telling me, “You can dock and portage, or you can go through the lock.” I told him I’d enjoy the experience of going through the lock.
“You want me to lock you down? I can lock you down.” He told me.
Awesome! I thought. Throughout my past, authorities have only offered to “lock me up.”
After opening the gate and letting me inside the lock he showed me the ropes. Literally, he showed me ropes that boaters used to stabilize their craft during the water transfer. In Swiftee’s case no ropes were needed. I could paddle in circles during the water transfer if I wanted.
The lockmaster said I’d go through two locks, each would lower me 25 feet. Each lock is 45-ft. by 326-ft. Now, had I been in a motorized boat I would've paid locking fees, but paddle vessels are free. I learned this before leaving home and thought it fantastic. Why? Once again Swiftee and I would escape “fees.”
When being lowered in the giant swimming pool, I wondered how in the world could this be free? I’ve done the math, over 5,500,000 gallons of water (s‘cuse me for restating… over five point five million gallons!) was removed (11 million if the next vessel was traveling the same direction as Swiftee and me) at no charge! I never saw the lockmaster again but I felt I owed him lunch or something.
A mere fifty-feet lower I continued paddling. “A mere fifty” I say because the lock put me below the Niagara Escarpment, which at The Falls, some twenty miles away, is 167 feet.
I found Hope some distance beyond the locks at the 8th available canal landing, Nelson C. Goehle Public Marina. I debarked and positioned the van at the 9th available canal landing, Gasport Launch.
Toward evening, after arriving at the Gasport Launch by kayak, I hid Swiftee in bushes, cable and locked him for the night. Today was the first good day of Erie Canal runyaking. I was still was sniffing and coughing - but it didn’t rain!
Day 60 - 11.0 run 10.6 yaked
Runyak for Liberty Day 61, June 30, 2013
After four nights in the same hotel we packed up and moved out, for when finishing today I’d be forty “canal miles” from Buffalo. A pinched nerve in Hope’s back would hinder her from paddling. Again, the second kayak remained in the van. She, kayak #2, and the van, stayed at the 10th available Erie Canal landing, Middleport Guard Gate Launch. The launch’s name reflected another gate in the canal, the third of its kind I’ve passed.
When running through the town of Middleport I read a sign that stated, “#1 Best Place in New York to raise Children, #11 in the United States by Business Week Magazine." I was impressed.
As soon as I pushed off from Gasport Launch I was amused when passing a marina and seeing two boats having the same name, Sam I Am. One boat was stationed between them… to referee? Yeah, keep them from going at each other’s throats in the battle of “Who is the True Sam?” I just had to take a photo of Sams They Are before paddling toward Middleport.
When arriving in Middleport by kayak I saw a restaurant sign on the bank saying “Best Food on Erie Canal,” I knew immediately where I wanted to eat lunch. Two miles beyond town I landed at Middleport Guard Gate Launch and I told Hope where we should eat. With no argument from her we lunched at Peggy’s Towpath Café.
After eating, walking to the van, we came to our own conclusion… if that is the best place to eat on the Erie Canal… don’t eat anywhere on the Erie Canal. We also formed an opinion about Business Week Magazine rating, for when eating at the restaurant the middle-aged manager (Peggy, the owner?) was busy tending to a child. Halfway through our meal the child’s mother came in and the conversation between her and the manager was quite heated and loud. Both had pissy attitudes. The mother left without the child. The manager (seemingly the grandmother) began berating the mother to a customer saying, “And who do you think has custody? I do.”
When leaving the restaurant we saw the mother next door at a laundromat, puffing a cigarette. I never would have mentioned the incident here, had it not been for the “sign” coming into town. Hey, the sign may be correct but we had to laugh.
On the other hand, when Hope was waiting for me at Middleport Guard Gate Launch, knowing nothing about the sign, she told about of a Amish-Mennonite father and four children, ages about fourteen to eight. They came to the launch, and put in a canoe. All five talked quietly amongst themselves, the father giving directions, the children following them to a tee. That many in a canoe and no one raised a voice? It was hard to believe. She said after paddling they sat near the launch and quietly fished for some time before leaving.
Hope’s entire story sounded like she met the Stepford Children. Was the family from Middleport? On the second kayaking leg of the day, on the opposite side of the canal I saw three Amish-Mennonite looking children sitting on the canal banks and took a photo. “Not the same kids,” said Hope when seeing the photo.
The afternoon runyaking leg was from Middleport Guard Gate Launch to Bates Road Launch, the 11th landing, near the town of Medina (pronounced Ma-dye-na).
Since Lockport, on the north side of the canal, is the well maintained Canalway Trail. I use it while running whenever available. Trouble is, since Lockport all landings have been on the canal’s south side. So, I have to use the nearest bridges to and from landings in order to use the path. Bates Road Launch, is the first landing on the same bank as the trail.
From Bates Road Launch Hope planned to walk up the path until seeing me paddling down the canal. The paddling speed was near that of a walk, so after finding her we stayed together until arriving back a Bates Road.
In the town of Medina, Oak Orchard Creek oddly goes beneath the canal, and there is a waterfall. Since leaving Lockport, the Canal seems slightly elevated. When running the path, canal on one side, road on the other, some roads actually look lower. Not sure if this is common. I will have to wait and see as I travel further.
We spent the night at a strange motel in Albion NY. There was nobody to check us in. It was all done over the phone. It felt clandestine, or rather like instructions to a speakeasy. After calling the number posted on the locked office door, I was asked name, address, and credit card number. After the person on the phone felt I was on the up and up she said, “Go to the side of the office.”
“Yes I’m there now.”
“Do you see a mailbox?”
“Open the mailbox, do you see a bunch of envelopes?”
“Find the one that has ‘Novak’ written on it.”
I flipped through the envelopes, each having a different surname until coming to Novak. “Yes, I see it.”
“Inside the envelope you’ll find the key to Room 7.”
“Ahh yes, thank you.” I took the key back to Hope, looking over my shoulder and thinking, “Am I on Candid Camera?” I did spot cameras. The owners of Dollinger’s Motels have three motels in the area. I’m thinking all three are monitored by cameras from one location.
Day 61 – 10.5 run 10.6 yaked
Runyak for Liberty Day 62, July 1, 2013
With no landings between Bates Road Launch and where I wanted to end today, Albion Boat Launch, the 12th available landing, I was determined to do it all in one runyaking leg. It would mean 8.5 miles running and the same paddling.
Across the road and a hundred yards away from the Albion Boat Launch was the Albion Correctional Facility. As two mornings before Hope was worried to death. No way was she going to hang around the launch until I finished. Somebody from the prison surely was going to break out and get her. I thought that meant she’d finally be paddling. No, the pinched nerve was still bothering her. She stayed at the motel. This was the 5th and last day, meaning we’d hauled her kayak to New York for no reason.
On the run to Swiftee, stationed back at Bates Road Launch, I needed to go to the bathroom, and guess what… miles from nowhere, next to the road, in an onion field, what should appear but a port-a-john. Talk about Johnny-on-the-spot. Seriously, I wouldn’t have made it another fifty yards.
Soon after, I was able to cross over the channel and run the Canalway Trail. Nearer to Swiftee, I looked below the canal and trail and saw a road that disappeared under the canal. I was surprised, yet as mentioned, I’d seen creeks that went under, and roads lower than the canal. Maybe I’d be seeing more roads going under the canal? Nope, I found out later that this is the only road that goes under the Erie Canal, and is mentioned in Ripley’s Believe It of Not.
When reaching Swiftee I’d totaled 51 miles of running in five days. The four previous days while running I watched the Garmin Forerunner closely making sure I didn’t run faster than the benchmark twelve-minute/mile pace. Today knowing I’d passed the test, I didn’t observe the pace closely. I definitely will be returning again sometime this summer and advancing another 50 mile toward NYC.
I launched Swiftee - all that remained was the 8.5-mile paddle, which I thought would be a piece of cake. Nope. Westerly winds created waves on the 40-ft wide canal, which came directly at me. Paddling closer to the bank near the Canalway Trail, I found the waves more manageable.
While paddling beside the trail, I passed an elderly man whom I’d passed earlier when running. He had on a backpack, carried a walking stick, and was wearing a Canalway Trail shirt. When paddling by I asked him, “You walking the trail all the way.”
“No, this is my job,” he said.
“Oh, I see!” I said, but really I didn’t. I kept paddling thinking he had to be some sort of trail custodian for this section of trail.
For the past five days I’ve tried to take photos of every bridge I paddled beneath. In the fifty some miles there has been over forty. Since the locks of Lockport several have been lift bridges, as was the one in the wee town of Knowlesville I went under today. Although they are low, Swiftee and I have no problem going under, except for one in Gasport. As my paddle whacked the bridge, a couple was watching. I complained, “Why didn’t they raise it for me?”
The man answered, “I was thinking the same thing.”
That happened the day after the flood, so I wonder if the canal was higher and that was the reason I hit that bridge and no others. Since then I’ve learned the Erie Canal Song and understand the chorus: “Low Bridge, Everybody down! Low Bridge, we’re coming to a town.”
I also try taking photos of every boat that passes. Today, as a small one with a man and woman aboard passed, the man asked, “Can I take your picture?” So we posed for each other. So far all motorized boats have been courteous to Swiftee, slowing to a no-wake speed.
One mile from finishing today I rounded a bend and saw a sign on the bank stating “Northernmost Point on the Erie Canal.” In the past five days I’ve never paid attention to how far north I’d been traveling. Come to find out, at the bend I was less than eight miles south of Lake Ontario.
Past the bend I began to feel sprinkles of rain. I paddled harder knowing it was suppose to rain the rest of the day. In a rush, I landed but left Swiftee.
I got back to the “Speakeasy” Motel just in time to get a shower before checkout time. Still raining when returning for Swiftee, umbrellas were used as we loaded and headed west for Michigan.
I must say, although being sick and having a ton of rain, I truly enjoyed the past five days. I’m looking forward to each of the 370 miles of canal. After three years of battling the Great Lakes, paddling Erie Canal is a piece of cake. Having the Canalway Trail beside me much of the way is sweet icing on the cake.
Day 62 – 8.5 miles run 8.6 miles yaked.
Five day total 51 run 51.1 yaked