Tag Archives: Biking

Escape the Urban: Greenway Project Update [UPDATED]

20 Jun

This is the latest in a series of articles on the Niagara River Greenway Commission – here are the previous entries on the history of the group, an analysis of their systemic challenges, delays in spending money, and last October’s project tracker.

With construction season finally upon us in earnest, it’s time to check in on some local, outdoor-related work. When last we looked in on the Niagara River Greenway Commission and their annual $9 Million pot of money, I picked out three projects to follow, geographically separate and indicative of the spirit with which the effort was organized. To briefly review, the Commission was formed in 2004 to write a unifying restoration and public recreation plan for the Niagara River corridor, from Buffalo to Fort Niagara. After the NYPA relicensing agreement of 2007, it was given general oversight responsibility to implement its plan but few enforcement tools, including the actual spending of money. That is left to four Standing Committees, that have various levels of competence and gusto. In four years, far less than the $36 Million available has been spent, but instead of trying to untangle the dizzying array of issues on every project, let’s look at the three I chose, and how they succinctly epitomize the overall effort:

Grand Island: Fisherman’s Landing – $400,000

The reclamation and redevelopment of land is fundamental to any restorative work. In the case of Fisherman’s Landing, immediately to the west of the South Grand Island Bridge, the biggest news relates not to what is being constructed, but what is no longer there.

This small spit of waterfront used to be home to a closed and graffitied water treatment station, walled off and crumbling concrete. Pieces of that relic are now being torn out daily, and according to Town Councilwoman Mary Cooke (R), Fisherman’s Landing will be open this season.

While everyone is excited to see the excavator bucket finally in the ground, the road to this point was overly long. Fisherman’s Landing was one of the first projects submitted to the Greenway Commission in 2007, but the town made the hard-to-anticipate mistake of submitting the work to the Buffalo and Erie County Standing Committee. That board took three years to simply meet, agree to open a bank account and hire the Community Foundation to write the checks and keep the books. Once the money flowed in 2010, the project underwent a series of redesigns, as the state decided to no longer require Grand Island to use this area as a last minute chlorination discharge point. Removal of that redundant and out-dated infrastructure yields a cleaner and smoother space, but it also delayed construction past the 2010 season. A $400,000 clean up three years behind schedule is an apt symbol of much of the Greenway work. In this case, at least we are only a couple months from completion.

Shoreline Trail Signage – $205,000

In addition to acre by acre environmental restoration, the Greenway Commission was charged with unifying the space in a coherent fashion, and enabling and encouraging citizen use. Little does more to solidify the concept of a trail in a users mind than consistent and comely signs.

Many thanks to Tom Dearing and Rachel Chrostowski in the Erie County Planning Dept for info and graphics

Compared to other Greenway projects, this one has been relatively smooth and straight forward thus far. The logo and interpretive element design has been arduous (six years of tweaking, as I reported last time), but since the last public meeting in October, the signs have been finalized and are currently in production. They will be installed in the pilot section, from Scajaquada Creek to the Tonawandas, in August and September, only a month or two behind the timeline presented last year. In future years (2013 at the earliest for Greenway funds, per Tom Dearing), additional sections of the trail can be marked.

At this point, however, the Greenway FAIL begins to creep in. This project was funded by the Buffalo and Erie County Standing Committee, and so has binding authority for Greenway trails in Erie County to look a certain way. In addition, since it was the county that applied, they have more power to mandate logo and sign usage, even if they use other (state, county, DOT) funds. But no such influence expressly exists across the border in Niagara County. The Greenway Commission itself can recommend but not mandate, and Erie County has less influence than that. In practical terms, this means that the signs that tell you that you are on the Greenway could change in design once you cross the border, undermining any effort at unification and branding.

Trail from Devil’s Hole to Lewiston – $2 Million ($210,000 of Greenway funds)

At least the trail exists in the Tonawandas, however, to have varied signage. I have no picture for this project because nothing has happened. The gap remains between the Village of Lewiston and Devil’s Hole, the essential bit along the escarpment that would connect large trail systems above and below. For bikers wishing to be able to travel from the Erie Basin Marina in Buffalo to Fort Niagara via safe, dedicated path, there is only this section standing in the way. The ability to travel by foot or bike the entire length of the Greenway seems to me the most basic and fundamental requirement possible.

I contacted Supervisor Reiter of the Town of Lewiston several times for this piece, as he was quoted extensively in a Niagara Gazette article on the subject last September. I only received a brief “the state is holding us up” comment via cell phone after several calls and emails to his office. This wouldn’t be the first delay – Congresswoman Slaughter first secured funding for the project ten years ago. More to come, hopefully during this brief construction season.

UPDATE: Jerry Zrmeski has an article in today’s Buffalo News on the stalled, FAILed Niagara Falls National Heritage Area Commission. Halfway through its charter it has barely met, much less begun work on a plan to “lay out ways to promote the area’s natural and historic assets, from the Falls to Fort Niagara, as a unified and nationally significant destination.” An astute watcher of WNY may ask themselves: 1) isn’t the Niagara River Greenway Commission already supposed to be doing that, 2) why do we need another dusty, forgotten, or competing plan, and 3) (as a commenter at the Buff News website asks) if Niagara Falls was in Higgin’s district and not Slaughter’s, would the work be funded already?

Escape the Urban: What To Do Memorial Day Weekend

22 May

The rain and chill in the air may indicate otherwise, but summer is right around the corner. Next weekend is already Memorial Day, leaving you precious time to make plans for a long holiday outdoor adventure. Don’t have a clue what to do with your time off? Never fear – Escape the Urban will hook you up:

Go for a bike ride: For a close trip, do the classic trek from Delaware Park to the Erie Basin Marina via Scajaquada Creek, or ride along the Niagara River to get a new appreciation of Niagara Falls. If you want to venture further out, try the Chautauqua Rail Trail, from the shores of Lake Erie up the bluff to Mayville and beyond. Or, for more ideas, pick up a newsstand copy of Buffalo Spree (*cough* shameless plug *cough*) where I offer a couple more biking options, including one along the Niagara Wine Trail.

Take a hike: Drop down into the Niagara Gorge at Devil’s Hole, a great little hike for kids too. You can also drive out to Letchworth, and skip the well trodden western side of the park to enjoy the solitude and fresh perspective from the wilder eastern rim. Or, if you are in the mood to escape further, make a weekend of it by camping in Allegheny State Park, or brave the black flies at secluded Good Luck Lake in the Adirondacks.

Break out the kayak: The northern ‘Dacks are a bit flooded right now, so you may want to skip a flatwater weekend out there. In that case, go rent an open topped rig from BFLO Harbor Kayak and explore the Buffalo River and downtown’s canals and harbors. Memorial Day weekend marks the start of Jason Schwinger’s third season at the Commercial Slip.

Go whitewater rafting: The season on Cattaraugus Creek is almost done, but great rafting will remain for some time on the Genesee. Call up Adventure Calls Outfitters (*cough* second shameless plug *cough*) quick to make reservations while you still can.

Read a Book: If we get rained out, or you’re too tired to do much other than relax on the couch, try one of these outdoor reads. Aldo Leopold’s classic Sand County Almanac provides witty insights for each season, including drizzly springs. It may look like light reading, but each phrase packs a wallop of thought. If you’d rather dream of adventures further afield, cross Europe via mountain range in Clear Waters Rising, or join Shackleton and Scott on their expeditions to the South Pole in one of these offerings. Beach reading need not always be the latest mass market paperback.

I will be doing several of these myself next weekend, and since I expect most readers of this column will be out and about, and not huddling next to their computers, I’m taking the time off from writing. Enjoy the start of summer, and see you on the other side.

Biking along the Niagara River on Squaw Island

Escape the Urban Travelogue: Virginia’s Paths and Parkways

24 Jan

I didn’t discover the running trail along the canal until my third day in Fredericksburg. The previous two afternoons I had explored historic “Old Town” on foot at a 7:30 min/mile pace, my favorite way to get to know a dense urban scene. Its slow enough to see every site and read signs, but fast enough to cover a decent amount of ground in a reasonable timeframe. Caroline and Princess Anne Streets, parallel corridors of nauseatingly charming pre-Civil War cottages and storefronts, provided ample opportunities to discover restaurants and history alike as I dodged tourists and dog-walkers. But once I have gauged the lay of the land, streetlights and traffic transition from a simple annoyance to a serious impediment to my workout (I have a triathlon to train for, after all). Which is why I was happy to discover the running trail on the old towpath along the Rappahannock Canal.

A tad greener than when I ran it in January . . .

The canal connects the most inland navigable end of the Rappahannock River to towns and ports west of Fredericksburg. Long since closed, the old mule towpath (sound familiar?) has been converted into a running and biking trail, connecting old downtown Fredericksburg to newer neighborhoods and development. I ran nearly its entire length, from river start to new suburbia. I passed only a few other walkers and runners, this being a sunny but cold winter day. I passed a dog park filled to capacity. I crossed new pedestrian bridges and interpretive signage. What I did not pass was an economic renaissance brought about by a new path alone.

In Western New York, we expect too much from our simple walking and bike paths. Blame an ever shrinking population and governmental budget. Blame previous over-hyped projects that failed to deliver. Blame a public bureaucratic requirement to justify each dime by quantifying and monetizing every action. Blame non-profits and lobbyists for over-selling and under-delivering. Whatever the source of the problem, a bike path is no longer just a bike path. Its is a way to draw people to the water and create spin-off development. It is a way to lower county Medicaid bills by increasing the overall health of the community. It is a way to raise our ranking on “Livable Cities” indices, to entice young people to move here. Under no circumstances is a nice path along the water just a nice path.

Bike and running paths certainly have economic, public health, tourism, and demographic effects. But by selling those end-states first, by over-promising a future dependent on far more factors than a thin ribbon of asphalt, we as a community lose sight of any intrinsic value trail systems have on their own. The un-monetizable quality of life value in creating community recreation spaces, opportunities to explore an area by foot or bike and maintain a healthy lifestyle, is of primary importance, and that is lost in the unrealistic promises.

Fortunately, but perhaps counter-intuitively, northern Virginia is pressing ahead with projects to add to its already impressive system of dedicated bike and running paths. Hilly and long settled, the Old Dominion is full of winding parkways, less-than-direct routes used by Native Americans and colonists and now widened into highways. But each parkway and semi-major road has a bike path next to it, not on the dangerous shoulder, but winding through the trees twenty feet away. The traffic noise doesn’t seem to discourage use, and the parkways are direct enough one could reasonably bike for functional, and not just recreational, reasons. Each town itself is crisscrossed in dedicated paths as well, as this map of Fredericksburg shows (my towpath trail being just one small black line running east to west in the middle of the map):

And low-tax, anti-government Virginia is doubling down by planning even more paths in the future. Spotsylvania has a plan for 93 more miles of trails in the next 25 years, on government land (in many cases) and with government approval, but with volunteer labor and private dollars (donations and grants). Perhaps most telling, and of most relevance to WNY: 15 people spoke at the first hearing on the issue, 14 in favor, one (literal) NIMBY against. Yes, tourism and positive health effects were cited in arguments to support the trail construction. But the failure of spin-off development along the very pleasant Rappahannock Canal Path seems to hardly have been considered at all.

Escape the Urban: Resolutions and Revolutions

2 Jan

Just past lunch on Christmas Day, after the unwrapping frenzy had subsided and the last of the red and green paper had finally fallen back to earth, the kids engrossed in novel board games, books and small brightly lit screens, I strapped my own new presents to my feet and trudged out my back door.

The snow was old and tight, crunching like squeaky foam packing peanuts under my enlarged feet. I tromped through my open yard, along the pine treeline, and into the young mixed woods that makes up the bulk of our property. This autumn I laid down a new hiking path, transversing bog and thicket, and I was concerned the snow would obscure my little trafficked, unworn track, making it impossible to follow. I need not have worried – our local fauna had found the path, and had clearly been using it for some time. I followed large and small deer prints, wide splayed turkey feet, the small hops of mouse and squirrel, back through the dense wild grape, across the open clearings under towering oaks. The path is not long – less than a quarter mile to our property line, though because of the maze and volume of owners of this several hundred acre wood, no one pays much attention – but it transported me to a world of quiet and stillness. At that moment, I decided I would spend significantly more time snowshoeing this coming year. Not a New Year’s Resolution, mind you, broken by the end of the week. Just a simple noted intention of how I want to spend my time.

The huffers and puffers appeared out my window the day after Christmas. Sporting new running pants and sweatshirts, bought by spouses as perhaps a less than subtle hint, these poor men and women labor miserably down the road, shuffling and creaking. My neighborhood is home to its share of outdoor runners – we all brave the elements year round, and wave and recognize each other. Each January there is a new crop that don’t join us for long. I wish they did. I wish they made a choice to live an active lifestyle, and changed their habits and routines. But they don’t. Instead, “Going on a diet” and “Getting in better shape” is a New Years Resolution. The huffing and puffing won’t see February.

I have plans for 2011, but not ill-fated resolutions, unreasonable expectations that focus on end-states and not processes. I run, bike, paddle and hike, try to eat healthy, especially foods I grew myself. I’m far from perfect and slip up plenty. But I don’t seek ways to skip the trip to the gym. I don’t dread running; I look forward to it. I miss my bike in January, and pine for the sweaty exhaustion it brings. I work out and stay active because I made a self reinforcing lifestyle change, not because I set a New Year’s Resolution I didn’t take to heart. 

Don’t be a temporary huffer and puffer. If you want to run, bike, get outside more, climb a mountain or cross-country ski all afternoon, don’t wrap those desires in the cloak of a doomed cultural conceit. There is no shortcut to a changed lifestyle and honest motivation. I’m planning on writing all year about explorations in the outdoors, new books and gear, and the wonders of nature. But I can’t give you the heartfelt desire to come along.

Escape the Urban: Greenway Project Tracking

31 Oct

If only natural resources had endowments. Mountain ranges and canyons. River and lakes. Lonely rocky beaches on cold, grey ocean shores. An endowment, in our monetized culture, would allow funds to be available for protection and clean up, access and restoration, enhancement for ease of recreation and enjoyment. Too good to be true? Amazingly no; it’s the situation Western New York is blessed with along the Niagara River now, and we’re only partially getting it right.

A quick rehash on the Niagara River Greenway Commission: created out of the NYPA relicensing agreement, this public body serves two functions. First, it sponsored and certified a report and plan on how to conserve, restore, develop and promote the Niagara River, from Buffalo to Old Fort Niagara. Plan complete, it now reviews projects from host communities and organizations for consistency with the plan, though it doesn’t spend any money itself. NYPA holds the purse strings, in the form of four committees, whose jurisdictional responsibilities are blurred, and procedures and competence vary widely.

But here’s the most important part. At $9 million a year, this is the biggest pot of development dollars in Western New York that no one talks about.

The Greenway Fund’s report card, from its three years of existence, is definitely mixed. Much has improved in the last year, so the grade at its two year anniversary would be far worse. Since I started reporting on the Greenway a year ago, the information on NYPA’s website has gotten considerably better. The committees have had three years to spend $27 million. Significantly less than that has been allocated, though following the exact dollar amounts is challenging, as reporting is spotty and inconsistent. Much has improved, though there is much more that needs to be done.

Meanwhile, questions continue to be raised about the direction and appropriateness of the fund’s chosen projects. The Chairman of the Greenway Commission himself, Bob Kresse, has publicly noted that while dollars are finally beginning to flow, they are being spent on items outside of the spirit of the Greenway Report’s vision, though not the letter of its unenforceable law. The $9 million a year was supposed to go for ecological restoration, and the creation of a unified greenbelt. Instead, it is being spent by local towns and municipalities on deferred maintenance of town parks, on restrooms and asphalt overlays. Kresse doesn’t have the power to stop it, and is asking for the law creating the Commission to be amended.

In the meantime, work is finally beginning on some good projects, in keeping with the original vision. The area the Greenway covers is broad and diverse, so I have selected three projects, from different geographical areas, to start tracking regularly, to provide a face to an obscure and complicated process.

Trail from Devil’s Hole to Lewiston – $2 Million ($210K of Greenway funds)

The most basic requirement for a unified greenway is a physical trail that runs its entire length, for biking, running and walking. Unfortunately, there is a very large hole in the current right-of-way, and in the most sought after spot. Currently, from the south, one can bike from the North Grand Island Bridge to Niagara Falls and on to Devil’s Hole, but no farther. Likewise, one can travel from Youngstown to Lewiston, along the lower river, but no further. The escarpment stands in the way, and there is no (official and legit) connection along the river from the Upper to the Lower. If any section begs for public access, it is this dramatic piece.

A Greenway project is finally fixing that, after nine (9!) years of debate, planning, controversy, and waiting for funding. Work begins this fall. 

Grand Island: Fisherman’s Landing – $400K (all Greenway funds)

The Town of Grand Island had the misfortunate of requesting funding from the Buffalo and Erie County standing committee, the poster child for delay and mismanagement. Now that the committee has finally hired Bank of America and the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo to watch and spend its money, dollars are flowing to build this park near the South Grand Island Bridge.

I recently had the chance to speak to Mary Cooke (R), councilwoman on Grand Island’s Town Board, about the project. The town wrote the grant to request funding in 2007, and received official approval in 2008, to remove the old decaying and graffiti-ed waste water treatment plant, plainly visible to all commuters just south of the massive bridges to Tonawanda. For two years the town waited for the committee to decide how to spend its money, until it finally arrived in mid-2010. A public meeting was held in July, and from the input, some additional green features have been added to the already planned park and fishing spot. Work is now slated to begin in 2011, two (if not potentially three) full construction seasons late.

Shoreline Trail Signage – $205K (all Greenway funds)

A trail is more than the packed dirt, rock or asphalt, that physically connects one location to another. It is also has its own sense of place, and is a thing unto itself. In the grandest examples, the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trail, the ubiquitous yellow and white blazes are iconic themselves. So when the trail is finally complete from Brant to the northern mouth of the Niagara River, a key unifying feature will be the signage.

I attended a public meeting on October 19th about the plans for the signs. I will admit, I have little opinion about the exact color scheme, geometrical design, use of non-profit partner’s branding logos, or exact layout of informational versus directional signs. I am interested in them being complete, helpful, and installed. The process for the current crop of signs began in April of this year, and in June of 2011, a pilot section, from Scajaquada Creek to Isle View Park in North Tonawanda, should be installed. Designing the logo alone took six (6!) years, and replicates work done in labeling and branding the Riverwalk section (big wheeled bike, anyone) in Buffalo less than a decade ago. Unfortunately, only the pilot section is currently funded. But we are only three years into a fifty year funding protocol, so there is time (but not too much) to get this right. When complete, the signs will be identical, and thus bind together, 120 miles of shore-side trail.

I will provide regular updates on these projects as developments occur. If there are any other projects you would like me to stay on top of, dear Reader, so not hesitate to contact me (form in the upper right of this page).

Escape the Urban: Chautauqua Rail Trail

25 Oct

I plan my outings based upon the availability of child care, not the weather. Which is how I found myself once again slogging away on my bike under grey drizzly skies, against an ill wind, wet toes numb in the growing cold. Fortunately, the route and the view made a little misery worth the work in the end, as I tried out the Chautauqua Rail Trail for the first time.

Western New York could be a hotbed of multi-use trails created in the unused right-of-way corridors of old railroad lines, and the Chautauqua iteration, a prime example of the potential, has a lot to recommend it. First, at almost 25 miles, it is long. The appeal of a bike trail is the opportunity to see far more country far more quickly than is feasible for most hikers or runners, and so a three or four mile bike trail doesn’t whet my appetite the way a healthy 20+ mile gut check does. Second, the trail cuts through some of the prettiest country in Western New York: vineyards and farms, Lake Chautauqua, historic homes and villages, the bluffs overlooking Lake Erie. Third, the trail isn’t afraid to climb the hills, providing a good workout to those used to the gentle inclines along the Erie Canal and Niagara River.

I chose to bike a portion of the trail, from the northernmost trailhead at Brocton down to Mayville on Lake Chautauqua. Or should I say up to Mayville, since the trail starts with a twelve mile climb up 750 feet in elevation, one long switchback up along the side of the hill overlooking Lake Erie. Make no mistake – this trail whipped me good. I wear a Polar RS300 Runner’s Heart Rate Monitor system to track my workouts, and I burned almost 2000 calories on my three and half hour, 33 mile round trip excursion, 1100 calories on the initial main climb alone. Bring your fat tire bike to navigate the rocks and dips, and be prepared to sweat, even on a cool and rainy day.

The rough ride is the one detractor to an otherwise spectacular trail. Paved or smooth packed dirt in only a few isolated sections, the surface is mostly rock and overgrown grass that pulls on the tires, little having been done structurally since the steel and ties were pulled up several decades ago. This more natural surface is fine for running, hiking, horseback riding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, or cross country skiing, but it makes some of the biking challenging.

I had the opportunity to speak to Jim Fincher, Trail Manager for the 501(c)(3) non-profit Chautauqua Rails to Trail Inc that owns the land, on that subject and others. Jim has been at the game a while, involved from the beginning when the path was just an idea nearly twenty years ago, working with neighbors and landowners, and watching the trail grow in use and appreciation. Most trails, he related, are owned by a local government, and “Friends of . . .” groups help to maintain them. The Chautauqua Rail Trail, however, is one of only four in New York State owned by a non-profit like his, and so relies even more heavily on donations, grants, and memberships to keep the trail in good shape. There are a number of projects ongoing, to beautify the trailheads, repair some culverts, and install additional signs to better mark the trail at crossings and intersections. In the long term, Jim and his volunteer crew would like to resurface the trail, either with crushed limestone, asphalt, packed sand and dirt, or half and half (to please both bikers and other users), but that $4 million project remains on the books until major fundraising can occur.

But to the trail itself. A quick reconnaissance via online map provided some contradictory information. The CTTR map shows a break in the trail between Brocton and Mayville, near the start. The national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy site, Trailfinder, shows a complete trail. Out of a sense of pure optimism, and against my better judgment, I trusted the national site and not the local information. Save yourself the trouble of finding a road detour work around on the fly like I did – start your trip at the Thayer Road trailhead.

And when you do, the climb starts. Up the grade, dig and push, against the rock and through the leaves and high grass, along the side of the hill. Occasionally the canopy opens, and farmland, lines of grapes, and Lake Erie spread out below. This area is not wilderness, but is instead quietly rural, rolling and domesticated. At times, the trail plunges through a railroad tunnel of tree limbs, stands of maple and aspen, first yellow, then orange, then red. At others, the trails skirts the edge of fields of drying  and flaking corn or cut soybeans, cattle grazing in the trees. Here the trail reminded me of the Cotswolds Way, in central Britain, which I have hiked large sections of: well-tilled, properly civilized, rolling hills, homely farms, a drink and a meal never too far away.  

Along the way up the hill, ravines and creeks pass underneath and away; one is more thankful to be on an old railbed when one sees what the alternative was. Meadowlarks fly in and out of the multicolored leafscape, and beaver dams create ponds at the top of the hill. Eventually, the trail turns south, along a Niagara Mohawk right of way, and into the Village of Mayville, past lakeside summer cabins and year round homes, infront of the Watermark Restaurant, until eventually terminating at the old rail depot downtown. A sufficient ending that was only my halfway – I turned around, and biked back to my car in Brocton, the uneven ground a satisfying chore down as well as up.

The Chautauqua Rail Trail is sponsoring a Pumpkin Hike in Brocton on October 29th. For more information, go here.

Escape the Urban: Niagara Riverway

26 Sep

I took some of my own advice this week, and got another bike ride in before the weather turns for the year. Unfortunately, I chose the one rainy day all week to do it, and was quite waterlogged by the end. If the weather is warm enough, I prefer to bike without rain gear – you get wet either way, and at least you don’t have a jacket flapping in the wind.

Biking in the rain does not have to be altogether unpleasant; the crowds are less and the birds are more. I scared up a couple of Kingfishers perched on a dead tree in Buckhorn Island State Park early in my trip, and wove through fewer crowds even down by my popular turn around point.

I have made it no secret in this column that I consider the Niagara River, Falls, Gorge and Escarpment to be a  tragically underutilized outdoor playgrounds for local enthusiasts. Not every outdoor trip need be an epic journey to a far off destination. Sometimes, you just want to get a quick 15 or 20 mile trip in between hockey practice and Cub Scouts, and the key to maintaining that lifestyle is having quality trails and facilities nearby. I recently covered the Scajacquada Creek and Riverwalk trails in Buffalo – those offer excellent opportunities for many city and suburb dwellers. But if you live on the north end of town, on Grand Island, or in Niagara County, the trails along the northern section of the Niagara River offer nearby quality riding as well.

As an experiment this week, I biked directly from my house on the northern side of Grand Island to the edge of Niagara Falls, a 16.5 mile round trip. I have done extensive riding on the island (more on that in future columns), and in Niagara County, but I had never combined the two. The results were mixed, as you’ll see.

It does not take much street riding for me to access Buckhorn via East River Road. Grand Island is a popular destination for bikers of all persuasions – the loop around the island is a classic 26 mile road ride, and bike paths crisscross the interior sections (but rarely connect, much to my chagrin). If you are on a skinny wheel road bike, River Road and well marked bike paths will ultimately lead you to the North Grand Island Bridge, past the wet forests and marshlands of Buckhorn, including the habitat restoration area and Woods Creek that runs through it. Those rocking a mountain bike, or a fat tired hybrid like myself, can do the muddy back trail in Buckhorn along the Niagara River, from the eastern edge of the park on River Road, to the base of the bridge. This is my preferred route, along the rocky shore of the Niagara River, over the old concrete fishing bridge at Woods Creek, and then through massive black walnut groves and stands of ash overgrown with wild grape. Either way, after a smooth and straight road ride, or an idyllic solitary nature slog, the bridge crossing now faces you.

I regularly drive over the Grand Island bridges, but I never feel like I get enough time to enjoy the view. I was looking forward to a slower bike crossing, and a chance to appreciate the wide, low upper Niagara River, the terminus in the distance only an inauspicious cloud of spray and mist six miles away.

Unfortunately, I underestimated the length of the span (3/4 of a mile at this point), the time to cross, or the nerve racking hazards. While the view is wonderful, the traffic is not.  The signs advising you to walk your bike, and not ride, are there for a reason – the railing looks high enough when walking, but is precariously low when mounted on your ride. In addition, the constant semis and garbage trucks are safely on the other side of a barrier, but the buffeting wind adds to the disquiet; the Niagara River is a long way down. So while the biking on either side of the bridge is excellent, I wouldn’t blame you for skipping the span itself. It added a ten minute walk in each direction that I could have done without.

Fortunately, once the mighty bridge is crossed, the biking quality increases immediately. At the end of the bridge, go against your instincts, and make a right along the sidewalk, under the bridge ramp, and right again through the small parking area. This park is due for an upgrade with Greenway Funding, but in the meantime, you can still pick up the dedicated Riverway bike path right along the river, and head west towards the Falls.

The six mile run from the North Grand Island Bridge to the lip of the Falls, along the broad river, is one of the most scenic in our immediate metro area. The dichotomy, relics of industry to your right and the promise of a greener future to your left, is as obvious as it is hopeful. In recent years, a bevy of new industries have replaced some of the rusting polluters lined up along the river: silicon manufacturers for solar arrays, trash incinerators that not only spare the landfill, but recycle the metal content of most of Western New York’s trash. In the future, perhaps all of the industry will be as clean as the recently scrubbed water.

Snug between the Robert Moses and the blue river, the Riverway Trail provides regular landmarks and views. Soon the massive Power Authority water intakes come into view, two modern art sentinels with newly cleaned and refurbished skins. They stand on the site of the former Fort Schlosser; nary a stone of the oft-harried War of 1812 fortress remains, the chimney having been moved some time ago. The trail winds on, eventually up a small bluff and through the already yellow young cottonwoods, and then past the slip of the tugboat Daniel Joncaire, named for the first man to set up a mill along the mighty Niagara.

Image courtesy anikarenina on Flickr

The most rewarding section of the trail now awaits. The joy of the Niagara Riverway is the building momentum, the sense of expectation as you draw closer to the inevitable plunge. At the start, the Niagara is wide and slow, with humanless Navy Island and the far mainland Canadian shore friendly and harmless in the distance. But there is a potential undercurrent, a suspected sleeping giant beneath the waters, that begins to show itself as the river narrows and the control dam comes into view. The water is now moving much faster, and the swirling currents and eddies reveal that the river’s pace has quickened. By the time you reach the back end of Goat Island the first white water appears. A ridge of rapids initially, and then larger Tolkien-esque charging white horses. Large dead tree trunks, winter’s jetsam, hang up against rocks and ledges, temporarily delaying their decent. Weave through a crowd (present at some level no matter the weather), and you have arrived at the lip of the falls and the oblivion of the suddenly wide gorge rent in the earth. I like to imagine the birthplace of each drop water in that roaring torrent; a bit of Minnesotan snow here, a speck of Michigan moose drool there, and you have chosen to accompany it, by bike, for the last stage of its journey.

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Escape the Urban: Rails to Trails

19 Sep

With a heavy industrial and transportation hub past, a shrinking population, and a newfound green spirit, Western New York should be a poster child for the conversion of old railway corridors into multi-use trails. Unfortunately, while there are some notable success stories, our potential has not been reached, and there is still much we could do to connect people and places by these trails.

The focus of much pro-biking energy in the area recently has been on promoting complete streets in the City of Buffalo, and expanding the number of bike racks in front of city businesses. This is understandable, and not only is there great city biking, but there is much to be said for bicyclists effectively utilizing existing city streets. But Buffalo and the rest of Western New York is famously crisscrossed by railways, and dedicated rail trails offer incomparable safety, scenery, and recreation and health living opportunities to riders.

My bible for all types of bike trails in Western New York are the maps from the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council. For a more interactive trail finder, go to Parks and Trails New York, where you can do searches for the entire state. I prefer the older GBNRTC maps, though, because they are more complete, and include the roadways that connect the dedicated trails.

Rail corridors make excellent bike paths. They are usually relatively level (not an issue in much of Western New York, but much appreciated out west), isolated, and unbroken. They don’t need to take up a lot of room or be intrusive, as they are already part of the neighborhood. By preserving the right-of-way, rail trails create bike highways, safely unmolested by cars or traffic lights. They are quiet, healthy people movers. High Speed Rail and cargo rail traffic has its place and role in our future green economy. But Western New York has enough abandoned railways that will never see a train again that could be put to good use as rail trails.

There have been some notable successes. The Clarence-Akron Trail, and its companion spur Peanut Line Trail, are each 8.5 miles of beautiful asphalt and connect Akron to parts of Clarence and East Amherst. The Pendleton Rail runs through Niagara County, southwest to northeast, from North Tonawanda to Lockport. The Chautauqua Rail Trail runs nearly 30 miles, passing Chautauqua Lake. And, of course, the Genesee Valley Greenway, a portion of which was profiled by me earlier this summer, connects Rochester to Cuba, via Letchworth State Park.

The work continues for others, however. The abandoned North Buffalo Line, running behind Shoshone Park, is in limbo as a proposed infill housing development has not yet been completed. In the meantime, it is used as a de facto bike path, much to the enjoyment of the neighborhood residents. The most ambitious project on the drawing board is the 28 mile long Erie-Cattaraugus Trail, on the old Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad Line, which would connect Orchard Park to Ashford, via farms, ski areas, and a trestle bridge. The E-Catt is the best kind of rail-trail – it’s long, scenic, already existing as a right-of-way, and connects people to places they want to go. If you want to help get the E-Catt built, you can do so here

There is still time this year to get outside and get some quality biking in, before the chill starts to add some nippy misery to your trip. What are your favorite rail trails in the region? Let me know, and I’ll bike and highlight them in future articles.