Tag Archives: Kayaking

Escape the Urban: Soak Up Fall

5 Nov

I’ve said it before: autumn is my favorite time of year. This season is proving it true again, with enviable temperatures, brilliant deep blue skies, and fully hued trees that seemingly refuse to give up their leaves. Three months in and it hasn’t let up yet.

Day after day, my wife stands in front of the large picture window at our house and soaks up the sun like a dog following warming beams to slumber in. She just stares into our forested back yard, watching waves of orange leaves flutter to the ground like paper snowflakes. I cast a questioning look at her.

“I’m forming a mental picture picture in my head. I’m absorbing as much sun and color and life as possible while I can. It’ll sustain me through grey February.”

Not a bad solution to survive our overcast and monochrome winters.

I’ve posted this article a day early to help you plan your weekend (the last nice weekend, finally?), to absorb as much fall as you can. But where to go? Let me make the following suggestions, from my Escape the Urban archives, in case you missed any key installments:

Go paddle to Strawberry and Motor Islands

Take the apple picking tour of the Lake Ontario shoreline in Niagara County

Hike Zoar Valley

Hike the east rim of Letchworth

Bike the Chatauqua Rail Trail (BTW, shameless plug, pick up a copy of this months Buffalo Spree for a guide to the Pat McGee Trail too)

Rediscover the Buffalo Lighthouse

Bike from Delaware Park to the Inner Harbor

Drop down into Devil’s Hole

Hike to the Eternal Flame at Chestnut Ridge

Escape the Urban: Perilous Packing

21 Aug

I woke up this morning on Lower Saranac Lake, one of many jewels in that blue and green Adirondack sea so vibrant with midsummer color and smell that the senses balk at breathing in the whole ‘scape in one gulp. This section of rivers, lakes and ponds, just west of the High Peaks and an hour drive into the park, contains some of the best flatwater circuitous canoeing and kayaking in the world. There are many ways to trip from pearl to pearl on the string, connecting clear mountain lakes via streams and portages in a nearly endless number of back country combinations. For my first multi-day trip with two boys (aged 8 and 5), I chose a loop with no long-haul carries and an easy abort-mission ejection point if weather or bugs or time away from Mom brought too much misery. I’ll provide the definitive trip report in a future column (though if you are curious and the cell phone towers cooperate, follow me on Twitter (@WNYMediaRepat) to get real time pictures and updates), but our topic today is that less romantic portion of excursion making: packing.

Everyone has their own system, checklists and must haves. My personality type and military training have bestowed upon me a deep and abiding love of the packing list. I have one for each occasion: rafting, consulting, cold weather, etc. But I have never taken a 4 four day canoe trip with two boys. I have no checklist for that. I am lost.

So for this trip I went to my backup plan: go in the basement where I store the camping gear and pull everything off the shelves that appears useful. Sleeping bags and tent and Big Agnes inflatable mattresses. Stove and gas and cooking gear. Paddles and life vests. Backpack and dry bags to store everything in. The basic stuff comes easy.

Then the less obvious. Bear canister to store our food. Is it big enough for three people for four days? I’ll make it work. Mosquito head nets – nothing ruins a trip faster than merciless bugs. Maps and description of the route. Rain gear and collapsible Platypus bottles.

That’s everything that I can think of from my basement, so its time for the highlight of every new expedition: the shopping trip for new gear. This time I splurged on stuff-sack pillows that collapse into a tiny ball (EMS’s “Dreamy Pillow” – I’ll do a gear review of a number of items after this trip). I can deal with heat, cold, hunger, wet and exhaustion, but if I get a bad night’s sleep, I’m miserable all the next day. I learned a long time ago that a “real” pillow, instead of a balled up outer shell or sweatshirt, makes all the difference.

I also let the kid’s pick out their dinners for the trip: dehydrated lasagna, kfajita filling and pad thai. They begged for, and I acquiesced to let them try, the freeze dried ice cream bar. I can only imagine how good that scary cardboard will taste by day three. After finding new rain gear for the kids, a replacement filter for my water purifier and new tarp to go under the tent, I was satisfied I had spent all the money I could justify on one trip. Back home to pack.


I laid out all the gear on my office floor. Now the hard part: figuring out what I forgot. Like most trekkers, I always forget something. The truly organized, the obsessed and the childless spend days, weeks, or months crafting packing lists. I would too if I was hiking the AT. But after running to soccer games, the county fair, the library for last minute summer reading list completion and the thousand other tasks required of a father, I had put off the final pack job to the last minute. What I came up with now would have to do.

I have a mental list of things I normally forget: flashlight, bug spray, sunscreen, toothbrush. What I really need is a definite written list of what I normally forget. I don’t have that. I scrambled upstairs and found the usual suspects and stared again at my pile. Something was missing. I asked the Oracle (read: Twitter). It wasn’t much help either. I asked my sons.

“Let’s bring Uno!”

Good catch – something to do around the campfire.

“Marshmallows for S’mores!”

Oh, yeah. Forgot that. Better ask Mom to get those on the way home from work. 

But there was something else. Something more fundamental. Something we could not do without. Something it would be a disaster to forget. Something I should write down for next time.

Have you figured it out yet, from the picture above?

Toilet paper. I threw a roll in the top of my bag. Now it would be a good trip.

Escape the Urban: Island Hopping

17 Jul

I live on an island but I rarely paddle directly off of it. Why? Why strap the kayak to the roof of the van and drive it around Western New York when I can drive minutes or (literally) seconds away to one of the many launch sites closer to home? Sometimes Dorothy is right.

So last weekend my escape wasn’t nearly so far away. I am embarrassed to admit that until this outing I had never paddled out to Strawberry Island, the most well known uninhabited ring of dry earth directly off north Buffalo, passed by a hundred thousand commuters every day along the 190. While I would not call it a popular destination, or the most accessible spot, it is certainly well-trod by the local kayaking and canoeing community. No, I would advise against renting a boat from BFLO Harbor Kayak to try to make the trip – the Niagara is mostly one-way under the Peace Bridge unless you wish to access the lock at Black Rock. But owners of their own craft routinely seek out this refuge in the widening Niagara River. My turn finally came last Saturday.


I put in my kayak at the semi-hidden launch site in Beaver Island State Park. Isolated on the south-east tip of the park at the end of the River Lea access drive, you can’t beat the road-side parking and short haul of your boat to the water. Unfortunately, this time of year you owe New York State $7 in entry fees for the privilege of this three minute use. Be smarter than me, and use the new launch site on the East River Marsh just north of the park. Built with wildly appropriate Niagara River Greenway Commission dollars (this is exactly what the fund was for), this launch site lengthens your trip slightly but is free and easy to access. No brainer for me next time.

After my recent humbling in a borrowed kayak, I was determined to not land myself in trouble in a second straight outing, especially with my own gear: my 13 1/2 foot rig, my vest, my carbon-shafted paddle, my throw rope, my fault if I take on water in this placid section of the river. Make no mistake – the Niagara often is paired with the adjective “Mighty” for a reason. But on the right day the paddle to Strawberry Island can be as serene as the gentle snores of a Labrador sleeping in the sunny spot of your living room floor. I chose a calm dry afternoon, as brilliant and sun-soaked as any we’ve had this marvelous season, and easily paddled against the gentle surge on lapping water so clean and clear that I imagined I could touch the bottom even while in the midst of my crossing.

In a long boat and paddling at a strong pace you can cross to Strawberry Island is less than fifteen minutes. But why rush? I was in the mood to savor that blessed interface of warm air and cool water, a tension whose surface I now smoothly glided across, my prow cutting a V through the event horizon itself. Plus, I was enjoying the anticipation of what discoveries I might unearth upon landfall. The very concept of the uninhabited island has always intrigued that Peter Pan portion of my brain that will never grow up. What secrets are hidden on this U-shaped spit of mud and tree?

Would you believe the answer is a Common Tern breeding ground?

And much else besides. I heard the raucous squawking and general alarm raising as I approached the north-western most finger of crushed rock artificial beachhead. It was only as a drifted closer in the shallowing water (one the true delights of individual kayak travel) that I noticed that the grounded flock of birds making all the racket were the Signature Bridge’s age old nemesis, raising its young in plain view of its defeated enemy.

I eased around the point, lowering the aviary anxiety level, and entered the glass-smooth water of the inner bay, disturbed only by the fishing lines of two lazy boaters. Exiting and moving into the main river again, I circumnavigated the entire island, discovering duck blinds for fall hunters and docked powerboats on the few accessible shores, sun-bathers stretched out on the upstream sandy beaches, looking straight down the river to the downtown core.

Paddling around Strawberry took far longer than the cross-water trip to it, but still being in the mood to explore, I ventured to lesser known Motor Island instead of heading directly back. Motor Island only exists because Strawberry Island blocks and diverts the worst of the Niagara River’s erosive force. Sandwiched between the power station and an untraveled portion of Grand Island, many locals may not even be aware Motor Island even exists. It is not obvious from any freeway – look quick at the northbound 190 turn or you’ll miss it. If it is such anonymity that allows its wildlife secret to endure, then I should apologize now for breaking the spell.

A hundred yards out from Motor Island I saw several Great Blue Herons plying its beach. I am a fan of these stately stilt walkers as their presence indicates a natural barrier of entry has been breached; spotting one may not indicate pristine wilderness, but it does show a depth of natural setting beyond the level of the average backyard or well-trafficked park.

Usually Great Blue’s are solitary stalkers; only occasionally do I see what I assume is a mated duo. Here were several bright specimens all together. Unusual behavior, I thought. Fifty yards out I spotted several more. 10 herons. Then 15. Wait, there are more in the trees. Twenty or thirty at least! The latent birder in me exalted.

As I approached the shore a dark shape lifted skyward from a low branch to my right. Suddenly I realized there were waves of darker shapes moving in the shadows, beyond the brighter markers my sight was initially drawn to. Now I could see that what I assumed were blue herons bleached light in my eye by the dazzling sun weren’t herons at all. Tall, fully white, orange beaks, same crook-necked flying posture: Great Egrets, I would find out later after looking them up. 

I took a tally again: forty egrets at least on this island, and that many herons as well, blending more easily into the shaded wood. In other words, as many herons and egrets as I had ever seen in my life in total were now crowded onto one island directly in front of me. It was magnificent.

Working my way east around the southern edge of the island, I spotted huge nests in the tops of the cottonwoods that dominated the central core of the island. There in the shadow of the coal power plant was a clump of trees overloaded with Christmas ornaments, laden with fifteen massive nests per. A huge nesting area, only slightly off the beaten path, and within the main traffic route for pleasure boaters leaving marinas on Grand Island and in the Tonawandas.

The dichotomous coexistence was inspiring – maybe we humans will figure this out someday after all.

Escape the Urban Travelogue: Sinking a Kayak

26 Jun

I had a new experience last weekend – an honest-to-goodness rescue where I played the role of hapless and helpless paddling victim. I managed to sink my kayak, beyond the range of self-recovery, while paddling three foot Lake Michigan swell and chop. In 54 degree water and 1500 feet from shore, the boat swamped in less than a minute. Fortunately, the rescue came relatively quick, and my pride sustained the worst of the damage. I was never in (much) danger, as one or two smart things I did ultimately made up for a variety of bad decisions and worse luck. Learn from me, oh avid kayakers, to avoid such a fate:

Get The Right Gear

I decided to take the kayak out on whim while visiting my in-laws in southwestern Michigan, so I had brought none of my own gear. I borrowed their little Pelican Pursuit kayak, an old beat-up life vest, and plastic-aluminum paddle because they were convenient, not because they were the best gear for my route. The smartest thing I did on the trip was wear that embarrassing 1980’s yellow and day-glo orange vest, instead of going with nothing and pining for my tight Stohlquist kit I had left at home. The old vest may not look sexy, but it did it’s job.

The Pelican comes with a flimsy spray-skirt that I elected to leave home. In retrospect, it wasn’t an entirely dumb decision. At least I was aware the boat was filling with water – I could see it flooding between my knees, and could mentally prepare to sink. The prime gear issue, and my major mistake, was taking a short, tame flat water kayak on a Great Lake, and not thoroughly checking it out before I did – I probably sank due to an unnoticed faulty plug in the stern of the kayak that let in a portion of each swell I rode. I was in conditions I had paddled many times in an open-top self-bailer, or long enclosed sea kayak. It was the gear/water combo that did me in.

Scout Your Route

A loose plug on a short kayak on a flat, shallow stream is no big deal. That same plug on the same kayak out of its element is a problem. But I was cocky – I have been visiting this area of Michigan for years, and so my route, when reconing it on a map, seemed feasible simply because it was familiar.

I wanted to paddle up the St. Joseph River, a significant waterway with a respectable flow (4500 cfs (cubic feet per second) this summer). I also wanted to paddle through the charming beach/resort town of St. Joe, an artsy haven for half of Chicago on pleasant summer afternoons. As I wasn’t going to be picked up at a take-out, I needed to find a loop, or at least a way to finish where I started. Paddling upstream is obviously more challenging than moving with the current, so I wanted to do that first. Staring at the map with all of these requirements, the most convenient put-in seemed to be the beach itself.

I would launch at the beach, paddle around the end of lighthouse studded pier, and work my way upstream. Once I got tired, I could turn around, and have an easier return. To be cheap, I’d launch at the public beach a bit to the south, rather than private Silver Beach (with (the horror!) parking fees) on the north end. Moving the put-in an extra half mile, however, meant I needed to do a 4000 foot crossing of open Lake Michigan surf and cross-currents to reach the end of the pier. No problem.

That familiarity breeds complacency proved most true in regards to the St. Joseph River itself. I have driven over it dozens of times, and regularly saw kayakers enjoying its tranquil waters . . . above the Berrien Springs Dam. I only found out later (from my rescuer) that the dam was in full release – the maximum possible flow was pouring out of that mouth between the piers. Against that unknown current I was planning to paddle.

Change Your Plan When the Situation Changes

A moderately experienced kayaker such as myself is safe in familiar conditions, and most situations that just push the limit of skill and experience. Trouble brews when an unexpected twist upsets your up-to-the-edge plan, and forces you beyond your personal performance/safety zone. Trouble came for me at the mouth of the St. Joe River.

At first, the water crossing went fine. I pointed the nose into the surf, rode the waves up and down, and paddled through. The kayak was a bit squirrelly and slick, and shifted a bit too easily under my weight – a rogue wave could tilt me preciously quick while I righted my balance. However, the kayak was also fast, and I was making good time. I estimated I could do the crossing in less than 20 minutes, even against the surf.

But my comfort level dropped the further I went. My efforts to avoid harmonics and standing waves off the piers were not entirely successful – the combined waves produced from power boat wakes, reflections, and surf were confusing and irregular. I had trouble keeping the nose square against the crests, and I didn’t trust the kayak (it was too short and unstable) to take them on sideways.

Halfway through I got nervous. Three-quarters of the way I completely regretted taking the route at all, and swore I wouldn’t return the way I came. I’d make the turn around the pier, paddle up the St. Joe, and on the way back, take out my kayak at any dock or marina I saw before the piers. It was better to carry the kayak on my shoulder a mile back to my car than do that open water crossing again.

I caused a great stir among curious pedestrain onlookers, the strollers along the pier and lighthouse more used to speed boats than kayaks, as I reached the mouth of river. Good, I thought, I’m finally safe. That open crossing was dumb, but I made it, and I don’t have to do it again.

I entered the river and stopped dead in my tracks.

Paddle, paddle, paddle. Six inches.

Paddlepaddlepaddlepaddle. A foot.

There was too much current. I wasn’t going up the St. Joe – I had to turn around and go back the way I came.

Test Out Your Gear

I won’t lie to you – I knew turning around was a bad idea. The shake in my hands and twist of my gut confirmed it. But I had put myself in a situation where I had no other option. If I had brought a rope, I could have tied up the kayak to the pier and gotten out there. But without one, coming along side that much steel in big swells and cross-currents was dangerous as well. The easiest paddle back was the way I came, at a less steep angle to take out at a closer beach.

I got the kayak out into the open and the tidal surge rocketed me towards the shore. Riding the waves in requires a sixth sense over your shoulder, to anticipate the coming wave and get your back end square to it, to avoid boat flips and enable maximum propulsive power. Once again, the swells came from odd angles, and I had trouble maintaining my line. The kayak shifted alarmingly at each cross-current. Even so, I covering the distance quickly, and I seemed I would be back to the beach in no time, none the worse for wear. Maybe speed will make up for safety? Never a good plan.

I don’t remember when I first noticed the stern riding low. Or when I saw that the water in the bottom of the boat had grown from scattered puddles to child’s bath level. I turned around and saw that half of the back end was riding under the water. I shifted my weight forward and paddled faster. The boat rode lower and lower with each passing wave. I turned the kayak directly for the beach, but it was hopelessly far. I would never make it. I spotted a pleasure power boat fifty yards away, and signaled with my paddle. They raised their bottles of beer and saluted me back. Three more strokes and the whole kayak went under.

When I hit the water, the cold barely shocked me – sinking seemed a worse fate than hypothermia initially. I don’t remember exfilling the kayak, but it took a couple swim strokes to make it back to the half-submerged form. A self-bailing, open top kayak obviously would have been more appropriate for such conditions. My bucket boat would do, though, if it would self recover. I turned the kayak over, pushed from underneath, and tried to tip the water out. Nothing happened.

I had never taken this kayak to the pool and rolled it. I also had never sunk it and tried to remount. If I had, I would have known my efforts were useless. This kayak was dead in the water, and I was more than a quarter mile from shore.

A passing jet skier that was more aware and less drunk soon came up on me, tossed me a rope, and towed me to shore. A nasty bruise under my left arm when I wrapped the rope (while I hung on to kayak, paddle and new dry-bag – that morning’s Father’s Day present) is all of the lasting damage I have from the experience.

I am lucky. If I had taken on water at the mouth of the St. Joe, I would have been pushed out into the lake – several tourists die each year from this unexpected hazard. Instead, learn from me – pick the right gear, test it, investigate your route, and don’t put yourself in a situation where one minor change pushes you over safety’s edge.

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

Kayaking in Downtown Buffalo

14 Sep

For my wife’s birthday, I took her kayaking. We are semi-experienced kayakers, but had never done the Erie Canal Harbor and associated waterways. So we rented two boats from Jason Schwinger at BFLO Harbor Kayak, and went exploring. Warm sunshine, hardly any wind, and my best friend. Perfect.

Ship Canal

First we paddled the length of the Ship Canal. If it weren’t for a berm in the way at the end of the canal, it would connect to Tifft Nature Preserve. That means as the canal narrows, the wildlife comes in. We saw Double-Crested Cormorants, Kingfishers, and a stately Great Blue Heron flapped out ahead of us. All along, I was struck by how clean the water and surrounds were. Yes, its a ship canal surrounded by rusting grain elevators. And yes, there is the odd mattress and tire still on the bank. But the water itself was free of the debris, particulates, and odor that characterize most Great lakes urban coasts. Whether this is a result of Riverkeeper’s efforts or a general environmental ethos taking root, I don’t know. But it made the trip far more pleasant than some I have been on in Milwaukee or other places in NY.

Down and back on the Ship Canal only took part of the afternoon, so we took a trip down the Buffalo River, past the DL&W Terminal, under the Michigan Ave lift bridge, and towards Ohio Street.

Buffalo River

I have driven past the grain elevators plenty of times, and seen lots of pictures of grain elevators from the water, but actually being there, in the kayak, under their crumbling weight, is different. They are more magnificent in person.

After our trip we stopped and chatted with Jason at the boat launch, while some obnoxious Birfers protested next door. Jason and I first met at Buffalo Homecoming meetings, and I was curious to see how business was. I told him he stole my idea to rent kayaks on the water. His response? “Lot’s of people say that.” If enough people think its a good idea, he must be on to something. He says business is good, Buffalo Place has been supportive, and he hopes to do more next year. Good news for a local entrepreneur with a good business in a good location. Jason is renting kayaks through October 11th – stop on by and rent one in this last gasp of summer.