story and photos by Derek Doeffinger
Having lived within a five-minute walk from the Erie Canal for many years, I’ve gotten to know its moods and seasons. My favorite season to walk and bike it is fast approaching.
Why is autumn my favorite canal season? Obviously for the displays of leaf color, but also because it’s so short – both for color lovers and canal lovers. It’s the season of diminishing opportunities, intensifying our enjoyment with the knowledge that each outing could be the last, not only because the burst of color is so brief but also because it won’t be long before the canal itself closes down and is drained.
Like little kids waiting for Christmas, we color lovers find the September anticipation of October color an intoxicating tease. Will the sumacs flaunt gaudy ribbons? Will the maples spontaneously burst into leafy flames? Weeks ahead we endlessly and hopelessly tweak an unknowable equation of summer rain, sun, and heat, trying to figure out if the foliage will be brilliant enough to sustain us through winter.
But why can’t scientists accurately predict leaf color? After all, farmers usually know what to expect from their crops. So why are we harvesters of color still out on a limb, unsure of what to expect? I don’t think we will be much longer. Leaf experts (called autumn phrenologists) are now developing computer algorithms to accurately forecast color change.
For now, check with your favorite phrenologist, the Farmer’s Almanac, and hope for the best.
Why the canal?
We tend to become a bit jaded about the canal so let’s hear from a couple who makes an annual 400-mile autumn pilgrimage to the canal from Michigan.
Rose and Joe Diaz were bundled up as they stepped out of their packet boat on a brisk day at Seneca Falls. They were docked across from the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
You might say they’re passionate about the canal. They return to it almost every autumn and rent a packet boat. During his Navy career, Diaz piloted boats around the world including the Amazon River and its tributaries. This past summer he piloted the cruise boat at International Falls, MN for the National Park Service.
But the canal is the one place he keeps coming back to. In his words:
The canal in October seems like a throwback to days of the 1800s. The calmness of the water and villages. The beauty of the trees changing colors and the colorful leaves in the water. The scent of the brisk mornings on the boat and the cool breezes at an early sunset. Remember, the sun goes down at 5 p.m. and not at 10 p.m. It’s the season of suspense like in the summers! It is the best time to be on the canal for your health and mental wellbeing.
I strongly suggest starting or ending your autumn revery on the canal in any village the canal runs through. From Brockport to Spencerport to Pittsford and Fairport to Palmyra and Newark, and onto Baldwinsville you’ll find the canal central to many village activities, including a fair number of microbreweries. Or dip a bit south to Seneca Falls and Waterloo on the Seneca and Cayuga branch of the canal.
Why start your canal excursion in a village? So that you can tap into and feed off its energy. On a nice autumn day, people flock to the villages and send out waves of good vibes. Offering an abundance of parks, playgrounds, pavilions, shops, bike and kayak rentals, events and facilities, the villages give you a lot to do and see. People watching is a chief activity.
In Fairport and Pittsford, keep an eye out for Andy the unicycle juggler. He rides fast on a 4-foot-wheel unicycle while juggling four bowling pins. Forget that he’s past 60; he makes it all look effortless. Members of the rowing club may celebrate Halloween early by donning pirate costumes and commandeering the canal with their sculls.
You may spot the giant bubble guy dipping his bubble loop into a bucket of fluid, and then swinging it in a wide arc to create bubble tunnels big enough to crawl into. Picnickers and fishermen abound while people practice t’ai chi. Artists patiently pick out a tableaux and sit for a few hours to paint it. Of course, the towpath carries a steady flow of bicyclers weaving among walkers and runners.
The canal waters float quite a variety of craft, especially in and near the villages. Kayakers, scullers and paddleboarders bearing life-jacketed dogs hustle toward shore when a Florida-bound yacht plows by. You may even decide to take a ride on a cruise boat, like the Colonial Belle. If you’re taking the kids, you can get a 45-minute $5 boat ride Wednesday and Sunday afternoons at the Camillus Erie Canal Park. Or you can visit the steam engine exhibit, museum, navigable aqueduct and hiking paths.
If you like boat watching, head to a lock. From late September to mid-October, you’ll see a steady parade of them. Most are heading for storage at a marina where many are shrink-wrapped in white or blue plastic sheeting that look like death shrouds. Best of all are the yachts. Too small for Brady or Bezos, but still big in the Great Lakes, they enter the canal at different points and burble purposefully at reduced speeds. They make their way to the intracoastal waterway, and perhaps eventually Florida and beyond to continue their warm weather boating lifestyle through the winter.
Station yourself at a lock for an hour or two and you can likely converse with these travelers to find out their point of origin and destination, and whatever else may arouse your curiosity. Short conversations with strangers traveling long distances solo can sometimes be revealing. At the Palmyra lock, a middle-aged man from California revealed he had just bought his first boat at a Lake Erie marina and was piloting it to the Caribbean to meet a new girlfriend. Then the lock gates opened, and the man continued his personal adventure.
Some critters are also on the go. Most blue herons migrate only far enough to find open water. However, if you frequent certain sections of the canal, you’re sure to see some new herons making an appearance. Assorted wildfowl may make rest stops on the canal before taking off for more suitable destinations. At Baldwinsville, on the Seneca River, I watched a lineup of 30 or more cormorants warm themselves on a wall in the morning sun.
More than color
At first overwhelming, your eyes eventually acclimate and let your other senses kick in, reminding you that autumn offers more than brilliant colors. The fallen leaves, especially of the cottonwoods, exhale a musty aroma that speaks of nature beginning its passage of recycling for the next year. But there are bigger and noisier leaves. Hand-sized leaves of the sycamore crunch and crackle like an alarm system when stepped on or run over by bikes. They’re warning that summer is past and it’s time to prepare for winter.
The fading heat of the steadily lowering sun warms your face, which is almost as refreshing and rejuvenating as a hot towel treatment. The crisp cool air tingles your skin, slightly electrifying your whole body so it feels energized and ready for action. Together, all these sensations purge and renew your body and mind to feel an overall oneness that cannot occur in the summer heat or winter cold.
The most amazing autumn event may be the falling of leaves. After a hard mid-October frost, it is mesmerizing to see them simply release and drift earthward by the dozens in your front yard.
Now imagine you’re canal side under the open sky in the slanting backlight of early morning when a breeze ruffles the trees. A few leaves begin to sashay earthward. The breeze picks up, and suddenly thousands of leaves fly across the sky like a flock of confetti-colored starlings. It’s a wondrous and sad sight. Those falling leaves signal the curtain is about to drop on the drama of autumn color.