Sunday, July 26, 2015

Lake Ontario Loop

Photos by Joseph Insalaco

What draws us to water? We have cycled along the Mississippi River, followed Lewis & Clark’s route on the Missouri and the Columbia Rivers, cycled the Acadian Shores of Maine and Nova Scotia, and traveled along the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay.  Little boys cannot resist a water puddle, nor can we. Our latest adventure took us around the Canadian side of Lake Ontario, along the St. Lawrence River, and then back around the U.S. side of the Lake.

Our cycling journey started mid-afternoon in Buffalo, New York. Before starting, we met one of our biggest fans; Joe’s 103 year old mother-in-law.  With her blessing, we mounted our bikes and headed to the Peace Bridge, linking the United States to Canada.  In Canada we planned to follow the “Waterfront Trail” that goes along the Canadian side of the lake and up the St. Lawrence River.  It is a compilation of well-marked trails, side streets, and highways and is documented in a paperback book entitled Waterfront Trail and Greenway Mapbook and on the internet at

After crossing into Canada, we headed north along the Niagara River.  Since it was getting late, we needed to find a place for dinner.  We decided to stop at the first interesting place we found, and hoped for the best.  It was after 5 p.m. and we passed several places that were not appealing.  Then, we saw a bar/restaurant with an interesting name.  It was called “He Is Not Here”.  It had an outdoor patio and a place for our bikes.  The weather was nice and the patio overlooked the Niagara River; it was very interesting.  We asked one of the customers if the restaurant had patio service, or did we need to go inside to order.  She told us to sit down and get comfortable, and she would take care of us.  When she returned, she asked us lots of questions and made several suggestive innuendos.  Then she introduced us to her female friends, one of which was the “mellowed out” owner of the bicycle next to ours.  The food was good, the beer great, and the conversation definitely interesting.

The next morning, we continued along the river heading towards Niagara Falls and breakfast.  It took about an hour to reach the waterfalls and our first opportunity for food.  Watching the morning mist rise off the waterfalls was beautifully.  A few other tourists were there, but it was still peaceful.  Our next stop was the Niagara Park’s Botanical Gardens and Butterfly House.   Established in 1936, the nearly 100 acres of gardens contained perennials, rhododendrons, azaleas, a formal garden, as well as a rose garden featuring over 2,400 roses.

We soon entered Ontario’s wine region, but passed many wineries because they did not open until 11 a.m. Our first stop was at Reif Estate Winery, which first produced wine in its 1870’s coach house. After tasting several wines, we found room in our panniers for a few bottles.  We next toured Fort George.  The fort was built in the late 18th century to protect the British from the Americans and was the scene of several battles during the War of 1812. The fort had been restored and is now a national historic site. The fort’s exterior consisted of earthworks and palisades.  Its internal structures included an officer's quarters, blockhouses, and stone powder magazine.  Standing on one of the fort’s walls we saw America’s Fort Niagara across the river in New York.  

We stopped for lunch in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, a well-preserved 19th-century village.  During the War of 1812 the town was burnt to the ground by the American troops from Fort Niagara.  The town was packed with cyclists and tourist.  We had a tough choice picking a place for lunch from all the town’s interesting restaurants.  In the end, we chose the one with the most bicycles parked outside. For the rest of the afternoon, we cycled past many more wineries.

We got an early start to our 70 mile ride to Toronto, Ontario.  About half an hour down the road we stopped at a Tim Hortons restaurant (similar to Dunkin Donuts) for breakfast.   Unfortunately, we did not find any diners while in Canada and missed fresh eggs and pancakes.  Canada’s breakfast mainstay seemed to be the Tim Hortons, which are everywhere. 

Lakeside temperatures were cool, but when our route took us a few blocks inland we were warm.  No matter what we put on or took off, we could not find the “right” clothes. The closer we got to Toronto, the more cyclists we saw.   Appropriate gear seemed to be an issue for them as well.  Some cyclists were dressed for the cooler temperatures but others for warmer weather. 

In Port Credit, Ontario, we passed through a lake side park where several families were grilling their lunch.  The smells made us hungry and brought back memories of a similar day when we cycled down the Mississippi River. At that time, we were very hungry but did not find any place for lunch. As we passed through a similar community park we came upon a hotdog vendor with a line of folks waiting for lunch.  Today, we had the same experience when we passed a marina hosting a boat show and found another busy hotdog vendor.

Arriving in Toronto had several challenges.  First, the city is very large and it took a long time to cycle through it.  Second, there was a lot of road work that impacted our route and required many detours.  Third, new bike lanes were also being built but were not far enough along to do us much good. 

Leaving Toronto the next morning, we headed south east along the lake where we found the Guild Park.  We cycled through many parks along our route, but this was the most interesting.  The Guild of All Arts was founded in 1932 on 88 acres.   The Park includes a sculpture garden featuring works by notable Canadian artists as well as architectural remnants saved from dozens of Toronto’s heritage buildings demolished in the 1960s and 1970s.

Heading towards Cobourg, Ontario brought several significant changes in our adventure.  First, we moved out of the urban environment that we had been in since our trip began.  Our rural cycling brought less trails, and some of the trails were very rough in comparison to the ones in the urban areas.  Second, the weather changed from daytime temperatures in the 80s to the 50s. 

What hadn’t changed was the abundance of lilac bushes that were in full bloom.  They were everywhere along our route and put forth a sweet smell that filled the air.  The other constant was the abundance of red-winged black birds.  However, these birds continued to be camera shy and avoided our attempts to get a good picture.

Next, we passed through the town of Port Hope, Ontario.  The town was named for Colonel Henry Hope, the one-time lieutenant governor of the Province of Quebec.  A more interesting fact is that the town contains Canada’s largest volume of low-level radioactive wastes. These wastes resulted from the refining process used to extract radium from uranium ore.  Radium was used in "glow-in-the-dark" paint. We arrived in Port Hope “aglow” with thoughts about food.  We soon found Basel’s Deli and stopped for lunch.  This was the first “mom and pop” type restaurant that we found on this journey and was well worth the wait.  We had great sandwiches, hot tea, and cookies before visiting the Canadian Firefighters Museum.

A day later, on the way to Picton, Ontario, we saw a small sign indicating that a café was off-route at a nearby marina.  The Harbor View Café was open and the food was good.  The owner told us that she first opened the adjacent motel, then bought the marina, and just recently opened the café. This was our second interesting lunch stop.  We hoped that this trend would continue as we headed east.

After lunch we continued along the lake before heading inland where we passed over the Murray Canal on a swing bridge.  In the early afternoon, we passed through the Ontario towns of Wellington and Bloomfield, 2 arts communities.  These towns had art studios, craft shops, galleries and quilt murals painted on many of their buildings.  Signs indicated that we were on the Arts Trail. Ontario seemed to have “trails” to suit many interests.  In addition to the Arts Trail and the Waterfront Trail, we had also been on the Wine Trail, and after we left Colborne, Ontario, we were on the Apple Trail. 

We had a short ride to Glenora, Ontario, where we boarded a ferry for a 15 minute trip across the Bay of Quinte.  From there, we headed into Loyalist country where those loyal to the British Crown settled.  Many towns, structures, and monuments were designated “Loyalist…”  One monument along the waterfront commemorated the British frigate Royal George’s escape from the Americans.

It took about 2 hours to cycle through Kingston, Ontario, a large city with a population of 120,000.  Just past the city, we explored Fort Henry.  The fort is located on an elevated point near the mouth of the Cataraqui River where it flows into the St. Lawrence River at the east end of Lake Ontario.  The original fort was constructed during the War of 1812 to protect the Kingston Royal Naval Dockyard (the site of the present-day Royal Military College of Canada) from a possible American attack. The original fort was replaced by a much larger one in the 1830s and was restored in the 1930s.  As we entered the fort, a large group of school children, carrying sleeping bags, were also entering.  School groups can get a feel for 1800’s military life by staying overnight in the fort’s barracks.

The rest of our day we cycled towards our destination of Gananoque, Ontario. The waterfront town Gananoque has a population of 5,000 year-round residents but a larger number of summer residents.  The town has many fine restaurants and tourist attractions, such as boat tours through the St. Lawrence River’s Thousand Islands (yes, thousand islands dressing originated in this area). 
To get to the United States, we had a pleasant ride up the Thousand Islands Parkway.  As the morning mist lifted off the ponds and river, we had to cross 2 very long high arched bridges on very narrow walkways.  It was so narrow we had to walk our bikes but found that we had little room for us and our pannier laden bikes.  We wondered what would happen if we met anyone coming from the opposite direction.  We walked 1.5 miles and it probably took an hour to do so. 

Back in the United States, we headed east to the town of Alexandria Bay, New York.  There, we took a 2 hour boat ride through the Thousand Islands.  The tour took us past “Millionaire’s Row,” consisting of magnificent homes built during the gilded age.  Some of the boat houses were more grandiose than even the fanciest houses back home.  At the end of our tour we stopped on Heart Island to tour Boldt Castle.  The 120 room castle was built by George C. Boldt who became wealthy as the proprietor of many famous hotels, including the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.  He purchased 6 islands and chose Hart (later changed to Heart) Island to build a castle for his wife, Louise.  Louise died before it was completed so George stopped work and never returned to the island.  From 1904 to 1977 the Castle deteriorated from lack of maintenance and vandalism.  In 1977 the Thousand Island Bridge Authority took over the property and started its restoration.  The finished sections are truly magnificent.  The island also has a child’s play house (also a castle) that is so large it could provide housing and recreation for a school house full of children.

In New York we generally followed the Seaway Tail ( on our westward journey towards Buffalo, New York.  The Great Lakes Seaway Trail is a 518 mile scenic driving route that follows the shores of Lake Erie, the Niagara River, Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River in New York and Pennsylvania.

East of Clayton, New York, we stopped at a small batch distiller and sampled some of its aged bourbon.  In Clayton we visited the Antique Boat Museum.  It is a freshwater nautical museum that is filled with over 300 unique and beautifully-preserved boats and thousands of recreational boating artifacts. One of the buildings contained just speed boats that were massive and powered by very large engines.  While impressed with the speed, we preferred the craftsmanship of the pleasure boats and the museum’s boat restoration facility. 

We left Clayton looking for a breakfast place but did not find any until we reached Cape Vincent, New York, a small town on the St. Lawrence River about 12 miles away.  Much of our day’s journey was out of sight of the water.  When possible we took side routes to the water or entered the several river side parks along the route.  One of our side trips was to the town of Sackets Harbor, New York.  While we had marked this town as a possible place to visit, neither of us could remember why, nor did our notes give any hints.  We were pleasantly surprised by what we found.

Sackets Harbor was founded in 1801 by Augustus Sacket, a land speculator from New York City. He hoped that this location would foster trade across the Lake with Kingston, Ontario. As we entered the town we saw lots of old brick buildings, some in bad condition, others restored.  At the town’s visitors center we learned that this was the site of a US Navy shipyard and a headquarters for the Great Lakes. Some of these buildings pre-dated the War of 1812. The Army also constructed a fort to defend the village and Navy shipyard. By the fall of 1814, this was the third-largest population center in the state. Soon after the War of 1812, the Army strengthened its defenses on the northern frontier by constructing Madison Barracks—the old buildings we first saw as we entered the town.  The Madison Barracks have been designated as a Historic District and they are being redeveloped for commercial and residential use.

The receptionist at the visitor’s center also told us that Zebulon Pike was buried in Sackets Harbor and President Ulysses S. Grant served two tours of duty at Madison Barracks.  We were impressed by the town’s lively commercial district, and stopped at the Sackets Harbor Brewery for lunch and a beer.  Besides brewing their own beer, the sandwich rolls and chips were also made on site.

From Sackets Harbor we only had a 10 mile ride to Henderson Harbor, New York, for our nights lodging.  Our motel was on the grounds of the Aspinwall Homestead that was built in 1806, and currently serves as the motel’s office.  The Homestead was visited by Stonewall Jackson and artist Frederick Remington, and was used by runaway slaves traveling to Canada via the Underground Railroad system.

Unfortunately, our cycling trip ended in Oswego, New York.  From Oswego we had planned to follow a route along Lake Ontario’s shore to Rochester, New York, then cycle the Erie Canal back to Buffalo, New York. While we were not able to cycle all the way, we had a great time. We especially enjoyed the Canadian side of the lake because our route kept us close to, or on the waterfront. The New York side provided great cycling on mostly rural country roads.  The terrain on both sides of the lake was mostly flat.  Our daily stories, pictures, and maps can be viewed on our trip blog (