Cycling The Niagara River Recreation Trail: Ice Wine, War Of 1812 History, And A Back Door To Niagara Falls (Part 2)

war of 1812 niagara river recreation trailClick here to read part one of this story. In recent weeks, U.S. and Canadian officials have been fighting over a development issue at the Peace Bridge, but when I drove over the bridge, built to commemorate 100 years of peaceful relations between U.S. and Canada, one warm day late last summer, I had much older hostilities in mind. Two months before, I had taken a bike ride from Niagara Falls to Niagara-on-the-Lake. This time, I returned to cycle the Fort Erie to Niagara Falls section of the trail, with the goal of learning a bit more about the War of 1812, and to approach Niagara Falls from a direction I’d never seen before.

I ditched my car in Fort Erie, a town on the Canadian side of the border where the U.S. army withstood a six month long siege during that forgotten war. On the New York side of the border, Fort Erie is known more for its proliferation of gentleman’s clubs, know as the “Canadian ballet” in these parts. Ontario’s drinking age is 19 and Americans have long flocked to Fort Erie’s strip joints, which offer full bars and nude women, a combination that isn’t legal in New York.

I followed the road that paralleled the river until the dedicated bike path started just outside of town, next to a seedy looking campground across from the Frenchman’s Creek War of 1812 Memorial.

Right beside the trail there’s a plaque describing the Battle of Frenchman’s Creek, which was a failed American invasion described as a “fiasco” that took place on November 28, 1812, and some “War of 1812″ wreaths adorned with British and American flags. I rode on for miles with modest homes on my left and Buffalo’s oddly beautiful tableau of disused industrial plants and oil refineries just across the river on my right, until pulling over to check out the Willoughby Historical Museum, about 12 miles north of Fort Erie.

The one-room museum (see below) features displays and artifacts from the War of 1812, and since I was their only visitor, Jonathan Milner, a young man who serves as one of the museum’s historians, was thrilled to stop for a chat. I asked him if Canadians were as ignorant about the War of 1812 as Americans and he toed the line between honesty and diplomacy.

“For us, the War of 1812 is prominent in the school curriculum, and because it’s the bicentennial, the Canadian government has put out advertisements touting four Canadian heroes- General Isaac Brock, Laura Secord, Tecumseh, and Charles de Salaberry,” he said.

Given the fact that the war ended in an effective stalemate, I found it a bit surprising that Canadians are expending much effort to remember this conflict. But many consider the war to be a key moment in forging their national identity. Milner asserted that recollections of the conflict, whose conclusion marked the beginning of peaceful relations between the neighbors, are selective in Canada.

“People here often refer to it as a war of American aggression,” he said. “We talk about the American invasion of York but we don’t talk about the British invasion into Baltimore, the attack on the White House, things like that.”

The Canadian government has committed at least $28 million towards celebrating the bicentennial with more than 100 events, including several later this year, but there hasn’t been as much interest in marking the anniversary on this side of the border despite the fact that historians believe that the war helped consolidate the freedom we won in the revolution and helped unify the country.

I had a feeling that Milner would have been content to talk history all day but I had a mission to complete, so I continued north up to the site of the Battle of Chippawa, where on July 5, 1814, American forces routed an equal number of British troops for the first time.

The victory proved that American troops could hold their own against British and Canadian units, and just five months later, a peace treaty was signed in modern day Belgium. Word traveled slowly in those days, however, and the war’s most famous battle, a victory for the U.S. at the Battle of New Orleans, actually occurred two weeks after the treaty was signed. A fittingly bizarre conclusion to a war that is still difficult to understand.


Just minutes after leaving the battle site, I got my first glimpse of the mist rising from Niagara Falls off in the distance. Right after you catch a glimpse of the Skylon Tower in the distance, the path splits from the Niagara Parkway, and you begin to traverse a series of rickety wooden bridges. At this point, the roar of the Cascade rapids, where the water rushes through at up to 25 MPH, is louder than the nearby traffic and you get that giddy sense of excitement that comes from knowing that you’re approaching mighty Niagara, where some 6 million cubic feet of water go over the Falls every minute.


After crossing over a series of bridges and re-emerging on the path, protective fencing gives way to a lovely untrammeled view of the rapids and the midst rising above the Horseshoe Falls. The path is so close to the rapids that a suicidal or highly inexperienced rider could easily veer into the river, never to be heard from again.

Only four people have gone over Niagara Falls without any protective equipment and survived: the first was a 7 year old boy who fell in the river in 1960; the other incidents were apparent suicide attempts, most recently in May 2012 when an unidentified man suffered a collapsed lung and broken legs but survived. Numerous others have fallen into the river and died, including a 19-year-old Japanese student who was posing for a photo while straddling a railing with an umbrella in her hand in August 2011. She apparently lost her balance, fell into the river and went over the Horseshoe Falls. And just a few days ago, a 17-year-old boy died after saving his little sister, who fell into the Niagara River.

niagara falls

The trail runs right into the best view of the Horseshoe Falls and, though I’d seen them dozens of times before, approaching on a bike, riding along the rapids made the experience seem somehow novel. The beauty of the trail is that just an 1/8th of a mile away from the spot where a mass of humanity gathers right next to the Horseshoe Falls, there is complete tranquility and almost no tourists in sight. On the Niagara River Recreation Trail, you can almost have Niagara Falls all to yourself.

Click here to read part one of this story.

Cycling The Niagara River Recreation Trail: Ice Wine, War of 1812 History And A Back Door To Niagara Falls (Part 1)

niagara fallsI must have been absent from school the day we learned about the War of 1812. Growing up, history was my favorite subject, but as I sat in an office interviewing Paul Dyster, the mayor of Niagara Falls, New York, who mentioned upcoming events to commemorate the bicentennial of the conflict, I couldn’t for the life of me recall who won the war (it was a stalemate) or even why it was fought. (Unresolved trade issues, the impressment of U.S. sailors into the British Navy and British efforts to halt America’s westward expansion.)

I grew up about 20 minutes away from Niagara Falls, and my father and grandfather lived and worked in the city for many years. Growing up, we visited the Falls often, usually when friends or relatives from out of town came to visit, but occasionally just to get out of the house.

But despite the fact that I’ve been to the Falls probably more than 100 times, I’ve never thought to ride a bike near this iconic natural wonder until I saw some cyclists on an organized bike tour in Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) Ontario, a distinctive, historic town 18 miles north of the Falls, last summer.They were on a wine tasting tour that brought them to several area vineyards mostly via the Niagara River Recreation Trail (NRRT) a 35-mile trail that hugs the river, starting in Fort Erie, just across the border from Buffalo, to Fort George, a key battleground in the War of 1812 located on the edge of NOTL’s historic district. I read up on the NRRT and decided that I could learn a thing or two about the war, have a bit of wine and get some exercise, all on one bike ride.

My wife and I set out from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls on our ad-hoc NRRT tour on a warm, almost perfect Tuesday morning in July. We ditched our car at the parking lot in front of the visitor’s information office, where you can leave your car all day for just $5, and went inside to ask for a NRRT trail map.

A young man manning the information desk had no map and was surprisingly unfamiliar with the trail.

“Where does it start?” he asked, handing us a free map of Niagara Falls.

“We were hoping you would know,” I said.

He conferred with some similarly uninformed colleagues and they concluded that we should probably just ride down to the Falls and turn left to head towards NOTL. But as we flew down Clifton Hill, the Canadian side’s tacky street of video game parlors, tourist traps and motels, and saw the mist rising from the Falls, we decided to head right towards the Horseshoe Falls.

It was about 10.30 a.m. and there were plenty of tourists ambling about, snapping photos and queuing up for the Maid of the Mist boat trip, but it wasn’t crowded yet, so we were able to ride right past the tourists gaping at the American and Bridal Veil Falls, all the way down the Horseshoe Falls, where we got a delightful little cool down from the mist.

I’ve always loved Niagara Falls, but being able to glide by all the tourists and see the Falls at about 10 mph was a new thrill. Why had I never done this before?

As we headed north, away from the Falls, we passed the impressive seven-story Cham Sam Buddhist Temple, which sits incongruously amidst a string of cheap motels and shops catering to tourists, before the trail became a distinct bike path just beyond a Super 8 motel. On a gradual uphill section of the trail just outside the Falls, my wife tried to shift gears too abruptly and jolted her chain right off the bike.

I feared that our outing would be a bust, but she had it back on in ten minutes. With a lane of our own to work with, we picked up speed, cruising by the Whirlpool Aero cable cars, a pretty golf course, and the strangely appealing Sir Adam Beck II Hydroelectric Generating Station, which offers 40-minute tours for $9.95.

niagara river recreation trail

The U.S. and Canada share the longest peaceful border in the world, but two hundred years ago, many of the major battles of the War of 1812 played out in the Niagara Region. Shortly after cruising by the generating station, we stopped for a climb up Brock’s Monument, in lovely Queenston Heights Park, which offers a terrific view of the surrounding region, including the Falls.

Sir Isaac Brock was a British army officer who became a Canadian hero after being shot in the chest while leading British and Canadian forces into battle at the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812. Only three decades removed from the Revolutionary War, Ontario had a large population of Loyalists who left the U.S. after siding with the British during the war, and Brock came to symbolize Canadian independence.

The first monument was bombed by an anti-British activist in 1840 but was quickly rebuilt. On October 12, last year, hundreds of reenactors marched on Fort George and recreated the momentous battle where Brock was killed.

Rejoining the trail, we hit its most exhilarating downhill slide right after the Brock Monument, and as I went flying down the shady path, I had a strange sense of déjà vu. I realized I’d cycled down this section of the path before, as a child, but I couldn’t conjure the exact circumstance.

After leaving the park area, the trail jogs past the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum in Queenston, a well-preserved village that was founded in the 1780s and retains the loyalist leanings of its early inhabitants. Queenston Street is filled with historic homes, and many were flying flags to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Pretentious to be sure, but perhaps not surprising since the town was badly damaged by American troops in the War of 1812.

We made a brief stop to check out the home of Laura Secord, who is Canada’s Paul Revere. In June 1813, Secord became aware of American plans to stage a sneak attack on British/Canadian forces, and walked 20 miles to inform the British, leading to their victory in the Battle of Beaver Dams.

Just outside Queenston, we started to pass enticing fruit stands, selling fresh cherries, peaches, apricots, blueberries and plums. And further up the path, a string of wineries dotted the Niagara Parkway – we passed Ice House, Riverview, and Inniskillin before stopping at the Reif Estate Winery, one of my favorite family owned wineries in NOTL.

When I was growing up on the other side of the border in the ’70s and ’80s, there were just a smattering of wineries on the Niagara Frontier but our regular visits to the Canadian side of the border always felt like excursions to another world. The wineries, the tidy, green parks, the Victorian mansions along the Niagara Parkway and the cutesy town of NOTL presented a classy juxtaposition from the dull suburb of Buffalo I grew up in.

Today, there are more than 70 wineries in the region, many of them specializing in decadently sweet ice wine, and NOTL is a major tourist attraction. Major corporations, like Vincor International, own some of the most popular wineries but I’ve always preferred the family run places like Reif, Pillitteri Estates and Konzelmann.

We tried three ice wines at Reif for $5, one more sinfully sugary than the next. Our bartender told me that my favorite – the Vidal ice wine was a 22 on the sugar scale.

“It’s got hints of pineapple, honey, pear and apricot,” he said.

My palate is never sophisticated enough to catch all the flavors it’s supposed to and I half think the barkeep was just making things up as he went along, but I had to admit – it was damn good.

Our appetites whetted, we made a detour from the trail, heading west on a road lined with vineyards simply called Line 1 to have lunch at the Pie Plate, a bakery and restaurant on Niagara Stone Road. Downtown NOTL is filled with cute little restaurants, but many of them are tourist traps. The Pie Plate is where the locals go for good local beer, wine, baked goods, pizza and sandwiches.

On this afternoon, two cute blondes, Josceyln and Alicia, were waiting tables and my wife got them confused.

“Everyone gets us confused,” Alicia said. “We used to live together and we even dated the same guy.”

I wondered who the lucky guy was but contented myself with a Steam Whistle Pale Ale and a wood fire pizza that I made short work of before heading east on Niagara Stone Road towards NOTL with a stop at Pillitteri Estates for more ice wine.

I’ve never been a fan of Queen Street, NOTL’s main drag. It’s filled with overpriced shops and restaurants hawking useless trinkets and mediocre food, and there are usually way too many tourists clogging the sidewalks, especially on weekends. But riding up and down NOTL’s quiet side streets is a joy.

We parked our bikes at Queens Royal Park, a beautiful little green space with views of Toronto in the distance, located where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario, and spent a few minutes digesting a plaque that lists all the people who have swum across the lake.

Sixteen-year-old Marilyn Bell became a Canadian national hero in 1954 when she became the first person to make the crossing, completing the 51-kilometer swim in just under 21 hours. Two years later, a 36 year-old-man accomplished the feat but took 18 minutes longer than Bell. Over the years, strong swimmers from all over the world have shaved time off of Bell’s mark and the plaque still has space for those who are fit and crazy enough to attempt the crossing.

The trail ends at Fort George, a key fort controlled by the British during the War of 1812, and rather than retrace our route back to Niagara Falls, we paid $10 to take a shuttle back to our car. In taking a cab back to Niagara Falls, I felt like we cheated a bit and resolved to return to the area to cycle the first half of the trail, from Fort Erie to Niagara Falls.

Nick, our driver, had no interest in ice wines or the War of 1812 but was plenty annoyed that our bikes were taking up space in his minivan.

“You really should pay double price,” he said, as we pretended not to hear him.

Click here for part two of this story, the ride from Fort Erie to Niagara Falls.

USS Constitution To Set Sail Again

USS Constitution
The USS Constitution will set sail once again to commemorate the battle that made it famous.

The U.S. Navy says the famous warship will set sail Aug. 19, the 200th anniversary of her victory over the British frigate HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia. This victory during the War of 1812 boosted the young nation’s confidence as they fought an empire that had the largest navy in the world at that time.

The USS Constitution will be towed out of Charlestown, Massachusetts, at 10 a.m. Once it reaches deep water at 11:30, the crew will unfurl her sails and go under her own power for a time, weather permitting. The ship is so large that it needs a decent wind to move at all!

The Constitution will be back in Charlestown harbor by 3 p.m. and reopen for its regular tours by 4.

The ship was one of the United States’ six original frigates. Built in Boston, it carried 44 guns and was launched in 1797. The ship saw regular service guarding shipping lanes against pirates and defeated four British ships during the War of 1812. Its thick hull deflected most of the cannonballs shot at it and earned it the nickname “Old Ironsides.” She continued to serve her country until 1855.

[Photo courtesy Journalist 2nd Class Todd Stevens, U.S. Navy]

New Website Commemorates War Of 1812

War of 1812
While events commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War are happening all over the country, the bicentennial of the War of 1812 has received less attention.

Now, a new website created by the New York State Museum provides information on the war and events and activities commemorating it. Much of the fighting took place along the New York-Canadian border, although battles were fought as far away as New Orleans and Washington, D.C., which got burned by a British invasion force. The image above, painted on the spot by George Munger, shows the White House as a gutted ruin.

The War of 1812 website offers a wealth of information on the conflict, including a timeline, biographies of key figures, and important documents. It’s also open for submissions if you have written something about the war or you have an ancestor who was affected by it. Of interest to travelers is the resources section, showing upcoming events such as reenactments.

Oswego, New York. Historical for Two Reasons

Snow is dumping on Oswego, New York. Five inches by the hour. When I heard this on the news, I perked up. I used to live there, and I haven’t lived in that much snow since. If anything, it’s been the opposite. From time to time I’ve even lived close to the equator. I don’t know if it’s the snow that chased me south.

I’ve thought about the Oswego snow from time to time, though. From where it sits next to Lake Ontario it can’t help but get snow. It’s called “lake effect.” Whatever it’s called, it’s a sight. Snow plows have some sort of contraption that throws snow into dump trucks so it can heaved onto the lake. The result is that streets look more like corridors that can reach chest high and the lake has mini-mountains. Cars sometimes put orange flags on the antennas so they can be seen at crossroads.

Although Oswego’s snow puts it in the national and local news across the U.S. from time to time, there is another claim to fame that not many people know about. It’s not as flashy as the snow, but it’s interesting to note just the same. During World War II almost 1,000 Jews were allowed to “temporarily” enter the United States to escape the Nazi regime in Germany. They were housed at Fort Ontario which just happens to be in Oswego.

Fort Ontario is the sight of a battleground bonanza. First built by the British in 1775 it was destroyed by the French only to be built again by the British, to then be destroyed by the Americans during the American Revolution and again destroyed again by the British in the War of 1812 (Are you keeping up?). Eventually, after wars weren’t fought in upstate New York anymore, the fort had some more incarnations until its rare use as a refugee camp between the years 1944-1946. This was the only place in the U.S. that served as such a haven and the only organized U.S. effort to bring Jews into the United States. There was fear that once people were allowed into the U.S., they wouldn’t leave. For awhile, the people who were housed at the fort had to stay there 24-7. After awhile the regulations lifted so the adults could get jobs and kids could go to Oswego’s schools. The kids going to school happened first. It wasn’t, I think, until year number two when the adults could leave for longer periods of time.

Today the fort is open as a tourist site. I’ve been there but I can’t recall how much information is on display about the fort’s role during WWII. I didn’t find out about this bit of history myself until after I had moved away and saw a program on educational television.