On my way to Vermont, I stumbled upon a little place called upstate New York. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Niagara Falls, Finger Lakes, Thousand Islands, the Adirondacks. Waterfalls, vineyards, orchards. Mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, log cabins. Ballooning, soaring, skiing. Ivy leaguers and manufacturers. Who knew? I didn’t.
I spent the first several days in the Niagara Falls region. I think every kid in America has heard of Niagara Falls, so I figured it was probably worth checking out. The falls are on the Niagara River, part of the border between Ontario, Canada and the state of New York. On the U.S. side, Niagara Falls is a state park (actually the oldest state park in the United States). T-shirt stands, food trucks, gaudy signs, your run-of-the-mill tourist traps inundate the several blocks surrounding the state park, but once you make it into the park part of Niagara Falls, it is actually pretty impressive. The sheer power of the falls are hard to describe unless seen in person. It’s one of those places every person needs to see at least once.
I thought I would be leaving the state right away, so I made sure to get my golfing in at a great new course (Seneca Hickory Stick Golf Course) just a few miles from Niagara Falls. I can now check “State #42″ off the “Golf 50 States” list! For anyone looking for a golf course in that area, it is a tough track and well worth the price. I played from the tips with a Canadian that used to play semi-pro. Canadians-1, Americans-0. But I had fun!
From Niagara Falls, I followed the Seaway Trail along the lakeshore of Lake Ontario, around Rochester, over to the banks of the Saint Lawrence River. The drive along Lake Ontario was spectacular. I had no idea there would be so many family owned orchards and vineyards lining the hills. And from the looks of it, this was the good side of town. It reminded me of Chicago’s north shore…but with acres and acres of farms surrounding the mansions. Nice!
Next on my tour of upstate New York was a place full of log cabins, canoes, fishing, and its namesake chairs overlooking tiny lakes–the Adirondack Mountains. I dry camped just outside of Lake Placid, site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. The downtown area really reminded me of downtown Banff, Alberta, Canada. It would probably be a pretty cool place on a snowy, winter night. I stayed at the base of Whiteface Mountain, a venue for many Olympic events. It also is home to Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, a tollway with views of New York, Vermont, and even Canada. If you’re looking for a pretty easy mountain drive, and a moderate hike at the end, this memorial is pretty memorable.
My original plan was to follow the U.S./Canadian border into Vermont, but a woman named Irene had other plans. Once it became clear that Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene was going to wreak havoc in the area, I made a big U-turn and headed over to the Finger Lakes region. I am so glad I did, for two reasons: 1) the Finger Lakes area is impressive, and 2) the area I left was almost wiped out. I didn’t know how narrowly I escaped until I saw the news in the coming weeks. I missed flooded roads by mere hours, and my intended campground in eastern New York was completely washed away–trailers and all.
Anyway, back to the Finger Lakes. Officially, there are eleven lakes, spread out to look like the fingers of hands. Each lake is in a geographical depression, generally surrounded by rolling hills (or even mountains). On these hills are some 100 vineyards and wineries–a mini-Napa valley of the east. Of these, Bully Hill Vineyards was one of my favorites!
The gentle, green hills and valleys, and the many lakes of the region not only make great grapes; they make great thermals–as in thermals for soaring gliders. In a little town of Elmira is the National Soaring Museum and the soaring capital of the United States. I waited for a good weather day and drove over to the Harris Hill Soaring Center to do some soaring in a Schleicher ASK-21 glider. Comfortable with flying an airplane with a perfectly capable engine and propeller, I was incredibly curious about being at the mercy of the winds thousands of feet up in the sky–with no viable go-around option once we got close to the ground. I sat in the front seat, and the official glider pilot-in-command sat in the back. With a quick thumbs up by the pilot, the Piper Pawnee tow plane began its roll down the runway, and over the edge of the 500-foot hill/cliff. After 5-10 minutes of being towed up to altitude, we released the cable, and just like that, we were free. The noise of the airplane disappeared, with only the rush of the wind on our massive 55-foot wingspan. We soared for a good 45 minutes, got up to about 5200′, and would have kept going had it not been for other passengers waiting patiently on the ground. Pretty cool. Hmmm, glider license anyone?
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in New York, particularly the Adirondacks and the Finger Lakes. And if I were the type of person to violate the Airstream with stickers, I would definitely have put the official New York state tourism “ILOVENY” one in the back window. But somehow, in the back of my mind, I knew there was something even better awaiting me…Vermont.