August 4, 2022 [LINK / comment]
Vacation 2022: "quickie" road trip to Canada
Much like our trip to New Orleans last year, Jacqueline and I went for a long-distance drive last month. The primary destination was Niagara Falls, which is where we went on our honeymoon nearly 30 years ago. (!) The difference this time was that we didn't make any advance reservations and improvised our itinerary on a day-to-day basis. That strategy yielded some benefits, but it also raised a few difficulties. Our original plan was to visit the Outer Banks of North Carolina for the first time, but the weather forecast was less than ideal. A storm front was approaching from the northwest, and in fact there were heavy rains along that part of the Atlantic coast during our trip. In contrast, the weather up north was just beautiful, as can be seen in the photos below.
We departed mid-morning on Thursday July 7, driving up I-81 across the eastern tip of West Virginia into Maryland. From there we took a zig-zag course: northwest on I-70, then westbound on the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-70/I-76), then north along I-99, passing State College (home of Penn State), then turning back west on I-80, and finally north on U.S. Highway 219. That zig-zag course was made necessary by the relative lack of major north-south highways in Pennsylvania, which is dominated by the contours of the Appalachian Mountains, curving toward the east. Along 219 the land was flat, and we thought we had finally left behind the rough terrain, but then we saw a sign warning trucks to take a detour because of a dangerous stretch of road ahead. We began a steep, winding descent that was indeed alarming, and at the bottom of the big "canyon" we entered the town of Ridgway. It turned out to be incredibly scenic, so we stopped for a while to stretch our legs and take some photos.
Resuming our northbound course through Pennsylvania, we passed through the town of Bradford, which has a major petroleum refinery. I told Jacqueline about the first big oil strike in U.S. history in Titusville, about 60 miles to the south-southwest. (Edwin Drake built the first oil well there in 1859.) Sure enough, just before we reached the New York state line we saw the "Penn Brad Oil Museum," prompting another brief stop. Upon entering New York, we passed by Alleghany State Park, and the scenery was indeed beautiful. There seemed to be a lot of luxury resorts in that part of the state, especially around the town of Ellicottville, which is near some ski resorts. Route 219 became a four-lane divided highway, and since it is one of the major roads toward Buffalo, New York, I assume that there are long-term plans to upgrade it into an Interstate highway all the way to I-80 in Pennsylvania. Late in the afternoon we arrived in Orchard Park, a suburb of Buffalo, and I stopped to look at the home of the Buffalo Bills, which is now called "Highmark Stadium." To ge there, we drove along "Timothy J. Russert Highway," named for the host of NBC's Meet the Press who was among the Bills' biggest fans. (He died of a sudden heart attack in June 2008.) We dined that evening at a restaraunt called "Louie's," part of a local chain that specializes in "Texas Red Hots." I was intrigued, but it turned out that's just a regional term for a chili dog. It was a decent meal, at least. In their parking lot there is a sign warning football fans not to park there during football games; Highmark Stadium is only a block away.
Early the next morning we drove into Buffalo, stopping first at the marina on Lake Erie and then going to the nearby Tifft Nature Preserve; see my wild birds blog post. In downtown Buffalo I stopped at a couple places to admire the archicture with all the ornate stone carvings, especially the Ellicott Square Building and the Electric Tower. (I also stopped briefly at Sahlen Field and then at the site of the former War Memorial Stadium, as described in my July 13 baseball blog post.) As we were driving through the city toward the northwest I thought about the horrible mass shooting that took place on the north side the month before; the Jefferson Avenue Tops Friendly supermarket, the scene of the crime, reopened just a few days after we were in Buffalo.
After leaving Buffalo we soon entered the city of Niagara Falls, New York, and were lucky to find a free parking place within a quarter mile of the falls. We began by crossing the footbridge onto Goat Island, which separates the American Falls from the much larger Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. After snacking on ice cream and buying souvenirs, we drove across the bridge and waited for a half hour or so to get through the border inspection gates. After seeing signs about the need to pre-register (with covid vaccination information) via the "ArriveCAN" mobile app, I dutifully did so, but due a technical glitch, the final "submit" step simply did not function. It kept saying "failure, try again," and I must have done so a dozen times or more, to no avail. On the Canadian immigration website I saw an announcement that ArriveCAN was not working due to an Internet outage by the Rogers Corporation, but the Canadian immigration officer seemed unaware of that. It added a few minutes of hassle. Then we changed our money and headed to the parking area near Horseshoe Falls. We ended up spending nearly five hours altogether on the two sides of Niagara Falls.
Then we got back in the car and headed west, crossing a huge bridge over the Welland Canal, which allows ocean-going ships to transit between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Then we passed through the city of Hamilton, at the sharp bend in Lake Ontario, and started looking for lodging. To my surprise, the prices were much higher than I expected, so we kept going. Late in the afternoon we arrived on the outskirts of Toronto, and soon found ourselves in the middle of a huge traffic jam. Getting through downtown proved to be very time-consuming, foiling my hopes of seeing some landmarks in Canada's biggest city, but at least the urban scenery was pleasant. There were many pedestrians who were apparently hoping to attend a musical festival that was canceled or postponed due to that Internet outage. That festival probably made the traffic worse. We didn't reach the eastern edge of the metropolitan area until 7:30 or so.
Much to our dismay, none the motels we stopped at east of Toronto had any rooms available (at a reasonable price, that is), so we had to keep going. I was surprised that there were so few towns east of Toronto. Not until we reached town of Port Hope, well after sunset, did we find a motel room. (That town's name had big meaning for us: "I hope..."!) At least we had a very nice dinner at a local restaurant called "Turtle John's." I had a hearty Yorkshire pudding with steak slices, and Jacqueline had shrimp fettucine. Both were delicious, and we saved the leftovers for lunch the following day. She was amused that Canadians serve hard cider with ice! On the way back to the motel I started driving the wrong way on a downtown street and had to do a quick U-turn.
The next morning, after an hour-long birding expedition, we resumed our easterly drive. Downtown Port Hope had looked very quaint and picturesque the night before, but we were in a hurry, so lamentably, I didn't take any photos of it. Near the town of Trenton, Ontario, I saw a monument for the Royal Canadian Air Force consisting of an old fighter jet that had been mounted onto a pylon, so I stopped to take a look. The RCAF Museum is located in Trenton, but it was not a priority for Jacqueline, so we kept going. Our final big destination in Canada was the Thousand Islands observation tower, located near the U.S.-Canada border, and that was something we both enjoyed immensely. The Thousand Islands are the transition zone between Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, which passes by Montreal, about 165 miles to the east. You gain access to the elevator (which ascends 40+ stories) via the souvenir shop, so while there we liquidated our remaining Canadian dollars buying tickets, souvenirs, maple syrup treats, etc. While at the top I was amazed by how far away we could see. Once again, the skies were perfectly clear, ideal for scoping out the gorgeous landscape. On the eastern horizon, downstream the St. Lawrence River, I could see a tall suspension bridge, and I later learned that it connects Ogdensburg, New York to Prescott, Ontario -- about 38 miles away!
From there we easily crossed back into the United States of America and spent a while at the New York state visitor center, getting maps and buying more treats. Unfortunately, I took the wrong turn on the way out and we wasted at least 15 minutes driving along back roads in parallel with Interstate 81, which is where we were supposed to be. Finally we got back on course, and passed Fort Drum, which is the home of the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army. I would have been fascinated to visit it, but we were short on time. At Watertown we left I-81 and headed southeast along secondary highway through land that was ideally suited for hunters and fishermen. Not surprisingly, I saw many Trump signs and flags in that part of the state. I was still hoping to spend time in the Adirondack Mountains, as Jacqueline and I had done during the second phase of our honeymoon, but motels were surprisingly scarce in the area east of Utica. We stopped in the town of Herkimer, know for the hard quartz crystals known as "Herkimer diamonds." (A customer at the Clocktower restaurant included one as part of the tip when I worked there last summer.) As the sun descended in the west, we decided to be realistic and turned toward the southwest. I knew that there would be plenty of lodging opportunities around Cooperstown, where the Baseball Hall of Fame is located, and I was right. We found a very nice place, occupying part of a large cabin along the incredibly scenic Otsego Lake. Our evening and morning there was very relaxing and enjoyable.
On Sunday morning, the last day of our trip, I spent a couple hours at the Hall Of Fame (see my July 13 baseball blog post), while Jacqueline strolled around the picturesque downtown. To my surprise, she really enjoyed Cooperstown. We got on a highway toward Binghamton, where we rejoined I-81, which took us into Pennsylvania. We drove past Scranton (made famous by the TV sitcom The Office), Wilkes-Barre, Harrisburg (the state capital), crossed the Maryland state line into Hagerstown, quickly crossed eastern tip of West Virginia again, and early in the evening we finally made back home to Staunton, in the Old Dominion. We packed a lot of excitement and fun into a short time, and it was all very worthwhile. The above photos, and many more, can be seen on the Chronological Photo Gallery (2022) page.