Lake Erie had a bad reputation for years. Not like Hamilton Harbour, in a toxic class all of its own.
But Erie, smallest and shallowest of the Great Lakes, was dirty too. Factory towns like Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo had been dumping who knows what into the lake for decades. The blue turned brown.
The Erie water is cleaner now. As for the shores, well, those rust-belt cities are still there.
But that’s on the U.S. side. Our side is different. If you ignore the 25-storey wind turbines that fill the skies along some stretches, much of Erie’s Canadian coast is much the way God made it. This is the part of the province that the rest of Ontario forgot.
Next week the Waterfront Regeneration Trust does its part to help people discover these virgin shores and moves its annual Great Waterfront Trail Adventure to Erie for the first time.
It’s sending more than 200 people from around Ontario – and Americans too – out on bicycles. They are ages 13 to 76 and will pedal 620 kilometres in seven days.
Woods and wine
Some will be surprised to learn it’s not that hard to ride so far. And all will come to know Lake Erie up close – beaches, Carolinian forests, new wineries, old underground-railroad sites.
The Trust is not a tour company, though it is known for the bicycle rides it has led along Lake Ontario – from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Hamilton and then east as far as the Quebec border.
"We’re a small charity that works with communities to help them regenerate their waterfronts," explains Marlaine Koehler, the Trust’s executive director. Their slogan: Do More on the Shore.
Sometimes just getting people to take a bike ride, a long one, is a good way to help them care about what happens at the water’s edge.
Work started on mapping an Erie cycle route three years ago and it’s now ready to take riders. The pack that sets out with Koehler on Aug. 11 will be travelling on roadways 80 per cent of the time. Bicycle paths are still rare in those parts.
But the new Erie route is posted. There are now hundreds of signs.
There will be whiskey
Riders begin on the shores of Lake St. Clair, at the Lighthouse Inn in a town simply called Lakeshore. Then it’s down along the Detroit River – with a whiskey tasting scheduled as they pass the Hiram Walker distillery – and through Windsor. Then the long push along Lake Erie.
The riders will pass through places you’ve never heard of, like Colchester, Merlin, Palmyra. And others you have, like Leamington, Port Stanley, Port Dover. And the finish line, Fort Erie.
They may not lose much weight, because there will be rich blueberry shakes at Klassen’s near Kingsville, fresh perch at Molly and OJ’s in Erieau, award-winning carrot cake from Selkirk’s Sunflower Cafe.
One rider is arriving from California. His bucket list includes pedaling around all the Great Lakes. He and the others need to ride nearly 100 kilometres a day. They will make it.
"Ask people how far they can ride and most would guess about 20 kilometres," the Trust’s Koehler says. "But within a day or two out there, they realize that’s about a one-hour ride."
This Erie tour sold out fast. But Koehler hopes you will think about trying Lake Erie on your own someday soon. The Trust has just finished a mobile app – still in beta – that lays out the entire route day by day. Go ahead and play with it at www.waterfronttrail.org.
Those wily winds
Four years ago, Rick Hughes (now CBC Hamilton executive producer) and I covered much of this ground. We pedaled off from Hamilton, reached the waters of Erie at Port Dover, pedaled west as far as Rondeau Park, not so far from Point Pelee. Then we cycled up to Chatham and took the train home.
It was a glorious trek, but we cranked into a lot of wind on that ride. We decided it might have been smarter to start at the other end.
I told Koehler that, by kicking off the ride near Windsor, she’d obviously already thought of that. Not so, she replied.
Forget about the old prevailing-winds-from-the-west theory, she says. Her people have tested that. And apparently those fickle forces blow both ways.
Koehler promises that if you ride Lake Erie, you will get a genuine Ontario experience. She does not promise that the wind will always be at your back.