The trip from Weedsport to Byron, New York was another relatively short trip of only a couple of hours and since we were not in a hurry we again took the backroads that avoided the tolls on the New York Thruway. When we arrived at Southwoods RV Resort about 15 miles west of Rochester, we were immediately impressed. This was easily one of the best private RV campgrounds we have stayed in and we would be here for two weeks. While over 80% of the sites are occupied with seasonal campers that never move, the sites they had for transients were equally as nice. Even though our site was a back-in site, the playground area in front gave us plenty of room to maneuver and I had no problem parking the RV. While there is not as much room between the sites that you find in state parks or COE campgrounds, it was still more room than most private campgrounds. We had a table and fire ring that would get a lot of use when the family got together next week. This location marked the terminus (most northerly point) of our travels for the year and was our ultimate destination for 2016. This was also the year of our 40th wedding anniversary (although the date is in May) and we convinced all of our children to join us for a week near Niagara Falls, about an hour further east of the campground. Due to the inflated costs of camping sites closer to the falls, we felt this was a good compromise. After seeing the amenities and beauty of this RV campground, it was a good decision. We even had cable for the TV for the first time in over 6 months and the free WiFi was the best we have ever seen.
We had the first week to ourselves before the kids would begin to show up, so we picked out a few locations that we wanted to explore. The first location was the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in downtown Buffalo. After making sure it was open during the week, we traveled an hour into Buffalo. I had not done any reading about the site ahead of time and was certainly curious to find out why Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated in Buffalo instead of Washington D.C., as had all of the other Presidents after George Washington. Why Buffalo?? 1901 was the year of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, which was essentially a Worlds Fair. Along with music, art, and cultural venues, this was where all the latest inventions were on display. In 1901 this meant demonstrations of the latest in movies, sound recordings, and of course, electricity. The highlight of the Exposition was when the lit up the entire place using the first A/C power plant. It must have been a great wonder for the tourists at the time when the bulbs would slowly brighten until it was as bright as day. Also in 1901, President McKinley had just been re-elected and was a very popular President and in September delivered a short address at the Exposition. The following day he attended a receiving line to shake the hands of his voters, when Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, shot him twice at point-blank range. The Secret Service was still very new and McKinley was known to sneak away from their protection anyway. At the time Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt was going on a camping trip with his family, but was sidetracked to Buffalo. Initially the prognosis was good, so after checking the situation out with the doctors, Roosevelt went ahead with his camping trip in the Adirondacks. However, the doctors did not use the X-ray machine, which was still very new and showed up in Buffalo without an essential part, and failed to diagnose the onset of gangrene in the wound. McKinley suddenly took a turn for the worse and died four days later. A ranger was sent to track down Roosevelt, who was still camping in the Adirondacks and a special train whisked him to Buffalo, but he was not able to arrive until after McKinley had passed away. Knowing that it was imperative to immediately take the oath of office, they set things up in the library of the Wilcox house who as a friend of Roosevelt, had offered his home while he was in town. They did not want to use the home of John Milburn, the Exposition President, where McKinley was staying as his wife needed the privacy for mourning. Thus Theodore Roosevelt took the Oath of Office in a small library in Buffalo, New York instead of the steps of the White House in Washington, D.C. The library and den of the Wilcox house has been restored to the condition in 1901 based on the numerous photographs taken during the inauguration and they have a very nice multi-visual movie about the events and Roosevelt’s legacy in what would have been the study. Upstairs they have a reproduction of his White House Office where you can get a picture taken sitting at the Presidential desk. This picture is loaded onto the front page of a newspaper with a headline of your choosing and sent to your email account. Of course, everyone on the tour had to get a picture made!! Since the Historical Site consists of only the Wilcox house, of which the tour takes but an hour, it was still a short day. We ate lunch sitting in our camp chairs that we carry along with us, sitting on the edge of the parking lot and watching all the traffic going past in downtown Buffalo. We did get a few looks from the people going by, but who cares?
Wednesday was another beautiful, if hot, day so we headed northwest to another location that we wanted to explore, but did not think the kids would want to see: Old Fort Niagara. This was a very important fort from the French and Indian War through the War of 1812 commanding the mouth of the Niagara River on Lake Ontario. Due to Niagara Falls along the Niagara River that empties Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, this river was not navigable by boat. However, this fort controlled the very important portage used to move goods and fur traders from the interior to markets along the east coast and Europe. Unlike many other forts that fell into disrepair, Fort Niagara continued to be an active fort until after the Civil War and with the construction of “New” Fort Niagara just outside the old walls, remained in military hands until the 1960s. Thus there has been ongoing efforts to restore and maintain the old fort. The other unique feature of the Fort that there are structures that represent all of the time periods from the first construction in 1726. There are two monuments within the fort that commemorate short lived Fort Conti, a small wooden palisade constructed by Rene-Robert Cavelier de LaSalle in 1678 and Fort Devonville that lasted only a year after only 12 soldiers out of 100 that survived the winter of 1687. The oldest structure built in 1726 was supposed to be a three story trading house without any exterior fortifications in the hope of appeasing the mighty Iroquois Confederacy. Even though it was called “The House of Peace” is was truth a massive construction with overhanging dormers on the top floor that was more than capable of defense against the Indians of the time. In 1755, the fort was expanded to its present size by the French due to tensions with the English that erupted into the French and Indian War. After a long 19 day siege in July, 1759, the British captured the fort and retained control until the American Revolution. In 1770, the British added their own structures to the fort with two independent redoubts on the North and South that still survive. They are strange structures, partly because they are two towers that are inside yet not attached to the walls of the fort and secondly because they use classical Roman arches with a Chinese style pagoda roof. Very strange looking!! During the Revolutionary War, Fort Niagara was the base for the Americans loyal to the British and many loyalists sought refuge at the fort or used it to migrate into Canada. Along with their Iroquois allies, the loyalists used the fort to raid American towns and fields all though New York, Pennsylvania, and even south as far as the Carolinas. Even though the British ceded the Fort to the new United States in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, they did not relinquish control until Jay’s Treaty 13 years later. The British once again captured the fort in 1813, during the War of 1812 and kept it until after the war when they once again ceded it to the United States. It was interesting that during the War of 1812, the Americans removed the roof from the old French Castle in order to place cannons to offset the elevation advantage the British had at Fort George on the other side of the river. Finally, the wooden walls were replaced with brick and mortar walls, magazines, and cannon positions during the Civil War due to the concern that Great Britain might take advantage of the situation. However, cannons were never mounted and the Fort never saw any further action. It was very interesting to all of this history spanning over 150 years of warfare in one place. This was most evident that the original entrance to the fort was on the river side since the threat from the Indians was from the land, whereas, later fortifications created a sally port on the land side since the major threat was from the lake.
I spent Thursday extending our reservations for another month and working on this blog. Friday was also spent in the campgrounds where I was able to get all caught up with the blog. In the late afternoon, we decided to head into Batavia, New York, about 20 minutes away to check out the local casino, Batavia Downs and Gaming and eat an early dinner. While not as fancy as the resorts we visited in central New York, Batavia Downs had all we were looking for. Especially from the parking lot, which needed some serious work, Batavia Downs looked like a second-rate establishment. However, once you got inside you could see where all the money was spent as it was a beautiful interior. We have gotten use to casinos that allow smoking in the building to keep players at the machines in the south. Most of them would have gaming areas or rooms that were smoke free. We had even got used to smokeless casinos like you find throughout the Northeast. However, this casino was strange, as it had a small glassed in room where you could smoke, while the majority of the casino was smokeless. In any case, I did well at the machines and since Kal got $25 free play from a coupon we had, she managed to only lose $20. So we came out a little bit ahead for the afternoon. Followed up by a nice dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Batavia, we had a nice evening.
We spent Saturday doing laundry and cleaning the RV in anticipation of the children that would be coming in beginning on Sunday. We even broke out our dining fly to put over the picnic table to provide some shade for the afternoons. We had been carrying it with us since we bought the RV and had not used it yet. The first to arrive were William and Kristin, since they only had a 5 hour drive from Maryland. It was striking that in the past 5 weeks we had managed to get only 5 hours away, although our route was much more circuitous and scenic. They pulled in about 2:00 in the afternoon and we had just enough time to set up their tent and unpack their car before we all headed to the airport outside of Buffalo to pick up Jenny who flew in from Florida. We had more time then we though we had since her flight had been delayed and we opted to wait in the “Cell Phone” parking area instead of traveling into the terminal. So we had to wait for about a half hour before her plane landed, but once on the ground it was a simple matter of meeting her outside the terminal. For dinner we went to harbor district in Buffalo to the Pearl Street Grill & Brewery where we tried out some craft beer and ate some good sandwiches, wraps, or tacos. Once back at the campsite we immediately broke out playing cards and began the first of a lot of games of spades over the next four days. None of us have much of an opportunity to play this favorite family game anymore, so we were all looking forward to playing as much as we could squeeze in. Even Kristin has become a good player of the game, although she still wants a bit of help in biding from time to time, but so does Jenny and Kal for that matter. Since it is only a 4 person game, it was necessary to rotate players and teams for each game.
We had a lot of options for things to explore during the week and all except Niagara Falls, which was going to wait until Nikki and Chris arrived on Tuesday. From all the options we decided to travel north to Lake Ontario to Lakeside Beach State Park. This gave William and Jenny their first chance to see one of the Great Lakes, but also provided a venue to play disc golf. Both William and I really enjoy playing, Kal loves to take pictures of the players, and both Jenny and Kristin were willing to play as well. Once Kristin discovered she could throw the discs with good accuracy forehand instead of the backhand most people use, she became quite good at the game. For a while I kept competitive with William and even led through the first few holes, however, a couple of disastrous holes that had me sitting down in a thicket in order to reach my disc, I was not much competition. The course itself is the best maintained course I have played with beautiful fairways and tees. There are actually two 18-hole courses in the park and of course we decided to play the more challenging course. The first couple of holes were over steep ravines so we were beginning to question this decision early on. However, the rest of the holes were relatively flat even though the trees provided a number of challenges. Four of the fairways along the back nine were on the shore of Lake Ontario so you got a good view of the lake. However, this posed a challenge since a bad throw could lose your disc in the water. Hole 13 was especially challenging since the lake was to the left, which is in the direction my discs always fade at the end) and the lake dipped to the south just beyond the pin so there was water if you overshoot the pin. Finally you were throwing from the top of a small bluff which made it that much more likely that you would hit the lake with the disc. Jenny decided not to play the hole, Kristin kept her shot low and short, and I cheated hard to the right of the pin. However, William threw his disc forehanded which should have hooked to the right, especially with the wind coming off of the lake. Somehow he managed to throw the disc in such a way that it faded left instead of right and sailed right into the lake even with the stiff breeze!! We all stared in wonder and could not believe it happened, but we left a souvenir for Lake Ontario. William certainly played it very cautious for the next few holes until the course turned away from the shoreline. It was a lot of fun and after a picnic lunch in the park, we headed back to the campgrounds for dinner (steaks cooked over an open fire and mashed potatoes with salad) and more spades.
Nikki and Chris were scheduled to arrive Tuesday afternoon, so we needed something to do in the morning that would get us back before they arrived. So we decided to explore the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge which was just 10 miles away. Once again this refuge is primarily in support of the migratory birds along the Atlantic Flyway and consists of four major pools separated by dikes. They use the dikes to drain at least one of the pools every year to mimic the natural cycle and maximize the habitat diversity. They do have a number of good nature trails and we took advantage of two of them. The first was the Swallow Hollow Nature Trail which is a 1.3 mile loop around a small pool with boardwalks, gravel paths, and interpretive signs. Along with a phone tour that William played on his smart phone, we learned a great deal about the different habitats we walked through. Following this hike we headed over to one of the Overlooks on Route 77 that was supposed to have a view of the nesting bald eagles on the refuge. We knew we were too late in the year to see them on the nest, but we were hoping to at least find the nest. It was located on a small island in the center of the large marsh and even with our binoculars I am not certain I found it. From there we took in another short hike along the edge of the marsh of another 0.66 miles. By this point the day was getting too warm to enjoy hiking and we needed to get back to the campgrounds so we called it a day.
Nikki and Chris showed up around 4 in the afternoon with the oddest looking small RV I have ever seen. It is about the size of the popup we had before we got our RV and was certainly small enough to be pulled by their BMW. However, it was built back in the 1970s and had been modified over the years into a very strange unit. The strangest part is they had taken out all of the battery powered lights and thus had no battery. Chris plans on converting it back to DC, installing a battery and solar panels. The inside was also strangely laid out and again Chris is planning on extensive remodeling of the interior. It certainly got a lot of looks from the other campers in the campground! By the time they got set up it was too late to cook an extensive meal so we had some pre-cooked brisket that Kal had bought as a backup along with the left over potatoes, salad, and some pasta that Nikki had brought. It was certainly GREAT to have all the children around again, even though it was strange not being at “home” in Auburn. William had brought the tequila, so we had to have our now “traditional” toast with tequila shots to celebrate the occassion. Also since the weather was so warm, even the nights were too hot to be comfortable, William and Kristin decided to sleep in the RV with the a/c. Of course, this meant Jenny had to sleep in the lazy boy recliners, but she did not seem to mind. The RV had certainly got a lot more crowded!!
Wednesday was to be our big day for all of us to travel to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. We intended to spend the entire day at Niagara culminating in a fancy dinner to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. The day had been planned by the kids so we did not know what to expect. We all had our passports so customs getting into Canada was a breeze and we were still early enough in the day to find parking spaces in the large lot next to the falls, although by 11 it was already nearly full. We walked over to the falls to get our first look at them and they are certainly all they are claimed to be. Especially Horseshoe Falls, which is the larger of the two falls, is spectacular. It is 170 feet tall but over 1500 feet across is a broad horseshoe shape. Over 5.5 billion gallons of water per hour is an impressive amount of water. Historically it could be much more, but today they regulate the flow to minimize erosion and in 1848 it actually dried up due to strong westerly winds and ice blocking the exit from Lake Erie. As recommended, I would agree that you have to see the falls from the Canadian side. On the American side you can only see the top of both falls not being able to any sideview of the Horseshoe Falls at all. Of course, you can explore Goat Island that creates the separation into the two falls, but that would be small consolation. After a quick look we decided to go back to the cars and eat lunch at the picnic area next to the parking lot before making the walk downstream to the boat launch.
The one attraction that we all wanted to do was to take the cruise up the river to the base of the falls. The more well known cruise is The Maid of the Mist, which is docks on the American side. The Canadians have a comparable service provided by Hornblower Niagara Cruise that runs two boats with 250 passengers on a continuous loop. The walk from the parking lot is about a mile down the promenade which gives a continuous view of both falls all the way to the dock. They did a good job with the ramp and elevators to move tourists to the boat so the line was moving constantly and within a half hour we were on our way to the falls. If you think the Horseshoe Falls looks impressive from above, wait until you see it from below!! All of that water pouring over the falls 170 feet is loud and wet, which felt cool on this summer day of over 90 degrees hot. They provide everyone with a souvenir plastic poncho and you need it!! The boat travels as close to the falls as possible, which means you have the falls on three sides and eventually you get swallowed by the mist. At least twice we felt like we got hit by some huge wave and got completely drenched. It is the ultimate water ride!!
After we got off the boat, it was still early afternoon and our dinner reservations were not until 7:00 in the evening. I could have just set and watched the falls all day and probably would have if the kids were not along. Of course, they wanted to do something in the afternoon and Chris had found a local brewery just a few blocks away into Niagara. This part of Niagara is all about the tourists, which even during the week was in the thousands. There are everything a tourist might want from shops to bars to tacky museums. From the outside, the Niagara Brewing Company looks like a typical tourist trap. However, from the inside it turned out to be a nice place to hang out for a couple of hours and have a few beers. All of the seating is right next to the fermentors making more beer. We were really drawn to one of their craft beers, the “Amber, EH!”, which Chris thought was a good name. As a professional brewer, Chris had to sample all of their beers in a selection of 5 oz samplers while the rest of us drank a couple of pitchers of their amber and porter. We also ordered some appetizers and had a great couple of hours in cool comfort.
While at the brewery we noticed that next door was an arcade that looked interesting to all the kids (Kal and I were certainly ready to participate). Along with a lot of arcade machines, they had two attractions that interested everyone. The first was bumper cars!! Although it was a small rink, it was perfect for the 7 of us who had an absolute riot chasing and bumping each other around the rink!! We could have done this again, but had already decided to take over their “glow-in-the-dark” miniature golf course. It was very small and only 9 holes but it was still a lot of fun. It was just dark enough that you could not see the bumps and angles to the fairways which made for some hilarious attempts. Somehow, I even managed to win which goes to show that I am still able to compete, at least at a game that takes little effort. It was a lot of fun playing again with all the children, doing all the things we wanted to do without worrying about the cost. I was also amazed by the most interesting view of the day. When you look down the street you see a typical busy city street full of pedestrians which suddenly ends with a terrific view of the American Falls on the other side of the river, with wilderness beyond. I tried to capture it with a picture, but the sheer juxtaposition of city and wilderness was absolutely striking and did not look real.
By this point it was getting close to 6 and we still needed to walk back to the cars in order to change clothes, although nobody was going to get too fancy. After all this is still just a tourist trap. This entailed a hike of over a mile back to the cars, changing clothes in the car, and then walking back about half a mile to the Skylon Tower for dinner. We made right at 7:00, which was the time for our reservations and proceeded up the elevator 775 to the restaurant. Not only are you over 700 feet above the falls and surrounding countryside, but the restaurant rotates once an hour so you get a ever changing view. Add to this a spectacular sunset and the lighting of the falls as you slowly rotate above them and it is an experience I will remember the rest of my life. Of course the meal itself was excellent, the waiter delightful, and we even got a complimentary cheesecake with candle for desert once they found out it was our anniversary (which I made sure they knew). Our children treated us to an excellent celebration for our 40 years and filled the day with joy and love. I could not imagine a better celebration with a wonderful family that surprisingly all got along great.
After dinner things began to fall apart a little. It was due in part to the fact we were all tired after the long day, partly due to problems with the elevators that created a long line of tourists trying to exit the tower that was not moving, and partly due to the fact that we had all turned our phones off since we did not want to be charged international fees since we were in Canada. Kristin went to find a bag to carry our take-out boxes while we waited in line and while she was gone the rest of us decided to leave the line which was not moving and attempt to find another elevator. Somehow we missed Kristin and from there it all fell apart and we got separated. I kept with Kal and William and together we located Kristin at the end of the original line we had been standing in. Everyone was suppose to meet up where we entered the tower, but once we finally exited the tower, Chris, Nikki, and Jenny were nowhere to be found. By this point the nightly fireworks display over the falls (which caught us by surprise) had started and we could not see them from our vantage point. So we assumed the others had headed downhill to get a better view and proceeded that way ourselves. We did manage to get find a spot where we could watch the last half of the display, which was spectacular, but still no sign of the others. Thinking they had gone on to the cars and without our cell phones to make sure, we walked on back to the cars. Thankfully, their car was still in the parking lot as Nikki had Kal’s passport and we were going to have a problem reentering the US without it. After a few minutes we saw Nikki and Chris coming quickly to the car, but no Jenny!! They had left Jenny at the tower in case we were still there. They quickly got in their car and went to pick her up, while we drove through the traffic and customs to reenter the US. Once we had cell phone coverage again, we checked in and they were on their way with Jenny. It worked out fine, thankfully. It is interesting to note that with cell phones this would not have been a problem, so none of us realize the mistake of not staying together until it was too late!! With the drive back to the campgrounds it was after midnight before we pulled in.
After the full day and late night on Wednesday, we were all dragging a bit Thursday morning and spent the morning in the campground making breakfast and hanging out. In the afternoon, William, Kristin, and Chris decided to play another round of disc golf and headed north to Lake Ontario and Lakeshore Beach State Park. They played the other course at the park, which was a good bit shorter and not as challenging. According to William we had played the better of the two courses earlier in the week. They had a great time, although Chris lost one of my discs in the woods and William managed somehow to throw another disc into the lake!!! The rest of us spent the afternoon playing spades and a great time, except for losing our canopy over the picnic table. It was very gusty that day which was not a problem as long as we kept the windshield off of the canopy. However, to play cards outside we need to block the wind and so put up the shield. Just as soon as we got the “sail” erected the wind picked up the canopy and draped it over the top of the RV breaking two of the supports in the process. It was not a big loss, so we threw it in the dumpster and played cards in the RV instead. The wind died down in the evening, so we started a fire for the nights smores, played spades, and drank beer. Thankfully, Nikki and Chris had brought plenty of beer from the brewery and even managed to leave us with a half case and William with a case and a half to take back with him. It was a very enjoyable evening, especially when we got Chris to play spades with my helping both he and Kristin. Chris seemed to enjoy himself, so maybe we can get a game going when next we get together. I don’t know how many games of spades we played during the week, but it was certainly more than any of us had played in over 10 years.
Friday was our last day together as Nikki and Chris had plans for a mini-reunion with college friends in Ithaca, about 2.5 hours away. To extend our time together everyone agreed to go along with them as far as Watkins Glen State Park, about half an hour short of Ithaca. If you are following this blog, you may recall that Kal and I visited Watkins Glen State Park back in June and really loved it. In addition, William had been told about it from some friends and wanted to see it as well. So we got out as quick as we could, which still takes a while making breakfast for 7 adults and pulled into Watkins Glen around 11. While we found the multiple falls and cascades to be just as spectacular, I very much appreciated the opportunity to watch our children and their spouses taking in the scenery. While Kal and I had taken over 2.5 hours to make the hike up and back through the gorge, it took everyone only about 1.5 hours, so it was good that I had already seen it all before. It was certainly good to see it again and a real thrill to show our family one of the jewels of our travels.
After the hike we were all ready for lunch, so we crossed the street over to Mr. Chicken which is owned and operated by the father of one of the guys that works with Chris at Hi-Wire in Asheville!! They sure made some great chicken and since we all got something different we got a really sample of it. Not wanting to say goodbye yet, we all walked to an ice cream shop for dessert. Then it was time to say goodbye, so we gave Nikki and Chris a warm hug and sent them on their way. The rest of us piled into Williams car and drove back to the campsite for some last games of spades and a couple of more beers.
On Saturday it was time to say goodbye to William and Kristin who hung around most of the morning since they only had a 5 hour drive ahead of them. Jenny’s plane did not depart until 6:30 in the evening, which meant she would not get home until after midnight, so we had nearly the whole day with her before taking her to the airport. As it turned out we were busy for a couple of hours since we had to move the RV to another site as the site we were on had been booked for the night when I made the reservations. We had to move to a site in their group camping area which was filled over both weekends. We had to give up the cable, sewer, and 50 amp service, but it was just for a couple of nights. So we packed up the RV and traveled a thousand yards and set it back up. Jenny got to watch the “fun” we have in trying to back the RV! Once we dropped Jenny off at the airport I began to realize the truly unique experience we had. Normally children come to visit their parents by coming back home and once in a while all at once for a family reunion. Only this time our “home” is on wheels so our family reunion was at Niagara Falls!! I really hope we can do this again in another location further west in the future.
Sunday was our day to do the laundry and clean the RV. Besides that we were both exhausted, but exhilarated at the end of a great week in a beautiful campgrounds in western New York state. I sincerely hope everyone can have the experience we had with a loving family enjoying the out-of-doors.