Last weekend I had the great pleasure to accompany Paul Leuchner on a voyage into the wilds of the Niagara River via kayak. I can only describe it, without hyperbole, as absolutely amazing!
While I would not describe myself as some great outdoorsman, I am no tenderfoot either. I spent countless hours in the woods as a kid and canoeing up in Canada. But as an adult, I’ve grown to prefer a cushy hotel over the hard rock solitude of a tent. But being out there, on the Niagara, and seeing what I saw, has made me think that I’ve been missing something. I need to get back to camp fire, smoke, and dirty fingernails.
My guide—the incomparable Paul Leuchner
Paul has lived on Grand Island for decades. He’s devoted his life to defending the shores of our many waterways from erosion and degradation—first with the Army Corps of Engineers and then later as a volunteer, and now as an Eco-Tour guide. Paul seems to know every nook and cranny of the River at a very intimate level. Yes, I know many of you have been out there on motor boats. But passing by on a boat can be like passing by a farm on the side of a highway. You see it, but you really don’t. Paul sees everything from his kayak. He sees the details.
As he maneuvered his kayak effortlessly across the water, as he told me he even enjoys kayaking in winter. “Nate,” he said, “the sound of snow falling, tinkling on the water, with the thick fog— it’s almost other-worldly.” I bet it is. Can’t wait to try it myself.
My companion: 8-year old Moses
In my kayak I was joined by my son, Moses. He’s a great kid, and my sidekick on many adventures. He sat in the front, and I sat in the back. The good folks at Blue Water Marina (who can arrange these tours for you and your family as well) pushed us off. They are a father and son team themselves (although they look like brothers). We floated off as they waved good-bye, and then we headed towards the marsh following Paul. Moses was smiling. So was I.
Into the teeming marsh
Not too long ago, the Niagara looked like the Mississippi—e.g., churning chocolate milk. Paul was instrumental in getting some little islands strategically placed to prevent motorboat waves from hammering the shore. That hammering caused the muck to churn – and voila – chocolate milk. Today the Niagara is pretty clean, with no small thanks to Paul Leuchner.
Near Beaver Island, you have some incredible marshes. It’s not just stagnant water. The water is clear, and full of life. This protection led to the growth of large pools of lily pads under which you can see legions of streaming minnows and other forms of life. Beyond these pools you have walls of cattails, in which the regal looking Blue Herons hunt. (More on the herons later). And then, at the water’s edge, there are the deep rooted trees.
Together, these many layers of life cleanse the water and provide fertile habitat for life to flourish. Back deep inside the cattails, you can find safe havens where wild life seek shelter from storms. You can also see a secret grove where deer have beaten paths to the water from which they drink. Every inch of those groves is covered in little purple and blue flowers, like twinkling stars in some distant, verdant cloud, deep in space.
Past the old Allen Farm
We pressed on, past the old Allen farm, which you know today as Beaver Island. Lewis Allen (who Allentown in Buffalo is named after) had a magnificent estate there once upon a time where he was engaged in cutting-edge agriculture practices and animal husbandry—he bred giant, muscle bound bulls, for example. All of the goods he produced were sent across the river on an enormous horse powered conveyor belt. Can you imagine? Fruits and vegetables, milk and eggs, all crossing the river on a belt, all day long!
On to the forbidden Island
We then ventured out across the center of the river. I looked down at the turquoise waters, shimmering. It looked almost tropical, thanks in no small part to the zebra mussels, which are the little pest mollusks we once feared would destroy the river. By happenstance, these little critters filter a liter of water or more, each, per day!
When we were about three-quarters of the way across the river, I heard something. It was an awful cacophony of shrieks and screeches. When I saw the source of this noise, I could hardly believe what I saw.
Old Motor Boat Island (once Frog Island) sits in the same place it has my whole life. Passing on a motor boat—or even on the highway—I never gave that clump of trees in the river a second thought. According to the stories I heard once upon a time, a rich Buffalonian who was not admitted into the Buffalo Launch Club, decided to build his own “Motor Boat” club on the island in defiance. Grandstands lined the shores where people watched the boats race in, what was then, an incredible display of technology. But the motor boat clubhouse and the grandstands, like the Allen farm, are all gone. They burned down. Since then, the savage elements of unbridled nature have taken hold.
Giant, and I mean as big as me (and I’m well over six feet tall), birds cover the Island. In the trees sit hundreds of nests, which are the home to seemingly thousands of birds. And these birds are communicating through all kinds of chirps and screams. From afar, they are lovely, but I must say, those Blue Herons don’t seem so friendly in groups. Motor Boat Island is governed by the vicious law of the jungle—a society of violence and fear. You are not allowed to set foot on the island—it’s now a protected sanctuary—but I’m not sure you’d want to anyway. It’s literally like something out of Jurassic Park.
On to view LDC’s handiwork
As we left Motor Boat Island, and its chalky trees that are just covered with bird droppings, we moved on to the rock outcropping built by Citizen of the Year 2015 and Grand Island’s own, LDC Construction. For those of you who don’t know, LDC is literally raising islands from the sea out there. And those islands, like Motor Boat, are a bustling metropolis for different types of lovely (less intimidating than the Blue Herons) birds. Some of these birds lay their eggs right on the rocks. There they sit while the little white creatures tend to them with all the earnest attention and care of a team of world class nurses. Yes, what was once a dead zone in the middle of the river now is a maternity ward for what appears to be a gentile class of feathered folk.
Strawberry Island—The eagle has landed
As we made our way thought the rocky Islands, our final destination lay before us: Strawberry Island. The island, which used to be covered with wild strawberries that fed the first peoples who visited there, was once nearly 2 miles long. It was carved up for concrete to feed the then booming city of Buffalo. Later, it became blighted by party culture. Who doesn’t enjoy a good time? Well, who, besides boring Nate McMurray who thinks a party is a glass of root beer and a fine evening alone watching PBS? But what happened on Strawberry Island is really a shame. People tried to turn it into Daytona Beach, trudging canals (that eroded much of the island) and setting up picnic equipment.
Thankfully, the island was saved, and today it's really pretty glorious. A family of bald eagles have made it their home. First came the male, and then came the female. The females only stay if they like the nest after a test drive. But once they stay, they almost never leave. That nest has produced 6 chicks. Each of those chicks flew off to make their own nests. Another interesting thing about bald eagles is that they don’t look so magnificent until they are about four or five years old.
Swimming with Moses and Paul
We stayed there on Strawberry Island for a while. The beach there is so wonderful, and I let Mo frolic like a golden retriever in the waves. Paul showed me the coin shaped rocks that are unique to that place. They were deposited there during the ice age. And then Paul said to me, “You know this river is only 12,000 years or so old?” No, I did not. When I got home, I researched it a little more. And Paul was right. I also learned that some theorize that the mighty Niagara Gorge itself was created rather quickly after a great rush of melting ice water flowed down from the receding mountains of ice. It is difficult to fathom the masterwork that is planet earth.
The river is pretty safe. Yes, it’s a river, so there is some danger. But you will not go over the falls. We need to tell people that, because I’m running into tourists who don’t understand these great opportunities to explore our region. If you want to have this trip yourself, call Blue Water! The number is 773-7884. Also, mark your calendars – Paddles Up will have its annual kayaking event the last weekend in July. See you there!
With warmest regards,