20 summers ago, I stood on the quarterdeck in my dress whites as we pulled into Buffalo, NY, our first port visit in Lake Erie for the three-month, 16-port recruiting cruise to show firsthand to middle America how their tax dollars were been put to good use. In addition to recruiting and outreach, the USS Clark (FFG-11) provided an opportunity to conduct multi-national operations with our perennial allies from the north, the Royal Canadian Navy. It was a cruise that every American Sailor dreamed of. That blistering hot summer in 1999, the Great Lakes was experiencing the lowest water levels in decades. Ships were stuck pier-side for days on end – a sure sign of the Greenhouse effect.
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Aboard USS CLARK with my son, Colin
Spring forward twenty summers later, thanks to record snowfalls and heavy springtime rains, many ports along the Great Lakes were rising rapidly, flooding local communities. That is why swimming at Lake Ontario Beach was quite unique. First with overcast skies and lower than normal temperatures the water was still a frigid mid-50s – unseasonably low for mid-June, but a refreshing feeling nonetheless. Lake Ontario, the last lake in the chain of five and the gateway to the St. Lawrence Seaway is perceptibly the most polluted. But for this grimy body that hadn’t bathed for days, it was more than satisfying. The icy waters provided cold-water immersion therapy boosting my immune system and my spirits. That’s because the body literally goes through shock when you take a dip and reacts by releasing the stress hormone cortisol.
The boon of Rochester summers is that it rarely gets scorching hot. That’s because both Lakes Ontario and Erie moderate hot air masses that approach the region.
The bane of this summer was the flooding had taken a toll on the shoreline, significantly reducing beach areas, raising E-coli levels, and even closing some beach areas for the season.
Rochester, the former home of Eastman Kodak and predominately a manufacturing town is a poster child of post-industrial urban decline. It suffers a high unemployment rate with nearly a third of residents living below the poverty level. Despite losing residents to a mass exodus to big cities, the outlook for jobs today is steadily improving.
Kodak declared bankruptcy in 2012 and many of its buildings have been demolished or are on the cutting block. After decades of decline, the city is experiencing a startup renaissance with downtown returning back from the throes of death. New-venture businesses are moving back to the decrepit Eastman Business Park, turning the downtrodden ghost-town into a venerable tech hub.
And Rochester can attract more than businesses. Overlooking expansive Lake Ontario, it is also home to a couple of picturesque beaches and idyllic campgrounds that New Yorkers and out-of-staters have flocked to as soon as the spring-time weather starts to break.
And Ontario Beach is where I found a welcomed respite from the stress-filled regimen of the open road. The calm lake, with crystal-clear water, beckoned me to take a refreshing dip and the sub-tropical water temperatures felt relaxing and invigorating.
This is when I realized the balmy Great Lakes had an edge over the surf-battered seacoast. It wasn’t sunny Florida, but I didn’t have to fight over a parking spot and didn’t have to battle the crowds to find my treasured spot to camp out.
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Ontario Beach, Rochester NY
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From Rochester, it was a scenic, leisurely drive on NY SR 104, Great Lakes Seaway Trail, to Niagara Falls.
While it has been 20 years since I last sailed the gargantuan Lakes in my threadbare whites, It’s been 30 years since I last visited the Honeymoon Capital of the World.
It was mid-week – I was surprised to find coach-size parking spaces for my tractor along the street. The parking machine read “$5 an hour, maximum of 4 hours”. I decided to blow off the fee and just take a chance of a ticket.
One glaring observation: While the US side with its pristine state park and Mom & Pop shops on Main Street has grown at the pace of a trickle, the Canadian side continues to explode as fast as the raging rapids.
Over four decades ago, Ontario realized the importance of tourism and began to make huge investments to bring infrastructure and retail. The US, on the other hand, was too focused on its hydropower and manufacturing to focus on tourism.
Here Nikola Tesla harnessed the power of Niagara Falls and started the electrification of the world.
Though the Falls reside mostly in the US, it is Canada that provides a commanding view of Horseshoe Falls that is arguably more complete and stunning.
Once you stroll over the Rainbow Bridge into Canada, one must continue a mile along the shoreline to the Horseshoe Falls offering a great vantage point of both the U.S. and Canada.
When visiting the U.S. side, make sure you visit Terrapin Point. It’s a long walk on Luna Island but the panoramic view of Horseshoe Fall and Ontario is just breathtaking.
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Niagara Falls, NY
There are few things in North America that top the grandeur of the Falls. You can stand there for hours in absolute amazement and never get bored. The falls are so powerful and never-ending. And each time, there’s something magically different.
Meanwhile, you get a kick out of seeing tourists on the Maid of the Mist getting tossed around soaked by the potent falls like a battered boat been slammed by a Nor’easter.
And even at 200 feet up, you feel the strength of 75,000 gallons per second smashing the rocks below, creating a plume of mist that rises like a hot-air balloon, magical and refreshing.
Many Canadians and Americans alike prefer to view the Falls from Canada and there is a better selection of restaurants and amenities there. Many pass by shuttered storefronts and struggling stores on their way to Canada where a spinning Ferris wheel, glowing arcade lights, festive carnival rides, and yes, even a tribal casino beckons. There are clearly two chasms between the two and it’s not just one that is formed by rushing water.
Some say you have to visit Niagara in the winter when the icy cascade creates a winter spectacular. The best views by far are at night when the falls and drifting mist are lit up in a rainbow of colors.
Many businesses along with a mall have closed on the US side but things will be changing soon. Politics have finally lined up and the US has finally realized that it’s time to invest in tourism.
The US industries are long gone and the state now has to figure out how to keep tourists this side of the Niagara.
There are many taller falls than Niagara. The Angel Falls in Venezuela is the worlds highest and is over 20 times taller. But what makes Niagara Falls so impressive is the amount of water – over 3,000 tons flowing per second.
And it’s the attraction of the rushing water that lures dozens to jump over every year, either to die early or to live in infamy.
Although I didn’t succumb to this mystical trance, the massive cloud of mist floating up in the air felt refreshing as it evaporated gently on my skin. I longed for the refreshing feeling of jumping into the lake – not for the thrill, but for the feel.
And as the roaring waters crashed onto the rocks below, tons of negative ions were produced resulting in a dose of serotonin and quantum lows of positive energy. it helps improve your immune function, normalize breathing rates, decrease blood pressure, and lower stress levels.
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Terrapin Point, US
After spending a few days at Niagara Falls, I yearned to immerse myself in the cool, crisp waters of Lake Erie. Where can I make a splash? Nearby Buffalo Harbor State Park with lots of green space for biking and walking was a viable option.
I decided on Gallagher Beach which is adjacent to the park. While there is no soft sand, the beach boasts a nice lagoon protected by a seawall. It’s a great spot to go boating, and on this particularly windy day, there were lots of windsurfers and a few on wind foils zigzagging along the shoreline.
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Gallagher Beach, Lake Erie
Due to potential toxins in the water, you’re not allowed to swim. But that didn’t stop this wandering explorer from going knee-deep. With the high winds (20+ knots), any toxins in the lake would sure to be dissipated. I didn’t see any algal blooms, but if there were, the high winds would spread the toxins airborne.
Where I should have gone instead was Woodlawn Beach on the easternmost part of Lake Erie next to the defunct Bethlehem Steel Plant. It’s a one-mile-long natural sand beach that is popular with swimmers and sunbathers.
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It’s my first time in Buffalo City, and my ole Navy Shipmate and bulwark Public Affairs maestro suggested that I visit his old stomping grounds.
Alan Goldstein: “if you can, stop and visit Frank and Teressa’s Anchor Bar. The restaurant was established in 1935. On March 4th, 1964, Dominic Bellissimo was tending bar at the restaurant, when, late that evening, a group of Dominic’s friends arrived at the bar with ravenous appetites. Dominic asked his mother, Teressa, to prepare something for his friends to eat. Teressa deep-fried some chicken wings and covered them in Frank’s Red Hot hot sauce and butter. Chicken wings were previously used for soup or thrown away. Teressa served them with blue cheese dip as hors d’oeuvres at the bar. They were initially offered for free. I was stationed across the street in 1970.”
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JO3 Al Goldstein as a DJ at WBNY-FM in Buffalo while stationed at NRD Buffalo, Circa 1970
When Alan Goldstein suggests something, I stop and listen. After all, a solid recommendation from Al is as rare as the Bills winning the Superbowl.
So I drove full speed ahead to Frank & Terressa’s and laid anchor there. Once alongside, I was immediately captivated by the decor – wall upon the wall – pictures of celebrities past and present who have visited over the years and who may return at a moment’s notice. Actors, Politicians, Military Greats; historical news clippings chronicling the significant milestones since the turn of time.
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Anchor Bar, Buffalo NY
All around me were vintage motorcycles on display, and I knew I had docked in the right place.
Forget Buffalo Wild Wings – contrary to what you may have been told, Teressa Bellissimo invented the “original” Buffalo chicken wing (by accident). I ordered 20 traditional with their signature hot sauce. It came splashed with a handful of celery sticks and creamy blue cheese dip. It was slightly deep-fried and crispy – the way I like it.
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Buffalo Chicken Wings @ the Anchor Bar
After my sumptuous plate of Buffalo’s best, washed down with their handcrafted IPA, I was satiated and thankful to Al for his solid recommendation.
So my mission is completed. I visited the spot where the chicken wing was born – 55 years ago – and my ole Navy friend, Al Goldstein, gave me a kickin’ suggestion that rocks to this day.
A lot of people may not know this, but Buffalo has a Navy. The legendary The Sullivans is docked here alongside the USS Little Rock and SS Croaker. And right behind the armada is a lively galley adorned with Naval memorabilia boasting a large pier-side patio that resembles a forecastle of a Navy destroyer.
Owners Mike Shatzel and Jason Davidson commissioned the Liberty Hound, this canal-side restaurant here nearly a decade ago. Prior to that, the area was mostly sand and gravel. The Navy ships arrived in 1979 but didn’t bring along much development. The waterfront remained an industrial wasteland for over 30 years until liberty came calling. Today, the Naval & Military Park is the largest inland Naval park in the US.
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Burger & Fries aboard the Liberty Hound
The name Liberty hound refers to the Sailor(s) who are always one of the first to leave the ship when liberty is called. They are on a mission to patronize the local taverns and they yearn to enjoy every last minute ashore before the ships return to the sea. Often they stumble back across the brow minutes before liberty expires. If these ships returned to life, you would certainly see their crew enjoying a last drink here.
I glanced over at a couple enjoying shrimp and crab tostadas with a glass of rosé.
“Nice day today isn’t it. How’s the food?”
“Amazing, these tostadas are loaded with crab and the shrimp are quite large. The truffle fries are distinctly earthy.”
“Perfect setting, too isn’t it?”
“Yes, love the Navy fleet. Our favorite is The Sullivans.”
“Right on. What an inspirational story of the five brothers who sacrificed so much for our freedom.”
“Yes indeed. Too bad the ship is currently in danger of sinking.”
“No way, I did notice she’s listing a bit to port.”
“Yeah, the Naval Park is using pumps to remove water continuously, but they are struggling to keep up. They need to raise $100,000 for emergency hull repairs.”
“My goodness, I’ll be happy to donate, and I’ll spread the word to all my fellow shipmates.”
Had a nice chat with the newlywed couple. And I enjoyed my steel beach burger on the canal-side pier alongside the flotilla To wash down my galley chow, I swigged down a Thin Man porter – dark and bold. Next, I ordered a Liberty Lady (rum, lime juice, and soda atop muddled mint and berries ) – was lights out before Taps was called.
Capping my week in Niagara and Buffalo, I was glad to see an illustrious welcome party and mariners and landlubbers swapping scuttlebutt on the open pier. Spending a week here was not enough. There were things left untouched. I definitely will be back to experience the thrill of the Maid of the Mist and to relish more of the cuisine.