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Driving the St. Lawrence Seaway

With two young children and a mortgage, I rarely feel Gatsbyesque. But a jazzy mood swept over me as the reproduction 1929 mahogany Hacker Craft pulled away from the dock in Clayton, New York, and sported among the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River. The hand at the wheel of the sleek rumrunner belonged to Bill Danforth, executive director of Clayton's wonderful Antique Boat Museum. Danforth tooted the horn to hail a rusty tramp steamer lumbering downriver in the shipping lane of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a series of waterways, locks, and channels that provides oceangoing vessels with access to the Great Lakes and the heart of the continent. After circling Calumet Island, a granite outcrop capped with an 1890's shingled estate, we cruised back to the museum dock, where I reluctantly surrendered my Roaring Twenties fantasies.

The boat museum was one of my favorite stops on the Seaway Trail, a 454-mile byway along the Pennsylvania shore of Lake Erie and the New York shore of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. Sugar maples flank much of the route, so I planned my trip for late October to enjoy leaf peeping far from the congestion of New England. The scattered splashes of intense fall color turned out to be less compelling than did rummaging through forgotten towns in the attic of the Empire State. Having driven the entire trail, I recommend exploring the most scenic section, from Niagara Falls to Massena, on a four-day trip.

Water is the trail's unifying theme, and nowhere is the pulverized, atomized version of H2O more impressive than at ground zero of North American tourism: Niagara Falls. As a first-timer to the area, I avoided mushroom-shaped viewing towers, wax museums, and other kitsch, and headed for the Maid of the Mist. Sheathed against the spray in what looked like a blue dry-cleaning bag with a hood, I manned the decks with similarly clad tourists from around the world as the Maid chugged past the rubbled American Falls and wispy Bridal Veil Falls to the base of one of the Horseshoe Falls. This thundering sheet of white water may be the most impressive natural wonder I've ever encountered.

Farther along the trail, north of Lewiston, the two-lane Lower River Road (Route 18F) winds along the shore beneath sugar maples, past cottages, boathouses, and docks. Across the river in Canada, Greek Revival mansions gleamed white in scarlet-and-yellow surroundings.

I checked into Cameo Manor North, an English-style country house on the outskirts of Youngstown village. My four-poster mahogany bed was covered with a thick down quilt. Dinner was in Youngstown's humble Olde Fort Inn, where I eavesdropped shamelessly at the bar on a couple discussing a pickup truck and a parole violation. Before I could sort out the story line, I was whisked away to my table and a dinner of pot roast with carrots, potatoes, and onions— delicious on a chilly autumn night.

Heading east along the lakeshore, I took the arrow-straight route through pastures, cornfields, and orchards. Lunch spots are scarce, but four miles past Kuckville you can fortify yourself with a shrimp-and-avocado sandwich at Veronica's Tea Room, in an 1888 Victorian farmhouse. Back on the shore, the trail runs through Rochester's leafy suburbs, loops inland around Irondequoit Bay, then heads east. Beyond the gated estates in prosperous bedroom communities, the landscape turns pastoral again with stubbled cornfields and orchards where apple trees heavy with fruit— red, green, and gold— extend from the road to the lake.

My second stopover was at the Carriage House Inn, on four lakeside acres in tiny Sodus Point, a resort community founded in 1794. Bill Murray had a good time here once, judging by a dining room photo of the grinning comedian and the inn's owner. I did, too, but next time I'd swap my room in the carriage house for the main house's larger, blue-themed No. 4, with its maple headboards and gingham comforters. I had dinner a few miles away at the Steger Haus, outlined by pin lights shining like beacons in the dark farmland surrounding it. Portion control be damned! Two enormous breaded pork chops came with a side trough of garlic noodles.

The following morning I strolled across the inn's lawn to the 1871 Sodus Point Lighthouse, whose model ships and displays relate to the Battle of Sodus Point in the War of 1812. Climbing the metal steps to the top, I could see the chalky Chimney Bluffs to the east.

South of Sodus Point, I detoured onto Red Mill Road. At Alasa Farms, originally a Shaker property that has been in the Strong family for 75 years, you can visit the 1826 barn and 1833 farmhouse, and go on a hayride. I especially liked the do-it-yourself apple orchard, where I plucked half a peck of Crispins, Empires, and Cortlands.

Woodland colors became more intense toward Sackets Harbor. The purple of Japanese maples and green of pines were added to amber oaks, scarlet maples, and yellow birch. My day's drive ended at Sackets Harbor, probably the loveliest town on the trail. I stayed in a spacious but standardized room at the waterfront Ontario Place Hotel, once a packing plant, and ate well on salmon and sirloin at the Sackets Harbor Brewing Co., next door in a restored train station.

In the morning I took the trail north of Sackets Harbor, following the mighty St. Lawrence River as it flows out of Lake Ontario, beginning an 800-mile journey to the Atlantic. Huge freighters glide along the shipping channel of the St. Lawrence Seaway as it weaves through the Thousand Islands, quilled with pines and hardwoods. Ocean going behemoths pass mere yards from cottages, docks, and boathouses on granite outcrops. On larger islands, improbable mansions, moated by the river itself, rise above the trees.

In Cape Vincent, I drove through a corridor of maples fronting grand old houses out to the Tibbetts Point Lighthouse. My timing was good: I arrived just as a Great Lakes freighter headed into Lake Ontario.

The easygoing gentility of Clayton, about 15 miles northeast, comes from its being an affluent resort for more than a century. In the late 1800's the Thousand Islands became known as the "playground of millionaires," rivaling Newport and Bar Harbor. Take time to stroll the streets lined with 19th- and early-20th-century buildings. The Antique Boat Museum, a reminder of the village's glory days, has the continent's largest collection of wooden vessels— from a 25-passenger mahogany Venetian water taxi to a St. Lawrence skiff.

Downriver in Alexandria Bay, boats shuttle visitors out to 120-room Boldt Castle— with a great hall, a library, and a ballroom— on a heart-shaped island about a quarter-mile offshore. George Boldt, a German-born hotel magnate and real-estate operator, envisioned a Rhineland castle as a valentine for his wife, Louise. In 1904, after Louise's unexpected death, the millionaire abandoned the project.

Beyond Alexandria Bay lay stretches of golden marsh, amber poplars, and crimson sumacs, with marinas and cottages at nearly every inlet. Northeast of Chippewa Bay, a surprise awaits in the town of Ogdensburg: the only museum dedicated to the bronzes, oils, watercolors, and pen-and-ink drawings of that quintessential Western artist, Frederic Remington. (He spent his youth here, and Ogdensburg claims him as its own.) The museum is in the white brick house of Remington's boyhood pal, George Hall. Something about all those broncos made me ravenous, so I headed for Sholette's Steak & Ale, which has half a century's experience dishing out chops and cheese steaks.

At one point between Ogdensburg and Massena, the seaway produced a surreal juxtaposition: Holsteins grazed in a pasture backed by woodlands that screened the water while the huge, disembodied funnel of an unseen freighter glided behind the treetops, appearing to sail along on dry land.

Just east of Massena, the trail ends at a seaway shipping channel bookended by a pair of locks that enable deepwater ships to bypass a hydroelectric dam. The power plant's visitors' center has a 116-foot-high observation deck, hands-on displays about electricity, and huge Thomas Hart Benton murals depicting Jacques Cartier's exploration of the St. Lawrence River valley.

It's even more fun, though, to watch the Eisenhower Lock on the shipping channel in action. Freighters the length of two football fields ease into a narrow basin with about two feet of clearance on either side. Once the lock's massive doors close, water lifts or lowers the vessels 45 feet, enabling the world's ships to continue on a voyage east to the Atlantic or west to the tip of Lake Superior. Thanks to the Seaway Trail, I'd seen the river at work and at play while exploring New York State's little-known northern shoreline.

DAVID DUNBAR is the executive editor of Mountain Sports & Living.

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