For years while living out West, I found myself sniffing out bodies of water, squealing in delight if I spied a lake in the distance or a sparkle of blue at the end of a street. On trips to any coastal city I invariably indulged in a ritual of chucking shoes and peeling off stockings to step into the ocean, often before getting down to whatever business had brought me there.
I learned to row in Colorado, where the only available body of water was a reservoir nearly an hour drive from home, available to rowers from 4:30-6:30--AM. In retrospect, it was an act of desperation, a response to a deep and abiding need to be on or near the water born, I believe, from a childhood spent on the shores of a Great Lake.
Mind you, when I was growing up in Buffalo, you had to go to Canada to swim in Lake Erie. The beaches on the American side were health hazards, closed to swimmers. The Buffalo River was still sludge-filled and filthy. I never learned to swim and my only memories of boating are a few perilous afternoons when I was very young on the Niagara River aboard a "cabin cruiser" owned by friends of my parents. I suspect there was more beer on board than fuel.
Yet, for me there is something magical about being on the water. I learned to sail as soon as I landed back in Buffalo, and loved working the jib on Wednesday Night Regattas out of Erie Basin Marina. The view from on board fed my desire to "learn Buffalo," providing a whole new perspective on the city. The iconic role of the Skyway on Buffalo's skyline became immeditaely clear--without it, for all of its faults, you might as well be looking at a city in Michigan or Ohio. The water intake house fascinated me. Just floating between two great nations is pretty fantastic.
But other than what I taught myself, there were few ways to actually learn about Buffalo from offshore. I fantasized on getting ahold of a few surplus WWII amphibious vehicles and starting an onshore-offshore "Water Buffalo" tour operation like the Ducks Boats in Boston or the Hopper Tours (frogs!) in Halifax. I spent hours with the Hopper tour operation owner in 2007, quizzing him on the business model. But that was before Canalside, before the rebirth of the Buffalo River, before Buffalo took back its waterways and became a waterfront city once again. Now we're the "other New York shore."
One of the oldest ways to take an actual guided tour of Buffalo from the water with a trained, informed docent is on an Historic Buffalo River Tour. These were launched in 1985--32 years ago!--by the Industrial Heritage Committee. These well-crafted, informative and accurate two-hour tours (12:30-2:30pm) are offered aboard the Miss Buffalo, and there are only two left this season: on Sunday August 20 and September 4. Yes, Labor Day.
The newest tour from offshore may be the History Cruise by Niagara River Cruises which just re-started ferry service between Grand Island and Tonawanda this month after an 80 year lapse. The History Cruises are narrated by a docent from the Historical Society and are offered on the second Thursday of the month, departing from the North Tonawanda Dock on Sweeney at 6:00pm. That's tonight (August 10) with a second, and possibly last chance on Thursday, September 14.
While Buffalo Harbor Cruises offer daily "tours" on the Miss Buffalos (there are several) including Sunset cruises, and some narrated sightseeing cruises (some with lunch!), if you want the most informative "tour" experience, I strongly recommend the data-packed, historically accurate, architecturally-rich two-hour tours with Dennis Galucki of C-SAAHN (Center for the Study of Art, Architecture, History and Nature) at the microphone. These take place Wednesdays at 3:00pm on the Miss Buffalo II. I personally dislike the noise and emissions of the motor on the Miss Buffalos, but these Wednesday tours are well worth these minor inconveniences. There are only three opportunities left this season: August 16, 23, 30.
One of my favorite ways to ride the waves? The Spirit of Buffalo, hands down. You can't miss it. This 73-foot restored beauty is the only square rigged, topsail schooner sailing out of the Historic Buffalo Harbor. It's a labor of love for Kathy and Ric Hilliman who were first up at the dock when Canalside began to emerge. The Spirit of Buffalo offers day and evening sails, sunset sails, craft brew cruises, wine in the wind sails, children's pirate adventures and educational excursions. There have even been summer programs for disadvantaged youth aboard this boat. Any historic information offered about Buffalo by the crew on these sails has been taught to them by the Hillimans, diehard Buffalo fanatics. And it is certainly one of the quietest, most tranquil ways to contemplate the Queen City.
Also quiet and very informative are Explore Buffalo's Kayak Tours, offered in partnership with Elevator Alley Kayak. These are led by expert docents and come in four Buffalo River flavors: Elevator Alley Kayak Tour, Sunset Elevator Alley Kayak Tour, Friday Fireworks Kayak Tour and Concrete Central Kayak Tour. The final Explore Buffalo tour aboard the Miss Buffalo is the Disasters of Buffalo Harbor Tour on September 17. Sounds like a doozy.
There are lots of other "water tours" of Buffalo these days, of course. Most look to be more fun than informative.
The most fun of all may be the new Buffalo Tiki Tours--yes, on floating tiki huts! These 60-minute rides are limited to 6 people, depart from Riverworks and seem particularly appropriate for music and adult beverages. No docent or historical information provided.
The Cycle Boat Tours also look very cool. These 90-minute "tours" on pedal-powered pontoon boats start at the Templeton Landing Restaurant, where you are encouraged to enjoy food and beverages on the patio. While you will cycle past the outer harbor, the light house, the naval park, Canalside, grain silos and Riverworks, you will probably be listening to music, not a trained docent explaining the fascinating history of the lighthouse, built in 1833. There are no stops (and no potty).
The Buffalo River History Tours depart from Riverworks. They offer Silo City tours which may be wonderful (no personal experience to rely on here), but Silo tours ay be better done by land. Consider Explore Buffalo's Grounded or Vertical Silo City tours for a guaranteed in depth understanding of the towering silos and their role in making Buffalo a trans-shipment hub more than a century ago. The Buffalo River History's Canalside Cruises are not narrated, but "a tour guide is available to answer any questions."
Then there is the option of "self-guided tours" aboard the many kayaks, waterbikes, stand-up paddleboards, all available for rent at Canalside and at RiverWorks, not to mention sailboats, available through both Sail Buffalo and 7 Seas Sailing, which both offer lessons and camps. So many boats, so much water, so little time.
However you choose to get out on the water, be sure to get out there ASAP. The fine weather lasts well into September, and with a little luck, even October. But many of the informative water-borne tours with real docents will pull up anchor at the end of August.