Niagara-on-the-Lake

    A relaxing drive along the west side of the Niagara River stands in striking contrast to a race along the expressways of the east. The Canadians have been fortunate in their ability to preserve natural areas along our boundary river and most of their thirty mile road passes through parks with continuing river vistas.

    I drive that road often in winter and spring to observe the ducks and gulls that frequent this area. In doing so I have often noticed hikers and bicyclers along the parallel trail that stretches from Queenston to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Many times I thought that I would like to bike that trail.

    Finally a few days ago Bruce Miller and I did exactly that. We loaded our bikes on my car rack, drove over the Lewiston Bridge and down the escarpment past the Brock Memorial into Queenston. There we obtained permission from a church sexton to park in their lot. He cheerfully told us, "We have no funerals scheduled today."

    For a short distance we rode along the highway, but just beyond the village of Queenston the trail leaves the road and meanders through lovely glades of old oaks and maples. There are many other tree varieties as well and the ride is through a horticultural garden. Credit for this goes to the Niagara Parks Commission and in particular to staff and students of the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens and School of Horticulture located a few miles upstream.

    There is one striking difference here from most stateside parklands. Although there are some broad manicured lawns, there are also sections where thick vegetation reaches right to the trail edge. Because we worry about attacks by unsavory characters who could lurk in undergrowth, we clear much vegetation from our parks, thus preventing this explosion of wildflowers.

    The easy and mostly level eight mile ride to Niagara-on-the Lake took us about an hour and brought us into town near noon. We were amazed at the activity we found. On the Tuesday we were there the downtown sidewalks were crowded with visitors, many of whom we assumed were window-shopping before attending one of the Shaw Festival matinees.

    We pedaled down to the park at the Lake Ontario end of the Niagara River from which we watched dozens of sailboats, the white of their sails and the fleecy clouds in bright contrast to the blue of the water and sky. Across the river stands Fort Niagara, its provenance contradicted by the modern coast guard station at its base.

    On our return trip we stopped at the Reif Estate Winery where our host Lyna McDonough responded to my questions about bird and insect attacks on their grape fields -- they are problems -- while she served us each a glass of icewine, a specialty of this region.

    To make icewine the vintners leave some Vidal and Riesling grapes on the vine until they freeze solid usually well after the normal September to October harvest. These grape "marbles" are then picked and pressed while still frozen. Most of the water that makes up four-fifths of the grape is left behind and a highly concentrated, acidic but honey-sweet juice is drained off.

    In 1794 frugal Germans accidentally discovered what they call Eiswein after an early frost hit their vineyards. Faced with a complete crop loss they pressed their grapes anyway and produced this new wine. But mild European winters seldom replicate the condition necessary to this harvest -- temperatures below 18 degrees Fahrenheit. As we well know, this region provides that ingredient and each year Niagara Frontier wineries win international gold medals for their icewines.

    The refreshments topped off a delightful outing.