Family on a roll on Erie Canal trek

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When it comes to quality time with his children, Steve Snyder is on a roll.

On June 9, the Pleasant Hills man and his son Gabriel, 9, and daughters Elizabeth, 8, and Belle, 6, drove 81/2 hours to Albany, N.Y., to begin cycling the roughly 400-mile route of the Erie Canal canalway trail. A popular ride for cyclists, it crosses New York following the route of the canal from Lake Erie in Buffalo to the Hudson River in Albany.

The canal, opened in 1825, and expanded several times, linked the Great Lakes to the west with a path to the sea, crossing a distance of about 363 miles with a trench that was 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide. Portions of the canal are still in use today.

The Snyders covered 40 miles per day of relatively flat surface, about two-thirds of which was paved with asphalt or compacted stone dust on the trail, the rest on public roadways with roughly 7-foot shoulders.

"We had more people telling us we would not make it than we had last year," Gabriel said comparing it with their 2011, nine-day Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., an excursion of 366 miles.

On the 11-day journey earlier this month, the family paused to read historic placards, stopped in towns to chat with residents, visited zoos, rode go-carts, swam and took a boat cruise on the Erie Canal.

"I wanted to do things to make it interesting for the kids. It's easy to give up," Mr. Snyder, 36, said.

The idea for the ride took root two years ago when Gabriel's Cub Scout Pack 562 of Pleasant Hills Community Presbyterian Church learned about long-distance biking, including the route linking Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.

Gabriel would not stop talking about it.

Mr Snyder agreed to take time off work as an accountant at Alcoa and bike with him to the nation's capitol if Gabriel could ride 35 miles at one time.

His daughters also joined them.

The youngsters are all students at McClellan Elementary School in West Jefferson Hills School District.

Mr. Snyder's wife, Christie, who has not ridden a bike in years and does not like to camp, opted to man the home front.

"It is something they will remember the rest of their lives," she said of time spent biking with their father.

"I enjoy spending time with my kids, keeping them active, and helping them learn while having fun.

"It's just me and the kids," Mr. Snyder said.

To train for their latest trek, the Snyders rode their 21-speed bikes -- a single-speed bike for Belle -- on local trails, camping overnight.

The youngsters set off on the Erie trail with their belongings in small bags on their handlebars, and the rest in saddle bags with their father.

Mr. Snyder, who was in a medical unit in the Navy Reserves, also carried a first aid kit and cell phone.

He estimated the cost of the trip at $2,000 to $3,000, as most nights were spent in hotels after a camping tent was damaged beyond repair.

Besides scenic surroundings, the family enjoyed the unscripted memorable moments, such as Belle singing aloud to herself when she thought no one was listening, and the passels of geese on the trail who hissed if one got too close.

The biggest challenge, Mr. Snyder said, was mental, which was why he varied activities.

"You have to really want to do it or you will lose interest for ten days," he said.

After reaching Buffalo, the Snyders continued biking to Niagara Falls in Canada as the youngsters wanted to pedal across the border.

Mrs. Snyder and her parents met them there for sightseeing. Mrs. Snyder returned with the bikes while the children and their father rode an Amtrak train to Albany to retrieve their truck. They got home on June 19.

For Gabriel, a favorite part of the trip was seeing Horseshoe Falls in Ontario. His sisters recalled the Syracuse zoo and riding go-carts.

This week, they will present the American Heart Association, White Oak Animal Safe Haven and Pleasant Hills Library with checks for $100 they raised through family members' donations before the trip.

As for next summer's family outing, the sky is the limit.

"I want to do something of the same caliber that will be fun but physically demanding." Mr. Snyder said. "I like to push the kids so they believe in themselves, but not too hard."


Margie Smykla, freelance writer:


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