Photo: Glenn Charles

By Conor Mihell

Many years ago, engineers worked with nature to conceive a way to get to New York City by water. This spring, self-propelled adventure vagrant Glenn Charles and Richard Harpham are giving people a closer glimpse of old, quaint New York along the historic waterway, which ties the Buffalo River and Erie Canal to the Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean at the Statue of Liberty.

For three weeks, Charles and Harpham are occupying the stern seats of a pair of Nigel Dennis Triton tandem sea kayaks, reserving the bows for lucky locals and media personalities, and traveling from Buffalo to New York City. Since they got underway on May 1, the so-called Spare Seat Expedition has covered 190 miles. We caught up with Charles on an off-day on Sylvan Lake, near the Erie Canal's midway point.

Photo: Glenn Charles Can you start by telling me how the Spare Seat works?
Glenn Charles: In one of the boats we have a pretty set schedule of VIP-type people, like members of the media and contest winners. With the other boat, we're just looking for people as we go along the way. There's a phone number people can call and our logistic guy will arrange to get them in the boat.

So who have you paddled with so far?
We've had 15 to 20 people. Some of it is completely random. On our first day off we toured the Three Brothers Winery in Geneva, N.Y., and found out that the owner's wife was a rower. We figured we should get her in a kayak so she could actually see where she's going [laughs]. We had another guy, Rick, who joined us in his cowboy hat and other apparel for a full day of paddling. That's really been our goal, to treat this as a social experiment.

What do you mean?
We just want to take two kayaks and follow this historic waterway and meet as many people as we can along the way. It's the best way to get a sense for the area. We've met third-generation lock-keepers and business owners with deep roots. The social aspect has been amazing.

Photo: Glenn Charles

Most of your previous trips have been solo. What's it like to be in such a social setting?
It's been a challenge but I'm really enjoying the social aspect. We need to meet and interact with people yet we're following an aggressive schedule. Still, we're waking up each day with smiles on our faces and ending the day the same way. I've never gained weight on an expedition before … we're getting fed so much food it's crazy.

What type of mileage have you been doing?
We're averaging 35 miles per day. If it were just Rich and I it would be easy, but since we have new paddlers in the boats the days have been long. We're starting at seven in the morning and finishing around seven at night. What are your other goals with the Spare Seat?
We want to highlight this amazing waterway that's located right in the backyard of so many people. It's a green classroom and a green gym, but it has sort of been forgotten. The other thing we see is that innovative tourism—things like bike trails and whitewater parks—has the potential to bring back some hope to these small villages and towns. We want to see if we can travel this waterway and collect a series of independent stories as we go. We're shooting video and stills and interviewing people. In the end, I think we're going to have a great collective story to tell.

What are the small towns along the Erie Canal like?
There's a lot of pride and history. Many of these villages are thriving because they are villages … they have town centers and they have community. I think in America that's something we've lost. These are great windows into how society can be.

How does this all fit into your aspirations and ideals of self-propelled travel?
Doing this by car wouldn't work. The fact that we're coming through by kayak really resonates with people and that alone is getting my message across. There still is an elegance and simplicity to solo travel, but this is a different approach and it's something special. For me, the two styles of travel represent the yin and the yang.