Friday, August 30, 1996

Erie Canal Trip - August 1996

Low Bridge, Everybody Down-Low Bridge for we're comin' to a town..... This old melody haunted us throughout the 120 miles and 22 locks we did this summer on the "Erie Canal". During last year's trip to Lake Ontario we passed over the Erie canal several times and once stopped in the town of Lockport and gazed down the canal as far as we could see. Often, one trailerable trip leads to another and so we found ourselves driving up Interstate 81 again , stopping at a nice roadside rest stop just inside New York State for some previously prepared barbecued chicken. When the white dots began to blur I pulled off the road in some burg with a level firehouse parking lot and hoped for no fires. Turned out to be the devil's triangle with the interstate and railroads competing . Why I drive 400 miles and won't drive 1 more mile to get away from the highway... anyway the early AM start got us to Lake Oneida ( just east of Syracuse) @

Launching and prepping the boat was a snap because we LEFT THE MAST HOME!

That's right! No Mast! Strictly powerboatin'. To celebrate we blasted into Lake Oneida and spent the time we normally would have spent rigging the mast water-skiing and knee boarding. The four of us, Joyce, Daughter Janet ( recently graduated from James Madison College and more recently unemployed) son Steven (17) had a great start on the annual family boat trip with a nice swim in the cool water, before gassing up and heading for our first lock.

As most of you know, the Erie Canal was completed in 1825 and heavily used by commercial traffic right from the start. It was enormously successful and spawned a frenzy of largely ill conceived canals throughout the East Coast. Rebuilt and enlarged several times, the most recent effort was completed in 1925 and follows the path of the Mohawk River. The dams and hydroelectric plants are built alongside the canal locks and serve to control flooding in the area. The major reason the canal lost popularity is winter. It freezes and is closed for five months. The locks varied from 6' to 44' in depth.

So much for the history lesson.

At the first lock we were surprised by how fast we dropped, about 5' per minute. Then the Zebra mussels started squirting water and we realized the whole lock wall was covered with the tiny mollusks. We needed big fenders, so I brought the ones I used on the 65' in the Panama canal. The locks had lines dangling along the walls. Holding onto the lines caused slimy fingers so we learned to loop our docklines around the heavy lock line and they "self-tended" down very well. The locks went very smoothly, the lock tenders called ahead to alert the next lock and they were usually ready with very little waiting. There was no hurry, however, and we enjoyed the waits, talking with the lock tenders and various locals and tourists attracted to the locks. We met with an envious eye or two as we glided along. Cruising permits are $15/2 days, and there are many anchorage's, marinas, towns etc. to stop at.

Later while cruising along I was astounded to see a couple of small planes in a little creek off the canal. We investigated and found two pontoon planes mounted on lifts. Suddenly another plane turned into the creek. We hadn't heard them land! Trapped! The pilot was forced to shut off his engine and we watched as the breeze blew him gently into the weeds across the creek. He was none too happy . We tried to salvage the situation by tossing him a line and pulling the plane over to the dock, where his passenger disembarked. We pointed him back towards the canal and off he flew!

The scenery along the canal was pleasant if somewhat unvaried, and the locks and dams were interesting. Gassing up again, we saw a group of people starring at something which turned out to be a Bull Snake swallowing a large fish. ( After 40 miles of canal it seemed like a big deal!) Rounding a bend later on, we came upon a group of canoeists paddling furiously in a race. The town of Little Falls was celebrating " Canal Days" with a parade, bands and other events. We tied up to the town dock and joined the festivities.

Up at 6 and down to the next lock at 7, we passed sheer rock cliffs that gave the area a mountainous feel. The town of St. Johnsville had a neat restaurant made from an old drugstore that still had much of the 18th century charm. The smaller towns along the canal were quite charming but water access to the larger cities like Utica and Schenectedy was difficult due to the extreme commercial use of the waterfront Miles and locks later we stopped at a canalside park, with old segments of the original canal with dual east and west locks to speed up passage. The locks looked tiny, just 20 by 40'.

Thanks to a tip from a lock tender, we stopped at the Glen Sanders Mansion (1658) in Scotia. Once a beautiful old home, it had been used as a restaurant for many years. Legend had it that nicks in the banister came from Mohawk Indian raiders chasing Mrs. Sanders up the stairs. We had the best meal of the trip, a truly bountiful ( and expensive) feast. We spent the night tied to their small, decorative dock extending from the landscaped garden area, a beautiful spot .

Back to the next lock at 7am again, we entered a wider area of the Mohawk and with about 8 miles to the next lock, Steve suggested knee boarding. The flat calm water was warm and perfect for skimming and wave jumping! I only felt guilty once for leaving the mast behind, during a windy spell the previous day with 6.5 mile stretch downwind. It was probably the only time we could have sailed, but the hassle of living with the mast across the boat for days just didn't seem worth it. Suddenly it was 6,5,4,3,2 locks in quick succession, a drop of 150' in less than a mile and we were at Watertown, the eastern terminus of the canal. As we cleared the last lock, the rain intensified to a downpour and it was a soggy foursome that took refuge at the town "Greasy Spoon", where the grease was as thick as the cigarette smoke. Breakfast was tasty, however, with the exception of the homefries, which were deadly.

Proceeding onto the Hudson river we passed through lock #1 and on to Troy, which had an inviting looking town dock, but at $10.00/hr not THAT inviting. We tied along the sea wall under the deck of a restaurant (try THAT with a mast!) and swung up for a stroll around town. Talk about culture shock! We just finished 3 bucolic days and walked right into an anti-abortion march, and union strikers on the next block. Troy did have a recently completed waterfront park, however, and merited more time than we gave it. Pushing on down the river past Albany ( we had no choice but to pass as they had no docking anywhere) to Castleton on the Hudson and the Castleton Boat Club, our last stop. The friendly people were quite helpful and we made arrangements to rent a car to pick up the van back at Lake Oneida. The swap took about half the next day and we got back in time for a last knee boarding session before loading up and driving nonstop home.

The five days went too quickly, and there is still all the Lake Champlain canal all the way to Montreal, Canada, or West from Lake Oneida to Lake Erie, then north on the wellyn canal to Lake Ontario and East to Oswego then south back to lake Oneida ( ~400 mi.). Canal cruising is restful and easy, with little navigation required. We found charts difficult to obtain locally, and were lucky enough to have a set loaned to us by a good Samaritan at the marina we launched at. Most libraries have books on the Erie Canal, and I would recommend reading one before doing it, to give you the historic background and increase your appreciation of the monumental task the canal represented. 10 times longer than the Panama canal, the Erie was completed in less than one third the time, and had the longest aqueducts ever used (miles of the canal were above the land and valleys, with the boats and towpath floating along up to 100' feet off the ground) It was an unusual and fun trip, but the next trip I'm Taking my MAST!

Happy Sailing from Cap't Jim and Family