They said it couldn’t be done. The building of the Erie-Champlain Canal was considered impossible in its time. The 363-mile Erie Canal was opened in 1825 and lauded as one of the greatest feats of engineering ever.
By connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes, it opened the North and West to settlement and created a huge surge in commerce. It changed the face of America. The original canals were widened and deepened in the early 1900’s, and the system now utilizes rivers and lakes, running parallel for the most part, to the original canals, short sections of which have been preserved – other parts now filled in. Here are there we saw vestiges of the Old Erie – a preserved stone lock, remnants of bridges and an aqueduct – silent reminders of two centuries of history.
Cruising quietly in the early morning, we sensed those glorious days of a snail-paced life at four miles and hour, mule-teams pulling packet boats carrying 40-50 people from Albany to Buffalo, and dandy skippers with stovepipe hats. These days nearly all the commercial traffic had been replaced by recreational craft. The locks are all gravity fed, and much of the equipment used to operate them dates back to 1918, and has been meticulously maintained over the years.
“ All hail! To a project to vast and sublime!
A bond that can never be sever’d by time,
Now unites us still closer – all jealousies cease,
And our hearts, like our waters, are mingled in peace.”
-The Meeting of the Waters of the Hudson & Erie – 1825
We started down this historic trail at Waterford, NY, a charming little town. We docked free of charge at the Visitors Centre, right in front of Lock 2, the start of the Waterford flight of 5 locks, which raised us a total of 169 feet from the Hudson River to the Mohawk River, like a staircase. The free docking is just one of the lovely, welcoming features of the Erie Canal. Many towns along the way offer free docking on their municipal docks, and there are also cleats along the canal walls to tie up for free overnight at many of the locks.
In Waterford we walked through town and across a bridge to re-provision at Hannafords, a very nice grocery store that allows cruisers like us take the shopping cart back to the dock and they pick it up later! The Visitors Centre itself is run by volunteers – very helpful and friendly. We paid $10 for 30 amp power (for our 2 night stay) and $5 for a bathroom key, although we chose not to shower in the dark and rather grotty cement showers. The book exchange was pretty good though! We marveled at the tide mark, indicated by a plaque on the Vistors Center, for Tropical Storm Irene which wreaked havoc, causing unprecedented damage to the Erie Canal system in 2011, closing it down to cruisers for a year.
The next day we went to Don and Paul’s, a nearby restaurant, for breakfast. A very popular local diner on a weekend – we waited to be seated and waited to be served and waited for the washroom. But it was worth it – the breakfast was great, and our bill came to $6.10 and we each had two eggs, bacon, toast and coffee! No wonder it was full!
We walked up to the first lock of the Waterford flight to get our canal pass – $50 for a ten-day pass – and to check out what we were up for the next day. We watched another sailboat lock through while we chatted to the friendly lock-keeper. It was drizzly and the wind was blowing the boat around on the wall. The couple on the boat were using their boat hooks to keep the boat off the chamber walls, despite having lots of fenders out. We could see that we would get our daily work-out on the 23 locks of the Erie Canal and 7 locks of the Oswego Canal (connecting Three Rivers and Lake Ontario) which we were to encounter over the next 4 days.
The blue, yellow and white ‘branding’ of the Erie Canal became familiar to us over the next week. The buildings were all neatly whitewashed with blue and yellow trim, and most of the locks were neatly kept and painted. Inside the lock chambers was a different story – some were in good shape, others had very rough and/or dirty walls. Some had fixed pipes or cables to loop our mid-ships mooring lines to and slide up or down, pivoting midship. Others just had weighted lines to pick up at bow and stern. We felt that considering the relatively low cost, they should put plenty of lines on each side – every 6 feet or so…. To help boaters pick up whichever was best depending on the boat size and shape, and how many are sharing the lock-through. Even with our 45 foot boat (with a 58 foot mast on deck), there were times when the lines were spaced too far apart to grab them easily.
The lock-keepers differed too – some were friendly, helpful and efficient, while others, despite being appraised by the last lock of our imminent arrival, were lazy and less-than-helpful, not bothering to do anything at all till we got there, which left us drifting or circling for 15-20 minutes while waiting for them to dump the water, open the gate and give us a green light. We needed gloves for the rough and scummy walls and ropes, and each of us had a boat hook on hand to push off the walls as the water rushed in or out, pinning us against the lock wall or pushing out our bow or stern. Our fenders had a work-out too and will bear the scars of the locks for the rest of their lives as they really took a beating at times.
On the first day we managed 12 locks, including the Waterford Flight where we rose 169 feet through 5 locks in 2.5 hours. We were alone in all the locks for the first 2 days. We felt we had the process down and were pleased with our progress, and the fact that the two of us had managed our extra-length boat and mast through 12 locks in one day. We tied up at 5:00 pm in time to rest and enjoy the evening on the wall west of Lock 12 for the night – a beautiful, serene “picnic spot” near a shady tree….quiet except for trains which passed nearby.
The second day was less successful. We encountered the tallest lock – a 40 foot rise, a lock and dam under construction/repair, and a broken lock where the water inlets on one side were broken, so we were pushed into the lock wall as the water entered. It was all we could do to keep the boat from getting scratched, despite all our fenders. We also experienced delays at several locks, and tried to dock for the night after Lock 18 at a Waterside Café dock, but found there was insufficient depth on the wall for our 5’8” draft. So we pushed on through Lock 19 and tied up to the lock wall just after the lock, as the sun disappeared behind threatening storm clouds. We were able to tie securely, zip up our enclosure and batten the hatches before a tremendous thunderstorm let loose, bearing strong winds, heavy rain and lightning.
The Mohawk River was wooded and pretty, and I enjoyed watching families of ducks and Canada Geese with their babies. We had a couple of very hot, sunny spring days, where we took time between locks to admire lilacs and other spring flowers, as we passed through small towns with big names – Amsterdam, Rome, Utica, and Liverpool. The prettiest one was Little Falls, though we did not stop there either….we admired it from a distance.
Along the wooded stretch just before Three Rivers Junction, I was delighted to see banks of white wild irises in full bloom. However, there was a fair amount of flotsam that we had to watch out for on the river – including huge tree trunks and branches. Some of this accumulated in or near each end of locks so we had to be particularly careful of the “junk” there.
On day 3 we entered Lock 20 behind another sailboat – and discovered it was Martha and Bill on Eagles Wings (from Hamilton, ON). We had met them in Catskills when we un-stepped our mast, and again in Waterford. By the time we reached Oswego, we were great friends. After that we shared the locking through with one or two other boats – including Mad Hatteras, a large Hatteras power boat owned by Dave and Mona, on their way to the Thousand Islands for the summer. By the time we locked though Oswego Lock 8 in a pelting thunderstorm with them, we felt the closeness of shared experiences. They knew Oswego well and so we hooked up with them (and their cute 5 year old grandson) to go out for half-price margaritas and dinner at an excellent nearby Mexican restaurant.
We crossed Lake Oneida under calm, hazy conditions, which was a relief since it can kick up serious chop in strong winds, and we were not willing to test our home-made wooden cradle with our mast tied on in big waves.
My favourite lock was #23 – surrounded by a pretty pine park with picnic tables. We left the Erie Canal shortly after #23 at the Three Rivers Junction and joined the Oneida River and Oswego Canal. We tied up for the night in the village of Phoenix, just before Oswego Lock 1. As soon as we tied up, another thunderstorm hit us.
The free dock at Phoenix, called the Bridge House Brats, is run by high school volunteers – an excellent idea for a community project. It was lovely – a floating dock with picnic tables, all nicely painted, in a park with flowers and unique purple martin ‘apartment’ birdhouses. There was no-one around this early in the season, but apparently the ‘brats’ greet boats in the summer, help them tie up, run errands and serve them coffee and refreshments.
We were very relieved to exit Oswego Lock 8, and happy to be done with locking. How wrong we were. We docked at Oswego Marina where we had arranged to have our mast re-stepped. They could not do us that afternoon but said we would be first in the morning. The next day the winds were blowing 2o+ knots from the north – it was sleeting and freezing cold. They said they could not do us then either. The day after was the same…and Bernie does not work on Sundays…or Saturday afternoon for that matter (when the wind dropped again). They would not even give us a discount off their $2/foot rate at the marina and the facilities were not great.
So we decided to go back up through the last lock and tie up along the wall between locks 7 and 8. Bill and Martha were there on Eagles Wings and reported that they had good wifi. They popped over to the marina for coffee on Tai Chi and, when we decided to move, they ‘crewed’ with us back up through lock 8 to their boat. We were happier there – the sun came out on Sunday and it was very pleasant. We enjoyed the company of Bill and Martha and had a great dinner on their boat.
On Monday May 27th, Memorial Day in the US, we locked through as soon as they opened in the morning, and tied up on the mast crane dock at Oswego Marina. Our mast was finally re-stepped to the strains of “America the Beautiful” being sung by a choir in a town ceremony on the waterfront across the canal. We were able to assist Bill and Martha (who had helped us) and then tightened our stays and put the boom on before moving to Oswego Yacht Club, around the corner, where we were able to get free docking for the night on a reciprocal.
The afternoon was spent busily re-rigging and rewiring the boat – converting her back into a sailboat. We called a halt at dinner time, to have Bill and Martha over on our boat. We were all weary, the drinks well-deserved. However, Steve and I had not finished…and it took us until 11:30 the next morning the complete the talk of putting back the sails, tuning the rigging, reinstalling cotter pins and completing the rewiring. Exhausting!
However, almost like the birth of a baby following a long and painful labour, the work faded behind us as we passed the Oswego Lighthouse on to Lake Ontario, and enjoyed the calm open water, the steady breeze, and the fact that our boat was once again a sailing vessel.