Traveling the Erie Canal |
At some past M.O.A.N.E. meetings, I have heard people discuss cruising the Erie Canal in N.Y. state. For Christmas my daughter gave me a book entitled "River Horse" by William Laest Heat-Moon that tells about the author's cruise on that canal. Actually, the book is about the author's voyage across the U.S. by water and cruising the Erie Canal is only part of this voyage. The following is mostly a synopsis of that part of his voyage. I hope it will be helpful to anyone contemplating a cruise. It will be probably interesting to relate the part of his voyage before he reached the Erie Canal. A Missouri native, he trailered his boat, Nikawa, to Elizabeth, NJ where he launched it into Newark Bay on April 10, 1995. His only previous boating experience, outside of a hitch in the navy aboard a 900 foot aircraft carrier was in a 13 foot canoe. Although, later on in the book, he mentions getting acquainted with Nikawa on the Missouri River. He did, however, have a "blue water" sailor with him as first mate but who was apprehensive about the trip because of the many canals they would face on the way. He had never locked through a canal before. Nikawa, a C-Dory, was made of fiberglass laminate over an end-grain balsa core 2" thick. It was made of molded lap-strakes to throw off the spray and had a flat hull aft and V-shaped bow. Is this design similar to the M26X? If you were to cross a Maine lobsterboat with a turn of the century harbor tug, you would have a C-Dory. L.O.A. - just under 22 feet Beam - just under 8 feet Weight (empty) - 1700 pounds Weight (loaded) - 3000+ pounds Draft - 8 inches minimum Draft - (loaded) - 30 inches Power - Twin 45 h.p. 4 cycle Hondas Had compass, depth finder, paired tachometer plus gauges for 2 58-gallon gas tanks, Apelco marine band pocket model radio, no chemical toilet. Manufactured near Seattle in January 1995. >From Newark Bay, Nikawa entered N.Y. Upper Bay by way of the Kill Van Kull then turning South under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, pushed East beyond Coney Island and Grave Sand Bay into the Atlantic Ocean. Here the author performed a sort of a ritual. He filled a pint bottle with water and stored it to be emptied into the Pacific Ocean when he arrived there; something like De Witt Clinton's "wedding of the waters" on the completion of the Erie Canal. The skipper then reversed course and entered the Hudson River via the East River, Hell Gate and the Harlem River. Proceeding up the Hudson to the Tappen Zee Bridge, they tied up at a dock at the eastern foot of the bridge where the first mate's daughter and a friend were waiting to greet them. They spent the first night there but not before they walked up the hill to have a nice glass of stout, in the author's words. In reading the book, I noticed that the author Heat-Moon seems to be a connoisseur of malted beverages, and where to find them. Apparently, he must have searched them out when he checked out his planned route the previous year. Probably he wanted to make sure he did not become too thirsty on his cross-country voyage. Continuing up river the next morning, they pulled in a willow cove at the foot of Guinan's store in Garrison, four miles from the bridge. After meeting some friends for lunch they continued up the river past West Point and then made a sharp turn around the rock wedge, that is the actual West Point, to enter a zig-zag river sailors call World's End because as you proceed, the sharp bend looks like a giant cul-de-sac. The bottom is 200 feet down, the deepest in the Hudson, and eddies and twisting currents and winds constricted by the ridges can create of rough passage. The Hudson is a predictable river for the 200 miles upstream where it makes its grand turn out of the Appalachian mountains. The lower Hudson has no oxbows or real twisted bends in part because it is actually a fjord. Four miles from West Point, they stopped at Pollepel Island to visit a castle there. This turned out to be a hazardous undertaking and after striking an underwater object, they anchored out and came ashore by canoe. Leaving the island they beat past Poughkeepsie to Kingston, the first capital of NY state, where they entered Rondout Creek. It is here that the old Delaware and Hudson canal flowed in the Hudson river connecting it with the Delaware river. They found quarters up the hill from the creek to stay for the night. Here they learned that the first lock on the Erie Canal was closed because repairs that were being made were not yet complete. They decided that it would be better to lay over for 24 hours hoping that the repairs would be completed by the time they reached the first lock. After the layover, they cast off from the small wharf on Rondout Creek and turned upstream. By mid-day they had reached Catskill where they went up a tree-lined creek to hunt for a beverage to go with a lunch they had prepared before leaving Kingston. Back on the river they beat past the town of Hudson high on the east bank and on to Coxsacki on the port side. Hudson missed being the capital of the state in 1797 by one vote and Albany attained that honor instead. During the early times, Hudson, then called Claverak Landing, was an active whaling port with a fleet of 25 vessels. Interest in whaling by early settlers in the 1600's had developed when a white whale with a brown companion stirred into foam the waters of the river at Albany then called Fort Orange. Some Yankee whalers from Nantucket came to help organize the fleet. Proceeding North the skyline of Albany came into view and soon they arrived at Troy and tied up at the town dock. Here they found out that they would be allowed to use the first lock on the Erie Canal the next day. Heath-Moon was so happy about this that he did a little jig and invited all hands for food and refreshments to Brown & Moran's Brew Pub a short distance away. >From the tip of Manhattan they had gone 143 miles but climbed only 5 feet above the Atlantic. The next morning they entered the only lock on the Hudson, the federal lock, and proceeded through in 15 minutes. They powered a mile north of the three mouths of the Mohawk river, where at Waterford they came upon a sign with one arrow pointing right to the Champlain Canal and another left to the Erie Canal. The repairs on the first lock was not completed but was ready enough to let them enter. They were lifted in 33 foot increments through locks until they topped out and entered the channel leading to the Mohawk river. They had risen 165 feet in less than 2 hours. Proceeding on they passed two aqueducts, one ruined, and pulled up to a high docking wall at Fonda. According to Heath-Moon, the village is a tired place and they ate a tired Chinese meal there and bought a tired ice cream cone at a tired filling station before returning to Nikawa and their bunks for the night. The night turned cold and by morning the temperature had dropped to 26 degrees. Continuing on the next morning, they passed through a break in the Adirondack chain between what is called the noses, Big and Little. This break was at least as important to opening America to the West as the Cumberland Gap, for without it the Erie Canal would have been significantly more difficult to build. Two railroads, two state highways, one interstate, the Erie Canal and the Mohawk river run through it. Coming around one isolated bend, they came upon a crouched cougar lapping at the Erie before bounding in high arcs toward the north forest. They found the 40 miles of canal from Amsterdam to Little Falls easy running through softly cambered terrain of wooded hills that became larger and more deeply timbered as they receded from the Mohawk Valley northward. A mile west of Johnville the canal leaves the Mohawk and follows a four-mile cut then rejoins the river three miles downstream from Little Falls and lock 17, at 40 feet the biggest elevation change on the canal. They tied Nikawa up at a tiny wharf opposite Little Falls, walked across the bridge, just above the remains of a ruined 1822 aqueduct, and found a cafe on Ann street where they ate breakfast. At this point on the canal it is 40 feet higher than the Mohawk river. A couple of miles west, the waterway leaves the Mohawk briefly, rejoins it west of Herkimer for four miles and then departs from the river for good, although it is rarely more than a half mile away. Beyond Herkimer the Erie lay in long straight segments and the big hills of the Adirondacks are left behind. In the fourteen miles between Utica and Rome industries came down the canal side, although a screen of scrub trees screened most of them creating an appearance of ruralness so that Nikawa slipped passed Utica before realizing 60,000 people were living there. Years ago, engineers moved the canal from the center of Utica, Schenectady, Syracuse and Rochester so that now the canal skirts the hearts of towns, making it more a barrier than a boulevard. It still runs into the smaller towns and villages, however. They locked through lock 20 which was full of driftwood and proceeded on towards Rome. Passing by Rome they could only see the industrial edges of the town as it was obscured by bushy trees. Here the watershed changes, the flow is not toward the Atlantic via the Hudson but now toward the St. Lawrence by way of Lake Ontario. The Indians knew the topography well, for at that place, where the narrowing Mohawk turns north, they pulled out their canoes and carried them a couple of miles over a barely perceptible rise in the swampy country to Wood Creek for a run down the twisting brook into Lake Oneida. From the Hudson they had been following a route as ancient as the Ice Age, a course later used by humans for 10,000 years. From Rome the canal cut through the low land for fourteen miles of skunk cabbage and perched kingfishers all the way to Slyvan Beach, the carnival village on the western edge of Lake Oneida. They found a room a few miles south of the lake with a hot shower which was followed up with a couple of drafts of certain Irish stout of renown. The canal goes through Lake Oneida along a buoyed course and as the speed limit on the canal is 10 m.p.h. they planned on having an easy run and picking up the pace a little. It turned out to be a difficult run. Arriving at Nikawa at 5:00 a.m. they found the lake enveloped in a thick fog and they had trouble locating the buoys. It was a perilous trip as there are shoals and pilings that must be avoided; you must follow the buoys and because of the fog this was difficult. Another problem, a northwest wind and a chop shoved and banged Nikawa around all the way across. This is the price she had to pay for having a flat hull. They reached the western shore of Oneida and passed beneath Interstate 81 into the Oneida river to Brewerton, one of the best ports on the Erie Canal. Following the river through a two-mile canal cut, they entered lock 23. Lock 23 was the last descent on the Erie Canal before it starts climbing toward Buffalo, approximately 190 miles to the west. After lock 23 the Erie, part of the time, follows the Oneida river then, at Three River Point, 160 miles from the beginning at the North Troy entrance, swings southward into the Seneca river and later continues its winding course westward to Buffalo. At this junction the Oswego Canal begins and goes northward. If one is doing the triangular cruise, they would leave Erie here and proceed north to the town of Oswego on Lake Ontario. In the afternoon, near the upper end of Lake Cayuga, Nikawa entered Montezuma Marsh, a National Wildlife Refuge that is one of the largest sheltering grounds for migrating birds in the Northeast. This swamp stopped the canal builders and the project was almost abandoned. They persisted, however, under great difficulties and hardships and were finally able to build the canal through it. Near the heart of the swamp they came upon the grandest remains of the old canal, a romantic ruin waiting for his Wadsworth, a capital piece of 19th century engineering; the eight remaining stone arches of the Richmond aqueduct; fifteen feet above the deck, the packet boats, pulled by mules, once floated their passengers and kippage across . Outside of Clyde, Nikawa entered lock 26 and tied up in town. They wanted to do some laundry but seeing no laundromat or much of anything else, they continued to Lyons. They tied up there to a fine little dock and went on shore. Here they found a laundromat then repaired to the Bridge Tavern to eat and wait for their laundry to be done. Instead of spending the night there, they pushed down to Newark at lock 28-B, where they spent the night. After having breakfast at the Newark Diner the next morning, they pushed towards Port Gibson. Some distance west of Newark, the view alternated between that of goodly land and a faulty one. The banks of the canal were bashed with litter and beat-up houses and slow pools sliming their hull with algae. At Port Gibson the Erie forms a thrombus called the Wide Waters where a bed of the old canal joins the present one to create a turning basin. Westward, smack beside State Route 31, the embankment is low enough so that Nikawa cruised along as she were merely in another highway lane. People were waiving at them from their car. On the western half of the canal, there are no charts available. What they were using was a photocopy of a third-of-a-century-old hand drawn pilot book that they hoped was trustworthy. Beating past Palmyro, a town so cut off from the canal that the only way they knew it was there was from the chart, they entered lock 30, the chamber walls of which were covered with masses of zebra mussels. The author wrote that the canalmen avoid getting squirted in the face by the little stripped things because they absorb and concentrate toxins. At Wayneport the water was down three feet and exposing lengths of wide mud banks mired with debris. This was, however, good news because one of their concerns was springtime flooding closing the canal. They passed Bushnell Basin and the old Richardson Canal House, a restaurant and inn and one of the most beautiful restoration on the canal where they wished they had time to stop. A bicyclist passed them on biking-hiking trail that will some day cross NY state atop the towpath. South of downtown Rochester the Erie traverses the Genesee River nearly at right angles. Here there are guard gates to prevent the canal from being flooded during times of high water. If the guard gates were opened, they were certain they would most likely be free of high water problems on the rest of their passage to Buffalo. The gates came into view, both were raised, the way was opened so they proceeded through. West of the far guard gate, they started into Long Level, a 64-mile stretch of the canal without any locks. The first portion of it cut through an immense stone ledge, once an ancient sea bed. The shale walls, rising to 18 feet, close off any prospect other than the cloven-rock channel itself to create a claustrophobic through, but they also block the wind, so the Nikawa could move over smooth water. Near Spencer Port they emerged from the miscreant Rock Cut only to catch the wind head on. A problem that beset them all the way to Brockport and there they stopped. They ate at a canal side grill and spent the night at an old victorian guest house. The next morning they left Rockport and found the 15 miles to Albion easy. On the way, there were small lift bridges clanging a bell at the traffic as they approached it and rising promptly at Nikawa's arrival. They passed the "H" villages of Holley, Hulbertson, and Hindsburg, then a stretch of old hand-laid stone canal wall with recent breaks repaired by a load of coarse rock dumped into the breach-another paradigm for our era. Along the way were tidy farms, neat fields and an apple orchard. By the Knowlesville lift-bridge, they made fast to a wall at the old Tow Path Store. There they filled their fuel tanks, water jugs, and their little larder, and then they passed over Colbert Road, the only place the traffic goes under the Erie, on to Medina for a walk and lunch. After lunch they went on to Middleport where a few years earlier the author had swum in the canal, a thing that horrifies residents today because they still think that the water is foul. The canal, however, is cleaner today, a result of wise federal and state environmental regulations; not to mention zebra mussels. They reached Gasport, then Orangeport and by early afternoon they saw the steeples of Lockport on its bluff. The old flight of five stone locks there, completed in 1825, has been well preserved right next to somewhat newer and much larger ones that in just two steps took Nikawa 50 feet onto the top of the Great Niagara Escarpment, the long shale ridge that is the cause of the Falls. The sharp change in the level of rocky land which is almost a cliff presented a formidable challenga of the builders of the canal. It presented a bottleneck because a boat going one way would have to pass to all five locks before a boat coming the other could start through. This problem was conquered by Nathan S. Roberts who build the locks. Roberts, a self-made engineer, pondered long about how he was going to get the canal up the rock face. With no one to help him and no guidance except for a few books, he designed the double set of five locks. Nikawa motored through Rockport and under what may be the widest short bridge or the shortest wide bridge in America-it looks more like a parking lot than a bridge-and into an other rock cut, this one through the stone ledge that extends 20 miles west to Niagara Falls. On they went down the canalized portion of Tonawanda Creek flowing an unnatural color of pale turquoise, beneath five bridges, blowing their whistle in celebration under each, and then they entered the Niagara river ten miles above the Falls. The current was swift but no other boat traffic was bucking it so they let Nikawa run and she fairly skimmed past the built-up shoreline under an overcast sky. The mate started singing and all was joy as they went beneath the Peace Bridge where the "headwaters" of the Niagara met Lake Erie. They had just completed the longest canal in America (the longuest before the Erie was built was the Middlesex canal in Massachusetts). They were heading for a harbor in Buffalo that was only three miles from the river and they would be on the Black Rock canal on the way. This canal offers protection to Buffalo from the open water. The canal, for some reasons they did not know, was closed so they had to proceed on the open lake. On the lake, conditions became progressively meaner with ceaseless rises and falls that began to thump Nikawa mercilessly. She labored up a crest, crashed into the troughs and the whole boat shook. The mate was holding on securely. Reading a chart to find a course to find their harbor was nearly impossible, and the binoculars were of no more use than they would be in a demolition derby. Nikawa was making almost no headway against the current, waves and wind. After almost an hour they had gone only a couple of miles and in the fading light, they could not find the entrance to their harbor at the mouth of the Buffalo river. The skipper said nothing to the mate but before darkness befell them, he was determined either to reef the boat or hit the nearest shore. As Nikawa was being bashed about, the mate began to lose confidence in her and remarked that he thought the boat was breaking up, that the hull was splintering. At this point the skipper realized that the deep-water sailor was also scared. Suddently, in jubilation, the mate shouted "the breakwater". The skipper made the happiest left turn of his life and quartered the swells so that Nikawa rolled madly but no longer fell into the troughs. Behind the wall it was merely less rough as they found their way into Erie basin, once a terminus of the canal, a long-gone exit that avoided the turmoil they had just gone through. Even with several turns in the channel, angles that usually baffle waves, their first chance to dock was impossibly rough and they had to continue until they ran out of water and choices and there they tied up Nikawa as she trashed about. When they finally were standing on the wharf and were sure it was not moving but it was only the wobble of their legs, they both laughed at their pidgeon heartedness and then threw their arms around each other like dancing bears. And so ended their cruise of the Erie Canal. SEQUEL The next leg of the voyage would be to Barcelona, 50 miles southwest on Lake Erie. The skipper chose a heading perpendicular with the waves instead of quartering them. He figured that if he quartered the waves he would double the distance and time was of the essence. However, on the way, conditions began to deteriorate and Nikawa started to pound. She would rise three feet and drop into the trough then it was four feet, then six feet and after an hour a ton of boat was rising seven feet becoming airborne and falling into the trough every couple of minutes. They finally had to change their plans after six hours of bashing and instead of reaching Barcelona, they turned in to the nearest port which was Dunkirk. Here the skipper telephone the builder of Nikawa to ask whether she could continue to take such beatings. The builder replied: "The C-Dory can take it, the question is whether a crew can." Acknowledgements: "RIVER HORSE",William Least Heat-Moon,Houghton-Mifflin,1999 "THE ERIE CANAL";Ralph Andrist;Troll Associates,N.J.;1964 "AN OUTBOARD CRUISING GUIDE";Fessenden S.Blanchard;Dodd,Mead&Co.