Traveling the Erie Canal
Tom O'Conner

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

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

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
Nantucket came to help organize the fleet.  Proceeding North the skyline
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

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

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

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,
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

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
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
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

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

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.


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

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."

"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.