In late June, I flew to New York to help my dad move his boat from the east coast to the Midwest. My dad and his brothers have been “messing around in boats” since their childhood on Long Island Sound. My brother, cousins and I have been lucky enough to continue to the tradition, whether sailing in Boston Harbor or powering on Lake Michigan. Dad’s boat is a 36’ Northern Bay, a gorgeous navy blue trawler or lobster boat, named Kairos. According to Greek mythology, Kairos was the youngest son of Zeus and known as the spirit of opportunity, or the god of the favorable moment. I.e., carpe diem, buy a boat, enjoy while you can, that sort of thing.
The plan was to head up the Hudson and motor as far west on the Erie Canal as we could in ten days. The distance across New York is roughly 290 miles, but following the twists and turns of the canal, we’d travel more than 340 miles through 35 locks, while obeying a 10 mph speed limit for much of the way. Certainly not a quick trip!
Although the passage seems indirect nowadays, the Erie Canal has a long history of easing the burden of western travelers. In 1817, New York’s Governor DeWitt Clinton broke ground on the artificial river. The goal was to connect the Hudson River to Lake Erie and the rest of the Great Lakes, thereby opening the west for countless settlers. Travelers could make their way in the relative comfort of a canal barge, while returning ships brought back resources from the rapidly expanding frontier. Towns sprung up along the canal, eager to offer portages to the constant traffic. The explosion of trade secured New York City’s future as one of the busiest ports in America. Within ten years, the construction of the 363-mile canal had paid for itself.
Even today, the Erie Canal is a marvel of engineering. It connects five major rivers, and rises and falls with the surrounding landscape. Dams were built to keep the canal at a relatively consistent depth, and locks accompany each dam to lift or drop the boats as required. The original canal was a man-made channel four feet deep. Mules walked along adjacent paths as they pulled the shallow-bottomed barges from town to town. In the early 20th century, the state of New York expanded the Erie Canal to accommodate much larger commercial vessels; now the canal is open only to pleasure cruisers as well as the countless bikers and runners exploring the refurbished tow paths.
The Erie Canal literally parallels the New York State Thruway and it’s pretty extraordinary that the same government agency that operates I-90 also maintains the canal at little to no expense to boaters. Throughout our trip, we encountered polite and attentive lockmasters and bridge operators who seem to enjoy their work, as well as dozens of other men and women who dredge the canal and repair the banks so that boaters can enjoy this historic corridor. For more on the history and maintenance of the Erie Canal: www.nyscanals.gov and www.eriecanalway.gov
So back to this summer’s trip: early in the morning of June 25, my dad and his older brother, Christopher, met me at La Guardia Airport on a steamy, sticky pea-soup kind of day. Not the kind of day where a 10 mph speed limit is going to do much to cool you down… We left Riverside, Connecticut and motored west into Long Island Sound. By lunchtime we were on the East River, approaching Riker’s Island and other not-so-attractive portions of New York’s urban center. Unfortunately it was extremely hazy – almost Los Angeles hazy – but we still enjoyed a spectacular view from the rivers surrounding New York City. We went under the Triborough and Queensborough Bridges, past the United Nations and the Tudor City neighborhood apartments where my great-grandparents lived, past the site of their long-ago sold Brooklyn lumberyard, and around Battery Park with a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. As we headed north on the Hudson, new piers and construction along the West Side Highway dominated the view. Sadly the visibility was poor all day, so it was difficult to see the Palisades of the Hudson River Valley. Further north, we caught a closer view of the dozens of unique island lighthouses, and Bannerman’s Castle – the unusual building constructed not as a home, but to house a Scottish collector’s arsenal! More on Bannerman’s Castle at http://www.hudsonriver.com/bannerman.htm
We spent the first night in Newburgh, New York and ate one of the better meals of the trip. With the exception of one great restaurant and the picnic dinner that Chris packied, our dining experiences were not blog-worthy… except to report the consistently amusing faces that some of us made when our yucky dinner plates arrived!!
By lunchtime on day two, we stopped for fuel in Troy, New York and prepared to enter the Erie Canal. Here’s what NOAA has to say about the upper Hudson River and Troy, New York:
Troy Lock and Dam at Troy, N.Y., 154 miles above The Battery at New York City, is the lower entrance to the New York State Canal System. The Erie Canal is 338 miles long from Waterford W across New York State to Tonawanda on the Niagara River. From Waterford, the canal follows the canalized Mohawk River, a short reach of Wood Creek, and several interspersed land cuts to Oneida Lake. After passing through the lake, the canal follows Oneida River, Seneca River, Clyde River, and several land cuts to Lyons, N.Y. … W of Lyons, the canal is an artificial channel to Pendleton, N.Y., thence the canal follows Tonawanda Creek to Tonawanda. The Erie Canal, from Waterford to Tonawanda, has 34 locks. At Waterford, a flight of 5 locks ascends 168.8 feet from the pool above Troy Lock and Dam around Cohoes Falls to the Mohawk River, thence 14 locks ascend the Mohawk Valley 236 feet to the summit level near Rome, N.Y., thence 3 locks descend 57 feet to Three Rivers, N.Y., at the junction with Oswego Canal, and thence 12 locks ascend 201 feet to the Niagara River.
What that really means is that we gained an altitude of more than 400 feet within the first half of the trip. How did the boat travel up 400 feet? With the help of the locks:
The best way to describe how a lock works is to compare it to a bathtub filling with water. Any boat, no matter how big or small, behaves like a toy floating in this bathtub. The vessel rises with the swelling water, higher and higher until it’s reached the height of the giant tank, at which point the lockmaster stops adding water. The tank is really a narrow concrete box with huge steel gates. The walls are a slimy mess – sometimes covered with soggy lichen, sometimes deeply pitted from the erosion of the rushing water.
After a boat enters the lock, the gates slowly close, and the work of the crew begins. As the water rises, the force of that surge can be incredible. On our trip, none of us wanted Dad’s pretty boat slamming into the side of that grimy wall. So we sacrificed clean hands as we pushed and pushed against the wall. Sometimes we used a pole or boat hook to push - unless you are prone to dropping them overboard! Perhaps a better analogy here is the trash compacter scene from the original Star Wars film. The walls of each lock are equally slimy. It’s equally imperative that we fend off and try to leverage something against an incalculable force. And it’s equally impossible to control until a unseen mechanism switches off.
As we traveled west, most of the canal’s locks lifted our boat between 15 and 30 feet, carrying us over the rolling hills of central New York. Other locks emptied their tanks, lowering us 12 to 24 feet. The tallest lock on the Erie Canal (once the tallest lock in the world!) is Lock 17 in Little Falls, New York. That’s a forty-foot climb in this slimy chamber – with nothing visible except blue sky and the towering walls of the lock. More on Little Falls and historic photos of Lock 17’s construction at http://lfhistoricalsociety.org/ccanalm.html
Overall the trip was incredibly relaxing. The scenery changed gradually as steep rocky banks morphed into overgrown jungles and finally into low cornfields. We all agreed we’d need a bird field guide on any future trip, as we watched kingfishers and goldfinches and countless unidentifiable birds swoop from branch to branch. It was close to the Fourth of July, so at dusk each night we saw locals camping along the canal or preparing bonfires in their own yards. Within a week we reached the edge of Lake Erie and completing the entire stretch of the Erie Canal. We cleaned up and headed our separate ways – back to Indiana, Connecticut and Los Angeles.