Champlain and Erie Canal boat journey

Day 1(a) dry run

Two days before we were to leave, I woke up with vertigo. It set me back an entire day of packing, cleaning, and all the other chores that needed to get done before leaving home for two weeks, including harvesting strawberries and checking to see if the bees had enough space or might be thinking about swarming. On the morning of departure i felt only slightly better, and the weather was not at all conducive to a good day on the water. I was hoping Gordon would call to say we should wait out the pending storm and leave tomorrow, but I pretty much knew he couldn’t wait another day. He’d been planning this trip, or at least thinking about it, for the past year and a half. It would take a year to complete the Great Loop by boat, but not all at once.

I was moving slow. Really slow. Fog went deep into the brain. Keeping my balance up and my food down seemed like enough to manage for the moment.

It took two hours to load the car, drive, transfer gear at a Annie’s house who then drove us to the the marina in Charlotte, Vermont, on Lake Champlain. Champlain is the 6th largest inland body of water in the U.S., just after the 5 Great Lakes. The water was choppy. Whitecaps and swells. Not a welcoming site. But I’m all-in for whatever, even though I was pretty sure that meant I’d be spending at least part of the afternoon hanging my head over the side of the 35 foot sail boat. It would be unpleasant but I’d probably feel better after that ordeal.

I walked the cart full of gear down the floating dock, trying not to fall overboard while Gordon went to talk to the harbor master. Fortunately for everyone, he very politely talked the kind of sense that only experience can talk and we packed everything back into the car as the thunderheads grew around us. 2 hours later I was lying on the couch, from which I moved only once and that was to go to bed. It poured with lightning and thunder all night and I was thankful to not be on a boat that was surely taking a pounding out on Lake Champlain.

Day 1 (b), underway

Early rise, refreshed and ready to go, happy to be rid of the fog and dizziness. We were off again, met the harbormaster who took us and all our gear out to Moon Dancer. It was cool with light sprinkles but the water was calm.

Moon Dancer’s mast was down, “stepped”, in preparation for the Erie Canal voyage. The mast would go back up on Lake Erie, some 450 miles away. We’d be motoring the entire distance. I’m basically a deck hand, or more specifically a lock hand, on this part of the journey. It will take two to manage the lines and logistics of moving through 36 locks that allow boats to rise and fall as they move along the changing elevation of the canal.

Once on the boat we could start planning this first leg of the trip. We really weren’t sure how far we’d make it that day, neither one of us having any experience. We had a full tank of gas, food enough for several day, a 15 pack of beer, and an anchor. So we were good.
it was cloudy, breezy, and drizzly all the way down the lake. Southern Champlain gets narrow and the winds subsided but we were stilled chilled. It also gets beautiful. Green and serene. Lots of birds, big and small. We saw only 2 other boats.

From the marina in Charlotte to Whitehall is 59 miles by water. We arrived at 8:15 after 9 hours cruising at around 6 knots where we moored at the Whitehall Marina, right at Lock 12. This is the last lock on the canal way for travelers heading north, and the first for us heading south.

The tavern owners were friendly, helpful, and patient with us noobs, more than ready to get back to work after a year of covid. I have a lot to learn about boats, lines, knots, and recognizing when people are standing by to help. The beer was cold and food was plenty.

Champlain Canal, Day 2

First lock on the Champlain canal, Lock 11 at Whitehall NY. A beautiful, sunny day. We call a few minutes ahead to let them know we’re coming: “sailing vessel Moon Dancer requesting southbound passage.” The gatekeepers are friendly and helpful. Gordon tells the keeper it’s our first lock passage and he offers plenty of instruction, advice, and tips. The canal is primarily used for recreational travel now, as opposed to primarily commercial traffic 100 years ago. We drop the fenders over the boat rails, the gates open and in we go. Gordon pulls up close to the wall, cuts the engine, and I grab one of the the lines hanging off the wall with the boat pole near the bow, he grabs another at the stern. The goal is to steady the boat and not let the mast hit the wall as the water rises. The mast has been “un-stepped” (lowered) and is lying horizontal on the deck, extending about 10 feet over the bow. The water rises, we work the ropes and poles, fighting the wind and currents to keep the boat from hitting the wall or turning sideways. We’re the only boat in the lock but it’s big enough to handle several.

We reach the top, a 15 foot slow vertical lift, the southbound gates open and off we go, Gordon at the helm and me fending the bow as we pull away. We did 5 locks that way today and covered 31 miles. Some went better than others, but nothing broke and nobody got hurt, so it was a good day all around. 

Well, except maybe for that one minor exception…

There’s a quirky little detail around buoys in these waterways. Usually the red buoy is on your left and green on your right but there are two places on the canal where that system reverses and we had just passed through one of them. Funny thing too, that coming out of the last lock I was at the helm and saw the local sheriff department pulling their boat out of the water. I wondered what they were patrolling for and if we’d see them again. I saw the green buoy, kept it on my left (as per the exception to the rule), and kept going when suddenly the boat lurched to a stop. The buoy colors had changed. I forgot, and had the colors wrong in my head and beached the boat.

You’ve probably done something similar in your life so you know how sickening it feels to screw up in such a profound way. 

This is where it ends, I thought. I’ll end up in the water, swim to shore, and hitch a ride home.

Gordon tried reversing the engine to rock it off the sandbar to no avail. I entertained the absurd notion of jumping in and pushing the 12 ton boat. Gordon called the nearest yacht club, I called the sheriff. Funny thing about that… never would have occurred to either of us that would be who to call. The yacht club service said they couldn’t help, but two sheriffs showed up in the boat in about 15 minutes. We tied our boats together and they were able to pull Moon Dancer back into the channel. I still felt pretty foolish but relieved. Again, people were standing by ready, willing, and able to help, and without judgment – at least not until we were out of earshot.

Nothing broken, nobody hurt, and we learned a few things. Both Gordon and I had cash in hand and offered to make a donation to the sheriffs department but they declined, suggesting it’s optional, but we could mail it in if we wanted to. If the sheriff didn’t show up, plan B was to throw the anchor off to the side and winch the boat off the sand, which probably would have work after a while.

Lock 6 closed early tonight so we tied up there.

There aren’t any services for 15 miles around. We walked around and checked out the lock operations up close, went back to the boat where we had cheese, apples, pepperoni, and crackers for dinner. Gordon shared some recent boating incident stories from his experienced boating friends which made me feel a ton better – 12 tons better – about that sandbar. After a few beers and stories it was all good. Sleep came fast.

Day 3

Coffee and cereal tied to the wall at lock 6 this morning. Went through okay and when we got to lock 7 the lockmaster said “so you guys camped out at 6 last night?” 

“Yeah, word gets around doesn’t it?” I laughed. I can only imagine the stories they tell on the radio up and down the river. Yeah, we we’re the noobs who beached it and didn’t make it to 6 before they closed early. Whatever. I’m over it and ready to have fun with it. He opened and closed the gates once or twice before both of them closed together. Just like jiggling the handle on the toilet bowl. It occurred to me that you could be stuck down there for a while if they need to replace a hydraulic system seal. And you definitely want to be friendly with them or it might take a little extra time to push the button to drop the water. It’s pretty easy to be friendly here so I’m not worried, just saying… 

Covered 32 miles down the Hudson and through 6 locks today. That took about 6-1/2 hours. Beautiful, sunny, warm, and fairly uneventful day. Our lock routine is pretty smooth now. Lock #1 brought us officially out of the Champlain canal. Shortly after we turned west at Waterford NY onto the Mohawk River, which is also the Erie Canal. The first 5 locks on the canal are close together and need to be done all at once. They close at 5 and we didn’t get here in time to do them all. We tied up at the (very long) town pier watching boats arrive and talking to a few other “cruisers”. There are as many kinds of boats as there are people, maybe 30 boats here now. So far we’ve only seen a few others, and we’ve been the only boat in all the locks. That won’t be the case tomorrow, so I’m glad we’ve had the solo practice. “Boat people” are friendly, but opinionated. They’ll be watching, and telling stories. All good. It’ll have to be, we’ll be passing each other (well, they’ll be passing us mostly) for the next 350 miles.

We walked into town and bought a few things at the market. The clerk asked if we had a boat at the pier. “I guess we fit the mold!” We all laughed. “Yeah, this is the kind of thing they usually buy,” the clerk said. Pegged. Whatever, no pride, no shame. After 15 months of mostly solitary confinement it seems like people are happy to be around other people in a less sterile way.

I’m not a boat person, not even really much of a water person. I like the water and enjoy being on it and in it, but I’m a solid earth sign. I can’t really say no to an adventure though, and this seemed like a good one. Gordon and I have known each other for around 30 years. We can both be grumpy curmudgeons, there’s always been the chance that this could go bad. Being in close quarters for too long with anyone can be tense. So far no issues, but if I do anything like beach the boat again… well, to be honest, I think we’ve both reached a point in our lives where it’s too much work to hold a grudge.

Erie Canal, Day 4

Cleared the “flight of five” first thing this morning. Took about an hour and a half to go through five locks with a total lift of around 165 feet within 1.5 miles. A bit of a work out. Total of 8 locks and 34.5 miles in about 9 hours. We missed lock 10 by 15 minutes and are stranded in nowhere land, tied to the wall. We talked to the keeper at #9 who said he was also running #10 and he’d meet us if we got there in time. We watched him load his bike into his car and head down the road as we motored down the river. 10 minutes for him, an hour for us. No love. Those guys are off and done at 5. 1-star Yelp review for that guy! Would have been nice to make this lock and get to Amsterdam for a good meal. Instead, we xplored all the projects in process around the lock and watched the street art painted on the *many* long trains running along the other side of the river. It’s going to be a long night. Delicious pasta dinner on the boat and plenty of fermented malt beverage.

I’m surprised that there aren’t more small businesses that cater to boaters and bikers along the canal. Food and coffee carts at the town piers would do well. We’ve called riverside restaurants to ask about docking there for lunch but they couldn’t tell us about water depth or dock lengths. Onward. 

Going into a lock, Gordon’s job is to deftly maneuver the boat close enough to the sidewall to grab the ropes hanging from it without hitting it. He’ll then jump up and grab a rope to steady the stern. I have only 5 tasks, none of which either of us knew about or planned for in advance: 1) make sure the fenders are down on my way to the bow. Gordon’s job is to remind me to do this. 2) use the boat pole to reach out and hook the rope as we move close to it. 3) don’t let go of the rope. 4) keep the boat properly oriented by pushing the pole to prevent the mast from hitting the wall, and pulling the rope to keep the boat from pointing the wrong direction. 5) push off from the wall once Gordon’s back at the helm.

Sometimes this all happens without much effort, but depending on the winds and current inside the lock – they all seem to be a little different, and changeable – and whether or not I remembered to tighten up the extending pole, it can sometimes take a fair mount of effort. We put an old fender on the end of the mast after a bit of rash from our 2nd lock, but so far it’s just been a comfort rather than a necessity. 

When the doors close, trapping you and water inside a giant cavern, they make a great creaking, industrial sound of steel on steel. They clang shut and I’m reminded of the waste disposal scene from Star Wars. Inside the sealed lock, it’s just you and the wall, defending the boat from possible damage, and images of prayers at the wailing wall come to mind. We learned today that we’re somewhat at the mercy of the lock keeper because they can control the in and out flow rate. More flow means crazier cross currents.

When the water rises on a lift lock, your head rises slowly up over the edge and it’s like a Cracker Jack surprise what might be on the other side. Each of the five this morning took us a little further away from the industry of Troy and it’s suburbs.

I’ve forgotten about my home, the bees, and the strawberries. Once you overcome the inertia of leaving your house, you wonder what all the worry was about. The sun is strong, high and hot but it feels good

Next addition to the fleet?

Erie Canal Day 5

We got started at 7, right when the locks open. Thought about leaving our empties for the lock 10 gatekeeper. “They have radios and they talk to each other,” Gordon reminded me. It didn’t help when we got to the town pier 2 miles away (our goal for yesterday) and the boater just leaving told us how good the food and music was last night. %$&*!

Old coal fired power plant

Covered 7 locks over 48 Miles in about 9 hours, including the tallest lock, #17, with a lift of 40.5 feet. It’s a completely unnatural feeling to be trapped at the bottom of a watery cavern, completely beholden to  century old infrastructure and the lock keeper’s motivation to keep doing what they’re doing for us pleasure cruisers.

There are perhaps too many words and pictures related to the locks, but setting the surreal scenes aside, I’m kind of fascinated by the machinations of it all, and that it still works remarkably well for a system that’s free to the user and the locks are available on demand; that is, no scheduled gate openings, they get you moving as soon as they can between 7 and 5. They’ll take a single boat at a time and I’ve seen only a single kayak come out of a few gates. Very little energy is expended because it’s a self-powering operation. When water flows, electricity is generated for the hydraulic pump motors. Every lock has a power house, some are still original equipment.

Power house
Lock 17, 40.5 foot lift
Inside of 17

We went through  each lock fairly smoothly, with some requiring a little more jousting, parrying, and fending skills than others. Some had valves that didn’t open quite right and the currents inside were strong. We switched between working the port and starboard sides to keep our skills sharp and muscle tone balanced 🤣. 

Saturday night, arrived at Little Falls Rotary Park and Marina just past lock 18. This place is exactly what we’ve been looking for. A pier and docks to tie up to, water, showers, friendly people with answers to questions, and nearby restaurants. But here’s the beauty part: Walking out of the dock house, refreshed by a cold shower after this long, hot, and humid day, man walks toward me and asks “do you need a ride to the brewpub?”

“Yes, I do!” I replied, “just let me put my things back in the boat.”

This is my kind of place! 

Turns out it’s George, the owner of a new brew pub, Iron Rock Brewing, who came to pick up friends and we just happened to cross paths. I’m an easy mark for a brewpub. 

The beer was good,  the place was packed, the wait staff was stellar, band was loud, classic/southern rock, ordered wood fired pizza from across the street (oven shipped in from Italy), and the crowd was happy, lively, chatty, and dancing. Everywhere people are ready to socialize and happy to be in a close crowd of other humans. Great fun all around, with a bonus visit from my cousins Barb and Kathy who live not so far away.

Day 6, Oneida Lake

A little groggy this morning, slow to wake up. I’m reminded of the Marty Stewart theme album, “Saturday night, Sunday morning.”

We opted for a short walk to the local diner for a big breakfast that we didn’t have to cook ourselves, cleaned up the boat and hit the throttle around  9:45. Ultimately covered 33 miles in a little over 6 hours of hot and humid weather. Heat makes me lethargic and grumpy. I try to be mindful of that and keep quiet, not always successfully. Ive settled in to the pace of this journey; it feels appropriate to humanity.

A cup of midday coffee, an apple, and one of Erica’s delicious Rice Krispie squares make a good lunch while the diesel hums steadily along.
There are so many birds an the water, and the waterway is lined with trees, shielding our view of the cities and interstates that lie not far beyond. It’s easy to imagine that we’re in a Mark Twain story. 

Stopped at the town park with a pier and pavilion in Rome NY where a handful of locals were fishing and swimming, happy to chat and tell stories to pass this hot Sunday evening. A couple of other boats come in and we stand by to catch their ropes, tying them to the cleats on the dock.
This seems to be a place in constant transition, with the carrot of progress forever dangling out of reach. Again it surprises me that marine-minded entrepreneurs haven’t set up shop. Boat cruisers – if there’s anything left after boat maintenance – generally have disposable income, and comforts and conveniences are welcome to travelers. The riverfront park is underway but there still isn’t much to draw anyone here. The way the town is laid out, you can’t easily get in or out of here without a car or boat, and once you’re here, accessing downtown services requires a car. We ordered a pizza and had it delivered to the park.

Rome NY

We’ll cover about 500 miles before Lake Erie, cruising at an average of 6MPH. Add in a bit of lock time and we’ll be motoring for about 100 hours. The 24HP Diesel inboard engine is fairly efficient, using about 1/2 gallon per hour, far less than a gas outboard engine. There’s something about the sound of a Diesel engine that invokes trust. In addition to the diesel, there’s a wealth 20th century technology scattered along the canal. Some of it still in use, but much of it discarded. Tons of steel and concrete line the water’s edge as a historical reminder of the original canal’s aqueducts. History and the occasional riverside park displays remind passersby of the Mohawk, Oneida, and longer ago civilizations that have made a life along the river.

Driftwood collection barge, bound for chipping

Old equipment, still in service. Good T-shirt slogan?

Day 7

The diesel and I both awoke at 6:39. Gordon had gotten up early and the day was already moving toward lock 21, anxious to make the Oneida lake crossing. Two lowering lock-throughs before breakfast, then 30 miles across the lake before the next lock. Plenty of time to look at the maps and charts for the next brew pub that might be close to the water. Cruising culture…

Oneida Lake, 5 mi wide, 20 mi long

The boat is small, like a super small efficiency apartment. It takes time to move things around to assemble a meal, even a cup of coffee requires multiple clearings and moves, gas valve, circuit breaker, CO monitor check routine, and finally the flame sparker. The on board water storage system started leaking and it’s a chore to move everything out of the way to find the leak and fix it, so we haven’t jumped on that project just yet. All water comes from a 5 gallon container, and thankfully we haven’t needed the macerater yet. We’re learning to use the Garmin GPS, charts, and navigation systems, and soon we’ll hook up the speakers for on board music. The quiet is welcome though, and part of the slow pace of cruising. 

Locks 21, 22, across Oneida lake, docked at a pier for waterside diner lunch, and on to 23 and finally 24. During the entire drawdown of one lock we chatted with the lock keeper. When the gates opened Gordon asked if we had gone down already. I guess we’re getting handy with locking through.

It’s frikkin’ hot! 92F, gotta be close to 90% RH, sweat is pouring off my body and thirst seems unquenchable. Landed in Baldwinsville NY tonight after cruising nearly 12 hours (including lunch stop). Good mileage due to fewer locks (only four) and we tied up just after #24, 58 miles from 6:39 am.

We learned today of trouble upstream. Information is scarce, but it seems there’s shallow water between locks 29 and 30, a couple of days from here, with water depth of only 4ft. Moon Dancer draws 5.5 feet. There’s no clear indication about when repairs will be made. A day? Week? Month? Other boaters are annoyed that no information or notices have been released by the NY Canal Corp (the canal system is privately owned). This canal system and all of its infrastructure is literally a museum piece under continuous maintenance. It takes some specialized skills and guys (yeah, mostly guys, just the way things have landed so far) with grey hair to keep these old things running. Respect to my women friends who know how to keep things working, I know you’re making it happen too!

DC generator and control board

So we might be hanging around this town for a few days. No point in moving on if the canal is impassible for us, and this is as good or better a place to bide time than any other.

Baldwinsville town pier

Day 8, a break in the action

After hearing rumors and asking boaters and lock keepers, Gordon finally reached the canal supervisor by phone. Lock 29 had a blowout. It’s not holding water and can’t handle boats with more than a 4 foot draft. Moon Dancer needs 5.5 feet to float. Repairs are underway on the lock, but won’t be complete for 10 days. Many options were weighed (including a long detour to Seneca Lake and wine country), but we ultimately decided to store the boat here in Baldwinsville, lock 24, 288 miles given to the water with 148 remaining, and drive home and get back to it when the lock is fully open.

Spent the morning figuring and planning. It’s good to have a plan, but options and flexibility are crucial in this traveling environment. We weren’t quite ready to blast out of the slow motion cruising bubble so opted for a transition day. We investigated eateries and the local brewpub, talked to people, mused, surmised, conspired, and watched the rain fall from the shelter of restaurant porches.

There are many stories that could be captured and retold along this river, but they would require an even slower pace. River stories, people and boat stories, historic technology exploration, lifestyles and observations of lock keepers, ruins of the original canal and ancient relics found during its excavation, to name a few. One that intrigues me is bridge culture. There are many bridges over the water, and when you drive over the top of them you give little thought to what might be under them. Many underneaths of bridges support some part of a community. There are places where kids hang out and party, swinging ropes over the water, homeless encampments, graffiti, artwork, and the like. Interestingly, the new bridge designs don’t lend well to hanging around underneath; they’re clear, open, and inaccessible for perching people and things upon abutments or stanchions. The older bridges are overgrown, secret, with supports and cubbies that offer a place to dangle your feet from, put a table and chairs on, find shade, or use for a duck hunting blind. I didn’t get many photos of these things, here are a few.

It took 8 days to get to Baldwinsville by boat and felt like a long way from home. By horse and wagon standards, it was. And wth respect to this particular journey it was. By car though, it’s only 5 hours away. It felt like cheating ourselves out of an adventure. Like the last scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we were lifted out of a story in the midst of its telling. 

When you set out on a journey, you fix yourself with a mindset. The time it takes to get to where you’re going changes with your mode of transportation. A week in a wagon, a boat, bike, car, or airplane, all get you to different places, and I wonder if it’s the time it takes us to escape the inertia of our lives, rather than the distance from it that gives value to the journey.

Published by Paul J.

Writer, adventurer, maker

7 thoughts on “Champlain and Erie Canal boat journey

  1. Thoroughly enjoying your posts, Paul! Your descriptions are wonderfully vivid and I love the entusiastic voice of a “noobs.” It’s a tough assignment to allow us all to live this adventure vicariously through your fresh eye’s, but you’re bringing it home! Thanks for that. Now if you could only convince Gordon to keep the window open as his adventure continues…

    1. Thanks for your comments, Colin. Though we haven’t heeled yet, I’m enjoying the lifestyle and totally get why you guys do this! Hopefully you can join G at some point during the journey.

  2. It’s like we’re there with you. Keep the posts coming Paul and don’t let Gordon overwork you!

  3. Gordon finally game me your blog link. I so enjoy the way you write, pulling me along the canals with you. Sorry it had to end abruptly, but maybe they will get the canal fixed in good time, and adventure can continue, and you can continue the blog! Many thanks. Lois Grunder. (gordon’s mom)

  4. Oh my gosh, you guys seem to always run into the right people, for food and help. I just love the pictures of the canal apparatus. It is just amazing and so old. Those were pretty neat sculptures you found along the way. good luck and be careful. I would say you earned your badges as “sailors”. Many thanks for the blog. lois and paul grunder

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: