Last week, June 28, 2019, we reached our first lock in Troy NY and the junction of the Hudson, Erie Canal, and the Champlain Canal.
🎶Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge cause we’re coming to a town
And you’ll always know your neighbor
And you’ll always know your pal
If you’ve ever navigated on the Erie Canal 🎶
The Erie Canal is a man-made (hand dug, hand blasted) 363 mile canal running east-west across the state of New York. It is an engineering marvel, and was built with visions of connecting our country geographically by creating a navigable water route from the Atlantic Ocean/ NYC to the Great Lakes. Begun in 1810, it was laboriously completed in 1825. At that time, it was the second longest canal in the world, after the Grand Canal (468 BC) in China. The canal is attributed with changing the development and economy of New York, New York City, and the United States. I can see why!
The Canal has been revised twice to accommodate increasing traffic and larger boats, and is now 340 miles long, with 34 locks. The dimensions went from 40’ wide and 4’ depth (with bridge clearance < 11 feet, to present day 123’ wide, average 12’ depth, and the lowest bridge clearance at 15.5’. Low bridge, everybody down….The advent of railroads has mostly ended the commercial usage of the canal, and most boats are recreational.
If you want to read a good book on the history of the Erie Canal, I’d recommend this one (click link) which I’ve been reading – fascinating, especially all the political and town issues that had to be handled, plus the efforts of the laborers who were paid $ 0.80 to $1.00 (plus whiskey). Many workers died from contracting malaria in the swampy sections. Interesting, they started construction in the middle portion (Rome NY area) to get the progress going quickly in this easier area before branching out west and east.
For our travel plans, we are only doing a portion of the Erie Canal – Albany to Lake Oneida, which we will cross then head up another NY canal, the Oswego Canal to Oswego on Lake Ontario. About 160 miles, almost half of the full length. Interestingly, the Troy lock (#1) is also called the Federal Lock because of the transition from federal waters (operated by the Corps of Engineers) to the state system, with inland water way rules and operated by the NY State Canal Cooperation.
System of Locks
The canal has a series of locks which were engineered, most based on Leonardo daVinci’s original idea, to raise boats as the elevation changes and avoid the dams and waterfalls. The terrain change across New York State, from the Hudson River on the east to Buffalo and Lake Erie on the west, is 565 feet. A vessel leaving Albany, NY must travel through a series of locks that will raise her 565 feet before arriving in Buffalo. Picture locks as a set of “stair steps” across the state— “liquid elevators” if you will.
Our first lock #1 Federal Lock was exciting, since we’d never experienced one in trawler Clare and were eager to test our knowledge and skills. As with all the locks, you call ahead to the “lock master” and let him know which direction (east or west bound) you are heading. They let you know timing, based on whether they are currently filling or emptying based on boat traffic traveling east or west. Once the lock is emptied of water to the lower base level, the large doors swing open and you get the green light to proceed into the lock.
One of the locks, #17 in Little Falls NY was remarkable because it is the largest “step” with 40’ lift, but also but the gate is also lifted from above, like a guillotine, and you pass under the gate to enter – a wet doorway!
Within the lock, the boat needs to stabilize against the wall as the water and boat rise by either holding a rope line attached to the wall and/or wrapping a line around a vertical pole. Adjustments are continual as the turbulence bounces the boat around as the water fills the lock and we do a bit of fending off the wall.
Each lock has at least one lock master who runs the locks from 7 am to 5 pm. We found most to be very friendly and knowledgeable, and they obviously took great pride in the stations and their jobs. We tried to chat with each one as we passed through.
But no one was more engaging and personable than the lock master we met initially at Lock #2, at the start of the Waterford flight of 5 consecutive locks, raising our boat 169 feet in elevation in less than 2 miles. Those locks kept us on our toes.
Meet Leroy, the self-proclaimed God-lover, Jamaican Rastafarian. Kindly answered my numerous questions about the locks, then with gusto and smiles expanded his pearls of wisdom into greater life topics. The next day he tended us thru Lock #3, then hopped in his car to zip up to Lock #5 to guide us thru there as well. The world needs more Leroys.
We’ve also passed under numerous bridges and through several “guard gates,” which are used to close off the river from water flow and boat traffic. Most of the bridges are low, ~ 20-22 feet above the water, which means we clear by only a couple of feet at best (our height is 18.5’).
Biking the Erie Canal trail
Our pattern over the past week has been to get trawler “Clare” moving on the canal, sometimes early (prebreakfast) and sometimes more leisurely, and travel ~ 20 miles along the beautiful canal. Lots of birding, photography (I am learning to use a new zoom lens), reading, and chatting. Traffic is pretty light and we see a few other travelers, but not many. Early afternoon we stop either at a town/municipal dock where we can sometimes get services such as water or electricity (and if we are super-lucky, a shower) or a “free wall” along the locks that is usually just a tie up. The most challenging part has been finding a breeze and quiet – the trains are often so close that the screeching along the tracks is difficult to sleep with and many of the municipal docks are near highways are loud with continual road noise. We’ve found some lovely free walls that are considered “rural” and allow us access to the extensive Erie Canal bike trails which go the full length of the canal.
So most afternoons, we unload the bikes and hop on the trails for a 10-15 mile ride. It’s been so hot and muggy that riding gave us the only breeze of the day! The paths are sometimes paved, mostly flat, but often turn to cinder or even a dirt trail to follow the original mule paths, those hard-working animals who pulled the canal boats through the canals.
And we get to see the old canal and locks before they were expanded and a flavor of the incredible history of the area. Often we see herons in the marshes and the occasional painted turtle crossing the path.
For the 4th of July, we were in Utica as we needed to get Sue and Al to the Amtrak station for their bike/train/bike travels the next day back to Waterford NY. We stayed at a municipal dock at the Aqua Vino restaurant, which was perfect – they were closed for the holiday but let us use their outdoor seating (with umbrellas and fans). We had a nice grilled dinner and sat at tables and chairs for the feast!
The next morning we said goodbye for now to our dear Erie Canal traveling companions. We had a wonderful week together filled with lively discussions, laughter, reading, biking, locking, sharing history, and even games. A bit of rain, lots of heat and humidity, and maybe some geese herding….
For now it’s just Dean and I aboard trawler Clare for ~ 10 days before our next crew arrives. We have more Erie Canal, more locks (including some descending locks!), and hopefully more biking through history as we head toward Sylvan NY and Lake Oneida! Then Thousand Islands and Canada 🇨🇦 and more family crew. All good.
Our adventures continue. By the grace of God we go,
~ Karen and Dean
Great trip with friends! Love the pic checking out the bridge clearance. Resonates with me as we backtracked off of the Erie Canal because we are too high! A lot cooler on the Great Lakes in Canada! Safe travels.