Aquaducts, lift bridges, & kindness along the western Erie Canal 2020

August is passing quickly. The leaves are just starting to change on the beech and maple trees along the canal and flit down onto the canal trails and the waterways. We had one cool night in the 60s, but the days remain mostly sunny and steamy hot. We are not complaining!

We left the lovely town of Fairport NY on Wednesday, 8/19, and continued westward to Spencerport, further along the Erie Canal. We are in the area with lots of lift bridges which are unique as they lift straight up, parallel from one end to the other, instead of hinging at one end or “swinging” like we saw in Canada. Many of the lift operators manage more than one lift bridge so once again we have operators letting us through, then zipping to the next lift bridge to let us through the next one. Interestingly, this portion of the Erie Canal (the last 100 miles before it ends at the Niagara River), reportedly most closely resembles the original ditch dug canal with towpaths on both sides.

We also learned that canal workers, called “bank watchers,” walk the towpaths daily to check the status of the canal walls to make sure there are no weak areas or breaches starting. I might like to be a canal path walker! In 1878, for example, muskrats weakened the tow path and 510 feet of earth washed away, causing $51,000 worth of damage, and prompting workers to riot (not sure why?). A breach could paralyze canal traffic for days and cause damage to nearby property.  We think we spotted at least one “bank watcher.” Very pretty, small towns, lots of houses, and a well appreciated canal path for walkers, bikers, and strollers of all age, but still very few boaters.

Bridges, bridges, and more bridges, with only two locks for the day. Spencerport is another quaint town that caters to boats with a lovely free town dock with all the services we need, again for free. There is a beautiful Depot and Canal Museum right at the dock (with yet another Little Free Library), but it is closed due to COVID. The bridge lift operator greeted us, gave us codes for the rest rooms. We had several people stop to chat and inquire, and share stories. We were also joined by two charter canal boats.  Lots of town’s people strolling by and accessing the trails.  We took a walk around town – small, quaint, with beautiful NY architecture.


On Thursday, 8/20, we continued through another series of lift bridges and through the town of Brockport, which hosts SUNY-Brockport. The scenery started changing to few boats and few people accessing the trails,probably because there were few neighborhoods and entry points. We ended the day in another beautiful peaceful town, Holley, at yet another town dock at the Andrew Cuomo Park and Trails. Extensive park with a little pond with fountains, playground, accessible trails along shady greens, trails through the woods that led to old portion of the Erie Canal, AND a second lower park area with Holley Falls, a picturesque waterfall. We had a lovely hike on the trails and around the town.


That night, a few more boats joined us on the wall. Another trawler with a similarly aged retired couple,  a retired school teacher from Bryant’s Pond, Maine with his wife, and a couple on their new-to-them trawler who are gearing up to do The Great Loop starting next year, so we might see them again. Then a demasted sailboat (mast down to make it under the bridges) pulled up with a single-handed boater from Chicago. He was heading to Guatemala AND he had a motorcycle lashed to his bow!  A new sight for us!  Supposedly he had traveled on that same bike previously from Alaska to Guatemala and now was on a sailing/boating adventure.

We had to stay in Holley until about noon on Friday, 8/21, because the lift bridge further up the canal was out of order and we had to wait for repairs. Again, we were joined by another boat, this time with 3 men on it, transferring the boat from NC to Michigan; from there, a couple hoped to start the Loop next September. Once through the lift bridge, we continued on through quiet canal landscapes, few people or houses, and it was unique in that canal was higher than the northern landscape. We’d have eye-level fields on our south side (port), but be looking over rooftops or treetops to the north or our starboard/right side. Again, the engineering involved in creating this canal!

More bridges and guard gates but no locks today. Stopped around 2 pm between two lift bridges in the town of Albion, again at a generous free dock with services. This area wasn’t as thriving on the canal, with the main portion of town about a mile away,  but seemed safe and relatively quiet. Albion is the hometown of George Pullman, who reportedly invented the Pullman railroad sleeping cars after observing the canal boats. Dean offloaded our bikes, and we had a fast and flat 10+ mile ride out and back along the canal through fields of corn and soy (we think). Nary a soul on the paths, just some stubborn geese and some cormorants who wanted to race us. Hopefully this video link works so you can view the beautiful farm land we passed. (Will reorient horizontal once you hit play).

We are enjoying the slow pace, time to read, watch the scenery, explore via bike, enjoy nature and the historical towns, and each other’s company. We do miss having family and friends aboard, but maybe next year if COVID releases us from its grip we can again safely host others on board. Thankful for phone contact, Zoom calls to celebrate weddings and 60th birthdays, and emails.

Slow paced day, again sunny, warm and humid. Today, Saturday 8/22 was our final day heading west as we decided its time to turn back, avoid the congestion of Buffalo area, and head home to family.  We passed the most northern point on the Erie Canal in Gaines NY, duly noted by a sign.


Amazingly, we also crossed  OVER a road on an aquaduct in Knowlesville – the only road you can drive under the Erie Canal. The picture doesn’t capture the feeling of being elevated, on a boat in a man-made canal, passing over a road with cars going to and fro! Like a bridge of water. Amazing engineering for the win again!


Hopefully this video gives you a better sense – we are on a boat, passing above the roadway! Looks sideways, but once you click “play” it should straighten out.

Otherwise, it was miles of patchwork fields thriving with corn, hemp, soy, maybe broccoli or cabbage, more corn,  and orchards of pears and apples.


Our final western passage lift bridge (the operator had followed us west for 3 lift bridges over 10 miles) then we docked at a free town dock in the town of Middleport NY. Lots of wall for lots of boats, but few boats here. Older, crumbling walls with less modern services (electric/water) but a nice peaceful and beautiful spot just outside of downtown proper, with a grass field and shade trees. We had the joy of watching our first Zoom wedding – congratulations to Kate and Cole and families!


Then as the temps dipped below 90F at around 5 pm, we hopped on our bikes and headed west on the canal trails for a 10+ mile  pre-dinner ride, still along fields but also spotting families fishing the canal, and people floating down the canal on rafts on the current here. And a small amount of fellow bikers and runners. We have seen very limited wildlife the past couple days, except for Canadian geese, ducks, and cormorants, but today we spotted a small fox on the trail. We again enjoyed chatting with fellow boats, physically distanced outside as usual, who shared their travels and favorite stops. Michelle and Chris, aboard Wife of Reile, said that lot of folks travel to Middleport in October on the last weekend before the locks and canal closes and they have campfires in the park, all huddled up against the cold, and sometimes it even snows. Those are hearty boaters!

After 221 mostly westward miles, on Sunday, August 23 we headed back the way we came (only  two choices on the Erie Canal:  west or east!)  aiming to stop in different places for different experiences when possible, but aware of the key stops for provisioning. Fresh foods are running low.

Planning a distance day today of about 30 miles to head to our next planned stop in Brockport. Traveling at 6-7 leisurely MPH, that’s a fairly long day for us in the hot sun and humidity. Somehow, we see different things traveling in the opposite directions, and the farmland was newly glorious in this direction. We haven’t had to go through a lock in several days, since before the Genessee River in Rochester. We traded locks for lift bridges.


Lift bridges were added to the Western portion of the Erie Canal in the early 1900s to carry road and pedestrian traffic over the enlarged and widened canal channel. They require lift operators who  stop traffic on the roadway (“ding ding ding ding”) and, using underground machinery attached to counterweights, raise the deck of the bridge 10 feet further into the air, giving boaters like us and barges plenty of overhead clearance. Boats need to be 16’ or less above the water to clear bridges in the western Erie, so not everyone heads this way.

We passed through several towns, some that we had stopped and explored on our way westward, including Medina, Knowlesville, Eagle Harbor, Albion, Hindsburg and Holley. In Hindsburg, the lift bridge jammed so we spent the afternoon on the small wall, right next to a beautiful shade tree with a picnic table filled with neighbors trying to stay cool. Super friendly folks, who even offered the keys to their truck if we needed any supplies!  And some beautiful NY style canal homes and sunflowers.


The town of Medina has the most unique pump out station:


One of the folks we’ve seen in several places is Dick H, an 84 year old gentleman singlehanded cruising the canal aboard the W. R. Kenan, a small classic boat that he lives on all summer. He’s quite well known along the canal, with several people mentioning him in different ports and has some longstanding friendships with fellow boaters. The boat is named after W.R. Kenan (April 30, 1872–July 28, 1965)  who was an American chemist, engineer, manufacturer, dairy farmer, and philanthropist. Dick reportedly pulled this boat out of Kenan’s woods with a friend long ago, who rehabilitated the boat and eventually Dick bought it from him. Dick is always quick with a wave and a “how are ya?” as we pass. He lives aboard a trawler in FL in the winter. 415B2650-3C5E-420E-92D9-7A39524BA2C4

We arrived in Brockport late afternoon, our usual hot and sweaty. This is a bigger town than we’ve been in for awhile, and has SUNY-Brockton nearby. The canal portion of the town is very quaint with a lovely park welcoming center, but as we’ve seen, closed due to COVID. We ordered take out from a local restaurant which we enjoyed on our deck. Rinse-showers, then Karen enjoyed a birthday ZOOM date with friends from high school.


Art at the Brockport Visitor center that nicely summarizes the canal in an abstract way

We did a thing!  We were planning to bike to Wegman’s to pick up groceries, but decided to Instacart instead since it would have taken a few trips as we needed heavier items. Super easy and convenient to order that evening and have our groceries delivered (yes, masks and all) to our boat the next morning! Wish we had this option at home to limit our grocery store trips during the pandemic and especially for Dean’s parents. Easy peasy.

Manufacturing was a major Brockport industry from the early 1820s until ~ 2001. A carriage factory was among the original businesses in 1822 and local foundries were producing “thrashing machines” by the late 1820s which we shipped worldwide. McCormick reapers in 1844 became the first quantity production of agricultural machines in the world. The start of the agricultural Industrial revolution! Other industries in the history of Brockport included Brockport Cold Storage, where Clarence Birdseye pioneered deep-frozen foods in the 1930s. There were shoe, button, refrigeration equipment, clocks, boxes, pianos, glass containers, water pumps, fishing tackle, apple parers, and lumber manufacturing,  in addition to several food processing plants. The barges were busy up and down the canal transporting all these goods!

There are some classic buildings remaining here.

Monday, August 24th, was a boat chore morning, then we opted to stay here for a day to catch up on internet tasks and other needs. Explored the town, then home before the thunderstorms and a little rain came came through. I was able to take a long evening walk along the canal and enjoyed a walk-and-chat phone call with a dear friend, Deb, whose birthday it was. Her family moved out of our neighborhood probably 23 years ago, but she continues to influence my life and it was wonderful to catch up.

Tuesday, 8/25 we were up and moving early to get some decent mileage in as we are anticipating some rainy days within the next week, in part due to hurricane Laura’s impact. We stopped briefly in Spencerport to let predicted thunderstorms pass through and to allow me to do a teletherapy visit. Rain was brief and uneventful and the teletherapy a success so an hour later we were back cruising along, passing through the Rock Cut, past the junction of the Genessee river (leading to Rochester) and again over the very cool aquaduct above/road underneath area.

We arrived in Pittsford, a town we had passed through when heading west except for biking through on one of our afternoon jaunts. Pittsford is a popular boating stop and was full of boater but also tour boats, families,  bikers and tourists, and is an active and thriving town. We were greeted by the unofficial “dock master,” Tom, who lives with his wife on a houseboat at the dock who gave us the highlights of the area and made sure we were in a good spot. And guess who also is here?  Dick on W.R. Kenan!  We were able to get take-out at a restaurant with vegan food, yahoo, and were treated to another outside concert that we could hear from our boat. Very festive!  We celebrated our son Ethan’s graduation from RIT years ago at a restaurant in Pittsford!

Every town seems to have a statue to “Sal,” from the popular song “Low Bridge, Everybody Down.” Written in 1905 by Thomas Allen after the Erie Canal barge traffic was converted from mule power to engine power, memorializing the years from 1825 to 1880 when the mule barges made boomtowns out of towns like Utica, Rome, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, and transformed New York into the “Empire State.”  Good ole Sal!

Up early again on Wednesday 8/26, and we took a walk around this quaint town. First town we’ve seen in awhile that half the Main Street businesses weren’t closed and some businesses seemed to be thriving. Treated ourselves  to a  green tea and a muffin from the local bakery (all very COVID conscious) then back to the boat and off for another 25-30 mile day, passing now somewhat familiar sights, out of the lift bridge areas and back into the locks. Quick stop in Fairport, hoping for a short walk and a final dairy-free ice cream but, alas, we were too early in the day.  Starting to see birds again-  kingfishers and my favorite herons, including “Palmyra” still hanging out at Lock 29. He’s a great ambassador for the lock! Stopped at Mid Lakes marina, which is beautiful and appears to be a well run spot, to fill the tanks with diesel. After a month of boat life, we’ve only used about $230 of fuel. Hurray for a slow trawler!  Mid-Lakes charters the canal boats that we see traveling up and down the canal, filled with families and topped with bicycles. What a great option for new boats and families.


Ambassador Palmyra

Arrived in Westport, where we have previously stayed (remember the roses and a bike ride to Wegman’s?) ahead of the rain, expecting to see the canal walls full of other boaters readying for the storm, but only two other boats here for the night. Karen had another teletherapy session with a client, then we did some laundry at the wonderful town visitor center – great services with free (thank you town of Westport) electricity, water, laundry and showers. Wish we could say we had a quiet night, but between family phone calls, rain, closing windows and wiping up water, thunderstorms, and loud sidewalk people at 2 am, it was a limited boat sleep night. We’ve been fortunate mostly.

Actually had to set the alarm to wake up early as Karen had an online work meeting, followed by several teletherapy sessions. It was a perfect day to hang at the dock and let the storms roll by. Around noon, we saw a gap between the storms on the weather radar, and headed quickly east, passing through 2 more locks, arriving in the town of Lyons. We    secured the lines to the dock just in time as a massive downpour erupted from the skies. The afternoon was spent with rain on and off – hot and humid when the sun broke out of the clouds, cooler and windy with the rain. Hoped for a rainbow!

Lyons is a friendly town, eager to entice boaters with a free dock stop and has a “greeter” who stops by and welcomes the boaters and provides information. We actually had two greeter visits by John Hewes,  and also Bob Stopper who organizes the volunteers. They both  offered to drive us to the local grocery store, given the rain, and checked on us later in the day.  Kindness!  The local museum and the visitor center are closed – COVID – but, as with most canal towns, there is so much interesting history and engineering here. Lyons is known as “Once the Peppermint Capital of the World,” and the docent in the museum is known as “Peppermint Patty.” Between rain showers, we walked by the lock, across the bridge, and down the road to a local Aldi’s to pick up a few remaining supplies for our final week. Lyons wins for the most welcoming stop on our trip! Thank you!


According to history, in 1841, on the newly completed Erie Canal, Hiram Hotchkiss began the HG Hotchkiss Essential Oil Company. During the late 1800s, with help and hard work for 90% of the local farmers, he bottled the peppermint oil and solitude international, becoming the world’s leading distributor. So many good uses for peppermint oil claimed:  headaches, heartburn, insomnia, and anxiety.


Planning on a few more days to cover the 70 miles back to Brewerton NY, just west of Lake Oneida, where we will store her for the winter in hopes of heading to the North Channel and Georgian Bay via the Trent Severn next summer, God willing.  We hope to be back in Maine around Labor day. Time to be with family and return to work. Thankful we had a “different” adventure and had time together in isolation on our boat, experiencing a new area and meeting new people. A different summer than we had planned but its that way for everyone in 2020, isn’t it?  As we keep remarking, “we have it easy – no complaints!”

Thanks for reading along and sharing in our journey. We appreciate you all!

By the grace of God we go,

~ Karen and Dean


Thank you Lyons’ greeters for the photo of us!

Categories: 2020, Erie Canal, New York


  1. Loved the pics – can’t wait to read it all tonight!

    And especially can’t wait to retire, so we can go on some adventures, too!

    Love you both, and hope you are having a WONDERFUL time!!!


    Sent from Mail for Windows 10


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