Erie Canal - part two, Cap't Jim's epic saga of life aboard a MacGregor 26x for 16 days and 600 miles.
The east half of the canal, from Lake Oneida to the Hudson River we did in August 1996. It was such an enjoyable (but fast - 130 miles, 22 locks in 3 1/2 days) trip that Joyce and I decided to do the western half with Seneca lake, the tip of Lake Erie, the Canadian Welland canal, Lake Ontario, and the Oswego canal included as well. The boat trip took 16 days and covered about 600 miles and unfolded like this
DAY 1: 8/2/99 96 degrees and the tow vehicle is exhibiting a/c problems. Oh well, we could live without a/c for the drive up. No trip up interstate 81 is complete without a stop at Grandma's restaurant in Frickville for a delicious lunch. That night, we "camped out" in a convenient Sam's parking lot in Scranton, Pa., before heading into New York the next day.
DAY 2: Canastoto New York, known as" Canal town", has an original segment of the Erie Canal running through downtown, along with any number of curious locals who stopped to admire the shiny MacGregor 26x. The town barber told me he had read all about it and would look me up on the "web". Who says things don't change in a small town? Arriving in Sylvan Beach we had time to rig the boat up in the "canal" mode before heading off to the town beach (complete with small amusement park for kids) for a swim in lake Oneida. I just love swimming in fresh water with no jellyfish! Rigging the boat in " canal" mode involved using a wooden ladder to raise up the lowered mast high enough to use the bimini top under it, which also improved headroom under the mast to 6'. Then it was on to "Eddy's" restaurant, a long time local favorite, for dinner.
DAY 3: After a peaceful nights sleep, we launched, gassed up, and powered across lake Oneida with favorable east winds of less than 10kts, with "otto" the Autohelm sport pilot steering most of the way to Brewerton. The canal is dotted with summer homes in a variety of shapes and price ranges but one in particular caught our eye, sort of a castle with turrets. It looked like a classic case of overbuilding for the neighborhood. We passed lock 23, the first of many, and drifted into Baldwinsville. Because of the availability of water power associated with the canal, many towns had mills, but the one in Baldwinsville is still operating, grinding out flour. We marveled at a large spider's web in a mill window, beautifully coated with white flour (no doubt making life difficult for the spider). 30 miles later we entered the Seneca canal which passes through an undeveloped wildlife sanctuary, very lush and green, to the 50' high twin locks which we shared with a fleet of scouts in canoes. The light rain did not seem to dampen their spirits, and the bimini kept it off me while we motored into Seneca Falls, home of the women's rights movement. The town had more "for sale" signs than marigolds, and looked like history had passed it by. We had a great spaghetti dinner at "Antonia's", although service was slow, we were not in a hurry. Later that night, tied up at the free town bulkhead (with free 110v elec.). Even though a thunderstorm knocked out the power, we remained snug and dry.
DAY 4: A fine breakfast at the "Twins" restaurant, actually owned for many years by twin men. Our bill came out to only $5.31 total . We felt like we were in the fifties. Then it was off for a bicycle tour through town, ending at the Women's rights National historic park, which preserved a portion of the actual building where the historic 1848 meeting took place. Very educational and entertaining. After lunch aboard, we cycled over for a tour of the Elizabeth Cady Staunton home followed by the historical society museum located in the beautifully restored "Partridge" mansion. The wood carving and detail work would be difficult to duplicate today. Sadly, Mrs. Partridge never lived in the house. During construction her husband died, and she sold it upon completion. Back to the boat, we moved down the canal, past the now deserted factory buildings, to the nearby town of Waterloo for a quick cycle tour of town and dinner before collapsing into slumber. What a day!
DAY 5: Waterloo took its name from the famous battle involving Napoleon, which occurred just before they were picking a name, and a drunken soldier suggested " Waterloo". The McLintock house was where the four ladies met who organized the first women's rights meeting. At the head of the canal is beautiful Seneca Lake state park, with a beach, showers and a paved bike path along the lake to Geneva, where, due to the hills, we had our most energetic bike ride yet, about 6 miles. Then back to the boat for lunch afloat, zooming along at flank speed with "otto" commanding for the 35 mile run to Watkins Glen at the far end of the lake. We secured a marina slip with the promise to be gone before noon the next day due to reservations for the Italian (or was it German) festival just starting. Of course the town is named for the famous Watkins Glen Gorge, and we had to pedal to it and hike through it. Thank god for the bus ride back from the top. The intelligent way would have been to ride the bus up, then walk back down, but everybody was doing that and the buses were crowded. It was very scenic, but we found out the nighttime light show had just folded the previous year. We beat the rain into the Franklin St. Grill for dinner, then enjoyed more thunderstorms and showers back on the boat. Later, I checked out the festival while Joyce was content to read (snooze?) aboard.
DAY 6: Breakfast at "Toby's" a short walk from the marina. I take great delight in ferreting out good local (as opposed to "tourist") restaurants and "Tobys" was the place for breakfast in Watkins Glen. We biked two miles to Montoursville, which had two waterfalls and little else. Still a quaint small town in its own right. Then 35 miles back up the lake, nearly mowing down a couple of fishermen when I got too engrossed in the novel I was reading. Shame on you, Otto. I guess I need a radar interfaced with the autopilot. Back at the Seneca canal, we stopped for gas and the marina kindly let us leave the boat while we biked to nearby "Rose Hill", a beautiful ante-bellum mansion overlooking the lake. As you might have noticed, Joyce and I enjoy touring historic homes. Dinner at the "Crow's Nest" on the canal was enlivened by the arrival of a wedding party in full celebration mode. We joined other diners in a toast to the newlyweds, then chugged back to Waterloo for a quiet night on the "free" side of the lock. What I mean is, The canal pass is $15 for two days., so if you get one at 7am when the lock tender arrives, it is good until 10pm the next day. Use of the canal itself is free until you come to a lock. You need a pass to go through, hence the "free" side of the lock is the place to tie off for the night. We did the entire 260 miles on $45. lock fees. There was still time enough for a trip into Waterloo for ice cream, and I found a bicycle abandoned next to a dumpster. I put some air in the tires at a gas station, and rode it all around before giving it to the lock tender to pass along to one of the kids who always seem to hang around the locks, looking for some excitement.
DAY 7: The lock tender enlisted our aid in an attempt to retrieve an object on the bottom of the lock that looked very much like an automatic pistol. I tried to hook it with a long pole with wire hook duct taped to the end, but with no luck. The water was too deep. So we left the mystery gun on the bottom. Back up the Seneca canal to the Erie Canal, turn west and flog on through an endless succession of small featureless towns with ubiquitous "for sale" signs. Just past Fairport we attempted to tie up alongside the canal wall across from a historic tavern, but the unique wave pattern
(apparently due to a narrowing of the canal at this point and the concrete walls), caused a magnification of powerboat wakes the likes of which I have never seen, and we fought mightily to prevent the fenders from bouncing out from between the boat and the sea wall. We got out fast and continued through lock 33, next lock 64 miles. We covered about 80 miles total by 7pm, but it took its toll. We were whipped! The weather was threatening and windy, with an occasional sprinkle. Sleeping was good, and we forgot about the 96-degree weather we had left behind.
DAY 8: Joyce fixed a big breakfast of ham 'n eggs 'n pancakes, washed down with Cap't Jim's Island coffee (a generous portion of Kahlua, a spoon of hot cocoa mix, and steaming hot coffee). We thought with no locks for the next 50 miles that we would make fast progress, but instead entered the area of "lift bridges". The routines the bridge tenders had looked to be choreographed by the Marx Brothers. One operator had to shuttle between two or more bridges, creating a comedy of delays. The extra speed of the MacGregor surprised more than one lock tender. Had lunch in a nice Italian restaurant in Albion, one of several small quaint towns we passed on the way to Lockport, where the big double locks lift you 55' to the top. The lock tender invited us to stay awhile alongside the dock, but cautioned us to tie up well, " 'cause the suction when I open the sluice gates to fill the lock drops the water there about a foot". The Lockport locks were the engineering marvel of their day, and there was an interesting museum located on the well-manicured grounds. A plaque on the ground is where we first read about Birdsill Holly.
Holly was a fascinating, enigmatic man who was a like-minded contemporary of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and George Eastman but who, due to differences in personality, promotion, and product has been largely forgotten. Holly developed and constructed the first centralized steam heating plant for multiple buildings, and invented and developed the modern constant-pressure fire hydrant system. Both of these are still in use today in almost all major cities worldwide. These complex systems involved many unique applications of emerging technology. Holly was considered the equal of other famous inventors, and if he had invented popular consumer items like phonographs and cameras and cars instead of focusing on warm homes protected from ravaging fires, (and hadn't pulled a Woody Allen with an orphan he had raised as a daughter), he would be better remembered today. So the next time you see bums resting comfortably on steam grates or get a ticket for parking next to a fire hydrant, you can thank Birdsill Holly.
DAY 9: The drizzly morning was the perfect time to tour the museum, and we followed that with a tour of a unique underground "tunnel" 2900' long and 25' in diameter. Built by, who else, Birdsill Holly to provide water power for the machine shops which built the pumps, pipe, valves, etc. for his various systems, as well as several other manufacturers who tapped into the excess power. We were told by the tour guide that "records show only one man, a foreman, was killed by explosives during construction, but no records were kept on orphans or recent immigrants". Then it was back to the canal for 20 miles of partly rock blasted ditch to Tonawanda, home of the Carousel Museum, for a bike tour of town and a voluminous dinner at Nestors', a 24hr locals place with "meatloaf, green beans, mashed potatoes $4.95 all you can eat ". The newly renovated downtown waterfront area pubs beckoned us with live bands, but the music seemed just right from the cockpit.
DAY 10: Back to Nestors for their "Big Belgian Waffle", then shuffle off to Buffalo, up the Niagara River, through the Black Rock canal, and straight into the large, beautifully maintained municipal marina. We could have stepped the mast in Tonawanda, but as the morning was calm we would have been motoring anyway, so while Joyce took advantage of the hot showers, Cap't Jim rigged the boat for sailing. Lake Erie was at our doorstep, and the hundreds of miles of motoring were at an end. The city of Buffalo awaited, so another bicycle tour was in order. Older cities have fascinating architecture, and we made plans to return to the renovated theater district later that evening. Returning to the boat, we noticed a large number of sailboats racing in the lake , reminding us of Annapolis. Back downtown for a show and dinner, we were surprised by how deserted the town was. No shoppers or office workers. There was a lot to do in Buffalo, and you could easily stay for days if you wished. We were pretty tired from the busy day, and last night's sleep in Tonawanda had been interrupted by freight trains. In many areas the rails follow the canal, and the highways follow the rails. Several seemingly bucolic spots were rudely and frequently invaded by piercing whistles and clattering freight cars, or roaring trucks and "Jake brakes". All part of traveling through a developed area. The Erie Canal gives the impression of tranquility, but all is not always as it seems.
DAY 11: Awakening early we noticed a jouncing in the slip as the wind picked up and the surge from the lake worked its way into the marina. The clanging halyards were like wind chimes. It was time to go sailing! Out on the lake we quickly relearned what 150 miles of fetch means, and our close-hauled course to Port Colburn in Canada took us across the mouth of the Niagara River, with the considerable current sucking us towards the DREADED FALLS! Well, it wasn't that dramatic, but we did have to motorsail a bit to get further out into the lake and set a course that would clear point Abino and the treacherous shoals, the grave of many great lakes ships! The sky was a beautiful blue, the boat balanced nicely, I even went out on the trapeze for a while! Trying to pick out the exact entrance to the Welland canal could have been a bit troublesome, but an obliging lake freighter showed us the spot from about 5 miles away and I homed in on the breakwater. We anchored in the lee and prepared the fenders and dock lines for the canal, then headed for the public docks in Port Colburn. After groceries, a quick customs call, and lunch at "Neptune's", we started the canal transit about 3:30 pm. The 27 miles and 7 locks must be done non-stop, ships get priority and are slow entering and exiting the locks, but again luck was with us and we caught up to a ship for only the last two locks, exiting the canal about 10pm. The locks in the Welland ship canal are at least 10 times bigger than the Erie Canal, and the ships barely fit with just 2-4' in width and 15-20' in length to spare. It was fun to watch. We had a little difficulty finding the Catherine Marina that night as it wasn't clear that there was no entrance from the canal, although the marina was visible, it took a two mile detour onto Lake Ontario and around a point, then back to get into the marina. By this point I could have slept through anything, but the marina was perfectly quiet.
DAY 12: A bit gray in the AM as we headed out on a compass course for Toronto. I was thinking I should have cranked up the GPS just in case. As we powered across Lake Ontario the breeze picked up and soon it was prudent to flood the ballast tank. Eventually it got rough enough that sailing was more comfortable, so up went the reefed main and out came half the genoa. We made good progress under sail, I rigged up some Plexiglas on the port side of the cockpit as a rain shield, tied to the bimini top supports. For awhile I let 'otto' steer while I ducked into the cabin. It's kind of nice to be dry and sailing along while the rain beats down outside. Visibility was fair, but I never saw Toronto's CN tower (1850') until about 3-4 miles out. (on a clear day you could see it from the other side). Arrived at Pier 4 Marina where we procured a slip. They had a little pedestrian bridge which was also a miniature draw bridge which they hand raised for us to pass to our slip. WOW! The ethnic Indian festival was just getting underway next door, with eats and sitar music etc. Since we had homed in on the CN tower and it was nearby out came the bikes and off we rode. At 1850' it is the tallest structure in the world, with a rotating restaurant where we enjoyed an exquisite lunch. $100 was a long ways from Nestor's in Tonawanda, but then so was the view. Back at the boat drowsiness won out over further exploration and we drifted off to the haunting melodies of traditional Indian music.
DAY 13: Woke up to see skyscrapers through the forward windows. Took pedal tour of Toronto and stopped into several churches. Joyce particularly enjoys historic churches and likes to read the descriptions on the stained glass windows. One Episcopal Church had a strong military contingent, with many wall plaques and windows honoring all the brave men who died fighting for God and country. It was unique among all the churches we saw on the trip. High atop a hill overlooking the city stood mighty Casaloma, the fortress home of Sir Henry Pellett. The beautiful castle style home took three years to build at a cost of $3.5 million , in 1911! Unfortunately Henry lost his fortune and had the place sold at tax auction, the resulting humiliation hastening the demise of his wife. Pellett was a larger than life type who, in a grand gesture during wealthier times, paid for all 600 members of his reserve corps to sail to England (with new uniforms) for the coronation of Queen Victoria, and was rewarded with a knighthood for his many years of service. The self-guided audio tour took several hours including formal gardens and an 800' tunnel connecting the house to the carriage house etc. We had toured Henry Ford's home in Dearborn, Michigan on another trip. Ford had a tunnel too, but where Ford included the plumbing and wiring in his tunnel, Sir Henry built twin tunnels so guests would not have to see the "workings". But Ford didn't go broke. It was a faster ride downhill back to the boat, and we quickly departed the marina and chugged over to the outer islands for a quiet anchorage and a "home cooked meal". The new cockpit table addition I had made from the cooler compartment cover worked out very well. The band cranked up at the nearby amusement park and completed the evening's entertainment.
DAY 14: Hauling up an anchor which has been embedded in the heavily weeded bottom is a mess. Fresh water has a lot more weeds than we are used to on the Chesapeake, and they can cause fouling of the prop, rudder, centerboard etc. Back across Lake Ontario we went, under sail mostly, very pleasant this time. Dead reckoning right on target to the Niagara River (it helps everyone else is also going there). Niagara-on-the-Lake Sailing Club was friendly, efficient, and cheap. Downtown NOL (Niagara on the Lake, on the Canadian side of the Niagara River) was ablaze with colorful flowers. The local town fathers outdid any town we had seen to date. We really enjoyed the beauty of the streets and rode around every one. The Buttery restaurant served up a nice lunch, and we stopped into a craft show that benefited the George Bernard Shaw Festival of plays . Unfortunately we were not able to get into any of the four theaters Sunday and they were closed Monday. We made up for it by attending a 16th century feast (fingers only) at King Henry the XIII's (upstairs at the Buttery). Lamb, pork, (whole roast suckling pig complete with apple) chicken, ale and the antics of the king and queen. Stuffed with food and drink we wobbled our way back to bed.
DAY 15: Back into NOL for another big breakfast. It was interesting to see
technology in use at the restaurant. A food vendor arrived to take the regular order. The
manager handed him a small tape recorder upon which he had recorded the needed items. The
vendor entered the items in a laptop computer, and phoned it in with a cell phone link for
delivery later that day. One last bike ride down main street, mostly deserted in the early
AM, but with the profusion of glorious color abundant, and we were soon underway again for
the short trip across the river to Youngstown, N.Y. Back on the bikes for the Ft. Niagara
tour. The 1726 fort, originally built by the French , was still standing, with many
refurbished original buildings, a museum, and costumed docents in each building. A mortar
demonstration attracted a large throng. History comes alive in places like this.
Youngstown had a small but active "town" area with several restaurants and we
chose an old Irish pub for lunch. We departed at 2PM for? It seems we had no destination,
so we sailed pleasantly along and read novels while watching the shoreline slip by,
finally motored into Olcott, the town time forgot. A poor, scraggly little place with
"For Sale" signs on many commercial buildings and a few locals holding down
stools in a couple of seedy bars. The few efforts to spruce up the place were no match for
the general dreariness. They had, however, installed brightly painted concrete
"sailboats" with colorful sails as road dividers on the main street. Most
unique! Across the creek was a large marina the catered to transient fishermen, and was
full of ramp launched fishing boats. Happily, further up the narrow creek was a quiet
little anchorage off to one side in 3-4' of water, an algae covered paradise with ducks,
herons, frogs, and jumping fish. We grilled steaks on the propane grill, drank wine and
enjoyed a little Mozart. Surprisingly, there were few insects and just one canoeist
paddling serenely by.
DAY 16: The big day, 55 miles to Rochester with west wind 10-20. Balanced wing and wing with little steering effort (for otto). At 4-8kts of speed, the miles flew by. We motorsailed in the light air spots, suffered through one drenching but short thunderstorm and arrived in Rochester harbor just in time to see the Tues. night racers departing the marina (the other yacht club raced Wed. night, and many of the crews raced both nights). The ominous clouds gave them pause, but the race (and our bike ride through pleasant Charlotte Beach) was concluded without storm. Rochester itself is actually 12 miles from the harbor so we decided to visit it later, preferring to relax on the boat before enjoying a shrimp dinner at the convenient marina restaurant.
DAY 17: After a brief reprovisioning excursion, we were under sail by 9AM , 30 miles of favorable winds to Sodus Bay , a large 2x5 mile bay with narrow cut channel entrance. This is a popular destination for both Rochester and Oswego area sailors, with a nice town, several waterfront restaurants, and Islands with secluded anchorages. We would liked to have stayed here and should have. One of the problems with weather forecasts is that they are frequently off by several hours or more, but generally right. The forecast was for winds shifting from NW to NE overnight, meaning a choppy upwind slog for 25 miles to Oswego the next day, so we elected to push on, motorsailing with genoa in 6-12kts and 3-5' following seas, arriving in Oswego in time to see their Wed. night racers getting ready to start. The weedy municipal marina was well protected and a good place to unstep the mast and revert to "canal" mode again. Surprise! The sounds of big band music wafted over the marina, so we hauled our aluminum folding chairs (doesn't everybody carry them? Joyce nicknamed the boat "Kitchen Sink") and small soft side beer filled cooler up the bank to a lovely park overlooking the lake, with a band playing a variety of tunes from yesteryear. We were so full from "lunch" in Sodus bay we just skipped dinner, something we should have done more often, as waistbands began to "snug up". Hot coffee was great back on the boat, as it was chilly after dark.
DAY 18: 6:17 wake up knock from vigilant marina "metermaid", whom we assured we would pay their fees before departing. We took an early morning bike tour of town, too early for anything to be open, so had nice breakfast at the "Town Restaurant", a unique, small 3 level place that made imaginative use of every inch of space, with both a loft and a cave. Toured historic Ft. Ontario, which switched hands 3 times between the French, English and Americans. The downtown Mariners museum was an intricate and interesting place where each room led into the next with a surprising variety of displays, including one on the underground railway (complete with reproduced "hideaway" behind secret door) and stories of the struggles of individual slaves and the people who tried to help them escape. Outside there was ,on a trailer, a rare boat, the "Picnic 17" which was an early small powersailer built in the '70's by General Boat Co., makers of the Rhodes 22. It was ahead of its time, but could probably be marketed successfully today, with water ballast modifications.
The Oswego canal locks went smoothly by, with a stop at "Fulton" which supposedly got its name from the habit of the canaler's singing out "FULL TON, FULL TON 'o COAL" to sell his merchandise to locals in the 1800's. The recommended "Lock" restaurant was only open for dinner, so we settled for pizza and some more canalling. We crossed our outbound track when we rejoined the Erie Canal for one more lock before settling in for the night at lively Brewerton's west tie-up. There was something for everyone, train whistles, interstate 81 noise, boat wakes, teenagers jumping off the train trellis into the canal while screaming, mosquitoes, and rain. Silly us, one half mile further was the east tie-up, with wake protected area, no train track, less highway noise and a waterfront restaurant. We saw it previously but did not remember it. OOPS!
DAY 19: Time to re-cross lake Oneida, but the "prevailing" westerly winds had not been notified, and the Northeast 15-25 built up a nasty chop. It was so rough I actually considered turning back to the east tie-up, but instead rigged the Plexiglas "windshield" and pounded into it, wearing full foulies for only the second time of the trip. We bailed out at "Cleveland", a small town on the north shore (protected) and squeezed our way into the tiniest harbor I ever saw for a lunch break. When we returned the wind had died some and it was much easier the rest of the way back to Sylvan Lake and the quiet little marina where our trailer and tow vehicle awaited. The transformation back to trailer boat did not take long, and the overcast day was a good time to attend to the huge pile of laundry we had accumulated. I walked around town checking menus, finding a restaurant, "Cinderella's Cafe" which we liked even better than "Eddy's". With 3 visits, Sylvan Beach was starting to feel familiar, and we enjoyed it, but with other trips planned for the future, it is unlikely we will ever return. The drive home was uneventful, even if postponed for a month, but that's another story. The canal trip was fun, educational, fattening, occasionally challenging, and definitely worth doing.