Clinton's Big Ditch
Journal of Jay Mackley (J1 - editor) & Jay Doering (J2 - journalist) on the Erie Canal, September 8-16, 2009
Getting Started (Day 0 - Tuesday)
Oops is an interjection which announces that something has gone awry. The emotion it evokes depends on the gravity of the circumstances.
Jays 1&2 were beginning Part 1 of a transit of the Erie Canal, 166 miles paddling from Tonawanda, near Buffalo, to Baldwinsville, NY, just west of Syracuse. By going west to east the duo would be gaining some strategic advantage, however the motive for that easterly heading at the moment had more to do with logistics than with current, wind or any of the other parameters kayakers try to work in their favor. To make certain that we could claim full credit for the transit we made our late afternoon launch into the Niagara River, ignoring the “… by permit only” sign posted by the boat ramp located in the Tonawanda riverside park. The name Niagara stirs a primal fear which translates into an Oops multiplier.
Working with an abbreviated NYS Canal System document entitled “Boater Resources” with its working diagrams of the canal which lacked detail, J2, the navigator, supplemented with Google Earth images to identify landmarks. “But finding our way should be simple enough,” was the reasoning, “head down river a short distance and make a right turn, then verify that we are in the correct location by several prominent features including an obvious canal like appearance, an abandoned railroad swing bridge followed immediately by a road bridge, and ample numbers of boat docks.”
All seemed to go as planned. Wifely good-byes were executed, the launch was smart, and clear Erie Lake water sweeping down the Niagara River quickly brought us to an opening in the shoreline on river right fitting the description perfectly. Exiting the river, we swung into the narrow channel believing that our adventure had begun … and indeed it had, but not exactly as we planned.
After paddling by the expected abandoned railroad swing bridge followed by a small road bridge, we continued down the narrow waterway admiring boats docked to the right and left. But suddenly, as quickly as we had entered that canal like channel, we were swept into the wide expanse of what J2 immediately suspected was the Niagara River … again! None of it made sense so we worked our way to river left until shallow water permitted accessing Google Earth images stored in the rear compartment of J2’s boat. The full color prints confirmed the features we had seen. Now further confused, we paddled along the shoreline dotted with expensive homes hoping to find a person who could shed some light on our situation. But the area apparently was seasonal and our late September sojourn did not coincide with vacation prime time so we found no one to help. We decided to cross to river right to try to find help there.
Approaching midstream, a glance down river confirmed our suspicions, … and significantly increased our pucker factor! In the distance, perhaps five miles away, was the viewing tower for Niagara Falls and beside it was the faint but unmistakable mark of the cataract itself, a rising plume of mist. OOPS!!!
We encountered a lone boater while making the crossing and inquired as to where we might find the entrance to the Erie Canal. … blank stare, shrug, no help … you might have thought we were speaking a foreign language. As we approached the east shore a homeowner was spotted doing lawn work. Getting his attention, we explained our dilemma. He knew what we were looking for, but giving directions was not his strong suit. He made one thing very clear however … paddle upstream! Following his vague directions to look for a creek, enter it, and then look for the canal on the left, we paddled hard against the current which seemed to be at least 2 miles per hour. We never found the stream as he described it, but we did re-enter the narrow channel we had passed through about an hour earlier.
An amiable yachtsman sitting dockside was our next point of contact. He quickly focused our search with some clear direction then sympathetically invited us to board his ample boat to have a beer. A little self medication would have felt good at this point but our strong priority was to find the relative security of the Erie Canal, so we reluctantly declined the offer.
Within a few minutes we were abreast what looked very much like the entrance to a boat basin, but fastened to the bulkhead was a relatively nondescript sign welcoming us to the Erie Canal. The confusion began to evaporate when not far from the entrance we saw another abandoned railroad swing bridge, identical to our first encounter, and it too was followed by a road bridge. While we now understood that we had mistaken identity to partly blame for our misadventure, it wasn’t until we had an unscheduled meeting later in the evening with Carol Doering, our transport driver, that the rest of the mystery was solved. Fortuitously, she was returning from a side trip to view the Falls and she decided to try to track us down in the canal to see what progress we had made before continuing her long trek back to Pottstown, PA. By the time we connected it was dark. We had found a small, day use park at which to stealth camp, about a mile into the canal. Cell phones, the communications tool of choice on all of our kayak adventures, brought us together.
Somehow, only partially explainable by natural means, Carol had deduced that the first right we made off of the river was actually into a narrow channel separating the town of Tonawanda from a small island named Tonawanda Island, not shown on our charts. In all fairness to the NYS Canal Corporation, a yachting sized cruising guide is available which shows adequate navigational detail including the details of the canal entrance off of the Niagara River. It would behoove the paddler to obtain a copy and reduce the more critical areas of their trip to a manageable trip-tick format. and missed in the Google Earth image. What we failed to do, for lack of proper direction, was make a second right into the canal almost immediately after the first one. The canal enters at a downstream angle tending to mask its own view, particularly to kayakers. And of course the identical features sealed our fate. Live and learn, but in this case, a happy ending to our beginning.
Introduction to Locking (Day 1 - Wednesday)
Waking, feeling surprisingly good after sleeping in a park that turned out to be a cross between Lover’s Lane and New York’s answer to Baja for the ATV set, J1 (the adventure cook) began his labor of love … food preparation. In this case, as with most mornings, the fare started with hearty oatmeal which was often punctuated with some other delicacy. Always there was a fruit cup chaser. Food is fuel for the kayaker, and to make our daily mileage budget, we were going to need lots of it.
For much of its course, the Erie Canal places the traveler adjacent to mainstream life. This was very true in Tonawanda and would remain largely the case throughout the next several days. As we launched, not long after dawn, we paralleled a steady flow of cars carrying their inhabitants to work. It was a strange feeling in contrast to our previous three sojourns which combined, carried us from Cooperstown New York to Tuckerton New Jersey via the Susquehanna river, Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, a couple of connecting canals, and the inland waterway. Most of that travel kept us somewhat separated from our fellow man. But such is not the case when cruising the Erie Canal. It’s a social event … and we loved it!
The first several miles took us past the homes of obviously well heeled citizens. The estates were often of sufficient size and number that, along with a few canal side parks, they created a comfortably natural environment. In fact at one point, a buck was spotted swimming across the canal.
Paddling, of course, was easy to a fault. Other than the occasional disturbance from power boat traffic, the canal banks enforce a placid surface with a trace of current flowing west to east. On the other hand, while the minimal research we did indicated that we had a chance of enjoying a tail wind at this time of year, at 9:30 each morning for the first three days we picked up an easterly head wind which built throughout the day until it actually produced small whitecaps in later afternoon. But all things considered, the Erie Canal is pleasant paddling.
One feature which would be entirely new for us on this adventure is passing through locks. Our first experience would be at the town of Lockport, about 17 miles from our previous evening’s encampment. We anticipated reaching it by mid-afternoon. The Erie Canal has thirty-five locks as it winds across bucolic “mid-state” New York. With the exception of one small seven foot lock just west of Oneida Lake and two larger ones to its west, it’s all downhill from the Niagara River to the Hudson, the two terminus points. This is good news for east bound small boaters having their first locking experience since being let down in a lock is a very benign experience as water exits the lock chamber. When being lifted, water entering does cause some disturbance.
Our mid-afternoon encounter would be at lock 35 the final (or initial, depending on your direction of travel) lock on the canal. Historically there were many more but an upgrade to the canal in the early 1900s finalized the present configuration. Lock 35 was the first half of a double lock with one chamber feeding directly into the next. Since we were only going halfway down the canal on this trip, this was the only multi chamber lock we would encounter. At the Hudson end of the canal, should we complete our transit, we will experience a six chamber set. Multiple locks are necessary to handle steeper terrain and in the case of 35/34, it is to lower the canal over the Niagara Escarpment, a much more benign exercise than the natural alternative twenty miles to the west.
After a pleasant lunch at a veteran’s memorial park, typical of many pleasant small parks near towns, we paddled steadily towards Lockport and by mid afternoon the lock was in sight. We followed the accepted procedure by phoning the lock tender using a number supplied from a list lifted off the internet. It is also permissible to use channel 4 or 13 on the VHF marine band or sound three blasts on a horn. While we did not carry a radio we did have a small horn powered by a gas bottle which we actually used once. The lock tender gave a courteous reply indicating he would be awaiting our arrival and that the lock was full and would soon be ready for us to enter. As we neared the entrance a woman called to us from a packet boat Originally packet boats were ‘high speed’ canal boats carrying passengers. The packet boat referred to here is a modern approximation of the old packet design, now powered by a small diesel instead of a mule. They are leased for about $2000/week and used for vacation cruising on the NY State Canal System. asking if we intended to lock through. We replied in the affirmative to which she responded that they would accompany us through. That exchange was the beginning of a delightful friendship with Tom and Amber, Adirondack natives. We would exchange greetings and eventually refreshments over the better part of our journey. Henceforth Amber’s passing hail to the Js would be “Hey, Pennsylvania!”
Entrance to the lock is controlled by a signal light. It was still red as we approached indicating that the lock was not ready to accept us. In a few minutes it turned green and we simply paddled in and took our place along the right wall. Either side is acceptable but, as right-handers we found this wall more convenient as it is necessary to steady yourself with lines which hang vertically into the lock chamber spaced at about 25 foot intervals. This was imperative for all craft for the obvious reason that you don’t want to be playing ‘bumper-boat’ on the ride up or down. That’s especially important when you are a kayak sharing the lock with boats big enough to squash you against the wall like a bug. The locks chambers were never crowded during the trip, probably because of the time of year. The largest population was about eight boats. We were the only paddle-craft and on some occasions, we were the only boats taken though.
After everyone is positioned along the wall, the large doors to our rear swung slowly shut with all the groans, squeals, and a final thud that you would expect. At that point the lock keeper, for the most part social and cheery folks, and always courteous, walks the length of the chamber asking everyone if they are ready which apparently meant “Do you have a good grasp on that all important line.” He then enters to little control booth at what will be the exit door and soon, following some more sound effects, we become aware that we have begun our ride down. The process of water exiting the chamber is very benign; if it weren’t for the rules and the other boats, you could paddle around to kill time.
Within a couple of minutes a potentially unnerving sound for the first timer develops. Coming from directly behind, there’s a gushing, like a small waterfall, requiring some neck craning for a kayaker to assess. As suspected, the upstream doors leak. In some cases they leak a lot, and as the level difference across them increases, so does the flow. Not to worry though, because the leakage has only a minimal effect on surface tranquility. Within what seemed to be five minutes, a few more clunking sounds signaled the start of the downstream gates slow opening. In all cases except today, as the opening widened we would be treated to a new vista of the next ‘level’ we were about to enter. In this case, as expected, the view was directly into the chamber of lock 34. Repeating the process was a photo op for the now ‘experienced’ Duo.
Exiting 34, we encountered a small amount of residual turbulence as the final equilibration of levels occurred; not a problem, but not to be ignored either. Before us was the Erie Canal real estate of downtown Lockport, an otherwise bustling burg. Having sat in our boats for several hours now, we were interested in a respite. This need alerted us to one of the problem areas in paddling the Canal. When you reached a town, concrete bulkheads at least four feet high lined both sides providing no opportunity to safely exit our craft. Recalling that at one time this was a commercial enterprise facilitating large barges and tugboats, the configuration is expected. On the other hand, the Canal is now almost entirely recreational. And unless we read them wrong, the New York State Canal Corporation, the public entity responsible for canal operation, encourages paddle craft. Some towns seemed to be very conscious of the needs of paddlers, supplementing their bulkheads with low profile access docks; others did not; count Lockport with the latter.
Eventually the concrete wall gave way to steep rip-rap banks. While far from ideal, the large stones occasionally provided some minimal footing and the bank could be ascended, albeit with extreme care since the loosely placed stones were easily dislodged with potentially disastrous results on your trailing foot. J1 was able to break free of his fiberglass straight jacket and begin exploring the park like surroundings for some ‘comfort’ facilities. Gathering some quick intelligence he was directed about a quarter mile down stream, so while he hiked the bank, J2 towed his boat. This was the first of two experiments on comparing walking speeds to paddling. J1 was a man with a mission boogying down the tow bath with J2 huffing and puffing in classic canal tow-boat configuration keeping pace at his side. ‘Facilities’ are touted as being widely available along the canal and that’s a good thing since handling biological necessities ‘nature’s way’ is quite impossible in the populous environment of canal towns. What the paddler rapidly discovers, however, is that this availability is subject to discovery since providing comfort is a function of each local government and not at all coordinated by the State. Bottom line, if you want to access a toilet or shower, you’d better not be shy, and you may even want to brush up on your negotiating skills, as seen a short time later.
So a much relieved J1 and fatigued J2 paddled on in their voyage of discovery and soon were pleasantly surprised by some serious respite in suburban Lockport at a canal location named “Wide Water” for obvious reasons. What initially attracted our attention was the Wide Water Drive-in which our critical eye quickly sized up as a calorie station with little hope of fine dining. But the clincher was that the small comfort station provided as a municipal service to boaters … had a shower! The facility was guarded by an attendant who was intent on enforcing the “… For Boaters Only” sign posted to protect against vagrants. Unfortunately, we were already beginning to take on the appearance and other attributes of vagrants and when we pointed towards our kayaks, the youthful, IQ challenged attendant declared them non-boats disqualifying us from the much needed ablutions. The only hope was that “the Boss” would be there in a few minutes and maybe he would allow us access. Negotiation results – annoying attendant = 1; Js = 0 !
We retired to the drive-in and confirmed our previous speculations over cheeseburgers and greasy fries served up by a hard boiled counter waitress. Soon we saw the change-of-command at the attendant station across the parking lot so we paid up and departed, with serious indigestion already producing sonorous commentary on the caloric encounter. Back at the negotiating table the older-but-wiser attendant quickly granted us admittance. Grabbing our towels we put the Spartan facility to good use.
Late afternoon is the time to start getting serious about where to spend the night. We had delusions of easily available ‘rent-a-beds’, a fantasy carried over from our previous adventures. Short of participating in some sort of prearranged tour however, the kayaker’s lot remains his camping skills, which in turn means ‘getting out of Dodge’ and finding more suitable surroundings.
The next name on our crude map of the canal was Gasport. Not only was it suitably named for victims of Wide Water Drive-in, but it promised to be a burg of diminutive proportion suitable for stealth camping. To our delight we encountered a boat ramp adjacent to the Gasport marina which was accompanied by picnic grounds stretching west along the canal bank. We made an attempt to find the proprietor to gain permission to use their grounds to spend the night but the office had closed early, or more likely was now closed during the week as the vacation season waned. Having salved our conscience, we set up camp at the far end of the grounds, generally out sight from the minimal amount of human activity. Since we have graduated to ‘zero-impact’ stealth campers, … no one would ever be the wiser!
Meeting the Deputy Mayor (Day 2 - Thursday)
The big goal of the day was to lunch at the town of Medina. Not that we had heard anything special, but the mileage seemed appropriate. Our strategy was to make 15 miles by lunch time and then coast in to the last eight or so miles in the late afternoon. There would be no locks today as we were on one of the longer levels on the canal. Of course we couldn’t follow the terrain; the terrain had to follow us. Sometimes we were looking up at our surroundings but more often the water level in the canal was well above the surrounding landscape. Mid morning we passed a small, west bound barge being pushed by an equally small tug. We speculated that it was commercial traffic, and if so, the only we saw during our entire trip.
With Day 1 and its locking experience behind, we could begin to relax and take in the culture that is as much the canal as the canal itself. Anxious to leave our stealth campsite to avoid any potential for controversy, we got underway early with hopes of finding another spot for breakfast. We weren’t disappointed because the Town Fathers of Millport, the next population center down the line, just completed a small park that in most respects was perfect for our need. Unfortunately they ran out of money (or imagination) before providing a simple floating dock that would have allowed us to bypass their own ancient concrete bulkhead. But again, as in Lockport, concrete eventually gave way to rip-rap so we had another opportunity to refine our risky debarkation technique. While the park did not supply a Jiffy John or more refined facility, it did have a water tap. Above the tap was an appeal for donations to offset the park’s expenses. J1 seized the opportunity to synergize the need for toilet facilities by proceeding ‘down town’ and stopping into the municipal offices, making an appropriate offering then borrowing some time in their rest-room. Again reinforcing the axiom … “availability requires creativity.”
We also noted the popularity of the foot/cycle path on the north bank, part of the Canalway Trail. Local residents out for some exercise shared the space with through bikers laden with saddlebags. A maintenance crew was busy keeping the grass under control; a grossly obese New Yorker in a large John Deer talking loudly on his cell phone followed by a lean looking south-of-the-border neighbor keeping a mean pace at the edge of the bank with his walk-behind mower; a sad commentary.
Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge ‘cause we’re coming to a town
While there were many rail and road bridges over the canal providing ample clearance to water traffic (with the exception of sail boats which must un-step their masts prior to entering the canal), there were also quaint ‘canal bridges’ in many of the towns. Since the canal bisects most towns along its path, street traffic needed a crossing that didn’t require the long incline required for vertical clearance. These “low bridges”, decorated with flags and bearing the name of the associated town, met the need. Their vertical lift design required notification from boaters similar to locks. We were an exception to that rule, able to pass beneath them in the lowered state with about a foot of head room, so it was not unusual for us to pass our packet boat acquaintances while they waited for the busy bridge tenders who could have responsibility for multiple bridges. This created a tortoise and hare rhythm since the packets, running at full throttle, could slightly outpace us in our kayaks between bridges.
Reaching Medina, we were immediately impressed with the extensive floating docks to accommodate low freeboard vessels, of which we were the lowest. Before we could take in the general lay of the harbor, our eyes were drawn to the word “Bakery” emblazoned, albeit in fading letters, on a nearby wall. Like a couple of homing pigeons we abandoned our fiberglass roosts making a bee line for the promised calories that our paddling weary bodies craved. What happened next became an unfortunate routine of disappointment marking many of our culinary pursuits in the days ahead. The place was closed; in this case permanently! Sweaty and disreputable in appearance, we made our way to Main Street with a dual mission; food, and a wrist watch for J1. Fortunately, a short exploration brought us to the Chamber of Commerce where amused ladies supplied us with answers to all our questions and then some.
First priority was food and we trekked a few blocks, as directed, to the “Shirt Factory” Café. It occupied the ground floor of what truly had been a shirt factory, a unique one catering to the needs of the very wealthy including many celebrities; all of this documented in the décor of the café. Although our dress clearly didn’t meet the style norms of this eatery, the hostess was gracious to a fault. My guess is she took us for eccentric millionaires. Downing some fruit smoothies and scones, we met our caloric obligation to our bodies, paid our bill, and exited to the street … and directly into the immediate presence of Andrew Meier, the Deputy Mayor of Medina. In hindsight the Duo suspected that Andrew had been tipped off by the gracious hostess whom we further suspect was Mrs. Meier. Andrew, it turned out, appeared to be an astute business promoter with a high interest in how we discovered the Shirt Factory and what our interests were as mariners taking liberty in his town. Our absolutely classic, though entirely accidental, response was that we had stopped by the Chamber of Commerce, the font of information for ‘Anytown, USA’. We also confessed that it was the bogus bakery sign that started us in the right direction. We complimented Andrew profusely on the floating docks and made a few suggestions on how he may better direct the deep pocketed boaters to the town’s businesses. We then made pleasant good-byes and proceeded back to docks stopping along the way for J1’s all important watch, a cheap imitation of a quality device. It took a couple of days before the proud new owner could get the thing to actually record the time!
Departure from this historic canal town was via the Medina aqueduct. From inside its watery confines it was impossible to tell that we were actually ‘airborne’ above Oak Orchard Creek and Medina Falls. It required a later visit to the internet to fully appreciate this structure. By late afternoon we were approaching Albion but were unable to sample its delights due to the press of fading sunlight and our need to ‘press on’ and find a suitable camp site. Passing Tom and Amber’s packet without personal contact we paddled east out of town finding only miles of rip-rap banks separating us from the narrow strip of mowed vegetation which we were assured was fair game for camping; this bit of intelligence gathered by J1 back in Baldwinsville where he had struck up a friendship with the lock tender.
By now we had refined our technique at moving ourselves up these loose rocky barriers, but always leaving our boats behind. However, leaving them in the canal overnight seemed unwise so we powwowed to come up with a solution. The technique we decided on was to unload the kayaks while still in the water passing our equipment and supplies up to level ground then attempting to lift the boats out without damaging their fiberglass hulls on the relatively sharp rocks. While unloading the first boat we came up with a significant improvement to the planned lift. J2 places a piece of outdoor carpet in his cockpit for greater foot comfort and it was possible to remove the carpet and place it over the ‘brink’ of the riprap providing a padded fulcrum over which to slide the kayaks. It worked great and in fact, for the second lift it was not even necessary to unload the boat beyond some of the heavier cargo such as the fresh water supplies. Lesson learned? Carry a small piece of carpet for such challenges.
While the north side of the canal containing the Canalway Trail remained active until sunset, the south side provided the Duo with the semi-privacy they needed to establish their camp for night three.
Networking on the Canal (Day 3 - Friday)
The other error in our assumptions was that there were no showers. Our breakfast guest assured us that behind the unmarked door in the building housing the public toilets was a shower with a coded lock, and that if we called the Holley Canal Bridge tender (using the phone number from the same list as the numbers for the lock tenders), he would give us the number. We did … and he did. Behind the door was the customary request for a donation which we gladly supplied in exchange for a new lease on civilized life.
Looking for a better spot for breakfast than the naked canal bank, we launched early and made for the town of Holley which wasn’t reached until late morning. Like other little villages and towns, Holley had created a delightful canal park and, in the process had not forgotten their low freeboard visitors. Picnic tables were available along with quality public rest-rooms. A well used trail led away from the Canal into a shallow valley with a waterfall. What we didn’t know was that there was more to know, and that gap was soon filled by a very talkative retired carpenter who joined us at the picnic table. J1 was able to talk the gent into a cup of coffee which didn’t take a lot of convincing. When J1 apologized for the possible lack of cleanliness our guest responded that he didn’t worry much about those sort of things as he unhesitatingly put lips to slightly used rim! During the ensuing conversation we learned most of his life story, and like other natives we encountered, he tended to be quite conservative. On our part we lamented about the “No Camping” sign posted at the landing and the lack of an available shower. He pronounced us wrong on both counts. Many folks of our ilk ignore the camping prohibition and simply move a little deeper into the park, a practice winked at by authorities. That helped shape our future thinking regarding our zero impact stealth camping in these small parks. We adopted a mind-set that since we were paddlers, an ecologically sound way of using the canal, and if we left the park even better than we found it by policing the area in which we camped and leaving no trace, our brief presence would be acceptable.
A popular supplement for Erie Canal vacationers was to carry bikes for use on the canal Way trail. The packet boats actually rented with bikes included. They could be used for side excursions or even dividing a boating party up for a few hours then rendezvousing at another location.
Seriously delayed by conversation and showers, we got underway at noon time and paddled in earnest for the next several hours passing through Brockport, a town with much promise, with low landings, and free bike rentals for boaters Unfortunately out schedule did not permit a stop so it was on to Spencerport where J1’s intelligence gathering assured us of good eating, perhaps even fine dining if the Baldwinsville lock tender was a dependable judge of the culinary arts. As we made our approach we spotted an addendum to the town boat landing designed for low profile mariners. “Nice going. Spencerport!” Leaving our kayaks to fend for themselves, we made a quick reconnoiter and almost immediately spotted the “Galley” restaurant. From the start we knew this was going to be a treat.
We chose outdoor dining by the canal and as we supped, we noticed a familiar packet moored on the opposite side. It was Tom and Amber. With muted shouts, hand motions, and anything else we could do to signal them without being thrown out for disturbing the peace, we were able to get their attention. Up until now our contact had only been in passing, literally, and that entirely with Amber, Tom being the strong, silent type and probably just a little leery of vagabond kayakers. But after they hoofed it across the Spencerport bridge and joined us for some liquid libation, we got to know each other well. They were great company.
However, the curse of the camping kayaker struck and we had move on to find lodging for the evening before the sun set. Hoping to find something called Henpeck Park on the chart, we settled instead for some sort of very low end private camp ground, which was OK since we weren’t very fond of the name of our planned destination. Spared any challenge to our presence by the off-season choice of dates for our trip, we made camp and settled down for some serious ZZZs, only to discover that in the off-season this spot was home to the local deer population who spent the night snorting their annoyance at us.
The Urban Paddler (Day4 - Saturday)
The Erie Canal brought prosperity to New York which inevitably means there will be some paddling in an urban environment. So like riding the Northeast Corridor trains in and out of Philadelphia, the route takes you by ‘has been’ industrial scenes which speak of past glory but present blight. Today was our day for urban paddling as we bored deeper into Rochester, New York, sandwiched by its own growth between Lake Erie The name Erie is adopted from the Erie Indian tribe, an indigenous people of North America of the Iroquoian branch of the Hokan-Siouan linguistic stock. In the Iroquoian language, the name Erie is a shortened form of Erielhonan, a word which means `long tail.' This is in reference to the mountain lion which roamed the domain of these people. and the Erie Canal.
Appropriately, the day began with a gray sky, the low clouds promising rain. A little sunshine entered our lives when a loud “Hey Pennsylvania” was heard as we were breaking camp. Tom and Amber had gotten underway early today. … Shortly after departing camp “Deer Snort”, a light rain began, but it never got heavy enough to warrant donning our raingear. Hard paddling in the early hours of the morning kept us comfortably warm, in fact the misty precipitation felt refreshing. Our general plan for the day was to get past Rochester since we speculated that the urban environment wouldn’t offer camp sites and, depending on how urban, may not offer any amenities. Generally our concerns were valid, except for one peculiar twist. As we moved gradually into the ‘gut’ of Rochester, we did see a campsite hung precariously on a steep embankment beneath a bridge, obviously ‘home’ to a ‘homeless’ person. What appeared to be a sleeping bag which had seen better days, and dozens of ratty possessions, were tied off to scrubby tree trunks to prevent them from entering the canal. The vagrant inhabitant was out for the moment, it being midmorning. Instead of being an offense to the Adventure Duo, a strange sense of wonderment swept over them. Who was this fellow wanderer, this kindred spirit? He was probably plying the streets of Rochester with the balance of his worldly wealth in a shopping cart rescued from the very canal in which we ourselves were finding our freedom from the entanglements of this fast paced world. Our shopping carts were sleek 17 foot fiberglass kayaks into which we crammed what we needed to survive. Were we really so different? We had a new respect for the “King of the Road”; and perhaps some insight into our own bent for wandering. Never again would we look upon the throwaway souls of our society in the same light. At our core, we are brothers!
All too soon our urban schooling came to an end as we slipped into the genteel world of the Genesee River replete with upscale activities. Eight oared shells flew swiftly by, a west bound robust female sculler exited the canal, a charity walk along the riverside linear park, and even high end Graffiti with the initials of University of Rochester crudely painted on a bridge. Clearly the well bred artist could have taken some lessons from his less fortunate neighbor. The river crossing was brief and we were soon back within the confines of the canal heading towards locks 33 and 32, completing 63 lock free miles since our initial experience at Lockport three days before. The parting shot from Rochester was a couple of miles paddling on the shoulder of an Interstate with noise enough to drive you crazy. The quiet confines of the lock chamber were most welcome.
Another insight surfaced as J2, the left brained engineer observed J1, a truly great, albeit yet undiscovered artist, take in the graffiti; again a largely misunderstood mark of our urban-scape. Our own temporary humble state allowed J1 to appreciate the creativity he witnessed on each bridge abutment, on each girder, and even on the canal guard gates; each surface the canvas of urban America. Within minutes the Duo’s artist-in-residence had developed a preference for the unique creativity of a particular ghetto signature whose name neither of us could later recall but it would have been something akin to the KingKool moniker which adorned walls throughout Philadelphia in the Sixties and was on display up and down the East Coast on nearly every Conrail boxcar.
We departed lock 33 to mellowing scenery and emerging sunshine; and with the departure of the rain we also gained a tail wind, all very fitting. It was also well past lunch time and after clocking about 15 miles we were ready for a stop. Immediately upon leaving the lock we came upon the boat ramp of the William C. Warren III boat house, home of the Pittsford crew. It is also the location of one of the world’s largest indoor rowing tank facilities, which is all very impressive.
What attracted our attention was a picnic table pleasantly situated on the lawn between boat house and canal. Noticing a vehicle parked on the premises, J2 searched out the owner to ask permission to lunch there. The rear door of the facility was open and inside he found and met the club’s rigger (and more), Brad Sayer. Since J2 had rowed for Penn in his youth, an immediate rapport was established. Brad described the remarkable history of the facility with obvious pride. He not only gave us permission to lunch but offered the use of the men’s room to boot. Big thanks to Brad and congratulations to the Pittsford crew on such a handsome facility.
At the next bend in the canal lay the Village of Pittsford, as lovely as any along the canal to date and a stark contrast to the scenery a few miles before on the other side of the Genesee. An office building converted from a grain elevator made a remarkable land mark near the water’s edge. A large festival was in progress and a busy tour boat added to the holiday atmosphere, lifting our spirits.This was rapidly transitioning into one of our best days.
She maintained her brisk pace for the next half mile then signaled us to our destination. After we pulled in she then proceeded to give us directions to the harbor master for further assistance; but again, disappointed with her own directions, she walked J2 over to the south side of the canal and personally introduced him to the harbor master. As the formalities were being consummated, a familiar voice shouted, “Hey, Pennsylvania, it’s our turn to supply the refreshment.” There they were, tied up but a few feet away. Rounding up J1, the foursome moved off to a haunt of Amber’s choice and there we continued the previous evening’s conversations. Getting to know each other better, we discovered that both Tom and Amber were avid curlers, that sport which is so precious north of the border but only a distant curiosity to those further south. The Js were fascinated by the all the subtleties of the game and could have discussed it for another couple of hours but dusk was approaching and we had to give consideration to where we would spend the night. The situation became tense when J1 learned that it was prime rib night, and we hadn’t thought about dinner yet. Forcing ourselves to make farewells and leave the promise of a delicious dinner behind, we even attempted to find lodging in town, even if it meant leaving our kayaks unattended for the evening. We asked several people on the way back to the landing but no one could help … “there was no room in the inn”. And what made it particularly bad was that the evening before, as we left the “Galley” in Spencerport, headed for our kayaks, town folks were setting lawn chairs around the band stand to enjoy Scottish bag pipers. And now, as we walked out of Fairport, we again walked by a band stand, this time being prepared for an Irish band. That was the final straw, the insult to injury! By the time we paddled out of town we were like a couple of sailors who had just had their liberty cancelled in a swinging port. We were down in the mouth and morale was dragging bottom.
A few more miles and we were approaching Fairport and encountering a significant increase in boating activity. The canal bank was also busy with many people out for Saturday afternoon exercise. As was our custom, we greeted folks when we were close to the bank and generally received a reply, if only a nod before we moved on. One lady however, was maintaining a stiff pace walking her dog and in our growing fatigue we were just keeping up. The result was that the conversation moved past the greeting stage and eventually migrated to questions about the town ahead. She assured us that it was full of amenities. Her perception of our needs was keen as she provided specific direction to the location of low docks suitable for exiting a kayak. Not satisfied with her own directions, she said she was walking that way and would personally guide us to the landing.
It was late when we came upon a satisfactory piece of real estate on which to spend the night. Only semi hidden from the surrounding homes and looking like an unofficial neighborhood park, stealth was in order. We set up our tents with very little light and crawled in without dinner … after all that disappointment we didn’t have much of an appetite. But then it happened. Suddenly a sound like a mortar barrage broke out outside the tents with extraordinary ka-booms and immense flashes of light. Rolling out of our tents we were witness to a grand fireworks display. We had no idea who the intended audience was or the purpose of the fireworks but one thing was for sure, no one had the ring side seats that we did. We watched and enjoyed. We forgot our sorrows; and after the show we bedded down as happy campers. There is a God in heaven who looks after kayakers, at least he looks after these two!
Canal to River (Day 5 – Sunday)
The Erie Canal, like many of its imitators, lost its economic usefulness primarily to the slightly more modern and far swifter mode of transport, the railroad. In many cases both the canal and railroad have become relics of the industrial age. While many have disappeared, some find use as corridors for recreation. Typically that means that the railroad becomes a bike path and the canal disappears. The Erie Canal is an exception. It did not fade away but rather became a unique outlet for recreational boating while its banks supplied real-estate for a well used trail. And as for the rail competition, it prospers to this day.
Not surprisingly, in the early days these competitors followed similar routes for the same reason; significant terrain change has an overwhelmingly negative impact on economics. To a large extent this was true for the Erie Canal over much of the length we traveled. The result was a constant awareness of nearby rail traffic, some times in the extreme. The Duo was suffering from some severe sleep deprivation because located directly across the canal was not only the site of the previous evenings fireworks display, but also what must have been one of the busiest freight lines in the State of New York. Several times during the night we awoke to the roar of multiple high speed freight locomotives sounding as though they were going to pass between our tents. Despite being separated by the width of the canal, the ground vibrated for several minutes with each passing train, and road crossings nearby our campsite ensured that we got plenty of warning from ear splitting air-horns. Mercifully, morning had arrived.
Wanting to maintain our stealth status, we made our departure in the dark without breakfast. We also had another motive for an early launch; this was the morning Tom and Amber turned in their packet and we wanted to say good-bye. We expected to see them as they passed us but we quickly covered the next eight miles, including lock 30, arriving at Mid Lakes marina in Macedon NY before they could overtake us. Along the way the canal began to change character, broadening and taking on the appearance of a lazy river dotted with early morning fishermen. Engineers laying out the route of a canal take advantage of natural waterways to save excavation costs and the terrain bordering the south shore of Lake Ontario provides many. But at a kayak pace and vantage point the transitions occur slowly so it was through subtle awareness that we awakened to the fact that the well defined, man-made banks of urban/suburban Rochester had given way to more natural beds of reeds and occasional swamp like appearance; and the upscale housing yielded to fishing camps and a comical, down-scale ‘yacht club’.
Upon arriving at the marina, a ramp provided us with easy egress, and not unexpectedly, we found showers available for $5. Mid Lakes runs a first class facility housing many boats. But their signature was the picturesque line up of packets undergoing outfitting for another week of rental. Soon Tom and Amber arrived. We did a quick exchange of contact information and made our good-byes with sincere expressions of appreciation for the camaraderie facilitated by the Erie Canal.
Hunger was now a factor for the duo. No dinner, no breakfast, no energy, but we chose to move on, hearts set on a ‘store bought’ breakfast. Struggling, we covered the three miles and one lock into Palmyra. A well designed cove and a kayaker friendly landing lead us to believe that here was a town that understood. But first impressions, though important, are not always reliable. At Macedon we had received intelligence that a nice café awaited us at the water front, and sure enough, there it stood, a hundred yards away. Ready for a gastric treat, we shed our PFDs and left our boats in the water, tied off to the landing.
The fare at the “Acropolis” did indeed meet our need, and matched with some TUMs latter on, restored our strength without an excessive penalty to our immediate health. Returning to the landing we were relieved to find kayaks unmolested and still secure. With none of the reluctance experienced in previous towns, we boarded our vessels and beat a hasty departure, still feeling the disappointment of a town more interested boasting about Joseph Smith and his tablets of gold than meeting the needs of a couple of saddle worn and very hungry canal vagabonds.
The brisk walk up to the picturesque café ended in disaster! CLOSED. It was Sunday, and so, OK, closed until noon would be understandable, but the big hand and the little hand both pointed straight up … and still, … CLOSED! Disappointed but undeterred, the Duo marched into town leaving their trusty steeds to fend for themselves. Numerous historical markers told us that this was the place where Joseph Smith found his golden tablets and kicked off the Mormon religion. Several buildings were identified as the locations for various aspects of his accomplishment but none of it meant squat to us because we couldn’t find an eatery. The best we could do was a ‘sweet shop’ which would never suffice. But at least the disinterested proprietor deigned to direct us to a Greek diner at the end of town to meet our needs. As we hastened in its direction we passed a very interesting building that struck J1’s fancy and we made note to photograph it on our return.
We had covered about 10 miles so far this day, less than half of our minimum requirement. Ahead lay an unimpeded 10 mile level ending with lock 28B followed 4 miles later by 28A. Knowing that at this time of year lock operations ceased at 5pm and wanting to make Lyons by evening, we had our work cut out for us as it was already close to 1 o’clock. The ten miles passed pleasurably as the waterway continued to show a more natural face. Wildlife abounded including sightings of an eagle, some osprey, many kingfishers, heron, and repeated areas of surface disturbance signaling gizzard shad, food for many other species. Bypassing Newark, we entered lock 28B shortly before 4pm. As seemed customary, the tender asked us our destination. These gents (Not all lock tenders are gents. We spoke briefly to a lovely lady lock tender in Lockport - sounds like fodder for a tongue twister, maybe even a limerick) keep tabs on the canal traffic, and they seemed especially attentive to us, frequently providing unsolicited advice on camp sites, landings, and facilities. When we told him that we wanted to make the park in Lyons for the evening he said he would call ahead to 28A to be sure that they knew we would have to lock through today. It’s not clear if he understood what that meant for us if we were expected to be there by five o’clock, but we thanked him and began the locking sequence.
At exactly 3:55 we exited the chamber exchanging friendly waves with our brief host then began to paddle in earnest. Each trip we take has a magnum opus, representing our peak kayaking achievement for that adventure. On the Susquehanna it was a 52 mile day, out in the Delaware Bay it was the 8 mile open sea crossing from East Point to Reeds Beach, and in the inland water way it was transiting Great Bay. Now we were committed, even honor bound to these faithful Canal Corporation employees, to show our stuff and make the 5pm deadline at lock 28A … four miles away. Normally the Js paddle at a 4 mile per hour pace with frequent breaks, often accompanied by some social chatter before resuming. On occasion there were very brief bursts of speed to between 5 and 6 mph as necessity dictated. On the Erie Canal we occasionally played on the wakes of Packets boats which maxed out at a rip-roaring 6 mph. But those shows of physical prowess rarely lasted more than five minutes.
But now we were committed to an hour at four miles per hour, without pause, to make the critical connection. Truthfully, there is a cadre of kayakers who would scoff at the effort which lay ahead. After all, Ms. Freya Hoffmeister is occasionally making 50 mile days in her circumnavigation of Australia. But for a pair of old guys in their 60s who go a couple of years between serious kayak trips, this was big. So casting off thoughts of the previous mileage that day, the Duo dug in. With no pauses and no conversation, we exchanged the lead several times to keep each other motivated. As we would pass, labored breathing was evident. The scenery was lovely but little appreciated. Minutes passed, 10 then 20. At 30 minutes we hoped we were half way but there was no way of knowing. As we neared 45 minutes, terminal exhaustion was setting in. Was there a mile left? Again, no way of knowing. Could we make it by five o’clock? Arms, neck, and back were aching at ten-of-five as we rounded a slight turn, … and …surprise, … right into the fore bay of lock 28A. Without the strength or time to phone in our presence, J2 sounded three blasts on the small signal horn. Almost immediately the light went green and the Js spent their final strokes paddling into the welcoming chamber. Four miles in fifty minutes, almost five miles per hour for the distance! The surprised (and probably relieved) lock tender joked with us on our ‘heroic’ effort and then began to lower us down to the Lyon Level. It was the final flush for the day.
The five minute ride down was hardly enough time to recover from the four mile dash so the exit from 28A was leisurely at best. With only a mile left before the community park at Lyons, adjacent to the entrance of lock 27, and with plenty of daylight remaining, the Duo virtually drifted in to their destination, arriving … wiped out. A park sign announcing that a permit from Wayne County was required for overnight camping was ignored and the boats were carried securely up into the park and eventually placed adjacent to where the tents would be pitched. We weren’t alone. A Mennonite family was picnicking at a nearby table. As J1 began dinner preparations, the women and children began to explore and the kids quickly wound up at, and eventually in, our boats. J2 encouraged their inquisitiveness while at the same time apologizing for the disreputable condition of the cockpits. It had been a 25 mile day and within the confines of a kayak, neatness at the end of the day hardly matters.
That night the railroad sounds were more distant and sleep came fast. The only interruption was a police officer in the wee hours shining his spot light on the un-permitted camp site. But nothing came of his observations, consistent with our growing belief that paddlers who behaved could expect at least a passing welcome at any reasonable camping spot. Eventually he doused the probing light beam and drove off, and the Duo resumed the serious business of recovering from the day’s exertions.
Into the Wilderness (Day 6 – Monday)
There’s a subtle, probably uncharitable feeling on Monday mornings experienced by old guys on the lam from the cares of the world. After all, we’ve seen a thousand Monday mornings from the other side; rolling out of bed, climbing into a freezing cold car on wintery mornings, dragging ourselves across the parking lot at work, and trying to forget the fact that there will be four more mornings just like it before another brief two day respite. Retirement looks excellent on a Monday morning. There are probably many 45 year olds who would trade off 20 years of life to avoid the start of another the week. But Monday is just another day on an adventure and there we were, overlooked by the long arm of the law the night before, watching some poor souls speeding down the road to work, and finally, sitting down to another one of J1’s amazing preparations. (The night before his creativity included Spaghetti and meatballs and … smoked salmon mixed in. But even that didn’t rise to the level of imagination demonstrated by the peanut butter and bacon burritos we had earlier … Top That! … )
The canal locks didn’t open for business until 7am, and since we had concluded that there was no statutory need for a hasty departure, we made a leisurely start to this day. At 7:30 we launched, gave the lock tender a call, and immediately received a green light. This was the first of three locks for the day, the final locks for our trip as we continued the downhill journey. Ultimately we would wind up in the swampy environs of the Seneca River. During the ice age, glaciers did a marvelous job of carving out the Great Lakes but occasionally let up it when it came to the surrounding countryside leaving regions of poor drainage. Over the next few hours we would descend into one of those areas. If you like stagnant, smelly water with lots of mosquitoes, this is the place for you.
Paddling was uneventful; Mondays are simply not a big day on the Erie Canal. Miles passed without seeing other vessels, in fact without seeing much of anything. That should have been OK for the Duo since much of their ~700 miles of adventure to date have been sans civilization, and surely we did enjoy the ever increasing wildlife. But here on the canal we had grown accustomed to company, because whatever else kayaking is on the Erie Canal, it is social. The greetings of passing boaters, conversation with folks on the banks as we paddled by, total strangers joining us at picnic tables as we had meals, and, of course, the ubiquitous lock tenders. So it was with a small element of disappointment that we were making the slow transition into the region of the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding State Wildlife areas.
By early afternoon we reached our final (and most picturesque) lock of the trip, # 26, just east of Clyde New York. Hoping to find a store bought meal we inquired of the lock tender where that could be had; … one place, the Mays Point bait and tackle shop. So after exiting the lock and beaching the boats on canal left, we began the short trek to the eatery motivated by gnawing hunger as we hadn’t ‘fueled up’ since 7am. Along the way we had to make a slippery crossing of a seriously polluted stream dumping its dark brown wastes into the canal. It was a foretaste of waters to come.
Doubling back to the boats we knocked down some ‘power food’ and resumed paddling. Within a mile we passed the confluence with the Cayuga-Seneca Canal which leads up to the Finger Lakes, reportedly a beautiful region. In contrast, our own journey took us further into swamp-like environs of the Seneca ‘River’ with steep mud banks bordered by what looked like saw grass meadows. When rivers are hijacked to become a convenient artery for commerce, sharing their ancient Native American name with that of a famous canal, they lose much of their natural identity. Civil engineers install ‘controls’ which limit flow and assure sufficient depth. Where the river had meandered in the past, ‘cuts’ are made which assure that the stream’s past personality doesn’t slow modern progress. Thusly tamed, rivers putrefy. The opaque water had gained a distinctly hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg) odor. An inordinate number of fish were breaking the surface, perhaps seeking oxygen, or maybe they just wanted to greet us! At one point we passed a huge manufacturing plant exhibiting no signs of vitality … anywhere! The landscape was dotted with large tanks containing who-knows-what. Parking lots were abandoned and over grown, large rusting buildings stood idle, no sounds came from the riverside pump house; … it was a ghost factory. The scene was surreal, a set from “Silent Spring”, a replica of “Love Canal”; an offense not only to the nose and eyes, but to the social conscience as well. Who knows what environmental sins had been perpetrated here in years past? Who knows what residues lingered in the muck of the of the surrounding river bottom? Maybe this judgment is too harsh; but from the humble point of view of a kayaker whose sensory organs are a mere couple of feet from the water surface, it’s an honest assessment.
With our requisite daily mileage behind us and the sun already getting low in the sky, it was time to begin looking for a campsite. After a few false starts, J1 spotted some likely real estate on river right. He paddled abreast of the mud and clay bank and made a careful examination of the depth. Finding a ledge of hard clay about a foot underwater, he made a difficult exit. J2 then approached the bank having been instructed on the narrowness of the foothold. Stopping a few feet short of J1’s exit location to take advantage of a tree root for a handhold, he swung his left foot out expecting firmness but found nothing … and over went the kayak, J2, and all his deck gear, immersed in the chemical compost. J1 jumped immediately to the ‘rescue’ assisting a sputtering J2 up the slimy bank and on to dry land. How embarrassing! But not to worry, tripping in kayaks is designed to accommodate this sort of inconvenience with most cargo remaining quite dry beneath water tight hatches. The boat was quickly righted and emptied. J2 stripped down to the minimum requirements of modesty that a passing packet would demand, and hung the balance of his scant wardrobe on a nearby stunted tree for drying. An inadvertent bath at this location on the Erie Canal While water quality in this part of the ‘canal’ is pretty much as described, for much of the distance between Buffalo and Rochester, and even a little beyond, it appeared quite good. A subtle west to east flow was maintained, drawing in the Lake Erie water headed for Niagara Falls; and ironically, Lake Erie has been cleansed over recent decades by the inadvertent infestation of zebra mussels, pollution gobbling organisms which have otherwise upset the Lake’s ecology! It would be considered a nasty thing by most humans, but after back-to-back 20+ mile days without showering, it’s debatable which was the bigger loser, the river or J2’s body! Unfortunately, the fragrance of Erie Canal bath salts was not enough to offend the local mosquitoes that seemed to thrive in this jaded environment. J2’s half naked body immediately became the target of these winged vampires necessitating multiplying the chemical ablutions with the addition of copious quantities of DEET.
As preparations for spending the evening progressed, J1 ominously warned that the camp site was completely surrounded by burning hazel which inflicts immediate pain on the intruder. And if one sidestepped that danger, the balance of the ground cover was verdant looking poison ivy! Much to our surprise that evening, it wasn’t only these evil plants that thrived in this environment. Apparently we had located our campsite on turf belonging to the local beaver population and all night long they humored the Js with a good deal of tail slapping protests. So even in misery, a kayaker’s life can be amusing.
Home Stretch (Day 7 – Tuesday)
Was the Day 6 journal too harsh? Well, think about it. And while kayak trips are a great experience, they encompass life, good days and bad and an honest journal says it like it is.
Day 7 began as a delightful challenge. The evening before the Js slowly came to the realization that only 26 miles separated them from Baldwinsville. So with no villages of interest for distraction along the way, they really had only one long day’s journey remaining. To help reach that conclusion J2 had rolled out his superwamidine iPhone GPS since the reality was, without the benefit of carrying detailed charts, we simply didn’t know exactly where we were! Amazingly, this little device which even a Jules Verne couldn’t have dreamed of a few decades ago, nailed our location right on the south side of the Erie Canal across from Haiti Island and one mile upstream from Mosquito Point (now THAT explained a few things!) Thusly equipped with precision knowledge of our whereabouts, we decided to bang out 26 miles, then spend the night at a hotel to get sufficiently rested for the five hour drive back to the Keystone State. In all, that would bring us in about a half day short of the original 8 day estimate. That was the challenge!
For a brief moment, however, the morning turned into a disaster when J2’s paddle went missing. While prepared for that eventuality (the Duo always carries one spare paddle), the loss of a favorite paddle, especially this paddle, a very high end (and high cost) number that had been a retirement gift from the employees at Peach Bottom Atomic Plant (along with the kayak itself), the impact on morale in the moment was devastating. After a short, frantic search it was decided to move on using the spare. After J1 launched and J2 was preparing to do the same, J1 suddenly called out, “there it is, at least half of it any way!” Most kayak paddles come in two halves for convenience of transport and stowage. At that moment, J2 recalled he had broken down his paddle in anticipation of exiting his boat the evening before but in the subsequent confusion of his spill, he had apparently lost control and awareness of the two halves. Now, there was one half, floating forlornly in the water about ten feet from the bank. Not only was that no consolation, it added insult to injury. We assumed that the other half was well on its way to who-knew-where, so we recovered the found half, and completed the launch of J2s boat. But again J1 interrupted, “There’s the other half.” Sure enough, against the bank, camouflaged by some exposed tree roots, there it was, a sight for sore eyes. Life was again good! In reflecting on the incident one thought came to mind, … this body of water, call it a canal or call it a river, was completely stagnant.
Shoving off with a vigor that only comes from knowing you’re in the home stretch but have a long way to go, the Js soon left Haiti Island and Mosquito Point in their combined wake. Not a tear was shed! The ‘big excitement’ anticipated this day was the crossing of Cross Lake, but first, breakfast. We found a reasonably nice picnic area which appeared to be associated with a handful of modest cabins closed up for the season. After we got set up and J1 began his art, a golf cart appeared around the cabins. In case we were looking at the ‘un-welcoming’ committee we rehearsed one of our standard ‘justification speeches’ intended for such occasions. As it turned out, though observed, we were ignored and were able to continue with our repast. When we got underway again we discovered that the cabins and camper trailers we had seen were just the tip of the iceberg, a huge campground of indeterminate proportion, and it became clear that golf carts were the vehicle of choice by all the residents. Interesting!
Our track turned north to Cross Lake after a brief encounter with the NY Thruway. We observed a lot of wild life, including four eagles, as river conditions slowly improved. As we approached the lake the number of houses along the banks increased, and they became a little more upscale than the small cabins and camper trailers we had been experiencing in the last 30 miles. Finally the waterway opened into the modest expanse of Cross Lake. While the mile crossing was nothing in contrast to the open waters frequently encountered by the Duo, it had a strange feel after six days in the narrow confines of the canal. It also raised a question regarding the route of the original canal which required continuous proximity to a tow path for purposes of propulsion. Boats possibly could have skirted the south shore of the lake or perhaps the lake was avoided altogether until the 20th century upgrade which allowed for mechanical motive power. The whole issue of the original routing of the canal raises other interesting questions. Our dog walking canal path guide back in Fairport had recommended what she considered the best book on the early canal but unfortunately the title was forgotten in the subsequent excitement of that prime liberty port.
Following the lake crossing, the canal continued in its steady upscaling trend until finally, as we approached the outskirts of Baldwinsville, the houses, properties, and private boat facilities reached truly opulent proportion. At this point the Erie Canal puts the boater within easy reach of lakes Onondaga and Oneida, just a few hours away from the Finger Lakes, and with a brief journey north on the Oswego Canal, Lake Ontario itself. So not surprisingly, the numbers and size of watercraft increased impressively.
By this time the Duo was drooling at the thought of journey’s end, an air-conditioned room with a shower, and dinner in a proper restaurant. At each slight turn we speculated and wagered on the possibility that the Baldwinsville locks would appear before us, only to be repeatedly disappointed. But finally, at 3pm, we were there! Coasting up onto the boat ramp at the small park adjacent to the locks and dam, we laid our paddles down for the last time and experienced the feeling that we always do at that moment; relief, and …disappointment.
Low bridge, every body down,
Low bridge for we're comin’ to a town,
And you always know your neighbor,
You'll always know your pal,
If you've ever navigated on the Erie canal