Fair Winds and Following Seas
The Adventures of J1 & J2 on the Erie Canal
Part 3, The Finale
Composed by Jay Doering (J2), Edited by Jay Mackley (J1)
Forward – Weather plays a crucial role in the ‘success’ of our kayak adventures; rarely is it perfect. In fact part two of our Erie Canal transit was terminated by a hurricane. Two days prior to this final leg, Josh Bytwerk, a pastor at Parker Ford Church, called to let J2 know he would be praying for him. (Let’s face it, with age 70 looming just over the horizon J2 can use a miracle or two if only to survive a long kayak trip!) In any event, after Josh listed the things he would be praying for, J2 noted that he omitted the weather; “Also pray for the weather!!!” was his impious retort. Pray Josh did, and for the first five days the duo experienced sunshine and following breezes. On the final day the weather was equally gorgeous, punctuated only by an infrequent headwind of gentle and cooling proportion! Thank you Lord and thanks to Pastor Josh, our new patron saint of fair winds and following seas.
Preparations and Travel – It wouldn’t be quite accurate to accuse the Jays of no planning for this trip but you had to look close for any detail. The menu of course, by now the exclusive domain of J1, was well done as usual, his expertise having surpassed the journeyman level with five trips under our belt;
The Brule Descent – 2002 Susquehanna River top to bottom - 444 miles, 11days
Delaware and Beyond – 2005 Havre de Grace, MD to Cape May, NJ – 120 miles, 5 days
Of Green Heads and Mosquitoes –2006 Cape May to Tuckerton – 90 miles, 4 days
Clinton’s Big Ditch – 2009 Erie Canal, Niagara River to Baldwinsville - 162 miles, 7 days
Wet & Wild – 2012 Erie Canal, Baldwinsville to Verona Beach – 44 miles, 2 days
… and J2, responsible for navigation, had dutifully produced handy laminated 8 ˝ x11 charts of the final 130 miles to complete the Erie Canal transit begun in 2009 using “The Cruising guide to The New York State Canal System” as his primary reference. The only other ‘original’ work was a list of marinas and similar way-stops discovered and laminated by J1 which proved its worth several times over. Were the Js becoming careless in their old age? Perhaps, but with the successful transit of the first half in 2009 now ancient history, the truncated attempt at the second half in 2010 which ended in a tropical storm, the second attempt at the 2nd half planned for 2011 but blocked from becoming reality when tropical storm Lee nearly washed away our Susquehanna riverside cottages, our familiarity with the all things Erie Canal was approaching the intuitive level.
Departure on August was a repeat of two years prior and our route equally similar. A distance of 440 miles took us first to the Waterford Harbor Visitor Center, One Tugboat Alley, Waterford, New York 12188 where we dropped off J1’s car, and then we headed west on interstate 90. Instead of going all the way to Baldwinsville, however, where we started in 2010, we stopped short at the east end of Lake Oneida where we had terminated that year at the Verona Beach State Park, stopped by a tropical storm which also shut down the canal. Next to the state park is the Dwarfline Motel owned by Merle and John Maxey which offers accommodations and a launch area on the lake. This would be our re-launch location and also a much needed respite from our travels. The motel theme is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with various rooms denoted with one of the dwarfs, in our case, appropriately, Sleepy!
Dwarfline, P.O. Box 376
6650 Lake Shore Rd. N.
Verona Beach, NY 13162
http://www.sylvanbeach.org/dwarfline/ is a natural for kayakers on the Erie Canal. Water front on the east end of Lake Oneida and only a few hundred yards south of the re-entry point to the canal, it is a perfect stop for lodging after the all-day 21 mile transit of the lake (accomplished by the Js on the 2010 leg) or, as we were to use it, as a starting point for a resumed journey. With Merle’s permission, we were leaving our ‘drop off’ car for pickup six days later after our arrival at the Hudson River. Also, Sylvan Beach ‘resort’ is within easy walking distance providing attractions and several eateries.
The sun set beautifully over Lake Oneida and the adventure duo took full advantage of “Sleepy”!
Day1, Wednesday, August 29, 2012 – A New Strategy Emerges
Up at 5, the Duo elected to forego breakfast because we still felt as though we were carrying a full load of carbs from our repast at Spaghetti John’s the evening before. It was a meal that kept on giving. Backing the car up to the Dwarfline’s beach access, we unloaded our duffels into the kayaks and made preparations to launch. We were early enough that John had not yet left for work and, joined by Merle, he stepped out of their adjacent lake front home to see us off. Never ones to pass up photo ops, the Js struck manly poses while Merle fired away with our cameras.
Launching without ceremony, and in fact running aground in the shallows while we paddled to gain the entrance to the canal, we were off on our final leg of the Erie Canal transit. Merle had to walk her dog so she followed us up the lake coast to the canal snapping away with her own camera in the process. She later e-mailed us the results. Such was the wonderful hostess of the Dwarfline.
In the canal, we paddled the few miles to lock 22, the first of 21 we would negotiate on our way to the Hudson River. Locks 22 & 21 are companions separated by only a mile and we would ascend in both. This would bring us to the ‘summit’ of the canal, the highest point east of Lake Oneida. From the summit, beginning with lock 20 the next morning, we would begin the long downhill to the Hudson.
Since we were ascending in lock 22, the water surface showed visible movement which was of no concern to us since we were alone in both lock 22 & 21 hence there was no concern about large boats being ‘pushed’ in our direction. Big boats make for uncomfortable neighbors within the confines of lock if they start moving around. (Days later, in lock 5 of the “Waterford Flight” we got a taste of that discomfort.) After the large doors closed behind us with the usual groaning and thudding, we began our ascent holding fast to the vertical lines suspended down the sides for the purpose of maintaining position. As a normal courtesy, John, the lock tender called ahead on his cell phone to lock 21 to inform his counterpart of our soon arrival. J2 overheard the conversation because the acoustics within the concrete and steel walls of a lock chamber provide little attenuation; … “Hey, this is John at 22. I got a couple of old guys in kayaks headed your way…” Old guys?!?!?! OLD GUYS?!?!?! …Who does that snotty whippersnapper think he is anyhow? When the doors opened we paddled out with gusto to show Mr. John what a couple of old guys could do. Fifteen minutes and a mile later, we huffed and puffed into lock 21 for another uneventful ascent to reach the summit.
Exiting onto an 18 mile level, the longest on this final leg of our Erie Canal transit, we had to paddle the full length to get to our intended camping spot that night; a small park co-located with lock 20. It was day one and even though it was ideal paddling conditions, the miles were taking a heavy toll, especially on J2 the senior paddler of the Duo. But more than the assault on the flabby bodies was the disproportionate psychological blow imparted by that insensitive lock tender. “Old guys” … I guess that’s how we looked to that middle aged bystander. And if that’s how we looked, I guess that’s what we are! The result was devastating, taking a heavy toll! Each paddle stroke was harder than the last; the shoulder pain became excruciating. It was all ‘old’ J2 could do to keep up.
Why was he doing this to himself when his buddies back home were riding little carts between holes on a golf course? At this point he lost it and made a gross faux pas. Instead of suffering in silence which is the behavior demanded by the unspoken code of the long distance paddler, he fired off a whining complaint in the direction of J1 and got just what he deserved, a torrent of abuse for the next hour. That helped!!! Finally, J1 recommended a lunch break after we had logged about 10 miles. We had reached the Muck Road (how’s that for an inviting name) boat ramp which afforded us an old plastic floating dock low enough to roll out of our kayaks.
The facility looked ‘historic’ and unused with locked doors leaving us no alternative than ‘nature’s way’. J1 did his culinary thing producing some chicken soup which benefitted from liberal inclusion of crumpled “Cheezies”. The reward for downing the soup was delicious applesauce packaged in little green tubes, a product of France. Following this refreshment, and at the risk of another torrent of abuse, J2 suggested a nap! Astonishingly, J1 agreed with the wisdom of the idea, ground cloths and ‘pillows’ were broken out, and in a wink, siesta was well under way. Thirty minutes later we awoke and quickly launched feeling a little concerned that we had given up valuable paddling time. Soon however, both Js realized the benefit this power nap brought to their paddling energy. We were significantly stronger, post-lunch, than we could ever recall being on previous trips. And by the end of the day we discovered that our mileage achieved and time expended suffered not a whit from the nap. A new strategy was born which we followed (some what) faithfully for the balance of the trip, revolutionizing afternoon paddling; … SO, … from insensitive comment, to new strategy …. Thanks John!
The town of Rome lay just a mile or two ahead and a fisherman (actually a dad fishing with his little daughter … a cute picture) alerted us to a special “kayak thing” in Rome which he failed to adequately describe. We soon discovered why! At Bellamy Water Front Park there was an interesting contraption at one end of the town dock which truly is hard to describe without a picture. It’s a kayak launcher and retriever suitable for REAL old guys, and ladies too. J2 tried it on for size and decided that with a little more length it would make a passible amusement park ride! Hooray for the city of Rome, NY!
Also at Rome was our first encounter with the Mohawk River, which entered the canal from the north. When the Erie Canal was first conceived, mules were the prevailing technology for motive power. This limitation required that the canal be ‘dug’ from the Niagara to the Hudson with the primary advantage of adjacent rivers being to supply make up for the water lost during locking operations. With the advent of steam power, proximity to a tow path was no longer a necessity and the rivers could become part of the waterway accommodating larger vessels. The present day configuration of the Erie Canal was achieved in the early 20th century. It makes significant use of the Seneca, Oneida, and Mohawk Rivers, along with Lake Oneida, to supplement the ‘man made’ portions of the canal. Of course these rivers are heavily modified with dams and locks to achieve a navigable waterway. A large portion of the mid-section of the canal is formed by the Seneca, draining the Finger Lake region and flowing east, and the Oneida flowing west from Lake Oneida. They meet at a village named “Three Rivers” and form the Oswego River which flows north and is the basis for the Oswego connector canal providing access to Lake Ontario from the Erie Canal. The eastern third of the Erie Canal which would comprise the final 120 miles (approximately) of our transit, is an interplay between the Mohawk River and manmade canal with most of the mileage spent on the much modified Mohawk. This added substantially to the beauty of our scenery due to the variety provided by the somewhat more natural surroundings.
Rome was also where we first encountered “Doin’ Dishes” a vintage Chris Craft ‘cabin cruiser’ manned by Dan, captain, and his ‘first mate’, Jeremy. As is typical of the many relationships formed while cruising the Erie Canal, it began with a passing wave as we paddled by, but as we met repeatedly in the ‘tortuous and hare’ interplay that occurs routinely on the canal, introductions were eventually made which led to temporary friendships. Dan was a cruising enthusiast from Olean NY along the Southwest Tier. To reach the Erie Canal for a week of cruising he actually trailered his yacht as a wide load up to Lake Oneida; that’s a dedicated cruiser!
Due to our new power-nap strategy we completed the 24 miles to Lock 20 Park in a condition short of total exhaustion which is rare for ‘day one”. The accommodations were good with a large pavilion, public restrooms, and a water supply. The dock height was low enough to accommodate kayakers, a feature that turned out to be typical on this leg but was a rarity on the western portion of the canal three years prior. Many of these landings appeared new so the difference may be the result of changing interests or possibly the eastern portion is simply more progressive. One thing that was missing at Lock 20, however, was showers. (To even make that comment reveals how spoiled one can become cruising the Erie Canal.) J1 was feeling particularly ‘nasty’ after paddling 24 miles and inexplicably, while reading the No Swimming prohibition posted on the dock, lost his balance and fell in the water. After a refreshing swim he pulled himself back up on dry land, toweled off and prepared an amazing menu of potato pasta similar to nokis, in a sausage gravy. Excellent cuisine and fuel all rolled up into one!
Turning in to recover from our exhaustion should have produced instant sleep, but we were to learn a topography lesson not as obvious on the first half of our transit. When a canal turns to a river valley to find a gentle slope to its ultimate destination, it inevitably will share the landscape with other transportation forms which also benefit from mild grades, in this case the CSX railroad (running on an old New York Central main line), and Interstate 90. Both of these systems produce background noise, sometimes loud enough to raise the dead! And, since we would be following the Mohawk all the way to the Hudson, we surmised that this would be the norm for the next five nights. (And it was!) However, day one fatigue won out and the adventurers got a good night’s sleep.
Day2, Thursday, August 30, 2012 - Dogs and Doping
Camping adjacent to a lock has its advantages. For one thing J2 could walk across the crest of the closed gate and visit the lock tender in his office to inform him that they would be leaving in a half hour. It is also entertaining because it turns out that locks must hold a special attraction for lovers engaging in clandestine early morning meetings. Cars would pull up two by two, their inhabitants emerging to talk and perhaps disappear for a walk, suspiciously looking over their shoulders at anybody who may be a little too interested in their activities. Well … the saying goes, “New York is for Lovers”, but lock 20 on the Erie Canal at 6:30am? That’s over the top!!!
The Adventure Cook went over the top too, with Irish steel cut oatmeal, bacon, and hot coffee, as if the nocturnal nokis hadn’t been fuel enough for the day ahead. On our first trip, ten years prior, the “Brule Descent” on the Susquehanna, we nearly starved ourselves on a diet of peanut butter and tuna fish and too little of either to boot! “Never again,” we had vowed and J1 took the vow to heart and developed superb outdoor culinary skills. We broke camp early to try to get an edge on an adverse wind forecast which turned out to be erroneous. Rolling up our tents, we had to squeeze out the water, the result of warm humid daytime air cooling rapidly in the evening producing an exceptionally heavy dew.
On the water by 7:30, we found the lock full, door open, and green light on. It was paddle in, doors close, and begin the long descent to the Hudson River leaving the canal summit behind. Almost immediately we began to see a difference in the landscape which would be with us right up to the Hudson. The glacier smoothed plains which skirt lakes Erie and Ontario, permitting long levels between locks and somewhat monotonous topography give way rapidly to the southern reaches of the Adirondacks, cut through by the Mohawk River which in its natural state is a meandering stream during Summer drought but becomes a swift river from Spring snow melt, and a raging giant under the assault of a tropical storm as seen last year at this time. Rolling hills unfolded before us, often topped by beautiful farm lands. Occasionally the narrow confines of the Mohawk valley brought canal, railroad, and highway within shouting distance and shout we did to be heard over the CSX trains passing every ten to fifteen minutes and also the constant drone of the 18 wheelers on I-90. Shortly after getting underway we passed the Utica Marina which sports a fancy eatery, Aquavino, but little else. In a subtle shift, this portion of the canal often seemed to be valued more as a backdrop for land-based activities than for the marine activities which it uniquely facilitates.
The ten miles between Locks 20 and 19 melted rapidly away and by late morning we were again taking another step down towards the Hudson. While deep in the lock chamber a horrendous clamber assaulted our ears. As the exit doors opened there before us was our companion, CSX, rattling across a picturesque bridge. J1, who had assumed a much greater portion of the photography responsibilities this trip, was able to snap off a quick shot capturing the unfolding scene.
Still believing that adverse winds would develop later in the afternoon we pressed on through the noon hour making day 2 an early exception to our new strategy of mid-day power napping. Our determination was rewarded at Ilion, NY, where the town had a full service marina with camping and showers, which, although unnecessary on our current schedule, demonstrated welcome to all mariners regardless of propulsion or length overall. What set Ilion apart from other small town marinas was the presence of a humble eatery which boldly proclaimed a good ice cream selection. The planned lunch menu was suspended for day 2 as the Js tanked on large bowls of their favorite food.
Ilion was also the point at which our social life began to kick into high gear. After a day and a half of traveling pretty much alone on the canal, we were now in the company of several larger power boats and at least one sailboat. Sailboats contract to have their masts un-stepped prior to entering the canal. Stowed aboard or shipped, the masts are then re-stepped after exiting. We had actually crossed paths with one of these yachts the night before at the landing at lock 20 where they had stopped for emergency repairs to their throttle cable. The Duo shared dock space with them momentarily as the kayaks were hoisted ashore for the night. J1 had noticed their huge Golden Retriever which he misidentified as a Lab and was immediately corrected by the dog’s mistress. Later, still misidentifying the pooch, he formed a boarding party of one to test the enormous dog’s social graces, then back at camp reported that his reception was somewhat stiff leading us to wrongly generalize yachter’s attitudes towards the lowly, and at this time of day quite disreputably odiferous, kayakers. But here at Ilion we recognized the error of our judgment and pleasant relations were established which were renewed several times over the balance of the journey.
The giant Golden Retriever was named Oliver and he was the bellwether of dogs to come. Totally absent on our first stretch of the Erie Canal was the phenomena of boat owners keeping large dogs aboard. The challenge was obvious as biological needs still must be met. This necessitated repeated dockings for ‘walks’. Actually this added to the social networking, for whereas during our earlier stint on the canal’s western reaches where lift bridges under which we could always pass were the driving function for the “Tortoise and Hare” game we played with our motorized friends, on this stretch it was pit stops for Fido! There was a downside which we became aware during our day 3 overnight stop; kayakers looking for a little grassy tent space compete with Fido whose needs were more immediate. So to all you yachters, “Please curb your dog!!!”
Downing a substantial plate of ice cream is not something you want to rush. Not that a ‘brain freeze’ was a threat to either of the Duo, but savoring this delight is paramount. With the last lick of the spoon, we re-entered our hydraulic steeds and began some serious paddling to make up for our dalliance. It was about this time, mid-afternoon of day 2, that the Js typically began to experience pain in earnest. The key in the past was to tough it out to day 3 when their bodies seem to rally, at least that was the strategy several years earlier. But things had changed and time had taken its toll, so, taking a cue from Lance Armstrong who had just been stripped of his Tour d’ France victories for doping, the Js selected and administered their drugs of choice; prescription pain killer for J1 who suffers from a valid knee injury, and ibuprofen for the elder statesman of the Duo. The effect was sufficient and we coasted up to lock 18 with daylight to spare hoping to pitch our tents on the canal company’s grounds adjacent to the lock, a convenience extended to boaters. An insurmountable obstacle immediately became apparent however; the formidable concrete walls making up the lock facility had no provision for kayakers to exit their craft. Our options were limited at this point. We had 22 miles behind us for the day and although we were on a pharmacological extension of our physical capabilities, time was quickly running out. A quick conversation with the lock tender as he prepared to flush us into the next level revealed that we would “find what we were looking for” at the next town just a couple of miles away.
The town to which our impromptu guide was referring was Little Falls. To be honest, the way it is portrayed on the very edge of the canal map is not very encouraging. There is a photo icon showing the welcome sign of something called the ‘Rotary Club Park’ but its location is not labeled. There was a circled red star shown which does not appear on the legend but we had developed a correlation between this symbol and marinas so we staked our hopes on this and mustered up enough energy to search it out. What we found blew us away, it was beyond our wildest imagination. The Rotary Club of Little Falls had converted a canal side utility building and adjacent property into a beautiful little park and marine facility. The first thing we noticed was that the docks were very accommodating to kayaks and after exiting we contacted the harbor master who was on duty ‘til 9pm. At first intimidated with the park which was neat, compact, and complete with a lovely fountain, J2 inquired “Is it permissible to camp here?” casting a questioning eye towards a quarter acre of manicured grass lying between waterfront and a very residential street. To his surprise the harbor master gave a very enthusiastic affirmative and invited the Duo for a tour of his facility. That was the beginning of a brief but very enjoyable friendship with Dave, a high school science teacher who doubled as harbor master and promoter of this exceptional facility.
Having secured a home for the night, the Js followed Dave enthusiastically through the old facility as showers, bathrooms, laundry and sundry other facilities were pointed out. The crown jewel was saved until last … the kayak room. Dave is an enthusiast of double paddle propulsion and probably at his instigation, the Rotary Club Park rents kayaks. The racks contained a variety of craft from different sources and suitable for varying skill levels. One, however, immediately caught the eye … it had a gas powered leaf blower mounted on the deck with the discharge nozzle directed aft-ward. Dave laughingly told how he was teaching his students about Newton’s Laws of Motion and he wanted an illustration of “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” So he challenged the class to design a mounting for the leaf blower which they did successfully and Dave said that the unmanned experiment was a smashing success. He retires after this upcoming school year; surely he will be missed.
Returning to the entrance area, Dave pointed out the features of the ‘club room’, TV, a nice dining table, coffee bar, easy chairs, ie, all the comforts of home. We were given unlimited access to all of it and in case we needed access after he got off duty Dave gave us a key with instructions on how to return it if we got underway before the office was re-manned in the morning. A very modest fee of $10 per person was all that was charged for our entire stay including all amenities. Dave’s parting advice was that there were a number of good restaurants in town requiring a mere 15 minute walk crossing the highway bridge over the canal, Mohawk River, and … CSX, the sounds of which would lull us to sleep later that evening.
With the conclusion of the tour, the Js scrambled to erect their tents, shower, and make themselves presentable for a night of liberty in Little Falls. The walk was only slightly more than 15 minutes and the hungry adventurers selected the Piccollo Cafe located in the town’s retired New York Central passenger station. The cuisine was Italian or Mexican and in either case superb. After a late finish to our meal we encountered the cook on a smoke break by the rear door and after blessing her cooking the Duo asked for directions to ice cream. We were in luck. The Stone Mill was a short walk away; a combination antique shop and ice cream parlor! Tired and ready for some sleep, a retreat was made back across the bridge to the waiting tents and even the CSX serenade could not prevent sound sleep that night.
Liberty in Little Falls, NY
Day3, Thursday, August 31, 2012 – The Enchantment
While exhaustion still had a grip on the Duo, the CSX serenade had little impact; but as the intrepid paddlers recovered and fatigue faded, sleep became fleeting and the speeding, horn blowing, triple headed, 100+ car freight trains gained the upper hand. J2 was first to arise. He went over to the Rotary Park’s ‘club room’ around 4am and began working with the charts to lay out the balance of the trip. J1 soon sought refuge in the room also but his motive turned out to be less productive. Time for stimulants and the coffee bar was soon in service. The day began in earnest.
Eventually a misty dawn broke like a scene from Brigadoon, and the now alert pair planned their departure … but made no move. It was as if the town of Little Falls, nestled in the Adirondack foothills had cast a spell over them. Eventually, mustering all their will, they pushed through this inexplicable yearning to linger, knocked down some oatmeal fuel, and finally, while otherwise occupying a temporary world of privation, took advantage of this oasis to groom themselves. Looking and feeling spiffy, they locked, loaded and launched.
It was cool and almost autumnal. A residual of the early morning mist clung to the water surface as they paddled the final mile to lock 17 alongside ancient mercantile buildings whose large, cut stone foundations made up much of the masonry wall of the canal as it wound serpentine along the southern perimeter of the town. Early morning zealots were already out on the walking path that seemed to constantly reemerge providing a curious audience to our insanity.
‘Lock 17 next, …Lock 17.’ Institutions love to claim record breaking accomplishments, the Canal Company being no exception. When a winning edge can’t be fully exploited, words are couched to salve bruised egos employing phrases like “among the … (you fill in the parameter)”. At 40 feet, Lock 17 is certainly the highest lift on the Erie Canal, of that there is no doubt. The claim that it is keeping company with the highest in the world is also not a surprise although the credit for this distinction surely falls much more to physics and topography than to the bravado of its designers. This vertical dimension does, however, make for a more sensuous experience locking through, especially in such diminutive craft…. The perfunctory call was made to the lock tender and a somewhat protracted wait ensued as the immense chamber was filled, actually producing a small current on the upper side, the source the ~5000 tons of water needed to do the job. While waiting, the Duo exchanged pleasantries with passing walkers. Finally the lock doors groaned open, and with the green light signaling a welcome, the paddlers entered the steel and concrete gullet. While taking their habitual position along the right wall (both being right handed) and preparing for the flush, J2 noticed a pleasant lady at the opposing rail who appeared to be photographing them. Thinking the early morning grooming was paying dividends they struck the best poses their advanced years would permit. After exposing her pixels she called over and suggested that if they would like to have the image, she would be glad to forward it. Pleasantly surprised, J2 replied affirmatively providing his e-mail address in the same breath. In a moment, what jumped across his iPhone’s screen was perhaps the prize winning shot of the entire canal transit! …Thanks Laura!!!
The ride down in lock 17 began like any other but quickly we noticed that the lock tender wasn’t wasting any time; the bottom seemed to be dropping out of the chamber. The other obvious fact was that this ride didn’t seem like it was going to end anytime soon. It was also spooky to notice that where there was supposed to be exit doors there was just a big steel wall. And towards the end of this ride, it got dark, real dark, despite the bright sunlight that bathed us minutes before. The alga on the walls ate the light! All of this made perfect sense in hindsight but in the moment, shoehorned as we were in our dainty fiberglass coffins, … well … it gives one pause! Eventually the wall began to go UP!!! Nothing like it anywhere else on the canal prepares the paddler for this. Apparently not wanting to waste time or energy, the door was halted with just a few feet of head room to spare; enough for a kayaker. Apparently the door floods internally capturing an ample reservoir of canal water to rain down upon the paddlers; sort of a good-by wet kiss. But the morning was already warming up and the cool shower had a humorous effect as we edged into the broad daylight downstream, ready for the next twenty miles.
As we paddled clear of lock 17, J1 brought his kayak alongside of J2 and mumbled;
“Boy, just in time”…
“What was that you said?” …
“I said ‘Just in time” …
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I MEAN … we got out of that town in a knick of time!”
“But I thought you liked the place.”
“Like it! … I LOVED it!!!” Don’t you see what was happening?
Are you so dull? Take that guy Dave at the Rotary Club Park…”
“Yeah, real nice guy.”
Too nice, way too nice if you ask me. Something fishy!
And how about that waitress at Piccolo’s?”
Yeah, … over the top. What about the cook, and the ice cream
scooper. Did you see what she called one dip?
“Sure did! I’ll have to do a
couple extra miles to burn it off”
And the kicker was that nice lady that just took our
picture and e-mailed it to you
“She was just being neighborly!”
Did you ever see “Seducing Doctor Lewis” about a small
fishing village trying to get a doctor to set up practice and
everybody was acting out a part to make his experience idyllic?
Well think about it,… small towns need cash flow. A couple of old guys
show up in their kayaks who obviously have those Social Security checks
rollin’ in every month to pay taxes with, no kids to drive up school budgets,
we got wives willing to transfer our wealth to local merchants …
you still don’t get it? … ALL those nice folks lovin’ on us? They were seducing us!!!
They wanted us to settle down in Little Falls! … don’t you get it now?
It was about this time J2 decided he better keep an eye on J1, the strain was obviously beginning to take a toll on his old buddy,… and with four days yet to go! … Sad, so sad!!!
Below lock 17 we were rejoined by the Mohawk River with which we had only parted ways the evening before just upstream of Little Falls. Apparently the mile or so of channel carved out of rock, along with the world class lock, was for the sole purpose of bypassing the natural feature from which the town derived its pleasant name. A couple of miles below Little Falls the traveler is treated to a view of a lovely, historic plantation which was established by Nicholas Herkimer who later served as a General during the Revolutionary War and suffered a mortal wound for his troubles. In addition to benefitting from a minor history lesson, kayakers will find that the plantation, now a New York state park, offers convenient floating docks adjacent to a picnic area.
At this point in our journey the difference between traveling on the canal and river was subtle, the Mohawk not having grown sufficiently to differentiate itself from its manmade cousin, and of course, when it is impounded and put into service as a transportation artery, it takes on most of the former’s attributes; perhaps the only lingering differentiator is some non-linearity of the banks. For the next eight miles which separates locks 17 and 16 the waterway is about evenly split between canal and river. When on the canal portion, the occasional spillway crests, which could be safely accessed due to low flow, offer views of the natural river. These glimpses of the original channel reveal very pleasant, very natural scenes. Before the demands of modern commerce coopted much of the valley it must have been exceedingly beautiful. When we finally arrived at lock 16 the lock tender, himself a kayaker, admonished us for not following the natural course which he described as teaming with wild life. Our lame defense was that we had set out to transit the entire canal and such a departure would compromise the mission. In actuality we had discussed a detour but owing to their fiberglass construction, our kayaks are not suitable for bottom bumping our way down shallow rivers. Our plastic boats were 400+ miles to the south and of no use at the moment!
The next level was seven miles in length which translates into 2 to 3 hours so a lunch stop was in order. We targeted St. Johnsville Municipal Marina, a large cove cut out of the north bank of the river. On the way in we again saw ‘Doin’ Dishes’ and took some time to get better acquainted. This was a full service marina which, had it been later in the day, would have been home-sweet-home for the Duo. As it was, the harbor master, a gracious gentleman holding forth in a quaint shanty, granted us use of the pavilion, bathrooms, water supply, and, the crowning grace, two shade trees under which we napped strategically. Nap time was also an opportunity to hone the critical survival skill, so important to this leg of the journey, sleeping soundly with CSX trains thundering by only a few yards distant.
Our timing was out of synch on this final leg. There were numerous locations that would have made excellent spots to overnight but we were always passing them between the hours of 9am and 3pm, too early to stop or just out of reach the previous evening. Our fall back was the property adjoining the locks which is offered to paddlers for tenting, the trick being access from the water. Some locks maintain docking facilities, even with access by kayaks in a few cases, …but… many, perhaps a majority, offer a cold shoulder of insurmountable walls, suitable for the large barges which once populated the canal, but hopeless obstacles to kayakers. At lock 14, an island separates lock from dam which conjured up visions of pristine camping at mile 19 for the day, but hopes were dashed by those impossible walls!
So it was lock through and take our chances at a state boat launch shown on the chart, river right. That location qualified for a rating of “grim” so we moved on to the “Canajoharie Terminal Wall” which had a threatening name but turned out to have a right sized dock with a pleasant looking park in the back ground. There was about 40 feet of dock space left which accommodated the 34 feet worth of kayaks perfectly. After extracting ourselves then engaging in social amenities with the ‘big boy boats’ who occupied the balance of the dock, J2 made for the pavilion to engage in data gathering from an obvious ‘local’ cooling his heels in the shade.
The gent turned out to be “Jack” and his wife owned a downtown eatery named the Village. So for a starter we had directions to dinner. J1 soon joined the conversation and as we steeped ourselves in local lore we were suddenly interrupted by shouts from the waterfront. A forty-two footer was arriving and decided he wanted our dock space. Obviously we would oblige since his alternative placed him away from the dock and along a wall with uncertain depth (at least that was his story. More likely he was attracted to the nicer looking facilities). In any event, with several helping hands from the adjacent boaters, we lifted the kayaks clear and set them on the dock adjacent to the new arrival and retired once again to the pavilion. Then the troops from the yacht came ashore and began their assault with two very large dogs. As J2 watched helplessly from the pavilion, rover #1 immediately drove his basketball sized head into his kayak’s cockpit where the snack food and jerky were stockpiled. There was no response from the dog owner who was too busy socializing. Fortunately rover turned his nose up at the jerky and moved on. All in all, that evening’s interaction with the 42 foot folks was lousy. Fortunately, by the next morning they proved to be nice enough when you weren’t the object of their bad manners.
Setting up camp was a hoot since the location was totally public, consisted of sparse grass coated with dry goose poop, and probably flavored with canine urine from all the yacht doggies. The site was so close to the New York Thruway (aka I-90) that by sound alone you could count the wheels on the big rigs as they flew by. At least CSX grants you intervals of silence, but the Thruway traffic roared and wined without a break all night long. Before retiring to this concert of progress, the Duo headed for town and dinner at the “Village”. The decor was plain as were the provisions, but plain gave way to plentiful and for a modest sum you received more food than you could eat and more heartburn than you could stand. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Canajoharie is Iroquoian for “cook pot”. The one solace on which to dwell in order to aid in bringing on sleep, was the knowledge that although the town had a modicum of charm, it was going to be easy to leave!
Day 4, Saturday, September 1, 2012 – Rejected!
Age (we’re talking about the ‘old’ variety here, folks) is a factor that can’t be ignored in kayak adventures. For instance, getting ‘in & out’ of one man tents and small cockpit openings can boarder on comical. Reading charts and signs frequently turns into an eye test. Hearing volume goes down but that is more a blessing than a curse and makes for sounder sleep. Pain, of course, is a factor in paddling but doping and determination handle that. All that said, the one handicap that distresses the most has to do with digestion. Young guys can pack food away, fat and all, give a few loud belches and move on to a day full of activity without another thought! Not so for the stomach that has had six decades of abuse. Meals are rated by the number of TUMS tablets required to quench the esophageal flames. Kayaking after 60 just ain’t for sissies! Understand, it’s not that age can ever be a legitimate excuse to stop adventuring, but it does call for more forethought, something at which the Js occasionally fail … which was the case with this particular morning. Normally we fuel at the beginning of each day with J1’s oatmeal which has as much medicinal value as it does nourishment; it soothes while it satisfies. But rather than sticking with success, another strategy was struck the evening before. “Let’s get up real early and grab breakfast at the ‘Village’; the sign says they open at 5am”.
It was sort of a joint proposal so blame must be fully shared this time. So at the crack of dawn a forced march was made to town, ie, the brain had to force the stiff legs to respond. At the ‘Village’ the lights were on, the welcome warm, and a giggle followed J1’s request that we be seated at our ‘regular’ table as he slipped into the chair he had warmed the night before. Recalling his gargantuan mashed potato serving the night before, J2 exercised caution and limited his order to two pancakes and a side of Canadian bacon. J1 went the multiple egg route and was also charmed by Canadian bacon. In no time the ‘hash was slung’ and the challenge began. J2 thought they had forgotten the plate when the pancakes arrived until his fork hit something harder than the oil cloth covered table top; the huge flapjacks simply obscured the dish. J1s meal arrived on a serving platter. The ‘bacon’ looked like the entire midsection of the pig. Well, what’s a real man to do; …down the hatch, chased with a couple of cups of coffee.
We weren’t even back to the landing before the meal struck bottom and took its first bounce. Bravely, kayaks were launched (but not soundlessly in hopes of reminding our 45 foot interlopers that we had hauled out for their convenience). With an eight mile level ahead the Duo gritted their teeth and dug in without a word. The scenery provided little diversion to draw the paddler’s minds away from the growing discomfort, and the whining tires on I-90 simply elevated the awareness that all was not well. Perhaps an hour into this grim trial the silence was broken with, “Ya got any more TUMS?” … “Yeah, how many d’ya want?”… “six or seven” … “That bad, huh?”… “Yeah, …You?” … “Same!”
Lock 13 was taken in painful silence with the abdominal agony arousing pain receptors in other parts of the body also. Finally, in an act of desperation for kayakers trying to achieve mileage goals, an early break was taken at Fonda NY, not a name that engenders warmth in old veterans, recalling an actress by the same name. Pulling over at the ‘Fonda Terminal Wall’ because it offered a crude ramp, the Duo was confronted with a canal maintenance terminal whose neglected appearance complimented the name ‘… Terminal Wall’. Since hunger was obviously not a concern with the battle for digestion still in full tilt, nap time was moved up and blissful unconsciousness was easily achieved.
Lunch was eventually prepared and inexplicably, making up for bypassed meals on the menu, was quite robust and surprisingly settling. Entertainment was provided by the Fonda Fair in full swing in the adjacent fair grounds. By the 1pm re-launch, the wisp of a tailwind from the morning was beginning to reach a strength were it was possible to feel and enjoy some slight sensation of a boost.
The early afternoon saw a continuation of a bass tournament which had been keeping the river churned up since lock 13. Enormously powerful ‘bass boats’ which could have passed for unlimited hydroplanes in the fifties, flew back and forth occasionally halting to wet a line. At those moments the sensitivity to the presence of kayakers changed dramatically. At 60 miles per hour they blow mindlessly by within feet caring less for the safety threat they create, … but let a paddler stray within a couple hundred feet when lines are out and the alleged anglers suffer from apoplexy. Exhausted and overheated in midmorning, the Js were hugging the south bank for some sorely needed shade when one 150 horsepower, metal flake finished, Naugahyde upholstered fiberglass wedge trying to pass for a fishing boat blew by only to reign it in a few hundred yards ahead. Then as the kayaks approached they were loudly informed that they should change course making a wide arc into midstream (and blazing sun) to avoid interfering with the fishing that was just commencing. Being at the bottom of the food chain, the detour was made. Vengeance does not belong to the kayaker, but rather to the God who directs the fishies and that day the Js had the satisfaction of seeing the whole fleet skunked.
The tournament was wrapping up at 2:30 and as the bewitching hour approached, the frenzy of speeding fiberglass became down right threatening, especially since the Js found themselves passing the weigh-in just upstream from lock 12. J1, the true fisherman of the Duo, opined that boats gone wild at the end of such a contest was another sure sign of a bad fish day. Fishing is a great pass time but having had to share a small river with a bass tournament, it’s hard to see that sort of angling as coming anywhere near meeting the definition of ‘fishing’.
Just before veering to river left for the lock, we grabbed a distant look at the Scholharie Aqueduct a remnant of the old canal with at least a half dozen graceful arches which once carried the Erie canal across the Scholharie Creek.
After an uneventful passage through lock 12 there was an inviting stretch of bank on river right which beckoned for a refreshing swim. With uncertain prospects for conveniences at Amsterdam’s Riverlink Park, the intended day 4 overnight stop, a swim would also double as bathing to remove two days of caked on sweat and the associated stench. Baring most (but not all, out of deference to passing traffic), the plunge was made, clothing reapplied and the few remaining miles to Amsterdam made in relative comfort.
The approach to Riverlink raised concerns. First off it was full of monumental structure, ie, a class act, which does not bode well for tent camping, a service never addressed on listings of services offered at canal facilities. Secondly, the docks were obviously designed for the ‘bigger guys’ making extracting one’s self from a kayak somewhat treacherous. J2 performed the reconnoitering and could find no authority such as a harbor master with whom to discuss arrangements. What he did find was a large white tent in the only open grassy area of the park, obviously ready for a reception; in fact a few well-dressed folks were already arriving. The park had some dining facilities which seemed to be given over to food preparation for the event, so for lack of any other available contact, J2 made inquiries at the kitchen. He was met at the door by a pleasant but obviously busy lady who seemed to know the park policies and she apologetically stated that camping was definitely not permitted on the grounds1 and in fact only days before she had to turn away bicyclers through-peddling the Canalway bike path. Seeing our exhausted state (and probably wondering if these old guys might simply collapse on her doorstep, J1 having joined the discussion by this time), she offered a bag of ice to help us on our way since ‘on our way’ was obviously the next step. As she disappeared to make this concession a reality, a kitchen helper piped up that there was camping available on the islands immediately downstream. Subsequent investigations proved him very wrong so the ultimate conclusion was that he was a bonehead!
Ice bags in hand, a retreat was beaten, boats treacherously reentered and a discouraged pair of kayakers began a late afternoon search for a camp site. The islands were a tangled, impenetrable mess; a day with a machete would be required to clear a tent site.
The last resort was a fishing/boat launching site, river left just upstream from Amsterdam’s sewage treatment plant. It actually turned out to be a very serviceable camp site with only two major draw backs.
1. Camping was prohibited and,
2. A CSX road crossing about fifty yards away.
The camping prohibition was ignored by the Js (as usual !) and the road crossing? … well, beggars can’t be choosers. Who says you can’t get a good night’s sleep in 15 minute increments!
1J1 contacted the mayor of Amsterdam after the trip and described our reception. She was apologetic and assured him that a new policy would be established to address needs such as ours.
Day 5, Sunday, September 2, 2012 – Party Time!
The rejection received at Amsterdam on day 4 was not only a disappointment, but it was also a lesson learned … call ahead! So before retiring at ‘Sewer Plant camp’, the chart was inspected and the most likely stop for day 5, considering both services and location, was the Schenectady Yacht Club. It wasn’t that the name promised anything more receptive than the cold shoulder from Riverlink, but at least we would attempt to find out ahead of time. The call was made and a very pleasant male voice was heard at the other end. An explanation and inquiry was made and, to J2’s surprise, the response was, “I believe we can accommodate your camping, I’ll put you up by the swimming pool.” Still smarting from that evening’s rejection, J2 was delighted and thanked his next night’s host and terminated the call. … But that was last night, now it was this morning and as the Duo started off for their destination 19 miles away, the doubts began to set in. How would two disreputable kayakers fit in with the yacht club crowd? Would sweat soaked tee-shirts and filthy sun caps be welcome amongst white ducks, blue blazers, deck shoes and yachting caps? J2 would have the rest of the day to worry on that one!
Meanwhile this morning’s paddle was pleasant to a fault. A light mist laid on the surface, entertaining with its numerous mini-whirlwinds, a phenomenon that could use some explanation. A heavier mist from the night before had risen well clear of the river but still mimicked its meanders in the still air above; strange and beautiful. A stream entering from river left brought with it a trace of pin flock betraying Amsterdam’s sewage plant but otherwise conditions indicated a well operated facility. Even though commercial shipping has virtually disappeared from the canal leaving only recreational boating, receiving sewage effluent and supplying municipal water systems remains an important public function surely contributing, in part, to the justification for continued operation.
Rounding a bend we approached lock 10 just downstream from an old abandoned power plant bearing the name “Adirondack Power and Light”. According to the “History of the Mohawk Valley” circa 1925, “…the imposing structure of the steam power plant of the Adirondack Power and Light Corporation …. finished and put in operation in 1922 … is the most beautiful steam power plant ever constructed.” Well, between them the Js have worked at dozens of power plants and to call any of them beautiful is a stretch to begin with, but to call this one “the most beautiful” …???
At lock 10 we got our first good view of the devastation caused by Hurricane Irene almost exactly one year prior. The Js are seasoned veterans of raging rivers having only recently barely avoided losing their cottages on the Susquehanna to Tropical Storm Lee, but what was seen here made them wince. The Mohawk simply bypassed around the south side of the lock and dam, gouging out a new river bed moving millions of tons of earth and debris downstream! While the function had been restored, huge gap remained unfilled. Similar damage would be seen later in the day at both locks 9 & 8!
The next bit of excitement was a railroad bridge replacement project another four miles downstream. Boaters were cautioned to sound a single blast on a horn when approaching the site. Not having one easily available, the Js crowed the bank river right where a pontoon boat with several construction workers aboard was beached. Figuring that their buddies up on the bridge wouldn’t drop anything on them, close proximity offered a zone of protection. The move proved fortuitous as a falling object produced a good sized splash to their left as they slipped under the span.
The railroad was a constant companion during this trip and it was the topic of much conversation, and no little amount of complaining. Plainly visible from kayak or camp much of the time, it was impossible not to make observations and speculate on the commerce it represented. In and around Little Falls the rail activity seemed particularly intense during the daylight hours, with trains sometimes passing as frequently as every fifteen minutes; and that level of activity diminished little during the night. On occasion, such as walking into towns, an overpass would afford a view into open top cars for a first hand assessment of the transported goods. One commodity that formed a substantial part of the traffic was trash headed west. What appeared to be processed trash would fill dozens of open hopper cars on many trains and even when traveling at high speed the trash stayed put so it was assumed that the cars were sprayed with some kind of bonding substance to hold it in place. Another commerce stream headed west were sea vans presumably from the great port areas in and around New York City. These two images did not add up to a pretty picture of productivity in the east! Trains heading in from the west also contained sea vans but from the sound they made many were probably empties. It was encouraging to see auto carriers headed east in what sounded like heavily loaded trains giving evidence of a healthier manufacturing climate in the Midwest.
While these speculations are little more than fantasy, they do provide insight into the type of thoughts which might occupy the mind of the ‘slow’ traveler on the Erie Canal, itself an artifact of commerce. Compared to the 10 days required by Governor De Witt Clinton to travel the length of the canal (363 miles) in the packet Seneca Chief to celebrate the canal’s opening on October 26th, 1825 (October 26 being J2’s birthday!), the intrepid Duo required 15 days at about 8 hours paddling a day or roughly traveling at a speed equivalent to Governor Clinton’s. He was pulled by animals, probably one or two mules; the Js were self-propelled. With one stroke of the paddle equivalent to about 10 feet of progress, the transit required about 200,000 paddle strokes over perhaps 120 hours. So at canal boat speed and with mindless paddling, the brain has to go somewhere and the images and sounds of the Erie Canal and its surroundings were frequently the guide!
How far can a kayaker paddle in a day? Well it depends, but one thing is for sure, only the paddler himself knows. When pondering the next day’s (day 4) destination back in Canajoharie, a well-meaning power boater recommended Arrowhead Marina and RV Park as not only an achievable distance but also an ideal choice for traveler amenities. He was familiar with the facility because it was his ‘home port’; he was also dead wrong on both counts! It was noon on day five and arrival at Arrowhead was only now a reality! Again J2 did the recon work entering a trailer marked office close by the landing. A young woman behind a counter was holding court with what appeared to be the RV regulars, retirees with little better to do. It wasn’t like one could sneak into this welcome center without being noticed but J2 had to wait a long time before a pause for a breath allowed the hostess to cast a bored glance his way and ask it there was something he wanted. It only took a minute of conversation to understand that Arrowhead, or at least this damsel representative, wasn’t at all interested in accommodating itinerate kayakers.
Fortunately an alternative was shown on the chart just across the river entitled “Kiwanis Boat Launch” but we could see it offered additional amenities including picnic tables, port-a-potties, and shade trees (needed for noon naps). While the Kiwanis effort fell miles short of their Rotarian competition’s Little Falls facility, it was well suited for a lunch stop and could have served for an overnighter in a pinch and therefore it receives honorable mention. (With a caveat that the potties were in desperate need of attention!) J1 had lunch served up in a jiffy and soon the Js were ‘just settled down for a long noontime nap’. J2, the more proficient napper was right off to dreamland but J1 hesitated long enough to notice two carloads containing an extended Hispanic family pull up to the picnic grove and begin searching for an open table. Since the park adjoins a bikeway, all of the other tables were occupied by one or two bikers who seemed to be of no mind to offer up their tables. J1, who has a heart for big families, himself a graduate of a large one, immediately read the situation and jumped up to offer the table still housing his meal preparation gear. It was a lovely shaded spot, perhaps the nicest in the park. The family was delighted and thanked him profusely. He made one condition though, that they would respect his sleeping companion and not disturb him. Surely they were touched by his additional compassion but if they could have read his mind they would have seen mischievousness instead!
Quietly the family unloaded their vehicles bringing large bowls of Spanish delectables and battery powered boom-boxes for when the party heated up. What they couldn’t control was the pure enthusiasm of their offspring and despite numerous shushings, the volume rose unabated. Soon J2 regains partial consciousness and becomes aware that he was in the midst of a large gathering of Spanish speakers although his eyes had not yet opened to offer an explanation. A moment later when they did, he was baffled by the fact that he had fallen asleep in silence and was now in the middle of a party, and no ordinary party, at least in his experience. Rubbing his eyes he looked around and the next thing he saw, several dozen yards away, was a broadly grinning J1. Not again!!! When it comes to practical joking in this relationship it is always a one way street!
Soon the boats were launched and underway for the afternoon mileage necessary to reach the yacht club; it was now that J2 began his serious worrying. Convinced that despite the welcome response over the phone, there would be an icy reception waiting and he better begin considering alternative plans. But worrying and planning had to soon give way to kayaking because after lock 8 Schenectady began in earnest and with it, Sunday afternoon boaters. This was by far the most marine activity the Js had seen since entering the canal back at the Niagara River and trying to avoid oncoming boats with drivers in who knows what state of mind became priority number one! The river did not broaden appreciably although there was an interesting collection of islands offering some variety to those bored with the river’s main course. A Ski Nautique inboard was towing a wake boarder and as the name implies, wake counts for that sport, the bigger the better. The success of their efforts kept the Js at the ready to throw a brace if necessary to keep from overturning. Another craft bore the name “United States Water Ski Team”. All in all it was extremely active and while caution was required, it was refreshing to see so many enjoying the river.
The clock was running out for J2 to offer an alternative to the yacht club. When he scrutinized the chart there simply was nothing else around to offer kayakers a refuge … and what’s worse, that scrutiny revealed that nearby the yacht club were the Edison Golf Club and the Mohawk River Country Club, he was now convinced disaster loomed just ahead. As they passed under the Rexford Bridge and approached a graceful arched remnant of the Rexford Aqueduct with its exceptional stone work, J2 was holding his breath knowing that just beyond the arch laid their destination; it was the moment of truth! … Rounding the stone abutment the docks and boats of the club came into view first; nice but nothing imposingly intimidating. …. And then the harbor master’s office came into view and a huge sigh of relief could be heard … ending in a chuckle! This was NOT a fancy club! It was blue collar to the last detail and in fact the history was that it had been started by workmen from General Electric, the onetime dominant player in regional manufacturing. In fact at first glance, the Schenectady Yacht club looked perfect for the Duo, and that is exactly how it turned out!
J2, who’s faster on exiting his kayak, again performed recon duties approaching the harbor master’s office where he was greeted by an energetic gentle man about his own age who possessed an elfish twinkle in his eye; meet Glen, a delightful character. Before he even introduced himself he pointed to his right … “Ya know these guys?” … There was Dan and Jeremy of the “Doin’ Dishes” grinning away. “They got ya in pal. When you called last night they were sittin’ right there and they over heard the conversation, kayaking, camping, and all that stuff and they piped up that they knew ya and that you were OK!” His next act was to ask how long our kayaks were. J2 quizzically answered “17 feet.”… “We charge a dollar a foot per night but because ya had to paddle your butts off to get here I’m only gonna charge ya each ten bucks” … “Now, if ya wanna eat, here some brochures for takeout; they’ll deliver down here if ya mention my name.” … “Hey Glen, we’ve been paddling all day. Do you think any of these places might be willing to include a couple of cold ones in the deal?” … “ Ah, ya wanna start drinkin’ do ya? Come ‘ere.” With that he led around the corner of his office to an outdoor refrigerator which he opened while feigning a furtive glance back towards the marina. “This is members only mind ya’, but under the circumstances I think it’ll be OK, gimme two bucks” at which he reached into the cardboard case and extracted two beers. “Here, take these and go up and relax by the pool and then set your tents and stuff up there when you’re ready” That is how it was at the Schenectady Yacht Club!
Later on, relaxed and well supplied from the local Italian take-out, the Js, Glen, Dan & Jeremy, and a new acquaintance, Don, lulled the evening away on the deck off the harbor masters office telling each other lies and listening to Glen give lurid descriptions of plans for his fiancé when he visited her down in Florida the following week. A good time was had by all!
Day 6, Monday, September 3, 2012 (Labor Day) – Down the Up Staircase
The Js awoke knowing it was the last day of this adventure and, more significantly, their final day on the Erie Canal. They have an interesting history of final days. Instead of simply playing out the few remaining miles, last days often offer a unique challenge.
On the descent of the Susquehanna, exceptionally strong headwinds whipped up waves in the two mile wide mouth of the river which outmatched our small plastic boats threatening to swamp them.
Going down Delaware Bay it was a strong wind again, hurling large breaking waves into breakwaters at the entrance to the Cape May Canal into which we had to enter.
Going up the Inland Waterway it was crossing Great Bay.
On our previous leg of the Erie Canal it was a 21 mile transit of Oneida Lake.
This day promised its own excitement with the final descent of the canal into the Hudson Valley via a set of five closely spaced locks (the Waterford Flight) making it the steepest canal descent of its kind in the world. To assure that it wouldn’t be dull, the participants in a large powerboat regatta held Sunday afternoon would be departing and a fair number would be using these locks to return to their home ports on the Hudson River guaranteeing the Js lots of BIG company.
But before doing anything on the water a celebratory breakfast was in order featuring a double portion of oatmeal prepared by chef J1 on a picnic table (with adjoining grill) reserved exclusively for the Dou courtesy of Glen who insisted that diminutive size and alternative propulsion didn’t make kayakers any less privileged when it came to dock side amenities. In fact he was waiting for his guests with two large cups of coffee to start their day! A rapport had been developed with Glen based on kindred spirits of adventure. He was a Looper! When arriving at Schenectady Yacht Club it’s hard to miss the banner hung from the railing of the deck fronting the Harbor Master’s office, “Loopers Welcome” To the uninitiated, several possible meanings could be imagined, but Glen gave a full explanation the previous evening. The Loop is a designated waterway which ‘loops’ the eastern United States encompassing the Hudson River, Erie Canal, various Great Lakes, the Mississippi and several tributaries, then the Tenn-Tom Waterway to the Gulf Coast (completed in 1985) and finally costal waterways to (and through) Florida then returning up the east coast finishing back in New York. Boats finishing this loop (typically recreational trawlers) are awarded a gold colored burgee by the America's Great Loop Cruisers' Association. Glen’s burgee was on display in his RV adjacent to his office which is his summertime home. He heads to Florida when the Canal closes in mid-autumn. Sad for the yacht club, this Fall Glen’s trip will be one-way.
As final loading of the kayaks was accomplished and good-byes were being said to our friends, Glen summed up his opinion of the Duo with, “You guys are something. A couple of old guys (Oh NO, not that again!) just traveling around in your kayaks, camping wherever you can, meeting people, and having a damn good time. That’s just great!” … With those sweet words ringing in their ears, the Js squeezed into their boats and shoved off.
The banks of the river at this point were high and steep. While generally scenic, the surrounding commercial world occasionally peaked through. Along the way the General Electric Research Center and the Knolls Atomic Laboratory were prominent features. In just a couple of miles lock 7 was negotiated bringing to an end that type of arrangement of dam with adjacent lock; all remaining locks would be incorporated in the Waterford ‘Flight’. Here the river began to broaden considerably reflecting the continuous contribution of tributaries coming down from the Adirondacks which had been swelling the flow for the last 100 or so miles. At one point, obviously not far from the Schenectady airport judging from the air traffic, the river broadened to give it the appearance of a large shallow lake with acres of grass breaking the surface; quite beautiful. On the north side there was a small depot for the canal’s maintenance fleet. Being Labor Day all was quiet and, probably due to the impending Waterford Tugboat Roundup, the equipment was in ‘full dress’.
The river narrowed briefly then again broadened, this time revealing a couple of large marinas on both sides which had facilitated the previous day’s regatta. It was a relief to see that the forecast mass exodus was already well underway and it appeared as though the stream of boat traffic had already peaked and was dwindling down to a reasonable level.
Unlike the broadened area just upstream with its pleasant grasses, this ‘pond’ was being choked by an aggressive invasive species. In fact, when the Js decided to take a break at a very attractive municipal park, they had to partially carve their way through the mess to get to the boat ramp! The park belonged to the town of ‘Colonie’ and was beautifully designed and maintained. There were exceptionally clean restrooms and pristine picnic areas. ...Kudos to Colonie! As with any of this type of facility there was no mention of camping but in all probability if kayakers arrived late enough, selected an out of the way location, prominently displayed their boats near their campsite, and above all displayed good outdoor etiquette, overnighting, even if not permitted, would be winked at. That has been the more typical experience of the Js, albeit, with some few but very uncomfortable exceptions.
For the balance of the day’s journey to the Waterford Flight, now less than three miles distant, the wind picked up considerably. Due to the hairpin shape of this final leg it was at first a head wind and then again following. While refreshing, it added some handling difficulty at a time when the kayaks would begin sharing maneuvering room with several large yachts at the entrance to the flight. In tight spaces kayaks do fine with wind but their oversized cousins struggle tending to make life treacherous for the little guys.
The entrance to this final mile and a half of the Erie Canal was currently blocked by a guard gate in the lowered position. The more typical function of these behemoths is to isolate sections of the canal for maintenance, but in this case the gate provides an operational function remaining closed until lock 6, the first step down the flight, is ready to receive traffic. Why this is done remains open to speculation for the Js but the current thought is that it adds some level of protection against malfunction in the complex coordination of locking operations to follow.
Finally, after perhaps 20 minutes, the gate began to rise out of the water with a chorus of screeches and groans as the vintage lifting mechanisms strained under the load. When clearance was established, the green light flashed on and the parade of five large power boats and two kayaks began the final half mile march to the waiting locks. Straining a bit but propelled by pride, the Js, having positioned themselves in the center of the pack to avoid being overlooked in the struggle for wall space in the lock chamber, kept up with the crowd. At the entrance to lock 6 they were met by the lock tender who (somewhat prophetically as it turned out) said in a friendly but firm tone, “Why don’t you guys wait here until I get these other boats in. I’d hate to have to scrape you off the wall in case one of them can’t keep things under control.” … “We like the way you think!” was the emphatic reply. Now at the back of the pack but not forgotten, the Duo began the process of descending the five steps down the watery stair case to the Hudson River. The process, which lasted two hours, was pleasant, social, but not without incident.
Positioned in the rear of the lock 5 chamber, the kayaks were hugging the wall to the right of “Inheritance Spent”, an enormous cruiser, as the fleet was uneventfully lowered. When the exit door swung open, the boats began to move out. “Inheritance Spent” had secured her engines to avoid gassing the crew with their own exhaust (much to the relief of the kayakers although they probably hadn’t been in the equation). When her engines were restarted, the owner/captain, whose bearing didn’t inspire confidence in the first place, advanced both throttles without noticing that the starboard engine had failed to start. The resultant asymmetrical thrust immediately swung the bow towards the right wall where the two somnambulant paddlers were about to have a rude wake-up call. It came from the captain’s significant other in the form of a high pitched, “Hey, look out for those kayaks against the wall over there!!!”. Her second act was to give a similar warning to starboard in the direction of the two red & white, fragile fiberglass kayaks containing their equally fragile & squishable human occupants. The second warning, though much appreciated, was entirely unnecessary as the Js had swung their paddles into operation and had already deftly dodged the oncoming menace!
Apologies were subsequently given, drinks at the yacht club at the mouth of the canal offered (a mere formality), and the parade marched on, finally reaching lock 2, the end of the line. (So where is lock 1? That’s by the ‘federal dam’ on the Hudson below the mouth of the canal.) While no different than the 34 locks which preceded it, locking through number 2 raised lumps in the throats of the Js. This was the end of their Erie Canal adventure. With flags waving on the wall of the lock and on the stern of J2s boat, the water level began its decline, lowering the lock’s inhabitants down to the level of the Hudson River. As the exit door swung open, all that was left to do was paddle out, then, at J1’s insistence for completeness, paddle to the other side of the Hudson River and claim victory!
“You guys are something. A couple of old guys just traveling around in your kayaks,
camping wherever you can, meeting people, and having a damn good time. That’s just great!”
- Glen the Harbor Master, Labor Day, 2012