Wet and Wild
Journal by Jay Doering, aka J2; final edit by Jay Mackley, aka J1
Adventures of J1and J2 on the Erie Canal - continued
We were beginning to think we had a charmed life. During none of our four previous kayak adventures did we have any appreciable rain. That included;
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
So with rosy expectations we scheduled what was to be the final chapter of the Erie Canal for September 27th through October 6th, 2010. However, as the date approached, the National Weather Service made it quite clear to us that the charm was broken and we were in for a taste of real kayaking. I say real kayaking because in my younger years I spent a brief period among Greenland Eskimos where kayaks were still the craft of choice for harvesting the dinner of choice, seals; and the weather up there was miserable.
It was also the year to get real with logistics. For all of our other journeys Mrs. J2 supplied the lion’s share of the transportation, all pain and no gain (other than ridding herself of a bothersome husband for a few days). So this year we took two vehicles, dropping one off at the Waterford NY Canal Welcome Center, located at Hudson River terminus of the canal. The folks there were very accommodating with the parking, and the facility itself is impressive. Then it was west to Baldwinsville, serendipitously the halfway point (approximately) on the canal. What makes this burg particularly appealing is the Red Mill Inn, a hotel that sits smack dab on the canal at lock 24. The name isn’t contrived. It truly was a mill sitting between dam and lock on the Seneca River, harvesting the slight drop in elevation. The digs are good too, albeit, be prepared to pay for the upscale touches. You probably also get to pay a little towards the interior design which exposes the huge wooden columns still providing the support to the antique structure. And for convenience it’s ideal when a long drive either follows or precedes your adventure which it did this day, 450 miles worth. Several eateries are convenient too, our current preference being the B’ville diner, just a short walk away. So, before settling in to our swank quarters, we lined our stomachs with a diner fare which stuck with us for a day or two.
The Red Mill, uniquely situated as it is, wasn’t the only bit of serendipity we experienced prior to launching off on part two of our Erie Canal adventure. A few months before, J2 received a modest e-mail inquiry if he was the J2 of the Brule Descent, the journal of which resides on the website ‘Seakayak Chesapeake Bay’ http://www.seakayak.ws/ along with our other journals. The inquirer was a fellow (or more correctly, a sister) kayaker wanting to try her luck on the Susquehanna River. An exchange of e-mails followed and at one point it became known that the inquirer lives quite close to a portion of the canal and had herself transited it. So she offered abundant and very welcome advice as well as offers of assistance. By coincidence, her name was Janette and her paddle partner is her sister Judy. Since we already had a J3, one ace canoeist and novice kayaker, Janet, we rounded out our paddling association as;
J1 - Jay M.
J2 - Jay D.
J3 - Janet
J4 - Janette
J5 - Judy
We were very much looking forward to meeting J-4 and J-5 for a promised riverside meal on day 4 or 5, … BUT, as you will see, that never occurred.
Day 1 began at 1AM for J2. The TV was churning away semi-masking J1’s snoring and it was also illuminating the room. Correcting the TV and trying to ignore the other, an attempt was made to re-enter dreamland but with marginal success. The abundant rain outside the open window didn’t help either. Soon it was dawn, grey and wet. Final preps were made in our personal gear followed by another run at the B’ville Diner. Breakfast was packed in, sandwiches were ordered for a later meal, and a thermos was filled with clam chowder. The boats were dropped off at the nearby boat ramp and the car returned to the Red Mill Inn. It had been an easy negotiation to parley our one night stand into parking privileges for the next week.
The rain had mercifully backed down to a fine drizzle as we packed our boats in preparation for launch but as soon as we were in the water the precip began to pick up again. The night before we had tipped off the lock tender that we would ready to go through at 7:30 and we weren’t far off. Lock operation backs down to 7am – 5pm daily during the off season up until the canal ceases ops all together in November. We were spotted as we approached and soon the entrance light turned from red to green signaling permission to enter which we quickly did with a few paddle strokes taking positions along the right hand wall. Exchanging the right paddle glove for a work glove and grasping one of the several vertical lines provided for control, we were ready to begin our decent. It had been a year since our last locking experience but the operation felt just as benign as before and soon the outlet gate groaned open and we were on our way once again on the Erie Canal/Seneca River. We had a 19 mile paddle ahead to lock 23.
The precipitation this day was intermittently mist and steady light. The few times it got heavy were easily discerned as darkening clouds overhead signaled that things were going to get worse. At those times we would kick up the pace and find a convenient bridge to loiter under while the worst passed. Not that it was all that necessary, it was more a game. We were prepared having donned rain gear and skirted ourselves in. J1 was using a high quality kayaking pullover rain jacket with cuffs etc. which served to keep him dry but also kept him uncomfortably warm. J2 had gone cheap with a set of Dry Ducks rain gear from Dick’s Sporting Goods. On day 1 he wore the bottoms which proved excessive since we never left the boats until evening. However, the zippered top proved ideal for regulating comfort in the 60-ish outdoor temperatures. Bottom line, unless you are sure that you are going to be paddling in very cold weather, you may want to save a little on your rain gear and go with cheap breathable wear.
Our journeys this day took us past a steady stream of opulent homes. This was suburban Syracuse and not surprisingly canal/river frontage went to the highest bidder, of which there were apparently many. Soon we were passing the connecter canal to Lake Onondaga, home of the Syracuse University crew and host site for the annual Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta, a past memory for J2. Somewhere past the halfway point we passed “Three Rivers” the juncture of the Oneida, Oswego, and Seneca Rivers. A right turn onto the Oswego would put a boater on course for Lake Ontario via a series of locks and dams, terminating at the lake port of Oswego. Our course, however, would be up the Oneida towards lock 23 followed quickly by the Lake of the same name. Transiting that lake from end to end would be the magnum opus of leg two of the Erie Canal. One surprising change occurred as we passed Three Rivers. The water quality, at best murky on the Seneca, suddenly became crystal clear promising a feeling of refreshment on Lake Oneida.
By early afternoon lock 23 was in sight. The upscale suburbs of Syracuse were history, replaced by what were more certainly vacation cottages. J1 had his cell phone at the ready and called the lock tender. The cell phone remains the communications tool of choice, especially since connectivity has improved over the rare cell tower encountered coming down the Susquehanna in 2002. Entering lock 23, we were aware that this would be our first ‘up locking’ experience on the Erie Canal. When ‘down locking’ the hydraulic energy of the escaping water is dissipated outside the lock chamber, but when going up, the opposite is true with water rushing into the chamber causing a disturbance which the paddler must be ready for. Alone in a lock chamber, this is quite manageable, but I’m not sure how it would be during the Summer, crowded in with many other craft, most probably much larger. But this was late in the season attested to by virtually no other boat traffic on the canal so we had every reason to assume that we would not be sharing the lock chamber.
The rear door closed behind us and the water started to enter causing the expected disturbance. Other than some very mild welling up and swirling it wasn’t much different than all our other locking experiences. But what did come as a surprise, was that we were not alone. A water snake was vigorously wending it serpentine length along the chamber wall, appearing to be attempting to ascend the slippery barrier. And with another glance around it was apparent that this fellow traveller wasn’t alone. The whole tribe was with him. Now the lock keeper seemed to be exercising caution, bringing us up at an extra slow pace, perhaps to reduce the turbulence, or perhaps, to think the unthinkable, playing a game with us knowing that his lock was a "serpentarium". In any event, thoughts of snakes possibly joining us in our kayaks were trumped by the shear fascination of the scene which now included a number of frogs feeding off the marine life clinging to the wall. This was the most aquatic life we had seen in the canal to date.
Our interminable ride up a mere seven feet to lake level finally did end, and, with much additional hesitation, the outlet gate was slowly opened allowing us to leave our reptilian entertainment behind and enter upon the maritime environment of Brewerton. Clearly the principal industry in this seasonally quiet burg was marinas, perhaps making it the boating capital of the canal; its boat business undoubtedly enhanced by its location at the west end of Lake Oneida. Originally the Erie Canal bypassed the lake to the south, but with engine power replacing mules, Lake Oneida became a candidate for 20 miles of natural waterway with much greater flexibility and far less maintenance than Clinton’s original canal. Other sections were eventually bypassed when dams and locks were constructed to impound rivers creating wide ‘levels’ for navigation, also not amenable to mule power and tow lines. These improvements were made in the early Twentieth Century with the creation of the New York Barge Canal system. While Brewerton offered much in the way of berthing for yachts and more modest craft, there were no opportunities for the far less profitable kayaker forcing us to continue our paddling out into the lake and along the south shore to a county park, the site of what would be a uniquely unpleasant experience, and hopefully an embarrassment to the officials of Onondaga County, NY
I’ll preface the story with a judgment regarding flat water kayakers who utilize this mode of transportation, along with camping, for satisfying their deep wanderlust. We, and I use that preposition to encompass the loose confederation of folks not only yoked together by their interest but also through responsible publications and internet sites, … WE are true environmentalists, people who long for unmolested nature and therefore who depend on each other to have rigorous outdoor manners. The ultimate measure of our environmental commitment is whether or not you can find a trace of our having spent the night in a location. J1&J2 carry this to a fault, policing an area prior to departing to make sure that the carelessness of previous occupants does not impugn their reputation. Bottom line, when we leave a campsite, everything, …everything, leaves with us.
We arrived at the Oneida Shores Park with plenty of daylight remaining having covered about 24 miles that day. The next day was the 20 mile transit of the lake so we were anxious to prepare for that with a good night’s sleep, especially considering this was day one, and our 60+ year old bodies need two days to harden during our travels. It was now late September and the park was essentially vacant except for occasional local citizenry walking themselves or their dogs. The park was ideal for our needs having a beach on which to land, picnic tables, and even a couple of pavilions should the rain pick up. J2 noticed a sign denoting an ‘office’ near the beach area where we landed and immediately went over to make our presence known should any park employees be present. The duo always practices the greatest courtesy practical when desiring to utilize any facilities and this was no exception. A lone clerical type employee was present in the office. Typically introductions begin with an explanation that we are through kayakers on the canal and immediately folks are more than agreeable to accommodating our simple needs which is nothing more than a few square feet to erect our small tents. In this case, however, the clerk announced, “The campsite is closed so no camping is permitted.” Rather surprised I explained that we really had no other option and it would be very helpful if an exception could be made assuring her that there would be no trace of our presence after we left. “Why didn’t you call ahead? Then you would have known that you can’t camp here!” And by her tone I could tell that she added a silent “STUPID”. I tried to explain how it worked when kayaking and the unpredictability of time and place of arrival in the evening. I also mentioned how the Erie Canal Corporation was encouraging paddlers to travel the canal and how they opened all canal lands to camping. She was unimpressed. Hoping that this was a simple case of a clerk obediently following the rules, I asked if it would be possible to call the county and obtain permission.
She bristled at the suggestion and said the park took care of itself without county interference so there was no point in such a call. As tactfully as possible I asked if there were a Park Superintendent I that I might speak with. “She’s not here right now, and besides I know the rules. NO CAMPING! Would it be possible to call her? “No need to. I told you, I know the rules. There’s nothing more to discuss!” Time to give up. I was locked in an impossible word duel with an officious person who realized this was her moment of power. I needed a miracle.
I thanked her for her time and stepped into the hallway pausing briefly to peruse the bulletin board and also consider how I was going to break the news to J1 who was already preparing dinner on a picnic table. At that moment I heard the phone ring and immediately I sensed that the offending clerk was speaking with her boss. Judging from this side of the conversation the boss had just asked if anything had happened in her absence. “Well, as a matter of fact yes. Two guy who are kayaking the Erie Canal stopped at the park and asked if they could spend the night here and I informed them that…” the conversation ceased momentarily. After the pause I heard the words “… uh … sure … I’ll tell them that” ..…YES! Reason had prevailed…. As she was hanging up I made my presence known in the doorway again so she would know I had overheard the conversation and I looked straight at her with as naïve and questioning a look as my gleeful heart would permit. Without missing a beat she announced that she had talked our situation over with the Superintendent, as though she was doing us a big favor, and they had decided to make an exception for us. I thanked her and left, still very much believing in miracles. Later we met some of the maintenance workers and they were as gracious and helpful as could be, totally redeeming the reputation of the park and county.
The day ended pleasantly with a visit from a friend of J1s, a fellow worker who lived relatively close by. Good conversation, some cool cervezas and a clearing sky, all flavored with a forecast of a gentle WSW off shore breeze for the morrow, perfect for our transit. Night 1 was an easy sleep.
After only a smattering of rain during the night, the day broke gray but pleasant. A hearty breakfast was prepared, camp broken, kayaks packed, and the campsite policed twice to deny any naysayers ammunition to defame kayakers. This was going to be a long day. Physical conditions aside, paddling 20 miles on open water is more difficult than in a canal or on a river due to the diminished feedback from nearby features. It’s a psychological factor, not to be discounted. Launching was easy off the sandy shore line into the clear, and at this point, calm water; and for a brief period, the wind was as forecast the previous evening. Our strategy was to move off shore as far as we felt comfortable in order to shorten the transit. We had chosen the south shore passage over the north, even though its highly contoured coast line was several miles longer. We did this principally because of the location of our previous evening’s camping opportunity, the only one available in the whole region. By extending our course out into the lake we could travel from point to point, short cutting the many bays. By moving out even further we could begin to approximate a straight shot for our destination.
With the gentle breeze on our starboard quarter we began the steady paddle towards the destination which would remain over the horizon for the next five hours. We were estimating our progress using points of land and islands, not very accurately, but that mattered little because we knew when we had a healthy pace going and that equates to nearly four miles per hour. As we got further from shore the wind, as expected, picked up. What we hadn’t expected was that the wind would begin to move towards the northwest eliminating the protection afforded by the southern shore. Soon it began to blow straight down the length of the lake. In our preparations for this trip we had received much advice, and probably some lore, that such a wind, if it increases too much in velocity can produce very high swells and, eventually large waves. We had this in mind as the chop increased to waves with whitecaps. It felt more like we were out on the lower Delaware Bay than on a land locked lake. Not that it was an immediate problem, in fact it provided a real boost as we could begin some surfing which can add a full 1 mph to our speed. On the other hand, we were concerned as to how much this wind might continue to increase. The sky was darkening and we were a couple of miles off shore by this time so prudence had us altering course slightly to regain proximity to the shoreline at the next point. Our specific concern being that the water was fairly cool and we hadn’t been practicing our rolling. Although we are adept at rescues, hypothermia can significantly impact climbing back into a kayak, especially if dealing with anything much greater than the three foot waves we were experiencing at the moment. As we were gaining the point, we observed several small fishing boats. Oneida Lake is known as a good fresh water fishery, especially for walleye.
We passed close enough to one boat to inquire as to our whereabouts since the lack of distinguishing shore line features made it difficult to fix an exact location. When we were given the name of the bay to our south we were surprised to find ourselves a couple of miles further along than expected. With that encouragement we decided to find the lee of Shackleton Point and take a lunch break. We thought it a fitting place since Ernest Shackleton, which we presumed to be the inspiration for the name of the point and its companion island to the north, was the all-time greatest champion of maritime survival and a personal hero for the Js. As we rounded the point we encountered shallows with a rocky bottom causing a few bums before we fell behind it to the east. The shallows were also inducing small breakers which threw us both into the bracing mode to avoid wet feet or worse. But even with all this distraction, we couldn’t miss the most unusual sight up on the point; a magnificent and obviously dated mansion with equally impressive out buildings and all surrounded by ancient, large deciduous trees.
“What was this all about?”
“Could we land here?”
In a moment we came upon an attractive cove separated by a spit of land from another small cove, that one occupied by a boat house and filled with several unusual craft at mooring; in fact one had just arrived and its occupants were disembarking and headed in towards the peninsula forming Shackleton Point. Obviously they could see us making our landing in the adjacent cove but they seemed quite willing to completely ignore us which was all the encouragement we needed to disembark and investigate our surroundings.
After stretching and exercising our legs which had been immobile for the last four hours we began our reconnoiter, first stopping at the mooring area. A collection of nondescript water craft, perhaps a half dozen filled the small cove, and all looked as though they were work boats of some sort. None were fancy and the largest had the name Cornell spelled out in oversized letters amidships. Ah! … a clue. We hiked up a path ascending the low bluff to try to identify a peculiar structure spotted when we made our landing. It was either a very high class gazebo or a temple to a Greek god. J2 thought the former, but J1 wanted to consider the latter by posing for a photo.
The surroundings were intimidating enough that we beat a retreat to the beach and consumed some peanut butter smeared on flatbread to fuel the balance of the day’s paddle. Speculating on our surroundings while trying to swallow the sticky combination, we guessed that this was some sort of extension campus of Cornell, received as a donation from its former wealthy owner, perhaps an alumni, and used for marine studies. BINGO! Later research on the internet reinforced our detective instincts; “The Cornell Biological Field Station at Shackelton Point”
However, the research uncovered a variation in spelling, previously missed, which reduced the likelihood that this geographical feature was named for Sir Ernest Shackleton.
We re-launched into the lee of Shackelton Point and basically did a repeat of the morning’s performance, moving away from shore until we were surfing but then feeling slightly uncomfortable when the sky darkened, and heading for the most distant visible point to begin closing on the mainland. Soon we were raising the shore line of our destination and took aim on the abandoned Verona Beach lighthouse. As the shore line grew clearer we saw a peculiar, multicolored line along the water front. Eventually we were able to identify the line as a continuous wall in front of many Verona Beach waterfront properties with each property owner adding a personal touch with paint, sometimes brightly colored. And as we got even closer it was apparent that this was a serious sea wall facing due west down the length of the lake. People don’t make investments like that unless there is a significant threat. So the lore we received in preparing for the crossing of Lake Oneida, which drove us to alter course on a couple of occasions, was seriously validated in colorful concrete.
For lack of a better plan we beached in front of the lighthouse having accomplished the crossing in 6 ½ hours including lunch, a respectable 3 ½ mph average. J1 walked north towards the canal entrance to stretch his legs and in the process gathered some intelligence on available lodging, … which was none. We had not been overly optimistic anyhow since we were well beyond tourist season but J4 had tipped us off on the nearby Dwarf Line cottages with a Snow White theme so we wanted to give it a try. Not surprisingly their phone had been disconnected for the season.
Just beyond them, the Verona Beach State Park was still open for business so it would be tents again that evening. (In fact, although often longing for it to be otherwise, the Js have never spent a night in route under a civilized roof) Paddling the short distance to the park, we beached and sought out park staff to register. New York State has a unique system of Red Cap ‘volunteer’ staff who, in exchange for camping privileges, serve as adjuncts to the full time staff. In this case the gentleman, appropriately outfitted with a red ball cap, was supplementing his benefit by selling firewood. He signed us up for a site which included the use of the camp shower, all for the low price of $17.50; $15 for the site, $2.50 for showing up without reservations. Not bad, but again we were struck by the message sent by the small added charge. If New York State were serious about the eco-tourism exemplified by kayakers, one might think they would approach it in a more comprehensive fashion.
The day ended beautifully. It had been a rain free crossing so other than the soaking from occasional waves crossing our decks we had remained dry. We got showers and J1 performed his usual culinary wizardry parlaying common grocery bought dried foods into a tasty meal. We even got to enjoy a spectacular sunset. In this case, however, the old adage “Red sun at night, sailor’s delight” was a mockery because the forecast for the next 36 hours called for heavy rainfall. And in back in our minds was the knowledge that this storm was arriving after a trip up the Susquehanna watershed and our floating docks and pontoon boats were still in the river. Our strategy was to gauge the weather in the morning and if necessary, hole up in the adjacent pavilion for the day, waiting out the storm and monitoring the river forecast at Harrisburg PA to further decide on what actions may be necessary. Even with all that on our minds, sleep came quickly.
We had never failed to complete a trip we had started out on. There certainly were times of doubt; for instance on the Delaware Bay when very strong, contrary winds brought our headway to a virtual halt and the waves were threatening disaster. But even then we were blessed by an overnight wind shift which favored moving on. On this trip we were threatened by rain, not in the canal (or so we thought), rather rain on the home front. We both have vacation cottages on the Susquehanna, a large river which demands respect. In our small neighborhood all the cottages were entirely washed away during hurricane Agnes in 1972. In 1996 several ice jams broke free damaging all the buildings, some hopelessly. Again in 2004, a hurricane struck which flooded all cottages but one. And in between these larger disasters were smaller ones that claimed boats and docks. Fortunately, technology has improved in recent years facilitating accurate predictions of flooding two to three days in advance. The key is to pay careful attention which we were doing via iPhone and NOAA’s Harrisburg river flow prediction available on the internet. For the last 24 hours and well into the morning on Day 3 the prediction was for a river flow well within the capacity of our docks. At dawn, Day 3, we began to get a taste of the intensity of the storm, and by midmorning had retreated entirely into the campsite pavilion which offered suitable shelter to wait out the heavier rainfall which was predicted to ease by the following morning. Despite reports of heavy rainfall over the Susquehanna valley, the flow prediction held steady. But a little before lunch we received a series of worried phone calls from Mrs. J1 and from a neighbor that challenged our read on the river prediction. To support our contention J2 revisited the NOAA website once more but was shocked to see that the predicted flow had suddenly tripled to a level which spelled sure destruction to docks and boats and even threatened entry into our ground level basements. We had never before seen a change in prediction of this magnitude over such a short period of time. We had to act quickly to terminate out trip and get home ASAP to pull boats and docks and possibly move possessions out of the ground floor level of our houses.
With this change in affairs, we needed to find a ride back to J2s car at Baldwinsville, then back track on our car travels of just three days before. We tried J1s friend who visited the night before but he could not be contacted. We considered soliciting help from the home front and were considering contacting J4 for possible assistance. At that point J2 remembered a fellow consultant he often works with in the nuclear power trade who lived near Baldwinsville. A call was made to the D.C. Cook nuclear plant in Michigan to obtain the gent’s phone number. The call was made, and against odds, he answered. …“Sure I’ll be glad to come over and pick you up” What sweet words! An hour later Carl was there and J2 was transported back to his car, about a 55 mile drive. From there it was all “downhill”; Verona Beach to pick up boats and equipment, Waterford to pick up J1’s car, then the long haul home. The rain was torrential for the entire drive conjuring up fears of another Hurricane Ivan or worse. By midnight we were home on the river with time for a few hours of sleep before dawn when the ‘heavy lifting’ would commence.
It was a huge disappointment to cut our journey short, but at least we solved one big problem, ‘where to kayak next year’. Now the answer is, “Right back to Clinton’s Big Ditch”
Back on the Susquehanna, although we feared the worst, the worst never came. In the morning the folks controlling the river had dropped the level so extremely low to accommodate the predicted flooding that our docks and boats were stranded. When a series of phone calls got that problem corrected all equipment was finally pulled, and the flood ‘watch’ began. However, to the wonderment (and relief) of the citizens of Boekel Landing, the terrible flood waters never arrived. In fact, the flow never reached a level which required pulling boats and docks. It was a giant false alarm. In about three or four separate adjustments, NOAA brought their prediction back down to the level the Js had been seeing on the internet a couple of days before. Since an error of this magnitude had never before occurred, J1 contacted to forecasters for an explanation. He received a cordial and very informative reply citing soil absorption rates and the unique, finger like configuration of the storm. To their credit, they erred on the conservative side, which the Js know is the only way to approach the Susquehanna.
The other surprise was that the flow on the Mohawk River in New York, the course of the canal for well over half of our remaining sojourn, had increased substantially requiring the shutdown of the canal locks for a few days. So had we waited out the rain on day 3 and continued, we would have wound up cooling our heals at some point along the Mohawk!
Maybe we are charmed after all