Our second week along the Great Loop has taken us through a beautifully scenic section of the Hudson River and Mohawk River and our elevation has risen from zero to over 400′ (125m) above sea level! From the hustle and bustle of New York city, motoring through the Hudson Valley immediately changes from high rises to lush dense forest. The weather has generally been cool (between 15/20C), and we’ve also had a lot of rain with not many sunny days. So much rain that locks further up the Erie Canal will be closed for two weeks or more due to excessive flooding. Too much rain raises the water level, which in turn reduces the bridge clearance making it impossible to travel under.
After our mast was unstepped in Castleton, we journeyed 16nm upriver to the intersection of the Erie Canal and Champlain Canal, at the historic town of Waterford. Along the way we passed through the town of Albany, also the state capital, which is the limit that huge ocean going ships have to turn around and head back south.
Just before Waterford at the town of Troy we passed through our first lock – E1. The lift was about 5m and all we had to do was loop a rope from the center cleat to a vertical pole and when the water rose the rope came up with us. From the bow and stern we used boat hooks to keep us of the wall. Once up, Wayne motored us out – easy!
Blue Heeler and La Luna arrived at Waterford and tied up on the long concrete wharf. The four of us sauntered down to the Visitor’s Centre where the super helpful volunteer lady loaded us with brochures, maps, keys to the ablutions, and slipped in a recommendation to have breakfast at Don & Paul’s coffee shop in town for only $2. Along the dock was a Dutch flagged ship “Onrust” a replica circa 1614. The owner and builder Dave invited the four of us aboard for an inspection. He’d taken three years to build the sturdy wooden ship, and had plans to use the vessel for education and tourism. Special authentic touches such as solid bronze cannons and lamps from The Netherlands complimented the interior beautifully made from local white oak.
Many folks enjoy a walk along the dock and often stop and chat to us, asking where we’re from (quite a few think we’re from England because of the union jack on our Aussie flag, sigh…), how long it took to get here, etc. Most people are shocked to learn that a boat as small as ours (it’s not that small really) manages to sail over the oceans. The interaction also gives us a chance to ask questions of the locals or other boaters (‘loopers’) doing the Great Loop. They told us when Hurricane Irene blew back in 2011 the volume of water that came rushing through the canal system resulted in many boats and yachts drifting and smashing over the dam at the E1 lock. Some loopers are in yachts, some in small purposely-built canal tugs, while others are in large, or small, motor vessels.
The Erie Canal starts at Waterford, on the intersection of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers and at the foothills of the famous Adirondack Mountains. Our journey along the Erie Canal will take us through an historic part of the US, particularly during the Revolutionary War, into the Great Lakes and beyond. The season fee for going through the canal is only $100 but that includes free docking and facilities along the way. The canal was constructed in the early 1800s to bypass the Appalachian mountains and reach the interior of the US by linking New York City to the Great Lakes. This efficient method of transporting goods, such as grain from Ohio, resulted in a boom to New York City’s population and industry, while also creating a path for settlers to head west, opening up the fertile interior. Over the years the canal was re-engineered to cater for the volume of commercial traffic. By 1918 much of the original canal had been replaced using much of the existing water courses and new engineering techniques. The canal is 350 miles long, has 34 locks and rises 172m. Claimed as the steepest series of locks in the world, the “Waterford Flight” at the eastern entry of the Erie Canal is a series of five locks within two miles, with a vertical rise of 184 feet (approx. 55m). (The tallest single boat lift in the world is the Strépy-Thieu boat lift in Belgium which raises vessels 73m).
Running alongside the Erie Canal is the New York Canalways Trail – suitable for cross-country skiers, snowmobiles, and of course bicycles. The trail follows us on the southern bank and would be a great experience to cycle the entire length (add to to-do list). http://www.ptny.org/bikecanal/. The day before we left NYC I was fortunate to buy an aluminium frame bike from another sailor. Having a bicycle on this trip is practical, not only for getting around but it’s good to get some exercise too. After eleven years commuting up to 150kms per week to and from work, I really miss the exercise of cycling. The last time I rode a bike was back in Reunion Island, nine months ago!
We rode across the bridge then around to the local museum in the ‘White House’ which is located about 3km away. The volunteer was very chatty and gave us a private tour. She spoke about the long-gone factories, the canal workers and generally about Waterford’s history. From there we rode further to the impressive Cohoes Falls for a picnic lunch. We then rode on the eastern side of the Hudson River looking at the homes built in the Victorian and subsequent eras.
In the afternoon and after the bikes were stowed on board, we walked to the nearby Hannaford Supermarket and stocked up on groceries that we’d need for the trip. While at the meat counter looking for a nice piece of steak to buy, a meat worker in a white coat was stacking the shelves. Noticing my uncertainty of choice he suggested a cut of sirloin over the shoulder steak, then hearing my accent asked where we were from. I told him and he then introduced himself “Hi, I’m Bob the Meat Manager and welcome to Waterford. I hope you enjoy your stay and please come see me if you need anything”. Thanks Bob! A great idea, and one that is so helpful to boaters, is the ability to buy groceries and walk the trolley back to the dock 1km away and leave the trolley at the Visitors Centre for collection. Usually trying to lug loads of beer and shopping requires multiple trips and heavy bags. Good effort Waterford!
With three other vessels we entered lock E2 – the first in the Waterford Flight. Each lock has weighted ropes which hang from the top of the lock. Crew positioned at bow and stern can grab with a boat-hook and hang onto. To keep the boat from drifting away from the wall, a rope can also be looped around a vertical cable (if available) and as the boat rises this line rises with it. As the water fills the lock the water bubbles and swirls as strong turbulence pushes the boats around. After ten minutes the water filled to the top of the lock and each boat in turn releases it’s lines and motors away.
Following E2 are locks E3, E4, E5 and E6 then onto Locks E7 and E8 where we spent the night tied to a wall on the southern bank. Here was a large dam and bridge just west of the town of Schenectady. There are two portable ‘loos’ here but no rubbish bin. Facilities used to be much better at many of the lock parks before much of the area was flooded due to Hurricane Irene in August 2011. The devastating flooding in the Erie Canal supposedly rose upwards of 30 feet in some areas and caused millions of dollars damage to historic sites, locks and townships along the way.
The following day we had some blue sky and a bit more warmth. The heavy rain upriver is flowing large logs and branches downriver. There is no tide in the canal system, and the river naturally flows east towards the Hudson River and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. At this point the elevation is 280 feet above sea level. Some locks are as little as 6′ high while others van be up to 40.5′ high.
Along the canal there are free docks available to boaters (usually at the locks), while nearer the towns along the way you’ll find marinas where you can get full service (gas, diesel, laundry, holding tank pump-out, etc) but expect to pay around $1 per foot (no, not crew’s feet, boat length!). With a bicycle we can stop at a remote free dock and cycle back to the town. We did this when we passed Amsterdam just before lock E11. We passed through lock E11 than onto E12 some 5 miles further where we had a quiet secluded dock wall to tie up to. The alternative was to pay $40 to stay at the Riverlink dock in Amsterdam. From there on the south side of the bank, we enjoyed a cycle to Fort Hunter and the grounds of the Schoharie Crossing State Historical Site then east along the NY Canalways Trail until we reached the town of Amsterdam. There’s a pedestrian crossing of the I-30 bridge on the western side of the bridge, and there is also a new bridge being built further up. Besides a couple of stunning buildings including the historic Post Office and the Amsterdam Castle (a former armory and now a B&B), Amsterdam offers little else for boaters. Although the first Europeans here were Dutch in the 1700s, it wasn’t named Amsterdam until 1803.
La Luna went on ahead to Canajoharie Creek just east of lock E14, while we stayed at E12. The following day in the pouring rain we considered stopping at that creek, but the depth was 0.0 on the display. It was too shallow for our liking and not enough room to maneuver so we waved and kept going to arrive at Lock E15 in the early afternoon.
Lock E15 has a small concrete dock on the west/south bank at the village of Fort Plain in Montgomery County. The dock has bollards, 50A electricity, portable toilets, tables, rubbish bin and it’s only a short walk to the village of Fort Plain along the Canalways Trail. We arrived on a cold, rainy day at lunchtime and quickly tied up so we could hurry below for some hot soup. I was surprised to see at the end of the dock a small herb garden grown and maintained by locals. A sign read “Herbs for Boaters, from the Friends of Fort Plain”. How nice! Our chicken soup lunch was improved with some chopped up fresh chives and parsley!
Buildings in this small village of 2,300 people are old and in need of a coat of paint, but in the center of the village is a well kept garden and park next to an impressive historic Post Office. The original fort built in 1776 during the Revolutionary War, no longer stands. Like many small towns along the Erie Canal, there were periods when they flourished with textile factories and other manufacturing which boosted the local economy, but sadly the boom times didn’t stay forever. Trains, trucks and the sheer volume of products in demand effectively closed down many of the factories along the canalway causing high unemployment in these riverside towns.
We bought a few things from the nearby Save-a-lot Supermarket which had goods much cheaper than any supermarket I’ve been in so far. Lately at checkouts when I hand over a $20 or $50 bill it is scanned with a counterfeit identifying pen or eyeballed to validate its authenticity. I’ve never experienced that anywhere before…
At Fort Plain we inquired about getting our gas bottles filled. We assumed our Aussie gas (propane) bottles would be okay to have filled as they have the POL valves. Upon asking the local propane dealer about refilling, he said that the bottles must have a OPD (Overfill Prevention Device) valve fitted before they can fill. We still have plenty of gas left but will have to sort this out before too long.
At the shops, a family of Amish were a the checkout and I noticed they had parked their horse and buggy nearby at a spot exclusively for horses and buggies. The father looked very fit and easily carried 100lb sacks of potatoes on his muscular shoulders. A quick read of Wikipedia and I learned that New York state has the fastest growing population of Amish while Montgomery County has one of the largest populations of Amish in the country. Website http://www.amishamerica.com states that the Amish settlement at Fort Plain was established as recently as 1986.
The following day I waved to La Luna as they leap-frogged by us on their way to the Oswego Canal while I walked along the bank back to the supermarket to buy some fresh bread and to have another $20 bill closely scrutinised. That day we went only a short distance to the east/south dock at lock E17 about 15 miles further. Through the Erie Canal Notice to Mariners we’ve learned that locks 24 and 25 will be closed for two weeks or more! In addition, the Oswego Canal will be closed for a few days due to flooding in the region. A humongous volume of water flows out of this region after the spring thaw so after the recent rains I can understand why they are shut. We are not in any rush now and would spend two days at lock E17 at the small town of Little Falls.
While the canal workers maintain the locks, we are doing our bit to clean the locks too. Our fender covers are providing a useful method of scrubbing the slime and shit from the sides of each lock! Unlike clean, corrosive salt from the ocean, our deck is now splattered with blobs of mud, while the hull is stained yellow on the bow as we motor along the muddy river. No worries though as we have a deck hose plus we’ll give our Blue Heeler a cleanup once this trip is over.
We walked up to the top of lock E17 to watch a couple of boats go through and we spoke to Tom the friendly lock-master. This lock is the highest in the Erie Canal at 40.5′ (12m) lift. One yacht and one small canal boat entered the lock and we watched from above as tonnes and tonnes of water swirled and raised them to the top. Inside the lock was loads of floating debris and huge logs. On the up side of the river was more debris waiting to enter the lock. Apparently the day before a body was found floating on the high side of the lock, trapped in the floating logs and branches. Tom said it didn’t happen too often, and this guy was the second he knew about in 30 years of working on this lock. I’m glad we didn’t find the body floating next to us!
As the heavens opened up with big fat rain, Tom invited us into his office to wait it out. He showed us many old photos of the lock, some from the late 1800s when the barges were pulled along by mules and photos he’d taken over the past 30 years. He also showed us stunning photos of the area when it’s covered in snow and ice during January through March each year. Looks gorgeous but very cold! With the rain stopped we thanked him for his time and jumped on our bikes and rode into town. Little Falls is a pretty town with many large old churches, hair salons, Price Cutter supermarket and the usual banks, real estate agents, pizza joints and of course a Chinese restaurant and McDonalds. They also have the largest laundromat I’ve ever seen with about 100 washing machines and dryers of various sizes, ages and cost. We rode back to the boat over the western bridge and along the Canalways trail. This part of the trail is through a tunnel of trees, wet moss, rocks, algae and green plants turn this small section of the trail into a magical grotto.
We went for a long bike ride along the Canalways trail. Lined with bushes bursting with red berries which look like cranberries, but after Googling they could be another type of poisonous berry so we didn’t stop to gather any. A short ride east is the historic Herkimer Homestead, once owned by General Herkimer from the Revolutionary War era. In the homestead cemetery are graves from the 1700s Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the World War. It was a pleasant ride until I got a flat tyre but I carry a spare inner-tube and kit and quickly changed it. Unfortunately we discovered that the bicycle pump we carried didn’t work! I do however have a larger pump back on board. I had 10kms to walk back to the boat wheeling my ‘practical’ bicycle along the way…grr!
Today we left E17 and headed west. Tomorrow is the Fourth of July – Independence Day. Particularly significant in this region. The Revolutionary War lasted for around eight years back in the 1770s and all started because of the British imposing taxes on the colonists (I hope our Aussie flag isn’t once again identified as British or it might liven up the festivities!). The American’s, argued that their “Rights as Englishmen” meant that taxes could not be imposed on them because they lacked representation in Parliament. And so it went on. (The “No taxation without representation” issue was also an issue at Australia’s Eureka Stockade Rebellion in the 1850s where goldfield workers (known as ‘diggers’) opposed the government miners’ licences).
The weekend forecast is for sunshine and warmth and we expect to watch fireworks and enjoy the sunny weekend in a local village somewhere along the way. My tyres are pumped up again so maybe I can find a place to buy a new bicycle pump too…