We must be Canadians, the lock operators commented. Who else would be in the canals at this time of year? Who else, indeed. It was a challenging start to our journey.
Only two weeks later, while crashing through the north Atlantic’s December waves, no land in sight, we longed for the calm, contained waters of the New York Canal system that had brought us to this point. Since we entered the Canals, we had put 400-500 nautical miles behind us, and those miles had put us through a few rites of passage. We’ll share more about our Atlantic experiences in an upcoming Ariose Note. For this post though, we will turn the calendar back to that week in late November and our experience traversing the Canals.
The Canals are 524 miles of inter-connected waterways, and include the Erie Canal (from Buffalo), the Oswego Canal (short leg from Lake Ontario south to connect with West-East Erie Canal), the Champlain Canal (directly south from near Montreal), and the Cayuga-Seneca Canal (through Ithaca).
They opened in 1825, the grandiose brainchild of a Governor Clinton from an earlier era, to better access the American interior. Apparently, his plan was widely known as “Clinton’s Folly”. Some things don’t change. This water highway would allow settlers to more easily move west, and the resources from beyond what was then considered the western frontier, to move east. His vision was that the canals, and the commerce they allowed, would make New York City the economic capital of the US, and that they did! Costs of moving products along the canal were a tenth of the costs of overland, so the boom in trade was immediate. The advances in rail and the opening of the St. Lawrence to freighter traffic in the 1950’s spelled a decline for the Canals. Although there is still some commercial traffic, it’s primarily a tourist route, being developed as a “Greenway” to preserve the canal-related nature, history and culture.
For us, as with many cruisers, the New York Canal System offers an alternative to the St. Lawrence to get from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. Although we’d love to do the St. Lawrence some day, the added miles to head north and around the Gaspe Peninsula, and demanding conditions of late-in-the-year Maritimes sailing, are beyond our means at this time. Our first attempt to make it across Lake Ontario to the Oswego New York entrance to the Canals was rather brutally thwarted, but a couple of weeks later, Ariose, proudly sporting a repaired keel and rudder, ferried us over. We were in a race against the November 20th closing of the Canals. On November 17th, we made it across to the start of the Canal, armed with personal assurances from management that even though it would likely take a us a week, they would ensure that we got through as long as we promised to get underway early each day. (Being stuck for the winter mid-lock, upper New York State was not part of our dream – so no dilly-dallying for us!)
Checking in with US Customs and Border Services was easy. We had heard stories of strict process, with cruisers enduring searches so we were a little nervous. We were pleasantly surprised when friendly agent at the other end of the videophone seemed more intent on chiding us for setting out so late in the year than relieving us of our home-made wine which remained stowed safely in our lockers.
What followed was an interesting but rushed week of cold days motoring along the waterways, usually setting out as the sun rose and tying up as darkness descended. As you know, we were successful in transiting the Canals, just in the nick of time, lock gates closing firmly at our stern. We’re told we hold the official honour of being the last recreational boat through. Here is a photo review of our transit.
1-Leaving Kingston Nov 17th in the early morning twilight for our 2nd attempt at 70 m crossing Lake Ontario.
2-There’s a line across Lake Ontario on our GPS – looks like we’ve crossed the Canada-USA border.
3-Made it to the previously elusive Oswego. “High hopes” – how fitting!
4-Official check in with US Customs & Border Protection.
5-Ready to transit the locks: all fenders tied on (9 in total!), fender boards, boat hook to grab line or cables, & long paddle to keep Ariose from the walls.
6-Here we go, our 1st lock. Each is 328 feet long and the cavernous “box” felt intimidating. The 1st operator, used to novices, gave instructions and reassurance: “You won’t feel a thing.”
7-1st lock a success. No boat or relationship wounds. Now sitting 10.4 feet above Lake Ontario. 10 more uphill, then 20 downhill.
8-The locks themselves were a highlight for us of this engineering marvel that is the NY Canals.
9-Protocol was to contact the operator in advance on channel 13 to prepare for us (empty or fill the lock for us).
10-Sometimes the call worked, but at this time of year, there’s a skeleton staff- at times we had to wait – usually less than 1/2 hr, but once for 4 hrs – for an operator to drive from another lock.
11-Once the lock was ready, permission to enter granted by vhf or a green light, and off we would go into the cavernous box.
12-Character-filled buildings adorned each lock, housing the controls and keeping the operator warm. Each was unique, but always sporting cheerful white with blue trim, and yellow accents.
13-Each would have an sign posting the lock’s statistics.Most were in the range of 10-20 foot elevation, but one was a dizzying 41.5 feet!
14-Once in, we secured Ariose. Some locks had ropes hanging from the sides to grab with our hook fastening bow and stern as moving by (easier said than done); others had vertical pipes to wrap our lines around (even less easier said than done).
15-Then, hold on as water rushed in or out, often in the upward journey, with lots of turbulence. Preventing our solar panels from hitting against the walls was a battle. We usually managed to protect Ariose, although she is sporting a few souvenir marks.
16-After a few locks, we felt like veterans, and had the system down pat, allowing us to enjoy the ride.
17-As the locked filled, we were often surprised to peak over the edge and see what lay beyond, whether massive bridges and dams, or grassed parkland.
18-Here’s a shot while descending. We tried not to think about the forces behind that gate. Here, the Mohawk River is trying its best to get through.
19-Hey, this is getting easy.
20-Then, as we hummed the theme song for the Friendly Giant, the far gates…
21- …would swing open or lift up guillotine-style, and we’d emerge. Onward to the next. Some were several hours apart with ample break time.
22-The last series though, known as the “Waterford Flight”, has 6 locks only minutes apart, so in less than 2 hours, we dropped over 180 feet … quite demanding! 23- Warned of how “dirty” the canals would be, we equipped ourselves with the stylish rubber gloves you may have noticed us sporting to protect from the hard-to-clean orange goo.
24-Between each lock, the waterway varied. There were long swaths of cut canal, straight runs connecting natural waterways….
25-The largest body of water we needed to cross was Lake Oneida, on the Oswego portion. We’d heard intimidating stories from other cruisers who encountered larger seas here than on the Atlantic. We had a great crossing.
26-Much of the route meandered through woodlands and towns,
27-with barren late November scenery,
28-under bridges large and small. In case you were wondering why our sailboat was really a motor boat along the canals, the lower structures along the way require the mast to be down.
29-Because of the Canals history of moving goods, there’s quite a few industrial structures along the way, some still functioning, and others ghosts of an earlier time.
30-Modern-day “canals”, aka railroads, often paralleled the waterway.
31-We had the waterway to ourselves. For the entire week, the only other vessels we encountered were 2 sport fishing boats…
32-And some of the State barges, tugs, and …
33-…Ariose looked rather petite compared to other vessels.
34-Most of the way was peaceful. Beautiful scenes, like flocks of Canada geese flying alongside, went unphotographed – too hard to bear baring hands to operate the camera.
35-Long stretches could feel lonely. Unless we were approaching a lock, one of us was at the helm, and the other …
36-…below , getting or staying warm & dry.
37-Time below framed perception of the scenery by our port lights. Here, we’re passing through one of many industrial areas. Canals opened up the NE states and beyond to industry. Lots of active and derelict industrial along the way.
38-As dusk set upon us, each day would end, often tied up alongside shoreline facilities. (This photo is at Phoenix, NOT Arizona.)
39-A few months before, we’re told, it would have been hard to find space along the walls for overnight.
40-At times, if we had energy, we would take a short walking tour of the nearby sites. (Oswego’s courthouse here) Almost every major city in New York State is along the Canal route. We got a glimpse of some, but in our necessary rush to get through, we didn’t have the luxury of time to be tourists.
41-Some of the smaller towns, like Frankfort in this photo, were already decked out for Christmas. This was a jarring reminder of the ridiculousness of our “southern cruising”.
42-On the rare occasion that we lucked into free wifi, we would get information needed on the next leg of our journey, and enjoy connecting with family and friends.
43-Most facilities were closed for the season, causing us a bit of anxiety about re-provisioning, so when we did find a place to dock …
44-… on drinking water..
44- near the services we needed, we would take a mid-day break, like here, in Utica, to stock up on fuel…
45-.. and the occasional treat of a restaurant meal to fill our bellies in warm & dry surroundings.
46-Some tragedies along the way … like Tim breaking his special coffee mug:
47-No more ceramic for you!We also had to deal with a few other more significant “crises”, like engine battery issues,
48- …and another grounding (soft one this time).We had a couple glorious, unseasonably warm days in the low teens to start.
49-But then awoke a few days into the journey to this view through the companionway.
50-Wondering why there’s no other boats here?
51-We brought a windshield scraper to keep barnacles off Ariose. Never thought we’d need it for its actual purpose!
52-There were many “what are we doing moments” but overall,…
53-… we could see the humour in the irony of our “southern” cruising through below freezing conditions.
54-This little snowman survived a couple days beyond the snow, causing comments from lock operators along the way.
55-We saw no choice but to press on, spurred on by thoughts – however distant – of tropical breezes ahead. The days blurred together.
56-On the first shift of the day, we were often treated to a peaceful sunrise …
57-… that filled us with hopeful anticipation of the day(s) to come.
58-By mid-afternoon, we’d scour the charts for suitable docking for that evening, ….
59-.. and by day’s end, we were usually exhausted to the core by the demands of staying warm and navigating.
60-A week after entering at Oswego, we reached the Hudson River. Hard turn to starboard here and we’re southward bound. Really!
61-One final lock, and open river to the sea! New York City, here we come.
P.S. Happy 51st to Tim next week!