Journey by Canal Boat and Bike Along New York’s Historic Erie Canal

Our Lockmaster canalboat, the Canadice, tied up at Fairport’s dock © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

I am at the helm of a 41-foot canal boat, a boat so enchanting and lovely, it turns heads and evokes waves, smiles, and snapped photos as it chugs pleasantly along at a top speed of 6 mph.

From this vantage point, I finally understand this marvel of engineering, of grit and ingenuity, of how vast and marvelous the Erie Canal was, and the vital role it played in the United States’ emergence as an Industrial giant in the 19th century and a dominant economic power in the 20th century.

There is simply no place in the United States like the Erie Canal, and no experience like having your own self-skippered canal boat – our floating home for the week – and bicycle with which to explore the towns that developed with the canal, and the countryside

It is extraordinary and thrilling to travel on the nearly 400-miles long Erie Canal that slices through New York State and played such a vital part in the nation’s history.  especially as we go through locks and under bridges that must be lifted for us to pass.

Most of all, it lets us truly explore and discover these small villages and towns that developed because of the Erie Canal – the factories and businesses that developed to cater to the canal and the innovators who developed new products and processes they could get to market because of the canal- and how it has all undergone a dramatic transition, just as the Erie Canal has changed from a commercial artery to recreation.

This is a true adventure. One where there are new discoveries, new insights, new perspectives formed with every new encounter.

Setting off on our adventure on the Erie Canal on the Canadice © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Setting off on our first morning, I have rarely felt that exhilarating sense of being so fancy free – to not have a set itinerary or schedule but to have the power and ability just go where your curiosity leads. It is a marvelous.

We have decided to travel west from the Mid-Lakes Navigation marina at Macedon, where we have chartered the Canadice. Sarah Wiles, whose family owns the company, tells me that there are more towns to visit, more heritage to be seen, and more of the original canal. (Original? What does that mean?). What is more, I have the idea of possibly going as far as North Tonawanda, the closest port from which we can get a taxi to visit Niagara Falls.

That is, until I consult the chart they have provided which places that distance at a total of 18 hours of boating, which would mean 6 hours a day for the three days we would allocate, and then the same back.

But our objective (yours might be different) is to bike as much as we can along the canal, and see as much as we can.

That is one of the benefits of this style of travel – it can be as active, or as sedentary, as you like.

Who could imagine this is New York State? The Erie Canal is a triumph of human engineering, sweat and smarts, which helped spur the US into an industrial and economic power in the 19th century, made US an industrial giant and connected the East and Midwest.

Today, the barges and packet ships are rarities; the canal is mainly populated by pleasure boaters, kayakers, canoers, and along one side, a 376-mile long Erie Canalway Trail, a bikepath (mostly unpaved gravel), where the towpath had been. In the west, where we travel, this is the Erie Canal Heritage Trail, 114-miles from Buffalo to Newark, with some of the most historic sections of the canal, including 16 lift-bridges and 7 locks.

It all seems so far away and long ago, but it was only yesterday, that we traveled seven hours by Amtrak from Penn Station in New York City to Rochester, and then 20 minutes to Macedon where Mid-Lakes Navigation has a full-service marina.

Between admiring the stunning scenery along this rail route – we follow the Hudson River until Albany, then travel alongside the Erie Canal going west for much of the way to Rochester -  I review the material that Mid-Lakes has sent me – an operating manual for the boat, and brochures about the various places we might visit along the canal.

I think to myself: they are going to let me pilot this boat? They don’t even require any experience (though they do ask if you have any).

I became enamored of the idea of a houseboat on the Erie Canal after doing a barge hotel canal cruise in Burgundy, France, and biking along the towpath there, and before that, riding part of the bikeway from Waterford, near Albany, where I spotted, for the first time, the loveliest canal boat. I learned that you can bike nearly 400 miles alongside the Erie Canal on what used to be the towpath, and I figured that a houseboat would be an excellent way to travel between points.

It turns out that the canal boat that so enchanted me was built by Mid-Lakes Navigation (it is operated by a different company in Waterford),

We had trepidation about navigating the boat – a 41-foot long houseboat, like a floating RV – docking and most intriguingly, going through the locks along the canal.

But when we arrive on a Saturday afternoon, Matt spends two hours orienting us to the boat – every aspect about operating it, plugging in to electricity and water; how to turn on the engine, the stove, the shower, flush the toilet; how to recharge the batteries by running the engine in neutral; how to operate the radio and the correct protocol when contacting bridge and lock operators to request passage (Request passage?).

He also reviews the route we say we want to take, and finally, takes us on a “shake-down” cruise that includes going back and forth through a lock located just around the bend from the marina, and practice how to make a 360-degree turn. They provide a chart book (we can buy our own, as well), and a handy sheet that lets you approximate how many hours between ports. These become our Bible, and pretty soon, I get the hang of how to read them properly.

There is also a logbook, which we are asked to keep, which we can consult about previous travelers’ recommendations of what to see and do, where to eat.

He also gives us a checklist that reminds us of all the key points he has reviewed, plus telephone numbers in case we need to contact anyone (he can trouble shoot by phone, and even hop in a car and get to us if necessary). “Don’t worry, we won’t leave you,” Sarah Wiles tells me.

Her other key advice: “Don’t approach anything faster than you would care to hit it.” In other words, just slow down if you are unsure.

The steel-hulled boat is powered by a 50 horsepower diesel engine; its top speed is 6 mph, and it weighs 11 tons “so you can’t get into trouble.”

The canal boat is outfitted with just about everything you might need – from ponchos to potholders to paper towels (they send you a list of what’s on the boat, and what you should bring – such as hats, sunscreen, insect repellent (add to that list DVDs and computer). There is even a grill and BBQ tools and canisters of propane.

Our boat, the Canadice, is 41 feet long and can sleep 4 people (one double bed and two bunk beds in the galley), suitable for a family; the largest Lockmaster can accommodate 6 adults.

Mid-Lakes even provides beach bikes, but if you are serious about biking the towpath (as we are), you will want to bring your own (hybrid or mountain bike tires for the gravel, grit, pebble and sandy surface), but you can also arrange to rent bikes (TowPath Bike, Pittsford, $40/day, $100/week; open year-round; towpathbike.com).

Since we have arrived late in the afternoon, and it is already early evening after our orientation, we stay the night in the marina. settling in comfortably into the Canadice.

Mid-Lakes even arranges for us to have the use of a car so we can go to Walmart (open 24/7) to pick up groceries, and have dinner (at Flaherty’s, an Irish pub).

Sunday: We’re Off

Fairport’s distinctive lift bridge is renowned because it has no right angles © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Sunday morning we linger a bit, taking our time to get organized (still a little nervous to get under way), we use the facilities at the marina (a very pleasant shower room; if you want, there is also WiFi in the marina).

But by mid-morning, we unplug and finally untie and we are off! Neil makes the hard-right turn out of the slip and we make our way the short distance to the canal, blasting our horn (5 seconds), as we were taught, to alert any boats on the canal: We are coming!

We turn to port (west) onto the Erie Canal, and we are off.

We are nervous when we depart, but very soon, it feels comfortable. The canal is calm and flat, and for the most part even straight.

The boat is surprisingly responsive, surprisingly nimble. The canal is wider than I expected.

It doesn’t take long before we realize how easy it is to pilot the boat, how responsive the tiller is, really, to little touches here, a tiny shove there, to keep it going straight or turning into the slight bends in the canal.

Within moments, the thrill of what this is all about floods over me: This is a real adventure, where have to do everything yourself, not have it done for you, make decisions.

The very idea of setting off without an itinerary or a schedule (though you wind up having one because you have to calculate amount of time to get to port, and get in), not knowing what is ahead or what will greet you. I rarely have felt this fancy free.

I have a comfortable perch from the helm to sit – a rail makes for a backrest. I sip coffee as we chug along.

I can see over the front, and can stand on a step for even better visibility. There is  a breeze – even though is quite hot today, it is comfortable.

Cruising up the Erie Canal © 2013 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

As we sail along, I reflect on how lovely this boat is: the gorgeous knotty pine wood detailing; the varnished wood seats and a railing that makes for a back rest as you hold the tiller, brass and varnished wood. Inside the cabin are beautiful knotty pine. It has a canvas canopy over the helm and even on a hot day, the breezes as we travel are delightful. The bow has screens with plastic and canvas that zip and snap easily so we can close everything up in the event of rain and a table that can even be moved inside.

The galley has stainless steel counters, a half-refrigerator, a stove and oven and sink. You can also convert a seat to two beds.

The designs for the boat came from Sarah and Peter Wiles’ father, Peter Wiles, Senior, who was a key architect in the transition of the Erie Canal from commercial to recreational use.  He had a small tour boat business on Skaneateles Lake and went to England  to see the self-skippered canal boats that operated on the Thames, and brought back the concept for boats that he would design and build here. In all, Mid-Lakes has built 19 of the Lockmaster canalboats, operating 10 of them (the others were sold, some to other companies along the Erie).

He took the charm and the traditional design but adapted the boat to the Erie Canal, so the boats have a wider beam,  are mostly flat bottomed and do not have a keel.

We’re off on what proves to be one of the most marvelous adventures.

Our Erie Canal journey continues….

Helpful contacts:

Mid-Lakes Navigation, 11 Jordan St, PO Box 61, skaneateles, NY 13152, 315-685-8500, 800-545-4318, www.midlakesnav.com.

Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, PO Box 219, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-8643, ext 3110, www.eriecanalway.org.

See also:

Journey by boat and bike along the Erie Canal: Macedon-Fairport-Pittsford and slideshow

Erie Canal journey by boat, bike: Exploring canaltowns from Pittsford to Albion and slideshow

Erie Canal journey: Albion-Medina bikeride is most scenic, illuminating and slideshow

Erie Canal journey by boat and bike: Palmyra, ‘Queen of Canal Towns’ and slideshow

New season of self-skippered canalboat cruises on New York’s historic Erie Canal (Photos)

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