The Erie Canal is divided up into three sections – Eastern, Central and Western. Quite a few boaters do the Eastern canal, and then head north at Three Rivers Junction to the Oswego Canal, which takes you into Lake Ontario. There were a number of tricky shallow areas in the Eastern portion and we had considered this Oswego route to get us out of the canal and into the expanse of Lake Ontario, and thus avoid even shallower areas further west in the canal. But we had heard from multiple sources that the Western section was the most beautiful and we didn’t want to miss it. I was able to get ahold of the head of navigation and dredging at the NY State Canal Authority, which by the way is an amazing organization that deserves a whole blog post of it’s own. He quickly talked me into continuing west on the canal, all the way to its terminus at Buffalo. He put me at ease, letting me know that the shallow areas I saw on the charts had just been dredged, and that if we took it slow in sections, we’d have no problem. He re-affirmed that the Western Erie Canal is not to be missed. He added that if we headed to Lake Ontario, we’d have to uplock the Welland Canal (which circumvents Niagara Falls), and in the process have to hire crew to handle the lines, all while jockeying for position in the locks with lots of commercial traffic. Simply put, in his words, we’d be ‘second class citizens’ if we did the Welland. The Welland is actually in Canada, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him we weren’t citizens there, but his point was well taken. I couldn’t help but hear a bit of pride in his voice, implying that the Erie treats their pleasure boater citizens with first class, white glove service. Which they really do! But again that’s a story for another day.
So West we headed, and we couldn’t have been more pleased. Yes, we did pass one tricky section at Palmyra where we only had 6 inches below the keel, but it was worth the price.
We started this portion of the trip from Brewerton, NY, just outside of Syracuse. Coincidentally, Karen and I had a good friend from our days in San Francisco, Susie (Altmeyer) Michael, who now lives near Syracuse and we were able to connect for dinner the last night before we left. It had been a very long time since we had gotten together – raising kids can do that to your timeline – but it was very special to finally have time to see each other again. Apparently we had so much fun we forgot to take a picture with her – oh well! Susie if you are reading this, please send us a selfie!
As we motored west from Brewerton, we passed a lot of nice waterfront property – both beautiful estates with expansive green lawns rolling down to the water’s edge as well as more modest affairs with no less effort put into their waterside docks. If I owned land in this area, I’d dress up my dock with a pirate flag too!
Baldwinsville was our first stop after Brewerton, where Lock 24 forms the centerpiece of the town. There’s the adjacent Lock 24 Bar and Grill, and between the lock and the dam is Paper Mill Island, where the town has created a well appointed outdoor concert venue, with a little help from The King Of Beers. What impresses me most about these small Erie Canal-based towns is how they have turned the grounds around the locks into pleasant parks, inviting you to stroll, walk a dog, or have a picnic. I have to hand it to NY State, they have turned these spots into very functional public spaces. Certainly they are a boon to us canallers, and to people visiting by car, but they also seem to draw in the locals, thus giving back to all of us. I’ll include a video at the end of this blog that shows some of the more notable canal towns and lock-centered parks.
After Baldwinsville, the Erie passes through a sizable nature preserve, the Northern Montezuma Wildlife Area, where it felt like we snaked more north and south than west. You are deep in the woods at this point, and malaria was a frequent condition for early canal workers here. There were no mosquitoes harassing us, but we did see plenty of blue heron taking flight. They are all over this stretch of the Erie. One particular guy kept flying a couple hundred feet ahead of us and settling on an overhanging branch, only to find us approaching him a minute later. We cycled through this game of cat and mouse for another 7-8 times!
Our destination for the night was Clyde, but as we approached, we ran aground just before reaching the town wall. We were moving slowly so we had no issues backing away, but fate had other plans for us as we continued west to the next town of Lyons. The guidebook had plenty of rave reviews about Lyons and how they really catered to boaters. Supposed they had a town volunteer, Bob Shooter, who would come help you with your lines, welcome you to town, and answer all of your questions. Bob must have been otherwise occupied or found a better paying job, but the town’s efforts to welcome boaters was impossible to miss. There were the plethora of information signs at the dock, the large anchor-shaped adornments tied to each lamppost that were lite at night, and there were the free showers at the firehouse just up the stairs from the dock. Lyons was once the center of peppermint oil production in the U.S. and if we stayed another month we could attend the Peppermint Days festival. Alas, our dance card was getting full, and we opted instead to see a movie at the lovingly restored Ohmann Theater. Yes, two grown ups can still have a good time when the only movie option is Cars 3!
The next town west, Newark, also boasted a community of greeters and a lengthy free town wall. And again we were not fortunate enough to find their greeter gang, but regardless the grounds around the canal were carefully maintained, and there was someone in town that was clearly passionate about large murals as a few of the walls and abutments had been nicely painted. Newark, in an effort to not be outdone by other small Western Erie towns, provided spotless restrooms and showers, free wifi, and for the icing on the cake, free washer and dryer. I can tell you that being on an extended trip is fabulous in so many ways, but the laundry still needs to be done, and to be able to simply walk down the dock to do it, rather than slinging the laundry bag over your shoulder and huffing it into town to some dark and dingy coin-op, makes my day!
The one complaint I have about Newark is their volunteer fire department. No, I’m sure their firemen and women are fine upstanding citizens, but someone needs to give their operations a little technology boost. We were awoken at 3:30am by the loudest siren on this heavenly earth. It blasted 5 times, then paused, and repeated two more times. The kind of shrill siren that is concussion inducing as you bolt up out of bed in bewilderment. Shortly afterwards, we heard the fire engine heading out of town. Surely in this day and age there has to be a more practical way of summoning your volunteer crew than waking up the whole downtown area. A text to their mobile phone by chance?? This is a shout out to my friend Ted who has developed a great lightweight app for texting various workers across a variety of industries. Ted, you need to call Newark FD!
Now, back to my love affair with the state of New York. Did you know they also did a fantastic job building out a bike path along much of the Erie Canal? Our friends Joy and Tony, on their TransAm ride last summer, rode a portion of these bike trails and partly based on their fine experience, we decided to bring bikes along with us. Where the land was not private on both sides, the bike trail follows the towpath of the canal. It is paved in more urban settings and thankfully very flat!
Heading west on the bike path (is there any other direction to head?!) from Newark, we found ourselves in the town of Palmyra. For us, biking was the preferred option as the dock space in Palmyra appeared to be too shallow. To explain Palmyra, I have to start by saying that upstate NY is an interesting potpourri of people and cultures. A few days earlier, we bought strawberries from a Mennonite family, whose booth was complete with horse and black buggy. While walking around Little Falls, we got the middle finger from a passing pickup truck, and my thoughts fell back to a warning from a friend that we’d find a healthy collection of Confederate supporters in this area. And one of Palmyra’s claim to fame is the birthplace of Joseph Smith of Latter Day Saint’s fame. But this potpourri adds to the tremendous history in this little 8000 person village. I was yearning for a little more culture and dragged Karen on a four museum tour run by Historic Palmyra. Some towns put a lot of effort into their fire department siren summons, but there’s no doubt Palmyra is proud of their historic place in early America and they want to show it off to visitors. The museums closed at 4pm but our personal tour guide continued the walking tour until after 5pm. My favorite was the Phelps Country Store. It seems that the Phelps family abruptly decided to shut down their business one day, and move upstairs to live out their life. And I do mean abrupt. There were eggs still in the carton, left alone since 1940. Think twice before you order an egg scramble next time you are in Palmyra!
Just outside of downtown Palmyra is the historically significant Palmyra Aqueduct Park. Here you will find the only surviving ‘change’ bridge. These bridges appeared up and down the early canal and were used to change the mule teams. The mules would cross over to the other side and continue their trip back home, while another mule team would pickup the tow lines and cross the other way.
Aqueduct park, as you might expect, also was well know for their aqueduct. Go figure? In version 1.0 of the Erie Canal, the designers decided to build substantial aqueducts across some sections of the natural rivers instead of building dams and locks. In this park are the well preserved remains of one aqueduct. The stone piers supported a wooden trough in the middle. This was back in the day when the canal was only four feet deep. But still the engineering of these aqueducts is impressive.
We bid adieu to Newark and their testosterone-heavy sirens, and set our sights on Fairport. The last few days had been easy ones for navigation, with 2-3 locks per day, but on this day, we had to motor past the Palmyra shallows, shallows that my good buddy at the Canal Authority had assured me were dredged. In most cases, he was right, but we carefully picked our way past one section, watching the depth sounder drop from 4 feet, to 3, to 2, then to 0.5 – a measily 6 inches between our keel and the canal bottom. I might have taken a day commuting down I93 instead of this. On second thought, maybe not! Instead, we were welcomed into the bustling little canal town of Fairport on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The only spot left on the wall was right smack in front of an outdoor cafe, complete with a live band. Oh, this was going to be tough duty!
Fairport is considered by many to be the most beautiful town on the Erie Canal. They host the Canal Days Festival in early June, and the heart of the town is the canal front. The decision to stay for two nights was an easy one. We are parked on the dock right in front of our first lift bridge on the canal. It rises from 8 feet to 16 feet off the water; that’s nothing like the lift bridges we’ve negotiated on the East Coast, but it is remarkable if for no other reason than it’s design. The designers were hard pressed to create a right angle. It crosses the canal at an angle, and drops height from one bank to the other. At one point it was raised by two 37hp electric motors and carefully planned counterweights.
I can highly recommend Fairport, whether you are traveling by boat, bike or car. If you don’t have your own boat, think about an excursion on one of these cool looking old canal boats from Mid-Lakes Navigation Company. That’s the funky Main St bridge in the background.
We leave Fairport tomorrow morning for Pittsford, and points west. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this video tribute to the small towns of the Erie Canal.
And finally, if you are interested in learning more about our overall trip plans, both this summer and next summer, please take a look at Karen’s post on Circles, Loops, and Triangles. I suspect you’ll agree with me that she went a little crazy with maps! We hope you enjoy it. Take care!