Tripping Down the Erie Canal, Part 1

by | Jul 24, 2023 | Cowboy Bob, Travel

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Wrinkly Bits

By Gail & Cowboy

We’re doing new stuff. New adventures, this time the Erie Canal in New York State. Locks. Mules. I’m excited, I’m scared, I can’t wait to go, and I can’t wait to finish. It’s a whole new life! The Cowboy has been this route before, but it’s all new to me.

The Cowboy first noticed me in an online dating site picture where I was standing by a lock, so locks have a romantic meaning for us, leading to where we are now.  When I talked him into our second date, the Alaska Cruise, he reluctantly agreed to the trip saying he usually captained his own boat. This was his turn to show me what he meant, by taking the prettiest trip he ever made in his big boat 15 years ago, a trip through upstate New York.

Our boat, the Far West is a 28-foot long Bayliner cabin cruiser, vintage 1980. It sleeps two, three if you count Cody and for a little guy, he takes up a lot of space. At home he sleeps in a crate, so this is like his vacation. He is a terrier, which refers to earth, not water, and did not enjoy the trip half as much as we did. Anyway…

The Erie Canal is a beautiful and historic trip of about 338 miles long from Albany to Buffalo. It has 36 locks. I had seen locks before, but this was different. I was an active participant. I wore gloves and a life jacket, grabbing slimy ropes and fending off rough concrete walls as we lifted, and my recent manicure disappeared.  When they planned the canal, they knew that Albany at the east end of New York State was about of 100 feet above sea level, and Buffalo was at 600 feet.  Everybody knows that water flows down, not up, meaning the genius engineers had to figure out how to raise the boats about 500 feet, over the course of 300 miles.  Locks were the answer. Besides locks, I learned about mules. Did you know that originally mules towed barges down the canal, as in the old Pete Seeger song about Sal and 15 miles on the Erie Canal? The mule paths are still there, both sides of the canal, now used by joggers and bikers and I was amazed at its being built from 1817 to 1822, an engineering phenomenon. 

So, why did I go on this trip? I mean, locks and mules are interesting, but maybe not enough to travel 338 miles by water. I went, first of all, because the Cowboy insisted it was gonna be fun, so of course I believed him. We had to take a few steps to get to the fun part though. We first made our way to my nephew’s wedding in Chicago (yes, fun!), which necessitated maneuvering through Chi-town at one o’clock on Friday afternoon. Six lanes of traffic, toll booths, multiple construction projects, 95-degree temperature, a hotel with a hidden entrance, and lots of flashing middle fingers (no, no fun at all!). You get the picture, but the hotel had truck parking and allowed dogs. All was well.

Our next stop was Albany and we thought we would launch the boat right away, saving the cost and frustration of another over-priced hotel and either hiding or explaining Cody to a desk clerk, (he’s cute, but rules are rules, we were told by more than one hotel desk clerk) so we headed to the main boat launch, which was in Troy. Wahoo! Six days in the truck was enough and I was ready to hit the canal. 

Cody and I sat and watched the boat ramp entrance to the canal, where I met a very nice 92-year-old former Marine who carved canes. The Cowboy had called the canal authorities a few weeks earlier to gain some insight on what to expect, and he wanted to scrutinize the ramp so that all would be well. Remember, he can be pretty obsessive/compulsive about some things. 

But upon viewing boat launch number one, we discovered the ramp was broken, a chunk of concrete the size of my little car was missing, so we couldn’t drive the trailer wheels into the water, (nor could we turn our 60-foot truck and trailer around in the allocated parking area). The cowboy is an amazing backer-upper, but even he could not do what we needed. So, we unhitched everything, repositioned the truck, turned around and headed out while Cody watched and twitched his ears.

Boat launch number two. Cowboy could see another ramp across the Hudson River, so we called the neighboring marina and talked to Gordie, who told us that ramp had recently washed out and our 40-foot trailer would slide into 20 feet of river, and we would lose it. Oh, happy day! Gordie then said he could help us and would guide us to another boat launch, safe enough, “Stay on the phone.” These were sort of his directions, “Go over the bridge, through the town of Troy, watch out for the narrow streets, continue going upstream toward the federal lock, and you’ll find a great ramp, but stay on the phone so that I can guide you through town. “You can’t miss it, [a favorite comment!], it’s just past the pizza place, next to the dry cleaners, turn right behind the bakery, another narrow street but I don’t remember its name. By the way, the bakery has great donuts and cookies, but they are probably out by now, but order some for tomorrow or they’ll all be gone, and you’ll miss out and it has a marvelous parking lot and ramp.  You can’t miss it.” Thanks, Gordie.

Boat launch number three. We found all the landmarks, including the bakery with amazing donuts, and backed down a very nice ramp with a dock on the starboard side (right for you landlubbers). I spied my Marine buddy still carving his canes, as well as three teenagers who were sitting by a fire on the riverbank, despite the heat, smoking something that might have smelled like marijuana, and I kept my eye on them while Cowboy backed down and put the boat in the water. I guided him perfectly and we launched the boat. Almost there! He started the engine and engaged the propeller. Milliseconds later:  Clunk, clank, clunk, crash, gurgle, total and complete silence. Uh, oh. 

The three darling children were laughing their you-know-whats-off and scurried away on their bikes. Cowboy said, “What the heck?” I just shrugged, looking at the bikes disappearing into the sunset. The old Marine said, “I thought that might happen.”

Cowboy jumped into the water, and said, “Hand me a wrench.” He had at least a dozen on board, and I finally selected the right one. “We hit a rock, and the prop is busted, one of the blades is ripped off. I need a new prop.” Of course, he had a spare, (he has spare everything, just in case) and he changed the propeller, and we were once again good to go.

Launched! It took a while, but we launched our boat, the Far West in just the nick of time. It was after 1600 and the Federal Lock closed at 1630, so we headed right out. Cowboy, sounding very official and nautical, engaged the radio, “This is the vessel Far West, westbound, requesting lock up,” to which the lockmaster replied, “One minute, Far West, hold tight, watch for the green light,” and in a jiffy we were in the lock watching hundreds of gallons of water flow into the bug infested, moss-covered, tomb with ropes along the side to steady the boat against the wall out of the turbulence of the middle of the chamber. (My job.) The Cowboy said, “Watch me, and you’ll see how this works…so I did, and it worked just fine. Twenty minutes later the boat had been raised about ten feet, and the gates opened, and we motored out, set our heading for the Waterford Welcome Center, tied up the boat, and it began to rain, and I mean rain, buckets. 

A very nice red-headed lady stopped us, (the marina hostess), asked a bunch of questions, and said, “Have you eaten? The Irish pub down the street has delicious food, it isn’t far, ‘you can’t miss it.’” We had heard that before, but off we went, thoroughly drenched despite our heavy-duty rain gear, to an Irish pub with a Bingo game in process, ordering Italian food because it wasn’t the right night for anything Irish. Lucky for me, they had wine…

Wow. Reliving all that has pooped me out. More of the Far West adventure to come!  

If you enjoy Gail’s blogs and books, please share. They are all available on her website eBooks are available on Amazon.

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