Tripping Down the Erie Canal, Part 3:  Day-to-Day Boating Life

by | Jul 28, 2023 | Cowboy Bob, Travel

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By Gail & Cowboy

Eleven days on a boat. That’s a bunch of days. We once spent over sixty days on a cruise ship, but that boat was big and luxurious, and a joy, as staff entertained us, fed us, and waited on us hand and foot. Cowboy said, “This will be a bit different, think of the adventure!” What he meant was: we were the captain, staff, and stewards. Far West is quite a lot smaller, less than a quarter the size of a single cruise-ship room. It is a small boat with SOME of the conveniences of home. At least the important ones. The two of us lived within two arms’ lengths of each other the whole trip, verifying the term up-close-and-personal. We had to sidle around each other in the galley or passageway, but it worked. Neither threatened to keelhaul the other, in case you are wondering, and ended the journey still friends. 

This trip was about being close to the water, to the environment, to the smell of the forest, to all of nature’s details, and to honor the Erie Canal history as we chugged along at 5 mph, a little faster than the mules 150 years ago. Life at 5 mph is slower, and each day revolves around staying centered in the canal, where we wanted to stop for lunch or brunch, and close surveillance of that gaggle of geese and those tiny goslings racing us in the canal. Bicycles outran us from one point to another, but our lives slowed down, and the eleven days passed very quickly. Viewing the engineering marvel right along side of us was always intriguing and we would comment on “how did they do that without computers and massive engineering firms, with only steam shovels and mule-drawn drag scoops to move dirt a quarter yard at a time?”  

The most common question we have been asked has been…what about “facilities?” Well, yes, that’s an issue and something to be thankful for. The Far West has a head, a toilet for those not familiar with nautical terms, a real flushing toilet. At age 77, “holding it,” or “doing the bush thing” was not in the cards. The head has a door and privacy, although it was a tight squeeze. Tight meaning, somewhere between a banana peel and Spanx, not much wiggling around room. It also has a window, which was okay when floating down the Erie, but upon docking, we made it quick!

And of course, there was the issue of showers. Did we mention that there was no shower on the boat?  We should have! It was a challenge, no matter what. How in the world do you stay clean? Sweat, moss-covered walls, sticky gloves, spills, 90 degrees with 80% humidity, and no washing machines. Showers were available in three distinct ways, dock-sponsored showers, wipe downs with hand sanitizers, or bathing beauty showers. The dock-sponsored shower rooms were good, but if you recall the PE lockers at your junior high school, that’s pretty much what they were like, open bays, showers with shotgun sprays, unlocked doors, and although they looked clean, Gail questioned when that last scouring was, and called them iffy at best. The Cowboy was more tolerant and he bee-lined it to the shower upon docking, but Gail drew the line. She chose the bathing beauty method, put on her bathing suit, scrubbed her 77-year-old body, and showered and shampooed on the deck, quick like a bunny, hoping no one docked up beside them. The water was warm from the engine, and it worked okay. The third method failed miserably because although hand sanitizer cleans and shines, it stings on sun-kissed skin, meaning you have to add lotion, which attracts bugs, and you end up with constant swatting and bug bites. So, for Gail, the bathing beauty method won out and worked well, except for the one time when a nosy lady from a nearby vessel was obviously horrified and rushed over to call Gail out on it. But Gail’s a Marine, and soon the situation was well-in-hand. The Cowboy pulled the lady from the Canal, Gail offered her a glass of wine, and she backed off.

The Far West has a full galley, with stove and refrigerator, though tiny, and a complete set of cookware and dishes. The Cowboy rose first, turned on the teapot to boil water for the fancy French press coffee maker, using a Keurig cup, and that blessed cup started the day, as Cowboy lured Gail from the bunk. Sometimes, we enjoyed bacon and eggs, but more often we ate at the marina or local diner for breakfast or brunch, with Miss Gail doing a squinty eyed inspection before she would enter. Cheese and more cheese for lunch, and then we got off the ship for a good meal at dinner time. The cowboy thought the meals were good, he called them “working man meals,” Gail, not so much, and it seemed that many had closed and never recovered from the Covid-19 epidemic especially on the eastern end. The food and restaurants improved as we moved west and even the people whom we met seemed more congenial as we headed that direction, not sure what was going on with the cranky folks we met in the east, but remember, we met our pickup shuttle folks, Gordie and Uncle George, on the far east end and they ended up being honest, true to their word. 

We have mentioned before that Cody is NOT a water dog, he prefers dirt or grass or even gravel. But on a boat, there is none of that. He spent a good amount of time sleeping, or at least he had his eyes closed. He would look at the water, then stare at one of us, as if to say, “I’m ready to go home.” We docked a couple times a day to get off and walk around, and he did, too, usually balking at the idea of getting back on the boat. As for his pooping and peeing, he kept it under control doing the bush thing, didn’t get sick, or have other issues, but when he saw that big, red truck, he was off and running.

Docking Far West was always interesting. Gail’s idea of a good dock is at boat level, no steps, no ladders, no danger. She thinks that she should be able to step off the boat onto a dock and stay dry. The folks that built the lock walls 150 years ago built them for the barge boats of the time, boats that carried many tons of cargo. So many of these walls are 10 or more feet above the water, and their docks are still in use with the same walls, so Cowboy would dock the Far West where a cut-out in the wall with steps would be accessible. Gail did not quite believe Cowboy’s story about the lock wall and she believed this was another test. A dock can be ten feet high and there is no “stepping off or onto” the boat. You must figure it out, and usually, at the end of the day, sweaty and getting tired, Gail was in no mood to “figure it out.” Of the twenty or so docks where we moored, about half were at a level for her to step off easily, no fear of scaling a wall or climbing a twelve-foot ladder. Of course, she is a bit shorter than the average boating person, she claims, so she could inch herself along the very small foothold of the boat (life jacket required, of course) and step on the bow, over the handrail, then stretch across the fenders onto a dock. Cowboy and Cody watched carefully; Cowboy wasn’t about to let her fall, as he worried that might force the trip to end early. Unsympathetically, he said, “If you fall, fall between the boat and the dock so the hull doesn’t get scratched.” He said it was a joke, Gail didn’t believe him. Cody was hoping she fell, for the same reason, the trip would be over.

Storage on the Far West was somewhat limited, and Cowboy rigged a few hammocks and such for clothes to be stored. We didn’t take many changes of clothes and found that some dock areas provided laundry facilities, which was very helpful. Four dollars would wash and dry enough clothes for a few more days, and all was well. Gail was a whiz at this while Cowboy always had a questioning frown and he never figured it out and he knew enough to keep his mouth shut.

Water! We carried three kinds of water: 1. Bottled water for drinking and cooking, and we consumed a couple gallons a day. We always carried about ten gallons in case we got stuck or for some reason and needed additional hydration. 2. Clean water was available from a holding tank, that we could use for cleaning the deck or washing. It had a special hose that eliminated the hose flavor or smell and was drinkable, but we preferred bottled water. Nearly every dock had water available, sometimes for a price, other times free but always enough water in the holding tank for Gail’s showers. 3. River water lived in the bowels of the boat and was used for flushing and whatever else. Don’t worry, it flushed into a holding tank, for those who fret about the environment.

Adventures, by definition, have risk, and while this trip was not a Mt. Everest trek, it was not a pampered, pillow-fluffed, bon-bon eating relaxation either. We had daily challenges and saw a part of the country, upstate New York, that is beautiful, historic, and real Americana. Without the Erie Canal experience, it is doubtful that the Panama Canal would have been built with locks because of the engineering the Erie Canal had proved up. We had a great trip, met wonderful people, saw a new part of America, took some risks, and felt like real pioneer adventurers.  Part 4 coming right up!

If you enjoy Gail’s blogs and books, they are available on her website  eBooks can be found on Amazon.  

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