Sunday, June 16, 2019

Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal

When in Rome, do as the Romans... and we are in Rome, New York, tied to the free city dock (map). It is only fitting that we should arrive in Rome after being in Athens, Troy, and Utica -- it sounds like we are cruising the ancient Mediterranean (sadly, we can not reach Ithaca). We are 420.5' above sea level, the highest we will get on this leg of the trip; it's downhill from here to Lake Ontario.

Louise hamming it up in Rome.

Shortly after my last post, we dropped lines for the short cruise to Little Falls, just ten miles or so away. That took a full two hours, because we had to lock through the tallest lock on the canal, Lock 17, with a lift of 41'. A century ago, 60' tall swinging lock gates were not yet a thing (they are today, witness the 110' lock doors we transited on the Tennessee three years ago), and so the lock was built with a concrete half wall at the downstream end of the chamber and a guillotine gate. We drove under the wall to enter the chamber.

Approaching the unusual entrance to Lock 17.

We're both engineers and we tend to think about failure modes, especially when using rusty old hardware that's been around for a hundred years. We don't worry much about conventional lock gates failing; if our lines parted, it would be a helluva ride, but the boat would stay mostly upright and we'd likely escape with minor injuries. But the mind boggles to think about this gate failing with the lock full to the top. We, of course, lived to tell the tale.

The giant guillotine gate lowers behind us.

Also unlike the enormous locks on the Tennessee, the older locks on the Erie, which, in today's configuration really started life as the New York Barge Canal, do not have floating bollards. Instead, there are either pipes or taut steel cables (or both) set into recesses in the walls, around which you loop your line to slide up or down, or else just a bunch of fixed lines, weighted at the end, that you grab, wrap around a cleat on the boat, and tend constantly as the lock lifts or lowers.

Louise tends the very long line in Lock 17. Note it comes down over our rail and to our midship cleat.

Since we'd already been in a bunch of smaller locks that had pipes or cables (and some with just lines), we were surprised that this tallest lock had only lines. As you might imagine, a single line tied some 40' above your head does not do much to keep the boat from moving away from the wall or rotating as the lock fills. We could have opted to grab two lines, fore and aft, and both tend them, but that leaves no one at the controls, and we feel that's far riskier. For the heavy, slimy line to do anything at all, Louise needs to constantly be taking it in as the boat rises, and I had to jockey the controls to try to keep us more or less in place.

After exiting the lock, we asked the lockmaster for permission to tie up for the night on the north bulkhead past the lock (map). He said we were good, and we grabbed whatever bollards and rings we could to secure the boat. Quite a bit later, when I went out to explore, I discovered that we were lockward of the "No Overnight Mooring" sign, which could only be seen from the other direction, but, hey, we had permission. I also discovered some more bulkhead and mooring bollards much closer to town, and that's where we really should have tied, but we had no way to know. Live and learn.

Vector tied to the wall above Lock 17. The sign on the lamp post facing away from us says no overnight mooring.

The enormous lock, and the man-made channel blasted out of the rock that it opens into, is all to get around the natural rapids for which the town of Little Falls is named. I took the e-bike across the bridge over the falls and into town, where I found the historic UU church, a couple of nice parks, and more decaying rust belt infrastructure. I scoped out the four decent dinner joints in town, and returned to the boat, past the rock climbers training on the rock wall near the lock.

Vector is just around the corner behind this cliff, used locally for rock climbing practice.

At dinner time we walked together back into town, crossing the bridge over the falls and then taking the little pedestrian subway under the train tracks to get to the main street. We had a nice dinner at the Copper Moose Ale House, although we'd also heard good things about the Italian Feast down the block. We've been eating a lot of Italian lately, as it seems to be the dominant cuisine here, so the ale house was a welcome change.

Little Falls falls, with turn-of-the-century buildings adjacent.

Wednesday morning we dropped lines at the lock and continued west through Lock 18, which, despite not being as tall as 17, was equipped with cables. Just upstream of the lock is a tour boat operation, and we had to wait for two tour boats that were down-locking. The larger of the two was empty and deadheading someplace, but the smaller one was chock full of school-age kids on a tour. They all waved as they went by, and we continued into the lock and secured to a cable.

The much more comfortable tending of a loop of line around a cable.

Before we were fully tied up, the tour boat had turned around not even a thousand feet downriver and came right back into the lock with us. We figure that "locking through" was a key element of the tour, and once it was done there was not much reason to go farther. The tour passed us again shortly after we departed the lock; the skipper radioed us to warn us about a buoy that looked out of place but was, in fact, marking a dangerous shoal.

Tour boat Lil' Diamond III carrying a load of school children locking through with us.

We ended the trip right behind them, tying up to the free wall in front of Gems Waterfront Grille and store, in Herkimer, New York (map). The tour boats dock just a few feet west of where we tied up. We had heard the water was shallow at the old terminal wall, and, sure enough, we found just 6' as we slid up to the wall. Our keel was probably grazing the silt.

Vector at the very shallow bulkhead in Herkimer, next to the restaurant and gift shop.

I once again headed out on the e-bike to explore the historic old town of Herkimer, scoping out some other dining options in the process. The funky 40s-era diner was dry, and while the ale house a couple of doors down looked nice, we had just done an ale house. I wrapped up my ride with a stop at Walmart, just 3/4 mile or so from the dock and one of the key incentives for stopping here; we have a number of items on our provisioning list that are best sourced here.

We were a bit prominent to the rear exit from the shop and restaurant.

When we went back out together on foot later, we ended up at Tokyo Sushi, which was excellent and exceeded all expectations in this corner of the world. The restaurant at the dock looked fine, but had little ambiance and tourist prices. We did browse the adjacent store, sort of a mash-up of products from businesses all over town, but found nothing we needed.

Could a tourist attraction be more cheesy than this?

When we came back from dinner the depth sounder was reading 5.6', and was still there the next morning despite a bit of rain. Between the mud and ten knots of wind trying to pin us to the dock, I had quite the struggle getting Vector out of the silt and away from the dock, but things seemed no worse for the wear.

The town itself was more authentic. This is the sheriff's office.

Our next planned stop was Utica just a dozen miles away. You may detect a pattern here, of very, very short mileage days, at least by our usual standards. Most of the cities and towns along this route owe their very existence to the canal, and 15 miles or so was about how far a mule could pull a barge before needing to be changed. And so, unsurprisingly, towns or at least way stations are about that far apart. I was hoping to spend at least a little time in most of them, and thus we've been stopping at mule intervals, just like the song lyric.

Utica is a fairly large city in these parts, and when the Barge Canal was built, replacing two iterations of the towpath-driven Erie Canal with one made for self-propelled vessels, Utica got its own harbor, with a large terminal and its own lock. The harbor has been closed for years, notwithstanding efforts to revive it, with the lock closed and the lock channel silted in. And so our stopping options were a dock in front of a restaurant at an old canal-side terminal, or the approach wall to the old harbor lock.

This enormous sign welcomes travelers, including on the canal, to Utica. It is supposedly lit to resemble a building at night.

The dock by the restaurant was $1 per foot, for essentially exactly what we've been getting for free at the locks -- a concrete wall with some bollards, possibly a power outlet, and nothing else. We couldn't see a reason to pay the vig, so we continued to the harbor lock wall. While that would have been a shorter bike ride to town, it was entirely charmless and more or less right under the thruway interchange overpass. So we decided instead to continue another hour through Lock 20 and tie up to the wall at the upper pool.

We cleared the lock and asked permission to tie up. The lockmaster said he was waiting on a double barge, so directed us to go all the way west and tie up right behind a Canal Corp tug boat that was on the wall. There are power outlets here for the Canal Corp equipment, and we asked for and received permission to use one. We had to spin the boat around and tie up facing back east for our power cord to reach. We also had to tie both ends of the boat to a single bollard ashore, which was, thankfully, set back far enough from the bulkhead to vector enough force toward it at both ends.

Single-pin tie-up, as seen from above. We used the short line on the ring, center, to tie up long enough for me to get off the boat and set the fore and aft lines on the bollard. Then we looped our own center line on the bollard and cast the short one off.

After spooling out almost all of our 100' cord and plugging in, we discovered that the outlet was defective, with voltage on only a single leg of the 208/120 outlet, and thus unusable via our regular shore cord. I figured I could jury-rig something later to get the battery charger working, but we left the cord out in case the tug boat, which was using the other outlet, unplugged later in the evening (it did not).

Vector tied up behind the historic Canal Corp tug Erie. This is as close as we could get; we're on the very next pin.

Having talked to both the lockmaster and the work crew supervisor about the scheduled traffic, we settled in for the evening. I put the e-bike on the ground and rode a half hour back to Utica to check out the town, hoping to make a quick visit and return to Vector before the rain storm that was arriving in the evening.

I made it to town by way of the Canalway Trail and a little-used street, and had just begun seeing some sights when I got an urgent text from Louise saying we might have to move the boat for the giant tow that was incoming. I was, at this point, at least a half hour from being able to get back, and that was assuming my battery held out and I didn't have to pedal part of the way, something I half expected when I left.

The one picture I got in Utica, down Genessee Street past the Stanley Theater. Genessee is close off a few blocks down for Summer Fest, which was likely delayed due to the rain.

While I was still ruminating about whether to call an Uber, the first of two towboats, with the smaller of the two tows, arrived, and the skipper looked at the space between us and the lock and told Louise there was plenty of room and we were fine right where we were. OK, phew. On to see some more of Utica.

My tour lasted perhaps fifteen more minutes before the second towboat arrived. We're not sure what the first skipper was thinking, or perhaps the was a misunderstanding one direction or the other, but we were absolutely in the way of this second, double-long tow. Had we not been there he could have swung both barges and his towboat against the bulkhead; as it was he had to nose against the bulkhead and stand off while he split his barges for the double lock-through.

The CMT Pike standing off of Vector's port beam, with his barges nosed to the bulkhead. Louise texted me this as I was frantically trying to get back.

I called a Lyft to get back as quickly as possible; fortunately the new bike folds down quite compactly and fits in a normal car trunk with ease. But by the time the Lyft arrived and got me back to the lock, the drama was over and the first barge was already in the lock chamber. Unlike the big locks on the Tennessee, these older locks can't pull barges through without a towboat, and so the towboat had to make a round trip through the lock to come back for the second barge. They managed to get the whole operation complete before the lock closed at 5pm.

Louise spent a lot of time talking to the skipper, who'd been running tows on the Mississippi for 30 years; it was a matter of professional pride for him to just handle the situation without Vector moving. But Louise was prepared to cast off and get out of the way if need be and hover in the canal until I made it back. The two towboats and three barges spent the night on the lower wall, so they could make Lock 19 when it opened at 7am.

The remainder of our evening was quiet and we had a nice dinner aboard, since by this time it was pouring rain. I was able to cobble together some cords and adapters to get power to the inverter from the defective outlet for the night. In the morning I looked at the gage, which read 420.5', half a foot over normal pool. That still left us plenty of room to clear the several low bridges en route to Rome, which at this gage level were just above 21'.

Approaching the dock in Rome. There've been goslings at every stop; here the quay is covered in goose droppings.

We arrived here mid-day to find the bulkhead, as we had been forewarned, lined with decaying timber fenders with protruding rusty bolts. Louise arranged our fenders for a section with enough good timbers to get off the boat and, we tied alongside one of the handful of 50-amp power pedestals. We were happy to have the power to run the heaters; it was cold and rainy most of the day.

Vector tied to the Rome bulkhead. We had to step out onto a rickety timber (note the canted loose one in the back), step atop a piling, then make a long step to the dock.

At 5 o'clock the rain let up and I took the e-bike out for a quick pre-dinner ride around town. In another one of those always-learning moments, the electric assist assisted me right into a powerslide on a slippery, muddy section of sidewalk and dumped me right off, so I am a little banged up today. I did manage to take in part of the town, including a quick pass by Fort Stanwix and a cruise through "Little Italy" along Dominick Street. We returned here together for dinner at The Vigneto, which was decent.

Vector in Rome. The gray building ahead of us is one of the historic barge terminals. We've seen identical terminal buildings at several stops. At far left is one of the "guard gates" on the canal, one of the lowest things we need to squeeze under.

This morning I again took the e-bike out for a more relaxed spin around town. I returned to Fort Stanwix National Park for a proper visit, expecting to have the place mostly to myself, forgetting that it was Saturday. In fact, the fort was full of volunteers in period costume, including sentries on the parapets, a blacksmith, a woodworker, and other craftsmen. It was nicely done. Rome, positioned strategically at the Oneida Carry, has centuries of history. I swung by the grocery store on my way back to the boat and picked up a few fresh provisions.

This vending machine at the historic terminal building is the only dockside service in Rome. Yes, that's a Live Bait machine.

Update: We are now docked at the free wall in Brewerton, New York (map). Shortly after I returned from my ride around town yesterday morning, while I was still fiddling with getting photos loaded, Louise reminded me that rain was coming, and if I wanted any chance to explore our next stop in dry weather, we needed to get going. I set the blog aside, thinking I'd wrap it up last night and get it posted.

As nice as it was to have a free power outlet in Rome, with several more restaurants available and some history yet to explore, we'd been seeing other loopers pass us the whole time we were there. Four or five boats traveling together hovered right off the dock Friday afternoon, contemplating the conditions, before deciding to press on to Sylvan Beach, and Saturday morning another four boats also passed us. Apparently the peloton has caught up to us, and I was concerned we might get aced out of a spot if we dallied another day.

Reconstructed historic Fort Stanwix in Rome, with a sentry patrolling.

We had a short cruise from Rome to Sylvan Beach, locking down through locks 21 and 22. This being a Saturday in the summer, we passed quite a number of day cruisers in both directions, along with the environmental police and the sheriff's patrol. We arrived at Sylvan Beach, at the eastern end of Oneida Lake, in the early afternoon to find the free docks entirely occupied. Several of the spots were taken by day boats that we knew would leave before long, but we opted instead to tie up at the otherwise empty free wall just across the canal in sister city Verona Beach (map).

After we were tied up we met blog reader Joe, who was tied up across the canal in his very nice Fleming 55 and had walked across to say hello. I again took the e-bike for a ride across the bridge to explore Sylvan Beach, which is what passes for a beach town in these parts. The key attractions here are the sand beach along the lake, and the historic amusement park that is similar to those found in Rye, Seaside Heights, or Coney Island. The music and noise from the rides was prominent across the canal at our spot, but they close at 10pm, and with the rainstorm they didn't even last that long. There are also perhaps a dozen restaurants and the kinds of shops you find in beach towns.

Fortunately, one of the best restaurants in the area is actually in Verona Beach, at the Anchor Light Inn, just a block from our dock. Saturday is prime rib night, and we shared a piece. Not on our top ten list for prime rib, but the restaurant was very nice and the food was decent. We made it home just before the rain hit in earnest, which did not stop the phalanx of fishermen on the dock.

Vector at Verona Beach, with the Sylvan Beach amusement park across the canal. Empty stretch of dock was full when we arrived.

Between the two bike tours, two lockages, a dozen miles of hand steering (the canal here is man-made and narrow), recuperating from a banged-up knee, a heavy dinner, and two glasses of pinot noir, I was barely able to get through my email and catch up on news before my eyelids were drooping. I crashed early, before getting back here to finish my post.

This morning we dropped lines at 7am. Not because we wanted to beat the crowd, but because at that hour the lake was glass calm, and we wanted to get most of the way across before the forecast westerlies stirred it up. When the fronts had come through last night, the lake got rough and some of that made it into the canal; Vector pitched a little and made a mess splashing dirty water against the dock, while some of the boats across from us looked downright unlivable.

This shot inside one of the locks shows the poor condition of some of the century old lock walls.

We were tied up here before 11, and with the rain continuing and forecast into this afternoon, it was a good chance to catch up. I've also been working on the upcoming route; we need a mail stop and I am looking at marinas in the Thousand Islands.

Once the rain stops I will again take the bike out for some exploration, and scope out someplace for dinner. In the morning we will continue west, through our last lock on the Erie Canal, and turning onto the Oswego Canal at Three Rivers Junction. Tomorrow night we will be somewhere along the Oswego.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Share your comments on this post! We currently allow anyone to comment without registering. If you choose to use the "anonymous" option, please add your name or nickname to the bottom of your comment, within the main comment box. Getting feedback signed simply "anonymous" is kind of like having strangers shout things at us on the street: a bit disconcerting. Thanks!