The New York State Canal System was considered in its day a modern marvel that helped transform New York State into a powerhouse of trade. While cargo is still occasionally transported in places, the canal has become a hub for recreational boaters. As part of an extended cruise up the Hudson River, Lake Champlain and then into Schenectady we took advantage of using two of the canals. This was our fifth visit on the Champlain and second on the Erie Canal.
The Champlain Canal runs north of Waterford New York to Whitehall New York. This is three miles north of the Federal Lock at Troy. The Champlain Canal climbs 140 feet up nine locks before it descends to 94 feet after leaving lock eleven and twelve. (There is no lock 10). Cruising these 60 miles combines the natural flow of the Hudson River part of the way before the canal takes over and goes due north. The ride is pretty, very peaceful and slow.
If you are heading up the canal we recommend you to provision in Waterford. Waterford is the junction of the Erie and Champlain Canal. Waterford offers free overnight docking in a marina like setting and an information office. The local Hannaford supermarket, a ten minute walk across the river is a good place to stock the galley as they allow you to leave their shopping carts at the dock.
To get familiar with the canals it is a good idea visit http://www.canals.ny.gov. Just about everything you need to know about what is going on with the canal can be found there. This includes water level, hours or any unexpected closures. Books I recommend include “The Cruising Guide to the New York State Canal System” and “Waterway Guide, Great Lakes.” The cruising guide makes tracking miles easy and has a few good tips.
Cruising the canal is not a rushed event. Speed limits range 5 mph in the canal to up to 40 mph on the river sections. We rarely attained cruising speed because leaving a wake supersedes any speed limit. Traversing the Champlain Canal can be done in one very long day that I don’t recommend. Running the canal should be a pleasant experience so plan on making a stop each way. Our favorite overnight has been the Schuylerville Boat Basin at Lock Five. (www.schuyleryachtbasin.com) This mom and pop marina has everything you need for a pleasant stay with the added bonus of a colonial town just a five minute walk from the basin. For dinner we recommend the Kitchen in the Dove Gate Inn for some of the best food in the area. (www.dovegateinn.com/restaurant) The historical place to visit here is the restored 1777 country home of American General Philip Schuyler.
From Schuylerville you are 10 miles from the Saratoga Battlefield which historians call the turning point of the American Revolution. The following web site www.nps.gov/sara/index.htm covers the home and battlefield. For history buffs we recommend hiring James F. Hughto who is a certified battlefield guide. James met us at our boat and drove us to different places on the battlefield where he described in detail the events that took place in what has been called one of the most important battles in the last 2000 years. (www.toursbyjames.com)
Other stops on the Champlain Canal for dinner and to provision up with free overnight docking includes Mechanicville and Fort Edwards. It is north of Fort Edwards where you lose the Hudson River and travel the remainder on the canal. This section of your ride will feel a bit remote in places. On this northern part of the canal you can stop at the village of Fort Ann for lunch at the Battle Hill Brewery and then visit the Lake George Distillery (www.lakegeorgedistillingcompany.com).
The last stop on the canal is Lock 12 at Whitehall where Lake Champlain starts. Whitehall has been called the birthplace of the American Navy because of the small fleet that was built there in 1776 in attempt to stop the British from advancing from the north. You can dock near the lock for free and take a tour and have lunch at the 1874 Victorian Gothic-style mansion called Skene Manor on the hill nearby. (www.skenemanor.org) Whitehall was a little too sleepy for our taste to overnight so we ventured up the lake for the evening. You will find fuel on the north end of lock 12. From here we went north and spent eight nights on Lake Champlain.
With our Lake Champlain and Champlain Canal portion of our cruise over it was time to venture up the Erie Canal for a quick visit to Schenectady. The Erie Canal starts with the “Flight of Five”. These first five locks (E2 to E6) raise a boat 169 feet in one and half miles. Nowhere in the world is a boat lifted that high in such a short distance. It takes about two hours to clear them and is an interesting experience. These first locks and the narrow canal connected to them go by quiet streets. It is normal for a car to pass a boat and wave.
Schenectady is 17.7 miles west on the Mohawk River section of the Erie Canal passing through six locks. The ride is pretty and with the exception of a few places, slow if you throw a big wake. We picked Schenectady to visit so we can walk around its historical area known as the Stockade District and possibly catch a show at the old Proctor Theatre. To get help with touring the Stockade District we reached out to the Schenectady County Historical Society on Washington Avenue. Their web site at http://historicstockade.com can give you information about walking tours, cell audio tours and maps. We recommend stopping there first.
The Stockade District has one of the most unique collections of homes and buildings dating from the 17th through 20th century. This special section of Schenectady covering several square blocks has 40 pre-revolutionary homes. The architecture in this area includes Dutch Colonial, Federal, Georgian, and Victorian. We enjoyed our one hour walk around the neighborhood. Another worthy stop in the city is the old Proctor Theater. (www.proctors.org) This theater built in 1926 by F. F. Proctor, (known as the “Dean of Vaudeville”) puts on big Broadway traveling shows for almost half the price as what you see in New York City. The theater should be visited even if you don’t see a show. Before or after the show wonder down narrow Jay Street across the way for dinner, a late night snack, coffee or drink. For good Mexican food try Mexican Radio a block away.
Docking in Schenectady offers two choices. We tied up at the Freedom Park in Scotia across the river for $30 with power. This was a 20 minute walk to the Stockade District. We were there during their evening family fun weekly waterski show. (www.uswaterskishowteam.com) Another option may be to dock near the new Rivers Casino and Resort. (www.riverscasinoandresort.com).
Entering the locks is a matter of getting into a routine. We kept five fenders on our starboard or wall side. One fender was at the bow rail and another one at the corner of the stern and starboard side. This way if we entered or departed a little too tight due to a breeze or water flow we would not worry about getting a nick. These fenders will get slimy and scratched up as the boat floats up or down. Some people put garbage bags over them.
We also kept an additional three fenders on the portside to protect us from any boats that may wander close. Come in at crawling speed and be patient when grabbing the ropes. We always held a rope at the stern and another from the upper helm. When entering the locks have a pair of waterproof gloves on and a boat hook ready to grab a line. Watch for debris entering or exiting a lock.
Many locks offer free docking in a park like atmosphere with no services. Lock Keepers monitor Channel 13 at all times. When you get close simply radio them. While tipping is not expected or required we have been known to leave a cold drink on the cement for the Lock Keeper to have after their shift. If you cruise to Lake Champlain keep in mind the height restriction is about 15 feet at the railroad bridge at Lock Four. (http://www.canals.ny.gov/boating/bridgeheights.html).
You can read about our Hudson River and Lake Champlain cruises in previous issues of Boating World or email me at email@example.com to get copies.