For years, I've longed to explore the canals of Europe: navigating a boat through an old lock, shopping for dinner in a canalside market, picking up a bottle of wine at a vineyard, stumbling onto an old church or ancient ruin in a nearby town, going for a bike ride down a country road.
But when our vacation plans took us to New York State last summer, we discovered that we didn't need to cross the ocean to experience a bit of the Continent.
True, there were no baguettes or brioches, no foreign boating vocabulary to master, and "historic" meant two centuries instead of six. Nevertheless, our seven-day trip on the Erie Canal offered a wealth of simple pleasures -- a leisurely float through the wildlife preserves and back yards of small-town America, with a nightlife that featured board games and good conversation. Even if we had wanted to speed, our boat wouldn't have let us.
The Erie Canal -- immortalized in the song "Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal," featuring that famous mule, Sal -- was considered an engineering marvel when it opened in 1825. It crossed 338 miles (roughly 10 times the length of the Panama Canal) and rose 568 feet from Lake Erie to the Hudson River with a series of 83 locks (reduced to 35 as it was rebuilt over the years). Within 15 years, New York City's ranking as a U.S. port grew from fifth to first, as it moved more commercial tonnage than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined. Even today, roughly 75 percent of New York State's population still lives within the corridor created by the canal and the Hudson River.
The New York State Canal System is a centerpiece of New York's economic development strategy for Upstate New York. This time, however, the focus is on tourism, not commerce. In addition to the Erie, running from Tonawanda to Waterford, the canal system encompasses the Champlain Canal, stretching north to Lake Champlain; the Oswego Canal, running just west of Oneida Lake north to Lake Ontario; and the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, which runs south to connect to Cayuga and Seneca lakes in the Finger Lakes region.
Options abound for boat trips, depending on the time available, the kind of boat you'd prefer and which stretch of canal you wish to visit. We wanted to tack a week-long trip onto a family reunion in the Adirondack Mountains, so we chartered a boat just west of Syracuse and returned it there before our flight home a week later.
A canal trip is not for someone in a rush to get somewhere. The posted speed limit is 10 mph, and our boat was capable of chugging along only at about 6. Because the arrival of the rest of our crew, my husband's brother and sister-in-law, was delayed by a day, that further limited the length of our trip.
In the end, we made a one-day trip from Syracuse to Brewerton on Oneida Lake and back, then picked up our crew and headed west about 95 miles to Palmyra, where Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, was born. Then it was south to Seneca Falls, where the first women's rights convention was held in the United States in 1848. Many boaters on this run choose to go a bit farther west, to Fairport and Pittsford, two villages in the Rochester suburbs where the canalfronts have been developed with boutiques and restaurants.
A Charter Primer
My husband and I are experienced charterers, having rented boats in six different cruising grounds around the world. We both agreed that the 42-foot Canandaigua was one of the most comfortable and well-designed boats we had ever hired. Each couple had a separate cabin with a private "head" (bathroom), with plenty of drawers for stowing gear. The galley had enough counter space for two cooks to share the meal preparations side by side. A cozy sunroom had been created in the bow, providing a pleasant place for reading when the wind picked up or to gather for cocktails after tying up at night. The steering position at the stern was also configured for conversation, with a tiller to provide the captain with a more traditional feel for the helm.
And, even better for a chartering vacation, no piece of equipment broke en route.
Canalboats require minimal chartering experience, and chartering companies usually provide short shakeout trips and even lessons, if necessary. But even for experienced boaters like ourselves, there were some new tricks to be learned from Charlie, the staff member who showed us the ropes.
The first lesson was not to "fend off." Over the years, an owner or charterer of a fiberglass sailboat tends to develop the fine art of pushing off docks and pilings with a well-placed foot. But with the hulk of Canadaigua's steel hull, we were cautioned to let the boat take the hit -- and keep our body parts inboard. It took my husband and me a couple of squabbling passes at the dock to hone our docking skills back into the well-timed team we can be.
Charlie accompanied us for a 45-minute trip, 19 miles west to the town of Bald-winsville to take us through our first lock, a 12-foot rise -- about the average that we would experience. Like all the locks, it sported the distinctive yellow-and-blue paint of the New York Canal Corp., but it also had attractive containers of pink and white petunias that, we were advised, had helped it once win the "most beautiful lock" award in an annual competition.
Part of every day's trip planning inevitably involved the locks -- how many would we need to go through, and how long was that likely to take? When a lock was in sight, we would hail the lockmaster on our radio to let him know we sought passage. Sometimes this entailed waiting for him to empty or fill the lock if the last boat had been traveling in the same direction.
When the lock's red light turns to green, the captain cozies the boat up against one of its walls. My regular job was to grab hold of one of the ropes that runs down the generally slimy lock walls, perching on an eight-inch-wide side deck. Then the crew waits while the lockmaster fills or empties the lock. When the light turns green, the captain turns on the engine and heads out, a process that can take 10 to 30 minutes.
Small Crowds, Lots of Nature
New York has been trying to develop its "canalway" as a tourist attraction for boaters, cyclists, hikers and history buffs for the past few years. Two hundred thirty-one miles of trails for biking, hiking and cross-country trails provide a land-based alternative along four major canal segments. All along the route we were greeted by friendly lockmasters, store owners and museum docents, happy to share their knowledge of the history of the canal and their towns.
Delightfully for us, but probably not for the towns that line the canal, there were no crowds when we made our trip in the last week of August. Once past the outskirts of Syracuse, we might pass no more than a dozen boats on a weekday along the canal's narrow stretches. The locals turned out in their faster powerboats on the weekend. Yes, powerboats. Technically, they are not supposed to go faster than 10 mph, but many do in isolated stretches of the canal.
Special events, flotillas and festivals that many canalside towns schedule throughout the summer and fall can draw larger crowds. But the relative isolation was, for us, another factor that contributed to the sense of complete relaxation we had achieved by week's end.
Although there are some marinas along the canal where the locals keep their boats, we chose, as most charterers do, simply to tie up along the canal wall, usually at a town where moorings have been provided, and sometimes amenities such as on-shore electricity and water.
Our route took us through the Montezuma National Wildlife Preserve, but interesting waterfowl were abundant all along our route -- blue heron, kingfishers, hawks, ducks, Canada geese -- and a number of jumping fish. Many of the banks were fringed with loose-strife, a purple weed/flower that was beautiful, but also encroaching. Except for the more open waters of Cross Lake, our pathway there was little more than 75 feet wide.
Cozy summer cottages on one stretch would give way to suburban back yards in another. Yet, even though we covered the same distance twice, we never found it boring. Nevertheless, traveling the generally straight Erie "highway" with its relatively consistent 12-foot depth tended to lull our generally crack navigation skills into complacency. At one point, on our next-to-last day, we missed a 90-degree jog in the channel and headed straight ahead into a creek, failing to notice that we had left behind the red and green numbered buoys that gave us a constant reference point. Soon we heard a homeowner yelling from ashore that we were about to run aground.
Life in Seneca Falls
Our boat was filled with history buffs, and that suited the itinerary we chose. At Lock 28B just east of Newark, we tied up to take a short walk to view a remnant of the original canal, now overgrown with weeds and moss. A caretaker put aside his lawnmower to help us understand what we were viewing and describe the plans for the visitors center that was planned for the spot.
Palmyra, the next stop, has a new town dock, courtesy of those tourist development dollars. A short walk from the dock, we found the Phelps Store, where an enthusiastic volunteer docent with Historic Palmyra postponed her errands to give us a quick tour. The store dates from the 19th century but is frozen in the 1940s, when its owner, frustrated by the demands of World War II rationing, simply shut its doors, leaving a treasure trove of memories for visitors of a certain age.
Nearby is the Alling Coverlet Museum, with what it says is the largest collection of homespun coverlets in the country, and the Hill Cumorah Visitor's Center. Visitors from around the world flock here in July each year for the pageant that reenacts the founding of the Mormon Church.
We saved what for us was the best for last, heading south through the newer Cayuga-Seneca Canal to spend two nights in Seneca Falls. Even our lock experience there was climactic -- two back-to-back locks that, together, enabled us to climb 50 feet. And it seemed appropriate that in the home of the American women's rights movement, we encountered our first -- and only -- female lock tender.
The Seneca Falls waterfront is an attractive one, reminiscent of a small European city with shade trees, park benches and flowers. Within a short walking distance are the Women's Rights National Historical Park, with a museum and a fragment of the walls of Wesley Chapel, the site of the 1848 gathering that drew up the Declaration of the Rights of Women; the home of the pioneering women's rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, now maintained by the National Park Service; and the privately operated National Women's Hall of Fame, honoring the accomplishments of a growing list of American women, some of whom I had never known of until I spent an hour there.
Across the river from the main part of town, a sculpture, erected to mark the 1998 sesquicentennial of the women's rights convention, re-created the moment when Amelia Bloomer (inventor of the eponymous pantaloons) changed the course of American history by introducing Stanton to Susan B. Anthony on the streets of Seneca Falls. The statues now look out on a vista that graces many of the region's tourist brochures -- Trinity Church perched on a point of land that juts out into the river.
We also stopped in at the Seneca Museum of Waterways and Industry, which explains how Seneca Falls's geography changed after the canal and locks were built. The waterfront has a number of restaurants, including an ice cream parlor and an excellent Italian restaurant, Henry B's, where we enjoyed a multi-course dinner on our fanciest night out.
If we'd had more time, we could have rented a car to explore Cayuga Lake and the Finger Lakes wine country, or made use of the bicycles that remained strapped to the top of our boat all week. (Our chartering company prohibited us from traveling the length of the lake in our shallow-draft boat because of the waves that can kick up when a storm comes along.) But the demands of our 21st-century lives -- not to mention the end date on our chartering contract -- required us to untie our lines and head back.
Living at the pace of the 19th century for a week had provided unexpected pleasures. My husband noted that he had not spent as much time with his older brother in more than 50 years, and the quiet nights gave them the time for good long conversations. We'd lived a week without TV, e-mail, rush-hour traffic or airplane timetables, falling asleep before the late-night news and waking up again with the sun.
I still keep a trip through the canals of Europe on my "vacations-to-do" list. But there's much to be said for a visit to their American cousin, including local people who seem genuinely happy to see you, and grateful for your small contribution to their very own economic stimulus plan.
Sara Fitzgerald last wrote for Travel on volunteer vacations in Costa Rica.