April 25, 2022

Boating the Hudson River and the Erie Canal

Katie and Gene Hamilton

Bring Binocular News

Cruising from Manhattan to West Point with NJ Palisades as a backdrop

Rested and ready for the next leg of our Great Loop Cruise, we left the calm waters of Sandy Hook Bay to enter the fray of Ambrose Channel, with Lady Liberty standing proudly in the background. It was an emotional moment to once again see the impressive Manhattan skyscrapers from the water, but this time without the World Trade Center in the skyline. But there was little time to sightsee amid the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s busiest harbors. Cruise boats going to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty crossed our path; a constant parade of freighters headed out to sea and into port; and tugs with barges seemed to be going every which way. We were on our way boating the Hudson River to the Erie Canal and Lake Ontario.

Lady Liberty greeted us in busy New York Harbor

We heard a sobering “We got a floater here!” on the VHF radio. This wasn’t a rerun from Law and Order; it was the real deal, and we listened intently to the conversation between a NYC controller and a pilot boat coordinating with NYPD Aviation about the location of the body.

We took note of Piermont Pier, from where more than one million soldiers were shipped to the Normandy Invasion during WWII. Farther north, on the New York side, the Rockefeller estate stood proudly in Sleepy Hollow. The high shoulders of the shoreline were lush green and sprinkled with houses perched on cliffs overlooking the river. The scenery changed often boating from the Hudson River to the Erie Canal.


George Washington Bridge, New York side of the Hudson River

Although we had met some other Loopers we met many more reading the postings of the AGLCA email group and postings that gave us current advice about marinas, fuel prices, and restaurants. In fact, these daily updates were more useful than any cruising guide we had on board. After the frenzied activity of the river in Manhattan, the Hudson River underwent a personality adjustment as we passed under the George Washington Bridge: Skyscrapers gave way to the lush New Jersey Palisades and to high bluffs on the New York side. As we trekked upriver against the two-knot current, we heard the rumble of trains carrying freight on the river’s Jersey shore and commuters on its east side. A squadron of twenty muscle boats on a Poker Run blasted past us toward the city. Then boat traffic thinned, and we used a Hudson River Waterfront Map as a guide to the interesting sights along the way.

We called it a day at Haverstraw Bay, rounding Croton Point and dropping the hook with a fleet of other boaters who were enjoying the annual Clearwater Festival ashore, celebrating the continuing role of the famed sloop in restoring the health of the Hudson.

The next day, we were treated to a visual feast as we continued north past the impressive stone structures of West Point, which still seem poised to defend the narrow stretch of the river. We marveled at the high shoulders of Storm King Mountain and realized that it’s no wonder the beauty of the region gave rise to the Hudson River School of landscape art. This place seemed so remote, despite it being so close to New York City.

West Point, an impressive site on the Hudson River

Many Loopers lay over in this area to rent cars and visit West Point, FDR’s house, and the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, a must-see for gourmands, but we continued. Farther north, at Kingston, we anchored off the harbor entrance in the lee of Rondout Lighthouse. Then, after a night at Catskill, which is Rip Van Winkle territory, we were headed to the Erie Canal.

TIP  Our firsthand experience using binoculars on a boat: Binoculars are vulnerable on a boat. An unexpected roll from a passing boat wake can send binocs onto a hard deck surface or worse, bouncing off the boat. To protect binoculars, stow them near the helm so they’re readily available but tucked in a safe cubby that prevents them from being damaged.

Navigating the locks of the Erie Canal

We got the last available space on the tie-up wall at the Waterford Visitor Center, the starting point for cruisers going west on the Erie Canal and for those heading north to the Champlain Canal. This facility is ideally located for provisioning and shopping, and it’s a natural meeting point for Loopers. Many were at the end of their cruise and were returning to homeports in Canada and the Great Lakes; others, newbies like us, were just beginning their adventure.

An impromptu dock party at Waterford NY the entrance to the Erie Canal

The more Loopers we met, the more we realized that each Looper fit the journey into their lifestyle in different ways. Some began and ended the cruise in a year or less, many returning home for the holidays or winter months. Others did the circuit in several three-to four-month segments, leaving their boat at a marina and continuing later. Still others were doing the Loop over two to three years, and they took lengthy side trips to the Bahamas in the winter or to New England in the summer. Most were couples, some were solo cruisers who had friends to help them going through locks.

We were about to enter the Erie Canal and traverse twenty-some locks that would lift us more than five hundred feet as we moved from the Hudson River Valley to the Great Lakes. When we were much younger, we had done the Erie Canal in a sailboat, going east to the Atlantic from the Great Lakes. This time we didn’t have the hassle of carrying a mast on deck, and of course, we had a different perspective: Now, we were older and heading west, back to our favorite freshwater cruising grounds.

Before taking High Life into the first lock of the five comprising the Waterford Flight, we watched other boats go through, noticing how some cruisers made it look easy while others were clearly stressed and unprepared for the procedure. It was the first time we saw couples using radio headphones to communicate with each other. Especially on the large cruisers, we saw how they quietly talked to each other through the small transceiver attached to the headset. It looked especially useful on boats with an elevated pilothouse, where the helmsman couldn’t see exactly where the line handler was and what he or she was doing.

Anticipating the challenge for our boat, we asked the lockmaster about handling lines and maneuvering. Once we felt confident, we knew how to proceed, we headed back to High Life and slipped the lines. We then followed a parade of boats heading into the series of ascending locks that would lift us into the Mohawk River Valley. We noticed that each boat developed its own pattern for tending lines and fending off the lock walls with a boat hook.

Some locks had lines hanging from the sides of the lock that were easy to hold as the boat ascended

Eventually, our flotilla adopted a routine as to which vessel went first into the lock and which followed.  All our boats were strung together with an assortment of fenders that made us look as if we had saddlebags. Inside the lock, the cement walls were slimy, often pockmarked with holes and filled with dank air. It felt surreal as our boat rose out of the quiet shade of the lock into bright sunlight, with birds chirping and sightseers waving hello.

After a long, hot day of line handling and close-quarter maneuvers, we tied to a lock wall for the night and joined our fellow cruisers in setting up chairs under a shady tree. We had started the day as total strangers but ended with the common bond of experience. We lifted a toast to our success, the stress of the unknown and awkward eased, and all of us were happy to be canal boaters.

Life on the Erie Canal

We soon settled into a comfortable cruising schedule, getting underway early with morning coffee and Lorna Doones, then traveling until early afternoon and tying up at a lock or at one of the many small towns that line the waterway. This routine worked well as we made our way across upstate New York, but it wasn’t always easy going. By the end of the day, we were usually tired, hot, and happy to stop.

The steamy summer days continued as we traveled west through the string of rivers and land cuts that link the Hudson with the Great Lakes, passing by lush green farmland, idyllic waterfront cottages, and historic downtowns revitalized by the new wave of canal traffic. The lock tenders were friendly and professional, always interested in where we had come from and where we were bound.

We spent the first couple of days in the Mohawk River valley, which offered a widely varied shoreline. Some of the banks consisted of wetlands interspersed with an occasional lily pond or cluster of homes, but most of the shoreline was dense with trees. Local boaters in small skiffs zipped by in the open waters, and canal tour boats passed us on a regular basis. We followed red and green markers through the winding river bends, and as we approached Schenectady, the pastoral shoreline gave way to highways and interstates.

We spent one night at Canajoharie, a canal town offering transients a free tie-up at a floating dock. Ashore we stretched our legs and hiked a scenic trail to a gorge and waterfalls at a nearby park. Farther on we passed a nice marina in Ilion, then moved on to Utica and Rome. The Canalway Trail parallels most of the canal, so it was no surprise to see bikers, birders, skateboarders, and joggers along the way.

Early morning on the Erie Canal tied to a lock wall

An overnight stop at Lock 20 gave us an early start for our crossing of Oneida Lake, which turned out to be a flat and easy run to Brewerton for a tie-up at Ess Kay Yards. There, we joined a gang of other Loopers—Grand Finale, Sea Time, Just Enuff, and Inevitable Too—to wait out a thunderstorm that developed into two days of solid rain. While we endured the downpours, the friendly marina staff chauffeured all of us to the laundromat and grocery store.

At Three Rivers Junction, we took a right turn and headed to the Oswego Canal for the twenty-four-mile, seven-lock run that dropped us to Lake Ontario. The town of Phoenix, known for its Bridgehouse Brats (as in bratwurst), lived up to its reputation as being a friendly stopover, with local kids offering help to the seasonal visitors. We stopped at Larkin’s for a late breakfast and couldn’t resist fresh “three-for-a-dollar” chocolate cookies at the bakery nearby.


A lock taking us up to the level of the Great Lakes


When we arrived at the Oswego Lock the next day, the heavy lock doors opened onto our initial glimpse of Lake Ontario, the first Great Lake on our cruise. We passed by the lock wall, where cruisers are free to stay, and instead headed for the city marina just off the lake. Oswego was the busiest city we’d been to in upstate New York, and we found time to explore it following the Riverwalk Trail around town. We went to Fort Ontario, which is perched high above the lake. The restored historic site has been fortified since 1755 by British, French, and American troops, and it offers a spectacular view.

 Later that day Inevitable Too, Island Fever, Suzie QII, and Irish Rose arrived and told us how lucky we were. Had we arrived in the region three days later we would have been among the numerous cruising boats that were stuck in the Erie Canal for weeks when heavy flooding damaged some of the locks. It seems the same heavy rain that had kept us on the west end of Oneida Lake had stranded boaters between the locks, some in the locks, and had created millions of dollars of damage to homes and businesses along the canal.

We marveled that we had traveled 564 miles in 18 days since leaving home on the Chesapeake Bay, yet it seemed that we had been on board for months. That night, our little fleet combined social hour with a skippers’ meeting to discuss crossing Lake Ontario on route to Collins Bay Marina, just west of Kingston. We were all ready to head into a foreign albeit neighboring country (Canada) and anxious to cruise the Trent-Severn Waterway, Georgian Bay and the North Channel.

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Gene and Katie Hamilton are veteran sail and power boaters and award winning boating writers. They are authors of Coastal Cruising Under Power and Practical Boating Skills. They are members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.
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