38. A Very Rivery Summer – Part 1

Disclaimer: This one’s a long one. You might want to grab a snack. And a change of clothes. And your back pills.

When Sylphide and I got to Coeymans, I wasn’t really sure what our plans would be for the summer. I’d considered going west to Oneida Lake, or maybe continuing north into Lake Champlain.

2020, being what it has been though, the decision was largely made for me. Due to all of the ending that the world has been doing lately, the canals were behind schedule, and wouldn’t be opening for through traffic until about the middle of August. So it looked like I’d be sticking to the Hudson River for the meantime.

This actually worked out pretty nicely. Coeymans is only about two hours by land yacht from the ol’ homestead, and I’ve been able to keep my truck on hand, which has been positively luxurious. Nearby Albany may not be much of a boating destination as such, but it does have just about anything I might want or need.

It also has, by happy coincidence, two of my very favorite people in the cosmos. My besties Steve and Bea just happened to be moving to Albany at the same time I was. We hadn’t lived within 300 miles of each other since the middle of the second Bush administration, so this was a most welcome development.

So with all of that in mind, I put out the mailbox, introduced myself to the neighbors, and Coeymans Landing became home for the summer.

Soon, plans began to form for the far off possibility that someday the canals might open. Steve fancied a trip, as did my sister, and I was keen to have the company. Once we jockeyed schedules around, threw some darts at a map of New York State, and consulted the Ouija board, we had some tentative itineraries.

Steve would take the first cruise, which was to be a westward jaunt up the Mohawk River and Erie Canal toward Oneida Lake. Once there, we’d spend a few days visiting friends and family, and enjoy basking in the glory of our old stomping ground. We’d then retrace our steps back to Coeymans, where I would gratefully ditch him, and replace him with my favorite sister. We would then aim Sylphide’s pointy end to northward, for a short trip to Lake Champlain and back. Bully!

After a few days of cleaning, laundering, provisioning, engine room checking, tank filling, and tank emptying, Sylphide was almost ready to depart. All that was left to do was to lay the mast down into Howitzer mode, so as to avoid knocking over any bridges along the way. I saved that part for when my crew of Steve came aboard, cuz it’s a lot easier with two peoples.

With that done, we I cast off the lines and proceeded in a northerly direction. It was a hot, sunny, and calm day. The trip up to Albany was short and pleasant and soon we found ourselves at the first of 4894896565468468864564 locks.

The Federal Lock at Troy is fairly unremarkable, and would be a nice, gentle introduction for Steve. At least that’s what I expected. What I didn’t expect was the six pound black, shiny, evil, death star of a spider, which scuttled out of a hole near where I was hanging on, and started shouting slurs at me. I’m pretty sure it had a knife as well. I bravely shoved the boat away from the wall, and didn’t pee my pants even a little bit. I calmly decided that I would prefer to take my chances bouncing off the opposite side of the lock chamber than deal with this red eyed hellbeast.

Once we were clear of the Federal Lock, Waterford was just around the corner. There were some geese and a couple of trouts locking down the Waterford flight, so we spent some time treading water and chatting with some fellow cruisers on the wall while we waited.

Eventually the first gates of the flight opened, I made my usual joke welcoming Steve to Jurassic Park, and we started our climb up the staircase of locks. The going was smooth, the lock keepers were friendly and gentle with us, and Steve turned out to be pretty handy with the boathook. There were no more murder spiders.

We passed the Day Peckinpaugh, which is the last of the Erie Canal freighters. She’s been laid up for ages, and looks it.

The rest of the day was smooth and pleasant and very, very hot. It was also fairly short, since we were limited by the locks closing at five o’clock sharp. We made it as far as the Schenectady Yacht Club before we could go no further. The place hadn’t been on my radar, partly because I don’t have radar, but mostly because I’d assumed we’d be farther down the river when we stopped for the night.

It was a very pleasant stop, though. Aside from some noise from the road traffic on the bridge ahead of us, it was peaceful. The transient / fuel dock was nestled into some old granite ruins, leftover infrastructure from the original Erie Canal.

All of the folks we met were exceedingly friendly, and very welcoming. The marina itself was well looked after, and the price was very reasonable. The pool, though… that was the bee’s knees. It had been a 95 degree day, and I felt like the turkey from Christmas vacation. I think some steam came off of me when I piled into the water. It was amazing.

Day two of Dave and Steve’s excellent adventure dawned, and quickly became a blur of locks and stifling heat. Between the locks, Steve tried to get a little laptop work done, and I did my best to make that difficult. We also started assembling a playlist of songs that we thought would be funny for the folks ashore to hear us singing badly at the top of our lungs as we cruised by. We screeched some of Cher’s ‘If I could turn back time’ at some innocent bystanders in Amsterdam, and I’m sure their day was improved by it.

We made it to lock 15 just before they closed up shop. We were wiped out from the long hot day, and decided to park Sylphide on the upper lock wall for the night. There was a single power point to plug into, and a big beautiful shade tree to moor under. Incredibly, Steve decided to go out for a run. I was already more than sweaty enough, and opted to relax instead. The report from Steve’s scouting mission around Fort Plain suggested that I didn’t really miss much.

As is the case with most lock walls, there was a large park area next to it. We had the entire place to ourselves, which made for a fairly quiet and pleasant place to spend the night. The mosquitoes were biblical, and there was some noise from the trains on the other side of the river, but as far as free places to tie up go, it was far better than most.

The next morning was dead calm, and the canal was flatter than piss on a plate. There was some cloud cover to keep the edge off the heat, but by mid morning it had dissipated, and it would turn out to be another sweaty, sweaty day.

We tackled another seven or eight thousand locks, including number 17 at Little Falls. This 42 footer is the tallest on the canal, and has a distinctive guillotine gate at the lower end. We were also impressed by the fact that this giant slab of infrastructure seemed to be very competently operated by a nine year old boy.

Lock 18 was another story entirely. When the lower gates opened to let us in, we were greeted by a LOT of weed in the water. The entire lock was three feet deep with the stuff, and it was dense. The Lockmeister warned us that it was just as bad above the lock, and the weed stretched out for miles ahead. I started to worry about my raw water intake, and kept one eye on the engine temperature gauge.

We made it through the lock with no issues, but if anything, the canal above the lock was even worse. I tried to weave around and find pockets of open water, but there was no open water. We tiptoed along until I noticed a slight change in the sound of my exhaust. I took a peek over the side, and found that there was less water coming through than was normal. The temperature gauge inevitably started to shift up.

I cut the engine to stop it from overheating, and set off to clear the blockage. I shut the seacock, which was as stiff and uncooperative as it usually is, and tried to get the strainer opened up. It resisted my efforts. I tried everything I could think of to get that damned thing off. I worked on it for a solid fifteen minutes, grunting and swearing and sweating, and putting all of my effort into that thing. I couldn’t get it to budge.

Meanwhile, the unpowered hulk that Sylphide had become, drifted around the canal at the mercy of the wind and current. Thankfully there was no other traffic to contend with, and no other scary obstacles to hit. I thought about dropping the anchor, but decided that we didn’t need to just yet.

After much struggle, I ran out of strength and ideas. I asked Steve if he’d care to try opening the jar of pickles, and while he did, I bravely dialed Towboat US. They told me that they didn’t have any towboats anywhere near me, but would try to find someone who did. After what seemed like a long time on hold, they connected me to a local towing service. The local towing service turned out not to be local at all, and was far enough away that he just said ‘no.’ He also told me that I wouldn’t find anyone within 50 miles in any direction, and left me with the words ‘Welp, good luck.’


I informed Steve that there was no help. With a calmness that counterpointed my loud, sweaty frustration, he replied ‘Well, I guess we’ll just have to figure it out.’ And he did. He finally defeated the globe, and pulled out a wad of seaweed the size of a baby. We laughed, we cried, we put it all back together, and we started the engine. It cooled down quickly.

We weren’t out of the woods yet, though. A few hundred yards further down the canal, with the weed as dense as ever, it happened again. I as wasn’t worried this time, since we’d loosened everything up, and had a system in place. We knew how to fix it!

That was, of course, total nonsense. We opened the strainer back up, and found it empty. That meant there must be a blockage somewhere else. We decided the easiest thing to check would be the hose between the seacock and the strainer. We disassembled it, and harvested another bumper crop of vegetation. Steve also discovered that there was a chunk of rotten old wood that was the perfect size to plug up the line just inside the seacock. It was very firmly wedged in place, and he had to break it up with a screwdriver to get it out.

With the line apparently cleared, and everything put back together, we were ready to open up the seacock and try again. This turned into another obstacle. The seacock must have had some junk in it or something, because we could not get that sonofabitch to open. We worked it and worked it and worked it until I was worried I was going to break the handle off.

Finally, with all 900 pounds of me bearing down on it, and the sort of sounds that one might expect to hear from a difficult childbirth, it opened.

We fired up ol’ Perkins, set off down the canal once more, and managed to avoid the rest of the weeds.

The fiasco had cost us over an hour, and not a little of my dignity. It meant that we wouldn’t be able to make it to Sylvan Beach that night, which really didn’t matter. That goal had been a bit ambitious anyway.

So, with only two locks left to go for this part of the journey, we decided to stop at Rome. There’s a newish and decent dock there, a nice park, and even a scenic dam/weir/waterfall nearby. There was no power, or water, or plumbing, or services of any kind, but it was free, so I suppose we got what we paid for. The park was also quite a lot busier than we’d have preferred, and more of it’s clientele seemed likely to be carrying spray paint than I’d normally be comfortable with, but it was the best option available.

One benefit of the location was that it was close to home. We knew the area, and knew that there was a bangin’ pizza place nearby. We also knew that Steve’s folks were only a fifteen minute drive away, so we invited them to come be less comfortable than they would have been at home.

In the interest of keeping as cool as possible, we took the wicker chairs off the sun deck, and arranged them under a tree in the park. The result looked like some sort of Alice in Wonderland tea party. Despite our best efforts, it was still 95 in the shade, and we were all sweaty, but the company and the pizza were top notch.

Despite any misgivings about the sketchiness of our locality, we had a nice quiet and comfortable night in the Copper City.

From Rome, we only had about two hours of travel time left until we reached Oneida Lake. With that in mind we slept in a little, and were in no hurry to get underway.

The remainder of our trek was wonderfully uneventful and smooth, and no further emergency trips to the engine room were needed.

The last time I’d passed through the Sylvan Beach area, one of the ancient road bridges over the canal had collapsed, shutting down the waterway. The crew that removed it did it really quickly, and I was able to get through there without any delays, thankfully. This time through, there was a crew working on constructing a replacement bridge. Steve and I decided to brighten their day by serenading them with Whitney Houston’s ‘I wanna dance with somebody.’ We got some grins, and I was plenty happy with that.

Not long after, we found ourselves passing under another bridge. This one is known locally as the ‘Silver Car’ bridge, and it serves as a sort of finish line for our trip. We were now officially in home waters again. We celebrated thusly:

We did a slow pass of The Wall at Sylvan Beach, and decided to just continue on around the breakwall, and head over to the old beachfront anchorage, as is customary. We stuck the anchor into the sand, and jumped into the water.

It was good to be home.

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