The boats were ours, Sunset Cloud, a red-hulled American Tug, and our friend’s Carole H, a blue-hulled American Tug. The canals were the Erie Canal and Canada’s Trent-Severn Waterway (with several connecting rivers, lakes, and a bit of ocean thrown in). The locks were numerous and amazing.
On June 10, 2006, my husband and I left our slip in Chesapeake Bay and headed north with our friends for a grand tour. We were prepared with a full load of diesel, charts, groceries, passports, lines, fenders, and a courtesy flag. And, of course, cash and a credit card.
Let me explain some of my terminology. Our boat used diesel instead of gasoline. (Most boats do.) The charts were both paper and electronic and included the maritime GPS installed on the roof that connected to our Plot Charter. Lines, called ropes on land, were to attach ourselves to shore overnight and essential to traversing the locks. The fenders, also called bumpers, were inflated rubber or synthetic bladders (tied to the boat rail with more line) that kept the hull from rubbing the side of the lock (or other boats and similar obstacles as well). The courtesy flag was a small Canadian flag, the red maple leaf on a white field, necessary to fly from the bow of the boat while in Canadian waters.
Since my purpose is to show (and tell) you about those amazing locks, I could say our trip from Chesapeake Bay into the Atlantic Ocean, then to New York Harbor, past the Statue of Liberty, and up the Hudson River was uneventful but that would be a total lie. We had Auto Pilot outages (forcing one of us to handle the wheel in mid-ocean umm, make that occasionally out of sight of land). We had photo-op views as we passed under bridges, watched commuter trains on one side of the Hudson and freight trains on the other, and all manner of oddities that included the back side of billboards. A few times we even saw that our position, shown with less than pin-point accuracy on the Plot Charter, would indicate that our boat was traveling on land.
Of course, with an average speed of six knots (nautical miles per hour – each one slightly longer than a mile by automobile) this all took several days. We stopped at various marinas along the way, met a mix of interesting boaters, walked into various towns for meals and provisioning, and tried the specialty of every ice cream shop we found. We encountered our first lock on June 16, Troy Lock, a federal lock that took us to the Erie Canal. Yes, that same Erie Canal of song and myth.
Our first day on the Erie Canal took us non-stop through five locks that lifted us thirty and thirty-five feet each, for a total of 150 feet. (Did I ever get used to deliberately going into a cavern with solid, mucky walls, looking up to the bit of sky while wondering if we’d really arrive at the top? Did I ever worry about what would could happen should the gates in front of us malfunction as they slowly opened by inches to allow torrents of water to descend and fill that cavern? Well, sure. But did it help to learn that was the most lift in the shortest distance anywhere in the world?)
Except for that flight of five, most locks were beside a dam, built to take advantage of the terrain to supply electricity. Usually our path was clearly marked so we wouldn’t absent-mindedly wander into the turbulant spillway. Since our speed was little more than the bikers we saw on the Canalway Trail, it took another two days before the locks began lowering us. After a day of that, we left the Erie Canal to head north. On one of our overnight stops, Sylvan Beach, we discovered a city-run year-round festival. (Tourist op.) That evening we also discovered we needed to find the closest full-service marina for essential repairs to the head. (Any non-boaters who don’t know that term? I’m not sure why the water closet/bathroom/loo is called a head. Backwards terminology, if you ask me.)
After a couple of days we rejoined Carole H and headed further north on the Oswego Canal/River. More locks. We were getting good at positioning our fenders for maximum protection from wet and dirty lock walls and slipping a line around cables, or looping the line over ballards or cleats on the land to keep us in place as our boat floated up or down. Finally, we reached Lake Ontario, where we crossed into Canada. Signing in was easy. We telephoned for permission, placed our document number in the window, and put our courtesy flag at the bow. In Canada, we turned into temporarily road-bound tourists. Our group of six (the Carole H crew included two young teen boys) rented a van and took a lay day (that’s boat for don’t move the boat but do something else, more usually involving rest or repairs). Those boys were ice hockey players and fans, so we visited the Toronto Ice Hockey Hall of Fame. (More photo ops and souvenir shopping for two of our grandchildren also into ice hockey.)
Finally, we were on the Trent Severin Waterway. We thought we knew locks. You motor into an enclosed space, loop a line around something, and keep yourselves in place as the gate closes electrically behind you, water flows in or out, then, when the gate in front opens, you steam out the opposite end at a new level. Piece of cake. Sorta. And, truth to tell, on many of the locks on the Trent Severin Waterway we followed exactly the same procedure. But some locks are engineering marvels of strange and beautiful complexity that prove an old adage Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
First, consider the hidden electrical connection that operates the gates those large pieces of structure that are mostly water-tight when closed and keep water from flowing through either end of the lock. Many of the gates in Canada were opened and closed with a combination of hidden gears and man (or woman) power. Think pre-electricity mills, grinding grain. Back then mills were often placed beside a stream with water wheels providing the power. But without the water, did they have oxen, yoked to a bar so they could walk in a circle to turn the wheels and gears that powered the mill? That is exactly the procedure in several of the locks we encountered. There were metal bars in a V-shape with convenient hand-holds for the lock tender to push in a circle, a most efficient method to open and close a gate. (My hubby helped one day when there was only one attendant at the lock.)
One of our first locks was, according to the sign, fifteen miles from anywhere. The crew left in the evening using the only land access, a non-public road, after giving us the keys to their office so we could use the facilities inside. The next day we had our first experience with a joint lock. Looked like any other lock at first. We motored into the area, tied up, were raised, the gate in front of us opened to another lock. So we moved thirty feet into that to be lifted even higher. That was the day I discovered my new hooded jacket wasn’t really a rain coat at all—just looked like one!
We traveled through lakes dotted with mini-islands each one sporting a summer cottage, a tree or two, a boat mooring, and, if it was large enough, a lawn or perhaps even a tennis court. We followed connecting rivers and more locks. And arrived at Peterborough Marina on the last day of June. The marina adjoined the Del Crary Park, and excellent place to spend the next day, July 1, Canada Day. We watched the parade from the street in front of the marina, visited the festivities, lunched at the international food bazaar at the park, and, that night, watched fireworks from our boat roof (until the rain, thunder, and lightening chased the noisy crowd away).
The Peterborough Lift Lock is one of those engineering marvels. We took a second lay day to look at it and take pictures. We watched with great interest as a tour boat, full of tourists went up and other boats came down to go the opposite way. The next day was our turn. We followed Carole H into the U-shaped spot and were lifted, securely floating in our box of water, all the way up to find ourselves on top of the hill with the open river in front of us.
On July 4th several friendly Canadians wished us a happy Independence Day. At a Bobcaygeon bakery a man insisted on treating us to the local specialty, Chelsey buns. (They were similar to the sticky buns of Pennsylvania.) We went through more lakes, narrow canals and rivers. And more locks. Finally, we arrived at Big Chute. We took a lay day to check this one out as well. Big Chute had no box of water to float the transported boats. It does start with a U-shaped spot to pull into, but the boats are pulled out of the water by straps running underneath, lifted onto a platform and carefully positioned to remain steady and upright. The platform is big enough for large boats, or two or three smaller ones, so we rode along with Carole H. Our ride took us over a road (with the lowered gates keeping automobile traffic backed up as if they were at a train crossing). Then we were lifted over a hill and our platform was attached to something that looked like a boat launch, except that it was perhaps a hundred or more feet long and sloped rather quickly down into the water below. Rather strange to be traveling in the trees. But nothing spilled (although I didn’t go out of my way to position something tippy or spilly to test it out).
We had more adventures headed out into Georgian Bay (can you say “heavy winds,” or “banged the hull on a rock”). We stopped at Henry’s Fish Camp on a very rocky island (a must place where everything, and I mean everything including lobster tail, was deep fried). At Tobermory we were introduced to beaver tails, a large, flat treat made of donut dough and topped with your choice of almost everything. Yum!
Since we were in a lake we had no more locks for a while. We stopped at several places known for their beaches. We heard that rains had destroyed Lock 10 on the Erie Canal and we would have to leave our boat behind and return for Sunset Cloud after the lock was repaired. We continued much more of our trip, but as we were going a circle route in Canada, we wouldn’t return to those unusual locks. One highlight of our time in Canada was our stop at Kincardine. There we heard the story of a boat lost in a storm and the ship’s captain who decided to play his bagpipes as he went to his death. However, a piper at Kincardine heard and answered his pipes, and led him to safety. Now, every night at sunset a piper climbs to the top of the lighthouse and plays his (or her) bagpipes. We stayed there an extra day, taking sunset pictures of the waterfront from a high position in town while we listened to the bagpipes.
Norma Huss writes mystery inspired by her boating days and placed in Chesapeake Bay. Her latest book is Death of a Hot Chick. Naturally, it involves a boat, Snapdragon. The protagonist is Cyd, a young widow trying to survive, who is confronted with the boat owner’s ghost. “Find my killer!” the ghost demands. In exchange, Cyd will own Snapdragon. Not so easy to solve a murder with too much help from family and friends. Not too safe either, especially when Cyd wonders: Was the killer’s target his victim or her boat?
Norma’s website is http://www.normahuss.com