WPSU

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Ten Years Canallin'


It’s hard to believe, but true: We recently celebrated 10 years as “canawlers.” That’s the old-timey name for the owners and pilots of an Erie Canal boat. How does time fly away so fast?

Ten years ago, in August of 2009, we were kayakers. We had zero experience piloting a powerboat. 

Our adventure started when Cap, being a kind and thoughtful son, had the idea to rent a houseboat for a few days, to give his parents a nice little vacation on the Erie Canal. (Read the story here.)

Nine months later—the ordinary gestation time for a human infant, but extraordinarily fast preparation for a trip that most experienced boaters spend years planning—we owned that rental boat, a 14-ton, 41-foot-long, steel-hulled replica of an Erie Canal packet boat. 

Has it really been 10 years since we hoisted a glass of champage with Mid-Lakes Marina friends
before leaving on the Great Loop?
We’d outfitted her to travel on solar power. We’d taken an online boating class. And we were departing to travel the Great Loop, a 6,000-mile circumnavigation around eastern North America.

We Know Every Inch of the Way . . .

This summer’s cruise wasn’t quite so grand in scope. But it was satisfying in its own way. 

The Erie Canal runs from Albany to Buffalo. We’d cruised the eastern end of the canal from our home port in Macedon all the way to the canal’s terminus in Albany. But we’d never been all the way west, to Buffalo.

We’d also never explored the Cayuga-Seneca canal, though we’d cruised past the junction in the Montezuma marshes many a time. 

This branch canal takes you from the Erie all the way down 40-mile-long Cayuga Lake to Ithaca, New York . . . where Cap once taught at Cornell University.

So  . . . check! and check! We achieved our goals. And had a wonderful time doing it, with loads of boat visitors to share the fun.
We're so grateful to everyone who took the time to visit us this summer . . . we had a blast boating with you!
Not Newbies Anymore

It was a beautiful summer . . . 
 When we departed on our Great Loop Cruise, we were innocents abroad. Cheryl Strayed on a boat. Sure, we’d taken that online course, but we didn’t really know a whole lot about boating.

Everything was new and fresh and exciting: how do you go through a lock? Navigate out of sight of land? Set the anchor? Land at a dock when the wind is pushing you off? Handle your vessel in four-foot swells? Read a tide table?

It feels a little odd to realize how far we’ve come. Now we’re, um, sorta, experts. 

Cap has more hours at the tiller than some licensed captains. We’ve crossed the Gulf of Mexico, piloted the Mississippi, rescued other boats, rescued ourselves when the anchor line wrapped around the propeller or the bow bunny went overboard.

Hold that image . . .  till next summer!
It would be easy to feel jaded. But I’m working to hold to that sense of freshness and wonder, that every day brings something new.

This past weekend was the autumnal equinox. The days are getting shorter. This week we are stowing and cleaning, getting Dragonfly ready for winter storage. 

And the new adventures do keep coming. This winter, we’ll be working as ranger-naturalists in two national wildlife refuges in Texas.

Next summer on the canal? Stay tuned!


Thursday, September 19, 2019

What IS It?

The summer is over. Our cruise to Buffalo and back is over. But here's one more installment of the SlowBoat "What IS It? quiz.

The picture at right was taken near Pittsford, NY, when we were cruising with friends Clare and Doug. We spotted this odd watery phenomenom in one of the little side channels you see all along the canal.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Last Muleskinner on the Erie


The blog has been on hiatus while we were at our internet-free family camp in MA. Now we’ll catch you up on the final days of our August cruise to Buffalo.

Mon., Aug 26th: From the old salt port of Holley, we puttered our way east under sunny skies to dock in the college town of Brockport, where earlier in the month we’d enjoyed the local street festival and duck race

A mule sculpture stands sentinel at the Brockport Visitor Center
As we got ready to depart next morning, a woman, her six-year-old grandson, and a young man strolled up to watch. They had the usual questions about our solar panels. Noting how our boat resembled an old-fashioned Erie Canal boat, the young man remarked, “I was the last mule skinner on the Erie.”

How Is This Possible?

Mules were phased out as a canal boat power source by the 1920s, when the expanded Erie Barge Canal opened. Towboats powered by internal combustion engines pushed big rafts of barges along the wider, deeper new canal.

So. No mules after 1920. This guy was not 110 years old. Tell us about your mule skinning days, please!
19th-century mule team on the Erie . . . 
It seems that this man’s father had an Erie Canal-themed restaurant in Medina, the Apple Grove Inn. The sprawling but cozy establishment, with reproduction apple trees "growing" inside the building, was quite the local attraction. From 1988 onwards, till the restaurant closed in 2004, a reproduction canal boat was docked out front--so patrons could take a ride.

And yep, that canal boat was mule-drawn. Our new friend had the job of supervising the mules, walking behind them along the towpath. (Pix and more info here.)

Skinner or Not Skinner?

Now, to quibble just a tiny bit, the person who supervises the team of mules that pulls a canal boat is not, strictly speaking a mule-skinner. The official title for this iconic Erie Canal job is hoggee (rhymes with “boggy”).

Often, the hoggee was just a boy, maybe about 10 years old, barefoot and wearing overalls and a straw hat. It was a terrible job: working long hours, walking long distances, for little pay and sometimes, lots of abuse from the captain.

In contrast to a hoggee, a mule skinner is someone who drives a mule-drawn wagon. Sits up on a seat. Holds the reins. The name mule skinner is said to come from the unpleasant practice of whipping stubborn mules till they bleed. OK, put that thought from your mind right now.

Yet . . . it sounds romantic, doesn’t it? “Last Muleskinner on the Erie.” You can almost see the melancholy oil painting, showing the tired boy prodding his team under a lowering sun in a cloudy sky.

You can almost hear the sad drumbeat of a dirgelike poem. “That’s the last muleskinner, trudging along the canal. . . “

I bet he’s used that line on LOTS of girls. I wonder if it worked?

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

What I'm Reading


I love to read books that connect to the places I’m traveling. On this trip, both Cap and I read Salt, by Mark Kurlansky. It’s a sprawling history-of-the-world through the lens of humanity’s quest for salt.

We knew that the Erie Canal made it convenient and cheap to ship goods around the northeast. We knew that apples, grain, and lumber were important canal cargos. But we DIDN’T know how important salt was to the development and success of the canal.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Making a Home with Cobblestones


As we headed back east from Buffalo, we flagged the village of Albion as a place to stop. 

The Cobblestone Museum was just three miles north of the boat dock—easy biking distance

Cobblestone Museum . . . hmm. It’s NOT a geology museum for the fist-sized, rounded stones dropped across upstate New York by retreating glaciers.

But there ARE plenty of cobblestones here! They’re embedded in the walls of houses—a bit of Erie Canal-centric folk architecture.