Thursday, August 16, 2018

Not Your Average Rest Stop

Shoulda seen the spiders
on this one!
When we're traveling by boat we tie up for the night in all kids of places.

Serene remote anchorages. Precarious lock walls. Public docks in the middle of bustling cities. Charming marinas. Grungy marinas.

Sometimes there are loads of amenities. Dockhands to take your lines.  A restaurant on premises. Sometimes there are no amenities beyond the cleats on the wall, and the only way off the boat is a rusty vertical ladder.

Take a Break from Your Drive . . . or Cruise

Last night was a first, We stayed at rest stop on the New York State Throughway.

Seriously.  Here it is, seen as we are exiting the lock the next morning.
Let me explain! Lock 13 on the Erie Canal just happens to be RIGHT next to the recently enhanced "Mohawk Valley Welcome Center" (your tax dollars at work, New Yorkers!) on the thruway near Canajoharie. 

The lock wall was a free place to stay. We were out of solar power. So we tied up.

Erie Canal themed playground for the kiddies!
After dinner, Cap (ever the gentleman) brushed aside the dime-sized spiders on the steel ladder, and we clambered six feet up the wall, then sauntered over to the rest stop to check it out.

We were expecting maybe a clean bathroom and a candy machine. 

This Place Has Everything!

But this recently refurbished visitor center is a kind of fantasy land for Erie Canal enthusiasts.

I HAVE to list all the features for you, it's so great. (Loads more photos on FB.)
  • Bollards in the parking area, so you  can pretend to tie up your land yacht
  • Gardens decorated with navigational buoys
  • Another garden featuring antique propellers
  • A vintage buoy tender (a kind of boat), pretending to float inside its own model lock
  • A playground for kids with . . .   a canal boat you can climb around on, stacks of shipping containers you can climb around on, a swing hanging from a crane, and two mules

And That's Just on the Outside

This vessel puttered from lighted buoy to buoy, refilling the
kerosene lamps and lighting them.
We wandered around, exclaiming over each fresh discovery till dark settled in. Then we went inside, where the amazement continued. 

The place was made to look like a cross between a rustic barn and an 1880s factory—if barns and factories of that era had 21st century electronic kiosks with interactive displays of the delights of New York State. And fancy coffee.
  • One wall featured a mini-Erie canal museum
  • The coffee shop was closed, but self serve—just leave two bucks in the can
  • Did I mention the superfast free wifi? 
  • And the air conditioning?
  • And yes . . . clean bathrooms

Need Any Artisanal Salad Dressing?

You know you want some maple pepitas. Even more
than a Snickers bar,
Best of all were the vending machines.  Rows of gleaming machines, filled not with stale gum and mass-market candy bars, but with a crazy variety of Upstate New York local foods. For example:

  • Milk in tiny glass bottles from a nearby dairy 
  • Maple granola 
  • Artisanal teas
  • Wedges of gourmet cheese

Stuff you would never in a million years expect to see in a vending machine, and all mighty tempting looking. 

Something for Everyone

If all that weren’t enough, the place is politically correct: three electric-car charging stations, handicapped parking spaces stenciled with the ACTIVE racing wheelchair logo, and a fenced-in dog park.

If you’re on the New York State Throughway, you gotta stop.  

Although I can’t promise you’ll see what the folks who stopped for coffee this morning saw . . .  a solar-powered canal boat--that bizarre hybrid of 19th and 21st century technologies--sliding silently out of the lock.

(I put all the best pix on FB. Check it out!)

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

We Still Didn't Sink the Boat

Aren't they stylish? The locktender stations, which date to 1918, look like the flying bridge (steering station) on a tugboat. Wonder if that's on purpose? The rounded base points upstream, the better to withstand flooding.
We're on the Mohawk River, headed west. Stayed in Amsterdam, NY last night and transited Locks 11 and 12 today.

The river is high. Both locks are next to dams, and the New York State Power Authority (which now operates the Erie Canal), has some of the dam gates open, cleaning out debris and dumping excess water. This has led to some exciting moments.

Playing Dodge'em with Tree Trunks

The view from our stern deck this morning!
For one thing, the debris being dislodged from the dams includes giant trees! They come bobbing down at us in the current.

Feels like being back on the Mississippi River, where after one torrential rainstorm, we spent a day engaged in slow-motion dodge'em with giant floating tree trunks.

Our hull is steel, but run over one of those babies and good-bye prop!

Slow Churn

Schoharie Creek dumping a load into the Mohawk River.
The water is loaded with silt. So you can see the current, racing down the channel--it's easy to see the lines of brown scummy bubbles, racing faster than the eddies in shallow water at the river's edge.

Roaring at full power, Dragonfly made a mere 2.0 to 2.8 miles per hour against the current.  We tried edging cautiously outside the marked channel, so we could go a little faster with less current.

 But Hurricane Irene did a lot of rearranging of sediments last fall.  The channel doesn't seem to be as consistently deep as the charts show. So back to slogging against the tide.

Whirlpool Ahead

Sign says, "Danger."  Duh!
As we approached Lock 11, the radio crackled to life. "Stay to the left as you approach the lock, Captain," warned the locktender. "The current could push you into the wall on the right."

The dam gates FARTHEST from the lock were open, so you'd think the lock entrance would be placid. Or at least, a little more placid than the maelstrom on the far side of the river

But a promontory bounced the water pouring down from the dam back toward the dam, where it swirled toward the lock entrance, then bounced off the 6-foot-high, 100-foot long cement wall and swept back toward the far side of the dam. A veritable whirlpool.

High Five

This is us, YESTERDAY in Schenectady.
Little did we know what today would hold!
Cap asked for a little more juice, and Dragonfly, brave canal boat, dug in a little deeper.

 Her nose swung sickeningly toward the dam . . . then back.

After some excruciatingly slow progress, we were finally in the lock. Grabbed the lines and landed safe against the wall.

"You did a good job, Captain," said the locktender.

Our end-of-day toast is going to be particularly fervent tonite.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Homeward Bound

On Sunday August 12 we. got up early and left Mechanicville, (a grim-seeming town with treeless streets, where as innocent seeming a place as the nail salon has a sign on the wall warning "No Concealed Carry").

We locked through Champlain Canal Lock 2, turned a corner, and easy as that, we were back on the Erie Canal, our home waters. From here on out we'll be traveling the same waters we boated in spring of 2011, homeward bound from our Great Loop trip.

Seems a good time to reflect on all the different canals we've cruised this summer.

The Rideau Canal 

  • Completed in 1832
  • Runs from Kingston, on Lake Ontario, north to Ottawa
  • 125 miles long (only 12 miles of this is manmade "cuts," the rest is natural rivers and lakes)
  • 45 locks, most operated by hand using the original machinery
The British built the Rideau after the war of 1812 so troops could move between Kingston and Ottawa and Montreal without cruising the Saint Lawrence River.

They were avoiding the border with that upstart new country, the United States of America, which (the British thought) might attack their vessels.

The canal's
defensive blockhouses (left) never had to fend off American attackers.

Today the Rideau is mainly used by American boaters, invading for their summer vacations.

Carillon Canal

A "guillotine gate" hangs over the massive lock
  • Completed in 1833, then enlarged in the late 1800s and again in the mid 1900s
  • Located between Ottawa and Montreal
  • Had 11 locks (each with small lifts) originally. 
  • One HUGE ultramodern lock today (right) with a 65-foot lift, next to a hydro dam
  • Lets boats bypass big rapids on the Ottawa River

The Carillon was also originally intended for military travel. Later enlargements allowed it to handle commercial traffic, mostly barges carrying logs at first.

St. Anne deBellevue Canal

  • Completed 1843, replaced a private canal built 1816
  • Located on the West Island of Montreal, at the mouth of the Ottawa River
  • Multiple locks originally, today one modern lock with a very small lift

Notice the date. What a difference a decade makes! This canal was opened just ten years after the Rideau, with the goal only of serving commercial traffic, not for defensive purposes. Today it's used only by pleasure craft and the canal waterfront anchors a street lined with lively restaurants and ice cream stands.

Lachine Canal

  • Opened in 1825 (before the Rideau!)
  • Runs through the southwest part of the Island of Montreal
  • 9 miles long with (today) 5 locks

Low bridges on the Lachine! We lowered our canopy to sneak under

This canal has always been used for commercial purposes. It let boats avoid the "treacherous" Lachine rapids, allowing easy passage from Ottawa and Montreal to the St Lawrence River and east to the ocean.

If the large number of construction cranes and rehabbing factories we saw on the banks are any indication, the canal is about to see a gentrification boom, with the lure of waterfront real estate.

Chambly Canal

  • Completed in 1843, same year as the St. Anne de Bellevue
  • Locks are on the Richelieu River, 77 miles long
  • Runs from the town of Sorel (on the St. Lawrence River east of Montreal) south toward Lake Champlain
  • 9 locks and 10 bridges (eight of which are still operated by hand with the original machinery or replicas)
Turbulence in the Chambly Locks!
The Chambly Canal, together with the Champlain Canal, which we just transited, connects Ontario and Quebec to the Hudson River Valley. 

Forget about repelling those annoying Americans! After these two canals opened, trade between the nations exploded. All those sweet little French Canadian farms in the Richlieu River valley could ship produce and goods to New York City.

Today, plied only by us pleasure craft.

Saint-Ours Canal

  • Completed in 1849
  • A single modern lock today. Sometimes called the 10th lock on the Chambly
  • Bypasses the final obstacle to navigation between the Saint Lwarence River and Lake Champlain

So there you have it: A fabulous tour of early Canadian history in 62 locks.

Hats off to Parks Canada, which operates and maintains these locks. They're parklike, well run, and the locktenders are friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable. The Rideau and Chambly Locks in particular are a living history museum, almost unchanged since they were first built.

Get yourself a pleasure craft and try it sometime. (We recommend the model called "LockMaster."

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Dredging Up the Past

First, the "Where in the World is SlowBoat? report?

Town wall in Fort Edward. Can you spot the canal boat?
We're cruising south on the Champlain Canal, toward Albany, NY. We've stopped in
  • Whitehall, where the kind marina owner opened the bar (closed on a Monday) so we could cool off on a scorching day (Thanks, Lynn!)
  • Fort Ann, where we investigated an old lock
  • Fort Edward, where we docked on the lovely town wall (right)
  • Schuylerville, where we enjoyed a visit from the McKay family. Check our "Visitors" page and plan YOUR visit!)
  • Mechanicville, for a "make and mend" day.
At the lock before Mechanicville, the lock tender warned us to watch for dredging activities as we exited.

Sure enough, one of those trademark blue-and-yellow canal authority tugs was backing and filling in the channel ahead of us, manipulating a dredging pipeline.

We maneuvered cautiously behind it and continued down the channel.

Another barge supported what looked like an oversized shipping container, painted bright cobalt blue. We assume was a bunkhouse or other support structure for the workers.

Water get extracted from the dredged material and returned
to the river.
On the shore, we could see a wide flexible pipe gushing water back into the river. It was drainage from the dredging spoils that had been pumped up onto the land.

More Dredging Ahead?

We believe this dredging effort was simply to maintain the depth of the navigation channel.  But some wrangling between New York State and the federal government could result in resumed dredging to remove a carcinogen from Hudson River sediments.

PCBs in the Hudson

This stretch of the Hudson River, above Albany, looks placid and pastoral. We haven't passed many factories, and we certainly  haven't seen obvious pollutants gushing into the river.

But in 1984, the EPA declared the river—from just above Fort Edward to New York City--a SuperFund Site. Pollution from multiple sources contributed to this drastic designation but one of the biggest contributors was GE. Between 1947 and 1977, its  transformer factories in Fort Edwards and Hudson Falls--discharged (by most estimates) 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the river.

These chemicals (which are banned from use these days) can cause a discouraging array of medical problems: neurological disorders, hormonal disruptions, depressed immune system, a variety of cancers, and more.  Over the past decades, the discharged PCBs didn’t sit there, inert, on the river bottom. They worked their way up the food chain (fro what to what), getting=ng more concentrated in organisms higher up the chain.
When we docked at Schuylerville, a little boy on the boat next to us was gleefully pulling sunfish out of the river . . . and his grandfather would take them off the line and toss them back in. Every boat launch and dock you can see signs warning you not to eat the fish you catch.
There’s risk not just from eating fish but from drinking the water, or breathing the air near a heavily contaminated river.
For wildlife (what can PCBs do to them?)
The good news is that after years of extensive—and expensive—remediation, the EPA declared a successful cleanup.  There were cleanup efforts in 1977-78, in 1991, then the 2009 and 2011-2015. Mostly paid for by GE. (How much did it cost?) 1.6 billion
The cleanup is considered one of the largest and most complex environmental dredging projects ever conducted in the United States. 

Friday, August 10, 2018

What IS It?

The "What IS It?" quiz brings you photos of obscure or confusing objects.  You guess what it is.  If you're right, you win:

  • Recognition on this blog
  • A tacky postcard, sent to you via good old-fashioned snail mail
  • The satisfaction of being right!
OK, let's get guessing. Today's quiz takes us back to Ottawa and that shady tunnel where we queued up to descend the Rideau Canal's triumphant finale, a spectacular flight of 8 locks.

We had to wait for an hour and half, since other boats were coming up the lock. Plenty of time to explore the underpass.

Not For Tying Up the Boat

We spotted this chain hanging down the wall.

It was hanging in a little recess--a vertical trough cut into the cement.

On the other side of the overpass was another chain, exactly the same.

So, What IS It? (Other than being a chain, that is.) 

Look closely. Yup, it's a chain, all right!
Why does this overpass have random chains hanging down the walls?

Write your answer on an iRocker Cruiser inflatable paddle board and send it to . . . oh, wait, we're on a boat, you can't send us mail.  

Use the comment function below, or visit the SlowBoat Facebook page and make your guess there.

You could be our next lucky winner!