Welcome to the next episode in our 11-part account of Muddy Paddle's narrowboat trip through the Erie Canal and the Cayuga & Seneca Canal in western New York. The New York State Barge Canal system is in many ways a tributary of the Hudson River. It still connects the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes, and Lake Champlain with the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Hudson River. Our contributing writer, Muddy Paddle, shares his experiences aboard the "Belle Mule." All the included illustrations are from his trip journal and sketchbooks.
Day 2 - Sunday
The Belle was comfortable for a boat of her size. The wood paneled cabins were warm and attractive, the layout was convenient and there was plenty of headroom. Shelving, cabinets and drawers used space efficiently and the window ports were dressed with curtains. A packet boat of the kind used on these canals before the Civil War would have been nearly twice as long, but would have carried dozens of passengers, segregated by gender and fit into bunks that could be folded away or otherwise removed during the day. Our boat cruises at about five or six miles per hour, only slightly better than its horse drawn predecessors. Mule drawn freight boats were slower.
After an infusion of coffee, we cast off our lines and headed for Lock 4 and Seneca Lake beyond. Lock 4 is in the village and takes boats up to the lake level. We radioed the lock in advance of our approach and had a green light and open gates when we arrived. I got the boat lined up nicely on the right side of the lock chamber and put the shift into neutral so I could leave the pedestal and take hold of one of the hand lines to keep the boat parallel and next to the chamber wall. Brent did the same in the bow.
We started having problems as soon as the doors closed behind us. First, the boat would begin to creep forward and Brent would yell that he couldn’t hold his line any more. I would go back to the pedestal, give the boat a few revolutions of reverse, go back to neutral and then run back to grab my line. But then the boat would creep backwards. She was living up to her name the Belle MULE!” I was grateful when the chamber was full and the gates opened at the upper end.
We encountered a stiff current carrying excess lake water east over the spillway and had to use the bow thruster to remain on course. Two miles west, we stopped at a dock and walked up to Route 20 to visit the Scythe Tree, a local point of interest with a sad story. James Wyman Johnson enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 and left his scythe in the crotch a cottonwood tree near his family’s farmhouse. He asked that it remain there until his return. He died of battle wounds in a Confederate prison in Raleigh and never returned to the farm. The tree grew around the scythe. When the United States entered World War I, two brothers living on the farm, Ray and Lynn Schaffer, enlisted, placed their scythes in another crotch of the tree and found them embedded in the tree, when unlike Johnson, they returned safely. All three scythes remain in the big tree.
We continued our cruise west into Seneca Lake and set a course for Belhurst Castle on the west shore of the lake below Geneva where we had made brunch reservations. However, we realized that it was getting late and a long brunch, not to mention the steep ascent up from the dock, would burn up hours and delay our efforts to reach Watkins Glen and find a berth. It was also beautiful weather, so we cancelled our reservations and continued our cruise, viewing the big Victorian house from half a mile out. We steered well clear of a sailboat race underway at the north end of the 36-mile long lake.
In addition to its considerable length, Seneca Lake is also more than 600 feet deep and littered with the wrecks of dozens of canalboats, steamboats and other craft from its long history of use. Many of these went down in bad weather and as a result of accidents (maybe this is why the boat rental companies prohibit their canalboats from venturing out onto the lakes….). Others were scuttled here at the end of the animal powered canal era. One of the best wrecks for divers to visit is located along our course below Geneva in Glass Factory Bay at a depth of about 115 feet. Unfortunately, visiting divers were careless some years earlier and dragged an anchor through the intact canalboat, carrying its lightly framed cabin top off the boat and over the side.
Traveling south at about six miles per hour, we reached the power plant near Dresden late in the morning and the Navy training platform in the center of the lake around 1:00 PM. The derrick-studded platform is now leased as a research facility but some years ago it represented the center of a highly classified experimental submarine warfare station and was heavily guarded by armed sentries and patrol boats. Shauna and Lora relaxed and soaked up the sun in lawn chairs set up in the bow. Women passengers aboard the packet boats were similarly offered chairs in the bow to enjoy their journeys.
Watkins Glen is located at the south end of Seneca Lake and we began making calls and using the radio in an effort to find a berth for the Belle. The most likely facility was Village Marina but we were unable to make contact. After passing several very large cruising sloops and a schooner we arrived at a rip rap breakwater protecting the marina. The radio crackled and we were told to switch to channel 66. Once there, Captain Terry, the marina manager, told us that he had a berth available. He sounded agitated. He told us to enter the basin between two drunken pilings; turn sharply right and then approach the T-dock “under spirits.” As we entered, we could see that there was very little space to maneuver and that there were plenty of big and expensive fiberglass cruisers to stay clear of. I threw the transmission into reverse to kill our momentum, spun the wheel to starboard and then crawled forward. A crowd emerged outside of the bar to watch the expected pile-up. We could see that we would need to parallel park because there was no room to turn the Belle around. A gentle breeze helped us line up and a bystander threw us a line at exactly the right moment. We made a clean landing, secured our lines and shut down the engine. A greeting committee gathered with drinks for us and we felt obliged to graciously open up the boat to them to satisfy their curiosity. One woman on her fourth martini made herself at home in the salon where she held court.
Captain Terry raced in from the lake to see if we had done any damage to the expensive boats or the docks. Seeing that we were well secured and seemingly accepted at the marina, he relaxed a little and explained that hire boats like ours make him nervous. A similar boat crashed and sank on the inside of the stone breakwater in a previous year. Recalling the incident, he said, “you know a guy is in trouble when you see his wife yelling at him, his daughter tugging on him and his mother-in-law giving him instructions as he tries to dock a big boat.”
After tidying up and gently asking Mrs. Martini to leave, we walked into Watkins Glen, explored Main St, and got bad directions to Walmart where we planned to buy groceries and ice. We returned to boat much more directly using a shortcut along the railroad tracks. Brent found that our grille had no gas, so he made a second trip to Walmart to get some so that he could grill chicken for dinner on the bow. Shauna and Lora prepared salads and rice in the galley. We set up folding chairs on the cabin top and had a relaxing dinner as the sun set. Sailing cruisers and an excursion boat sailed in and out of of the harbor with red and green running lights as it got darker. We retired to the cabin for a spirited game of Pictionary and fell asleep quickly as the sea gulls squealed overhead. We slept restfully as the Belle swayed gently to the lake swells.
Muddy Paddle grew up near the junction of the Hudson River and the Erie Canal. His deep interest in the canal goes back to childhood when a very elderly babysitter regaled him with stories about her childhood on the canal in the 1890s. Muddy spent his college years on the canal and spent many of his working years in a factory building overlooking the canal. Over the years he has traveled much of the canal system by boat and by bicycle.
Muddy Paddle's Erie Canal adventure will return next Friday! To read other adventures by Muddy Paddle, see: Muddy Paddle: Able Seaman, about Muddy Paddle's adventures on the replica Half Moon, and Muddy Paddle's Excellent Adventure on the Hudson, about his canoe trip down the Hudson River.
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