WATERFORD - Floating at the bottom of the first lock of the Erie Canal, the Nicole Claudine barely registers my weight as I step out on the catwalk. I flail with my boathook, a six-foot pole with a hook at the end, trying to snag one of the ropes that hang at intervals along the slimy concrete wall. My husband, 10 feet away, is trying to do the same thing.
"Cut the engine now," says Captain Powell to our friend Eric Thorgerson, who's taking his turn at the helm. Then, to us flailers: "Now use the pole and twirl the line around it a few times - don't get your hands caught."
"Aye, Cap'n!" I shout, part Jack Sparrow, part Shane MacGowan of the Pogues. It just comes out.
A wan smile flickers across Powell's sunburned face. "Everybody does that," he says. "Just hang onto that line with your hook, but stay loose, so you can keep sliding as we rise to the top."
Richard Powell was an Albany police detective and a professor of criminal justice before launching the Erie-Champlain Canal Boat Co. Maybe that's where he gets the patience to train landlubbers.
The whoosh of water - 3 million gallons of it - echoes in this 300-foot-long by 50-foot-high by 80-foot-deep concrete box. The roiling surface rises fast, as in a James Bond nightmare. Gripping the line with the hook, I hold the bow close to the wall as the 42-foot, steel-plated canal boat ascends. Ten minutes later, she floats near the lip of the wall. We have successfully "locked," as they say in these parts.
Powell continues showing us the ropes, literally, running us through two locks on the Erie, then back down to the Hudson River. It's noon when we drop him at the dock.
Still tied up, we admire the red, white, and black-painted canal boat, designed in the Finger Lakes region specifically for this purpose. Inside we stow provisions and explore the knotty-pine-paneled cabin. A spacious galley holds a double sink, mini-fridge, three-burner gas stove with an oven, dining booth, and more counter space than a studio apartment. It's fully stocked with dishes and cooking gear.
Two sleeping berths, each with a double bed, toilet, and sink, can be closed off for privacy. Towels and linens are stacked on a shelf in each compartment. One of the toilets adjoins a shower - the water pressure is weak, but it works. The dining booth breaks down into a third double bed. Off the galley, cushioned seats line the bow around an umbrella table.
We cast off with a full tank of diesel fuel, included at no extra charge.
Though well established between Buffalo and Syracuse, canal tourism is still budding on the eastern end of the Erie Canal, where Powell's company is the sole outfitter. Waterford, the home port of his fleet, lies just north of Troy, in the greater Albany area. With its attractive public dock (complete with two public bathrooms and showers for boaters), Waterford marks the confluence of four waterways: the Hudson and Mohawk rivers and the Erie and Champlain canals.
Sixty-three miles long, the Champlain Canal consists of a dredged and dammed stretch of the Hudson River between Waterford and Lake Champlain. It's one of four spurs off the Erie that make up the 524-mile New York State Barge Canal, built by the state in 1903 to update the Erie, which was then 78 years old.
By the time our party - my husband, Bill Regan, and I, and Eric and his wife, Elizabeth Foote - putts away from the Waterford dock, we have worked out an itinerary: We'll navigate the first flight of locks on the Erie before cruising up the Champlain Canal, tying up Friday in Mechanicville, and docking Saturday night in Schuylerville, making the run back to Waterford on Sunday. Round-trip: about 75 miles.
Eric, a Navy veteran, handles the boat deftly through the "Waterford flight" of locks on the Erie, where boats are lifted the greatest height (169 feet) in the shortest distance in the world. After experiencing this engineering marvel, we leave the Erie's dingy water and head up the mouth of the Champlain Canal. As we chug past a cove, a great blue heron stands as still as a stick among the branches of a downed tree.
Soon, Lock C1 looms. Old hands now, we tie into the wall and ride to the top, where we find ourselves facing a perfect arc of falling water on the right - a dam in a separate channel of the Hudson. Flycatchers flit in and out of the spray.
As we nose toward Mechanicville at a clip of 8 miles per hour, average speed for the canal boats, belted kingfishers skim the placid river in front of the bow. Canada geese hug the shaded shoreline. A few miles later a sharp "cree-ee, cree-ee" announces an osprey, perched on a high-branching snag.
At 4:30 we reach Mechanicville. At the free public landing, we plug into an electrical outlet to recharge the boat's battery overnight. A kiosk points the way to local businesses and tells the story of the barge canal's cargo terminals, of which Mechanicville was one. The state built more than 50 of them in 1911 to ensure that commercial public waterfront would be available.
The town looks to be struggling, but residents, accustomed to strangers wandering up from the river, are unusually friendly. We find wonderful ice cream at Stewarts, a regional convenience-store franchise, and stroll back to the boat. After a handily cooked meal consumed on the bow deck, we retire to a silent night.
Morning brings thick air and pewter-tinged clouds. While we make coffee, a mother duck and her brood trails past the boats. We set out for Schuylerville, two locks and 16 miles north, in hopes of tying up before the predicted thunderstorm. In a steel boat, the safest place is below deck. Beyond lock C-3 the shoreline grows wilder, and we spot turtles sunning on a log.
Near Stillwater, we drift past the battlefield at Saratoga, where colonials defeated British forces in 1777. Within an hour we are relieved to pull into the Schuyler Yacht Basin. Proprietor Judy Dean, looping our bowline around a cleat, tells us that she has room, but it's wise to call ahead. The docking fee at this private marina is $1.50 per linear foot of boat length. Dean ticks through the amenities: showers, morning coffee, and toilets are included, as is garbage disposal and recycling. Bottled water, ice, and fuel can be purchased. A 15-minute walk will take us into town, where, if desired, we can catch a cab into Saratoga.
We stroll into Schuylerville, passing the site where the British officially surrendered after their defeat at Saratoga. Recovering from a post-industrial decline, the downtown sports a bookstore, an upscale home-goods shop, three art galleries, and a market. But it's Stewarts ice cream we want, and after finding it, we trudge back to the boat in parboiling air. Bill grills chicken outdoors, but a thunderclap and a spike of lightning drive us into the galley. Cold, fat raindrops begin drumming on the roof, continuing into the night.
The morning of our return trip is cooler, the river a sheet of hammered pewter. We meet a sculler, pulling upriver in a yellow boat. With the wooded shores and muted light, the scene could be an Eakins painting. But this is a canal, though a fine one, and we are in a different century, homeward bound.
Jane Roy Brown can be reached at regan-brown.com.