11 Erie Canal: Tonawanda, NY to Pittsford, NY

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The turn from the Niagara River to the Erie Canal is flanked by some very upscale condos. They reflected the theme of the marinas we passed and we expected more of the same as we entered the canal. We were heading for the Wardell Boat Yard to have our mast pulled for the canal transit. Our expectations were high since we had learned that most of the sailboats have their masts handled there. About a half-mile up the river and just prior to the first low bridge we found Wardell’s.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Wardell’s is a 5-picture layout. Space doesn’t permit the word detail needed to do Wardell’s justice. Use your imagination. Here are the picture captions, and some highlights of a unique boat yard. Picture 1: Boat yard overview. Note that none of the docks are level. Note that not only the docks, but the entire marina seems to be sinking into the canal. Note the miscellaneous boat engine, shop equipment and boat chunks laying around in the boat yard. Picture 2: Inside shot of covered boat slips. Note the temporary shoring and shims bracing other temporary shoring and shims that brace beams that appear to have been shimmed when the structure was first built. There are other details, but getting out before the roof comes down seemed prudent. Picture 3: Interior of the office/store. Looks like an earthquake, maybe 10 years ago, shook up the contents. Nothing has since been straightened or dusted. Picture 4: Long shot of the mast crane. If you’ve seen the movie Mad Max, you’d swear that this was in the movie. You first notice the unique curve at the upper end of the derrick. Then you realize that the entire 50-foot derrick was hand welded in a unique triangular fashion. The white paint job, probably done in 1950 or earlier stands out, as does the wrapping of Christmas tree lights. Picture 5: Close up of mast crane chassis. Note 4X4 blocks at wheels because there are no brakes. Note cut tire sidewall and inner tube ballooning out ready to pop. Note unique vertical steering column now on outside of frame, you steer from the ground, if your not careful you could run yourself over. Note miscellaneous batteries strapped under frame, and miscellaneous axles on top for counter weights. If we hadn’t seen the crane in action, we’d bet it wouldn’t work.

Dennis Wardell was as unique as the marina. He was the entire marina staff. He explained he would have trouble getting to us because it was the Labor Day Weekend and he had to pump gas. We told him we were not in a hurry and if necessary, maybe we could help by pumping gas while he got the crane ready. He took an instant liking to us as we did to him. Later that same afternoon he found a way to fit us in and pull the mast.

Linda and Steve came from Newark to helps build mast supports. Steve brought 2X4’s, plywood and battery powered tools. Ruth and Linda went off to refurbish Ruth’s paperback supply while Steve and I had a great time figuring out the mast supports. Two hours later we had the fore and aft mast supports fabricated and in place. Steve and I were quite proud of our handiwork. The supports were very light compared to most I’ve seen and yet very strong and stable.

A loop of rope goes down from the crane hook and around the mast below the spreaders. It’s tail drops down and is tied off the gooseneck where the boom attaches. The loop keeps the mast vertical, the end around the gooseneck does the lifting. Dennis Wardell took up the slack and began to lift. Nothing happened. He lifted some more and you could sense that the crane was trying to lift the boat. There was a pop as the mast came free and the boat settled back into the water. Ruth and Linda guided the mast from below out through the deck hole. Steve and I guided from above and then tipped the mast to get it horizontal. It weights about 800 pounds, so we proceeded cautiously. 10 minutes later and we had the mast horizontal on its two new mast supports.

The next morning Steve and Linda headed home and Ruth and I started into the canal. Ruth had been dying of curiosity to see what was around the next bend beyond the first bridge ever since we pulled into the canal. The banks were lined with modest cottages for a way. The cottages gave way to wilderness and we found ourselves alone on the canal. It is a very smooth and pleasant ride.

Our first major locks were at Lockport. Two locks, The first opens directly into the second and you go down 50 feet in two 25-foot drops. They have cables rigged from top to bottom in each lock. All we had to do was loop our dock lines around one of the cables and hold the boat steady as we were lowered. Once down, we stopped for the evening to explore the locks and town.

The contrast between the very old canal and ‘new’ 1920 vintage canal is very apparent in Lockport. Along side the double lock we had gone through are the old locks that are no longer in use. There were 5 locks previously. They were very narrow, and didn’t have much depth. Now they are a 5-waterfall cascade in the overall lock structure.

For the next 60 miles there weren’t any locks, but there are 15 lift bridges. The bridge tenders were great. As we approached each bridge, it was lifted. The tender would then call ahead to alert the next bridge. This was especially helpful since some of the bridge tenders work two and three bridges and they coordinated so we didn’t have to wait.

As we came into Brockport, we told the bridge tender we were stopping there for the night. He proceeded to give us the town welcome. Brockport provided free pumpouts and electricity. We were also welcome to go over to the firehall and use their showers and restrooms; nice hospitality. We went on a search for ice cream cones. Found them at a shop that also had terminal where you could rent time to surf the Internet. We settled for ice cream.

Our boating habits changed when we hit the canal. Normally the first thing we do in the morning is to check the weather for wind direction and wave conditions. Before we leave the dock, we always closed all the hatches and moved items that would fall if the boat heeled. On the canal, we didn’t bother. Even if it’s windy there is little wind on the canal because of the trees along both shores. Waves are none existent. Hatches were left open and nothing had to be moved.

We were now traveling during the week after Labor Day and we had the canal to ourselves. Encountered a few other boats going east, but for the most part we were always alone on the canal. The scenery was delightful. Wilderness would give way to a small town, which would give way to wilderness. A few cottages near towns would quickly fade away back to traveling down a tree-lined lane.

Occasionally we passed areas where the canal was higher than the surrounding countryside. Through breaks in the trees, we were looking out over beautiful farmland.

Our biggest surprise was Rochester. As we came into the city area, the canal was cut into low hills so there was a high vertical wall on each side. Only the bridges over the canal with heavy traffic gave you a hint that you were in a major population center. As we came into Pittsford the shoreline park across from a little shopping area we used to enjoy appealed to us and we stopped. It was a convenient spot for visiting our kids and we stayed for a number of days.

The park in Pittsford didn’t get much use. People seemed to prefer the opposite side with the shops. We loved the privacy of not having people walking by all the time. The ducks, which seemed to have taken over the park were not be real happy with our presence. They initially left a wide space around the boat. They would scatter noisily whenever we came or left. After a few days, they began to settle back in near the boat, and we only got a few grumbles and minimum movement to let us pass. If we had stayed for a few more days, I think that we would have been stepping over them.

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