Two of our founding fathers, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, proposed canals for internal improvement of our waterways, much as the Dutch and English had done in Europe. It was not until 1825, when Gov. Dewitt Clinton poured a keg of Lake Erie water into New York Harbor, which he transported via the newly completed Erie Canal from Buffalo, that American engineers and laborers solved the puzzle of building a modern canal with locks on our side of the Atlantic Ocean.
In 1903, construction began on expanding Clinton's Erie Canal and also adding new canals to accommodate barges that would ferry cargoes from the Great Lakes to ocean-going freighters in New York City. This Barge Canal was the primary form of transport for bringing bulk commodities, such as grain, from the Midwest to market prior to World War II. Eventually, railroads and trucks began to move these products to their final destinations, and the Barge Canal's commercial traffic slowly withered away.
The Barge Canal was renamed the New York State Canal System in 1992, and the public New York State Canal Corporation, which operates and maintains the canals, developed a new focus: Now, pleasure boats, tour boats, cruise ships, canoes and kayaks comprise the majority of vessels that ply the waters of the legendary Erie and the Champlain, Oswego and Cayuga-Seneca canals that now constitute the 524-mile New York State Canal System. And if you are looking for a great way to spend a summer vacation, whether on your own boat or chartering a boat, the days spent exploring the Empire State by water will be an adventure not soon forgotten.
Start Your Journey: NYC to Albany: Using New York City and the mouth of the Hudson River as your point of departure, cruise upriver to Waterford, which is about three miles north of the Troy Federal Lock. The Troy Lock and its dam mark the northern range for tidal waters of the Hudson River estuary. Donovan's Shady Harbor Marina in New Baltimore, N.Y., just south of Albany, is a good layover point for preparations prior to entering the canal system and includes provisioning, fuel, canal passes and repairs.
Continue north toward Vermont: North will take you 60 miles upriver to Whitehall on the Vermont border. At Whitehall you can continue up the Hudson River, past Fort Ticonderoga and on to Lake Champlain. If you are quite adventurous you can carry on farther north by boat to Montreal.
West along the Mohawk River Valley: West will take you into the Eastern section of the Erie Canal. It is 130 miles to Oneida Lake from the Hudson River cruising through the scenic Mohawk River Valley. After transiting the 21-mile-long Oneida Lake, you will arrive at Three Rivers, the junction of the Seneca and Oswego rivers.
At Three Rivers, of course, you will have three choices: go north, go south or go west?
North to Lake Ontario: North will take you into the Oswego Canal and the 24-mile journey to Lake Ontario. That Great Lake offers a wide variety of options for recreational boating. A cruise to Toronto perhaps? Sailing west along Lake Ontario from the Oswego Canal will eventually place you at the mouth of the Niagara River. It is probably best not to venture too far upriver here, for if you make it past the rapids and whirlpools, you will be sitting right under Niagara Falls jockeying for the best views with the Maid of the Mist fleet. Instead, carry on west past the Niagara River to Port Weller, which is the northern terminus for the Welland Canal. Unlike the Erie Canal, the Welland Canal is used very heavily by commercial traffic and you will be competing with Great Lakes freighters for lock space. But your perseverance will be rewarded at Port Colborne, the canal's southern end, which is on Lake Erie just a little over 20 miles west of Buffalo.
South to Syracuse: South will take you to the northern end Onondaga Lake, and the city of Syracuse is just five miles away at the southern end of the lake.
West to Finger Lakes Region: West will take you into the Central section of the Erie Canal. It is 40 miles to the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in the heart of the Finger Lakes region.
South to the Finger Lakes Region: South will take you into the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, which leads to the two largest Finger Lakes: Cayuga and Seneca. The Finger Lakes Region is known for its vineyards and wineries. Ithaca is at the south end of Cayuga Lake, and it is the home of Cornell University. Its alma mater, Far Above Cayuga's Waters is one of the most well-known college songs. Watkins Glen, at the south end of Seneca Lake, hosts a must-see NASCAR race every summer.West to Buffalo: West will take you to into the western section of the Erie Canal. It is 60 miles to Rochester and the Genesee River, which flows into Lake Ontario. Cruising another 60 miles west to Lockport is the famous Flight of Five Locks, which is currently being restored to its historically accurate1862 splendor. Less than 20 miles west of Lockport is the end of the Erie Canal at Black Rock along the Niagara River. Just make sure you turn to port when entering the Niagara River. A port turn will take you onto Lake Erie, while a turn to starboard will eventually lead you over Niagara Falls like a daredevil in a barrel.
My general rule of thumb is Father's Day to Labor Day. I have transited the Erie Canal the first week in June and wore ski gloves and a sock hat while chipping the ice off the deck in the morning. The cool, crisp days of autumn after Labor Day can be very enjoyable as long as you wear long pants and a squall jacket. And if you can pick the right stretch of Indian Summer days, you will be rewarded with blazing fall colors.
Cruising the New York State Canal System is not about the destination but about what you experience along the way. The boathandling skills you learn and polish while locking through, the fun of tying up along the wall just outside a lock for the night and exploring the old Rust Belt towns of New York are all memorable. While time and progress may have passed these areas by, the history, festivals, scenery and hospitality will keep you coming back until you have cruised every single mile of the 524 miles of canals.
The New York State Canal System offers charter options on each canal segment. Houseboats, trawlers and even pontoon boat-camper rigs are available for rent. Most boats are in the 24-foot to 34-foot range. But 42-foot English-style narrowboats are available too. For more information visit canals.ny.com
Capt. Jeff Werner has been in the yachting industry for over 25 years. In addition to working as a captain on private and charter yachts, both sail and power, he is a certified instructor for the USCG, US Sailing, RYA and the MCA. He is also the Diesel Doctor, helping to keep your yacht's fuel in optimal condition for peak performance. For more information, call 239-246-6810, or visit MyDieselDoctor.com. All Marinalife members receive a 10% discount on purchases of equipment, products and supplies from Diesel Doctor.