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Empty Nesters on the Erie Canal

My wife, Nancy and I have long-known the day was coming when it would be just the two of us on our annual summer boat trips.

With our two older boys, Mark and Bill, living in California, Jimmy living and working in Sayre and Michael opting out of this year's vacation to enjoy some time with his friends before he heads off to college, our boat "Family Affair" was crewed by a family of just two as we headed out on this year's journey.

As any empty nester can tell you, not having the kids around is strange.

As a boating family we've fostered many fond memories over our 15 summers traveling together on the water.

And it's not that we just miss the companionship of our kids, we also miss their help as crew members on our boat.

This year Nancy and I had to work out a whole new routine for handling our boat in the dozen or so locks we traversed. It's not uncommon to see two people manning a boat the size of ours in a lock, but for us this was pretty much a new experience. Fortunately we were blessed with good weather and extremely light boat traffic, which made it easy for us to settle into our new locking-through routine.

This year's journey retraced a trip we've made numerous times in the past to one of our favorite destinations, Kingston, Ontario.

The trip involves a journey through New York State's historic canal system from our home marina at Sampson State Park on Seneca Lake to Oswego, NY and then a 57-mile trek across Lake Ontario to Kingston.

It takes two days to get to Oswego by boat, a journey that would take just a couple hours by car. That pretty much sums up the slow-paced life of canal boating. The official speed limit is 10 mph, but at times progress can be much slower than that.

We depart Seneca Lake via the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, which is about the width of the Wyalusing Creek and 14 feet deep. Much of the journey on this canal is like traveling through a marina at idle speed due to the numerous cottage owners along the canal not wanting even the slightest wake to rock their boats docked at canal-side. Motor by these cottages too fast and you'll likely hear some obscenities directed your way.

There are four locks on the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, including the double lock at Seneca Falls, which is the only double lock on the entire canal system. A double lock means that you enter one lock chamber and then proceed directly into another after you've been lifted or lowered. When boat traffic is heavy and the lock chambers are filled with boats, negotiating the Seneca Falls lock can be tricky, especially when the wind becomes a factor.

This year, we and our traveling companions, Terry and Michelle Bonter, were the only boats in most of the locks we traversed. The lockmasters attributed the light boat traffic to the high cost of fuel and rainy summer, which earlier this summer brought flooding which closed the canal.

The locking through process is actually quite simple. We usually contact that lockmaster by radio and tell him that we're headed his way and would like to lock through. He in turn tells us how long it will be before he has the lock ready for us to enter. When the doors to the lock chamber open and the lockmaster signals it's okay to enter with a green light, it's basically a matter of finding an open space along the lock wall, securing the boat to one of the cables or ladders that run up and down the wall and waiting for the ride to begin. There's usually a little turbulence or a cross current when the lock level rises, but hardly any if you're going down.

In our case, I stay at the helm while Nancy loops one of the lock cables with a mooring line and secures us to the lock wall. Then as our boat raises or lowers with the lock level, the rope securing us slides along the cable. The only time when things can get tricky is when a stiff breeze makes keeping our boat positioned where it belongs difficult. Usually the locking through process takes about 20 minutes.

Most Erie Canal locks lift or lower boat traffic 10 or 12 feet. In some cases, however, the lift is greater such as the double lock at Seneca Falls, which I believe is nearly 50 feet and the largest on the entire canal system. While locks throughout the 524-mile canal system can accommodate vessels up to 300 feet long and 40 feet wide, the majority of canal traffic today is small pleasure boats.

When I first started boating on the canal system, it cost nothing to use the locks. Now a permit is required that costs $75 for an entire season or, in our case, $15 for a two-day pass.

New York State has invested millions of dollars into upgrading the canal system and the port facilities along the canal. Most canal towns have modern docks, nearby restroom and shower facilities and, in some cases, electric and water hookups.

At Baldwinsville, where we spent the first night of our journey, we arrived in time to hear a bluegrass concert being performed at a new outdoor amphitheater that replaced an abandoned, crumbling paper mill as part of the canal renovations. Baldwinsville also has a great canal-side restaurant within easy walking distance of its docks. The trip there from Sampson State Park takes about seven hours.

After Baldwinsville we leave the Erie Canal at Three Rivers Junction near Syracuse and enter the Oswego Canal which takes us through a series of seven locks that drop us into the city of Oswego after a 26 mile journey up the canalized river. One of the highlights of this trip is traveling along the aqueduct above the city of Oswego. Three Rivers is an important landmark on our journey because it's here, after entering the Oswego Canal that the buoys, which serve as guides to keep us in the canal's deep channel and away from shoals and sandbars, change drastically. From the beginning of our journey at Seneca Lake, we've stayed out of trouble by keeping the green buoys to our port side (left) and the red to starboard. After Three Rivers it's just the opposite, and the change has resulted in more than one boater coming to an unexpected and sometimes expensive stop.

Our trip across Ontario was rough and tiring in a following sea that kept me on my toes keeping the boat on course. And to make matters worse, our departure was delayed by a half-day when I mistakenly closed the valve supplying cooling water to our starboard engine. (I meant to close the valve to our generator). The result was an overheated engine and a melted rubber exhaust hose. The good news was we were only a short distance from Oswego when we noticed the problem, the damage was minor compared to what could have developed and we were able to do the work ourselves. So other than feeling incredibly dumb and delaying our departure, the only problem we encountered during our entire journey was thankfully relatively minor.

We always have a ball in Kingston. We stay at Confederation Basin Marina which provides easy access to the downtown. Kingston has great restaurants and shops, and this year we found our all-time favorite eatery tucked away on nearby Wolfe Island, The General Wolfe Hotel. We rode the ferry to Wolfe Island for free and walked a short distance to what turned out to be a fabulous four-star restaurant.

There are times when Nancy and I talk about giving up our summer boat trips and one of those times was our trip back across Ontario. Instead of heading directly for Oswego, our plans called for us to visit friend at Sodus Bay, NY which added another 25 miles to our journey, bringing the total distance to about 72 miles. This time we were headed into the waves, which were running three or four feet. The waves posed no danger but made for a rough ride. But the thing that we really disliked was that we were forced to don winter clothing to keep ourselves warm. It took five chilly hours on the lake to reach our destination, and when we arrived, Nancy and I agreed that we'd think twice before we spent another summer afternoon freezing on Lake Ontario.

Our trip back home included one neat surprise. Our dockmate at Sampson State Park, Wellsboro resident Sam Greene, met us at the Baldwinsville lock with cold drinks and then joined us for dinner. After a long day on the canal and then picking our way along the last couple miles with a spotlight, Sam's visit was just what we needed.

So now we're back at Sampson unpacking from our trip and enjoying the last few days of our vacation.

We always have a ball on these trips, but I suppose one of the best parts is getting back home.

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