September 2, 2007

Ship's Log - Canajoharie


Duncan Hay joins us, as a crew member for several legs of our journey, from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, and is a former curator of industrial and maritime history for the New York State Museum.

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Photo by Elisa Nelson
Misty Morning in Little Falls

September 2, 2007

We woke up Sunday morning shrouded in thick mist. Those who slept on deck had bedding wet with dew.

Before getting underway we took advantage of the pump-out at Little Falls Harbor. Old time canalers simply used a bucket and tossed the contents over the side but Lois McClure and the Churchill are equipped with marine toilets and holding tanks. Although we all try to use shore facilities as much as possible and take it easy on the tanks, the prospect of them filling up provides an incentive to pump out frequently. You'd think that a process that is so common among boaters and potentially unpleasant/unhealthful if anything went wrong, would be fairly standardized. Yet it seemed that every pump-out station along the canal had equipment made by different manufacturers, slightly different operating procedures, and odd sized fittings (assuming that the fittings hadn't been stolen or pitched into the canal by some merry prankster). No pump-out exercise would be complete without Erick and Kerry rooting around for wrenches, pipe fittings, nozzles, pipe dope, and, as a last resort, duct tape, that might be used in some combination to suck the nasty stuff out of our tanks and into pipes leading to some nice sewage treatment plant on shore. Little Falls gave us every opportunity to exercise plumbing ingenuity and the position of the pump intake on the wall required that we cast off and spin the boats around in order to get at all three tank fittings. It took more than an hour to finish the task - so long that we had all run out of lame jokes and puns relating to bodily functions and snakes swallowing mice. By then the fog had burned off and the flotilla was ready to head east.

Photo by Kerry Batdorf
The best set of pump out fittings ever!

Handling the hose and standing around while the pump did its work offered a chance to spend a long time looking at the river and thinking about water quality. It was striking how clear the water was. On shore, domestic and municipal sewage is being far more effectively treated than it was just a few years ago. Farmers are working to reduce agricultural runoff. Industrial pollution is much diminished, in part because manufacturers are cleaning up their acts and sadly, in part, because there is much less industrial activity and gainful employment in the canal corridor than there used to be. Still, that river water above Little Falls seemed unnaturally clear.

It was. Zebra mussels started appearing in Lake St. Clair near Detroit in 1988 and spread rapidly through the Great Lakes and connecting waterways. Native to the Russia and the Caspian Sea, they were probably carried in larval form across the Atlantic in ballast or bilge water of an oceangoing freighter. Soon, massive colonies of fingernail sized mussels began to develop wherever passing currents would bring food their way. Water supply and power plant intakes, lock valves, and canal walls were favorite spots. The first thing that people noticed was that masses of shell were constricting flow. Shipwrecks and other underwater features were encrusted and obscured. Recently, the water has become noticeably clearer. Zebra mussels are filter feeders. They anchor themselves where moving water delivers plankton, algae and other food right to their doors. Less brown and green matte in suspension makes the water column considerably clearer, but that's not necessarily good news. Clearer water means that sunlight penetrates deeper and illuminates more of the bottom. That, in turn, has prompted the growth of luxuriant beds of underwater grasses and other aquatic vegetation that is encroaching on the channel and can make a firm knot around a boat's propeller or rudder.

I had a chance to contemplate all that as the McClure backed away from the wall at Little Falls and narrowly avoided getting stuck in the weeds on the opposite side of the river as the Oocher and Churchill worked together to get her spun around and headed back downstream. Elisa and I were working as shore bound advance party that day. We were to drive on ahead in a pair of minivans with exhibits, tents, and ship's store merchandise and have things set up when the boats slipped into Canajoharie that afternoon. But first, a stop at a Little Falls drug store for batteries, film, and that all-important institution: a copy of the Sunday New York Times to be passed to the crew at the next lock.

We then drove on to Lock 17, the highest single lift lock in the system (highest in the world for many years after it was completed in 1915). Lock 17 is always a good place to watch boats go by and take pictures, especially if you have morning light. Lots of folks were there ahead of us along the railing. One guy had been waiting two hours for the McClure to pass through.

Photo by Elisa Nelson
Packed Into Lock 17

We got more of a show than we had bargained- for. Lois, Churchill, and the Oocher came through the gorge, around Profile Rock and slid into place along the south wall of the lock. We passed over the newspapers, exchanged pleasantries, then looked up to see a far larger vessel lining up to enter the lock. It was the tug Herbert P. Brake pushing a battered steel deck scow. The lock operator decided to lock LCMM's flotilla and the Brake through together, possibly to conserve water, possibly to just see if it could be done. The scow filled the entire width of the lock chamber and it was taller than the deck of the McClure. Erick acted as spotter on the lock wall. When the bow of the scow reached over the McClure's rudder it became pretty clear that things were closer than he would have liked. Then the Brake's loud hailer crackled: "I need another eight feet to clear the sill."

Photo by Kerry Batdorf
Lock 17 Gate Opening

The operator assured Roger that he could bring the bow of the McClure right up to the buffer beam at the downstream end of the lock chamber. Somehow, everyone squeezed in there, the upper gates closed, lower valves opened, water dropped rapidly in the chamber and boiled out down below. Eventually, the guillotine gate at the downstream end lifted and the McClure emerged from shadow at the bottom of the chamber. The last anxious moment came when that gate began to rise and we realized that its massive concrete counterweight was suspended above the bow of the McClure and was now on its way down. They never got close to each other but it looked pretty spooky from where I was standing on the Route 169 Bridge, especially when I realized that my son, Ian, was tending a fender over the prow, directly under the descending mass.

Things were fairly uneventful after that. The LCMM boats pulled over below the lock to let the Brake past. They locked together again at 16 but this time the scary steel barge was out front and McClure snuggled in behind. They parted company for the next two locks.

Photo by Kerry Batdorf
Canajoharie Welcome!

Elisa and I drove on to set up in Canajoharie. Amie Wockenfuss, a bundle of enthusiasm and local wisdom from the Canajoharie Palatine Chamber of Commerce, was waiting for us as we pulled in.

We had wondered if anyone would show up for a two- hour port call late on a Sunday afternoon. The Route 10 Bridge over the Mohawk is undergoing a major rebuild that makes it tough to get into Canajoharies's Riverfront Park and the park still shows some evidence of damage from the floods last June when water coursed ten feet above the top of the wall. There were a handful of people in the park when we got there; mostly enjoying the shade on the gazebo, but it didn't seem that they were there to see a canal schooner. I was sorry to have to tell a group of men from somewhere in eastern Europe that we were about to park a boat right on top of their favorite fishing hole. They had clearly come out for a full day of carp fishing. They had three monsters on the stringer already, gear set up along the length of the wall, and something that smelled just wonderful going on a little charcoal grill.

Amie, our contact from the Canal Corporation, and the operator from Lock 14 helped us set up the tents and run power cords. The Woods Tea Company band rolled in from Vermont and set up on the stage down by the river. Tom Ryan prepared the Erie Canal Boat to take people out on rides. Amie and her crew set up the fixings for a community ice cream social. People started to drift in. Now, the only thing we lacked was the McClure. We were scheduled to be open to the public from 5-7 PM. Around 4 we began to wonder where the boat was. She came out of Lock 14 around 4:15 PM and was tied to the Canajoharie wall by 4:30 PM. The crew set out the gangways in record time, cleared the deck from running to visiting, and was ready to great visitors at 5:00 PM.

They came in droves. The McClure is only rated to have about 70 people on board at any time. When crowds show up we have to hold them at the end of the gangway and wait for others to come off. Interpreters on board are encouraged to abbreviate their stories and some of us move down to chat with folks waiting in line. It helps prepare them for what they're going to see on board, reduces the need to tell as many stories there, and helps pass the time. Erick is the master at working the line. The rest of us follow his lead. At Canajoharie, Bob Zeckendorf of the Upstate Tourism Alliance, who had been handing out newsletters and chatting with folks at every stop since Utica, pitched in and helped on the line.

The tug Shenandoah out of Lockport passed and hooted a greeting on their way down to the Tugboat Roundup in Waterford. We'd catch up with them there by the end of the week.

It was a lovely evening. Two hours, 321 visitors. At the end, Amie and her crew hauled over a big cooler full of ice cream that they'd set aside for the crew during the social. Our erstwhile galley and logistics crew had long ago announced that we were going to finish opening hours too late to cook so we ordered out for pizza. By the time we had tucked into a little pizza and ice cream it was pitch black outside - a forceful reminder that tomorrow was Labor Day and summer was fast drawing to a close.

Generosity Abounds!

Thank You!

Amie Wockenfuss and the Canajoharie-Palatine Chamber of Commerce for organizing this fine event. And thank you also for the supply of ice and ice cream.

Upstate New York Tourism Alliance

Phone: 802-475-2022