Captain’s Log, Part 7

On September 5th, the Lois McClure left Oswego and headed home. In terms of ports-of-call, we were halfway there: Oswego was our twentieth stop out of forty. Number 21 was Phoenix, up the Oswego River. On the way, we went up through seven locks.

Tom Larsen, the first mate, and I usually stand one-hour tricks at the wheel, and whichever one of us happens to be on watch guides the schooner and her tug through the locks as they come up. Thus it was that Tom had the watch as we approached Lock 5, at Minetto. There is a power station at Lock 5, using water flow to generate electricity. Depending on the needs of the grid, the power station may or may not be discharging large quantities of water down beside the lock approach. On this day, everybody in this part of New York State must have been making toast with the lights on. As Tom tried to ease the schooner past an approach wall to port, he noticed he wasn’t making any headway past it. The schooner was headed away from the end of the wall, but the vessel was moving sideways right toward it. Ah yes, power-station current setting us to the left. Making a big correction to the right, Tom managed to get us around the end of the wall and headed nicely for the lock entrance. Only to discover that now the power-station current was setting us strongly to the right. Despite corrective maneuvering with both the tug and the Oocher, Tom ended up with the schooner across the lock entrance, tug wedged against the end of the righthand approach wall, with the back-eddy trying its best to swing the whole rig even further around in the wrong direction. This all happened in slow motion; there was no damage. It was at this point when Tom calmly asked me if I had any suggestions. Well, I did. Experience has shown that if a boat won’t turn the way you want her to, she will most likely turn the other way. With the Oocher’s help shoving on the bow at Tom’s direction, she certainly did, and he took her back out into the river for another try. Which, with the benefit of detailed knowledge of just what that swirly current would do, went smoothly. We were grateful that everybody hadn’t suddenly finished their toast and turned off the lights.

Dinner on the dock in Phoenix (photo: Kathleen Carney)
Dinner on the dock in Phoenix (photo: Kathleen Carney)

The dock at Phoenix is luxurious, fitted with tables and chairs for the convenience of visiting vessels. We often say that the crew of the Lois McClure is like a family, and it certainly felt like one this evening, as we moved the feast of supper onto the dock and all sat around the table like civilized people. It’s always fun to gather on board for the evening meal, on deck in fine weather or below in the cargo hold served from our temporary buffet table as the weather may dictate, but this outdoor dining room was elegant.

We had seen some red and yellow leaves along the Oswego River and it was, after all, September, so at Phoenix we had our first school classes on board, 150 fourth graders. The ages of nine and ten are still ages of wonder, and we saw plenty of wide eyes and heard plenty of “Cools!” After a general introduction to canals and the canal schooner as historical context for these girls and boys growing up in a town on what used to be a vital commercial waterway, delivered by Art Cohn in his stentorian tones, the students troop on board and go through four stations of instruction and explanation. Back aft, at the wheel, they learn the importance of safe navigation and hear the story of the wreck of the General Butler, one of the two vessels on which the replica Lois McClure is based. Up forward on the bow, they learn about anchoring, and each small student uses our hand-operated anchor windlass to lift one of our 150-pound anchors up off the bottom, a telling demonstration of the power of a simple machine. In the cargo hold, there is a lesson in economics and physics, how water transportation opened distant markets to farmers and manufacturers and how a boat in a canal can move 100 tons of just about anything so efficiently as to reduce transportation costs by a factor of 10. In the schooner’s cabin, they experience life on board a canal boat. Although we jokingly offer to overlook stowaways, we have yet to find a youngster willing to trade smart phone and comfy couch for paint brush and a wooden bench.

On September 10th, the Lois McClure crossed Oneida Lake. Remembering from her childhood on board a canal boat how rough this 15-mile-long, 35-foot-deep lake can get, Cora Archambault used to warn Art Cohn, “Be careful crossing Oneida Lake.” And so we were. We arrived at Brewerton, at the west end of the lake at 10:30 a.m. on the 9th. The northwest wind was only gentle, but it looked as if it might breeze up as the day went on. I have learned never to trust a northwester. We tied up, resolved to start across Oneida at first light next day and get off the lake by about 9:30 in the morning, hopefully before that day’s northwester had time to grow. As it turned out, the breeze never did come up more on the 9th, but on the 10th, as we crossed, it stayed gentle and then did breeze up later after we were snug back in the canal. By early afternoon, we were tied up in Rome.

Rome is one of the canal towns that is famous in literature. Walter D. Edmonds wrote the novel Rome Haul that gives as good a picture of canal life as any book can. And the canal near Rome and the characters that lived round it are the protagonists in one of his hilarious short stories, The Death of Red Peril, Red Peril being “the fastest caterpillar in seven counties,” a critter that earned Pa a lot of money, until…, well, you’d better read the story.

The When and If motoring down the canal
The When and If motoring down the canal (photo: Tom Larsen)

We do meet some interesting vessels on the Erie Canal. On our way from Rome down to Frankfort on September 12th, we met a handsome schooner yacht named the When and If. Of course she had her rig down, just as we did, for traversing the canal, but we knew she was a schooner and we had expected her because our crewman, Ian Montgomery, had worked on repairing her, knew her crew, and knew her schedule. She was given her unusual name by her first owner, General George Patton, who said he looked forward to sailing her “when and if” he survived World War II. Her design was from the great John G. Alden firm. Since her draft is 9 feet, we made plenty of room for her in the center of the canal as she slid by, making knots. I knew her as a white schooner and was surprised to see that she is now black. The artistic yacht designer, L. Francis Herreshoff, would not have approved. He used to say that there are only two colors to paint a yacht, white or black, and that only a fool would paint a yacht black.

At Frankfort, we were to moor at the head of an inlet to the canal formed by a meander of the Mohawk River. The chart gave depths of up to 14 feet, but warned that shoaling to 6 feet had been reported as of 1988. We’d heard the usual stories that “You can’t get up in there; it’s all silted up.” So, as we approached, we sent the Oocher ahead to sound the creek, just as, say, Samuel de Champlain would have done. Kerry Batdorf reported plenty of water for our 4 ½-foot need. As we went slowly in with the schooner, Art Cohn radioed that the Churchill’s fathometer read a minimum of 6 feet, and also that it measured the depth of a 35-foot hole!

Docked in Frankfort
Docked in Frankfort (photo: Tom Larsen)

We had more school girls and boys on board in Frankfort. And when we later opened our floating museum to the public, a good many of the students escorted their parents on board and gave them the tour. Now that’s satisfying.

There was just room in the Frankfort creek to turn the schooner round so that we didn’t have to back her out of the narrow waterway. This is where our inflatable boat, the Oocher, comes into her own, shoving on the bow so that schooner and tug turn in the schooner’s length as a unit. Then, it was down the Erie Canal on the lovely, crisp morning of September 14th to Little Falls.

I’ve never understood how Little Falls got its name. Its lock has the biggest drop of any on the canal and at just over forty feet was once the tallest canal lock in the world. How come they didn’t call the place Big Falls? At any rate, the Canal Corporation building at Little Falls houses a fine facility for us visiting mariners, with not only top grade “heads” and showers (we have a complicated system for rating such sanitary equipment), but also a comfortable lounge with TV (baseball! baseball!) and a book swap.

The start of a great meal in Little Falls
The start of a great meal in Little Falls (photo: Tom Larsen)

It was at Little Falls where Ian Montgomery’s parents, Dennis and Cindy, caught up with us in their power cruiser, the Red Hook. Ian gets his boatbuilding penchant from his father: the Red Hook is a handsome and able wooden vessel. There was plenty of socializing, and the local citizens treated us all to a wonderful outdoor dinner, with so many cooks’ favorites that it was impossible even to sample them all.

Leaving Lock 17, in 2010
Leaving Lock 17, in 2010 (photo: Tom Larsen)

We left Little Falls on September 17th and went down through the big drop at Lock 17. After a run of two hours, we came to a small basin on the north side of the canal at St. Johnsville. I remembered in our two previous trips on the Erie passing the place, with its tidy marina and boats, and thinking what a nice spot it would make for a stop. Well, this year St. Johnsville was on our schedule of ports-of-call, so we slowed down, swung into the basin, and tied up to the wall. It was only to be a day-stop, but in the short time we were moored at St. Johnsville, we had more than a hundred visitors on board. And we were also able to pump out sanitary tanks and take on fuel for the Churchill and Oocher.

Later in the day, we went on to Fort Plain, and Erick Tichonuk, tempted to trade his desk at the Museum for time on the schooner, eased the McClure in to a snug berth at a little side-cut to the canal. If we allowed ourselves to rate communities that are our favorites to visit, Fort Plain would have to make the short-list. The people just can’t seem to do enough for us. On our first evening there, they treated us to both a reception and a home-cooked dinner. And nothing would do but that the crew had another dinner the next evening at the home of Sevim Acar Morawski. Sevim not only cooked us a wonderful Turkish meal, but also regaled us with tales of Turkey, where she still has family.

School was indeed open, and the crew turned teachers on the Lois McClure at Fort Plain on the morning of September 19th, before leaving for Canajoharie, or Canajo, as I shortened the town’s five-syllable name, where we opened our floating classroom again on the 20th.

It was at Canajoharie where, at our morning crew meeting before getting underway, I startled the crew by bursting into song. I just couldn’t resist trying a rendition of Oh Once There Were Three Fishermen, because of the last line, wherein “They all sailed off for Amsterdam,” since that was where we were bound from Canajo. Luckily, there was no mutiny, so we too sailed off for Amsterdam.

The new (1917) New York State Barge Canal makes use of the Mohawk River, and as we traveled downstream, we passed through a gap in the Appalachian Mountains, the gap that made the original Erie Canal feasible. At Amsterdam on September 22nd, we found, tied up to the wall just ahead of our berth, the New York Canal Corporation’s wonderful, old tug, the Governor Cleveland. She has always operated as a sort of good-will ambassador for the canals, for she was designed not only as a working towboat, but also as a fancy vessel with extra cabin space to accommodate officials.

Gov. Cleveland docked in Amsterdam
Gov. Cleveland docked in Amsterdam (photo: Tom Larsen)

But at Amsterdam, we looked in vain for Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, the “Three Fishermen” of song. They were hardly missed, for more than 500 citizens of every occupation came on board the schooner to learn what carrying cargo entailed 150 years ago. Visitors often ask us whether or not a canal boat family used to fish for their supper. Of course it must have been done, but from what we can discern, fishing was not an important source of food for canal-boat families.

The wind gods were kind to us at Amsterdam. The western sky grew black as a cave, but the threat waited until our visiting hours were drawing to a close. We urged our last visitors to head for their cars and doubled up bow and stern lines. You never know with a thunder squall. This one looked mighty threatening, and it did rain as if it had never rained before, but the fierce, gusty wind that the ragged bottom edge of the clouds forecast did not blow.

Summer had ended, and the cool, overnight temperatures had started to produce mornings of thick fog coming off the water. When we started for Half Moon on the 24th, we had to wait until 8 o’clock for the air to warm up and evaporate enough of the vapor so that we could see where we were going. We’d had an early breakfast, our usual simple, quick, first meal of cold cereal, and this seemed like a good morning for a more elaborate second breakfast after getting underway. On such occasions, Kathleen Carney, who is responsible for feeding the crew, usually turns to the Boatswain, Len Ruth, who besides being our expert on knots and splices, just happens to be the best bacon cook, well, in the world, as far as we know. Kathleen added the apple pancakes, and we had a major repast.

An egret in the canal
An egret in the canal (photo: Tom Larsen)

Going down through Locks 10 and 9, we saw ample evidence of the destructiveness of last summer’s flood. Although most of the damage has been repaired in a near-miraculous flurry of major construction work, great, gravel-lined washouts and huge piles of uprooted trees testify to the unbelievable power of fast-moving water. As a counterbalance, we saw elegant, graceful, white egrets against the dark green of the marsh grass along the river bank, where they were stalking fish. Where does an egret get breakfast when calm shallows turn to raging torrents? At Half Moon that evening, we built and lighted the first wood-fire of the season in the schooner’s Household Marine stove. Ahhh.

On September 26th, we set off for Rensselaer. This day’s trip would take us to the east end of the Erie Canal at Waterford and then down the Hudson River through the Federal Lock at Troy. The river is tidal all the way up to the lock. Rensselaer is on the east bank of the Hudson, right across the river from Albany.

The run would have to be made without the services of the Oocher, whose outboard motor refused duty this morning. Getting the schooner off the Half Moon dock against a gentle breeze and turning her bow into the wind required a bit of backing and filling, but luckily there was plenty of room for such maneuvering. And going down through the Waterford flight of five locks required a bit of patience, for we had to enter the locks more slowly than usual, with no Oocher to keep the schooner from twisting in the lock when the tug, on the hip, brought her to a stop.

We made two landings in Rensselaer, one at the Albany Yacht Club (which had to move across the river when new highways took over the club’s Albany waterfront) and one at our designated berth, a single floating dock nearby, which had to be cleared of a usurper.

Fortunately, neither of these landings required any tricky maneuvering, so we were able to make them easily without the Oocher.

We were now at our furthest point south on the 2012 cruise. The next time we got underway, we would be truly heading for home, steering north.

Roger Taylor