Whenever the Lois McClure enters the Champlain Canal, I look forward to catching up with Bob Foster at Lock 5, Schuylerville. Bob is a boat guy, who now runs a couple of tour boats. There’s his lovely, little, diesel launch, the Nellie, named after a tugboat he operated a “few” years ago. And there’s the Caldwell Belle.
The Caldwell Belle is different. She was launched in 1973 into the Milwaukee River, which Bob claims is smaller than Otter Creek. Several names, owners, and homeports later, she came under Bob’s tender care. He kept the name Caldwell Belle; after all, Caldwell was a big name on the Champlain Canal, so why change it? The thing that’s different about the Belle is she’s a stern-wheeler, propelled by an honest-to-goodness, diesel-driven paddle wheel mounted on the stern. True, a stern paddle wheel on a tour boat isn’t all that rare; what’s rare is that the Belle’s wheel is her only propulsion; the other boats are driven by propellers and bow thrusters, with the paddle wheel dragging along strictly for decoration.
I love to watch Bob bring the Caldwell Belle in for a landing at his tie-up on the corner
of the approach wall to Lock 5. He comes right in at a pretty big angle at a good rate of
speed. Just when you start to worry, he spins that big paddlewheel backwards, the blades
bite into the water with that characteristic slap-slap-slap sound, and the Belle comes to
a quick stop with her bow so close to the dock that the deckhand just reaches over and
grabs the bow line he left behind. As soon as the hand belays the line on the rail at just
the right distance back from the stem, Bob starts his wheel backing down again. As the
strain comes on the line, the Belle starts moving sideways toward the dock. In she comes,
majestically. Stern line on. “All ashore!” All smiles. It’s always a pleasure to watch Bob
at work and then to walk over and take in his latest story about life along the canal.