Of all the things we’ve experienced boating around The Great Loop, perhaps the most mysterious is the Erie Canal.
Admittedly, I knew very little about the waterway until we arrived on the scene! I’ve had so many people reach out with questions that I’ve realized I’m not the only person with very little knowledge on this engineering marvel.
First, let me start with some cool facts about the Erie Canal:
- Completed almost 200 years ago (in 1825), the man made waterway connects Lake Erie to The Hudson River. Since the Hudson River connects to the Atlantic Ocean, the Erie Canal makes it possible for boat travel throughout a large portion of the United States.
- Over the years the Canal has been restructured and updated to meet the demands of larger ships. Currently the full length is 338 miles with 35 locks.
- The locks act as boat elevators that raise boats over 500 feet from sea level at the Hudson River to Lake Erie.
Here are a few more facts specific to our trip and important for the context of our experience:
- In a typical year, the Erie Canal is open from around May 15th to mid October. As you might guess, 2020 was not “typical” in any way. Due to Covid19 delays, there was no opening in May. Thankfully, repairs were finally complete and the canal opened mid-August.
- Due to some very low bridges on the western side of the canal, our boat (and many others) cannot actually travel all the way from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. We took the eastern side of the Erie Canal to the Oswego Canal which took us to Lake Ontario. From Lake Ontario we had the whole Canadian debacle that you can read about here: The One Where We Got Our Boat Through Canada.
- The Erie Canal travels through tons of small towns on it’s way from Albany to Buffalo. Watching boaters go through the locks is somewhat of an attraction. Almost every lock we went through we had an audience- even in the rain!
- For the most part, the locks are open from 7AM – 5PM. We did not see a lot of other boat traffic on the canal aside from our group. Because of this, we rarely had to wait.
- Along the canal you can’t find typical marinas or anchorages; However, there are lots of walls. Many of them are free. We had great success contacting the lock masters towards the end of the day and asking about the best place to stop based on our location.
So many people have asked very specific questions about HOW we go through the locks. Here’s a rough idea of how our family navigated them…
- Approaching the locks we always had fenders set up on both sides of the boat. Occasionally we would be asked to go to one side or the other. Ideally, you could go to the same side every time. But that just wasn’t possible. We also had our kids in their lifejackets (it’s not required in the Erie Canal Locks, unlike a lot of other locks.)
- Brent navigated the boat towards the front and pulled over to the wall. Mary Grace and I both had gloves on and boat poles in our hands. We were able to grab the lock ropes.
- A few times we used our own ballard line to hold our boat on a pole. This is much easier and a better method if you don’t have two people. But, unfortunately, a spot wasn’t always available. *Another boater gave us the tip to have a designated ballard line that’s a different color than the rest of your lines. We found that very helpful!
- Our boat has thrusters so admittedly we were able to “cheat” in the Erie Canal locks. Brent could use our engines to keep the boat close to the wall. As the doors closed sometimes the water pushed our boat around quite a bit. Mary Grace and I made sure to keep the fenders between our boat and the wall. And we basically held the boat in place as we went up or down.
- Our boat has a really good stereo system and the group we were traveling with opted to have some fun in the locks by making it a big dance party. Miller was the head DJ. As I mentioned before, watching people go through the locks is a big area attraction. We had fun taking music requests and making people smile. Several lock masters told us that we were the most fun/entertaining group they’d ever had go through!
- As the front doors to the lock opened, Brent would signal Mary Grace and I to drop our lines. And when it was our turn he maneuvered our boat out of the lock.
Another popular question I’ve been asked is how long does it take to go through the Erie Canal.
This is a tricky one to answer for several reasons.
First, your time is completely dictated by the locks. It also depends on how much other traffic is traveling on the canal at the same time. There are also speed limits along the canal.
I will tell you that it took us about 4 days to do the eastern half. Because of this year’s late opening, we were anxious to get to the Great Lakes. Essentially we treated our time on the Erie Canal like an episode of The Amazing Race.
We set alarms and arrived at our first lock of the day 15 minutes prior to their opening (6:45AM!) We also called ahead to all the lock masters so they would know our group was approaching. We even got one lock master to stay late for us!
One day I would LOVE to go back and do the Erie Canal slower where I can really explore the different towns. I would also love to do the western half (in a shorter boat!)
Overall, the Erie Canal was an amazing experience that our family will never forget.
If you have any questions that I didn’t answer, I’d love to get to them. Drop me an email: [email protected] or leave a comment on this post.
As always, thank you for keeping up with our crazy adventures! You might also enjoy reading:
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