Jeff Knakal's 2003 Erie Canal Trip

June 18, 2003

Here is a map of my proposed trip on the Erie Canal. I'm going to row/paddle from Buffalo to Hyde Park, NY (about 420 miles) in a modified Alden Martin. I'll try to start sometime in the first week of July. I'll send updates when I can or through Theresa. Here is a link to the New York Canal system site:

Erie Canal

July 3, 2003

We made it across the country and successfully dropped the boat off in Buffalo, NY. We survived high winds, severe thunderstorms, hail, lightning, just missed a tornado, avoided bison, moose, antelope and prarie dogs! I have come to the conclusion that when civilization finally collapes, it will look like Chicago traffic. (That's the only place in 3300 miles that we had any real traffic delays)

I plan to start rowing from the West Side Rowing Club in Buffalo on Monday, July 7. They are located on the Niagara River just where it exits Lake Erie on it's way to Lake Ontario. On the map, they are just south of the Peace Bridge into Canada. There is a strong current at that point and the rowing club operates behind a sea wall built for the shipping channel. When I asked if I could row on the river side to take advantage of the current, the local coach's eyes got wide and said that boats need a 150 horsepower motor to go against the current. "But I don't want to go against the current", I replied. I'll have a simple, but important, navigation turn on the first day. I have to make a right turn (that's a starboard turn for the rowers) from the Niagara River onto the Erie Canal. Miss that turn and the next stop is Niagara Falls.

In Yellowstone Park with all the gear
Niagara Falls - If you see the Falls, you've gone too far!

July 16, 2003

I exited the Erie canal safely at 6:00 pm. 340 miles in 9 days. I'm feeling strong and good. More stories later. I am e-mailing from the Waterford Visitor center (at the entrance to the canal.) I still need to find a camp site for tonight. About 2 more days down the Hudson River and I'll be done!

August 1, 2003

And now, the rest of the story...

Day 0

I took the train from Poughkeepsie to Buffalo (Exchange St. Station). There wasn't much to the station. I walked about 6 blocks to the Adam's Mark Hotel. I went out for a walk and as I passed through the lobby, one of the employees asked if I had been in the triathlon. At least I looked like an athlete.

I walked through the downtown area. There were very few people walking around, but there were quite a few bicycles. I got to the town square and a group of speedskating rollerbladers whizzed by. They had a criterion race going on. They race around a blocked off area of the downtown for an hour, and then sprint four more laps to the finish. It was followed by a similar bicycle race.

I ordered some Italian food for dinner and some chicken wings (what else in Buffalo?)

Trip start
Loaded up and ready to go!

Day 1

I got a big breakfast at the hotel and asked a guy at the concierge desk if I could get a ride to the boathouse. "I'll take you in the town car"

I arrived at the West Side Rowing Club Boathouse about 8:00 am. I got some help moving my boat to the grass near the docks. I hadn't ever loaded all my equipment in the boat, so took some time trying different arrangements. A brief rain shower chased me into the boathouse. I was finally packed and left the dock about 10:20 am.

I rowed south out of the Black Rock Canal, into Lake Erie and turned north into the Niagara River. This allowed me to bypass a Corp of Engineers lock and take advantage of the current in the river. It was about 12 miles to the entrance to the Erie Canal and I arrived about 12:20.

The beginning of this end of the canal is also the Tonawanda Creek. There was a very slight current in my direction. A guy in one of a line of boathouses built up to the water called out "nice boat". A passing cruising yacht asked, "Where are you headed". "Poughkeepsie" I replied. I could see everyone in the boat getting up to look when they realized that was all the way across the State.

At Pendleton, the canal leaves the Tonawanda Creek and become a cut channel. There was a large structure called a guard gate about half a mile further. These are huge walls that can be lowered to block off the canal and are used to isolate sections of the canal if there are any problems. I passed through an area called the Lockport Cut. There were rock faces 6 feet above the canal on both sides for quite a way. I arrived at the first locks, numbers 35 and 34 and went through them with a sailboat. I passed under 2 lift bridges. These are low bridges that larger boats have to call to be raised. I could pass under them if I laid down in the boat and coasted under.

I stopped at the Nelson C. Goehle Park and talked them into letting me set up a tent on the grass near the boat docks. As for the rowing, the water was protected and flat. I worked to find a pace I could sustain all day. I felt a little nauseous early in the day, as I would for the first 3 days, but took frequent rests and figured out a way to sit in the bottom of the boat to rest. I was feeling pretty good.

Total for the first day: 31 miles.

Day 2

I rowed under 10 lift bridges, glad that I didn't have to stop to wait for them to be raised. I'm sure that made the lift operators and the local traffic happy also. I stopped in the town of Medina to try to find a spare propane cylinder for my stove. I decided to get pizza in a local shop. There is a creek in Medina that actually runs under the canal. The canal is built on a bridge or aqueduct above the creek. In this area there are long sections of the canal that are above the surrounding grade. It is strange to look past of the wall of the canal and see the tops of the adjacent trees or houses.

At one of the small towns I passed, a worker tending the lawn sprinklers in the waterfront park told me there were some areas just past the town of Brockport that were great for camping. They weren't marked on a map, but they were easy to find. I stopped in the town of Holly, which had a very nice terminal wall and park. It had some promising places to camp, but I thought I could get a little more distance in and I had that promise of the "great camping spots" Well, I never did find the areas that guy was talking about. I continued on and on and finally stopped at a grassy area next to the canal way trail that was following the canal in this area. I asked a guy at a house a couple hundred feet away if it was his property and if it would be OK if I set up a tent for the night. After talking for a while, Doug offered to let me tie the boat up to his dock, and finally, to just set up the tent on his dock as well. I was thankful for his generous offer after a long day. (OK, a little too long!)

Total for day 2: 42 miles.

Mugging through the locks
Lockside campsite

Day 3

I rowed through an area called the Rochester Cut and entered the city of Rochester. I could hear the noise of the city and passed under many bridges, but still felt very isolated. There was no access to the canal and I had not seen another boat for a long time. I took a 1 mile detour up the Genesee River to the University of Rochester Campus, my alma mater. I ate lunch and took a short walk around the campus.

As I left the city, I passed through locks 33 and 32, about a mile apart. The lock 32 operator made me put on my life vest and hold the rope on the side wall of the canal. Up to this point I just floated as I was lowered in the locks. I stopped at the Pittsford Rowing Club to fill water bottles. I passed a double and a couple coached 4+'s, the first rowing shells I had seen from the start.

About 8 miles later, I passed a fairly new building that was the Fairport Rowing Club. They had a phone number on the side of the building to call for info. I copied it down and rowed another mile into town. Most of the towns along the canal have terminal walls that boats are allowed to tie up to for free for up to 2 days. I had hoped to find some lawn here to set up my tent. At this town, all the wall space was filled and there was no open space for a tent. A canoe and kayak rental outfit allowed me to use their phone to call the rowing club. I asked if I could camp next to the boat house and the girl I talked to suggested I talk to her father, who would be at the boathouse at 6:30. My other option was to row another 8 miles to lock 30 and hope to find space there. I took my chances with the rowing club. I talked to Bruce, and he said he didn't think that I could camp at the boathouse because it was a town park, but I was welcome to use his yard, which was right on the water about a mile back. They generously let me use a shower, which was badly needed at that point. Their family had been very involved in starting the rowing club and getting the boathouse built. They made me aware of a major disadvantage rowing clubs on the canal have. The canal is closed each November and isn't opened until May. "How do they close a canal?" I asked. Turns out they actually drain it! All this great waterfront property and there's no water for 6 months of the year.

Total for day 3: 31 miles (including the backtracking)

Day 4

I went through lock 30 (there is no lock 31) and the operator insisted again that I hold the ropes on the wall of the canal. "Those are the rules." After this lock, I wouldn't even ask, but just went right for the ropes on the side. It was a tricky maneuver of aiming at a rope and turning the boat as if you were landing at a dock while turning the oar parallel to the wall and reaching out to grab the rope. I would get pretty good at it.

I passed through locks 29, 28A, 28B and 27, separated by 1 to 10 miles. I had been dealing with pretty strong headwinds almost all day and was getting pretty worn out. I asked the lock 27 operator about possible camping spots. He said I could camp on the lock grounds there. It was early and I asked about lock 26. He wasn't sure but suggested trying the town of Clyde, about 10 miles ahead. When I got to Clyde, the sky was getting dark with storm clouds. My weather radio was predicting thunderstorms and a 90 percent chance of rain. The canal front park in Clyde was a little unkempt, but otherwise very nice. I asked some kids fishing if they knew where I could camp and they said I could camp right there, as if it were a normal thing to do. The sign in the park said camping was allowed, with permission. I didn't have "permission", but it was late and storms were rolling in. It was Thursday night and I found a little corner behind some trees, next to a boat ramp that looked like it was intended to be a camp site. It was perfect. I set up camp and was asleep by 8:30, exhausted.

Total for day 4: 38 miles.

Now, I hesitate to tell the following story, because it is one bad experience in a trip filled with wonderful experiences, but it is an interesting experience.

About 11:30 pm, I was awakened from a deep, sound sleep by a voice from outside my tent. "US Marshall, who's in there? US Marshall…." US Marshall? What the heck? "I'm sorry sir, you can't camp here." He flashed his ID and looked at mine. I was still groggy and quite confused. I explained my story and he said he saw my tent and had to check it out or he would be in trouble with his chief. After a while, he agreed to let me stay, but would check back in the morning for any trouble and that basically, he would expect me to be gone. I asked for his name. "Captain Del" "Del?" I repeated. "CAPTAIN Del", he admonished. I could tell that he had been drinking. I laid back down and tried to fall back into an uneasy sleep.

Sometime later, probably an hour or so, he returned. "Well I called it in and they're not buying your story." Not buying my story? I thought, you've got to be kidding. However, he suggested, I could move up to his house, which was right across the street. I said I wouldn't move and would straighten it out in the morning. And if I couldn't stay, I would pack up and move on, even though it was after midnight and raining. He persisted, trying about 3 times to convince me to move. Each time I gave him the same answer. Finally he suggested that the tent could stay, but I should move the boat to his house. It was like getting hit on the head. How could I have been so unbelievably stupid? Clearly my exhaustion had totally clouded my normal alertness. This guy was nothing more than a drunk trying to steal my boat. I asked him for the number of the police station and he rattled some numbers off, saying he wasn't sure if that was right. I was reaching for my cell phone and of course I knew what the number was. 911. He had started rambling some statements about being from the reservation and he fought in the war and what did it get him but the right to be told by the white man what to do. By the time the policeman arrived, he had wandered off into a house across the street. The policeman got my story and went over to check out the house. There was some yelling and he came back and said he didn't think there would be any more problems. He would check on me periodically during the night. I went back to an even more uneasy sleep.

About 2 am, I was awakened by a flashlight around my tent. I sat up with a start. "What's that?, Who's there?" A short pause. "Have you ever seen what fire does to a tent?" I unzipped the tent and lept out, yelling, "Captain Dell…NO", expecting that he had come back for revenge for calling the cops. But it wasn't Captain Del. It was a really strange looking guy with a long, dreadlock haircut. My reaction at this point sort of amazes me, because it was pure instinct. As scared as I was, I said, "Hey, you're not Captain Del…do you know Captain Del? He's my buddy, he lives across the street. Let's go see if he's there" Meanwhile I was reaching for my cell phone again. 911.

As I waited for the police, he wandered into the same house across the street. The same policeman came, heard my new story and went to the house to check it out. More yelling. This time he brought back a guy for me to identify. "First time or second time?" I looked closely. This guy appeared out of it also. "First time, that's not either guy" They went back to the house and the policeman came back. The two guys that bothered me were not there anymore, apparently. I discussed packing up and leaving with the cop. Not a pleasant option considering the weather. He offered to park there to do his paperwork for a while if I wanted to stay. I went back to my tent and didn't sleep very well.

I had a lot of time to ponder the events of that night, and in retrospect, I do believe the second guy did not intend to set my tent on fire. I really think he was just a very stoned individual who was wandering in the park and came upon my tent. He probably did see a tent burn once and just decided to start talking about it. However, at the time it was a nightmarish experience.

Day 5

I left Clyde at 6:50 am and rowed the 2 miles to lock 26. There was a large lawn that would have been perfect for camping, except the access from the water would have been difficult. I entered a very secluded area that was part of the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. I went through lock 25 and then passed the intersection of the Cayuga-Seneca Canal that goes south to the Finger Lakes Region of New York. I stopped at a marina to eat lunch and get a Coke. One of the kids working there said he heard I was doing a long trip. I asked how he had heard about me. "Oh, the cruising boats coming through say they keep passing you." I was usually rowing farther than the other boats on the canal, and they would catch me the next day. Surprised, I think, by how far I had gone, I was asked if I had rowed all night a couple of times.

I had a short open water crossing at Cross Lake. There was a lot more recreational boat traffic in this area. As I approached Baldwinsville, the banks were lined with very nice houses with neatly landscaped yards. I had picked Cooper's Marina as a possible place to stop. When I got there it didn't look promising. There was a busy street right next to the marina and not much open space. I went in and asked the first guy I saw if he worked there. He smiled and introduced himself as Ray Cooper. I briefly told him what I was doing and asked if I could fill my water bottles. No problem. Second, did he know somewhere I could camp. "Well I live in the house right next door and you are welcome to set up anywhere there. You can use the shower at the marina and there is a great Italian restaurant across the street" I had found Heaven. Ray bent over backwards to make sure I had everything I needed and made the night a very pleasant experience. There was a summer concert going on near lock 24, which was about a half mile away, followed by fireworks. I fell asleep in my tent to the boom of the fireworks and cheers of the kids and families that had gathered nearby to watch them.

Total for day 5: 38 miles

Day 6

I went through lock 24 and rowed past Syracuse and Lake Onondaga. I had rowed near here in High School when we raced Liverpool High School. I passed the 3 Rivers area, which is the intersection of the Oswego Canal that goes north to Lake Ontario. I got to Lock 23 and for some strange reason asked if I could just float in the lock instead of holding on to the rope on the side. "Sure, if you think you can handle it" was the reply. I then realized that this was an UP lock. I had never done that before. I had only gone down. I soon realized I made a mistake. Down locking is fairly calm. The water drains out the bottom of the lock. When you get a lift however, the water swirls in and boils up from the bottom. My shell got pushed and spun. I tried to make correcting strokes, but the water near my oars was swirling and boiling also. It was difficult, but I stayed in the middle and resolved to never do that again. The next two locks were uplocks also. The only 3 lifts I had to do on the trip.

I got to the Brewerton Boatyard about 1:00 pm and asked if I could camp nearby. Wayne lived next door and also allowed me to camp in his yard. I needed to get the boat and myself ready for the crossing of Oneida Lake, a 20 mile open water crossing. Wayne helped me mail 25 pounds of gear I wasn't using (mostly extra clothes) to lighten my load. (Actually, I was having more problems with the volume of gear than the weight.) They pointed me to a great sub shop and I spent the afternoon tightening and repacking everything on the boat for a rough water crossing.

Total for day 6: 23 miles.

Day 7

I was up, packed and rowing by 4:30 am. I wanted to give my best chance of smooth water for the crossing of Oneida Lake. I had GPS coordinates for the far side of the lake. It was exactly 20 miles. I thought if the water was smooth, I could shoot straight across the channel. That would put me over a mile from shore for most of the day. About half an hour into the crossing, I decided the light breeze would translate into problems later, so I headed to the south shore. The local wisdom was a west breeze would mean the east end of the lake would be rough. Warnings on my charts said waves could get up to 6 feet on the downwind end of the lake. I rowed from point to point across bays along the south shore with a variable southwest breeze. The short crossings became progressively more difficult as the morning wore on. Large, powerful bass boats started coming out and catching air on the larger waves. Their props would scream as they cleared the water and the boats would come down with a whump. The water got rougher, but it was relatively easy to handle the regular wave pattern. That is until the bass boats would swing by to check me out. They turned the regular waves into a confused chop and at one point I took on a couple inches of water. As the waves got worse, I decided I needed to stop and empty the boat for the final crossing. I pulled out at a private park in the lee of Lewis Point. It was a 2 mile crossing to the east entrance to the canal and the wind was screaming. I used the bathroom and got a bearing on a lighthouse that I could use as a landmark to find the channel. The waves were very steep, with a short wavelength. If I tried to row perpendicular to the waves I would slide down and bury the bow, and possibly swamp. If I angled off the wave, I would broach. I ended up rowing up the troughs which was sending me too far north to make the entrance to the channel. I struggled to keep a course to the canal and just made it. I finally got back to smooth water at 9:30, a five hour crossing. I took a short break on shore, thinking I could find a cup of coffee, but nothing was open. I continued on, feeling pretty good.

I went through locks 22 and 21, both up locks and entered the highest section of this part of the canal. This area was a famous portage before the canal was built. It would be all down hill from here. I stopped at a marina in the early afternoon and asked if there was someplace I could get a snack. A guy said I could climb through a hole in a chain link fence to an adjacent convenience store. When I got back, he chased me off like I was a criminal. It's strange the different reactions you get from people in different places. I figured he was just in a bad mood and moved on. I stopped at Lock 20 to camp. They had a low dock that made getting off the water easy. I shared the dock with a couple in a 39 foot sailboat that were in the process of moving from Cleveland to Annapolis. I went to find a phone to call home and found one in the State Police building across the street from the lock park. I would feel a little more comfortable tonight.

Total for day 7: 45 miles (plus 3 from the long way around Oneida Lake?)

Day 8

I went through lock 20, followed by 19. I stopped for a snack at a very nice park in Illion. I went through lock 18. I had picked a park just short of lock 17 as a possible stopping place for the night. When I arrived there it looked like a hugh construction project with no park in sight. Apparently, some kids had vandalized the park so badly, the town was completely rebuilding it. I locked through 17, the highest lock in the system at 40.5 feet. I rowed to a floating dock at the Herkimer Home State Historic site. I stopped to try to fill my water bottles. There was a cruising boat tied up to the dock. It was "Annie Sez Too" which I had seen the day before as I came into the canal from Oneida Lake. The house was about a quarter mile away across a field and they offered to fill my water bottles. They asked if I wanted a beer. Not until I'm finished for the day, I replied. "Well, we're stopping here" A maintenance man had come down and told them it was OK to tie up for the night. The field was perfect for a tent as well, so I agreed to join them. I set up my camp , took a quick swim to cool off and joined them for the beer. As we sat relaxing, another woman drove down in a golf cart and told us we couldn't stay there for the night. Great, another 6 miles to the next lock. "Annie Sez Too" took off and I broke camp and started rowing again. It was a very nice evening row and I arrived at lock 16 to an excellent camping spot. The only problem was the high terminal wall. I tried out my idea of taking off one of my riggers and tying up to the wall. I had to hang over the wall to unload my equipment. It worked quite well and I would use this system again. "Annie Sez Too" invited me to dinner and we had a very pleasant evening.

Total for day 8: 34 miles.

Day 9

I had a headache. One beer yesterday afternoon and a glass of wine with dinner and I have a headache. What a lightweight.

I locked through 16, 15 and 14. The sun was getting hot, so I moved the boat into the shade of a tree (there was no current) and laid back for a nap. When I got to lock 13 the operator said they were expecting me, but a couple of boats had told them I was curled up under a tree. He filled my water bottles for me and I continued. (I dropped one and almost lost it in the lock) A couple hours later, I was craving a large Coke and saw a McDonalds on shore. It would require a little climbing, but I could do it. I actually ordered a large Big Mac meal and consumed it in minutes. Guess I was pretty hungry. The large Coke hit the spot.

Through lock 12 and stopped at 11 to camp. I pulled up to the terminal wall behind another 40 ft. sailboat. Randy and Linda were returning to Toronto after 5 months cruising in the British Virgin Islands. The lockmaster Dan gave me a tour and explanation of the workings of the locks. He had been in the Navy stationed at Lemoore Naval Air Station in California. I had done some work there for McDonnell Douglas.

As I went back to my tent, a 70 ft. power yacht pulled up and parked in front of us. My little boat now looked almost comical tied to the wall. The Captain Steve was delivering the boat from England to Detroit to a dealer. He had made it from New York City in 6 hours that day. He offered to let me take a shower on the back sun deck with the hose. "Use as much water as you like, we're going to dinner" I had a very welcome shower on the back of a $2 million boat and retired to my $100 tent.

Total for day 9: 34 miles

Day 10

It rained quite hard that night and I loaded up when it was still raining. It did stop just as I started rowing. I locked through 11, then 10 and 9. A couple of brief storms passed by, at first only blowing with strong winds. One of them was threatening just as I got to a bridge and I considered stopping to wait it out. I got 10 feet past the bridge and the sky opened up. Huge raindrops. I turned around and took shelter under the bridge and waited about 5 minutes for it to pass. I would pick up some pretty strong tailwinds the rest of the way to the remaining locks. I passed through lock 7 .

I had hoped to camp at the top of lock 6, but it was not going to happen. The terminal wall was too high, and the grounds were uncharacteristically overgrown and looked more like storage for surplus lock equipment. So I locked through the Waterford Flight. That's locks 6, 5, 4, 3, and 2 which you were required to do in all at once. I had completed the entire Erie Canal.

I stopped at the Waterford Information Center. It's a wonderful little building at the end of the canal with a bathroom, showers, tee shirts and guide books for sale. They even had a computer you could use to check e-mail. I asked if there was someplace I could camp. "Oh, you can camp on that little island there. I'll tell the local police you'll be there." It was this neat little island about 100 ft from the shore. Perfect.

Total for day 10: 37 miles.

Day 11

I left camp at 6 am and stopped back at the Waterford info center. I chatted with the attendant for a while and then headed down the Hudson River. The Troy Federal Lock was 2.75 miles away and I didn't have much info about how the federal locks worked. Luckily I got there just as 3 sailboats were moving into the lock. There were no ropes to hold on to. The lockmaster told me to wrap my line around a pipe that ran down the side and asked for the length of my boat. "21 feet" And my home port. "Seattle" "You put in at Seattle?" "No, Buffalo. But I'm from Seattle" "So Seattle is your home port?" Must be a federal government thing. He went on to get the same info from the other boats.

I rowed on and picked up a little less than a 2 mile per hour push from the tide about 2 hours later. I stopped for lunch in Coxsackie and the tide turned on me. I rowed against it to just past the Rip Van Winkle bridge and stopped at a park to make my dinner. I continued rowing, picked up another ebb flow about 7 pm and got to the Kingston Bridge at 8:50 pm. I finally saw a small rock beach at 9:20 and stopped to bivouac until the next tide change. I could have easily gone the remaining 9 miles to my ending point, but it was getting dark. I could have stopped to camp in a number of places, but I was feeling really good and I had very flat water and good weather. I was reluctant to stop when I had favorable conditions. At some point the day became a test and I decided to push it and see if I could do the entire Hudson River leg of my trip in one day. I was comfortable that I could do the distance when I stopped, but since I was alone and it was getting dark, I went for the safest option. I had come too far to do something stupid now.

Total for day 11: 64 miles.

Day 12

The tide chased me off my little beach about 4:30 am.

I rowed the final 9 miles to Norrie Point State Park against the tide. I stopped to look at the Esopus Lighthouse for a while. It's a small abandoned lighthouse on an island that a local group is trying to save and restore. I enjoyed a beautiful sunrise. I arrived at my final stop about 6:30 am. I brought my equipment up to the parking lot and called home for a ride at 7:10. A guy stopped in the parking lot and commented, "You'll never get all that stuff in that little boat…"