The Erie Canal turns out to be just as beautiful, just as lazy and the towns along it, just as friendly as we had been told. We hope that our posted photos will give some idea of what it looks like. We move down the canal quietly, keeping an average speed of five knots. We see lots of herons; and also saw a kingfisher. Each of the towns we have stopped at has its own individual charms. Holley had a little park with a magnificent, and surprisingly large waterfall. Wiley was able to walk a mere 2 1/2 miles to a wine shop, where he picked up four bottles of wine (2 French, 1 Italian and then walked back 21/2 miles with his treasure! We knew that Hurricane Irene was coming, so we traveled only five miles from Holley to Brockport, where we would wait the storm out.
Brockport is a 'college' town and our favorite thus far. We tied up along the wall. The town has a fabulous bookstore-, and was full of college kids. We had our first New York style pizza which (although it cannot compare to our noble Chicago - deep dish) was very tasty. The winds reached 30 mph during the day, but the 50 mph gusts which had been predicted but not occur where we were. They had bikes we could use for free and we rode down to the sports store and around town. We had breakfast at Corrines and she gives you a card with her rules on it, which include no use of the "f" word, no talking on cell phones etc. before she gives you a menu. Wiley told her the only improvement to the place, that he could suggest would be hanging posters of Walter Payton, "Da Coach" and Dick Butkus!
At our next port, Fairport, the friendly dockmaster came down to our boat and greeted us. Fairport is the first place since Wardell's where we had to pay anything to stay, but it was only $7.00 a night and the facilities were beautiful. Unfortunately, after a run Merry was stung once again. We went over to the Irish pub for dinner as Merry whined about her sting!
We learned that because of the severe flooding Lock 19 and all of the locks east of there had been closed, but we decided that since it would take us four days to get to lock 19 we would leave Fairport in the morning.
Wiley's nightmare of going over a chasm actually came true, and we discovered that going over a chasm is not so bad when you do it with the assistance of a wonderful Lock Master (John) and two massive locks that are engineering masterpieces. We thought that we were supposed to get our Erie Canal permit before we entered the lock (this turned out not to be true). There is a wall 1/2 mile before you reach the locks and we maneuvered the boat to pull up alongside this wall. The maneuver wasn't very pretty because there was a strong wind behind us and all that we could see to tie up to was huge bollards (originally designed for huge barges) which are 100 feet apart. Merry jumped up and out of the boat - throwing her body on the top of the cement wall - with lines. She was able to throw a line around the bollard - Wiley helped out with the stern line and we exchanged some words of advice for each other. To say it was not a graceful exercise is a major understatement - but in the end we were tied up. We walked into Lockport to purchase our permit and see the locks to help ease our fears. Fortunately we were able to purchase a season's permit ($75.00) and unfortunately we saw the locks - two drops of approximately 25 feet each right next to each other seemed daunting. However, John - the Lock Master - kindly talked us through the experience and we were successful.
We decided to stay at Widewaters Marina just outside of Lockport because they had hot showers and we had been showering on the boat for the past 3 days. We were the only transient boat in the whole marina and while they had electricity they did not have water hook ups. They did have laundry facilities, a shower, and their sign said they had a pump out - so we thought we were in business. However, we discovered differently. Merry went in to take her shower at 7:45 and was undressing when a man came running into the ladies room shouting, "I am not waiting for any shower! I am locking this place up - you will be locked in! Get out now!" Merry was embarrassed and scurried out of the shower and in her strongest voice said to this crude man - "You don't have to talk to me like a child!" He responded, "Well, you don't have to get so upset!" Merry tearfully ran back to the boat and took her shower - well, at least this time the water was hot on the boat because we had motored from Tonawanda through the canal. However, there was another issue - if you are a boater you understand that when using the "head" you must be sure to keep the valve in the correct position when done - if not the holding tank fills with water. Someone, who will remain nameless, left the lever in the wrong position. You can imagine how delighted we were each morning when they opened the bathroom at 7AM and continued to be dismayed that they only stayed open until 8PM. Most marinas provide you with a key or code to use the facility - but they said, "We could never do that!" These people would not last two days in Chicago- they would be killed and eaten!
Merry feeling boat fatigue thought that getting her hair done would be just the treat she needed. She went to the Blue Door Hair Salon, which was "upscale in comparison with Super Clip" and they said they were willing to squeeze her in. The girl who was styling her hair kept saying, "So, you are on this boat trip - you should have a 'windy cut' so it can be messy and still be in style!" The results are that Merry now has a very, very, very, short and windy style! We are now spending some of our time ashore shopping for cute hats!
Upon preparing to depart this marina we asked again about a pump out for our head. We discovered that it was on display in the marine office like an artifact of some long-lost civilization because it had been "out of commission for about a year". The part had been " uptown" and no one had ever gotten around to "fixin it". The men who worked at this marina, with the exception of one gentleman named Mike, were limited, slow, and lacked any initiative. Mostly, they sat outside of the marina at a picnic table and talked with the locals - ALL day. Prior to leaving we asked to purchase some ice - and we cleaned them out - all 4 bags - they said, "Yeah, well I guess we will have to call the ice company soon." Again - in Chicago they would be killed and eaten within two days.
We motored up to Gasport to purchase some diesel fuel as listed in the Canal Guide. Craig, at Gasport, said he would get us some diesel if we needed it. That meant that Craig and his dog Bear would get his barrel of diesel that he purchases at a truck stop and using a dolly roll it over to where we could fill our boat. They did have a pump out - thank goodness. He has refurbished a tug boat hull and built his boat around this hull. It is impressive work. Craig is an obviously resourceful and nice guy. He recommended that our next stop be at Holley, New York because there were nice facilities and a waterfall there.
Seeing Niagara Falls was on my "bucket" list. We moved our boat to the Tonawanda docks along the canal and took buses to see the Niagara Falls. We knew we had to get the bus back (it requires a bus transfer at the Buffalo airport to get there and back). I purchased tour tickets so that we could see a lot in a short amount of time. It was a gorgeous day - sunny, windy, and our tour guide Cal was a fellow teacher - this was his summer job. He teaches 5th graders and therefore knew how to handle a group on a "field trip"! In our assigned rain gear and funky sandals we rode the Maid of the Mist right into the falls, marched up and down the stairs, and explored the giant whirlpool of Niagara Falls. The Niagara Falls photos of course do not do it justice - it is magnificent, powerful, and we were in awe of the power of the water. Once again, Wiley revisited his nightmare of going over the falls in our sailboat - and seeing it made me think about the crazy people who went over it in a barrel as well as one (idiot) who tried to traverse it in a jet ski. (Check out the photos!) It was a magical day and I can now take that off my bucket list.
We met some remarkable people on the trip - our first Bus driver Barbara White was an enthusiastic person who asked us, " what is free for everyone ?" We were able to give her with the right answer, " Love". She was spirited and told us about her great uncle a famous blues artist who had moved to Chicago from Mississippi. She dropped us off at the airport and another lady kindly ran and got us the bus schedules so we could plan our trip back. However, being incapable of reading a bus schedule and without a watch we missed the last bus back to Tonawanda from the airport- which was now closed (they only have eight flights a day). The bus driver we had on the ride from the falls back to the airport personally walked us into the deserted airport terminal building to locate a number for the taxi (the airport was empty - a ghost town of an airport). We called a cab,and soon a Lincoln Towncar pulled up and a young man whose family have immigrated to the United States from Pakistan gave us a ride back to Tonawanda. Along the way he shared that he and his brothers were all in the U.S. Air Force and were living the American Dream. He wanted us to know that Muslims are good people and that they were not responsible for the 9-11 acts. We were inspired by his families new patriotism and eagerness to overcome prejudice and the negative opinions many have of Muslims.
We nervously entered the Black River Canal - if you travel in the eastern portion of the channel you end up in the Black River Canal - if you travel in the western portion of the channel you end up in the current of the Niagara River heading toward the falls. Wiley kept having nightmares of our boat going over the Falls! We had heard of idiocy of people going over the falls in a barrel, the images of what that would look like in a sailboat was the recurring nightmare Wiley had as he studied the charts. Our new friends assured us that NO SAILBOAT HAD EVER GONE OVER THE FALLS, - the rocks would stop you first! - but the potential humiliation of being the first sailor ever to be so stupid as to do so only made Wiley worry more.
We traveled under many interesting bridges including a swing bridge and the Rainbow bridge. The greatest challenge was our first lock on the Black River Canal. It was only a drop of about 5-6feet and we felt pretty confident as we held the lines on the lock and our boat gradually dropped. However, when Wiley put the boat in gear forward and gave it throttle - the boat did not respond! PANIC! There was a lot of weed (our nemesis) which had grabbed our prop once again. Wiley put it in reverse to unwind the weed and I watched as the wall of lock was coming closer. I fended us off the opposite wall of the lock where we had dropped. Finally, Wiley was able to put it in forward and we exited the lock. Whew! Our confidence shaken, we traveled on rethinking all that we might have done differently; after all, our next locks in Lockport were going to drop us 50 feet.
We were navigating the Black River toward Tonawanda when to our surprise (A Phenomenal Surprise!) we heard our names shouted to us from land. It was our new dear friends Paul Infantino and Teresa Dancy, standing on the bank of the canal. They had driven up to look for us and help. They shouted that they would meet us at Wardell's Boat Yard. Sure enough as we carefully turned into the channel to Wardell's (it really looks like you are heading into a dead-end) there stood Paul in his bright red shirt and Teresa in her sailor navy and whites. They gave us direction, and took our lines. Then they helped us un-step the mast. This took a long time, because we didn't have the pins out or the boat ready. Paul's experience and cheerful help were invaluable! We kept pinching ourselves as we accepting their help - we were amazed that Teresa used one of her vacation days to help us. We were humbled by their generosity.
Dennis Wardell, the owner, is not a morning person. When I called him on Monday morning to say that we were on our way he responded that he had expected us on Sunday and that he would try to fit us in. We were worried that this might be a problem for us as we had a truck coming to pick up the mast the next morning. However, when we arrived Dennis put us at ease (shared that he is grumpy in the morning) and helped us unstep the mast. He was even patient with us as we had forgotten to disconnect the wiring in the mast and discovered that our newly purchased Raymarine plotter etc. had a magical little box attached to wires that went up the mast that could only be opened with the smallest of screw drivers (think eyeglass repair kits). Dennis found the tools we needed and Paul stood holding the mast with Wiley while I disconnected the wiring below.
The Black River Canal traversed, the mast removed, and finally our hearts were beating at a normal pace. We had a lovely lunch with Paul and Teresa in Tonawanda and spent the night at the Wardell's dock so that we could see the mast picked up by the truckers in the morning.
We know that the lesson modeled by Paul and Teresa is as Paul said "Pay if Forward" - know that what you generously offer to others will find its way back to you. They even offered to help us should we need it as we traveled the Erie Canal. How comforting to know that someone has your back. Good Karma embraced us and we are feeling blessed and lucky. Paul and Teresa are people we would like to have as friends for life.
Arriving in Buffalo began our anxiety about the possibility of making a wrong turn and then going over Niagara Falls in our 30 foot sailboat. Thank goodness for the absolutely delightful, generous, and kind people we met while at H dock at the Erie Basin Marina. We had hoped to stay at the Buffalo Yacht Club only to discover that they had a Regatta occurring and there was no room for us. Initially, we were disappointed because our last two "public" marinas left much to be desired. We were hoping for a great place to stay and much to our delight the Erie Basin Marina was just that.
We were greeted by Paul with helping hands for lines upon arrival. He shared a great place to dine and directions. We enjoyed a microbrewery called Pearl Street Grill- a multi-floored bar with terraces overlooking Buffalo. We found out that there were no nearby grocery stores; however, Bill, a boater who heard us talking about walking 3 miles to buy groceries while we had breakfast at the Hatch (a very informal restaurant that looks over Lake Erie) - offered to take us to a grocery store and wait to give us a ride back to the boat. We couldn't pass up such a generous offer.
We wanted to repaid some of the kindnesses offered to us by these fellow boaters so we shared one of our few bottles of 2005 Bordeaux and some of the treats we bought in Buffalo. We were invited by Teresa and Paul to cocktails on the dock that evening. It was wonderful to feel a part of their community. The weather picked up and so we were planning to leave on Sunday to go to Tonawanda to have our mast taken down but due to thunderstorms and 25+ knot winds we decided to wait until Monday. On Monday morning, the wind made it a challenge to leave our dock by the wall . We moved the boat back using lines to a point where we could pull out - Bob and Jo (who will be in Hope Town, Bahamas in March) helped us out. We left Buffalo - loving it because of the opportunity to be with such kind generous people, relax after our trials at Erie and Dunkirk, and our new friends encouraging words of advice about traveling to the Erie Canal.
The evacuation of Dunkirk - Erie, Pennsylvania is a town that may have fallen on hard times but at least we got our laundry done there. Our next port, Dunkirk, made Erie look like Paris.
We stayed at the private marina in Dunkirk, on one side of the big pier. We were on a very large dock, which we shared with a large commercial fishing vessel and one other power boat. We had the rest of the marina to ourselves - we would discover why!
Dunkirk itself is not a "bad town". The downtown is less cohesive than St. Charles or Geneva, for example in Illinois, and everything was closed except their boardwalk, which is a small strip mall. There was a rock concert on the big pier, and the music was pretty good. The people who came were mostly families and the concert ended at 8:30.
Alas, it was only then that we took a good look at the marina. The place looked like a junkyard - for example, in addition to the working live bait dispensing machine that was abandoned, a second live bait machine was leaning against the building, these were two among many items lying around. Someone had vomited in the sink in the small Woman's bathroom and shower, and Merry decided washing up on the boat was not a bad idea. Since the men's bathroom smelled of urine, I skipped the shower too. All but one dock lights was out, which was bad because parts of some of the finger docks were missing, and with all o them, you had to take a step down to get to your boat - and, of course, you couldn't see the step-off (which I experienced - but did not fall into the harbor!)
The "cruising guide" said the place had Wi Fi - it didn't and shore-power - which did not work.
The next morning there were two colorful older men and a polite young man with three dogs sitting outside the marina office. The concrete block which had been inside the men's bathroom had now been used to prop open the doorway, revealing the toilet stall in all its glory. Stepping over "deposits from all of the dogs" I decided that I had to use the facilities, and felt that the stall door would at least give me a degree of privacy. Alas, I was disappointed - even in this! While seated upon the j"throne", one of the large dogs stuck its head under the stall and looked up at me between my legs, only to be yanked out again by the boy, who yelled "BAD BRUTAS BAD!"
We had both been kept up all night by the big fishing boat banging against a steel piling. We were eager to get on our way. However, we discovered that a mat of weed had enveloped the stern of our boat and the fairway. I spent an hour using the dinghy, a boat hook, and an oar to clear a way for our boat to get out. At last, when the dawn had ripened into morning we departed evacuating Dunkirk and not planning to return any time in the future.