A blissful escape up the Hudson River, locking through Champlain Canal into Lake Champlain, wishing it would never end.
With a few hours to kill between business trips one October afternoon, I booted up my laptop to register with Medicare and Social Security, something I’d been avoiding. My 65th birthday was a few weeks away, and the universal advice was to be sure not to wait too long, my health coverage could lapse.
The sun had nearly set by the time I finished working through all the various questions. Looking around the dark room, all I could think was, “Well, that was quick.” Not the enrollment process, mind you, but the fact that 65 years of my life had just ripped by.
A few days later, someone from Social Security called as I’d been forewarned. The voice was patronizing. “How are we doing today,” not a question as much as a declaration of skill at dealing with the doddering elderly, apparently the type of person I now was. The cloying voice told me that confirmation of my entries was needed, the implication being that I had undoubtedly made a complete hash of them.
Here I was the lead partner in my own law firm, the CEO of a respected trade association, and someone paying more than his fair share of Social Security taxes. That counted for nothing with this specialist. My response, “I’m doing well, how are you doing,” accent on the you, was received as if expected from a curmudgeon whose heart wasn’t pumping an adequate amount of blood into the brain.
For decades I'd been head down, completely with the program, dutifully cramming vacations into the customary week or two except in rare instances. Yes, our family had taken several wonderful trips together, including five days white water rafting on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and an amazing run on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. But Dorie and I had never had a real escape since college, a wander with minimal plans, no agenda, purpose, or direction.
In the Air Force with only two stripes on my sleeve and broke, we'd somehow come up with the money to buy a sailboat, a 15 foot Venture catamaran which was both a total extravagance and absolute necessity. Since then, a steady procession of boats finally culminated in a Mathews Brothers Patriot 29, but the trips with all these boats had been brief, never the fulfillment of our constant dream of a long voyage.
Admittedly, that is a bit of an overstatement. A several week cruise has certainly been my constant dream. I like to say that I could move aboard Dorie Leigh and spend the rest of my days living the life of a boat bum. Dorie, on the other hand, is more of a homebody and prefers the occasional overnight. Still, she is a good sport, and despite our good faith attempts to pull off a long trip on the water, some eleventh hour catastrophe had always become an insurmountable barrier.
A couple of years earlier, we had meticulously arranged schedules to permit a two week ramble around the Chesapeake, but the very day we were doing final provisioning, reports of dinged props came across the VHF. A few days earlier, Hurricane Irene had flooded the Susquehanna River behind the Conowingo Dam and forced open its floodgates, releasing acres of debris into the Chesapeake that had been accumulating behind it for decades. When we drove across the Bay Bridge a few days later on our way to Annapolis, we saw no clear area of water--only a brown stain from shore to shore and horizon to horizon filled with uprooted trees, sections of houses, refrigerators, propane tanks, and unimaginable amounts of trash.
So as I sat there in that dark room, the only light coming from a digital clock recording the passing of one minute then the next and the next, the time had come to break out of our sensible, planned, orderly existence to do something unstructured, purposeless, and fun.
Here we are, miracle of miracles, at our home in St. Michaels packing the car in preparation for a four-week cruise with no obstacles in sight and all signals clear. That’s right, an entire month neither in the office nor doing any business travel. It won’t be four weeks completely off the grid in this digital age, but it will be never having to stare out a window on a beautiful summer afternoon, pretending to be fascinated during a mind numbing meeting, wondering how you got yourself trapped into such an existence.
There is no good time to try something this ambitious. Three months earlier, my 90 year old mother moved in next door. Her condo which we had just sold would go to settlement while we were on the cruise, and all her remaining belongings would need to be dealt with before that, including getting things distributed to the family. A nasty contract dispute at work involving dozens of people and a considerable amount of money had just erupted. In addition, several of the leading members of our organization felt as I did that we weren’t on the right track in one of our major areas of activity, and they wanted a new concept formulated. Plus there was all the day-to-day stuff that never goes away if you're in charge of something. Fortunately, we had been able to come up with plans to deal with each of these contingencies, and we were good to cut loose.
Dorie Leigh is a picnic boat, and while relatively small for a cruiser, we've spent years making modifications to turn her into a comfortable home afloat. For Mathews Brothers owners, please click this link and this one to read about what we have done. With diesel fuel as high as it is (in New York it reached $4.59 a gallon during the cruise), we can clip along at 20 knots without feeling too much of a pinch. And with our three-foot draft, we can anchor in quiet places most larger yachts can’t access.
In planning this cruise as we talked with our boating friends, we wanted to do something leisurely that moved only in one direction. No doubling back. No feeling pressured to sprint to the farthest point so that we could check the box and sprint back. No fixed schedule other than the total number of days allotted. No feeling of doing a boat delivery, rather just a one way ramble.
As we pack the car, Pete Mathews of Mathews Brothers is towing Dorie Leigh from St. Michaels to Haverstraw Marina on the Hudson well above New York City. We didn’t want to blow a week simply getting into the Hudson and another getting back. We will launch at Haverstraw, and four weeks later, Pete will meet us at a yet to be determined ramp to bring Dorie Leigh home.
The drive was easy from St. Michaels to Haverstraw Marina in West Haverstraw, New York. Only one major oversight—two hours into the trip, we realized we had forgotten our passports. That meant crossing the border into Canada would wait for another trip.
It was a perfect New England weather day in Maryland, the proper way to start our trip to Lake Champlain. Driving north, we felt as if we were teenagers again on our way to camp. This was too good to be true.
We arrived at the marina to find Dorie Leigh tucked away in a world of Sea Rays, Larsons, and Rinkers. I’d assumed that cruising through New England with her deadrise hull and teak trim would have us surrounded by New England down east yachts. Wrong on that. As the days passed, we found that those working at marinas loved her lines, but everyone else, while giving us nice compliments, treated Dorie Leigh as a curiosity.
It’s a big change seeing her in New York after years of cruising on the Chesapeake where most everything is flat. Green bluffs on the banks of the Hudson overlook Haverstraw Bay to the east of the marina, the widest part of the Hudson we will see on the trip, made us feel as if we were in different world.
When the wind piped up towards the end of the day, sailboats headed out to play. We, on the other hand, made several trips with the heavy cart down the steep ramp and along the long docks to get everything unloaded from our SUV and onto the boat. We had packed to the point where you literally could not get another item in it, but at the end of a sweat drenched day, Dorie Leigh had absorbed everything with room to spare. Check out the picture below and see how low she is sitting in the water. We usually see a lot more of the green bottom paint, and we haven’t yet topped off the fuel tanks.
We are still figuring out our systems, so tomorrow morning we’ll probably reorganize everything again. Living on our boat is like doing so in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. As long as everything is in its proper place, life is comfortable.
As night fell, we bled the HVAC system and got it running before we went to sleep which was a relief. We’re going to be staying in marinas, and being able to shut the door and turn down the humidity at night makes life much more enjoyable.
Our goal on this trip is to be in no rush, so we’ll see how it goes. Our plan is to leave by 11 or so tomorrow after getting the SUV parked for the month and the boat thoroughly cleaned before starting north.
Well, maybe noon. I can see one addition to our boat this fall will be getting an electric outlet for the coffee maker up here on deck. By 9:00 a.m., there were still no signs of life from Dorie below, but at least I was into the third hour of catching up on work.
A little after noon we pulled away from the slip, fueled up, and headed out into the Hudson. There had been heavy rains the week before, and the river was trashed and muddy. That was fine, because we found 1300 rpm and about six knots an ideal cruising speed, and that may become are typical speed on this trip.
Leaving Haverstraw was a great way to start the trip. We were still in the New York metro area suburbs, and the banks of the river were covered with commercial wharves, huge utility lines, and industrial parks. The area was first settled by Europeans in the 1600s and been evolving ever since into the jumble it is today. But once we hooked to port to enter Bear Mountain State Park with its rocky bluffs rising up hundreds of feet, all that clutter was left behind and the adventure truly began.
It was a hazy summer day with the trees shimmering a deep green in the heat along the shoreline. A nice breeze stayed a little ahead of our boat speed, and puffy clouds covered a cerulean sky. We couldn’t believe that the trip that we had been talking about and planning for years was actually happening.
Coming under Bear Mountain Bridge after passing Iona Island and Doodletown Bight, bliss settled in.
All through this part of the Hudson were beautiful vistas and stunning homes hidden away in the thick woods that covered the bluffs.
A half hour later, we got to the outskirts of West Point. Living near Annapolis, we have a sense for what a military academy should be, but the scale of West Point is mind boggling. Coming upstream, it starts with long rows of beautiful waterfront homes, then a citadel of dormitories, office buildings, classrooms, churches, chapels, gymnasiums, athletic fields, and all this just from what we could see from the river. There had to be far more at the top of the bluffs. We hooked left again, and still more facilities.
Even a U.S. Army excursion boat steamed past us.
We had been talking about where to stop for the evening and decided to pull into Cold Spring, New York, just above West Point.
The cruising guides described it one of the more quaint villages in Hudson Valley, and after tying up at the Cold Spring Boat Club and walking into town, we were ready to move there.
It’s full of shops and antique stores, and we had a very civilized dinner at the Hudson Inn. So far, this is going just the way I’d hoped the trip would go.
BOOM. 6:30 a.m. on the dot. A howitzer goes off at West Point across the river and echoes across the valley. I’m up.
The older I get, the worse my hearing gets, and some people seem to react by speaking more softly to me, probably to get me to speak more softly since I must not realize, or they think I don’t realize, how loud I am most of the time. Or they are just trying to irritate me, and if so it is highly effective.
So here in this part of New York, it is volume meter heaven. Not everyone falls into this category mind you, but in the lower Hudson Valley there really isn’t such a thing as a quiet conversation. In my regular haunts in the DC area, I’m at the north end of making myself heard, but here my speaking volume is at the lower reaches of their decibel range. That said, the discussions are never obnoxious. Anything but. The locals speak in a way that is gregarious, embracing, entertaining. When someone walks into a restaurant or anywhere else people gather, greetings are projected to the four corners of the room on the assumption that everyone wants to be part of the conversation and leaving someone out would be offensive. Judging from the acknowledgements boomed back, that is clearly the case. What makes these conversations most enjoyable is that they are often auditions for a stand-up comedy act.
We had an excellent breakfast at the Hudson Hills Restaurant where we were briefed on what’s going on in town by most everyone seated there. We learned who was where, what the vacation schedules were, and how spouses were getting through the day (“she’s doin’ yoga right now; it speaks to her inna self she tells me; whatever the hell that it is, I...DOHN…KNOW”). The kids confided to us what they thought of their grandparents.
Fortunately, that warmth and gregariousness carries over to the Hudson Valley boat clubs and marinas. We have been to a lot of marinas around the Chesapeake Bay, they don’t compare to what we are seeing in the Valley. The one exception in the Bay is the marina at Suicide Bridge. It is a collection of boats that don’t look as if they have ever left the docks. They are simply a place for people to hang out on weekends. In the Hudson Valley, the boats do go out cruising and fishing, but their occupants could not be more sociable—a combination of Italian warmth and Irish blarney. Where we are docked, the Cold Spring Boat Club, it isn’t just where you keep your boat. It is a combination social club and public service organization. You guys are looking for ice? People start pulling ice out of their coolers and putting it into plastic bags for us. Need a ride uptown? Notta problem. Let me get my car. Their club building is a large kitchen on one side and a giant man cave on the other. If it had dorm rooms, all the guys would move in there for the summer.
Arriving in Cold Spring was a delight, but this was also a major achievement day. As we were planning the trip and talking to those who had boated in New York State, one piece of advice was that the marine cops are strict on operators having a boater’s license. In Maryland, anyone born before 1972 is exempt. In New York, every operator is required to have a license no matter what their birth century. Someone we know had been given a very hard time by a NY marine cop for not having a license, and in the exchange, he was apparently threatened with incarceration and impoundment if caught the next time without one. Now, this person can be a little quick to take offense and often views being encouraged to get with the program as equivalent to a personal insult, yet the experience was so searing that he immediately took the course and exam before returning to New York to cruise.
For these reasons, I’d been struggling to find time to squeeze in the Maryland boating license course. The good news is that it's on-line; the bad is that it's tedious. Each page is timed, which means you can’t rush it. So here I was on the morning of the third day of our trip taking the final exam. The conditions weren’t the best because there was a large police boat with three cops aboard docked directly in front of us. If they decided to check us out, I’m wondering if they would be impressed by how far I’d gotten on the course. But the last cop off the boat just gave us a big smile and wave.
Which brings me to my point. Thus far, my experience with marine cops or any cops here in the Valley couldn’t have been more pleasant. They are at all the marinas because that’s where the police boats are kept. They wave, they have long talks with you, and their speech is embracing. Finishing the exam and being awarded my license online, I was hoping they would ask to inspect our boat so I can show it to them. But they don’t seem to care. They're interested in our itinerary and making
recommendations on marinas, restaurants, and rocks to avoid. Perhaps our friend with his English heritage doesn’t relate well to Italian-Irish-New Yorkers. I wonder if the cops who boarded his boat wanted to tell him about a great Italian restaurant up ahead, but he got upset because he felt they were invading his privacy. Who knows.
Another hot, hazy afternoon where things keep getting into the 90s just like what we left on the Bay. At least in the evening, it cools down to perfect sleeping whether. But we are starting to wonder if we had packed correctly. “Oh,” said our friends, the ultimate boating authorities. “It will be in the 70’s during the days.” Hasn’t happened yet.
We are heading towards Hyde Park from Cold Spring. Pollepel Island on our stern, and you can just barely see the ruins of what was once a huge castle built by Francis Bannerman as part of his Bannerman’s Island Arsenal.
Leaving Cold Spring at 11 we poked up the River against the tide and eventually arrived at the Hyde Park Marina around 4. We are in absolutely no rush and on no real timetable. This is the way life should be lived.
We have learned that over-reliance on cruising guides can be a big mistake. The cruising guide for the Hudson Valley talks about the wonderful restaurant right at Hyde Park Marina. Well, there is an old faded sign referring to a restaurant that was once located there. The locals hanging out in the marina say that it was great, their favorite place, but it burned down several years ago.
Guidebooks, infrequently updated, can be a snapshot of a time long ago, and Active Captain is far more reliable. We learned that Sandy devastated this region and the marinas along the shore. We were told about a 20 foot wall of water that surged up the Hudson, trashing everything in its path. For days afterwards, the river was full of everything that previously had occupied the shoreline. Trees, dumpsters, and large pieces of docks with several boats neatly tied up to them pirouetted downstream. Right in front of Hyde Park Marina, the Staten Island ferries came this far north looking for a sheltered
area, and they had to cruise up and down the river for hours on end in a tight loop along with Coast Guard boats and other lost souls with no place to tie up.
Like Cold Spring, this marina is another super friendly boating club. We are members of the Miles River Yacht Club in St. Michaels, but that is a formal, buttoned down place compared to Hudson Valley. Hyde Park Marina is another home away from home for an extended happy family. The boats leave the slips, but they are more like vacation homes on the water, and by nightfall, Dorie said that she felt as if we were in the middle of a close friend’s party. And again, need anything? Just let us know. We’ll drive you there.
Today was a fascinating day walking through history. Keith who manages Hyde Park Marina dropped us off at the beautiful Henry A. Wallace Visitors Center at FDR’s Hyde Park home, and we spent several hours touring his home and the grounds.
The house and Victorian age furnishings have been very well preserved, but they seemed from a time long since passed even when the Roosevelts were living there. The highlight was the large living room where Roosevelt spent most of his time while at Hyde Park. His presence is in the room, and you can imagine him sitting there with Churchill, one smoking a cigarette in that elegant holder, the other a cigar, working each other over in pursuit of their World War II strategies.
As Eleanor Roosevelt said of the two, “they seemed from the very first not only to have a good understanding of each other and an ability to work together easily, but also to enjoy each other's company."
And the two must have sat on the porch at times looking over this view down the river as shown in this photograph of Franklin and Eleanor doing just that.
A placard in the dining room describes the extent to which the President and First Lady entertained people of influence from all over the United States and globally, building relationships and absorbing insights. This seems in contrast to what goes on in the White House today in the Obama administration.
The communications system, or shortage thereof, was particularly fascinating. One phone was on the first floor at the bottom of the stairs, another at FDR’s bedside. There were no other phones in the house. The bedside was secure, connecting Hyde Park to the White House with scrambled messaging. You wonder whether this system was more secure then what we have today.
We also saw Eleanor Roosevelt’s home on the property. Originally, the estate was 1600 acres and extended four miles from the river. In the main house, there are three bedrooms in a row—FDR’s room, then Eleanor’s, then FDR’s mother’s room. That must have been a little tight as Sara ran her son’s life with an iron fist. From the furnishings, it was clear that Eleanor may not have spent much time there in the later years of their marriage.
And when we took the shuttle bus over to her home, Val-Kill Cottage, which was at least a ten-minute drive, you had a feeling that it was Eleanor’s separate world.
We then toured the nearby Vanderbilt Mansion where two centuries of American wealth lived. The present home was built by Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt who lived like European royalty. Frederick’s inheritance was a meager $10 million. He was considered the black sheep of the family for marrying a divorced woman twelve years his
senior. But when he died in 1938, he had turned that stake into $78 million, and this in the Great Depression, while his siblings blew through their inheritances deriding his estate as “a cottage.”
Back at the marina with no restaurant within walking distance, the locals suggest Coppola’s run by John and Luigi Coppola and Gian Bertolozzi. Soon after phoning in the order, John drives up in a black Mercedes and delivers one of the best, most affordable Italian meals we have had in years. I’ve eaten at several expensive Italian restaurants in DC, but nothing compares.
As evening approaches, the boats drift back into the marina, and it being Sunday, the party resumes at a subdued pace. The Supermoon rises, the night glows, and we are surrounded by over 200 Canada geese honking through the night, partying as well. I’m loving this.
It’s Monday morning, and we awoke to a silent marina. The weekend was over. No one was about. After the block party of the past two days, it was like views through the periscope in the movie, “On the Beach.” No signs of life anywhere.
When we planned the trip, we were told by the veterans that we would be early in the season, it would be a bit on the cool side, and we should pack accordingly. The reality of our predicament was settling in. An unusual weather system had settled in for two weeks bringing hot, humid, rainy days. We feel as if we are back on the Chesapeake in July. And today began very hot and humid.
We slowly cruised up the Hudson against the current, passing Esopus Meadows Lighthouse in the summer haze.
This morning, the tide was with us all the way, and while the engine was turning only 900 rpm, and we were doing 7.2 knots speed over ground. The water flat, we were in state of suspended animation. Dial the temperature back ten degrees, and my existence would be near perfection.
No business calls today. Absolutely beautiful scenery, all systems working perfectly, Dorie and I talking about Huck Finn and a life on the river. You couldn’t ask for more.
This spring, I’d installed new software on my chart plotter, and at various points along the Hudson the chart showed a big red or yellow arrow pointing in a certain direction. My guess was that it had something to do with the current in the river, but it didn’t become clear until we entered Roundout Creek in our blissful state of barely apparent motion. Right at the mouth, the boat lurched 90 degrees to starboard when the plotter said we were on top of the red arrow and then continued to spin in the strong current. Hitting the throttle, we quickly got back on course, but with rocks all over the Hudson I’ll pay more attention to that in the future!
A short run up the Creek brought us to Kingston and the Roundout Yacht Basin which was delightful. E.J. helped with lines, and Cheryl got us squared away. Nice showers, nice bathrooms, and best of all nice washing machines, just the thing in view of our limited wardrobe.
We had big plans to take the dingy down the river and start exploring the town, but within a half hour of getting tied up a huge thunderstorm blew up which lasted the entire afternoon and knocked out power in the marina. At one point a wall of white came hurtling down the creek with hail and hellacious winds. At that very moment, a large 44 foot Carver was trying to dock at the marina, and she was shoved over at an angle, spun to the side, and blown downstream. To see a boat that size get tossed around like a toy was frightening. We were told later that on the nearby interstate, dozens of cars suffered broken windshields because of the hail. So, it was down below and a quiet day getting caught up on email traffic.
With more storms threatening and business calls that had to be handled, we decided to stay an extra night in this lovely marina with its great facilities. Trying to do business calls in a thunderstorm in the middle of the Hudson didn’t sound like away to avoid detection of our Peter Pan existence.
Kingston, the birthplace of the State of New York, is an old town which, during the early years of the Revolutionary War, was the seat of New York’s government after it fled Manhattan. The British considered it a "hotbed of perfidy and sedulous disloyalty to King George the Third and His Majesty's Parliament," and proceeded to torch it in 1777, destroying more than 300 buildings.
Not a smart move. It upset the natives, and the next day, British General John Burgoyne was forced to surrender his entire army at the Battle of Saratoga, one of the American army’s greatest victories.
When coal was found in the interior of Pennsylvania, the Delaware and Hudson Canal was built from Honesdale, PA, to Kingsport. It was 108 miles long, 107 locks and 22 aqueducts. Having grown up in Bethesda, Maryland, playing along the C & O Canal, I was familiar with locks and the mechanics of a canal. For several summers, I had gone to camp near Honesdale where I'd been a counselor, and we as we drove around on our days off we would stumble across vestiges of canals deep in the Poconos which seemed puzzling. I now realize those were part of the Delaware and Hudson.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingsport describes how the town had boomed during the 19th century and supplied much of the energy resources that enabled New York City to grow so large. Among other things, the canal was also used to ship cement and bluestone that makes up much of the City’s sidewalks and buildings.
The shipping company was started by Thomas Cornell, and the Cornell tugs and barges dominated shipping along the Hudson River. He was said to be an astute business man who used his increasing power to lock up traffic along the Hudson, prospering from what the museum delicately describes as “unbridled free enterprise.” Cornell had a virtual monopoly of towing on the Hudson River and employed over 450 employees on their boats and in their workshops along Rondout Creek. In fact, at one time he owned the largest fleet of towboats in the country.
The cultural difference between the east side of the Hudson and the west is fascinating. The Metro North ties the east side to the City and all its wealth while rail service on the westside is much more limited. Life is quieter on this side of the river.
We had dinner in Savona’s Trattoria in the historic district. The staff and excellent food were so Italian we thought we were back in Italy. We found ourselves pointing to the menu and other people’s plates. The different courses the waiter described were nothing we had heard of before. And we stocked up for a few extra days.
Sunset from our dingy comingback up the creek to the marina after dinner.
Bad weather forecasts again for the day, but we had to keep moving if we were going to get to Essex, New York, on July 3rd where we had already paid for two nights at the Essex Inn, our one exception from the no-schedule rule. So it was down Roundout Creek and up the Hudson to Catskill, New York.
We are learning that the tide tables on the Hudson have little to do with reality even though they describe the high and low tide down to the minute. Those details, apparently, are astronomical calculations and don’t account for the amount of water flowing downstream, freshets, and other influences. While we thought that the tide would take us all the way to Catskill, it didn’t kick in until we were halfway there. No problem, because while Dorie drove slowly up the river, I did two conference calls back to back, faking being at work in D.C.
Still, members of the board of our biggest client were starting to get wise to what I was doing. One, in fact, started asking questions about our location, boat speed, and river conditions. Fortunately, I'd confided my month of playing hooky with the lead person on each of these survey calls, and he was if anything envious. He said I wasn’t missing a beat. And since he was a very senior executive at Verizon, how could he really complain. Not a single dropped call to date on my Verizon iPhone.
It was a moody, misty day, with everything deep blue and green.
We ducked into Esopus Creek to check it out, and found it a beautiful, quiet refuge.
Late in the day, we pulled into Catskill Creek and overnighted at Hop-o-Nose Marina with a very good restaurant, Creekside Cafe, run by Sean Meagher who owns the marina.
We had been checking the weather reports all evening, and this morning they were worse. There was a 90% chance of heavy rain during the day, 100% that night with thunderstorms, and the amount of rain in the evening could be up to 1.5 inches, further flooding the Hudson. Still, the fog shrouding the creek when we woke had burned off, and the sky was blue with beautiful puffy white clouds. I kept thinking about how several locks on the Champlain Canal had been closed for nearly five days a couple of weeks ago because of high water from all the rain. We decided that despite the forecasts, we had better make time.
We were out of the creek by 8:15 a.m. and into the Hudson. The time for dinking was over, and despite the fact we were running against the tide and current, we quickly got up to more than 20 knots, hoping we wouldn't hit any logs in the river.
A few days ago, my plan was to dink up to Athens and Hudson to have lunch, and then walk around the town, but this morning we were there in twenty minutes.
However, we quickly left the land of blue sky and drove right into a fog bank. Worried about the huge tugs and barges that were probably coming down the river on the tide, we saw a towering structure ahead and slowed down to investigate. Getting closer, we realized it was the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse. Getting back up to speed, the radio started crackling as tows ahead spotted us on their radar. We couldn’t see them, but they kindly placed us on the desired side of their tows. Captain Zeke was the most friendly. “One whistle, captain. Port to port,” and he then gave us a briefing on where large floating debris was around Rattlesnake Island ahead.
Soon the fog burned off on the river, and Albany came into view. We were making time.
Seven miles later we were pulling into Federal Lock at Troy. With all the rain, the current was really banging us around as we began our first locking experience. The gigantic structure was overwhelming in our small boat, a towering, intimidating soggy cavern with vertical gray walls. It’s over five football fields long designed for ships, tugs, and barges. We had read up on locking procedures and were prepared with boat hooks and fenders, but the only attachment point for this lock was a vertical pipe recessed into the wall. The lock, as it turned out, would be the largest one we would go through.
There was only one other boat in the lock, a very large cruiser homeported in Florida with two couples aboard. They were on the west wall, and we moved to the east wall alongside them towards the north side of the lock. They asked us if this was our first time through the lock, they told us it was for them as well. They asked where we were going, the Erie or Champlain canal, and we said Champlain. They said they were doing the Erie, which turned out to be fine, because the captain then went on to tell us our fenders were not hung properly, we were handling the lines incorrectly, and we were on the wrong wall. I quickly stopped listening. Soon, the steel doors banged shut behind us, the sound cascading down the lock, and we heard the people in the cruiser start yelling at one another.
Within minutes we were inside a giant washing machine as hundreds of thousands of gallons of water poured into the lock to raise us up 14 feet, shoving our small boat to and fro. Our fenders groaned under the pressure, and it was an athletic event keeping our small boat from smashing into the wall. I quickly realized that next lock, there would need to be a few adjustments made in fender placement.
When the spin cycle ended and the lockmaster had our boating registration number, the giant doors opened, and we crept forward with everything intact, survivors of our first canal experience.
Dorie Leigh was first out of the lock, but the large cruiser didn’t feel we were going fast enough. He swept past us, rocking us with his wake, arriving well before we did at Waterford where the Champlain Canal is to the right and the Erie to the left.
While in the lock, I had noticed the size of their boat and the fact that they hadn’t done anything to reduce its height. All our friends who have done this trip have sweated the bridges, pulling down biminis, aerials, radar towers, removing anything that might get whacked while trying to squeeze under the bridges. And by this point in the trip all sailboats have had their masts stepped.
So, as we approached Waterford and then continued up the Hudson, I couldn’t help noticing that this cruiser was stationary in the water, staring at the very first bridge which the chart showed had a vertical clearance of 27 feet. There was no way this cruiser was going to fit absent major modifications. You wonder what the conversation was on the boat. Had the owners been planning this trip with their friends for months? Whose fault was this? Had reservations been made ahead? How much money had been laid out? Who was the idiot designed these 100 year old bridges?
At this point, we were possessed. It was noon, and we were going to get to Schuylerville, New York, for the evening no matter what. That would bring us a third of the way through the Champlain Canal, and everyone said the Schuylerville Yacht Basin was a great place to stop. A strong current ran against us through the canal, but we quickly learned that we could sprint from one lock to the other at certain points. We went through Lock 1, then Lock 2 with an 18.5 foot rise, then Lock 3 at Mechanicsville a nearly 20 foot lift. The temperature was 90 degrees, and the humidity over 80 percent with hardly any wind. Sweat was pouring off me as we worked each lock.
A few miles after Lock 4 at Stillwater, the vistas opened up and we couldn’t help but to slow to our preferred dink speed enjoying the day.
So much for that 80% chance of rain thing, we started saying.
A half hour later, a cold breeze whipped through the cockpit. We looked at each other, and the throttle was back up to 20 knots against a 2.5 knot current.
By 3:30 we reached Schuylerville Yacht Basin, and Judy got us tied up. She owns the marina with her husband Phil and couldn’t be nicer. She is the type of person you want to have as one of your best friends. But I must have looked dehydrated and brain dead at this point, because she began talking to me like a kindergarten teacher would to a five year old as we got the lines set. Yes, I was spent. Dorie was still on all eight cylinders and went off to do a laundry. I did a face plant on the aft seat. She said my problem was that I just couldn’t keep up and that I should find another hobby. As I fell asleep, I wondered whether this was a preemptive strike for the next time I suggested that we do a long boat cruise. In my dream I heard her say, “I would, and it would be great, but you couldn’t keep up, so forget it.”
I eventually staggered up to the showers and then ate dinner on the boat with leftovers from Savona. The good news about American portions is that when we eat out one night at a good restaurant, we have fabulous leftovers for eating aboard for another night or two.
Bedtime came quickly, and when I awoke in the morning, I saw that the T-shirt I’d put on after my shower was backwards. Time to take a day off.
One call today late in the morning, but there is no question about whether we are going anywhere with the wind blowing 25 to 30 and rain clouds scudding across the sky. This is a catch-up day for both of us online, starting with a cleanup of the boat from last night’s rain and windstorm, and then on to provisioning.
Some of the people we deal with are starting to ask whether I’m at the office, and my response is to say yes and send them this picture.
By the way, check out the chart table that Pete, Dave, and Julio at Mathews Brothers built. When not in use as a chart table, we turn it upside down, and it becomes a shelf/floor above the coolers and food storage crates in front of the passenger seat.
Schuylerville is another canal town that did very well in the 19th century, and today its main street has art studios and galleries along with professional offices, restaurants, and a grocery store within walking distance. The highlight for us is Eli’s which is a fantastic breakfast place.
What is fascinating as we move north is how distinctly the culture changes from town to town. Here, people seem more bookish, arty, and have good craft skills (Saratoga Springs is only ten miles away). They are less boisterous, but just as pleasant and nice as everyone else that we have met along the way.
During the day we went for awalk along the old canal.
And in the evening as the sun was setting, we walked up to the Saratoga battle monument on top of a hill overlooking the town. During the Revolutionary War, the British crossed the Hudson here in 1777 and marched south about nine miles to Stillwater. Defeated by the American rabble, this global power retreated to this field in Schuylerville to lick its wounds and surrender.
The Battles of Saratoga were a turning point of the Revolution, convincing a skeptical Europe that the Americans might actually be able to overcome the Brits and giving France a reason to throw her support to the colonists.
As one British officer wrote, “The courage and obstinacy with which the Americans fought were the astonishment of everyone, and we now became fully convinced that they are not that contemptible enemy we had hitherto imagined them, incapable of standing a regular engagement, and that they would only fight behind strong and powerful works.”
Walking back into town as thesun set behind us.
Stepping off the boat to go ashore this morning, we see that the river came up more than a foot overnight, and the docks no longer reach the shore. Finding a board floating in the water near one of the fingers, we create a gangplank and climb the stairs. The current here in the basin is very strong, and we wonder what it is like out in the main channel.
Our plan is to get an early start, but before we know it we are sitting at Eli’s again having another fabulous breakfast.
Early this morning, a large trawler left the marina heading downstream. By the time we were ready to get underway, she was back at the marina. The captain said that there was so much current in the river, 5 knots he figured, that he started flying along and became worried that he would lose control around the locks. He looked at us a little skeptically, but the forecast was for another day of rain and at this point we were a go no matter what the conditions. Plus we would be going upstream against the current.
When we got into the river, there was a current, not five knots but perhaps three which is still very strong. We just pushed the throttle forward and got up to 17 knots, about all we could do under these conditions, and plowed forward.
There were seven locks to go to Whitehall Marina, our goal for the day, but we (at least I was) refreshed at this point, and we had our lock system down. We started moving through each with ease, beginning with Lock 5 just north of Schuylerville.
Once through Lock 5, we were in what must have been the original old canal alongside the river and its rapids, and the speed limit was 10 mph with no wake. We can only do about six knots without throwing an objectionable wake, so with the current coming hard downstream, we were creeping along.
On the chart, I noticed an odd description showing that when the canal rejoined the river, it did so right at the top of a dam shaped like a chevron, and the channel was right alongside the left wing of the chevron. And as the end of the canal approached, a string of large round orange balls marked the danger zone. This string paralleled us on the right, and suddenly we were looking down into a huge spillway with torrents of water tearing over the dam because of the highwater. The spray from this inferno shrouded rocks with water swirling over them in the rapids below, and it all looked like something out of a Dante. We were relieved to see a 45 mph speed limit sign just as we left the old canal, and the throttle got shoved all the way forward, making Dorie Leigh leap out of the water. I still have a picture of this in my mind as we tore past the spill way at top speed, but had I paused to do a photograph, we may have slid right over the dam.
From Lock 5 through Lock 8, the canal had constant tug, barge, and workboat traffic. In 2002, EPA designated a 40 mile section of the Upper Hudson River a PCB Superfund site, and GE has been doing cleanup of 2.65 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment ever since.
This work is to last through 2016 or 2018. The working craft wouldn’t acknowledge our presence, so we quickly learned to look for an opening and then accelerate around the tugs that darted back and forth shoving the barges about. It was like Jean Luc Picard picking his way through the Borg.
Throughout the day, we were amazed that never once in the entire Champlain Canal did we have another boat in a lock with us. And we hardly ever saw another boat either when we went through Lock 1 after the Federal lock until we got to Whitehall. It was if we had our own personal canal system.
We talked to the lockmaster at one of the locks about it, and he said there was actually a lot of traffic on the canal, but it was a function of how the day got started. If you start with a group of boats, you’re stuck with them all day long because all go at pretty much the same speed. If you start alone, you stay alone. So, we truly realized our good fortune when we began leaving Lock 7. We heard a tugboat captain talking with the lockmaster on Channel 13 saying that he would soon be bringing two barges through the lock. Getting behind that rig would have shot our day.
Once we reached Fort Edward, the Champlain Canal is no longer part of the Upper Hudson. It turns into a pure canal, and the tides and current we had accompanied us ever since Haverstraw were gone.
Lock 8 for us was the highest point in the lock system, and we were now being locked downwards to Lake Champlain.
By this point we were far away from urban areas, and sky was more clear with less haze. We were back in that suspended animation stage, quietly dinking through pristine countryside. We were following roads and rail lines that had been built alongside the original canal, but the traffic on them was minimal.
We’ve arrived in the land of rocks; no more Chesapeake Bay forgiveness.
Leaving Lock 11 at Comstock; spillway on the left, lock on the right.
By late afternoon, the bridges at Whitehall appeared, and we were at our last lock.
That was a good thing, because while we had been pros on the lock lines all day, I nearly blew it in this lock. The wind was blowing hard on our stern, pushing the boat away from the wall. Dorie had grabbed the line as I coasted to the middle of the lock. I then left the helm and scrambled to the stern to grab my line while it was still within reach. While managing to catch it, the boat kept going backwards no matter how hard both of us pulled on our lines. That made no sense because the wind was blowing the opposite direction. Reaching my breaking point, I finally realized that I had left the gear in reverse. Once out of gear, Dorie told the lockmaster that we were having a bit of drama, but everything was fine. Laughing, he said that was about to reopen the lock door to let me back out.
Throughout our experience on the Champlain Canal, each of the lockmasters was as nice and as helpful as he or she could be. At our first lock of the morning, the lockmaster had phoned ahead to let the next lock know we were coming, and that continued throughout the day. As we approached a lock, if it wasn’t already prepared for us, we never waited more than a few minutes to enter it unless another boat was in the lock coming downstream. We showed our pass at Lock 5, our first lock of the day, and from then on we never had to show it again. They couldn’t have been more accommodating.
Leaving Lock 12, we officially entered Lake Champlain. No more locks on this trip, and we had made it to the Lake! It was a feeling of major accomplishment.
Whitehall Marina is right beneath the lock, and we were soon tied up in a slip by Todd and A.J. We learned that Todd had recently bought the marina and runs two restaurants along with it. Either type of business is a tough one, and Todd and his family were putting their heart into both. We had a great dinner at his barbecue place on the marina side. Roger, who is a property manager in Woodstock, Vermont, and keeps his Cape Dory at the marina, helped tie us up when we arrived and gave us the lowdown on the lake and what was going on in town which was very helpful.
That night when we went below to get ready for bed, it sounded as if we were in a World War II submarine movie. In the morning Roger told me that at the end of the day they began draining water out of the canal because the levels were so high. What we heard was all that water rushing past us.
Today was just a beautiful day, our first cruise on Lake Champlain. Leaving Whitehall after Roger dropped us off at a quick trip to stock up, we motored through The Narrows.
Not a lot to describe other than we had achieved boating bliss and couldn’t ask for more. We have been boating ever since we were first married, primarily on the Chesapeake Bay and several charters in the Caribbean. Boating in New England on these rivers and lakes, we found, is magical.
As a reminder of home, there were osprey nests on many of the navigation markers.
Going through The Narrows of Dresden.
And a sailboat behind us coming through The Narrows.
It was Sunday, and fishing boats were everywhere.
Once past Benson Landing, the Lake widens.
Here we are coming into our marina for the evening, Chipman Point Marina, a couple of miles south of Fort Ticonderoga.
The captain of the sailboat we pass as we enter the marina asks us to be careful of the frying pan he is towing behind his boat. We assured him that we would. I guess we are in Vermont.
We settled in for the evening and waited for the inevitable end of the day rain. This weather won’t go away.
The rain wasn’t long in coming….
….or long in going.
We woke up with a soft rain falling, continuing on and off for the remainder of the day. We decided not to fight it. We listened to the C-Span replay of all the Sunday political talks shows, read books, got caught up, did a few business calls, napped, and otherwise took it easy.
Our plan had been to go north to Fort Ticonderoga today, but we decided to stay at the marina another day. We were close enough to Essex that we didn’t need to worry.
In between the showers, we borrowed Chipman Point Marina’s Scion and drove to Orwell, Vermont, the closest village, to replenish supplies. This is pretty cool when a marina comes with a loaner car.
Late in the afternoon, the wind shifted to the north and started blowing hard. I began worrying about trying to sleep with the waves rolling down the lake slapping us on the bow since we were on the end of a T-doc. But within minutes, a beautiful J-boat, a 37 foot cruising/racing machine with a huge mast that must carry a tremendous amount of sail, tied up in front of us. Soon, the J was bouncing up and down, leaving us quiet in her lee.
A guy from Montreal had just bought Spirit, the J, in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, and was bringing her around to Plattsburg, New York where she will be berthed. The picture above shows her with the mast unstepped so that she could get through the canals and under the bridges. Felix, the brand new owner of the boat, simply could not get a smile off his face, and his happiness was contagious. He was madly in love with her. And I couldn’t stop staring at the boat. If we were to ever buy a sailboat again, something that would never actually happen, this would be the boat. Felix was being helped by Pierre for the transition, and here is a picture taken the next day with the mast stepped when the marina moved both of us into different slips as the July 4th traffic started to roll in.
At this point in the trip, we no longer feel any need to push. We have arrived in the Lake and are completely on vacation now. It is July 1, and we won’t be hauled out until July 17. Essex is only a few hours away by boat, so we will wait until tomorrow to decide what we’ll do. We don’t want to miss Fort Ticonderoga, but anchoring out in the rain beneath the fort doesn’t sound like much fun. We’ll see what tomorrow brings. This is the way I’d like to go through the rest of life.
Dorie’s friends are probably asking her what it feels like now that we are 11 days into the trip and haven’t slept off the boat yet? Even with the rain, life is terrific. We couldn’t be more comfortable. The marina is on the lake at the edge of the woods. Its main office is an old stone house right on the shore.
Dorie and I feel as if we are kids again at summer camp. The docks are like what we had at the camps. The bathrooms and showers at the marinas are that way as well. And there is no need whatsoever to get dressed nicely for anything. There is nothing pressing. No demands are being made of us. But unlike camp, we have our “house” with us wherever we go, and how can you beat that.
With rain during the night and more forecast for today, we decide to take the marina up on its offer to drive their Scion over to Fort Ticonderoga instead of our original plan to dingy ashore and hike up to the fort. Two weeks of rain must have made the trail a muddy bog, plus looking off our stern the day looks ominous.
We took the Larrabees Point Ferry to the New York side which runs along a route which began providing ferry service in 1759.
We’re learning that the beautiful Upper Hudson River and Lake Champlain areas have a bloody and turbulent history, with the two valleys claiming more 18th century forts and battlefields than anywhere else in North America.
Fort Ticonderoga was built by the French at a critical point where the La Chute River flows out of Lake George for only 3.5 miles before entering Lake Champlain.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Hudson River/Lake George/Lake Champlain water highway joined New York and Montreal, making it a major travel and trading route. To protect it, the French began building a star shaped fort in 1755 facing southwards to guard against the British coming up the Hudson.
The British came in 1758 during the French and Indian War, and 4,000 French defenders repelled an attack by 16,000 British troops, turning it into a slaughter. Fearing another British attack, General Montcalm ordered more fortifications built overlooking the northeast approaches to the fort.
The following year, the British returned to Ticonderoga and drove out a token French garrison that had been left to man the fort. They did so by being a little more imaginative. They climbed to the top of Mount Defiance which overlooks the fort and was its Achilles’ heel. That’s why possession of the fort went back and forth between the British and the Continentals during the Revolutionary War. This picture that we took the following day as we motored past Ticonderoga shows Defiance on the left and Fort Ticonderoga to the extreme right. All that was needed was a few cannonballs lobbed into the fort from Mount Defiance to make the point about who was in charge of the high ground and who should move on.
In 1775, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold captured Ticonderoga from the British in a surprise attack, and its large cannons were transported to Boston, no easy feat, for use in the battles driving the British out of that city.
Following the failure of the Saratoga campaign, the British gave up interest in the fort, and it ceased to be of military value after 1781. The citadel fell into ruin, leading people to use it, as a guide said, as a “Home Depot,” stripping it of its stone, metal, and woodwork.
William Ferris Pell eventually came into ownership of the property in 1820 and used it as a summer retreat. The Pell family has been a politically important clan for decades (recall Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island who spent six terms in the Senate), and they restored the fort in 1909 and opened it to the public.
In 1921, Sarah Pellunder took reconstruction of the gardens, known now as King’s gardens, hiring Marian Cruger Coffin, one of the most famous American landscape architects of that period.
As you can see from the pictures, it is now a beautifully maintained property, designated a National Historic Landmark and featuring a large number of excellent exhibits.
Even the entrance and exit to the fort property are dramatic.
By the time we got back to the marina late in the afternoon, the sun was out, things started to dry, and we got caught up. But later the skies opened up again once again, raining until sunset as we ate yet another dinner under cover. And the Lake keeps rising.
We’re back on the water very early in the morning, leaving Chipman Point Marina headed to Essex, New York.
Finally, it seems as if the weather might be clearing and the rain will end. As we motor slowly north, the world is emerald green with the scenery getting to where we thought New England would look like this time of year.
Months ago, we made reservations at the Essex Inn in Essex, New York, pre-paying two nights, and we also made reservations at the Essex Shipyard for our boat while we were staying at the Inn. We get a little anxious when Dorie called the Shipyard to confirm our reservations and was told that they have fixed docks, not floating docks, and their docks were more than a foot underwater. They assured us that the marina next door, Essex Marina, would take care of us and that we had nothing to worry about.
Unfortunately, this was the same marina that Dorie had first called for reservations when we made the Inn reservations. They took their time responding, and Dorie decided to make reservations at the Shipyard just to be sure we had a slip. Worried that the Essex Marina might be busy for the July 4th weekend and that the Shipyard was out of commission, we cranked Dorie Leigh up and got moving to make sure we would be there early in the day. And we were certain that with all the people that must be seeking reservations for the busy July 4th weekend, they would never remember us.
The sun was shining, the scenery was spectacular, a pleasant breeze was blowing.
Yet there were hardly any other boats on the Lake. Coming from the Chesapeake Bay, we knew back home there would be hundreds of boats on the water around where we lived. This seemed odd. Truth be told, this area was far more beautiful for cruising than the Chesapeake.
As we went past Grog Harbor andheaded into Whallon Bay, the water got really deep. This was also a new one for us, and at one point Dorie saw the depth meter read a much larger number.
At the same time, the wind suddenly switched from a balmy southern breeze to something menacing from the north. The temperature dropped 15 degrees, and ahead was a scene that was unnerving. We later learned that when the cold north winds hit the moist warm southern breeze which often happens in this area, all hell can break loose.
We soon arrived at the Essex waterfront, and our plan was to go to the Marina’s fuel dock first and get topped up. We figured that buying well over $100 of fuel before asking about a slip might score a few points. Barry who owned the marina eventually answered our call, and when he asked if we needed fuel, we said yes. Only then did we realize that the decking for the fuel dock had also disappeared underwater, leaving only the fuel pumps themselves to mark the location. We certainly were getting off to a good start.
Barry walked out of his office into knee deep water as we pulled up alongside. “Someone’s going to have to get into the water with me to hold the stern off,” he said looking right at Dorie. Either she was going to pump the fuel or me, and she decided to go over the side. "So,“ he said to her as the two stood at either end of our boat which was now floating well above his dock, "two emails, phone calls, and you went with the Shipyard. But now you want to stay with me, do you?" We were busted. We took the grief as he laid it on thick. We soon learned that Barry was from Philadelphia and lives there most of the year, and in the late spring comes north to run the marina in the brief summer boating season on the lake. He turned out to be a character we very much liked.
Most marinas are, to put it politely, a bit on the grimy side. Essex Marina, in complete contrast, is spotless. Barry’s office and sales area was so clean that we felt we needed to take our shoes off to enter it. And someone cleaning the bathrooms as Dorie walked past gave her a squinted eye. We concluded that in our forty years of boating, Essex Marina is the cleanest, neatest, most put together marina we have ever seen, even though parts of it were underwater at the time. Yes, we have been to the Tides Inn, the number one rated boating destination on the Chesapeake, but we stayed ashore in the Inn and never checked out the dock facilities. But I can’t believe they would beat those at the Essex Marina.
All afternoon the sun wouldshine, then hard rains would blow through, then sun again.
We got squared away in our slip, but the water was so high that even at the Essex Marina with its floating docks required walking through ankle deep water to get to shore. Check the far right of the picture above and see if you can follow the dock. And as we sloshed ashore to get lunch, the skies opened up again such that we arrived at a lovely, quaint deli masquerading as two puddles. And then the same happened when we packed all our gear and headed to the quaint Essex Inn, a classic New England country bed and breakfast. I felt like a homeless person walking into the restaurant area with sopping wet shoes wearing a T-shirt and bathing suit, lugging a knapsack, garment bag, and duffle, and sporting a baseball hat completely soaked from the effects of several rain storms. "Oh, you all look lovely,” they smiled at us as we apologized, and quickly got us to our room and out of sight.
The Inn has an excellent chef, and we had reserved a suite with a sitting porch. After 13 consecutive nights on a Mathews Brothers 29, without question a world’s cruising record, we were in the lap of luxury. Showers lasted about twenty minutes each. The dinner was magnificent as was the leisurely stroll afterwards along the waterfront. I was happy, but it was later that I learned that Dorie was ecstatic and what that meant.
We wake up, and we aren’t sleeping in narrow V-berths. And today is a holiday. And we are in a huge kingsize bed in a beautiful New England inn. Sleeping on our boat is fine, but staying here is a treat under any condition.
It is the Fourth of July. Sitting on the balcony after breakfast, we discover that we have an excellent perch for the Essex Independence Day parade.
What is most fascinating about Essex is its architecture and how that architecture has been preserved to create this unique town.
First settled by Europeans in the early 1700’s, the entrepreneurs who moved here made it prosper by shipping forest products, quarrying stone, building ships, and engaging in leather and textile manufacturing. By the early 1800’s two shipyards were flourishing near the town’s South Bay. The War of 1812 also contributed with commissions to build at least 250 bateaux and two sloops - the Growler and the Eagle - which were produced in Essex yards and used in Commodore MacDonough’s American fleet.
The opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823 stimulated tremendous economic growth in Essex. Shipyards hummed with activity, and dozens of Essex-built canal boats joined the sloops on the lake. Everything turned to gold. Then in 1849 the railroads arrived, and Essex’s maritime-dependent economy collapsed. With the declining population there was little demand for new housing, a turn of events which continues to this day.
That meant what was standing in1860 had to make do, thus preserving most of them homes. Today, Essex is said to retain one of the most remarkably intact collections of pre-Civil War architecture in New York State. Walking around the town, you see all sorts of different styles–Yankee Saltbox, Federal, Greek Revival, Carpenter Gothic, Italianate, Victorian and even French Second Empire.
The sunny morning gave way to another afternoon of on and off rain, with the humidity continuing at Chesapeake Bay summer levels.
But by late afternoon, though, we begin to see signs that maybe, just maybe, this weather pattern might clear off?
We check the boat out after dinner and hope!
Note the pictures of two people no longer boat bums.
We check out of the Essex Inn this morning and walk right into a brief rain shower. It’s like living in Ireland but without the cool temperatures.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but at this point Dorie went into severe depression. In her mind, the cruise was over, and we were going home. The thought of two more weeks on the boat wasn’t sitting well with her. Still, after 42 years of marriage or maybe because of it, I’m clueless.
Today’s plan is to cruise up Otter Creek to Vergennes, Vermont, and then return to the Essex Marina to watch the fireworks and stay another night.
Before we leave, we replace the white navigation/anchor light on the mast. While on the canal, we vaguely remember a bang and a crunch on top of the cockpit roof, but we were busy with something at the time and forgot to check out the problem. While at Chipman Point Marina, we noticed the mangled light. All we can think of is that a low lying branch must have been the culprit. We had the part overnighted to us by West Marine, and thankfully the repair went off without triggering four other repairs as is typically the case.
With the rain gone, the day is bright and sunny and a gentle breeze blowing. Looking across the lake to the Green Mountains, we see the humidity steaming off the hills baked by the sun. Thirty days of rain has saturated everything, and we wonder if all that moisture will end up in clouds later in the day and keep this virtuous cycle going indefinitely.
We pass Split Rock Point going south, and the chart shows as an underwater canyon just to the east. At 387 feet, the depth meter stops reading. We don’t think that we have ever seen over 100 feet on the Chesapeake.
The entrance to Otter Creek is not well marked, and we feel along a shallow bay and eventually get through the entrance.
The narrow creek twists and turns seven miles into the surrounding hills, and with all the rain, there is a 2.5 mph plus current working against us. That together with a 5 mph speed limit/no wake policy in effect, we crawl along at 4.8 knots, then down to 4.3 knots as the current builds the further up the creek we go. The black dot on our chart plotter which shows the location of our boat doesn’t seem to move, and without saying anything to each other, we wonder if we are ever going to make it.
On Lake Champlain, there is no question we are in New England. Within a few minutes of starting up this narrow creek, we're on a bayou along the Gulf Coast.
Vergennes was first settled in1766 and was named for Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, who was the Foreign Minister of France during the reign of Louis XVI. He created a dummy company that supplied 80% of the military supplies the Revolutionaries received during the war, and he also negotiated the Treaty of Paris.
Vergennes is also where Thomas Macdonough built and armed the fleet that defeated the British on Lake Champlain during the War of 1812.
One ship,the Saratoga, a 143 foot corvette,was built in 40 days.
With the Otter Creek Falls supplying power, industry did well there until the arrival of the railroads and reliance on the waterways withered away.
Moving along at walking speed, we finally arrived at the town dock below the falls and strolled into town for lunch.
The humidity was above 85%, the sun blazing, and we climbed the hill and found a nice restaurant, the Three Squares. Even though it was 2:30 in the afternoon, it was packed with a lively lunch crowd. Sitting there waiting for our salads to come, we got the feeling of a town with a lot of energy but not quite sure what it wanted to be or where it was going. Looking up Vergennes in Wikipedia the next day, it describes how business has steadily declined since its boom years of the19th century, but “as the twenty-first century opened, a group of civic boosters and merchants improved the downtown area along Main Street. The resultant ‘boutique Vergennes’, catering to tourists and transients, is hampered by centralization of land ownership and resultant escalation of commercial rents.” Seems to be a bit of bad blood in town these days.
By the time we got back to the boat, thunder was booming south of us, but at least it brought a cool breeze.
"Brought your weather, didj ya?“ was the common refrain throughout this trip every time someone saw the St. Michaels’ homeport name on our stern which was starting to get annoying.
Crawling up the creek had been along slog, but going back down even in the light rain felt like a sleighride. We were moving at nearly 7 knots effortlessly with the engine barely turning over, and the black dot on the chart plotter danced along the creek’s snaky path. I don’t think the math works out quite right, but we seemed to go back down the creek in about a third of the time it took to come up it.
Back in Essex at the marina, the crowd was already starting to gather for the fireworks as we pulled into a slip, and the speculation was all about whether tomorrow the rain would finally clear. Checking the weather reports, it said that Westport, New York, had only a 10% chance of rain on Saturday, and we quickly agreed that would be our destination for the weekend. On to Basin Harbor tomorrow.
Bad morning. This is my low point of the trip. Not only was this the first night back on the boat after the heavenly Essex Inn, the air conditioning system on the boat conked out. Superficial attempts to fix it were unsuccessful, so we slept fitfully in the humidity and still air. I was back on it early in the morning drenched in sweat, and after a half hour or two finally figured out the problem. Debris washed into the lake from all the rains had clogged the HVAC intake. That was the easy part. The hard part was several hours of taking the system apart in the confined spaces of the boat and putting it back together again. Finally, it was operational and I hit the showers. Not much conversation on the boat.
As happens every morning now, it rains. By 1:00 p.m. when all the repairs were completed and our equanimity restored, we motor away from Essex as the sun comes out. Unlike Wednesday when there had been hardly any boats on the lake, it is Friday, and the lake is full of watercraft.
The collected wisdom from the Essex Marina regulars was to go to Basin Harbor Club and Resort and pick up a mooring in the North Harbor. They are first come, first served, so at two in the afternoon this holiday weekend we wonder whether any will be left.
Coming into the harbor, we work our way through the various empty moorings, all of which are private, and then finally stumble across the only remaining one owned by Basin Harbor. Things are working out.
Basin Harbor is described in the cruising guides as an upscale 700 acre resort that has been hosting families for vacations since 1886. It has 77 guest cottages overlooking the lake, a golf course, a landing strip for private planes, and a dining room that requires men to wear a coat and tie. I won’t be doing that.
Once settled on our mooring, a friendly guy from a beautiful 42 foot Grand Banks Europa moored nearby asks if I want to go with him in his dingy over to the cove just south of the one we are in to get signed in for the evening at the harbormaster’s office.
Remember that since leaving Haverstraw, we have been traveling through aging river, canal, and lake towns, each one with distinctive characteristics conveying a rich history over two to three centuries, but each struggling to survive. During that time we haven’t seen a single crowd. So coming around the point and entering Basin Harbor’s main cove, we are jarred to find ourselves inside an upscale country club. We come into the waterfront with its cornucopia of bright yellow, blue and red toys—kayaks, rowboats, rafts. There is a mob of people this holiday weekend, none of whom are locals. Sharp young staff are scampering about, catering to everyone’s whims. On the opposite side of the cove is a quaint, comfortable country inn that turned out to be the main office for the resort.
Manicured gardens and walkways abound, and nothing looks old, neglected or decaying. The staff was extremely friendly and quickly had us signed up for a mooring for the evening.
We mellowed in the boat for the rest of the day after the morning unpleasantness, went swimming off the stern, ate our way through excellent leftovers for dinner, and otherwise got ourselves back on track.
And at no time was there any rain. Just bright blue skies and nice breeze all day. Maybe the rain is clearing out. And at sunset, there was a hint of that red sky at night, sailor’s delight thing.
We wake to light rain which we now call morning dew. Today, the Lake reaches flood stage and is still rising.
Ignoring the rain, we get dressed for breakfast, wipe down the dingy and head over to the Basin Harbor waterfront in our raingear. Fortunately, it stops as we pull up to the dingy dock, and we’re able to stop looking like boat people and a bit more like the country club set before walking up to the lodge.
Inside the dining room, we’re seated by the window overlooking the harbor and pointed to a four star hotel breakfast buffet feast. It’s as if we’re at a Ritz Carlton, and we are reveling the change in venue.
This is a family oriented resort, and we are perhaps the only table where just a couple is sitting. Most have two to three generations, and the kids seem to be having the time of their lives.
While we were being seated, we saw an elderly gentleman and his middle aged son walking towards the main entrance of the lodge. After we had piled our plates high, we see the two of them coming back, looking at what must have been the invoice they had just received at checkout. For the remainder of our meal, they stand outside our window going over it line by line. Grandpa has developed a nervous tick and can’t stop his head from bobbing. Both can’t take their eyes off the bill as they decipher it. A few minutes later when I’m standing in line at the front desk to get a map of the property, those in front of me are also going into cardiac arrest at the sight of their invoices. And when we finish breakfast, the very nice waiter tells us three times that our breakfast bill includes 18.5% gratuity for everyone in his immediate vicinity but his tip for bringing us coffee and orange juice needs to go on top of that. Still, as we leave the main lodge and walk towards the maritime museum, we are very impressed with the grounds and upkeep, and it must cost a fortune to maintain the standard of brightwork the resort has in this north country environment with its short season.
The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum is on the Basin Harbor property. We live next door to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and over the years we have been to many more, but this one is first rate.
Like most, it has exhibits of the recreational aspects of the Lake’s history.
But it has extensive exhibits explaining the naval battles from both the Revolutionary War and the War of1812 perspectives. There was an arms race with each party building ships at a frantic pace to maintain dominance of the Lake’s waterways.
There was no decent overland route from Quebec and Montreal into New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut, so whoever controlled the waterways exercised military control over most of the area.
The exhibits showed the evolution of the watercraft adapted to the lake, from birch bark canoes to the excellent woodwork in the 19th and 20th century crafts.
What was particularly fascinating were the models of the canal boats that also had masts and sails. They were canal boats in the canals, and then sail power brought them up the lake. They had no keels, and if the load wasn’t correctly placed, over they would go in a storm.
After lunch, we took the dingy back to Dorie Leigh and headed over to Westport, New York. Walking around town, we immediately liked the feel of it.
What is most impressive is the amount of green space and how many of the houses have generous lawns. Since many of these were from the 19th century, we wonder if this is the result of horse barns and stables being removed as the automobile came into use.
For dinner we go to Le Bistro du Lac at the old Westport Yacht Club which was a fantastic French restaurant rivaling the Essex Inn. This must have been the place to see be seen. An immaculate 42 foot Hinckley powerboat was tied up outside that had brought eight beautiful people to dinner, and two tables away was former New York Governor George Pataki and his wife, Libby.
The threat of rain seems tobe dissipating, so maybe what we think is that typical New England summerday is coming!
More “morning dew,” but we very much enjoy Westport and our time in this special town. We decide to stay another night, take it easy, and walk around the town in the mist. If it clears up, we’ll do some minor improvements on the boat and otherwise enjoy the day. As mentioned, Westport is very big on parks and green space.
Also, like Essex, each house in the town is unique. Some obviously date from the mid-19th century, and most have been very well maintained and improved over the years.
By noon, the rain clears out,the humidity drops, and for the rest of the day it is glorious….
….particularly hanging out at the marina messing with our boat.
If you were looking for waterfront property on Lake Champlain, this is a town with tremendous character whose residents have put significant resources into conservation and planning.
Heading back to the boat before dinner, hardly a cloud in the sky.
It dawns cool and clear. No morning dew, no rain. This was the weather we were expecting, and it’s finally here. We don’t know how long, so we enjoy it as we leave Westport and head north to Burlington, Vermont.
We moved along quickly until we passed Partridge Harbor and saw several sailboats, kayaks, and canoes ahead. We crept along for the next three miles watching their progress and just enjoying this beautiful morning.
Before we head into Burlington, we take a side trip into Willsboro Bay with its steep granite cliffs.
Leaving the Bay and the New York side, we cross the eight mile width of the Lake here and head towards Burlington.
Neither of us have been to Burlington before, and we are incredibly impressed by what a delightful city it is. In fact, the longer we stayed, the more we enjoyed it. Had we not already made reservations at our next destination, we would have spent three or four nights at the marina in this very livable place instead of the two we did.
Having spent so much time during this trip passing through towns that have been struggling for more than a century, we feel as if we’ve arrived in the Emerald City. This is a metropolis that is vibrant and thriving. It may have been a major trade center during the 19th century, but those glory years continue today unlike the other towns we have been through. The population of Burlington itself is only 40,000 and the entire metropolitan area only has a bit more than 200,000, but it has an aura of something much larger and more cosmopolitan.
The city has put a tremendous amount of thought into its design, creating beautifully landscaped greenspaces throughout the downtown area. Just look at this picture of the marina where we were staying. You haven’t seen a shot like that before on this blog.
From the marina, we would walkup College Avenue to Church Street….
…passing carefully restored oldbuildings…
and lovely parks.
Church Street is blocked off to car traffic for several blocks, and it is the heart of the city’s marketplace.
The Marketplace may be the best example of the kind of town Burlington is for us, a cross between Reston Town Center and Berkeley. It is a college town that has lots of parents with young children, professional people tied into the other major employer in the area, health care, and a considerable amount of high quality craft and design stores. And then there are those drifting about the streets looking as if they were somewhere on the planet Zoltan.
Starting just a few blocks from the waterfront and ending at Church Street is a shopping mall that has every chain store you would expect, but you would never know it because of the way it has been buried in the middle of the city. And just finding the entrance is tricky.
What really impressed us was the quality of the food. Wherever we went, from a deli to a nice restaurant, the food was excellent. There are several very nice restaurants in the city which we did not go to, but they must be fantastic. Yesterday evening, we had walked around much of the city and become hungry. Instead of spending a lot of time investigating the best place to go, we simply walked into the nearest restaurant even though its menu looked pretty uninspired. To our surprise, we each had a terrific meal, and that’s the way it was for every other time we ate in Burlington. We never once ate on the boat during our stay.
And Burlington has done a very impressive job with its waterfront, building walkways and bike trails that stretch for several miles, incorporating the lake into the city.
We concluded that coming here in the fall when the leaves are changing would be spectacular and that when we come back, we’ll probably stay several days. And we do want to come back. We hated to leave.
This was a travel day, leaving Burlington and heading north to the Inland Sea section of Lake Champlain, the remote northeastern part near the Canadian border. By the time we had another fabulous breakfast ashore, got the boat packed, went for a walk, and fueled up, it was about noon. We were in no rush to leave, in part because we could see a marine police boat boarding nearly every vessel leaving Burlington. By this point in the trip, we are moving at a very relaxed pace, and our eventual reentry into a life of adult responsibilities is going to be pure hell. So we waited until the police boat came back to the dock for lunch.
We headed out of Burlington west past Juniper Island…
….and turned north up the lake.
The wind was coming now freshout of the north, pushing the humidity south where it belonged.
That meant the wind was also on our nose, and by blowing 15 to 20 it was creating a fetch that ran towards us for several miles down the lake before slapping our bow. With all the chop we were running through, photography was not working out for us.
We had about a three hour run from Burlington to Burton Island State Park in the Inland Sea. To get to that part of the lake from where we were, the course takes you through a narrow gap between North Hero Island and South Hero Island. where an old bridge has been removed.
Passing through the gap, you are immediately sheltered in a bay called The Gut. Even though the wind was hard overhead, the water barely rippled. At another time, this area would have been a great overnight anchorage.
Leaving the Gut on its east side to enter the Inland Sea, you pass beneath a bascule bridge and go immediately back into the chop. However, Burton Island can be seen once you enter the Sea, and soon we were due north of the anchorage and working towards the entrance to the harbor. The approach is a bit tricky with a reef just south of the entrance, and the fact that the lake is at flood stage doesn’t help in trying to read where docks, pilings, and rocks ought to be.
We soon go from the choppy waters of the lake into a harbor as smooth as glass. Once tied up to a short finger pier, the wind is blowing hard overhead, but our boat doesn’t budge an inch.
Burton Island State Park is a state park campground but cannot be accessed by car. We say only one maintenance truck driving around while there. The only way to get to the island is by boat or swimming which keeps the crowds down.
When I told Dorie where we would be going, she called ahead to line up a slip and make sure that shore power was available for the AC unit. But when we arrive, we find much of the harbor area underwater and the floating docks along way from the power source. We don’t have enough cords on our boat to reach the shore power unit. I had also told her that since this was a campground and that although there was a snack bar on site, we shouldn’t expect more than hot dogs, potato chips, and soft drinks.
As we walk towards the office to sign in after leaving all the amenities of Burlington for a remote state park, there isn’t much conversation. It looks as if we will be two nights in a place where at sunset mosquitoes will likely emerge in swarms from the swampy areas around the harbor created by the flooding. If we close up the cabin with no ventilation, things could become unbearable. Plus there wasn’t much on the foody end of things either. What we packed in is what we had.
You can imagine the wave of relief that sweeps over me when we get to the dock office and ask the harbormaster whether he has any spare extension cords. He opens the door to a storage room and points to a large stack of yellow 30 amp beauties. Carrying a 50 foot cord, we go next to the snack bar to find that not only was it more of a general store with pretty much anything you might need, a delightful woman behind the counter shows us her gourmet breakfast and lunch menu and then says she has specials every day. "You know,“ Dorie said, "maybe we should stay here three nights.” Soon, we were plugged in, Dorie was chatting with the people in the boats nearby, and I’d dodged a bullet.
We’re at Burton Island State Park in Lake Champlain having a great time. Looks as if we will be here for three nights which has given me an opportunity to explore one of the more fundamental issues involved in the cruising life.
As you’ve noticed from the pictures, our boat is a bit small compared to many of the others that you’ve seen tied up beside us during this cruise. Here we are next to a Monk 36 trawler, for example.
And just look at this magnificent Selene on the next dock over from us today.
Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with these seaworthy condos one after another, typically during Annapolis boat shows. I couldn’t get a Kady Krogen Express 52 out of my mind for weeks once. Trawlers like these in the 50 to 55 foot range have more room inside them than our place in downtown DC. Still, I wonder why cruisers want to take these behemoths on long journeys, especially through the canals that we have been through which must be a nerve wracking experience.
Sitting in the marina at Burton Island for what will be, according to Dorie, our 21st night spent sleeping on our boat this trip, I think the reason is the showers. By the end of the first week of a cruise, you’ve pretty much had it with marina showers. Yes, we have a shower system in the head of our boat, but with only a 20-gallon water tank, you can’t afford more than a quick rinse. If Dorie needs to wash her hair, she’s going to need a marina shower.
It's true that nearly every marina has showers, but most are barely adequate for their intended purpose. You want to get back out the door as quickly as you can.
Marina showers are in a league of their own. Most people want more from the experience than warm water being sprayed on them. They want a transcendent moment. They want to luxuriate as the sweat of a summer day is rinsed away. They don’t want to worry about whether it was five or did I only put four quarters in the machine that governs how long the shower is going to last.
If you have spent any time at a summer camp in the deep woods, you have a pretty good idea what most marina shower facilities resemble.
First, you rarely see ceramic tile. It’s simply not done. Ceramic tile is easy to clean and holds its appearance for years but is comparatively expensive. The basic idea of a marina bathroom is something built as cheaply as possible using no materials other than what you already have lying around; and if after looking through your cache of collected scrap all possibilities have been exhausted and something needs to be purchased, then it must come from a farm auction or yard sale. The item must never be purchased in a retail store because then the item would be new, and the idea of a marina bathroom is to be sure everything is well worn to the point of being worn out.
In marina bathrooms, you find extensive use of plywood for walls, doors, and shower stalls, and maybe even floors. The floorcovering is typically linoleum, paint over something that’s often hard to describe, or bare concrete. And not all concrete floors are flat in these facilities. We have seen it hand molded to create shower pans and drains like a kid would do building a form in a sandbox. And if you find yourself in a shower with a fiberglass shower unit, well you’re in more of an upscale marina facility, no matter how cheap or beat up the unit might be.
I think a lot of entomologists must be boaters because of the extensive amount of insect life that can be studied while showering. In the Chesapeake Bay area where it is oppressively hot during the summer, most restrooms are air-conditioned. But in the Hudson Valley and on Lake Champlain, none we've seen have it because, theoretically, the weather is better. The way a shower room is dried out is by leaving all doors wide open when not in use. And often the lights are left on as well making these facilities bug magnets.
As for the water, most marinas are in towns permitting access to city systems. But marinas can be in remote locations, requiring dependence on wells. That means the variation in water quality from one marina to the next can be remarkable. With a well, the water is a sampling of the region’s geology. Some showers have left us smelling of iron filings for days, others chalk white from limestone. It’s best to never open your mouth while in a marina shower.
And then there is the maintenance. Running a marina is challenging, even if the operator can fill its slips every weekend of the boating season. That means the resources available for maintenance, both in terms of staffing and hardware, are limited.
Plus, most marina operators seem to view their hygienic facilities as a necessary evil, not something that could actually be used to attract customers. Obvious maintenance items are often neglected. We were at a marina once that, uncharacteristically, had two identical bathrooms, both looking very nice. Pleased, I went into the first bathroom and got all set to take a shower. When the shower faucet was turned on, nothing happened no matter how much I fiddled with it or tried to figure out the problem. I put my clothes back on, went to the second bathroom only to find that there was no way to lock its door. But the shower worked. I had a shower and later so did Dorie. Fortunately, no one walked in on either of us while using it.
I’ve often thought that we could own and operate a killer marina by treating the restroom facilities like a spa.
Instead of afterthought spaces, it would be a commodious building with wide corridors and subtle lighting. Elegant ceramic tile would be liberally applied. Faucets and fixtures would be sparkling chrome. No plumbing would be visible. An attendant who cleans the spa hourly would hand you a large fluffy towel so you wouldn’t have to bring your own from your boat, the one that never dries. You would luxuriate in a long, hot shower with powerful exhaust fans whisking away the steam. The entrances to each shower stall would be glass doors instead of the cheap shower curtain from a factory closeout sale you typically get if you’re lucky to have one at all. And the floor would be clean, antiseptically clean. If you accidentally dropped a shirt on it, you wouldn’t have to worry about any major stain removal issues or even having to wash it. Can you imagine a couple talking about their boating plans for the weekend? What’s she going to say? Only one thing. “Yes, honey, as long as it’s The Spa at Marina Creek.”
But that clean thing will always be a major stumbling block. Marinas, after all, are working boat yards. When you step off your boat, you typically step onto gravel if you’re lucky, but more likely into a mixture of gravel, dirt and mud. You then walk across this working boat yard surface. You pass travel lifts which haul boats out of the water so that all the glop on their bottoms can be powerwashed and deposited in the gravel/mud/dirt ooze. Roll into that stew drips from oil changes and other lubricants, and you come up with the muck your shoes eventually track into the bathroom. Even if you had a full time attendant mopping up every time someone walked into a marina bathroom, you still couldn’t keep the floor clean. It’s a virtual impossibility.
But more than anything else, it’s the hardware selections that truly distinguish the marina shower and bathroom. Most marinas have been around for decades. You rarely see new marinas being built because of all the zoning and environmental issues. Plus simply deciding to operate a marina requires a wildly romantic view of what marina life is all about.
All this means that marinas are places where people have been servicing boats and marine equipment for very long periods of time. And during all that time, nothing has ever been thrown away. Boat parts are expensive, and you never know when you might need one. Old parts are thrown in the back of marina buildings which over time creates layers of ancient civilizations. It is from all this detritus that the marina bathroom evolves. If anything breaks and needs replacement, an archaeological dig begins. Hey, here’s some old plywood we pulled off that house after the hurricane. Let’s use it to replace that shower stall with the hole in it. We can put a coat of paint on it every year, and it shouldn’t rot too much.
That’s why in marina bathrooms, seldom do you see any two fixtures alike or anything done in a uniform matter. One shower stall might have no hooks on which to hang your clothes, duffel bag and towel while the one adjacent to it will have four, each one different of course. Every hinge on every door and every door knob is one of a kind. If there is a fiberglass shower stall, chances are that there is an access panel to the plumbing which is a hatch off a dead boat.
Shower nozzles are a treat, typically mid-twentieth century vintage with most of the jets having become blocked with calcium some time during the Carter administration. You can perform laser surgery with the jets of water that shoot out from the three remaining non-clogged holes.
And in the same shower you can have knob from a sink faucet for the hot water and a lever operated valve from a boat’s plumbing system to adjust the cold water.
What possessed me to write this was standing in the bathroom in Burton Island State Park after cruising for three weeks and realizing that the facility is actually very nice, that everything functions as it should, and that all plumbing, hardware, and electrical fixtures are uniform. Why? Because it is a government facility. It wasn’t built by someone in the marina business. The construction was done by a government contractor in accordance with specifications written by an architect. Everything was purchased new from a builders’ warehouse, and the work was inspected to determine compliance.
So that’s why I think serious cruisers often move up to large boats. Yacht manufacturers have gotten wise to this and designed into their products a separate shower stall, a 100 gallon water tank, and a large water heater. That means the owners of these boats never have to use a community shower in a marina. Can you imagine someone getting off a Fleming with a tote bag at the end of the day and walking up that gangplank to community shower room?
We have friends with a commodious Mainship 34 that is a home afloat, complete with a lounger. They are serious cruisers, and over this past winter season alone, they were on their boat for three months, leisurely going to Florida and back. She says that she never uses the marina shower. He always does.
Until our trip, I had never been able to figure out why, but now I understand. He is an engineer by training and otherwise the type of guy who excels in solving mechanical problems. For him, it must be a form of entertainment. I'll bet he stands there with a big smile on his face, marveling at the ingenuity that went into putting all those disparate pieces together to create that boating icon—the marina shower.
It’s Friday, and we will be spending Saturday and Saturday night at Burton Island. We have learned that while the lake is nearly empty during the week in the early summer, just the opposite is the case during the weekends. If we had tried to move to another location today, we would have spent the night on the hook. Also, we met boaters who had spent the previous night at Hero’s Welcome on North Hero which had been our planned destination for the day. They said that at sunset, the insects descended on their boat like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock film. We are fine here at Burton Island with our air conditioner humming all night long and everything shut tight.
During the day, boats streamed into the marina constantly, filling every slip. Then all the moorings outside the marina were claimed, and the rest anchored just offshore. At least 75 percent of all the people on the island by the end of the day were French Canadians, so every time someone first spoke to us it was usually in French. When we looked at the map, we discovered that we were less than 20 miles from the Canadian border.
The 30 days of rain had soaked the island, and although we did some of the hiking trails, most were muddy and even more impassable.
That bayou feeling seemed to be everywhere.
At times we would be walking along, and between the deep shade and the flood conditions, vertigo would set in. We would be thinking we were about to walk off a cliff when we realized it was the forest ahead under water.
Although it was intensely hot during the day, especially after hiking, the lake water was cool, and twenty minutes swimming has us iced down for the evening.
With the harbormaster wedging boats into the slips so tight, you had no choice but to become very familiar with your neighbors. We even had to break out the fenders. Most everyone was very pleasant, but to demonstrate how tight things were, note the use of drying towels as privacy walls, especially ours with the boat on our port side.
Everyone heard everyone else’s conversations all day long as one boat would talk over another boat, but for us it was never a bother or a distraction. People were politely speaking in French, and we had little idea what was being said.
The family on our starboard side was delightful. They were from Chambly in Quebec, and they keep their boat at Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu on the Richelieu River which drains Lake Champlain from the north end into the St. Lawrence River. Among other things, they told us all about the Canadian holidays and the fact that we were fortunate that we had come when we did and that we should be leaving as planned. Apparently, the last two weeks of July get very busy on the Lake because of the Canadian Construction Holiday. Andre and Mimi are having dinner here with their two adorable children, Stella and Emil, plus their dog Buddy.
What these pictures don’t show is that by nightfall there had to be 200 or so people picnicking around the marina, and at least half were children having a terrific time. Dorie was tremendously impressed by how polite the French children were. The dads would bring the kids into the general store to buy worms to go fishing, and that’s what they left with—worms. No whining or any scenes for not getting ice cream cones or anything else in the store.
By nightfall, dozens of fires were burning, keeping the mosquitoes at bay while the sun was setting.
In the morning we found our boat was covered with ash, but to see everyone feeling so comfortable in the middle of July around a fire was a treat. It’s not something we have ever seen boating on the Chesapeake this time of year.
Three comfortable days at Burton Island, and but it’s time to move on. Here we are leaving the anchorage early in the morning.
Our first stop is Hero’s Welcome on North Hero Island and its famous general store. This is not a typical general store as you would see in most New England towns but something very upscale with a gourmet bakery, antique and gift shops, plus all sorts of hard-to-find hardware items.
We anchored in the harbor ….
….and took the dingy to shore.
We have been cruising for three weeks now all the way from the New York suburbs, and North Hero is a world unto itself with one beautiful vacation home after another lining its shores. It’s like nothing we had seen on this scale before on our trip.
And the boats coming into the harbor are not too shabby either.
After lunch at lunch we head out of the harbor.
We go north around the tip of the island very close to the Canadian border and then work our way south through Alburg Passage.
We go through the cut at Pelots Point and down the lake into Treadwell Bay and then Deep Bay which is in Point au Roche Park in New York. By sunset, we are on a mooring and climb into bed after cooling ourselves down with a swim off the stern of the boat, watching the sunset.
July 15 is a Monday, and on Wednesday, the 17th, Pete Mathews arrives in Plattsburgh to pick up Dorie Leigh and take her back to our home in St. Michaels. When I wake up and look down Deep Bay, I can’t help but think that our adventure is pretty much over and that it’s time to get back to reality which is depressing.
Most of the day is spent doing business calls and on the computer while watching those still on vacation cruising up and down the bay.
While the trip has been idyllic, reality had been a constant intruder. Nearly every day I was dealing with our major contract dispute, drafting letters, doing conference calls, and planning legal strategy with our attorney. The sale of my mother’s condo had fallen through at the last minute because of a water issue we had not known of, and I spent part of nearly every day working on the concept for a new association initiative. Still, getting to do that from our waterborne platform was far preferable than being at the office.
This Monday and Tuesday had been the days that we were to anchor at Valcour Island and go hiking. Everyone we spoke to while on this cruise and all the guidebooks describe it in superlatives, saying that if you anchor out one night while on Lake Champlain, this island is not to be missed. We figure, however, that its trails must be swampy because of the extensive rain, plus the wind can’t decide whether to blow out of north or the south, and you want a southern wind for the best anchorages. We decide to save Valcour for the next trip up here.
By four in the afternoon, things slow down at the office, and we take the dingy out for a cruise around the bay.
The day is hot, but we still don’t want to let go of the vacation. A nice breeze is keeping everything enjoyable. We had talked at lunch about going to Treadwell Bay Marina for the evening so we can plug in and go to their very nice restaurant. But that doesn’t seem right, and we decide to stay for a second night on the mooring.
At the end of the day we go swimming to chill ourselves for the evening. The top six inches of the lake are always pleasant, but the water under the surface quickly sucks the heat away. We get acclimated by sitting on the swim platform and numbing our legs, and then slowly ease the rest of our bodies in. Near the end of the process, there is a weird sensation of our toes and legs refrigerated while the heat climbs madly towards our faces in the intense summer sun, sweat pouring from our foreheads. The final act is pushing yourself completely underwater like a torch plunged into icy slush.
As the day ends, both sail andpowerboats come into the bay and pick up moorings for the night.
We feel that this is it. Tomorrow is a transition day, and we need to get the boat ready for Pete plus figure out the best place for him to get Dorie Leigh on the trailer. We finish the wine we have and eat our way through several of the on-board meals that we have packed, celebrating the final day of this adventure.
Well, this is it. The adventure years in planning is over. We motor over to the Plattsburg Boat Basin to get a rental car for the trip bac kto Haverstraw, get the boat prepped, and spend the night. The 17th will be a very long repositioning day, getting our boat and ourselves from Lake Champlain near the Canadian border to St. Michaels on the Miles River off the Chesapeake Bay.
At 5:45 a.m. in Plattsburg Boat Basin on the 17th, Dorie and I are wide awake and on a mission. By a little after 7:00, our home for the past month was totally prepared for the road trip, and our rental car stuffed with everything we needed to get off the boat.
Although it is another humid day, a strong wind is powering across the lake, crashing waves against the shore outside the marina but bringing welcome relief from the heat.
There is also a major fishing tournament that is scheduled to get underway tomorrow in Plattsburgh, one of the FLW Everstart Pro-Am series, and we’re told that it has a total purse of$400,000 with an entry fee of $1,000 for the pros. The boats these guys use are relatively flat fiberglass fishing platforms painted with metallic glitter. Each has a small battery operated trolling motor in the bow and huge outboard hanging off the stern. They operate at two speeds, one that creeps along while they stand and fish, and the other at 50 miles an hour to get to another place ahead of the pack where they can stand and fish.
The Boat Basin is a huge marina with several hundred large yachts, both power and sail, all tied up to long rows of floating docks. While we’re packing, several of these fishing boats were slowly trolling up and down the long alleys between the docks, their operators using foot pedals to coax them along while they fish. They have that vacant, preoccupied look of all night gamblers. They stand on the bows with their rods, eyes darting back and forth, flicking their tackle into the water like a nervous tick. With the wind, the water must be too big outside the marina, and our guess is that these guys are trying to get the feel of Champlain by working out inside the quiet waters of the marina. But seeing the home aquarium size fish being reeled in and hurriedly tossed back, the exercise didn’t seem to be calming anyone’s nerves.
Around 9 in the morning, Dorie helped me get away from the wall where we were tied up under the gaze of the marina’s restaurant and pointed east out of the marina. She is driving the car around to the ramp at Point au Roche park just north of Plattsburgh while I drive Dorie Leigh back up the lake to the ramp.
Leaving the shelter of the marina and entering Cumberland Bay, the wind and waves are on my nose with fetch that has been building for more than eight miles, and just as I’m getting up to speed a couple of large waves welcome me by coming right over the pilothouse and dousing me through the open roof hatch.
It’s a sloppy, banging around, half hour ride back over to Deep Bay, but once there I manage to catch a mooring line solo and hook it to a bow cleat. We are waiting for Pete Mathews. The previous morning when we had been moored in this same bay, I’d woken early and taken the dingy with three big trash bags over to the adjacent narrow bay, Middle Bay, where we’d been told there was a dumpster. In doing so, I’d discovered a massive concrete boat ramp. A few calls later that morning to the park officials who operated the ramp, and we were told to just use it, don’t worry, no fees. We’re delighted that you are here. The New York State park system facilities are impressive, and their staff couldn’t be more friendly. We are glad that we’re here today when the ramp is completely empty and not tomorrow when the tournament starts.
At 11:15 Dorie calls to say Pete is at the main gate to the park with the truck and trailer, and it’s time to bring Dorie Leigh around to the ramp.
In no time she is on the trailer. We take a few quick pictures, and Pete is back on the road again.
As Pete drove our boat away, this was a very tough moment, at least for me. You see the big smile on Dorie’s face in the picture above. We have had our boat since 2004 and gotten to know her well in all sorts of sea conditions, and having just spent a month on her, she fits as comfortably as the new Tevas I was wearing that I’d purchased in Burlington. A sense of loss was building, and part of it was the end of the lifestyle, just going where we wanted to go each day with our world and the pressures of living dialed way back. I knew that Dorie was ecstatic to be getting in the car to drive home and could barely contain herself, but on the surface she appeared nonchalant. I, on the other hand, was thinking about the Richelieu River and all those quaint towns in Quebec we could go through if we could continue this journey indefinitely. With our boat already on the Interstate, we were standing there alone in the parking lot. Dorie and I hugged each other, or maybe it was more me hugging Dorie to try to hold onto the moment, and we talked briefly about the wonderful month we had had together. With one last look at the ramp, I climbed into the car to start for home even though for me Dorie Leigh had become our home.
We’re home now in St. Michaels,Maryland. On Friday, Pete Mathews brought Dorie Leigh to the ramp at Newcomb just south of St. Michaels after his crew had given her a thorough cleaning, and I drove her back to our slip behind our home.
The best news since we got home is that at a dinner the night after we got back, Dorie was asked by a friend whether she would do a trip like that again. Without hesitating, Dorie not only said yes, she described what the trip might be.
Our Hudson-Champlain cruise had been an amazing trip for us, and it wouldn’t have happened without a lot of support from our family, friends, business colleagues, and Pete and his team at Mathews Brothers. Taking a month off from business is tough no matter when you try to do it, but everyone in our office pitched in to pick up my slack, and there were no problems of any kind while I was gone, at least that I was aware of. And Pete made several modifications to our boat right up to the last minute that had a huge impact on making the trip go so smoothly.
My reason for saying all this was that there is never a good time to do a trip like this, and there are always lots of good reasons for putting it off, but at some point you just have to do it. This was confirmed during the trip when we were moored at Deep Bay. A good friend of ours told us that one of the people who Dorie and I had been very close to in college had suddenly died and that she was on her way to his funeral.
What really made the cruise possible for us was the mobility of Dorie Leigh, a Mathews Brothers Patriot 29 picnic boat. Three years ago, Chuck, the brother of one of our neighbors, was coming through St. Michaels with his wife in their very large comfortable cruiser. They were on their way home to Beaufort, South Carolina after a several month voyage which was their second loop. The first was going up the Hudson just as we had done (part way), then through the Erie Canal, the Thousand Islands, across the Great Lakes to Chicago, down the Illinois River to the Mississippi River, then up the Ohio River to the Tennessee River, up the Tennessee to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, down through the Tenn-Tom’s locks to the Gulf of Mexico, along the Gulf coast of Alabama and Florida, and up the Atlantic coast to their home in South Carolina. The second loop went along the same path that we did, then north from Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence River, then down the St. Lawrence River to the Gaspe Peninsula, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Maine, and then along the East Coast to Beaufort. Somewhere in there they had also gone through the Trent-Severn Canal which connects Lake Ontario with Lake Huron traversing the southern Ontario cottage country. In other words, they had cruised to most of the cruising destinations on the East Coast and Midwest.
One morning Chuck was standing on the dock while I was in our boat below. We were talking about his trips and whether Dorie and I could do the same. He suddenly started looking at our rig as if he were having an epiphany. He said the best advice he could give me was that certain parts of these loop trips were terrific while a lot of others were little more than unpleasant slogs. We had the perfect type of boat, he said, because it was small enough so that it could be trailed to the good spots, enabling us to skip the unpleasant ones. Plus, we could avoid having to go in more than one direction on one of these targeted cruises. He, like others we met along the way, said that it can get to be a drag returning along your same path, plus it can double the time of a trip. Yes, our Mathews 29 was small for living aboard, but then we wouldn’t have to be on her to the extent that they had done during their loops. He then rattled off the places that were must-sees along with the areas to be avoided.
Following that advice, here is Dorie Leigh high in the Adirondacks with Pete pulling her down the road, enabling us to do the one-way trip that we did. By the way, how many times do you get the owner of the business providing this kind of personalized service!
We hardly ever worried about keeping schedules or pushing on during our trip. We just stayed as long as we wanted in a particular place, and then moved on. The only commitments we had to keep were our Fourth of July reservations in Essex and Pete picking us up in Plattsburgh. During our trip there were a lot of loopers at our marinas, but they were constantly moving forward, so we rarely saw them for more than a day or two. Yes, they were covering far more miles than we were, but we spent much more time ashore touring which really made the trip for us. How can you do Burlington justice, for example, by just staying overnight at the marina?
Despite my rant about marina showers, we do have a great setup, and we wouldn’t change it. I do, however, remember my only non-regret during the last couple of days of the trip was thinking while showering in Plattsburgh that thank God, this will be my last marina shower for a while. Over the winter, I’m going to puzzle out how to improve the shower experience on Dorie Leigh for an extended cruise.
It was tremendously helpful being able to talk to others we met along the way about what to see and what to miss. What advice do they give? Uniformly, it is Lake Champlain, the inland parts of Canada, and the Bahamas. The rest is interesting, they say, but you could go to your grave with no regrets if you missed it. And we already live on the Chesapeake which is a great cruising area in the spring and fall. For the not-to-be missed place, they said:
- The Finger Lakes off the Erie Canal.
- Coming up the Oswego Canal into Lake Ontario, then crossing over to Kingston, Ontario and going through the Thousand Islands. Entering the Thousand Islands from the Lake Ontario by boat makes the trip, a couple of people advised.
- Taking the Trent-Severn Canal from Trent, Ontario to Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay which they say is magical.
- From Kingston, Ontario, going up the Rideau Canal to Ottawa, then coming back down the Ottawa River to the St. Lawrence River, going to Montreal, then Quebec, coming back up the St. Lawrence to Sorel, and then taking the Chambly Canal and the Richelieu River back through Quebec Province into Lake Champlain.
Doing a car trip for the other parts of Canada that you’d like to see, like the Gaspe Peninsula, PEI, and Cape Breton Island.
That looks to be a manageable bucket list. And they also advised us to leave the boat along the way in Canada, either for a few weeks or the winter, and then come back and continue the journey. That keeps the adventure alive. And Chuck’s point was that for a lot of the very beautiful parts of Canada, our boat would go through the locks and get into the remote waterways a lot easier than he could manage with his much larger craft.
So, we will continue to relive this trip for a long time, and the cogitating has already begun about how to make a few additional improvements as we get ready for the next adventure.
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