ALBANY, N.Y. — The delightfully pokey pace of canal cruising, long popular in Western Europe, is still a rare travel experience in this country.
One pioneering operator, Mid-Lakes Navigation Co. of Skaneateles, N.Y., has offered two- to four-day trips along New York State's 524-mile canal system since 1975.
The Erie Canal from Albany west to Syracuse and Buffalo is by far the best-known waterway, but the company's 50-passenger packet boat Emita II also navigates the Oswego Canal to the edge of Lake Ontario and the Champlain Canal from Albany north to Whitehall, from mid-June to mid-October.
At first sight at the pier in the Port of Albany, the diminutive 65-foot Emita II appears out of scale next to the looming bow of a large white banana boat. But once boarded, the plain-looking former Maine coastal ferry reveals its considerable charms.
The boat's open top deck is attractively furnished with awning-covered reclining chairs and cushioned, slatted oak benches. Mahogany trim accents the pilothouse from where Capt. Peter Wiles and his son Dan, also a captain, deliver a steady stream of anecdotes while steering a straight course along the channel.
Captain and Furniture Maker
Capt. Peter, who sports long white hair under a brown fishing cap, is also a skilled furniture maker, carrying on his father's well-established reputation. He fashioned the long wooden tables and banquettes in the lower-deck dining room. Oriental patterned scatter rugs on a red deck and orange life preservers in the overhead racks lend an additional air of color and warmth to the room.
All meals are taken aboard the Emita II, but nights are spent ashore in hotels. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style and dinner is served by the young crew. The food is good American fare, with the featured evening meal deck-grilled filet mignon accompanied by a crab and shrimp salad.
Boarding for the three-day Hudson River and Champlain Canal cruise began in Albany one morning at 8:30 a.m. Capt. Peter, standing on the gangway, greeted passengers with the opening line, "Canaling is not an exact science." He suggested that we be prepared to relax and let come what may.
It was clear that the 40 members of his audience, some who live nearby, others from distant states, already knew how to respond to the challenge. Many had claimed their favorite outdoor viewing spot. For Walter Meseck, a retired Hudson River tugboat owner, it was at the open window of the pilothouse.
Within 15 minutes Albany's contrasting skyline of Victorian Gothic and rectangular slab-sided buildings receded astern. Ahead, the first set of a dozen locks divided the waterway into a series of controlled pools.
Capt. Dan gave a tour of Lock C-5 at Northumberland, pointing out the original machinery, scavenged from Navy ships and trolley cars. Private yachts and jet fuel barges bound for the Air Force base at Plattsburgh, N.Y., gathered at the lock gates for the toll-free transit.
All day the Emita II plowed on at a steady pace of 8 m.p.h. between wooded shores and rolling farmlands. Cows grazed at the water's edge, and children ran down to wave and to show off by diving into the canal. At one point near Fort Edward, we could look down from the water highway into the valley below.
On the second day a young teen-ager, known to the crew, hitched a ride to Whitehall and back. He said that he liked to fish the canal for walleyed pike, catfish, perch and eel.
Just before reaching Whitehall the Emita II slowed its approach to a particularly low rail bridge. In the 19th Century the fledgling railroads often designed their spans to impede the canal's freight traffic, and they eventually won the bulk of the trade.
Capt. Dan took sight along the roof of the pilothouse. When he saw that the boat was not going to clear the rusty bridge, he asked all passengers to move their weight up to the bow. The boat, ever so gently, eased forward, clearing the bridge's knobby rivets by less than an inch.
Whitehall, the turnaround point, is a dilapidated sort of place that has long since had its heyday as a canal and rail center. The Skenesborough Museum there is full of attic and basement items that recall the city's past as the birthplace of the U.S. Navy and Marines. In 1775 Benedict Arnold ordered ships to be built here to fight British attempts to control the vital north-south route between New York and Montreal.
Both nights of the cruise were spent at the venerable 1920s-built Queensbury Hotel in downtown Glens Falls, a four-mile bus ride from the landing at Fort Edward.
On the second night the captain showed the company's excellent film about the successful canal preservation efforts in Britain, to help raise awareness about the value of New York State's recreational waterways.
Other Canal Cruises
Besides the Champlain Canal cruise described here, the Emita II makes three-day Erie Canal cruises from Albany to Syracuse along the Mohawk River. The highlights are the five-lock series at Waterford, old factory towns such as Amsterdam and Little Falls and the 22-mile Oneida Lake crossing.
From Syracuse to Buffalo the Emita II passes through the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge, tidy restored canal towns and close to the original canal's small locks and stone-arched aqueducts. In places the bridges are so low that the crew has to remove the roof of the pilothouse.
Both trips are one way, with each night ashore in a different hotel and a bus transfer back to the originating port.
Per-person fares for the three-day cruises are $360 double occupancy, $340 triple occupancy and $400 single at the hotels.
Mid-Lakes Navigation Co., P.O. Box 61, 11 Jordan St., Skaneateles, N.Y. 13152, phone (315) 685-5722.