Cruising the Kite Loop

By Jim and Dede McGuire
For Points East
The Great Loop – a circumnavigation of Eastern North America by water – was just going to be too time-consuming for us, so we looked into the Down East Loop – by way of the Hudson River, Erie Canal, Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the Nova Scotia and New England coasts. In looking at the distance, the amount of open-ocean cruising and the timing, we realized our inexperience with this new boat, our timid natures concerning bad weather, and family commitments would make this trip too schedule demanding.

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The Kite Loop, step by step and resources: Follow this link for additional resources on this cruise.

We opted to cut the full loop short, and return from the St. Lawrence by coming down through the Richelieu River and canals into Lake Champlain. From there, we would take New York’s Champlain Canal to Waterford/Troy, then double back down through the Hudson River, East River, Long Island Sound to Rhode Island, and home to East Greenwich. This was a delightful change of plan,  to a kite-shaped circle of the U.S. and Canadian canals.

We purchased a cruising guide, “The Down East Loop,” and started planning. Bridge clearances were a concern, as well as depths. As we looked at various charts, tables and websites for the Erie, Oswego, St. Lawrence, Richelieu, St. Ours, Chambly and Champlain canals, we read about another Canadian canal named the Rideau, and it sparked our interest.

The restrictions of depth (five feet) and height (22 feet) would not be a problem. The new route and shape of the trip was then completed. It would look like a kite, with its top in Ottawa, its left and right sides in Oswego, N.Y., and Sorel, Canada, respectively. The bottom would be Troy, N.Y., and the tail the Hudson River and Long Island Sound. Thus, on June 2, 2015, we began the journey at the East Greenwich (R.I.) Yacht Club aboard our new (to us) Grand Banks 42.

The trip began after a fairly extensive refit of m/v Hope that included replacing shafts and cutlass bearings, doing a complete “bottom job,” and rebuilding the raw-water and engine circulating pumps on the two John Deere tractor engines aptly named Faith and Charity. With Hope’s tanks full of fuel and water, and the dinghy (De-Spare) hoisted on davits, we were off on a three-month cruise around New York, Canada and Vermont.

There is so much we could talk about: engine losing oil pressure and 21 quarts of oil into the catch-pan, three-foot standing waves with a following sea and a tornado warning in the Hudson River, and blinding rain in Troy N.Y. But that is incidental to the real fun part of the journey: the Erie Canal and onward.

Traveling by water in the “old barge canal” or “Clinton’s Ditch” (Gov. DeWitt Clinton) – which linked the east and the west before the railroads and the highway system – was a journey through time. The canal eliminated the need for portage of goods across land, and provided an all-water route to the Great Lakes and the great West. Several up-grades over the centuries created the present day Erie Canal.

The cities that flourished with the canal trade fell into disrepair when the railroads and highways surpassed them. However, they are today beginning a rebirth as historical tourist attractions. Waterford, N.Y., the beginning of the Erie Canal with its flight of five locking chambers, raised us 169 feet above the Hudson in about a half-mile distance.
I won’t belabor the details of all the glorious little hamlets along the way that are coming alive again, but one stands out to us as representative of many. The little town of Canajoharie, N.Y., where we stayed at the free town dock with electricity, was a real surprise.

It was the home of Beechnut Food Company – gum, baby food and other products in years gone by. In the days of the canal’s glory, the company flourished and was the town’s major employer. Competition and changing consumer demands and transportation systems led to the closing of the company’s several-acre production facilities. The massive unemployment devastated the town; however, people were able to relocate or travel to new employment, so it did not become a ghost town. This story seems to repeat the same basic theme with slight variations all along the Erie.

The first owner of Beechnut products collected many great artworks, and, beginning in 2004, the Arkell Hall Foundation partnered with the Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery to create the new Arkell Museum at Canajoharie for the public to view the historic collection.

“The American painting collection was established by Bartlett Arkell, the founder and first president of the Beech-Nut Packing Company. The paintings he collected are recognized today as some of the best works created by leading late 19th- and early 20th-century American artists,” the museum informed us. “Arkell built the art gallery attached to the Canajoharie Library in 1927, and worked with MacBeth Galleries in New York to acquire a remarkable collection of American paintings. The collection includes 21 works by Winslow Homer, and important paintings by George Inness, William M. Chase, Childe Hassam, Gilbert Stewart, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andrew Wyeth, Maurice Prendergast, Robert Henri, Anna Mary Robertson Moses, and others.”

I never thought I’d see an original Stewart painting of George Washington, and an original Wyeth and Grandma Moses in a small town along the Erie.

As interesting and historic as the Erie and the Oswego canals are, as they combine to link the Hudson River to Lake Ontario, the real surprise comes in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. We had early on thought we would go up the St. Lawrence River, through the Thousand Islands and then to Montreal. As I said earlier, we fell into some information about that historic 1820s canal built by the British Government.

The Rideau Canal was built in direct response to the Canadian British fear that, after the War of 1812, Americans would soon begin a plan to colonize all of North America, including British Canada. So, as a preemptive and protective effort, the British Parliament determined that a secondary all-water route was necessary to the Great Lakes. This canal not only would bypass numerous problems, most notably the Americans, but also the westward current and rapids of the St. Lawrence River.

Col. John By, of the Royal Engineers, was called out of retirement to head up the project to build a “slack-water” canal, utilizing existing rivers and lakes across the Canadian Shield, a ridge of Precambrian rock that is a watershed north of lake Ontario. It was a major challenge, but, if successful, it would assure his being promoted to general, and maybe even becoming a peer and knighthood. Col. By and his surveyors mapped out a route that would utilize the Ottawa River and the Rideau’s lakes and river.

Actual construction began in 1828, and was finished in 1832. The canal was 126 miles long and had 49 locks and lock flights that rose from Ottawa (79-foot, eight-flight lock) to the watershed highpoint at the Narrows (275 feet at the top of the ridge), and then dropped down 166 feet to the level of Lake Ontario. The Precambrian rock proved practically impenetrable to picks, shovels, and TNT.

Combined with malaria, which killed thousands of workers digging in dense forest/swamp, the project could have been a complete failure. The engineering genius of Col. By was devising ways to raise the water levels on both sides of the six-mile-wide rock-hard isthmus along the top of the ledge, which reduced the difficult digging to only a mile or so of canal.

The 49 locks and dams he installed still stand today, as originally built with limestone and timber; some repairs, of course, have been required. However, the original manually operated gates and valves for each lock are still opened by hand by summer staff (students) of Parks Canada. Each lock station has a rest area, restroom and dockage with electricity available at many of them. One season pass for locks, and one for dockage, and you never need a marina ($9.20 per foot Canadian for the dockage pass). Each lock is operated by a wonderful group of kids that works the stations.

It was a classic journey back in time, but with the amenities of running water and electricity in a parklike setting. The Rideau is part of the UNESCO World Heritage System of notable locations of historic value to Mankind. We enjoyed each and every lock, and have many photos and fond memories we will share forever. I wish we could have stayed at each one of them overnight, but there are 49 of them, and time does not permit that much fun.

We arrived in Ottawa, the end of the Rideau, to enjoy that big, but still quaint and wonderful, city. We tied up to a wall at the foot of the hill across from the Parliament Building. Every morning, we were in a front-row seat to watch the changing of the Palace Guard. They formed ranks on the side of the hill, played their bagpipes, and marched away to the Parliament building – we followed them for the hour-long ceremony.
Ottawa is the home of the “Museum of War,” with its collection of the spoils of war from World Wars I and II. Many original historic items are on display, including Hitler’s original Staff Car and a mini one-man German submarine captured in England’s Thames River.

On July 7, we left the Rideau’s last flight of eight locks in Ottawa, and soon we were halfway to Montreal. The Ottawa River is wide but shallow, and not well buoyed. We followed the magenta line and watched the fathometer, at times searching for deep water. We were looking at the calendar and, unfortunately, did have family commitments at the end of July, so we could not tarry. We docked outside of the city, at Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, and took a bus in to Montreal for a quick look-see, and then were off to start the canal trip from Sorel, down the Richelieu River and Chambly Canal to Lake Champlain, where we planned to lay over for a week and drive home by rental car.

Part II will appear in the September issue. Jim is a retired college professor and a retired USCG-R chief petty officer. Dede is a retired hospital administrator who now plays grandmother to their six and three-quarter grandchildren. They had planned on a cruise to the Bahamas, but, with the “three-quarter” grandson due around Thanksgiving, their plans changed. In September/October they are bound Downeast to gam with some voyaging friends.