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McCallum: A Day On The Canal

10/16/09 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(HOST) An end-of-summer trip on the Champlain Canal reminded commentator Mary McCallum of the importance of seeing the sights from a whole new perspective.

(MCCALLUM) Retired friends had transformed a vintage wooden cabin cruiser into a cozy houseboat and used it to explore the Erie Canal all summer.  I caught up with them as they headed back to Vermont on the Champlain Canal, the last leg of a leisurely journey that had transported them back to a time when commerce thrived on our inland waterways.  

Built in 1823, this watery highway and its eleven locks connected small towns that used to bustle with shipping activity between Troy and Whitehall, NY, where it connected to the southern end of Lake Champlain.  It's sixty miles are quieter now, populated by wildlife and the pleasure boats of summer. The cash strapped towns along its banks now face toward the highway, with its gas stations and fast food restaurants.

My friends spent several years preparing for this trip and brought along everything but the kitchen sink.  Well no, that brought that too.  The boat has a galley, a bathroom with a hot shower, a large comfortable bed, folding tables and chairs, curtains on the windows and hand woven rugs on the floors.  With two adults, one fuzzy black cat, two large dogs, two kayaks and two bicycles on deck, the boat drew appreciative stares and waves from other canal folks.  I was part of the crew during one long golden afternoon as we puttered along at a calm 10 miles per hour.

We motored from Whitehall toward Fort Ann, seven miles north.  We passed through Lock Eleven on the way, rising twelve feet and continuing on, much as heavily laden nineteenth century canal boats did over one hundred and eighty years ago.  Great blue herons lifted and dove around us and a man in a canoe glided by with a golden retriever sitting patiently under a blue parasol.  Pairs of young men with fishing poles stood in front of folding chairs on the river bank, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.   At Fort Edward we stopped and ate turkey sandwiches and apple pie baked on board.  The dogs flopped and snoozed at our feet while the boat rocked gently beneath us.  By midday we'd seen only one other boat.

Passing slowly through the shallow channels and under low hanging bridges, I was struck by the layers of  life around us that we never see from the highway.  The old canal towns struggle to hang on but the locks continue to function but are not driven by the demanding timetable of everyday commerce, and thus serve far fewer boats.  Come winter, the canal that one hundred years ago rang with the sounds of boats and cries of the men driving horses and mules along the towpath will be mostly silent.

But this one perfect day on the historic waterway at the turn of the  twenty-first century was a good reminder for me to take a detour off the beaten path.  Try a dirt road instead of asphalt and, if you get the chance, consider the undemanding pace  of one of America's old canals.  We may not see them, but they are still there, waiting to be explored.
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