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Our Cheap Thrills on the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal is a 338-mile waterway built in the 1800s through upstate NY and contains 57 locks. In 1918, the Erie Canal was rebuilt (some parts expanded, other parts rerouted) to become the Barge Canal. Many of the operating locks use the same parts from the 1900s, so pretty incredible it is still operational today. We are about three-quarters of the way through. Here are some of our takeaways.

The canal is full of cheap thrills (that could quickly become expensive)


Bridges on the canal can run as low as 15 feet. The bigger boats that can’t make it through pay a captain to take their boat through the Welland Canal in Canada to avoid this section. Sailboats have their masts taken down to make it through. If we take down our bimini top (sun cover on our flybridge) we can get down to about 11 feet, so we would be fine no problem. But we didn’t really want to have to take our top down and knew we were roughly 15 feet tall. So we tested our luck, held our breaths, and approached bridges slowly, sometimes only clearing by inches.

Skinny Water

One of the dams was broken, causing water between Lock 29 and 30 to be around 4-5 feet deep. Luckily our draft is 3.5 feet (how deep our boat is in the water), but it still required some attention to navigate. As we were waiting for the lock to open, we heard a sailboat was getting towed through. We followed a depth map provided by the lockmaster and stayed back from other boats that may dredge up muck that could get sucked into our engine. Like the bridges, we moved slowly, held our breaths, and made it through.

The canal has some great small businesses

One of the best parts of this trip is the chance to visit different corners of this country we otherwise would never visit. Each place has its own charm and something (a business, person, history, environment, baked good) that has left us feeling grateful we had the opportunity to experience it. On our Loop route map, we are tagging some of our favorite places we’ve found along the way. But two that stood out on the Erie are:

Muranda Cheese Company

This is not right on the canal, so we biked from Seneca Falls, not really knowing what to expect after seeing it on Google Maps. Much to our enjoyment, we come across a beautiful barn with live music, a grilled cheese grill, people hanging on the lawn, and $6 cheese tastings, plus a bar where you could get a glass of local wine or beer. The guy that did our cheese samples happened to be the owner, and learned he started the business when his sons we to college in the area, looking for something to keep him occupied. So he hired a cheesemaker and built a really fun establishment. (A highlight of Kate's 31st birthday.)

Copper Leaf Brewery

This is a small brewery that opened this April in Pittsford, NY. We came in on a Thursday and the bartenders were the sister and brother-in-law of the owner. Her brother was a home brewer and teamed up with his dad and other brother to open up Copper Leaf to share his brews with the community. Great beers and fun to see a family’s dream come to life (and taste good!).

We barely have had to pay for docking

One of the best parts of the Erie Canal is we have barely had to pay for docking. Most marinas will charge anywhere from $1-$4.50 a foot to tie up. Along the Erie, there are a ton of parks with tie-ups for boats and many of the towns offer small docks with all the amenities a boater needs (electrical hookup, water, bathrooms, showers, laundry, walking distance to town) for free or very low cost.

Locks are cool...but get old

At the beginning of the Erie, the locks were kind of fun, a challenge to see how smoothly we can grab a hold of the lines and float up or down the wall, breaking up long cruising days.

Now they’re something that can break up our rhythm. You have to call the lockmaster, wait for it to open (which is harder than it looks sometimes to keep a boat in the same position), grab lines on the wall, wait for the lock to do its thing, try to get off without hitting the back of your boat, and readjust your fenders and lines. Grateful for this innovative infrastructure, but we’re feeling a bit locked out.

There are essentially 0 diesel mechanics in Rochester

We stopped in Pittsford for 2 nights, a very fun town with a dairy farm, incredible bakery, 2 breweries, and a great bike path (what more could you want?!?). We decided to change our fuel filters for the first time by ourselves. The fuel filters help filter out any dirt or water that may end up in your fuel before it hits the engine and therefore need to be changed periodically. The first time we did this we had a mechanic show us how to do it. This time we were on our own, and if we messed up, there were zero diesel mechanics around to help us out.

We messed up. Long story short, we got air in the fuel lines, which must be bled out or the engine will not start. This requires cracking the various nuts along the fuel lines and cranking the engine to push fuel through the system, while the air escapes through the cracked nuts. We were not feeling very confident. We were disappointed in ourselves that we messed up this project. But we had no choice but to try to fix it, or back up was to call a towboat and try to tow us to who knows where. So after a few calls to Mike and our Volvo mechanic friend from NJ Kevin, we went for it. It was messy. It was stressful. But we did it and the high of getting our engine running again was incredible.

In case you missed the latest on Instagram:

  1. Spending 4+ days getting our generator up and running - post

  2. Kate turned 31 and we ate our way through the Finger Lakes - post


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