Canaling Adventure: 88 miles on the Erie Canal

Industrial train bridge and reflection over serene canal waters

‘Canaling’ is a term used by adventurers who sail artificial waterways such as the Erie Canal

I just completed canaling 88 miles on the Erie Canal as part of a three-woman crew. I can’t say that I know from where my fascination with the Erie Canal originated. I’m sure that it was ignited in grade school when I learned the song, “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal.” As part of the social studies curriculum, the song taught about canaling and the Erie Canal’s crucial role in the development of our nation.

In the late 1700s, people (dare I say ‘politicians’) debated over the feasibility of hand digging a 363-mile canal through a ridge in the Adirondack Mountains to connect the newly-formed nation to uncharted lands to the west. If those lands weren’t unified with the Atlantic States, there were French and British, and further West, Russians who would gladly occupy the fertile soil.

Map of Erie Canal and western New York State from Albany to Buffalo
Rosemary Wardley [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

That was a long time ago – the roads were awful, and much of the virgin forests of New York had never been penetrated. Steam shovels hadn’t been invented yet and surveyors would have to be the engineers on the project as there were no US civil engineers prior to 1819. It was hard to envision canaling through thick forests so green that it dazes your eyes.

No wonder there was so much controversy about what would later be mocked as “Clinton’s Ditch.” The first shovel of dirt wasn’t turned until 1817 and that was all pomp and circumstance with New York Governor DeWitt Clinton most probably attending. It was only 182 years later when I married Dan Wittig, a native of western Pennsylvania. During our many visits to his Grandma’s house, aunts would talk about riding canal boats on the Erie Canal. Ah, I remembered the song and the mule named Sal. I wanted to skipper a boat on the Erie Canal.

Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor

Ever a fan of the National Park system, I did research and learned that the Erie Canalway was a “National Heritage Corridor.” I could get a stamp on my National Park Passport book if I could get Dan to drive from Pennsylvania to the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. I couldn’t. He didn’t want any part of the Erie Canal and was as stubborn as that old mule, Sal, about the whole thing.

map of Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor

I want more of the Erie Canal

Fast forward almost 15 years, and I’m attending TBEX, a travel bloggers conference in western New York. One of the sponsors offers a tour to familiarize travel writers with Rochester, New York. Included in the three-day visit is a ride on Sam Patch Erie Canal Tours. I apply to be chosen for the trip and hold my breath. The rest is history; I am elected, I get a taste of gliding past pastoral green countryside and visiting charming villages on a two-hour canal boat tour. My whistle is whetted; I want more. My fascination with the Erie Canal turns into a full-blown obsession, and when I get home, I start dreaming about a six-day Erie Canal boat rental.

Misty view of Erie Canal with bridge far on horizon

In the eight months that followed, I was surprised to hear so many of my Arizona friends say that they hoped to make an Erie Canal boat voyage someday, or already had. It seems that Erie Canal song had been taught in schools across the country and had romanced a whole generation – or two – with its lyrics describing sweet Americana.

Official Presidential Portrait of Thomas Jefferson
Official Presidential Portrait of Thomas Jefferson By Rembrandt Peale

I continued researching about the Erie Canal

I continued researching and learned that Thomas Jefferson and others did not support federal funding of the canal. And so New York State funded the whole thing – with no help from neighboring states, even though the canal soon connected the Great Lakes to the Hudson River and created a trade route that would eventually link the breadbasket of America to New York City, New Orleans and the world.

Unstoppable Stacey with Erie canal lock in background

Now I'm an official ‘Canaller,’ and I think you should be, too!

As I said earlier, I was dreaming about a six-day Erie Canal houseboat excursion – a bucket list journey of sorts. So I’m happy to report that just last week I returned from my self-skippered canal boat sojourn on the Skaneateles II. I am an official ‘Canaller,’ and I think you should be, too!

5 Reasons the Erie Canal Should be at the Top of Your Bucket List

New England style farmhouse on the Erie Canal

1.) Named 'Top 10 Canal Trip' by National Geographic

First of all, National Geographic named the Erie Canal as one of the “Top 10 Canal Trips” along with the Shropshire Union Canal in England and the self-drive barges and canal system in France. Why fly to Europe when you can rent a barge, or what is called a ‘packet boat’ here on this side of the pond? You can sail through picturesque villages that offer local wines, cheeses and beers – just like those in France or England.

Farm fresh eggs, berries and bacon
Local Food at the Strathallan Hotel's Char Steak & Lounge in Rochester

2.) Local Food: Erie Canal Farm to Table

Speaking of local provisions, the local foods that you find in restaurants and markets along the way are another reason to set sail on the Erie Canal. Taste renowned wines from the neighboring Finger Lakes, a world-class wine producing region. Indeed, Western NY dairy is known for fabulous ice cream, custard and cheeses. (A NY Brie, was one of the best I’ve ever had.) The area just south of Lake Ontario is also recognized for apples, cherries and other fruits. We passed by those farmlands and then stopped in the rural villages to taste the local products – for a surprising blend of hipster restaurants and laid-back Americana.

3.) Easy and affordable canal boat rental

Above all, the ultra-clean Mid-Lakes Navigation boat, similar to the original packet boats that carried goods and people on the Erie Canal, has everything you need for a relaxing, yet adventurous vacation. The easy-to-operate vessel is outfitted with bikes, bedding, fully equipped galley (kitchen with gas stove, oven and refrigerator,) potable water, wine glasses, and Erie Canal maps and charts. All you need to bring is food, beer and wine. We provisioned at Wegmans Food Markets, Inc. which has an almost cult following in Rochester, the home of the accolated grocer. I, BTW, am fast becoming a Wegmans cult member.

Don’t forget to pack swimsuits, sunscreen, sunnies and hats, and something warm for the evenings. If you’d like my packing list for this affordable canal boat rental, please add your request in the comments below.

Canallers looking at map in Spencerport Depot and Museum
Canallers looking at map in Spencerport Depot and Museum with Museum Director Simon Devenish.

4.) Unbeatable Erie Canal History and Attractions

After flying into Rochester, NY, we visited the George Eastman Museum, Living Roots Wine & Co. and Veneto Wood Fired Pizza & Pasta. George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, left behind his mansion, art collection, and inventory of film, cameras and photos. I would be a member of this outstanding museum, if I lived in Rochester, for sure. It’s a must-see attraction along with the Strong Museum of Play and National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House. Veneto’s food was fabulous (Becky said that her dish was one of the best she’s ever had – and she’s eaten all over the world.) Living Roots Wine & Co. has a backstory so strong that I will be pitching it to Wine Spectator.

Erie Canal town street scene with American flags, school bus and lift bridge - Spencerport

Most noteworthy, along the Erie Canal there are many New England-style villages (for that is where the Quakers and others came from once the canal afforded a means to pioneer westward) where you can stop, shop, stay or learn at fascinating small-town museums. We especially enjoyed:

  • Historic Palmyra (Five museums one destination) where I recommend you spend the morning before you pick up you Mid-Lakes Navigation packet boat. Inside one of the five, the Erie Canal Depot, located in a 1830s tenant house you can imagine yourself a passenger on the Erie Canal in those early days.
  • Spencerport Depot & Canal Museum
  • Medina Railroad Museum
Entering Erie Canal Lock #33 from west

5.) Just enough adventure

We sailed this 41-foot “packet boat” like true adventurers through locks, under lift bridges, through picturesque countryside and across urban industrial centers. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that this all-girls crew wasn’t a bit intimidated at the get-go. However, we had excellent training from Mid-Lakes navigation – Gill took us through our first lock and practiced the fine art of Erie Canal radio etiquette with us, before setting us adrift on our own.

Canaller holds rope in huge concrete lock

As I tried to capture our first “lock in” on video, Becky, our captain quipped, “Did you tell him we are virgins?” ‘Lock in’ is Canaller speak for entering a lock, which is something like a “boat elevator” that uses water and gravity to raise and low our boat as the elevation of the surrounding landscape raised (westbound towards Lake Erie) or lowered (eastbound towards the Atlantic Ocean.) We were blessed to have little boat traffic (only 10% of Erie Canal usage is commercial, the rest is recreational.) If we three land-lubbing women can manage this 41-footer, so can you!

PIN THIS on PINTEREST:

Three women stand at stern Erie Canal rental boat

All-Girls Crew on Erie Canal Self-Skippered Rental Boat

Our all-girls crew self-skippered this 41-foot ‘packet boat’ for 88 miles on the Erie Canal. My college roommate, Becky who piloted a canal boat in the UK was at the helm for most of our Erie Canal adventure. Tammy, who admitted that she steered a sailboat in the San Francisco Bay, but never ‘landed the plane,’ took over as communications expert and was in charge of contacting the lock masters and lift masters before we made our entry. I was the navigator, letting the crew (Becky and Tammy) know about our upcoming canal structures (and attempting to get photos of them.)

Be sure to subscribe to this blog below. You’ll be notified of upcoming stories about UNSTOPPABLE Stacey’s adventures on the Erie Canal.

To learn more about canal boating on the Erie Canal go to https://midlakesnav.com

Read about another National Heritage Area: The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area

14 thoughts on “Canaling Adventure: 88 miles on the Erie Canal”

  1. What an inspirational trip, and I love that it was an all female crew. Way to go!

    You suggested we ask a question of you, so here goes – I was wondering what your thoughts are on travel insurance? My husband and I have never purchased it; even with all the traveling we have done, but I feel like we have perhaps tempted fate enough and it is time to look into it. That’s it. Thanks!

    • The all-female crew was quite fun and I hope that I inspire other women to try the “girls trip” Erie Canal boat rental thing, Debi. As for travel insurance, I typically buy AIG Travel Guard. One reason is that I can buy it the same day as I travel (because sometimes I forget and put it off until the final hours.) Here’s a link so you can check them out: https://www.travelguard.com/

  2. Stacey, loved the article and pics. I’ve been to Lockport, but have not sailed on the canal. I’m from Eastern PA and we vacationed on Lake Ontario often.

    Keep the fun adventures coming.

    • Where are you from in Eastern PA, Sue? Dan is from Warren, PA, just south of Jamestown, NY and east of Erie, PA. Any tips for visiting Lockport?

  3. I read your article on the Erie Canal trip and it was amazing. It makes me want to go take that trip! My sister lives in Antioch, Illinois and I sent it on to her, suggesting she and her husband should try it, as it is not to far from them. Thanks for the great article!

    • Thanks for you comment, Bob! The Mid-Lakes Navagation boat is perfect for 2 couples – so maybe you should think about sailing with your sis and her hubby… the trip would be amazing in the fall, BTW

  4. Unstoppable Stacey-don’t miss the Caves beside the canal in Lockport!!! My students were fascinated (so was I!!). Entry is right above the licks on the north side.

  5. We’ve done a week on the canal from Macedon to Tonawanda and back with a Midlakes boat. Unstoppable Stacey, don’t miss the caves beside the locks in Lockport; the office is just north of the locks. I’ve taken students there; they (and I!!) were fascinated! I grew up in Medina-great restaurants there just steps from the canal.

    • Hey Barb, We ate at Zambistro in Medina on our Erie Canal barge trip. LOVED it! Thanks for the cave recommendation. Who knew?

Leave a Comment

Stay in touch

Subscribe for Free Updates, Tips & Inspiration

Want to know How to Buy Cheap Flights?

Master UNSTOPPABLE Stacey’s secrets for finding cheap flights, and you’ll be going to more of your dream destinations than you thought possible.

Get instant access to the
How to Buy Cheap Flights report

Like what you see?

Then Subscribe Today

Get UNSTOPPABLE Stacey’s email updates delivered conveniently to your inbox.
No spam, promise!

We use cookies to offer you the best experience on our website. By using this site, you agree to our cookies and privacy policy.