Jan and I purchased our new Back Cove 34 in June, 2014, and immediately started to plan our trip around the Little Loop for the following summer. Using the Skipper Bob guides for the New York canal system, and for the Rideau and Chambly canals, we put together a rough itinerary and a list of key places to visit. We settled on a three month plan: one month from our home port in Hilton Head to Waterford, NY, one month on the Little Loop, and a month back home. Our Tibetan Terrier, Charlie, always travels with us, and we have no dinghy, so we planned to spend our nights at marinas or along the canals.
The Little Loop starts where the Erie Canal joins the Hudson in Waterford, New York, then proceeds west on the Erie and Oswego Canals to Lake Ontario. Crossing the lake to Kingston, Ontario, the Little Loop picks up the Rideau Canal to Ottawa, and heads down the Ottawa River to the St. Lawrence Seaway. Finally, the loop proceeds northeast to Sorel, Quebec, and follows the Chambly Canal to Lake Champlain, and the Champlain Canal back to Waterford, New York.
We spent May provisioning the boat, and left for Charleston, SC on June 3, 2015. The trip from Hilton Head to the Chesapeake was familiar to us, so we didn’t tarry along the way and arrived in Portsmouth, VA, on June 10th. We averaged a comfortable 18 knots, and only slowed our progress when we encountered 20 knot winds off our bow on the Alligator River. The boat was fine, but we and Charlie were bushed, so we tucked into the Alligator Marina to lick our wounds.
From Annapolis we made for Cape May, NJ, and made the 139 mile trip fairly easily on flat waters. Our next leg was equally still, but we encountered some heavy fog as we approached Atlantic City and the chart plotter was our guide into the breakwaters. From here we utilized the New Jersey ICW to travel on to Manasquan Inlet. It was our first time along this route, and stories about shallow water had us concerned. We went aground once, when I missed a channel marker, but for the most part we saw six feet or more of water along the way. We were happy to arrive at Hoffman’s Marina that evening.
Bad weather kept us at Hoffman’s an extra day before starting for New York City. It is always a thrill to enter New York harbor, passing the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. After rounding the tip of Manhattan we headed up the Hudson to the 79th Street Marina, which is run by the city Parks Department. From our slip, which was a bit rolly, the subway was only four blocks away, allowing us to easily visit the World Trade Center and 9/11 Memorial; a sobering and worthwhile experience.
Next, a scenic run up the Hudson brought us past the palisades and West Point to our next stop in Hyde Park marina, where we visited the Roosevelt home and library and had dinner at the Culinary Institute. The Hudson River runs 130 miles from New York to Troy, and it‘s well marked, with few shallow areas with lots of lighthouses and villages to see along the way. That night we enjoyed the weekly band concert on the Troy waterfront.
While staying in Troy, our fresh water pump went, and we had to replace it. West Marine ordered a new one and a short taxi ride the next day put the new pump in my hands. I installed the new pump and we were on our way to the Federal Lock, just north of Troy. This lock is the first on the Hudson River, and just south of Waterford where you enter the Erie Canal; the official start of the Little Loop.
The Waterford municipal dock is free, and located just below four locks which comprise the highest lift in North America at 169 feet. All the locks on the Erie Canal have ropes or pipes to secure to, and our bow thruster was a great aid getting into position. We allowed a half hour for each transit, and used plenty of fenders to protect our topsides from the rough lock interiors. The chambers themselves were quite large, and we seldom had more than two boats going through at the same time. After the Waterford Flight another four locks brought us to Amsterdam, NY.
The Erie Canal is mostly in the dredged Mohawk River, and winds through the Mohawk Valley, which is very rural. On this portion of the canal very few towns are on the bank, and some persistent rain discouraged us from much walking. We did make it to Canajoharie to see a local art museum, which features a large collection of Winslow Homer paintings.
We arrived at Sylvan Beach, on the east side of Oneida Lake, on the afternoon of July 2nd. Our first try to cross the lake was hampered by westerly winds resulting in large waves. We turned back, tied up on the free town dock, and had a nice fried perch dinner at a local restaurant. The next day we crossed the lake in calm weather and stopped at the Brewerton Boat Yard, only to discover that the locks to the west were closed due to heavy rain. We spent 5 days here, waiting for the canal to reopen and enjoying a visit with my daughter and her husband, who drove over from Rochester to celebrate the Fourth of July with us.
Ten miles west of Brewerton is the junction with the Oswego Canal and river, and from there Oswego is 23 miles north on the shore of Lake Ontario. We were concerned about waves in the lake, but our 36 mile crossing was on water smooth as glass. Rather than heading straight to Kingston, we took a side trip to the Thousand Islands and got a slip in Clayton, NY, home of the Antique Boat Museum. A day trip up the St. Lawrence brought us to Bolt Castle and Springer Castle, the latter being fully furnished and very interesting.
Leaving Clayton, we headed for Kingston, Ontario, where we cleared customs, easily done by phone at the marina, and spent a few days exploring before entering the Rideau Canal. Kingston is a lovely city; the first capital of Canada with a lot of historic buildings to explore.
The locks on the Rideau Canal were installed in the 1840’s and are still in use today. They’re hand operated by the lock personnel, the grounds are beautifully maintained. Entering the Rideau Canal was very different from the Erie Canal, as the lock master does not use radio contact. A section of dock has a blue line painted along the edge, and tying up there lets the lock master know you wish to enter. When he gives the green light, you’re allowed to enter and tie up.
The canal is very narrow, but the scenery is gorgeous. Some of the bends are quite sharp and we had to sound our horn to warn approaching vessels. After passing through 49 locks and traveling 126 miles, we entered Ottawa, Ontario. Canada’s capital city was moved from Kingston in 1857 to keep it away from those pesky Americans.
Arriving in Ottawa, we found a mooring only two blocks from the capital building, and had a great time visiting the state buildings and walking through the enormous farmers market. Leaving Ottawa, we passed through a flight of eight locks which dropped us down to the Ottawa River. 97 miles and two locks later we arrive in Montreal. On the way, we stopped at the Chateau Montebello, the largest log structure in the world, where they had a nice marina and an excellent dining room. On the river below the Chateau we passed through the Carillon lock, a 65 foot drop. We entered through a lift gate which rose above us as we entered the chamber. Instead of ropes, there is a floating dock in the chamber to which we secured, with the help of park personnel.
Unfortunately, the passage from the Ottawa River into the St. Lawrence was a bit confusing, and the guide books weren’t clear as to how to get into the city docks in Montreal. After some frustration we’d got the bit in our teeth to be heading home, so we decided to bypass the city. I’m sorry we did, everyone we’ve spoken to since has said that Montreal was a city not to be missed.
The St. Lawrence Seaway locks are enormous, and we passed through two on the way to Sorel. Pleasure craft are instructed to tie up to a dock in front of the lock and call for guidance. They were very efficient, we never had to wait for more than an hour before being told to enter the lock for our transit.
At Sorel, we left the St. Lawrence and entered the Chambly (Richelieu) Canal which took us to Lake Champlain. This was at the height of the Canadian boating season, the Chambly was quite crowded, and we occasionally had to wait for the lock to cycle before getting our turn to transit. We passed through customs at the entrance to Lake Champlain, and were asked to leave the boat while the inspectors boarded the vessel and did their checks. It took about an hour before we were back on the water and headed for Haines Marina.
Lake Champlain is a beautiful body of water with lots of wooded islands and anchorages. Unfortunately, having a dog on board with no dinghy made it difficult for us to fully enjoy the lakes many splendors. We stopped in Burlington for a couple of days and enjoyed walking the city streets and wonderful restaurants, then headed south past Fort Ticonderoga and into the Champlain Canal.
We crossed our wake at Troy completing the Little Loop, and arrived back in Hilton Head on August 24th. All told, we traveled 3500 miles, passed through 112 locks, burned 2081 gallons of fuel, and had a great summer’s trip.
~Aubrey & Jan