Locking North to Lake Champlain

Boating From Manhattan to Montreal

Many are surprised when I tell them that they could launch their boat anywhere along our Lake Champlain Region and easily end up in Manhattan or Montreal. I often get a raised eyebrow, but some are aware that the Champlain Canal connects the southern end of Lake Champlain to the Hudson River. At the northern end, the Chambly Canal connects to the Richelieu and St Lawrence. 

Although I have never made the Manhattan to Montreal voyage, a few years back I jumped at the chance to help friends bring a newly purchased boat North from the Port of Albany into Lake Champlain. I was familiar with the Champlain Canal and its twelve locks, but I had never actually experienced what it was like to travel through them on a boat. It was to be a new adventure.


Departing Port of Albany

When I first saw John and Peggy’s new boat I was impressed. It looked like the Queen Mary to me. For someone more familiar with a canoe, this thing was huge! Thirty-some feet long, twin engines, separate fore and aft cabins, a substantial galley and lounge and a fully equipped head. Seeing the head was reassuring since we planned on making this an overnight venture. This boat seemed so big that I had a fleeting concern about our “fit” through the locks, but immediately remembered the huge barges for which this canal system was built.    

It was early May and predicted to be un-seasonally warm. The locks had just opened for the summer. John advised that we would all need to keep our eyes open for floating debris (flotsam) since the spring run-off was not that far behind us. Of course no one wanted to see a scratch on the new boat, which made the thought of navigating the locks a bit more stressful for a rookie like myself. However, we anticipated little other boat traffic since it was still early season. We imagined we might have the canal locks all to ourselves; but not so.

John and Peggy were somewhat familiar with navigating through the canals and locks, but they admitted it had been a while; of course this was a gigantic and unfamiliar craft. They had purchased a two day recreational pass from the NYS Canal Corp online and had done their homework reading the Mariner’s Notices and Alerts. I was pretty much, “along for the ride”, but knew I’d be taking orders and assisting where possible. I had even practiced my “aye-aye, Captain”. 

On board, and fueled up, John spent quite a bit of time with the marina rep going over equipment and gaining familiarity. During this time Peggy and I stashed gear, stocked the galley and continued to smile with approval at the head. After a bit, we settled comfortably on deck and were off. I can be a bit antsy on the water, but the slow speed limits on this area of the Hudson and the canal, as well as shorelines easily within my poor swimmer’s reach, immediately put me at ease.     

Like I said, this was a while ago, but I still have some vivid memories. It definitely was a different experience for someone used to more undeveloped shorelines. This was an “on the water” city perspective leaving the Port of Albany. I was grateful for the slower pace to try to take more of the experience in.  We soon were out of port and headed toward our first lock.   

The Champlain Canal

As we approached our first lock, I noted we had plenty of company already waiting for the lockmaster’s “green light”. Boats must stop a safe distance away and wait for instruction. The lockmaster is the “ultimate boss”. On approach, boat operators can communicate with him/her via marine radio, Channel 13, cell phone or simply give 3 blasts on their horn or signaling device and wait for instruction. John, our Captain, handled the communication and the helm. Peggy and I took our orders from him. She was assigned to the bowline, I the stern, once we had all fenders in place of course.

I’m certain we were all a little nervous. This was a new boat and we were to be packed into the lock with so many others, but it really went very smoothly.  John carefully advanced to the wall of the lock chamber where instructed. We kept an eye on the fenders to make certain of no hull to concrete wall contact. Peggy and I were able to carefully loop our lines around vertical poles keeping enough tension to secure us in place. We certainly did not want to tie off knowing we were going to be rising several feet. The chamber filled rather quickly. We kept climbing up the wall and watching for line snags. Once we were at the proper water level we received the “green light” again. However, no one moved. The lockmaster is still in charge and gives instruction on who gets to go when. When it was our turn, Peggy and I released our lines and we slowly exited the chamber.

The Champlain Canal is approximately 60 miles long. The first few locks, when one is headed North, seem to be rather close together, a few miles apart. Therefore, we gained more practice. We passed by the juncture of the Erie Canal which heads west toward Buffalo.

Within a couple of hours we had managed to navigate through 3 or 4 locks and were much more at ease with our routine. Our fellow boating companions traveled right along with us. We began to feel comfortable with our convoy and could almost anticipate what to expect from one another. From boat to boat conversations while waiting for lock chambers to open, we learned that at least two of our fellow boaters had come North through the inter-coastal waterway, having wintered in Florida. On the water in Lake Champlain, their boat was their summer home. 

The sun was strong, with temperatures in the mid-80s; being on the water was a good thing. Along the canal, we passed by some picturesque scenery; farm fields and pastures, quaint canal side cottages with private docks, communities and marinas offering rest stops and services.

The locks don’t operate after 5:00 or 6:00 PM, but that was fine with us. Several municipalities offer free overnight tie ups for transient boaters. We stayed at the Fort Edward Yacht Basin, across the canal from Roger’s Island.

It was absolutely delightful there in a great park setting with close proximity to shops and restaurants. We were anxious to stretch our legs and explore the town. Although we had brought provisions, Captain John decided to treat his hardworking crew. 

Home to Lake Champlain

Day two was another spectacular day. We were all a bit more relaxed knowing our locking routine and what to expect. I have to say that it was a little bittersweet going through the last Lock 12 at Whitehall. We had made our way into Lake Champlain. We waved goodbye and thanked the final lockmaster. Some of our boating company was still with us. Heading north on the lake, outside of Whitehall, the pace picked up a bit as speed limits and no wake zones fell behind us. Our boating companions began to distance themselves as we picked up speed. Everyone gave a few horn blasts and hearty farewell waves as we all moved off to our Lake Champlain summer adventures. Boaters are such friendly people! John and Peggy have yet to buy another boat, but did promise to let me be in charge of the stern line when they bring it through the Champlain Canal.  

Lake Champlain Sunset

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