May 2019 - KAYAKING, CANOEING & SUP
banner photo: Passing the Twin Bridges of the Northway. Alan Mapes
Paddling NYS Canals
Earth Day on the Mohawk River
By Alan Mapes
The first paddle trip of the spring is always a joy! This year, I had inspiration for that paddle from the newly published New York State Canalway Water Trail Guidebook and Navigational Map Set by the Erie Canalway Heritage Fund. In honor of this new resource for paddlers, two friends and I decided to launch at one of the sites listed in the book. Alcathy’s Boat Launch in Waterford puts you on the Mohawk River, which was running high and brown on our paddle day, but the sun was warm and nature was busting loose.
It was not the first paddle of the year for Julie and Michael – they are perhaps the most active kayak paddlers I know. They had been out on the Hudson River six times already this year. Michael is an avid wildlife photographer, paddling with an SLR camera and long lens resting on the bottom of his boat. Muskrats were his hoped-for quarry that day, and the critters did not disappoint.
Alcathy’s is a nice large launch site, with a double boat ramp, and parking for 30 cars or more. It’s found at the end of Flight Lock Road in Waterford, right near the top of the famous Waterford Flight of Locks. The flight allows boats to rise from the level of the Hudson River (essentially sea level), up to 165 feet to pass around the Cohoes Falls – the second largest falls in New York.
Our paddle covered a seven-mile stretch of the river, which is also part of the current day Erie Canal. Opened in 1825, the canal was the gateway to the Wild West, which then included central and western New York. An engineering marvel and powerful economic engine in its day, the canal is still all of that, but is now mostly focused on recreation and tourism.
Heading west from the launch, we were on an eastern section of canal that’s made up a series of dammed up sections of the Mohawk River. The next dam to the west is Lock 7 in Niskayuna, 10 miles away. It was clear that going all the way to Lock 7 and back was not in the cards for this Earth Day. A combination of spring runoff and recent heavy rains had the river current running strong. A stiff east wind helped counter that current, pushing us along, but we knew the wind would be a challenge on our return trip.
Our goal was to pass under the Twin Bridges of the Adirondack Northway (I-87) and enter the old Erie Canal channel and Wager’s Pond. The new guidebook details the many landings, launches and historic features along the way. On paddle, we passed nine of these featured locations, including other launching spots, public parks, marinas and a restaurant. To get a copy of the book and map set, you can order a free copy ($10 shipping/handling) or download it in sections or in its entirety at eriecanalway.org/watertrail.
Although the river was at high flow, the current was not too strong to paddle against in this dammed section of the Mohawk. The river twists and turns, and the wind swirls between the shores. The wind was from behind us most of the time, but occasionally was in our faces. Our vain hope was that the wind would be less in the afternoon, when we’d be mostly facing it.
This section of river has islands, bays and marshes to explore, so we took our time heading west. Michael was not finding muskrats at first, but got shots of displaying red-winged blackbirds sitting on the shrubs and cattails. Painted turtles were sunning on logs along the shore, and let us approach closer than normal. We guessed that they did not want to leave the warmth of the air and dive back into the cold water in the low 50s.
The cold water was on our minds as well, since safety is always a concern when paddling in the spring. The first warm days in early spring are a time when people run into trouble, dressing for the air temperature, and not giving a thought to a possible capsize and unplanned swim. Wearing a life jacket and protective clothing will help keep you safe, but experience with rescues is also important. Julie, Michael and I spent an afternoon practicing our kayak rescues last year, and this day we stayed within shouting distance of each other, in case of a problem.
The Twin Bridges are a choke point for both water and wind. Waves were rolling a foot or so high and the wind was gusting as we passed under the bridge and headed for the channel to Wager’s Pond on the north shore of the river. Once out of the wind, the warm sun took over and everything was pleasant. Michael photographed a double-crested cormorant drying its outstretched wings. They do not have the waterproofing oils for their feathers that ducks have, and must spend time drying out after diving for food.
Entering Wager’s Pond, we passed under the new pedestrian/bicycle bridge, part of the trail network at Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve in Clifton Park. Much of the trail system has been improved in the past few years. You can walk, run or mountain bike on a smooth stone dust surface, running for several miles east or west from the main preserve parking area on Riverview Road. This is an especially popular spot for birding and for dog walking.
We circled the large pond as the traffic on the Northway droned away nearby. Wager’s is the pond you see from the interstate when approaching the Twin Bridges going south. Later, we explored the old Erie Canal channel and Clute’s Dry Dock, where wooden canal boats were built and repaired in the 1800s. A parking area and dock provide launching at this spot, though the dock is high for kayaks, better suited to launching with canoes.
Our return trip on the river was a combination of some quiet exploring in marshy channels along the shore, and lots of strenuous paddling on the main river. The lighter afternoon winds that we hoped for did not come to pass – they increased if anything. With every stroke, my joints and muscles reminded me that it was my first outing of the year. It was a good time to review my forward stroke technique – reach well forward, plant the blade, rotate from the waist, trace the horizon with my upper hand, lift the paddle out at the hip, reach forward with the other shoulder... and repeat. I’ve heard that it takes around 1,000 strokes to go a mile. Someday I will have to count, but I’m sure that small changes in your technique can make a big difference, given how many times they are repeated in the course of a day’s paddle.
It’s a sad fact that the bays and marshes along the Mohawk are best explored in spring, before the floating water chestnut plants cover the surface, and make boating on the margins of the river difficult. This invasive plant, native to Asia, was introduced into Collins Park Pond in Scotia in the mid-1800s, and has spread far and wide since then. The plant’s “devil head” seeds with their sharp spines are everywhere along the shores. Good foot gear is a must for paddlers, as these seeds can go through a pair of flip flops or cheap water shoes. On a brighter note, several of the muskrat photos that Michael took show them holding water chestnut seeds in their paws or their mouths. Apparently, it is a favored food, at least in the early spring.
Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor is organizing “Paddle the Flight” on Sunday, June 2 from Alcathy’s Boat Launch to Peebles Island in Waterford. The 2.7 miles will take kayakers, canoers and SUPers through the five locks of the Waterford Flight for a half-day, guided tour.
Check out the new guidebook and set of four maps of the entire NYS canal system’s water trail, including the Erie, Champlain, Cayuga-Seneca and Oswego canals. The maps are waterproof and tear resistant. I think you will find it will inspire some new paddle trips this season. Learn more at eriecanalway.org/watertrail.
Alan Mapes (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sea kayak instructor and guide, certified by the American Canoe Association and Paddlesports North America. He lives near Delmar and offers kayak instruction through the Capital District Kayakers.