I Explored Upstate New York on a Canal Boat - and It Was the Perfect Way to Slow Down
"The Erie Canal used to be all about speed, but today it's about slowing down," said Marye Lobb, a singer-songwriter I met one evening in Spencerport, New York. Lobb had been playing in the village's canal-side gazebo while my wife, Jetty-Jane, and I watched from the top deck of our boat, a bottle of Finger Lakes Riesling between us.
"There's just something calming about being by the water," Lobb said. In the 19th century, she explained, this storied waterway was an artery of commerce, but these days it's a place for wildlife spotting and unplugging from whatever worries you left onshore - just what Jetty-Jane and I were looking for in the summer of 2020.
Our vessel was the Seneca, a 42-foot liveaboard that we chartered - with the help of quirky travel website Atlas Obscura - from Erie Canal Adventures, a family-run outfitter with a fleet of canal boats purpose-built for touring the waterways between Syracuse and Buffalo. The plan was to take one of those vessels and spend a few days exploring the canal. Niche? Absolutely. The perfect escape from the strangest year of our lives? Definitely.
Soon enough, we were in a marina-side classroom in Macedon, getting a tutorial on propane heaters, diesel engines, and marine toilets - all the parts that make a liveaboard tick. After a few educational videos, we were aboard the Seneca with Erie Canal Adventures owner Brian Keenan, who had come to give us some hands-on training. He watched as we took our boat - sporting the company's signature red and green color scheme - through the gates of Lock 30, practiced our knots, fiddled with our radio, and spun around with a whoosh of our bow thrusters.
An hour later, Keenan stepped back onto the dock and wished us a good trip. With just my wife and me on board - and the $100,000 insurance policy stashed belowdecks - I had a moment of panic. We'd been socially distancing for months, but suddenly felt very alone.
Before Zoom calls, before jets, even before Model Ts and railroads, travel was all about boats. They were the fastest, easiest, and most comfortable way to get anywhere, which is why the founding fathers spent considerable time - not to mention money - trying to gin up canal systems in America to rival those transforming Europe. As Peter L. Bernstein writes in Wedding of the Waters, a history of the Erie Canal, the waterway would "knit the sinews of the Industrial Revolution, propel globalization…and revolutionize the production and supply of food for the entire world."
Today, the canal is almost exclusively used for recreation, but it's no exaggeration to say that the 363-mile-long link between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes cemented the country's economic primacy and crowned New York City its financial capital. (That many of these gains were extracted, directly or indirectly, from land stolen or swindled from Indigenous peoples, particularly those of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, often goes unmentioned.)
Yet for all its economic benefit, the canal provided something far more valuable: it gave rise to a network for ideas. Among the freethinkers living and working along the canal was Joseph Smith, who published the Book of Mormon in 1830 in Palmyra. In 1848, Frederick Douglass moved to Rochester, where he founded his abolitionist newspaper. That same year, Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped organize the Women's Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, now home to the Women's Rights National Historical Park.
All of which is to say that a trip on the canal takes you through not only western New York but also hundreds of years of American history. Not that you're thinking about any of that when you're waking up in Pittsford in the middle of a chilly thunderstorm. Canal trivia takes a back seat when everything's wet, a cold wind is blowing, and the only person around to untie the lines is you. Whose idea was this anyway?
We chugged west toward Rochester, where we tied up at Corn Hill Landing, in the heart of the city. Despite the heavy rain, we made the short walk to Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, which lives up to the hype with pit-smoked wings and decadent mac and cheese. We walked through Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park, painted with messages of protest against police violence in Rochester and across the United States. By late afternoon, the sun had returned, and we celebrated with pilsners and onion rings at Roc Brewing Co. before heading back to the boat and pressing on toward Spencerport to catch Lobb's gazebo concert, one of several such experiences Atlas Obscura had arranged along our route.
After a couple of days aboard, we were getting the hang of the Seneca. The hardest part was passing through the locks, which involved gingerly maneuvering our 30,000-pound boat into a narrow space and grabbing onto fixed cables or ropes covered in gunk. We started to feel a tiny bit like boat people. Could we live on the Seneca? I wondered aloud one morning. Not likely, my wife deadpanned.
On our third morning, we turned back east to Fairport, a quintessential canal town we'd skipped on our way out. We grabbed a sunny spot on the patio of Lulu Taqueria & Bar for a Pacifico and a margarita as kayakers paddled past. We rummaged through gift shops like Main Street Mercantile and marveled at the imported pastas, olives, meats, and cheeses at Lombardi's Gourmet Imports & Specialties. After months of not doing much at all, we relished the simple pleasure of walking down some new streets and seeing some new things.
That evening, we approached another red-and-green boat docked at a bend in the channel called Bushnell's Basin. We were tying our lines when a stranger bounded over and, through her mask, started telling us about the great hard cider selection in the dockside store.
Diane Baker and her husband, Mark, had, like us, been on the canal for a few days, she said. They, too, figured the trip would be the perfect antidote to months cooped up at home in New York City. For them, it was less about boating than about exploring a stretch of the state they'd never considered vacation-worthy.
A few days later, back on land, we bumped into Diane and Mark at the Cascadilla Gorge trailhead in Ithaca. Though we'd met only briefly, it felt like a reunion with old friends. Amazing what can happen when you take a moment and just slow down.
How to Plan a Canal Trip
Erie Canal Adventures (trips from $1,950) offers three-, four-, and seven-day charters out of Macedon. Boats come fully fueled and equipped with linens, kitchen gear, and water. There's a learning curve for piloting the vessels, but even landlubbers can quickly get the hang of it.
Book through Atlas Obscura for more perks, plus a concierge who can make restaurant reservations and provide hyper-specific sightseeing tips. Charters start around noon and end early on the final day, so it's best to bookend a cruise with hotel stays.
About 30 minutes from Macedon, the new Lake House on Canandaigua (doubles from $265) is a resort-style property with soothing, nautically inspired interiors by Studio Tack. An hour away, the Inns of Aurora (doubles from $440) is a collection of historic buildings, all beautifully restored and filled with quirky yet tasteful décor. A new 15,000-square-foot spa opened in June.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline At Your Own Pace. Atlas Obscura and Erie Canal Adventures provided support for the reporting of this story.