Niagara River to the Erie Canal

Goodbye Buffalo! We will not miss you! We have never been so glad to leave a marina after all the rocking and rolling at Erie Basin Marina. We are happy to be underway to the Erie Canal! First we must navigate the Niagara River to get us to the start of the Erie Canal at Tonawanda

Now the Niagara River flows to the north and of course ultimately flows over Niagara Falls. This is not where one on a boat wants to go! The Niagara River is a bit tricky to navigate since the current at the headwaters near Buffalo is 15 – 20 knots! Fortunately, Buffalo has constructed a break wall the divides the Niagara River from what is know as the Black Rock Canal. If you look closely on the map below, the thin white line south of the red mark is the break wall that separates the Niagara River from the Black Rock Canal. In case you are wondering we are sticking to the right in the Black Rock Canal.

Here’s the break wall that separates us from the Niagara River:

We have to pass under 3 bridges and go through one lock before we get to the start of the Erie Canal. The first bridge is the Peace Bridge that has a clearance of 144 feet. We are more than good here since we do not have our mast on the boat.

Photos never do justice to waves or current, however you can see in this photo just how fast the current is running on the Niagara River side of the break wall.

The next 2 bridges are fairly low ones and will be the lowest bridges we have to go under the entire way on the Erie Canal. According to our charts these bridges should have about 17 feet of clearance, however we didn’t check the water datum levels to adjust for the water height and how that might affect our clearance. We pass under each of these bridges will just inches to spare. Our highest point of the boat is the body of our wind generator, we have already removed the blades from the wind generator since we knew those would be too high. After later checking the water datum, turns out that we had about 13′ 6″ of clearance and not 17 feet. But we did clear it, thank god! These 2 bridges do open upon request, however we didn’t think we needed them to open.

Next up is the Black Rock Lock. Try saying that one 3 times fast. This is our first lock on this section of our journey! We approach the lock and called the lock master on the VHF, no answer. Tried again, no answer. Another boater replied to us and said the lock doesn’t open until 11 am. What?? We were sure we looked up the hours of operation and planned to be here for the 9 am opening. The operate on the hour for north bound and on the half hour for south bound. We were sure they opened at 8 am. The other boater informed us that on weekends they open at 11 am. Mark and I both looked at each other and said, “but it’s not a weekend!” This my friends is what happens when you don’t know what day it is.

So, we tied up to the wall to wait until it was time for the lock to open and made coffee.

Once the lock master arrived for the day, we were ready to get underway and go through our first lock. They open the doors to the lock and you slowly motor your boat into the lock. In this particular lock, they want you to go to the wall on the left as you enter the lock. There are ropes hanging down every few feet along the dock wall. You can see the yellow ropes hanging down in the picture. All we had to do is grab a hold of one of those ropes at both the bow and stern. I grabbed one rope and handed it back to Mark at the stern of the boat and then I grabbed another one for me up near the bow. We each have a boat hook to help keep the boat off the wall as the water is lowered in the lock. We also wear gloves because these ropes hang in the water and get quite slimy.

Once we were secure on the wall and ready the lock master closes the doors behind us and starts to operate the lock. In this particular lock we are going down, so they let the water level drop. This lock will drop us 6 feet of water level. Once the water level is dropped to the appropriate level the lock master opens the doors on the opposite end and we drop the lines and motor out of the lock.

There are a number of boaters waiting on the other side to come through the lock the opposite direction of what we are heading. You can see the water markings on the wall of how far we dropped.

Once through the lock, we are back in the Niagara River but this time there is no break wall between us and the actual Niagara River. The current is quite a bit less here after we go through the lock. Although the current is less, it is not non-existent. It was a bit rough from the lock until we tucked behind Grand Island.

And once behind Grand Island we head up to Tonawanda and take a hard right into the Erie Canal.

Welcome to the Erie Canal!

Once we took a hard right it’s a bit of a culture shock at how skinny the Erie Canal is when you are used to larger water. Also lots of bridges right away in Tonawanda. After clearing 13′ 6″ in the Black Rock Canal, we will be just fine in the Erie Canal where the lowest clearance is 15′ 5″ and the water levels are tightly controlled by the locks in the canal.

In addition to bridges there are also Guard Gates. Guard Gates look like a large guillotine that can lower their gates when necessary to close off a section of the Erie Canal due to flooding, heavy rain or to drain down to winter water levels. Virtually all the Guard Gates are operated in an open position so you just need to keep motor through right underneath.

Our destination for the evening is Lockport. On the Erie Canal, there are multiple small towns along the canal and each of these towns typically have a wall that you tie up to for the night. Most of these town wall are free to boaters to tie up for the night which is an added plus.

In total today, we traveled about 30 miles between the Niagara River and the Erie Canal. Here are some additional stats for the day:

Miles traveled: 30

Bridges: 21

Guard Gates: 1

Locks: 3

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