What next? After three summer seasons cruising the eastern seaboard, my husband, Peter, and I were ready to go somewhere new. Granted we hadn’t examined every port of call, but we had cruised as far north as the Canadian border along the coast of Maine and south to Florida and the Bahamas.
Now, we looked inward, toward the U.S. and Canadian interior. We had heard wonderful stories about the Great Loop. This popular loop cruise encompasses the Hudson River, the Erie Canal, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi and other southbound rivers to the Gulf of Mexico and then the inland waterways on the west coast of Florida and finally back up the East Coast. Peter and I were intrigued with the Hudson River and Great Lakes portion of the loop. We had heard about the picturesque 1,000 islands on the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Trent-Severn Waterway, one of the Canadian Canal systems. We investigated several mini-loops that cruisers follow both clockwise and counterclockwise on the New York canal system, the St. Lawrence, the Canadian Canals and Lake Champlain and realized we could design a custom trip.
As we began to plan our fourth cruising season, it occurred to us that our trip could be a platform for a larger plan to take our Zimmerman 36-foot lobster boat Bee Weems to the Pacific northwest. Peter’s ultimate dream was to cruise to Alaska in his own boat one day. The accomplishment of that dream would come true the following year, but we needed to set the stage.
We developed an ambitious plan to cruise two months from Annapolis to Duluth, Minn. A trip like this would require moving almost every day to travel the 2,100 miles in 60 days. We quickly realized that we couldn’t do everything we wanted in that amount of time, so we gave up the idea of the Lake Champlain/Montreal portion, shelving this for a future trip.
It helped to create a tentative float plan and break the trip into eight segments. The adventure for us really began as we headed north on the Hudson from New York City. We had been told that it wasn’t safe to begin the northbound journey until early July because of the time it takes to wash away all the debris from the spring melt after a harsh winter.
For me, cruising the Hudson was like traveling through an English pastoral painting. Such a contrast to the
crisscross of wakes from the multitude of boats in New York Harbor. The change was almost instantaneous once we passed Manhattan island on the starboard side. The natural beauty of the Palisades came first and was a welcoming relief from the concrete city.
During 160 miles from New York City to Troy River, the river was tranquil with an occasional small village or large mansion dotting the high banks. There was very little boat traffic to disturb the peaceful setting. The Hudson River is a tidal estuary that flows two ways with a gentle current of 1.5 knots. At some point along the way, a distinct change from salt to sweet water occurred. We could smell the difference in the air. From that moment on we realized we would be traveling in fresh water, a new experience for us. No need to check the tide charts anymore.
Our first stop was under the shadow of the Tappan Zee Bridge on the 4th of July. Tarrytown Marina is the perfect jumping off place to visit Kykuit, the Rockefeller Estate and Lyndhurst Castle. We were fortunate enough to participate in an 18th-century Independence Day Celebration at Sunnyside, home of Washington Irving. On the other side of the river is the town of Nyack, where we tied up at the Nyack Yacht Club to explore the birthplace of the American realist painter, Edward Hopper.
As we continued north we passed Poughkeepsie and Hyde Park, where the Culinary Institute of America and the residences of the Roosevelts and Vanderbilts sit high above the river. We stopped in Kingston to visit the Maritime Museum, and we cruised past the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on the bluff at the bend of the river. I particularly loved the picturesque lighthouses along the way such as Esopus and Meadows.
As we approached Albany, I was a bit sad that we were leaving behind the quiet beauty of the Hudson, but I was excited to begin the next portion of our journey that would involve learning to negotiate the locks of the historic Erie Canal. An easy-to-read sign pointed out the turnoff to the west from the Hudson. Before entering the Erie Canal system we successfully navigated our first lock in Troy. We were the only boat in the lock, so we didn’t have to worry about fending off other vessels while grabbing hold of lines on the lock wall.
The Erie Canal was completed in 1862 and was an extremely busy commercial shipping waterway moving cargo from the U.S. interior to the east Coast before the railroads took over. The present canal system rises 566 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie through 57 locks. Our course took us through only 32 locks because we turned off at the Oswego Canal cutoff toward Lake Ontario to get to the Thousand Islands. Knowing that these were commercial locks, I envisioned bustling industrial cities along the way, but instead most of the canal system is scenic and rural.
From the Oswego Canal we traveled east over a small portion of Lake Ontario to reach the opening of the St. Lawrence River and the Thousand Islands. The 1,864 islands are defined as being above water 365 days a year and supporting at least one living tree. The islands are charming, some with houses that cover every inch of surface, many with two-door vessel “garages” sheltering beautiful vintage wooden boats. The most famous islands are home to the singer and Boldt Castles, popular tourist destinations definitely worth visiting. We spent our first two days on the U.S. side of the river with a visit to the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, NY. and then crossed over to Kingston, Ontario, passing through customs there and remaining in Canada for the next three weeks.
By the time we arrived at the Trent Severn Waterway we were accomplished lock masters. This Canadian lock system consists of 36 swing bridges, 41 locks, a marine railway and two hydraulic lift locks. The big difference between this system and the Erie Canal is that this waterway was never designed for commercial ship traffic. The locks are much smaller and are sometimes hand turned. You only see pleasure craft here due to the maximum draft of 6 feet and a height limit of 22 feet. The locks connect a series of rivers and lakes from the St. Lawrence River to Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. Unlike the Erie, we met other boaters waiting at the lock entrances and found this was a much more social week than any previous.
After traversing the marine railway called the Big Chute, we broke out of the narrow canal system into a large open body of water, the Georgian Bay region of Lake Huron. Georgian Bay is dotted with 30,000 islands larger than an acre. Although the bay is vast, there are narrow, unforgiving rocky channels to negotiate. Georgian Bay connects to another region called the North Channel, which is distinguished by the Canadian Shield, a granite bedrock exposed by the glaciers at the end of the last ice age about 11,000 years ago. The granite rock formations and the windswept pines are characteristic of much of the lake shoreline.
The final leg of our trip began with our last lock experience at Sault St. Marie, the gateway from the North Channel to Lake Superior. Lake Superior is 25 feet above the North Channel. It took us two hours at 15 knots just to pass through White Fish Bay at the entrance of the lake! This lake has its own weather system. It has a current that runs 1-2 knots counterclockwise. We experienced the roughest waters of our journey on this body of water. it’s very much like the ocean, over 360 miles long and 1,300 feet deep in places. Lake Superior contains 10 percent of the earth’s fresh water, and it is 625 feet above sea level. Most of the time we cruised parallel to the shore line — maybe a mile or two out, but when we crossed to Isle Royale National Park we were out of sight of land for three hours! Most of the shoreline is covered with evergreen trees right down to the beach. There are miles and miles of beautiful sandy beaches and no people in sight.
The Apostle Islands, a group of 22 islands off the Bayfield Peninsula in northern Wisconsin, are the most popular cruising waters on Lake Superior. Bayfield Marina was our jumping off spot and we had beautiful weather at the end of the summer season to explore the sea caves and nature trails on several of these islands.
We arrived in Duluth on Labor Day weekend almost exactly two months from our start date. Peter and I had a
flight back to Baltimore, but our beloved Bee Weems was loaded onto an 18-wheeler and trucked 1,700 miles to Anacortes, Washington. The journey of the past two months was just the beginning of a much greater adventure to explore the Pacific northwest and the inside Passage of Alaska in the following two years. Stay tuned for our next adventure to south east Alaska.
Our Float Plan (Distance measured in Nautical miles)
- ANNAPOLIS TO NYC 2 DAYS, 250 MILES
- HUDSON RIVER 2-4 DAYS, 60 MILES
- ERIE & OSWEGO CANALS 4-5 DAYS, 186 MILES
- LAKE ONTARIO/1,000 ISLANDS 4-6 DAYS, 20 MILES
- TRENT SEVERN WATERWAY 7-9 DAYS, 245 MILES
- GEORGIAN BAY 7 DAYS, 180 MILES
- NORTH CHANNEL 4 DAYS, 80 MILES
- LAKE SUPERIOR 13 DAYS, 420 MILES