Troy, N.Y. (Home of Uncle Sam!), Sept. 4 – Perhaps I have crossed the boundary from harmless eccentric to full-blown nut. I am on the road again, edging farther out on an ever-more tenuous limb, pursuing my very own white whale.
I just walked 1.4 miles west along Hoosick Street from the Planet Fitness to the McDonald’s at 15th Street. At 10 p.m. I did this because there’s a headlight out on the Behemoth and in my characteristic style, I have decided not driving at night is preferable to fixing the problem. (In this case fixing the problem includes removing the truck’s grille, and I’m not quite up to that yet.)
Yesterday I was spinning my wheels north of here, lost in the Jonesville-Ballston Spa-Malta vortex, going ’round and ’round Round Lake.
All in all, it’s pleasant countryside where recalcitrant farmers doggedly hold the line against the irresistible armies of sprawl. They sell tomatoes from unmanned roadside stands, directing customers to leave their payment in honor boxes. Perhaps here is the real heartland. Honor boxes, in the year the 2014. Mirabile dictu!
By the way, what the hell are these farmers thinking? They’re mowing their lawns when they should be stalking the perimeter of their properties with AR-15s just to make sure strangers don’t make off with their produce. Fools.
By the time I pulled over at a McDonald’s in Malta, I understood that this expedition, even my cockeyed conception of it, was bound for trouble. I left Saugerties on Tuesday night, and had a fitful night sleeping in the parking lot of the Loudonille Planet Fitness. Floundering. I needed help, a lifeline, in the parlance of my 7-year-old son who has become enamored of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (A boy of catholic tastes, he also loves The Jack Benny Program and My Little Pony.) Sometimes you can’t rely on serendipity to save your ass.
I recalled a recent telephone conversation with Peter Canale concerning the Erie Canal. I can’t remember how we got onto the fabled Erie Canal, the engineering marvel of the first half of the 19th century, soon to be run out of prominence by the railroad.
Still reeling from a 1-2 toll-punch totaling $50.50 incurred as Max and I made our way to Staten Island the previous Monday, I made a determined and successful end run around the New York State Thruway and its nefarious band of tollbooth Shylocks.
But now I was lost in Saratoge County.
Some hasty Internet research turned up a man in Waterford named Richard Powell, a seemingly ubiquitous advocate for the New York state canals. Powell does not shrink from attention. He turned up in a handful of stories relating to canals. I dialed his number. He answered, then surely wished he hadn’t. Fueled by a volatile cocktail of coffee and desperation, I sounded like a madman. I never even gave him my name.
Powerless in the.wake of my frenzied verbal spasms, he caved. There was an organizational meeting at 5 tonight for this weekend’s tugboat festival. I could attend if I wanted.
He wasn’t far. I approached Waterford, about 17 miles southeast of Malta, via the Mohawk Towpath Scenic Byway. To be fair, the stretch I wandered is not all that scenic.
Waterford, which bills itself as the oldest (1794) continuously incorporated village in the country, sits at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers and the junction of the Erie and Champlain canals. This strategic niche has enabled Waterford to retain much of its charm despite the scourge of time. Most of the houses are modest in size and well-maintained. It’s pretty enough that mother might think it charming.
There’s a series of bridges ideal for contemplative walking and a main drag with a conspicuous absence of vacant storefronts. There’s even a bocce venue at Geiger Park.
Waterford also boasts Ethelda Bleibtrey, who survived an arrest for “nude swimming” (she peeled off her stockings at a pool where revealing “the lower female extremities” while bathing was strictly prohibited) to win three swimming gold medals at the 1920 Olympics.
I arrived early so I’d have time to walk about and get to know Waterford. I lolled about the harbor visitors center, which is glorified a basement office, collecting promotional literature and chatting with volunteer Ron Brand. Good thing I was early, because soon a man walked in whom I recognized as Dick Powell. He was about to start the meeting without me.
I followed him along the dock to his building at 50 South Street, which he had to rebuild after it was torn asunder in 2011 by Hurricane Irene. The ground floor is his office. A jumble of life jackets rises to window level.
The meeting itself was a bust. Besides me, Powell and his assistant, Peter Kuebel, were the only to show. Kuebel, who’s about my age, has the sun-weathered face of a guy who’s spent a lot of time on and around boats. He’s soft-spoken, easy-going and friendly. His grandfather, George Kuebel, was master of Lock No. 7 in Niskayuna for a few years after retiring from an Army career.
Powell shared an anecdote about the day he discovered that an old canal tradition, one he thought obsolete, was alive and well. There is a tacit understanding that a captain taking his boat through a lock should leave at least one beer on the wall for the lock master. That made Kuebel smile.
“We had a family reunion every year,” Kuebel said. “Granddad didn’t drink much, but he’d show up every year with a truckload of beer. There’d be 100 different kinds from all over the world. We’d all be sitting around wondering when he was going to show up with the beer. That’s the thing about the canals; the heritage is rich, and the history is fascinating. It just needs to be promoted better.”
After our conversation, I was itching to hop a ride through the locks. When Powell gave me the thumbs-up, I resolved to stay in the area and return this afternoon to piggyback on a scheduled tour. Two couples, one from Austin, Texas, and another that had emigrated to the Hudson Valley from Texas, had a booked an afternoon ride.
At 72, Richard William “Dick” Powell is a silver-haired, limber-tongued evangelist of canals and canal life. If his delivery is more laconic than excitable, Powell’s passion for the canals is nonetheless infectious.
He runs the Erie-Champlain Canal Boat Company right out of this house. The Richard William II is docked outside. In addition to offering 90-minute tours through Erie Canal Locks 2 and 3 ($15), he teaches neophyte mariners to pilot 42-foot boats so they might be captain their own canal journeys.
Once he was a font of inexhaustible energy. He worked parallel full-time jobs for 20 years. He was a detective with the Albany police and professor of criminal justice at Columbia-Greene Community College in Hudson, N.Y. He started and chaired that school’s Native American Institute of Native Americans.
He’s no long the longer immune to the creeping fatigue that afflicts mere mortals. There is a hint of resignation in his soft, brown eyes. There might not be time enough to finish the thousand projects he’s involved in, including the ambitious restoration of a side-cut canal from Lake Champlain to the Hudson. Oh, there’s still time for curling and canals, just not enough time.
The one-way trajectory of his life was altered irrevocably in 2009 when he suffered a stroke. On Father’s Day, no less. His daughter was shot down over Afghanistan the same day (she’s OK now, too).
“I thought I was immortal,” he says with a wry smile. “I thought I was going to be the one person to be the exception to the rule. I was going to live forever. Ha. I think God’s a jokester.”
Powell grew up in the rugged Arbor Hill section of Albany. He didn’t see much of his dad, an Army sergeant who was deployed around the globe during his childhood.
For a guy who makes money giving tours of the Erie Canal, he says some funny things.
Like: “The Erie Canal is bullshit.”
Also: “The Erie Canal is only popular in the mind. Because nobody talks about anything else.
I suspect he really loves the Erie Canal. It’s just that this grizzled ex-cop has an ever-expanding soft spot for underdogs. He prefers Algonquins (“they were our real, true friends”) to Iroquois. In the realm of Dutch settlers, he chooses Adriaen van der Donck over Peter Stuyvesant. I’m a little surprised he didn’t turn away my telephone entreaty by saying, “Everybody knows who the hell I am; you should talk to somebody else.”
In the brief time I spent with him, he betrayed admiration for vulnerable goslings; the Stockbridge Mohegans massacred by British in the Bronx in 1778; and a pilloried Troy prostitute. Even the notorious zebra mussel received even-handed treatment.
He slags off the Erie Canal precisely because you’ve heard of the Erie Canal. It’s too popular. And so he champions the Champlain, Cayuga-Seneca and Oswego canals.
That you sought out his counsel because of the Erie Canal is immaterial at best.
Give him the chance, he’ll take the Erie Canal over the New York State Thruway any day (except the rare day he gets the notion to pull the cover off his fancy BMW and go riding). When he’s not making a passing reference to his curling prowess or lamenting the fact that Cambridge, England, has 100 times more canal boats of Waterford, he’s a crusader for canals and canal boating.
It’s a sizzling September Thursday afternoon in upstate New York. The Waterford waterfront is a little hive of activity in preparation for the Tugboat Roundup, which gets underway tomorrow.
I join the Captain and his foursome on the Richard William II while Kuebel trails us in Powell’s sailboat, which must be moved to make room for the impending wave of tugs.
The sun hangs over our heads, and there is no place to hide from its blazing heat on the deck of this vessel. No matter. Already I have fallen under the sway of the Erie Canal. While I’m sure it’s business as usual for folks around here, it’s a stirring sensation to watch those colossal, mitered doors close behind you and wait for the lock master to engage the underwater tunnels that start the water roiling and rising beneath you. We enter Lock No. 2 at 15.2 feet. We’ll exit at 48.75.
(In the brief video below, the doors of Lock No. 3, which still mimic the design Leonardo da Vinci came up with in 1480, close as we prepare to ride the watery elevator from 48.75 feet to 83.25. In little more than a quarter mile, we’ll have gained nearly 70 feet in elevation.)
It doesn’t take long to recognize how much Powell revels in the role of raconteur and impresario. He unleashes his practiced showmanship on us as we make our way upstream through Locks 2 and 3.
When we come out of Lock No. 3, we’ve risen 83.25 feet. The lift is almost imperceptible, the ride more gentle than an elevator.
Kuebel ably guides the sailboat into the dock and then joins us for the return trip. As the afternoon deepens, shadows lengthen and dance upon the massive concrete walls of Lock 3, As the water drains away, we are lowered beyond the reach of the blistering sun. A blissful ambiance washes over the boat. Canal Locks 101 has adjourned for the semester. It seems we have floated away on the placid waters of some Victorian idyll.
Only missing are the array of white wines and semi-soft cheeses.
Soon the doors of Lock 2 open before us and we are back in 15 feet of water.
We should be docked and gone by now, but Powell is feeling it today. We’re getting the deluxe version of the tour.
He cruises in and out of Waterford’s tiny harbor and barrels headlong into the powerful tidal currents of the Hudson. We skirt a family of geese, affording him the opportunity to discourse on their exemplary parenting skills and connubial loyalty. Along the way we admire a great blue heron in flight and somehow avoid sideswiping the Rensselaer women’s crew team.
Kuebel checks his watch and wonders what the hell his boss is on about. We’re practically to Troy when he swings the boat in an arc. And everything becomes clear.
He directs our attention to a small, powerful push tug called the Mame Faye. There is a story to share about Ms. Faye, a legendary Troy madame.
“Mame was a lady of the night,” Powell says. “She was the Robin Hood of women.
“She gave a lot of money away to the poor; she was worth $3.5 million (in 2014 dollars) when she died in 1943. That was quite a bit of change. She gave all the money to her family who rejected her. She died a lonely old woman in a nursing home even though she gave away millions of dollars to the poor. There wasn’t a tombstone put in place until 2006. Imagine 50 years without anybody paying attention.”
(The 2008 documentary Sittin’ on a Million brings Mame Fay’s legend to life. The title is lifted from her alleged admonition to local ladies: “Why work in a shop? Don’t you know you’re sittin’ on a million?)
Thankfully, Powell is not scrupulous about untangling historical fact from juicy legend. It’s what makes him such a pleasing tour guide.
In a few minutes he’s nosed the Richard William II alongside the Waterford dock. He’s late for dinner. The tour ran an hour longer than usual, and his wife is waiting up the road. Before we part, I ask him the simple question of why he does this.
“Cause I’m partially nuts,” he says, delivering one of his stock lines. Then he shuts his eye for a moment and turns serious.
“I love it,” he says. “It’s just if there was anything in my life that I would want to do, it would be this. And the truth of the matter is that I would do it for free if I could afford it.”
I guess that makes him a lucky man. Still, what is it about the canals that captivates and enchants him?
“It’s the gentleness,” he says. “It is, really. It just soothes the soul. And you feel good about it. My only complaint is that it is isn’t cared for in the manner that it should be, that the government entities treat it as just a thing. They should have a love affair with it.”
Isn’t that the nettlesome thing about passion? When something or someone bewitches you so completely, you want others to feel it as well, and you get frustrated when they don’t.
“I think that I share it with all the workers,” he says. “Workers on the canal love it, except for people that have been worked to death. They’re kind of resentful. If the truth be known, they wouldn’t trade it for the world. Despite its drawbacks, it’s gorgeous. It served America well, and it should be cared for. And it’s not.”
Lagniappe: While Bruce Springsteen boosted interest in Erie Canal folklore with a rollicking version of “Low Bridge” on the splendid 2006 release We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, here I give you a 1912 recording by an American tenor named Billy Murray: