Whitehall, N.Y., Sept. 7 – I awoke in the cozy little parking nook hard by Erie Canal Lock 3. It was nearly 10 by the time I rolled out of bed. After four nights in Waterford, it was time to move on. I skipped the final day of the Tugboat Roundup and made my way north along the Champlain Canal.
I had barely made it out of town when I learned the Route 4 bridge was out north of Mechanicville. The detour takes me several miles west to I-87, then north for two exits, then back eastward again to rejoin U.S. 4 and the Champlain Canal.
Before long I am in Stillwater. Then comes Schuylerville, Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, where I made a pitstop at the Hannaford supermarket. Then it’s on to Kingsbury, Fort Ann and, finally, Whitehall.
Along the way I bypass Saratoga National Historical Park. The Revolutionary War will have to wait for another day.
As it is, Whitehall, where Lake Champlain gives way to the Champlain Canal, bills itself as the home of the United States Navy. I dock the Behemoth on North Main Street adjacent to Lock No. 12, the northern terminus of the canal. I stroll down the hill toward Whitehall Marina, which, according to the Internet, rents kayaks.
Turns out the marina is dead as Benedict Arnold, whose heroics around here were critical to stemming the British tide and giving the American rebels a leg up on victory.
Weeds grow. Paint peels. Bricks crumble. Signs say this is a private marina. Only boat owners and guests allowed on docks.
But there are no boat owners. There are no guests. There is no gas for passing boaters. There are no kayaks to rent.
There is nothing save the insistent chorus of crickets, a ramshackle RV park and a trickle of boats coming through Lock 12. The forlorn Clinton Avenue bridge, which crosses above the canal, is closed. It has been closed for a long time, and it is scheduled to be torn down in the offseason.
I get my fill of decay, then trudge back uphill, hoping for a chance to chat up the lock master. Right now she has her eyes on a 30-foot yacht cruising at her from Lake Champlain. There are times, too many of them, when I am petrified of approaching strangers. I have to counsel myself and psych myself up just to overcome this paralysis. And sometimes I fail. This is a small obstacle for a guy who has chosen my path.
Woman or not, this lock master looks like a tough customer in her work boots and shorts. As she steals a cigarette in between boats, I imagine her as a salty, beer-drinking, foul-mouthed canal worker. One of the boys, in other word.
I stand mute behind a bright-yellow rail. The back of my neck absorbs the late-afternoon sun. Two luxury yachts idle in the canal, waiting for the magic to happen. I watch as they seemed to levitate on the rising water. Once they had gained 15.5 feet in elevation and are safely clear of the lock, the door slams shut behind them (A recent lightning strike fried the computer system’s motherboard, and the controls only work on one side of the lock. “If they can fit through, I’m only opening one door,” she tells me later). I catch a break. She’s coming my way.
She waves and unleashes a welcoming smile. I sigh with immense relief.
Cheryl Lash has worked 10 years in the New York Canal system. For the first six she worked at Lock 32 on the Erie Canal in Pittsford, N.Y., near her home in Rochester. Then she got a chance to move here and seized it.
The job is great, she says. Her only wish is to get on full-time. A seasonal employee, Lash will be out of work again when the lock closes down Nov. 19.
Does working a lock every loses its mystique and turn routine? Not so, she says.
“You see all different people,” she says. “Rainy days get boring sometimes, but I have a book, and there’s always cleaning to do and it seems like none of the guys like to do that.”
As for the differences between working the Erie Canal and then the Champlain, she explains the Lock 32 is a DC (Direct Current) operation, and this one operates on hydraulics. I nod my head falsely. In real-life terms, she says Lock 32 is much more of a greasy, down-and-dirty operation.
But there differences are more cultural than technological.
“It’s the Adirondacks, and I like the Adirondacks,” she says with a smile. “There’s less crime. It’s a very different way of life from the city. The first couple months it’s like a culture shock, because nothing’s open. We have one fast-food restaurant in Port Henry.”
As for the sagging state of the Marina area, and she just nods her head.
“I think I had four boats on Labor Day with that being closed, and nobody can get gas except 22 miles north or 30-something miles the other way,” she says. “Usually when we open up, all the marinas open up.”
Lock masters need three years of mechanical training and three years of electrical background. Since she worked as an auto mechanic for 16 years, so she was a natural fit.
“I worked on Volvos and Saabs,” she says. “All the kids did in our neighborhood back in the ’70s. It was hot cars and gearheads all over. Me and my sister and another girl in the neighborhood, we all did our own cars. My sister had a ‘Cuda, I had a Chevelle and the other girl had a Thunderbird.”
Another leviathan bears down on the lock from Lake Champlain. The 35.4-foot-long Nora, out of Chestertown, Md., eases into the canal. A few minutes later it has sailed on the rising tide. As the door locks shot, Cheryl’s phone rings. When she makes it back within earshot, I ask if she has another customer on the way.
“I hope not,” she says, laughing. “It’s almost quitting time. But you never know what’s going to come in off the lake. Everybody mostly is heading south now. If they’re coming north, Lock 11 will call ahead. It’s a mystery if they come around the (lake) bend. One time I got all put away and all the sudden, at 5 till 6, here comes a boat. I said, ‘Aw shucks,’ now I gotta open everything back up again.”
Turns out she really is more of an “aw-shucks” kind of girl. She might be a gear-head and a grease jockey, but she’s a friendly, helpful, everyday woman. And don’t you know I am thankful for that.
I thank her for her time, and leave her to the crickets.