On The Canals Camping

Successfully traveling the entire New York canal system

Published online: Jul 06, 2009 Feature Alan and Marlene Bissell
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Last September, my wife Marlene and I came to the south end of Seneca Lake, one of the Finger Lakes in New York State. We passed by Watkins Glenn and drove our pontoon boat onto the Seneca Canal (the old Chemung canal). About three miles farther on, we finally reached Montour Falls and had to stop where the water-and the old canal-ended. At that point we had traveled every mile of the Erie, Champlain, Cayuga Seneca, and Oswego canals and gone through each lock at least once. We had traveled the complete New York canal system!  
We camped over six weeks on our pontoon boat and drove over 875 miles on the trip. In the spring we traveled north from Schuylerville, N.Y., on the Champlain Canal to Lake Champlain. We continued up to Burlington, Vt., and then to Plattsburgh, N.Y., and back for a total of 450 miles. The Lake Champlain chart had shoelaces on it because we crossed so many times. But even the days that it rained were wonderful.
I worked on the boat a lot before the trip. First, I added a 24-foot third pontoon. Our pontoon boat is 28 feet long, so it's four feet short under the bow. This raised the back of the boat, cut gas usage, and stopped a great deal of the front spray caused by waves. Second, I skinned the underside of the boat. I tried to keep within as small a budget as possible, but still have it be durable. I tried Lexan clear roofing panels from Lowe's and in each valley-at each cross member-self tapping, non-rusting roofing screws with a rubber gasket.  I ran the sheets long way (stern to bow) and overlapped them about two inches. They have not moved, cracked, loosened, or been a problem in over 1200 miles. We did the 28-foot pontoon boat for approximately $100. Third, and last, was to improve the cooking area. We had been using an outdoor grill to cook on so I got online and found an RV 3-burner stove with a real oven for just under $200. I installed it in a counter and it has worked great for us and now we're the only pontoon boat on the canals that can bake brownies! But just a word of caution: always remember to check the Coast Guard rules for venting and installation.
I was talking with a boater about traveling and charts one day while hiding from a thunderstorm. We were eight miles off Lake Champlain in Vergennes, Vt., at the base of a beautiful waterfall. He asked me what type of GPS I had and I told him Santa was working on mine for next Christmas. He went back to his boat and came back with his, an old black and white unit and he gave it to me. It's been a great one to learn on and when I pass it along to someone else when I upgrade, it will be free once again.
We're already planning our next trip and this summer we'll take our bicycles with us. There are more than 270 miles of canal-side bike trails in New York. When completed there will be over 500 miles and you'll be able to ride your bike from Quebec in Canada to New York City and out to Buffalo, N.Y.
We are looking at a longer trip for 2009. We've been checking out the Champlain Canal, north to Lake Champlain to Montreal Canada, then up the Ottawa River to Ottawa, and onto the Rideau Canal to Kingston Ontario and back. All we have to do is take out our front bench seats, put up our tent at night and hit the canals, rivers and lakes. Should be a great year.  

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