July: Alone Again -- on the Erie Canal

Babes In Boyland, a Mad In Pursuit Diary


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lower gates of the Erie Canal lock I was going to be out fishing at sun-up, but slept in till 7. Today’s destination was the Erie Canal. It isn’t high-class sport fishing – in fact, it’s probably the lowest class fishing: carp and whatever. But at the moment it fits my I-need-no-one frame of mind. 

I filled a Thermos with coffee, grabbed my carton of worms from the refrigerator and headed off. The nearest lock is in Pittsford, a 10-minute drive from my house. Below the lock seemed like a logical place for fish to hang out. 

In the past few years, the general public and the politicians are finally recognizing what a recreational asset the old barge canal is. The canal has always been recognized as historic, of course – the work of Irish laborers, who dug the ditch through 300 miles of rattlesnake-infested swamps from the Hudson River at Albany, across New York State, to Lockport and the Great Lakes. Finished in 1825, its trading activity created the towns and cities of upstate New York. 

The towpath has improved since the days when an off-road bike was required. Now Rollerblades rule. I parked at the nearby lock and walked down to the towpath. Funny how a new activity makes you see everything from a different angle. I’d never noticed before that between the towpath and the water is a five-foot vertical drop, dense with shrubbery. At the same time, right there at water’s edge, a fat carp was having a leisurely swim. Come and get me. Yes, I could slip off the towpath through a break in the greenery and find footing on the narrow edge. But what if I couldn’t get back up? What if I made an ass of myself in front of all these power-walkers and suburban cyclists? 

I sat on the grass to assemble my rod and reel. The morning exercisers raced past me. My eyes shifted to the other side. From the giant green doors of the lock a long concrete jetty extended for dozens of yards downstream. Behind it was a large pool, made by the spillway – the alternate route that the canal water takes when it can’t get through the lock. The fishermen were over there. Two young men sat close to the lock, legs dangling over the water. A third was working his way around the spillway pool. Would they mind if I joined them? 

In figuring out how to get to the other side -- the heelpath, I saw signs pointing to a kayak course. Muchheelpath side of the Erie Canal -- fishermen's side to my surprise – how many times had I bicycled on the towpath here? – I discovered the upper part of the spillway: a twenty-foot waterfall and a white-water kayak course set up with 25 gates. I felt like I woke up in a whole new place, far from Rochester. Had this been here all along? Had I just never left the towpath long enough to notice? 

I took the long flight of concrete stairs down to the water and found a spot for myself a polite distance from the other fishermen. Across the canal the joggers and dog-walkers continued their parade, eyes focused ahead, moving quickly. Have I gone the distance yet? was their theme, whether they were graceful and fleet or red-cheeked and sweaty. 

On my side, the focus was not horizontal but vertical. Instead of having someplace to go, I sat waiting to be got, contemplating the habits and preferences of creatures below the surface. 

I tortured my nightcrawlers into various sorts of rig configurations while the fish tortured me by jumping for joyous freedom just inside my peripheral vision. Were those carp jumping? I thought carp were bottom-feeders. I better study up.


New York Canal System

Golden carp and fish totems