For Adventurers: The Great American Waterways

Words and photography by Dalene Heck
I have long eschewed the idea of a cruise. I always deemed it a lazy and impersonal way to travel with many blank days at sea and little to differentiate locale or direction. Simply coasting from port-to-port, hardly straying from dock, never actually interacting with anyone in the places being visited. This may be a stereotypical view and likely not representative of the whole, but with so many other wonderful ways to view the world, I just have never really cared to seek out the truth. But give me a smaller ship, an interesting itinerary, and a more personal experience, and that, I would consider. A Great Lakes cruise that included the interior waterways of the US instantly intrigued me.

We started down the coast from Rhode Island, up the Hudson River to Albany, then through the Erie and Oswego Canal to Lake Ontario, and then finally across four of the five Great Lakes to Chicago. That’s a lot of water to cover – 1,600 miles over 16 days – with 38 locks to pass as we gained and lost altitude along the way. We spent several lazy days solely on the water, which for this introverted Pisces meant many blissful hours of introspective time staring at waves and watching the scenery change along the shore. My favourite times to move were at night though – the gently rocking ship lulled me into a deeper sleep than I ever expected.

I stared, wrote, read, worked, ate (a lot, the food was so good), and was forced to play photographer without Pete at my side. The other passengers on the trip, less than half of capacity for the off-season cruise, did skew older and of course were almost all couples. But while there were moments in which I admitted loneliness (textbook romantic loneliness though – whilst staring out at rippling waters), I also found kinship and comfort in the others. And that was because this route does not attract the typical cruise types.

By the nature of the itinerary, it attracts adventurers.

This route does not attract the typical cruise types.

Sunset with Ducks

Myself, and several of the other cruise passengers I spoke to, were first surprised that such a trip was even possible. But really, how foolish, of course it is. The Erie Canal, of which we’ve all heard of at sometime or another in our lives, and where we would spend several days of our trip, was built to make the journey possible. That canal shaped the character of this portion of the country, bringing prosperity along the route and expanding settlement all the way through the Great Lakes to Chicago and beyond. This man-made ditch allowed for goods to ship inland at 95% reduced cost and a week quicker. The areas it touched exploded in wealth and progress.

That wealth can still be seen along the canal in surprising ways. I never anticipated much from our first scheduled stop along the canal in Troy, New York, ignorant as I was of the historical relics this city holds. In the St Paul’s Episcopal Church I encountered my first moment of true awe upon seeing “the motherhood of Tiffany windows”. It is only one of four churches in the world to have so many, and as such is one of the most expensive churches to maintain. Which is a struggle for the small congregation, given the decline since.

Wealth can still be seen along the Erie Canal in surprising ways.

Church in Troy

Troy, like many other industrial cities we would visit on this path, is not the city it once was. The Erie Canal, which brought the area to the height of prosperity, lost it’s commercial activity to railroads and the St Laurence Seaway. It now primarily handles tourist traffic, and usually in the form of small personal boats. As such, maintenance of the canal is debated; its viability is always in question.

The ship we were on, built with the limits of this route in mind, is the only commercial provider of this journey (it clears the lowest bridge on the canal by only 6 inches). Our stops along the way numbered 13; many surprised (Troy!), and others provided deep lessons that I will carry with me. Some were used mostly as just a way to stretch my legs and run errands, but many were truly memorable.

NEW YORK SKYLINE

From a mid-afternoon departure from Warren, Rhode Island, we watched the sun dip over the Race Rocks Lighthouse, built in the late 19th century after 8 vessels crashed against its treacherous island by the same name. I slept a little uneasily that first night, but Captain Dave got us through safely and upon New York just as the day was breaking. And under the fog and mist of the harbour, we strutted right up to Lady Liberty herself and hovered for several minutes. This was a remarkable and unforgettable start to the trip, as even the sight of her gets this Canadian choked up.

The ship we were on, built with the limits of this route in mind, is the only commercial way to make the journey.

New York Bridge

Lady LIberty

ROCHESTER, NEW YORK

I have to say that I wasn’t terribly disappointed when I learned that the group tour wasn’t going to be as scheduled (to the International Museum of Photography and Film via Kodak), but instead a stop at the Susan B. Anthony house. Sorry Kodak, but this lady wants to know more about this remarkable woman who fought so hard for the woman’s right to vote in America.

This lady was not disappointed. Being Canadian I knew more about our own suffragettes than I did Ms Anthony, and the tour through her Rochester home and office was simply inspiring. (More about this in our last month’s newsletter.)

I left this city wanting to know more. And maybe that is one of the points of a cruise that I was missing before – it gives just a taste so that I’ll know where to return to.

I left this city wanting to know more.

Rochester, NY

Susan B. Anthony House - Rochester, NY

The Susan B. Anthony House

OSWEGO

I wouldn’t say Oswego tops my list of places to return to after this trip, with little to woo me besides a place to stretch. I walked through the main part of the city but succumbed to humid heat, and rested at a boardwalk cafe to quench my thirst. That refreshing moment was pure bliss, but what made this stop worth recording was not that, nor the city itself, but instead the remarkable sunset I chased down later.

Lighthouse Sunset

NIAGRA FALLS

I always considered myself a bad Canadian for not visiting this, one of our most iconic treasures. A brief dip back into Canada was made in order to have views of both sides of the falls, and sorry to my homeland, but I must confess that the American side is prettier. And it’s also where we boarded our boat to take us up and close to the falls. It was then that I really got to know what it is like to shower with a few hundred total strangers. If that’s not adventure, I don’t know what is.

Niagra Falls

View from the Canadian side

Niagra Falls Viewing Platforms

View from the US side

CLEVELAND

Call me weird, but I’ve long had a desire to visit Cleveland. Partly because as a kid one of the only VHS tapes in our house was Major League, and then while watching the (albeit fictional) adoration of the city during a few episodes of 30 Rock, my fascination was sealed. Oh, and if you didn’t know that I was a music junkie, I am. And so the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been calling to me for many years.

We had a rainy arrival, but no matter, I heralded an Uber and headed straight for the Hall of Fame. I choked up several times, tapped my foot to melodies several more, and was there to near-closing. I then met a friend for tacos, wandered around the downtown, and got back to the ship just in time for a stunning sunset.

The city itself was stunning to me, not in the traditional sense of beauty, but in its plain intrigue. Its industry and population has been declining for several decades, but the remnants of its powerful past are everywhere with lofty bridges and buildings. I found it a fun challenge to photograph, and departed with another city on my to return list.

Cleveland! I always knew you’d be good to me.

The city itself was stunning to me, not in the traditional sense of beauty, but in its plain intrigue.

Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame

Cleveland Port at Sunset

MACKINAC ISLAND

We stepped off of our ship and back in time over a hundred years. This tiny island is less than 4 square miles and sits in between the Upper and Lower Peninsula of Michigan. It is almost entirely encompassed by a state park, built for tourism, and does not allow motorized vehicles. Everyone gets around by horse or their own two feet. People come for a multitude of cultural events, the quaint charm, and an alarming number of fudge shops.

I enjoyed it for the beautiful vistas, of which I explored plenty in our overnight stay. (And the fudge, of course.)

Horse Butts

Mackinac Island

Rock Arch Mackinac Island

CHICAGO

The Windy City was our last stop and it was glorious. Not at all because I was eager for the cruise to be over, but because I went on a date with the city.

I broke away from the group and enjoyed the day for what it was – my last as a solo traveler (for awhile, at least). And I stuffed my day with as many tourist-y things as the time (and heat!) would allow. I went up the Willis Tower, devoured a deep dish pizza, and even took the famed architectural tour along the Chicago River.

Early in that river tour, just as we began, the guide dove into the history of the Chicago with a brief overview of what we’d see along the way. And most importantly, she mentioned how the Erie Canal had turned the city into a big shipping port and shaped its entire future.

It was then that my trip was brought full circle for me. How this extended passage I traveled on, done simply for my pleasure, had once played an integral part in shaping a large swath of the continent. I felt, after tracing the path and visiting diverse stops along the way, that I understood this history more than I ever could have otherwise.

It was an absolutely perfect end to the trip.

The Windy City was our last stop and it was glorious.
Chicago Skyline

The end in sight

I’m still not sure I would call myself a cruise person, in the more traditional sense anyway. But I am a ship person, a boat person, an admirer of history, an adventurer, and a person who is truly appreciative of this off-beat expedition.

how to do it

It is an ambitious itinerary, but one that gave me new perspective on the history and character of this part of North America, and even a little about myself. Blount Small Ship Adventures is the only commercial option for this route, so you should probably check them out.

This post was produced by us, brought to you by Blount Small Ship Adventures.

19 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Cheryl Crockett Lezovich
    July 25 2016

    I’m flabbergasted at the price of the Blount cruise between Rhode Island and Chicago. Five thousand dollars for the cheapest category astounds me. It’s more than or equal to the price of a cruise on the Mediterranean. The route and ports, especially the side trip to Niagara, interested me until I looked at the cost. Good for you for taking the cruise.

    Cheryl

    • July 30 2016

      Hi Cheryl – I’m not quite sure why it should be logical that it be much less than a Mediterranean cruise? This was a 16 day excursion, which is no small trip! And it is a one of a kind experience. 🙂

      • August 15 2016

        Good point, Dalene. Also, these specially built ships hold a maximum of 82 passengers versus the 2,000 – 5,000 passenger ships in the Mediterranean so your experiences are much more intimate. I’ve taken this cruise plus over twenty on the larger sips (350 – 2,800 passengers), and as the Blount saying goes, their ships go “where the others can’t.”

  • David C
    July 25 2016

    I enjoyed the article and will add this to our list of future travels. We have also experienced the history as we traveled through New England and Atlantic Provinces. It makes us appreciate who we are now and how very connected are the Canadian and US histories.

    • July 30 2016

      Thanks for your commend David – I didn’t get into it deeply with this post, but I exactly agree with that sentiment. It showed me how much we are connected, but also how it is that in some ways we evolved along such different paths. A very thought-provoking experience!

  • July 26 2016

    This cruise is something I’ve never heard of, but it looks like it was amazing.
    And gotta add another Canadian voice in favour of the US side of Niagara Falls over the Canadian side. I found Niagara Falls State Park was really nice compared to the cheesy tourist attractions on the Canadian side.

    • July 30 2016

      Phew, someone agrees with me on Niagara (I thought I might get skewered for that)! The views for photos are much better, and like you said, the park is so much nicer! I wish I had a bit more time to take in some of the walking paths too.

  • July 29 2016

    I am convinced you can make a beautiful picture out of anything, even the back side of a horse.
    Wanda Gallimore recently posted..Eating our way through the Eastern Shore

    • July 30 2016

      Haha, thank you Wanda! Truth is, I took about 20 photos of that backside – waiting for the tail to SWOOSH just right! 🙂

  • July 29 2016

    I grew up on the Great Lakes but never thought to explore it by cruise. I’ll have to reconsider! And isn’t Mackinac Island lovely? Great post!

    • July 30 2016

      I hope you do it Rebecca! What a great experience it was!

  • July 30 2016

    This is definitely a cool and unique way to see part of the country. Thank you for sharing! I love the idea of doing something outside of the norm, especially in the instance of cruising.
    Brian recently posted..Exploring The Huntington Library | California

  • I share your view of cruise ships (I think you are, or are not, a “cruise person”) but very much enjoyed my small ship cruise in the Galapagos.

    Glad you enjoyed Chicago – the Architecture tour is one of my favorites, which reminds me…I haven’t taken one yet this summer!
    Leigh | Campfires & Concierges recently posted..Exploring Southern Illinois

    • August 3 2016

      Yes! We did a small cruise in the Galapagos as well and loved it. I would rank this one with that – felt like being on someone’s private yacht. 😉

  • July 31 2016

    I’m also not a cruise person. But when I was in Navy ROTC at Cornell, I did a couple boat trips through the upstate NY canal system, along with down the Hudson to my first time in NYC. It was the mellowest thing. It felt like such a welcome slower pace of travel. You really got to associate with locals. And the Hudson Valley is gorgeous. I recommend it to anyone!
    Billy recently posted..China, A Little History, Part 7

  • I’ve always felt weary of cruises, probably due to my being obsessed with Titanic as a child, but the older I get the more I want to experience a cruise. You saying you slept great is a good sign!
    Brooklyn @ justbeingbrooklyn recently posted..The Storm Crow Alehouse

    • August 3 2016

      Haha, Titanic ruined it for many, I am sure. But this was nowhere in iceberg territory. 😉 I was really impressed by the captain’s insistence on making it as gentle as possible for us, even if it meant we’d be late getting to the next stop!

  • sue kearns
    August 16 2016

    This sounds like a great trip – Rhode Island to Chicago (covering the great Lakes). I can’t make it this fall – another trip already planned. Maybe next spring………

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