By Annemarie Franczyk
If your awareness of the Erie Canal stops at the folk song you learned in grade school, then you, too, will be surprised to know this: The canal is not a poker-straight channel.
No. It meanders serpentine-style from little towns through a small lake and to remote villages from here to Albany.
That fact becomes pretty important if you are swimming the length of the canal, as I am to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the start of its construction.
Before you ask incredulously, as some have, “You’re swimming the canal?” know that I’m doing it at the Jewish Community Center’s pool in Buffalo. That’s where the challenge was put to members about two-and-a-half years ahead of the anniversary this summer. I conjured my inner Diana Nyad and jumped in.
The folks at the JCC divided the length of the canal into 30 sections, each about 10 nautical miles long or about 823 lengths of the pool. The beginning and endpoint of each section is noted with the name of an actual location along the canal. The space between is further divided into doable 10-lap segments.
Swimmers mark their progress segment by segment, section by section on laminated cards marked with their first names and hung on a bulletin board poolside. It has been fun to see how far everyone has come, even someone named Rosemarie who has pulled ahead of me considerably and is bearing down on St. Johnsville.
I do 40 laps in a half-hour, and it is rewarding afterward to make those check-check-check-checks on my card. I especially enjoy those mornings when I have time to swim for an hour and double my progress. They say swimming is a whole-body workout, so every lap I feel is an investment in good physical health.
Perhaps more satisfying, however, is the alone time I have while swimming. There are none of the beeps, pings or buzzes of the electronic whatevers that vie for my attention throughout the day. The repeated movement of my arms and legs, my rhythmic breathing and the sound and feel of the water combine to lure me into a cocoon where I am left alone with my thoughts. I like it there.
In that half-hour, I usually organize the day ahead. But I also have planned holiday menus, thought about vacation spots, untangled some problem or merely wandered back to some pleasant memory. It is one of my day’s most enjoyable periods if only for the mental health benefits.
As I’ve crawled and backstroked my way virtually across the state, I’ve become curious about those towns and villages along the canal that serve as my destinations. If you need someone with a lot of incidental information about New York State, I’m your gal.
Here’s what I know: Holley is named in honor of a state assemblyman who oversaw the construction of the canal by embedding with the workers. Amsterdam was named for the city in Europe, but not Frankfort, which was named for its founder. The 18th century fort at Brewerton was built to protect the port of Oswego. Little Falls was once the home of Francis Bellamy, author of the Pledge of Allegiance. Scotia was the nation’s broom producer in the 1800s. Canajorharie can truly say, “George Washington slept here.” Stuff like that.
It will take me to the end of summer to wrap up the challenge, which will be past the July Fourth anniversary. The challenge, however, turned out to be much more than a deadline for me.
I see you, Albany, and I’ll be there in August. I just might do a flip-turn and swim on back.