Danger below

The Erie Canal in a main tourist attraction in New York State. Tourists can hike, bike, and boat the canal all the while taking in its rich history. But beyond the history and recreational value of the canal, there are many hidden dangers.

One of those dangers is the fluctuating water levels of the Erie Canal.

“The stretch where you are [SUNY Brockport], we control those flows. We fill [the Erie Canal] every year from the Niagara River at the west. Then it flows north out the Genesee River. So, we’re able to manipulate the flow out there,” said Public Information Officer for the Canal Corporation Shane Mahar. 

The canal is extremely shallow here, as it will not be filled until April. 3/29/2022 Photo by Rebekka Fifield

The two ends of the canal are very different. The western end can seem safer than other sections because of the control. This is not the case. Water levels become a big concern when there is a lot of precipitation, snow melting, or proper drainage is not taking place on the canal.

“Water will rise very quickly and very swiftly, and it becomes very dangerous quickly. And throughout even this past navigation season we proactively closed the canal numerous times due to high water, swift flows and unsafe conditions. Sometimes for a couple of days, it could be a week, it could be a couple of weeks,” said Mahar.

Authorities say there is a significant amount of danger in the Erie Canal that many college students do not know about. 

“It wasn’t very long ago, 2015, where a college student passed away after jumping off a lock at 2:30 in the morning on a Friday. He was graduating the next day,” said Brockport Police Officer Geoffrey Catlin. 

The lock closest to SUNY Brockport. 3/29/2022 Photo by Rebekka Fifield

Stories like this are just one of the many that highlight the dangers of the Erie Canal. There is so much under the surface of the canal that can’t be seen.

“I think the average depth of the canal is about 12 feet, but it varies between sections. As does the current. The water may look still, but there is definitely a current,” said Mahar, “There’s been bicycles, shopping carts, tires, other debris found. Our maintenance forces try to get debris cleared as best they can, we spend a lot of time trying to clean and clear tree debris. With the larger items, if a mariner sees it, we take a look at it and if it is urgent, they try to remove it immediately.”

Debris in the canal. 3/29/2022 Photo by Rebekka Fifield

Not everything is easy to remove if you cannot see it.

“You don’t know what’s in there. We’ve recovered cars from the canal, we just did one not too long ago. People will crash into the canal all the time, more frequently than you would think. Not a place to go swimming,” said Catlin.

Not a place to go swimming, but a place to enjoy the water.

The Erie Canal. 3/29/2022 Photo by Rebekka Fifield

Both the Canal Corporation and Brockport Police Department support recreational activities like kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, and other boating activities.

Above the surface, the historic Erie Canal appears to be calm, but below the surface lurks unknown dangers.



Categories: Canal, Event stories, Issues, News, safety, The Community

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