AMSTERDAM — Picture yourself paddling a colorful kayak on the Mohawk River as it flows through Amsterdam in June, under the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook Pedestrian Bridge, with urban streetscapes and historical points of interest along both shores.
“There’s this peace that you get, when you’re out on the water and I think people really need that right now,” said Audrey Egelston, owner of Down by the River Kayak Rentals.
For those who do need it, they’re going to have to wait until July 20.
While parts of the Erie Canal opened to boat traffic Friday, the stretch in Montgomery County did not because parts of the river are mostly dry with only a few disconnected puddles in a trench of mud.
During a normal year, the New York State Canal Corporation would have finished its winter maintenance projects by around April, and then lowered the movable dams attached to its locks into the riverbed for a “watering-up” or “canalizing” the waterway, allowing it to have water depth for boat navigation, and facilitating its unique role as a source of recreation and commerce.
Egelston said the water level in Amsterdam is currently only about 7.8 feet deep, when it would normally be 19 to 20 feet deep at this time of year.
“That is what really helped my business, having those consistent water levels and just regulating the flow of it; that makes being out on the river more like a lake, where now without the dams — it’s a river,” Egelston said.
Shane Mahar, a spokesman for the New York State Canal Corporation, said the completion of extensive rehabilitation projects at Lock E-7 in Niskayuna, Lock E-13 in the hamlet of Yosts between Fonda and Canajoharie and at Lock E-19 in Frankfort, Herkimer County, were delayed by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and won’t be complete for a couple of more weeks. Until then, he said the Canal Corporation has to keep the dams out of the riverbed.
“The Mohawk River is in its natural state, that’s what it looks like without any manipulation from the Canal Corporation,” he said.”We have accelerated. We did install the lower gates of the movable dams at Lock 8 in Scotia to start impounding water to mitigate the issues with the Great Flats aquifer and the issues towns [like Glenville, Ballston and Clifton Park] have been having with their water supply.”
For Egelston, the uncertainty over when the river will be raised has accelerated concerns she has had over the cost, in both time and money, of running her kayak rental business. She said normally at this time of year she’d be giving guided tours on the Mohawk with her fleet of colorful kayaks three or four nights a week. She said she’s had enough and announced on Monday that she will only keep her rental and tour business open from July 20 to Aug. 2 this summer.
“On my end, there are certain costs that you have every year with your business, like your website and insurance and all of that and so for me it just wasn’t cost effective [to] open my business this year and redo my insurance and do all of that stuff because of the short season, and I wouldn’t be making that much because the water levels are a lot lower than the norm obviously,” she said.
While Egelston said she had already been on the fence about continuing her business, the coronavirus pushed her over the edge.
“I was missing family stuff on the weekends and things like that,” she said. “It was something I’ve gone back and forth on, and I think — I feel like — with the coronavirus, sometimes things not working out, works out in its own way.”
Egelston’s business had steadily grown from five kayaks to a fleet of 15. Last year, she helped operate a grant to give tours of 15 miles of canal in different parts of Montgomery County, including St. Johnsville, Canajoharie, Fonda, Schoharie Crossing, and she would have done it again this year had it not been for the pandemic and the delay in reopening the river.
Kassandra Tesiero, who obtained the consessionaire lease from the city of Amsterdam to operate Riverlink Park’s cafe and marina, said she had plans she’s had to put on hold, too. She said the original plan for her location was to open Mother’s Day weekend and to staff the new cafe business, Astoria Landing, to be ready to handle the boat and concert series traffic, operating Wednesdays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Now she’s hoping to open July 10, with a crew of about three people plus herself, to “test the waters.”
Tesiero said she believes that a venue with outdoor seating, like Astoria Landing, has the potential to fill the restaurant niche that people cooped up in fear of COVID-19 will want to visit.
“We were going to [have] brunches on Saturdays and Sundays, now we’re not. We’re just going to open Thursday through Saturday, because there is that demand for outdoor seating in Amsterdam,” she said.
Tesiero said the delay in reopening the canal plus the shutdowns from the coronavirus are dealing significant blows to businesses that depend on the river.
“Businesses are losing a lot. Just think about all of the boaters, when they got off here they might stay in Amsterdam for a night or two and they go to restaurants, especially on the Southside where it’s walking distance,” she said. “And then they go up to Alpin Haus to get something for their boats, or to Ace Hardware; all of these small businesses are missing out on the boaters.”
Egelston said she’s not sure if she’ll do any tours this year during her short season. She said she’s been getting three phone calls a day from people hoping to buy some of her kayaks, but she’s holding on to them for now, looking forward to one final outing.
“I’ve had a really great group of people who would come out on Tuesday nights,” she said. “I had people who would come out just about every week. I’m hoping I can have one more event with everybody.”
Now, picture the Mohawk River with kayakers paddling through the waterway, escaping for a moment the summer of coronavirus.
“I alway say, when there’s kayaks, there’s hope,” Egelston said. “I think when people see that river full of water, and see those colorful kayaks, I think that will give hope to people.”