Mohawk Maiden Cruises
WHAT: Sightseeing tours of upper Hudson River and Champlain Canal
WHERE: Lock C5, off Route 4, Schuylerville
WHEN: Through mid-October
HOW MUCH: $25 to $15 for adults; $17 to $11 for children; $23 to $14 for seniors
MORE INFO: 636-6146, www.mohawkmaidencruises.com
Slap, slap, slap. The bright red blades of the paddle wheel smack the water with a rhythmic beat. The engine hums and purrs. And the Caldwell Belle glides along, as smooth as molasses.
Six days a week this summer and through October, the authentic sternwheel riverboat takes passengers on narrated cruises of the upper Hudson River and the Champlain Canal.
From its dock in Schuylerville, the boat passes through locks, under bridges, around islands and past the war cannons of the Saratoga Battlefield. Once a month, she takes a lazy, six-hour trip to the village of Whitehall, where passengers dine, shop for antiques and spend the night in a country inn.
While there are quite a few boat tours of the lakes, rivers and canals around the Capital Region and in the Adirondacks, the Caldwell Belle, which can carry up to 45 passengers, is one of the smaller, more personal cruises.
“It’s a more intimate experience, a quieter experience. It’s peaceful,” says Marla Hodge, who runs Mohawk Maiden Cruises with her partner, Maria Saavedra.
Hodge and Saavedra bought the Caldwell Belle and took over the tour business, formerly known as Champlain Canal Tour Boats, from operators Bob and Marie Foster this spring. However, for Mohawk Maiden’s debut season, Bob Foster has stayed on as captain while the women await licenses.
Trip down memory lane
On a recent weekday afternoon, 11 passengers took a ride aboard the charming blue-and-white, two-decker boat.
Just past Lock C5, the Caldwell Belle is parked in the canal, which is flanked by a dense drapery of trees and shrubs. Before we take off, seagulls caw and dragonflies whiz by.
Hodges is at the helm, a big wooden wheel, as she steers away from the dock with Captain Bob at her side.
For passenger Kathy Taylor of Granville, who came aboard with her sister, the ride is a trip down memory lane.
“We’re canal kids,” says Taylor. “Our father was a captain on a tugboat for many years.”
Besides the Whitehall excursion, Mohawk Maiden offers four cruises, from 75 minutes to three hours.
The boat and its crew is also available for private events like weddings and office parties.
“We can customize a whole cruise for a group,” says Hodge.
The Fort Miller cruise, which this Gazette reporter selected, is a bit like sailing on a time line from the 1800s to the present day.
As the boat moves along the Champlain Canal, we see the Northumberland waterfalls, a drop in the Hudson River and one of the reasons the canal was built.
Then we enter the mighty and historic Hudson.
“You’re riding in a river that’s been used for commercial purposes for 200 years,” says Foster. “It’s a very, very pretty stretch of river.”
As we approach the Route 4 Bridge, he tells us that this summer’s high water made it impossible to pass under the bridge for several weeks.
“If you are over 6 feet high and you are wearing a hat, you should stay seated,” Foster announces as we near the bridge’s green girders.
Posted at the bow, José, the 16-year-old son of Hodges and Saavedra, pulls down the boat’s flag, and with less than a foot to spare, we clear the bridge.
Farther up the river, Foster points to a ripple of water that crosses the Hudson like a belt.
“That’s Crocker’s Reef,” he says. “People would take their shoes and socks off and walk across the river on the reef.”
Before there were bridges, the 20-foot-wide stone ledge was a way to avoid paying the ferryman, as one passed from Saratoga County on one bank to Washington County on the other, he says.
“There’s a bald eagle in this area,” continues Foster, who shows us the tall pines where it roosts.
When we are within sight of Lock 6, the boat turns around.
On the way back, we see Willard Mountain in the distance and, when we pass an old ice house near the shore, Foster tells us about Jesse Billings Jr.
“He was one of the most wealthy and influential residents of Saratoga County,” he says.
Billings made his money hauling 200-pound blocks of ice to New York City on barges.
When he died in 1905, Billings was a millionaire.
While there is plenty of history on the Hudson, there’s history-in-the-making, too.
While not advertised as such, Mohawk Maiden Cruises give passengers a glimpse at the 10-year dredging project under way in the river to remove PCBs that were discharged decades ago from General Electric plants in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls.
In the river, passengers see tugboats pushing massive barges, cranes that scoop the river bottom, and scows piled high with stone.
Workers in bright orange hard hats scoot along the water in pontoon boats, and buoys mark sites where more dredging is planned.
Foster has been watching the dredging since it started four years ago, and now Hodges and Saavedra are learning about it.
For the women, who moved to this area from Georgia six years ago, working on the water is a new adventure but being on the water is second nature.
Saavedra grew up on Long Island, where she went fishing with her grandfather.
A Georgia native, Hodge spent years working as a newspaperwoman and then in retail, but when she saw that the Caldwell Belle was for sale, she knew it was time for a career change.
“I was in a rut,” she says.
Waterskiing, Jet Skiing and kayaking were her girlhood pastimes on the lakes and rivers of Georgia.
“I had a lake in my front yard,” Hodge says. “I grew up driving a ski boat.”