“I thought we were doing a canal trip. Where’s the canal?” Questions like this keep me from full time employment.
Naturally, I should have read the manual. What’s new there? If I had looked closely at the navigation map provided by Locaboat, I might have notice that the first portion of our Burgundy “canal” trip was actually on the Yonne River. Though there were occasional lock protected shunts off the main channel, most of the journey from Joigny to Auxerre was on the wide and slow flowing Yonne. This day that would change. We would navigate the Canal du Nivernais.
Between a quick bike tour and a problematic attempt to do the laundry, we untied our Pénichette® 1107W near noon. We motored to “l’écluse du Batardeau” on the edge of the old district of Auxerre. The sign said that l’ecluse is the 81st of the 81 locks on the Canal du Nivernais.
“Is it open?” I asked Becky.
We’d repeat this exact question many times on the canal.
“I can’t tell. Move closer.” Becky gave the typical reply.
Our mass of baggage included many, many items, too many items, in fact. Incredibly it did not include binoculars.
Finally we crept within Mr. Magoo range of the lock. It was closed. We were confused.
“Check the manual,” I suggested.
Possibly reading the manual shouldn’t always be the last resort. Of course if we had studied the details before we untied the boat we would have known that the locks close for lunch.
With the throttle of the Lezinnes pushed to the limit, we did our sharpest turn and headed back down the river away from the entrance to the Canal du Nivernais. Staked up on a pleasant grassy bank, we had a casual lunch riverside in Auxerre. But now we were running late. Reading the manual also reminded us that the locks close at 7 pm. It would be impossible for us to reach the layover location suggested on Locaboat’s itinerary.
At 1 pm, when the canal operations resumed, we were first in line at lock no. 81. There is no simpler illustration of the operation of a lock than a mechanical lock. Drive the boat into the lock, close the gate behind using a mechanical device (hand cranks on the Canal du Nivernais), lift the sluice gate in the direction of travel, let the water levels equalize, and then open the forward gate. At this point, your boat is ready to continue its journey.
With the mechanical locks, the cycle takes around 15 minutes. There’s plenty of time to help the keeper with the gates, take a few pictures, practice a little French (or let the keepers practice their English), and get to know the other boaters who are traveling with you in “lock step.”
Often individualized with unique paint schemes, well-tended gardens, and quirky lawn ornaments, every lock is unique. Just as the locks vary, so do to the lockkeepers. Keepers range across a wide spectrum. Elderly gentlemen, college students, and refugee stoners, there are all types. (Exactly what answers do you give so your high school aptitude test spits out lockkeeper as your ideal career?)
The canals in France have various ways of getting their water. For our route on the Canal du Nivernais, small dams on the Yonne direct water into the boat channel as the canal and river meander in the same general direction. The distinction between traveling on the Yonne and the Canal du Nivernais may seem arbitrary but the difference is noticeable. When you leave the Yonne and enter the Canal du Nivernais, the locks are smaller and manually operated (mostly) and, to a much greater extent, transit occurs on hand-excavated channels.
Nights on the canal are usually spent tied up along the bank of a small village. With a late start we were well short of our itinerary’s designated destination when the locks closed. Staking up along the shore is always an option. This time, “canal camping” was a necessity. Our night was spent next to five canal boats configured as dormitories and stuffed with energetic summer camp kids.
Locaboat’s Pénichettes are configured much like a RVs. The 1107W has three fixed beds (two doubles and a single) and a simple bathroom below the deck in the front of the boat. In the rear there is a galley with a table, an oven, a propane powered three-burner stove, a sink, and a refrigerator. Gray water waste, from washing and showers, drains directly into the canal. The toilet flushes by a hand pump using canal water with the black water collected in a tank. Manual or no manual, Becky found the toilet’s pump a challenge to operate. (I can assure you that Becky being toilet challenged was not a good thing.) A diesel burner provides hot water. Fresh water is held in a 114-gallon tank. A 12 V battery system keeps the lights and fridge running as long as the boat’s motor has been run long enough maintain the charge. (One outlet on the dash can provide 220 V power when the boat is connected to shore electricity.) Basic, but just like our Airstream trailer at home, it does the job.
With the iPod hooked into the boat’s rejuvenated stereo system pumping out the tunes and only slightly overwhelming the shouts of the summer camp kids playing in the water, we made dinner. It was a pleasant evening feasting on roasted lamb, Joigny Market salad, and roasted veggies. Our meal was accompanied by a moderate quality Irancy Pinot Noir. It was just like home. Well, OK, maybe without the screaming kids. But when we ignored screams, camping out in a canal boat in the French countryside was a sublime experience.
The next day we pulled up the stakes and continued up the canal early. Our quick getaway was foiled when we ran into the jam of the summer camp kids’ boats. With the full lock cycle taking 20 to 30 minutes, there was an extended wait bank side until the canal traffic started to flow. After the delay, we fell into a group with two other boats. Together we moved as a group through the canal for the next few days. One boat was crewed by three fun loving Parisian gentlemen. The other larger boat held a collective of stressed friends from Luxembourg whose tension dissolved as they progressed through the Burgundian countryside.
At each lock all three boats squeezed in and the conversations continued. Locking up with other boats on the Canal du Nivernais is a cooperative affair. Often, only one boat has a chance to reach the long, swimming pool style ladder that lets a crewmember scramble to the top and attach a rope. The other boats are then dependant on the help from the first boat to get their ropes secured ashore. At first just the ropes are exchanged. By the end, pictures are taken and stories are told. The passage with the other boaters is a valued memory of our canal boat journey.
Boating on the Canal du Nivernais in the 21st century is an anachronism. Without commercial boat traffic, there is no sensible reason for the canal to be maintained for transportation purposes. Tourism and the simple desire to preserve the past keep the canal being lost to the undergrowth. For a visitor, passage on the waterway is a tour through an elaborate canal museum.
Construction of the Canal du Nivernais started in 1784 and finished in 1843. From appearances, little about the canal has changed since its completion. The lock’s machinery, outwardly unaltered and unimproved, functions as designed. The myriad of concrete diversion dams and other channel structures are original. But now travel is by motor powered boats. A towpath once occupied by beasts of burden has been repurposed to produce a long, gentle bike path.
These days the lock keepers don’t always live lock side. In fact, further along the canal, the keepers often manage several locks, moving back and forth at high speed in a car while using a radio to monitor the canal traffic. Somehow, with bikes moving along the towpath faster than the boats can make way and the keepers shuttling back and forth between the locks in cars, it is clear that the canals are no longer a practical mode of transportation. They are now a method of intentionally slow travel. The canals function as entertainment.
Between Joigny, our starting point, and our ending point at Locaboats base near Corbigny there are 85 miles of canal with 67 locks and around a half-dozen functioning lifting bridges (bridges that have to be operated by the boats crew). Though sailing the canals seems like a sedate, retiring activity, it is actually very active. Climb up a ladder. Hold the ropes tight. Crank open and close a lifting bridge. With a crew of two, the wine and cheese has to wait to the end of the day. There’s too much to do.
It took us six days of steady motoring to make it to Corbigny. Along the way, we had the chance to stop and discover numerous picturesque small towns. Villages like Clamecy, situated on the waterfront with a rotating bridge over the canal and the required Gothic church, leave an impression of another way of life. With little canal traffic and no guidebook worthy sites, the villages are off the tourist corridor. The towns each had one thing in common, though; there is at least one boulangerie. Fresh and delicious bread and pastries are cheap and available in all villages. It must be a French law; let them eat cake.
The Canal du Nivernais continues past our stopping point in Corbigny. If we had gone further on the canal we would have quickly passed through a stair step sequence of 24 locks and climbed around 200 feet to the waterway’s highest point, the La Collancelle canal tunnel. On the canal map, this passage looks like an amazing work of civil engineering. I’m not sure that we can miss this one. We will have to come back on another visit.
The last night on the water was bittersweet. Arriving around five, we secured the Lezinnes to the dock at the side of the Canal du Nivernais for the last time. We would spend the night in the boat at Locaboat’s base. With the air still and the canal’s water calm we dined on as much of the leftover food that we could possibly use. Later we strolled the docks and joined in with the Luxembourgers (or maybe they were Lëtzebuerger or Luxembourgeois….) for a celebration of a safe passage. (Our Parisian friends had long since left the canal.)
The Luxembourgers had been on the same itinerary as us, departing from Joigny for the one-way trip to Corbigny. On the deck of their boat, we shared their wine and traded stories of navigational foibles and life on the canal. It was clear. The journey on the Canal du Nivernais had been good for all.