August 21 to September 3
It was difficult to leave Port Elgin… not because of its charms, rather because of the weather. We knew that there was a major weather system coming, and if we did not get out on the 21st, we would add as much as a week to this year’s voyaging. In fact, we regretted that we didn’t have a chance to explore Port Elgin and the neighbouring town of Southhampton. It was a pretty miserable morning, with driving rain and accompanying poor visibility. The wind and wave forecast was acceptable, but the day was expected to bring a succession of squalls that could be expected to cause localized rough water as well as visibility limited to a few hundred feet. We consulted a large weather map in the marina office several times, and finally at about 1:30 decided to make a run, hoping to slip between the squalls. We do have radar on board, but as we seldom use it, I am not confident that we would be able to interpret it well enough to see something like a small boat in time to avoid it. As it worked out, we went through one squall, and could not see much, but we were out there alone (surprise surprise) and we arrived in Goderich without incident.
We were unexpectedly quite captivated when we began to explore this town of 8000, self-billed as “Canada’s Prettiest Town”. We assumed hyberbole, but as soon as we hiked up the hill and saw the beautiful houses, charming English style gardens, and exceptional civic pride, we were convinced. Many of the lovely old houses and shops of the 19th and early 20th century are still occupied, and newer buildings are in keeping with the original style of the town. The layout of the town centre is an unusual octagon, with roads radiating out like spokes to an enclosing square. Outside the square the roads follow the cliffs of the lake shoreline, filled in with the familiar grid pattern of most Canadian towns. Flowers are everywhere, with most houses and businesses sporting hanging baskets as well as colourful plantings.
Goderich is the site of the largest underground salt mine in the world. The mine is 1750 feet deep, and extends nearly 3 miles under Lake Huron. It is operated by a subsidiary of Compass Minerals, the very familiar Sifto Salt. The mine buildings at the edge of Lake Huron can be seen for miles. In addition to the salt mine and tourism, Goderich is an important port for lake freighters with several large grain elevators.
We stayed 3 nights in Goderich. On our first day we explored the downtown on foot, including a wonderful kitchen shop with a great many interesting gadgets that we never knew we needed. We returned to the boat along a path behind the grain elevators, and were fascinated by the sight of trucks being loaded with grain that we assume had been brought in the previous day by a lake freighter that had been in the harbour.
Our second day was a bike ride of the sort only Dick can arrange. We set off first in a direction exactly opposite to the town, requiring a crossing of a converted railway bridge over the Maitland River. The Menesetung Bridge was once the longest railway bridge in Ontario, with 7 spans totalling 750 feet long, 200 feet above the river. Today it is a walking/cycling bridge. With my fear of heights, I was only able to push my bike and plod carefully along the centre of the bridge, keeping my eyes firmly down and watching the rows of nail heads in the planks. Dick enjoyed it tremendously, stopping at the various lookout points and riding the rest of the way across. We then followed a straight, slightly uphill and quite boring, trail through woods along the old railway right of way, eventually arriving on top of the highway bridge that Dick’s careful planning had intended to pass under. Retracing our steps, we found a way to get onto the highway, and were then faced with a very long ride up out of the river valley on the side of the four-lane highway (no bike path). Fortunately, my bike is electric assist, or there would have been even more tense words on choice of route for what was supposed to be a pleasant exploration of the architecture of the town! Our ride finished along the lake shore at the popular beach, where we had a meal in a restaurant that was once a small railway station. Unfortunately, the quality of the food failed to match the beautiful and sympathetic conversion of the historic building.
Wildlife, or should I say, insect life, has become an annoying and continuous presence in our lives. We began to see spiders on the boat when we were on the Trent Severn, and for the past few weeks they have been found everywhere outside, and are even beginning to encroach inside the boat. They like to hide in our dock lines and fender lines, and from there they build webs everywhere. When you step on one it makes a nasty mess on the boat that only comes off with soap and a brush, so Nine Lives is looking less than pristine. They also poop everywhere, something I have never seen before and could certainly do without seeing now! A much more attractive presence is monarch butterflies. I noticed them flying around the boat right in the middle of Georgian Bay, and since then we have seen them several times offshore as well as sipping nectar on wildflowers when we are out for a walk.
From Goderich we made a fast run to Sarnia. I had hoped that getting out of Lake Huron and into the St Clair River would smooth the water somewhat, but between strong winds, a very strong current, and numerous wakes from boats large and small, it was an unpleasant arrival until we were inside the protected harbour.
Sarnia is a medium sized city and important Seaway port. There is a large refinery and petrochemical presence that overwhelms the waterfront. That said, the Sarnia Bay Marina is a very attractive and well-built facility surrounded by parkland and bike paths, and protected from the river swells. There is a restaurant on site that we didn’t try, and an Irish Pub across the road. After discovering that the Pub was offering live music on our second evening, we decided, against our better judgement, to eat late so we could enjoy the music. The duo were scheduled to start at 9:30pm (well after our “looper midnight” bedtime), and although they were very good musicians, the evening was ruined by the presence of a number of their so-called friends and fans, who chose to talk loudly among themselves and did not pay even the slightest bit of attention to the music. Between them and wildly uncomfortable bar stools, we soon gave up and headed back to the boat. We wished we had chosen instead to go to the evening of Elvis and Patsy Cline music that was being offered at the marina!
On Sunday morning Dick took a deep breath and followed the prompts on the ROAM app that is the new offering by US Customs and Immigration for small boat border crossing. He was ever so slightly surprised to receive an immediate confirmation with number, and no requirement to report in person. It may not always go quite as smoothly, but for a first attempt it was perfect! We made a short hop down the river to the small town of St Clair, on the US side. The town is popular with boaters because of its protected harbour behind a lift bridge and several easily accessible waterfront restaurants. Here we were assailed by the sounds of what appeared to be the favourite local vessel, the cigarette boat. These large, sleek, and usually beautifully painted boats look stunning, but are an assault on the ear drums and create enormous wakes for other boaters. They are racing boats, and as such will have two or more engines with over 1000hp and no muffler. With used models running between $300 and $700 thousand, plus fuel costs, these boats are not generally owned by middle class family types. In other words, the self-absorbed owners are some of the most inconsiderate boaters we have encountered. So far, we have only seen them occasionally, and it appears we have left most of them behind on the St Clair and Detroit Rivers.
After an early start to catch the first bridge opening, we had a relatively smooth run downriver to Lake St Clair and on to Detroit. Although the lake is only about 20 miles wide, it is quite shallow and can become very rough, so we hoped to get across it before the afternoon winds kicked up. We arrived by noon in the city of Detroit, staying at the downtown municipal marina, just a mile from the Renaissance Center and located in the middle of a ribbon of parks along the waterfront. I can tell you, Detroit was probably right at the top of the list of North American cities I did NOT want to visit, but after our stop there I have certainly changed my mind. The city is well on the way to a complete revitalization of the downtown area, with parks and walking/cycling paths and beautifully restored and repurposed old industrial and commercial buildings. We felt completely safe everywhere we walked, and there was no sign of gangs of young men hanging about, or homeless people. Just families out enjoying the hot weather and joggers and cyclists making their way through the parks and very clean streets.
The first evening we walked to the Renaissance Center through the waterfront park, and enjoyed a seafood meal at Joe Muer Seafood. The second evening we began by meeting the local AGLCA Harbour Host at his office for some beer tasting and chat. We were surprised to learn that he is a lawyer who specializes in cannabis. He told us that initially he dealt mainly with legalization of cannabis for medical uses, now he is involved with the Michigan campaign for recreational use. He is now becoming a consultant for the legal aspects of cannabis business, as well as legalization and defending people who have been arrested. It was an interesting chat, and while his passion is not ours, it is always interesting to meet someone who has dedicated their whole career to a single cause. Mainly we chatted about The Great Loop, and his hopes to buy a suitable boat in future so he can participate as more than harbour host. Afterwards we walked down to the waterfront and the Rattlesnake Club for dinner. This fine dining restaurant has been a Detroit institution for 30 years, with the goal of taking an active part in the revitalization of the city. We enjoyed a wonderful meal (no snake on the menu, never was), and certainly hope that the small number of diners was not indicative of a trend.
Leaving Detroit, we passed a huge steel works on the shore of the Detroit River. Zug Island is the site where Detroit Ironworks built a blast furnace in 1902. By 1931 the operation became part of a fully integrated steel mill, and is still operated today by United States Steel. Lake freighters bring coal and ore to the docks along the Detroit River. In 1975 the Edmund Fitzgerald was bringing a load of taconite for the mill when she went down in Lake Superior.
Our next destination was an anchorage in the Raisin River at Monroe, Michigan. The far western end of Lake Erie is heavily industrial, and there weren’t really any nice choices for destinations. Sandusky was too far for a single day’s travel. We haven’t anchored since Lake Champlain, so it was a nice change. As it turned out, in spite of being anchored in the Port of Monroe turning basin, it was an interesting afternoon. The skyline is dominated by the chimney stacks and conveyors of the DTE Energy Power Plant, but beside the turning basin where we anchored there appears to be a loading operation for what Dick is sure is fracking sand. This is sand that is part of the water mixture injected into shale wells. The sand serves to hold the cracks open and allow the oil or gas to be extracted. Not all sand is suitable, so there are commercial operations that mine the sand in places like Texas and Wisconsin, and ship it to fracking destinations. We watched trucks dump large loads of sand at the edge of the basin all afternoon. The condition and height of the docks suggested that barges, rather than freighters, would be used to collect the accumulated sand. Neither of us could understand why a commercial vessel turning basin would be designated as an anchorage for pleasure boats, and I was somewhat concerned that we would be woken in the night by an irate tow operator expecting us to up anchor and get out of the way!
We passed a very peaceful night, and in the morning, it was time to lift the anchor. Headsets on and me at the wheel, Dick went to the bow and flipped open the cover to operate the electric anchor windlass. A certain amount of language ensued, when he discovered that the rubber cover of the button had perished, allowing the mechanism to become corroded. After several starts, it stopped working altogether and Dick began to look around for the handle to operate the windlass manually (more colourful language). I reminded him that we have a remote control for the anchor windlass, and perhaps he would prefer to try that first. Amazingly the remote was right where I thought it was, and the battery was fine. Without resorting to the instruction manual (those are for AFTER you have tried several things without success), Dick was able to raise the anchor without difficulty. Since we were in 19 feet of water, and therefore had all 200 feet of our all-chain rode out, manually winding it in even with the windlass would have been a lot of effort. So, add fixing the windlass buttons to the ever-growing list of repairs to be done this winter!
Contrary to the expected forecast of single digit wind and one foot waves, the ride to Sandusky was very choppy and unpleasant. Eventually the fetch was broken up by the chain of islands that cross the Lake just before Sandusky, making a slightly more pleasant ride. As we approached the Bass Island chain, we were amazed to see literally hundreds of small boats anchored in the chop and fishing. I can’t imagine a less enjoyable pastime than heaving up and down on the waves, in the broiling sun, while hoping to catch fish. Obviously, there are thousands who love it, each to his own!
Arrival in Sandusky Bay made a relief from the unpleasant chop. We passed close to Cedar Point, a 347 acre amusement park first opened in 1870. Today it has 71 rides, including 18 roller coasters. The sheer size of some of the rides was brought home when we noticed the 500 room Hotel Breakers, dwarfed by the rides surrounding it. Sandusky Bay is a wonderful area for boaters. The Bay is large enough for sailing when Lake Erie is feeling frisky, and the whole area is surrounded by marinas.
Sandusky was another very pleasant surprise on this trip. The downtown is well ahead on redevelopment of the beautiful old commercial buildings, and in addition to pleasant waterfront parks, there are some lovely municipal gardens. We enjoyed a bike ride through the town and some of the historic neighbourhoods. The marina was very pleasant, and one of the friendliest we have been to. We enjoyed docktails with the owner of the marina and her husband. Her parents used to travel to Hilton Head each year for the winter, so they were interested to chat once they saw our hailing port.
We had originally planned to spend labor day weekend in Cleveland, but were unable to get in to any of the marinas for the days we wanted because they were fully booked for the annual air show. Instead, we spend an extra two nights in Sandusky, and were able to get reservations at “Rock and Dock”, the municipal marina in downtown Cleveland, for Monday and Tuesday nights. Arriving at about 1pm, we discovered that the air show runs all three days, and we were in the middle of it. Lots of boats were anchored in the harbour to watch it, and as we carefully made our way through them towards the marina we were shouted at. “You can’t go there! Can’t you see that? You CAN’T go there! Oh look, now you’re in trouble, here’s the Coast Guard!” I stood on the bow, and the very polite Coastie asked where we were headed. After I explained that we had a reservation at the marina, he told me we could go ahead as long as we proceeded with no wake and got there within the next 10 minutes. I desperately wanted to thumb my nose at the rude boaters, but I figured just being allowed to proceed was revenge enough! We docked to the sight and sound of fighter jets making passes over the boat, and were in plenty of time to see the Blue Angels. The 3rd time this trip they have welcomed us into port!
We will stay 2 nights in Cleveland, looking forward to visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and then onward towards Buffalo and the western Erie Canal.