The fastest route from Vermont to Michigan is through Canada. We had an option to travel straight north through Montreal or to go west through New York and cross farther down the St. Lawrence River. We chose to do the later and cross the border into Ontario at Ogdensburg. It’s usually easier to cross at a smaller crossing, away from a major urban area, and our crossing was uneventful.
We decided to camp at the Ivy Lea Campground, an Ontario Provincial Park. Ivy Lea is a good location to use as a base to explore the region. We had been rained on rather continuously since we left Virginia and it was apparent the rain had been in this region as well. The grassy areas were very wet and signs warned us not to drive in the grass. We awoke to heavy rain the next day and we decided it was a good day to sleep in, catch up on our reading, make some plans, and just “chill out.”
I had been in touch with the Brockville Adventure Centre, a SCUBA dive center on the St. Lawrence River, and was able to join a pair of divers who booked a charter to dive on a couple of wrecks in the St. Lawrence River.
Wednesday afternoon our dive boat took us upriver to our first site, the Henry C. Daryaw. This steel freighter had struck a rock, penetrating the hull. After multiple salvage attempts the Daryaw rolled upside down and sank into an underwater ravine. The water level of the St. Lawrence was five feet above its normal level as a result of all of the rain in the region. Consequently, the current was running faster than normal. The three of us descended along the mooring line to the stern of the wreck. I could feel the current pulling on us as we descended. The water was very clear with visibility of 20 – 30 feet. Unfortunately there were a lot of micro particles in the water that made it a bad day for underwater photography. When we swam under the wreck we were sheltered from the strong current and we could explore the ship’s holds. You really don’t know what black is until you are 95 feet underwater and underneath a wreck. If it wasn’t for our underwater lights we wouldn’t have seen a thing. We swam out at the bow and ascended to the keel. There we were literally blown towards the stern. We skidded along the surface of the ship, dragging our hands and feet on the surface to try to slow down. When we reached the stern, we dropped out of the current, checked each other out and made our ascent up the mooring line. A unique feature of our dive boat was a platform that is lowered into the water where we could stand to remove our fins, then walk up a set of stairs onto the deck, much better than climbing a ladder!
Our second dive was on the Lillie Parsons, a sailing schooner that ran aground and capsized in 60 feet of water. Unlike many sailing vessels, her masts had not been removed and her masts were visible on the dive. She is lying on a slope with her stern at 60 feet and her bow at 30 feet. When we jumped into the water the current was flowing so fast it pulled the mooring buoy underwater. As we descended we could feel the current pulling on us even harder than on the Henry Daryaw. We had been briefed to follow a guide line on the river bottom, but soon discovered it was no longer attached to the wreck. The current was so strong that we had to hold on to rocks on the river bottom and sort of crawl along the rocks until we reached the wreck. As we worked our way along the ships gunwale, we had to hold onto the exposed ribs to keep from being swept away. We were able to look at some of her cargo of coal that was spilled on the bottom and some other artifacts from the ship. After exploring the Lillie Parsons we were to follow the rock wall of the island to the ascent line. We controlled our drift by holding onto cracks in the wall. At the ascent line, when we held onto the line at our safety stop, the current stretched us out like flags in a strong wind. Both of these dives seemed like I was swimming in a hurricane. Without a doubt, the most challenging dives I have ever made and I hope to return to Brockville to do more dives in the future.
Thursday, we launched our kayaks from the campground and paddled upriver. By staying close to the shore we were able to avoid the worst of the current. You could easily tell that the river was high. We saw one cabin after another where the water was above the level of the dock. There were many nice homes and cabins built on the shore and on the islands. We were able to paddle out into the channel, using the islands to shield us from the current as we explored them. It was a beautiful day for paddling and the current was not as much of a problem as we thought it might have been.
That afternoon we drove over to Rockport where we had our lunch in a park overlooking the St. Lawrence. After lunch we boarded a sightseeing tour boat for a tour of the Thousand Islands. As we cruised through the islands we saw all kinds of cabins, cottages, homes, and mansions. Some of the islands were so small there was hardly enough room for the building. In fact, in one case, a cabin was built on nothing but a rock. They built the cabin so big that you can’t even see the rock it was built on.
We saw many mansions of all sizes and shapes on the river. However, the most talked about mansion is Boldt Castle on Heart Island. George C. Boldt, proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, built this massive structure on the heart shaped island for his wife. He employed 300 artisans and craftsmen to create this 120 room castle. In 1904 a telegram from Boldt announced the death of his wife and commanded, “stop all construction.” Broken hearted, Boldt abandoned the project and never returned to Heart Island. For 73 years, the castle and various stone structures were left to the mercy of the wind, rain, ice, snow and vandals. When the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the property in 1977, it was decided the castle would be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations, funded through the use of all net revenues from the castle operation. Since 1977, several million dollars have been applied to rehabilitating, restoring and improving the Heart Island structures. Today it is an impressive structure and hosts daily tours.
One of the benefits of camping at the Ivy Lea Campground is that you get a free pass to tour Fort Henry or Upper Canada Village. We opted to visit Fort Henry. The original fort was constructed during the War of 1812 to protect the Kingston Royal Naval Dockyard on Point Frederick from a possible American attack during the war and to monitor maritime traffic on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. Fort Henry was used for several different purposes, including a compound for enemy Prisoners of War. In the early 1900s it began to fall into disrepair, but in the 1930s, under the leadership of Ronald L. Way, restorations took place as part of a government work program during the Great Depression. “Old Fort Henry” was opened on August 1, 1938. What sets Fort Henry apart from many other restored forts that I have visited is the pageantry. When Ronald Way began the restoration he knew that the physical restoration was only part of the effort. He wanted the fort to come alive and tell a story. Today Fort Henry is administered by Parks Canada, operated by the St. Lawrence Parks Commission, and is a living museum with the introduction of uniformed military interpreters known as the Fort Henry Guard. These interpreters staff the fort, conduct demonstrations of British military life, and lead tours for visitors. Our tour guide played the role of a Canadian soldier in the fort and the Afternoon Parade by the Fort Henry Guard was impressive.
The next morning, Sunday, June 11th, we began a two-day drive to Lansing, crossing the US/Canadian Border, the longest undefended border in the world.