PHOTO BY THIES BOGNER
The habitual flurry of Monday morning email activity momentarily ground to a halt as I opened a communiqué from the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation indicating the 58th season had opened March 21. And though it meant very little for the newspaper, I slowly perused each photo of the huge cargo vessels with a childhood fascination that has never waned.
As a kid, a favourite family outing was a visit to the Beauharnois locks, our faces pressed to the station wagon windows (what seatbelts?) absorbing the indelible sights of the journey like the green water churning through the Hydro Québec generating station, the flocks of seagulls looking for fresh chum, and the flames that ominously shot out of the Union Carbide chimney before the explosion in 1979 that killed five workers.
Driving under the seaway through a tunnel that, still to this day, leaks just enough water to frighten me, wasn’t complete until my dad blew the car’s horn a few times so we could hear the sound echo off the tunnel walls.
But it was watching the ships come into the locks upbound (from the Atlantic) through the channel, an exercise that had the ability to make me forget to breathe every time I saw it. With the engines cut, the massive ship would glide noiselessly into impossibly close quarters and, as the water drained from the next lock, the ship, that was already intimidating to begin with, hovered above us, convincing me it was about to topple over.
In those dangerous days when we played with lawn darts, stayed out after dark, and drank from the garden hose, we could almost reach out and touch the sides of the ship as it rose past our eyes, the sailors on board tossing candy to all the kids from their coveted vantage point.
I can’t understand how we finagled it but in those pre-internet days with no schedule to consult, we always managed to arrive at the locks in time to see a ship pass through, my dad explaining to me the meaning of draught marks, bow thruster, and Plimsoll lines painted on the sides. The geek gene, apparently, is dominant.
I don’t know if ships still use coloured flags to communicate situations to other passing vessels but, living near Lac St. Louis, I can attest to the fact that whistle communications are still used, having once run out to investigate when I heard the tell-tale five short blasts at continued intervals, indicating – depending on your source – either ‘Danger’ or ‘What the **** are you doing?’
The Beauharnois locks have never stopped being my go-to spot for small road trips and though the onsite casse-croûte has long been demolished, I remember it as concocting the best poutine I’ve ever had in my life and the restaurant owner once being kind enough to bring out a bowl of cold water for my dog on a hot August day.
You can still watch the ships pass through the Beauharnois locks but from a much more distant spot, the newly installed fencing, sadly, being less about security I’m told, than about suicide prevention.
It’s fitting that the first ship to pass through this season is named the Thunder Bay as it’s also the name of the town where my grandfather lived and worked, many years ago, weighing and loading grain freight for ships setting off downbound on Lake Superior, ultimately through the same set of locks where, undoubtedly, a geeky kid was waiting, enthralled.