For many sailors, making an international voyage conjures up visions of crossing oceans. For sailors on Michigan's Lake St. Clair, it is pretty much an everyday event. The international border with Canada lies just a few miles offshore.
We've invited another couple, Karen and Jim, and their two boys, Eric and Brian, aboard for a weekend cruise to Wallaceburg, Ontario. Their family has not been small-boat cruising before. Chris and I are cruising veterans, and this will be our third trip up the Chenal Ecarte. "Just meet us at the dock around 9:30 a.m. Saturday," we tell them, "and bring food for a couple of lunches underway." We'll eat dinner Saturday night in port, and we'll be back in time Sunday for dinner at home.
Chris and I are down to the boat a little earlier, to get everything shipshape before the guests arrive. Promptly at 9:45 a.m. we see our friends coming down the pier, hauling an incredible amount of gear with them, especially the food! Also, they've brought a small television set so we can watch Game Four of the Stanley Cup Finals Saturday night. The game could be the occasion of Detroit's first hockey championship in more than 40 years, so we cannot miss it.
Soon we have everything stowed, and we are ready to depart. It is a beautiful day for early June, with warm temperatures and sunny skies. And some wind to sail on, too. We motor down the crowded marina channel, heading into Lake St. Clair, and continue under power until we are clear of the busy shoreline. The passing powerboats churn up the lake into a bumpy mixture of crossing waves that resembles the inside of a blender. I see our guests are beginning to wonder if boating is going to always be this uncomfortable. I assure them that this is the worst part of the trip. It's unfortunate that they have to initiate themselves into boating this way.
Finally, we are a mile or so offshore, and the lake smooths out into a gentle swell. We get the sails up and drawing, and we are on our way to the northeast. Under sail, the boat motion settles down. Everyone looks comfortable, so there is no worry of seasickness. Our course is converging with the shipping channel, as we both head for the St. Clair Flats Cut Off, a dredged channel several hundred feet wide and thirty feet deep that connects the lake to the St. Clair River. Most shipping takes this route, rather than the natural South Channel of the river, which winds its way to the west of us. After a couple of hours, we are entering the shipping lanes. The wind momentarily heads us, and we have to revert to motoring. Then the wind hauls a little to the east, and we can sail again, right up the shipping channel!
Shipping traffic, although up in tonnage, is down in number of ships. Modern 1,000-foot vessels have replaced three or four older, smaller ships. We are fortunate, however, to have two big ships meet us just as we enter the deep-water shipping lanes. First, we are overtaken by the vessel Canadian Navigator, a strange looking hybrid, produced by welding the bow of one ship to the stern of another. She rumbles past us upbound, throwing quite a wake. We move to the extreme eastern side of the channel; we've got another laker approaching us down bound. She turns out to be the rather handsome vessel Cuyahoga, and we pass close abeam her, to the delight of everyone on board.
"Wow, they're big," is the comment heard from the boys. I always delight in close encounters with these big ships, although I stay a prudent distance away from them. (For some real close-up's, see my article on the J. W. Westcott II.) We cross the Cuyahoga's modest wake and head to the western side of the channel.
We're motoring against the current of the St. Clair River, which carries Lake Huron's outflow into Lake Erie and eventually over the Niagara Falls. There is a lot of water moving down this river, and it slows our upstream progress by a couple of knots.
The channel also marks the international boundary. To starboard and the east is Canada, the Walpole Island Indian Reservation. To port and the west is Harsens Island, Michigan, an interesting community of cottages, some year-round residences, and soaring real estate prices. Waterfront locations, particularly those sites on the northeastern end of the island which still have plenty of passing freighter traffic, have risen significantly. By moving to the western side of the waterway we have a better look at all the fancy homes along the shore.
Soon, we've reached the end of Harsens Island, and we're at Algonac. Recreational boat traffic is heavy, with big cruisers running up and down the river. Ferries carrying automobiles between Algonac and Walpole Island cross the main flow of the river, and they have to be avoided as well. A down bound foreign-flagged vessel, a "saltie", steams past us, probably carrying a cargo of grain exports. It is a busy waterway.
Around 1:30 p.m. we reach our next milestone, the entrance to the Chenal Ecarte, an eastern branching of the St. Clair River delta. In a corruption of the French name, the locals refer to the waterway as the "Snye Carty," or so a sign along the banks proclaims. Special yellow buoy "JXE" marks the entrance, along with a shore range. We make the sharp turn into the 'Snye', and begin our downstream run.
The Chenal Ecarte is quite deep. With late Spring's high water levels, there is more than 20 feet under our keel at this point. Along the northern shore is a collection of marinas, interspersed with some shore front homes. To the south is Walpole Island, an Indian Reserve whose shoreline, in contrast, appears in a completely natural and undeveloped state.
By 2:45 p.m., we have reached the highway bridge connecting Walpole Island to the rest of Ontario. The bridge keeper's tower is on the southern side, and a large sign proclaims that the bridge opens only on the hour for boat traffic. We will have to wait for the 3 p.m. opening to transit, so we have a few moments of circling at idle. With binoculars, I do confirm that the bridge keeper is awake and sees us. Several years ago we made this same trip, finding the fellow fast asleep on a warm Saturday afternoon. It took the good fortune of a passing motorist who noticed our plight and awakened the operator to get the bridge opened that time!
A few minutes after three, the bridge bells ring, the traffic gate arms lower, and the bridge opens. We motor through with a wave to the fellow in the tower, and resume our trip down the Chenal Ecarte, heading for the confluence of the 'Snye' and the Sydenham River, a few miles ahead.
The northern shore has turned into farms and homes, no more marinas at this point, while the Walpole Island side begins to show a few homes along its shore. It is beautiful boating. Our passage is steady as a rock in the quiet river, the scenery is varied and interesting, and the navigation is simple--just stay in middle. In fact, there aren't any aids to navigation visible. While the chart does show some day marks, they don't seem to be too well maintained these days. I turn the helm over to the boys, who get their first chance at operating a boat. You couldn't find a better spot for this kind of boating.
A few miles below the bridge, we take a sharp left turn to stay in the Chenal Ecarte, while the Johnston Channel, a significant tributary, makes it way southward. Unfortnately, when the Johnston Channel rejoins the lake, it shallows from 27 feet into a marshy delta of a foot or less, making for an interesting passage. I recall making a trip down there in 1960 at age nine, in the company of my Dad and his boss, who was taking everyone out for a "boat ride" in his now-classic 26-ft Chris-Craft Sea Skiff. At that time, low water levels and the 5 m.p.h. speed limit caused us to crawl along at idle. I couldn't understand the slow speed we kept, until Mr. Milby told me that "if we went any faster, the Indians will shoot at us." I believed him at the time, and I have heard anecdotes that indicate that policy is still in effect for suppressing speeders in the backwaters of the reservation!
After the waterway splits, we pass over the shallowest point in the river so far, an 11-foot sand bar just downstream from the divide. This point seems to be the controlling depth between Wallaceburg and the St. Clair River. Now our southern bank is St. Anne Island, whose shores support plenty of fields under cultivation, but no homes. Around the bend we come to a cable ferry crossing. A farmer has just made his way across the river from the island, hauling a big farm wagon behind his tractor on the crude ferry. "Okay, that's how they get over to work those fields," I conclude. They take their equipment over to the island with them on the little ferry. With all this water surrounding it, St. Anne Island should have very fertile crop lands.
Around the next bend we encounter the joining of the Chenal Ecarte and the Sydenham River. It is remarkably easy to see the confluence of their waters. The Chenal Ecarte is beautiful blue, while the Sydenham is muddy brown. As the two rivers join, a distinct line between blue and brown forms in the water, with the brown eventually overwhelming the blue as the river continues downstream.
Although our depth sounder shows deep water (15-feet) as we approach the barrier, the color change is so marked that your instincts tell you that you are about to go aground the moment you reach the brown water!
Now we are on the last leg, and good thing, too. Our guests have been excellent hands on this trip, but it is now approaching 5 p.m., and we have been underway for almost seven hours. They still look like they are enjoying the voyage, so let's not push it. A couple of obstacles remain ahead.
First, we have to radio to the bridge keeper to swing the big highway bridge ahead. Fortunately, their policy is to open on demand during daylight hours, so we do not have to wait to pass. Another giant trestle of steel moves out of our way, and again we wave in thanks as we pass.
Next, just a short distance upstream, we come to a railroad bridge. This one is kept open, closing only when a train is due to transit. So, again, we are able to travel unimpeded.
Finally, we reach downtown Wallaceburg. The town operates a municipal marina along the seawall on the northern side of the river. There is another bridge, this one a bascule type, but we decide we've come far enough, and explain to the bridge tender that we won't need it opened. We cozy up to the seawall, our mast just clearing some overhanging tree limbs. We are finished with engines for the day and securely tied to the pilings.
Now we have just landed on foreign soil, so I explain to our guest that they must remain aboard for just a minute longer while I clear us through Canadian Customs. Off I go to locate the harbour master and a telephone. In a moment I find them both, making a toll-free call to the Customs officer. After a few questions, we are admitted to Canada and given our clearance number to record in the ship's logbook.
A credit card takes care of the modest marina dockage fee, which will be reduced even more when the conversion to U.S. dollars takes place in the charge-card billing. I also have a chat with the dock master about best choices of restaurant.
Back on the boat, we are all free to explore foreign soil, although to us Canada often seems more like home than the America we see evolving (or de-evolving) around us. One bad feature of our dockage becomes apparent; we are too close to the noisy bridge. The opening portions of the bridge have their roadway made from steel grating to reduce weight. The effect of this is to create a very efficient drum head, and trucks and cars passing over the bridge create a loud racket. We'll become more aware of this tonight when we try to get to sleep. Maybe we should have gone beyond this bridge and tied up farther away from it; it would be much quieter than where we are now! Oh well, too late for that.
We take stock of our situation: we find the bathrooms, and--most important--an electrical outlet to power the TV for tonight's hockey game. Our guests brought the TV; I brought the 100-ft extension cord. This part of the seawall doesn't have the usual electrical hookups, but we do find a hot plug about fifty feet away at the base of a lighting pole.
The weather is quite warm in town, compared to our day on the lake. We decide to take a walk downtown and inspect several eateries before commiting to dinner at any of them. The heart of Wallaceburg's restaurant district is just a few blocks away. We settle on a nicely appointed little cafe. Everything looks perfect, but...
After spending the entire day outdoors, on the lake, and in the brisk winds, everyone is a little sun-burned, wind-burned, and accustomed to temperatures in the mid 60's. Now we find ourselves at the restaurant where the warm sunshine of the afternoon has driven the dinning room temperatures into the 80's. I guess in Wallaceburg you only need air conditioning for a couple of weeks in August. In early June the proprietor has not turned it on yet. A couple of Canadian beers --with their routinely higher alcohol content than American beer--takes the edge off any discomfort. Most everyone chooses a fish dinner, and we are not disappointed. Of course, any meal tastes great after a long day outdoors and on the water.
Back on the boat, we are just in time for the hockey game. We set the TV on the cabin roof, adjust the rabbit-ear antenna for a decent picture from nearby CBC-TV9 in Windsor, and settle in the cockpit for a unique view of the game. The weather is delightful, a warm June evening and no bugs or mosquitoes to annoy us. To make things perfect, the Red Wings win the game, bringing Detroit its first hockey championship in over forty years.
After all this excitement, no one has any trouble sleeping, even with the loud drumming of trucks crossing the bridge. After a while, the traffic volume drops (literally), and you all get used to the noise.
Sunday morning brings more clear weather and strong sunshine. I gather everyone for a crew picture, which I take from the bridge. "Hurry up," everyone complains, "the sun is in my eyes." Note the high water, almost spilling over the steel seawall. We are having a leisurely breakfast, until I start computing the timing for our arrival at the Walpole Island bridge. I am trying to hit it right on the hour so we don't have to wait. As is often the case, we should have left about three minutes ago if we wanted to make it. "Let's give it a try," I yell and urge everyone to hit the bathrooms shore side and get ready to leave. No one is on-duty at the marina office, so I can't return the key and get my deposit back. Oh well, we'll take care of that later.
We make a quick exit from Wallaceburg and motor downstream at 5 knots. The highway bridge tender is notified in advance, and we have him swinging the bridge open as we round the corner and come into view. On the radio, he reminds us of the strict adherence to the "on-the-hour" policy at the Walpole Island bridge.
While Chris takes the helm, I am below refining my calculations. Once we exit the Sydenham and rejoin the Chenal Ecarte, we are going against the current. In a straight stretch of the river, comparing readings from the LORAN and Knot log allows me to deduce the current running against us. Subtracting it from our indicated speed, I see that we will never make the bridge on the hour.
"You might as well back it down and take it easy," I tell Chris. "We are going to be late for the bridge."
The urgency removed from our trip once again, we settle back into an easy cruise up the river. On this Sunday morning we see farmers out in their fields, ladies tending their gardens, kids fooling around in their boats, and, of course some fellows fishing.
As we approach the cable ferry crossing, the old ferry lurches into a transit of the river. We have to stop and wait for it to clear our path. I am nervous about snagging the cable on our keel. It must have sunk back to the bottom, and we clear it without incident.
More slow river motoring finally brings us back to the Walpole Island bridge, where we are so early for the next opening that we decide to anchor and eat lunch while we wait. Once the hook is down, we see the current effects, as we lie to the flow of water and not to the wind. Lunch is served, and everyone is ready when the bridge opens.
Upstream of the bridge lurks a considerable hazard, created by the high water. Because the spring runoff has raised the water levels in the St. Clair River by several feet, the Chenal Ecarte has overflowed its banks along the northern shore of the river. The effect is to make the river appear almost twice as wide as it actually is. For upstream traffic just leaving the bridge area, the natural tendency is to keep to the right side, i.e., the northern side, of the waterway. You begin to make a gentle turn to the right, following the track of the waterway. The next map shows what will happen to you in a high water period.
High water spills over the banks of the Chenal Ecarte, but, unfortunately, at this spot the slope of the banks is not symetrical. The northern bank has a gentler slope to it, with the result that the river will flood inland about 100 feet or more. The river suddenly becomes almost twice as wide as it actually is. The usual course of "staying in the middle" of the waterway leads you into a shoal! Even though you appear to be almost in the center of the waterway, you will actually be sailing over its northern or eastern banks. Be careful!
Upstream from the bridge, boating activity picks up. Soon we are back in the St. Clair River. The big open water seems rough after our long river trip. Without the 5 m.p.h. speed limit, there is a constant stream of fast-moving power cruisers, churning up huge wakes, and all of them intent on overtaking us about 50 feet off our beam. To make things worse, the wind is light and variable, and we can't make much way at all under sail. We have to resort to motoring, although we leave the mainsail up for a sun awning. We are treated to another close encounter with a big freighter, this time one of the largest on the lakes, Oglebay Norton's 1000-footer, Columbia Star. Heading upbound and in ballast, she shows more of her massive hull than she does when fully laden with cargo.
Of course, we now have the river current working with us, and our downbound passage is much faster than Saturday's trip upstream. Soon we are back in the open lake, and there we can sail. The only problem is that we cannot sail directly at our destination, which lies almost exactly to windward. We take a tack off into the lake, making lots of progress southward but almost no westing. It is a warm, sunny afternoon--probably sultry hot on shore--and there are a zillions power boats out for a ride on Lake St. Clair. It is a confused mix of waves and boat wakes out here.
After about 45 minutes on starboard, we come about to see what heading the opposite tack will fetch. The results are discouraging. In the light air and mixed waves, we are tacking in over 120 degrees! On this tack we are practically sailing away from our destination, instead of toward it. The decision to switch back to the motor is made easier after I explain that we won't see the dock until well after dinner time if we keep sailing.
A hour of more of motoring, pointed right at our destination, really cuts down the distance to go. Nothing compares to that iron-jenny when you have to go to weather. Soon we are back in our slip, our voyage complete.
It has been quite an introduction to cruising for our friends. They have made an international voyage by sailboat. They experienced sailing in the open waters of Lake St. Clair, and a pleasant afternoon and morning of motoring in the beautiful Chenal Ecarte. They've had meals aboard and meals in port. They've slept overnight on a boat for the first time. That's a trip to Wallaceburg, Ontario, an excellent destination from Lake St. Clair for a weekend cruise.
Copyright © 1997, 1998, 1999 by James W. Hebert.
This article first appeared October, 1997.
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