Ice thins and water seeps through the cracks severing winter’s grip. The softening March air and warming sunshine expedite the process and the canal returns to its former liquid state releasing the huge Great Lakes freighters that dock here in Port Colborne for their compulsory winter’s rest. This is the life of a Great Lake freighter, those huge vessels that sail the Great Lakes between April and December.
This year the canal at Port Colborne opens today, a little earlier than normal thanks to an early winter thaw. An opening ceremony will take place at Lock 8 Gateway Park and is part of a tradition that began in 1970. It involves the presentation of a Beaver felt fur hat to the captain of the first ship that will head to Lake Ontario through the channels to Lake Erie.
On Lake Erie, the Port Colborne canal is the last lock in the string of canals along the first Welland canal system that was completed in 1829 and continued to grow and expand over the years, allowing for larger and larger freighters to enter the system.
These ships tugged in and out of the canals, transport over 40 million tonnes of cargo a year connecting to the large ocean going vessels that come into the St. Lawrence Seaway from the Atlantic. Huge ports of call where cargo is off loaded and reloaded include Toronto, Montreal and Hamilton. Though these freighters also travel far up north on Lake Huron and Lake Superior.
If you read my post on La Grande Hermine then you know that Jacques Cartier mapped out the St. Lawrence Seaway and discovered the route into the Great Lakes, which are like enormous seas. The shipping system is 3,700 Kms long with an expansive nautical history that includes loss and tragedy.
The Edmund Fitzgerald is a famous ship that sank in Lake Superior during the gales of November in 1975 and was memorialized in a song by Gordon Lightfoot.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy – Gordon Lightfoot
Superior is notorious for its November storms and has taken many Great Lakes freighters down into her depths never to be released again. Three huge waves that move in succession will pummel these mammoth 1000 ft. vessels against the rocks dragging them down to their watery graves. The waves have been nicknamed The Three Sisters.
Today I walk along the calm canal waters of Port Promenade in Port Colborne Ontario in beautiful spring sunshine, listening to the sounds of workmen tending to their ships preparing them for sail as the shipping season reopens.
The shops along the promenade are a mix of old and new. Some historic, some creating the gentrification we are seeing in many smaller towns and communities. This is an up and coming area with a condo building newly being built facing the canal.
As I turn my attention once again to these gorgeous mammoth freighters, I think, we will now once again see these massive beasts moving along the Great Lakes waters entering into ports along Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, the lakes between which I live, a sure sign that spring has arrived.
And as we take off our masks and hopefully put the pandemic behind us, I can’t help but relate the experience of release and renewal to the Great Lakes Freighters that are venturing out into their new season of hope and discovery.
This video will show you more of the canal at Port Colborne and my thoughts on the correlation between these Great Lakes Freighters and our move out of the pandemic. I hope you enjoy it. And let me know in the comments below how you are adjusting to the new newness, once again.