Our modern-day water highway opens for 65th season

Looking northward on the Welland Canal towards the Homer lift bridge and the Garden City Skyway beyond it

There are certain unmistakable signs of spring in the Niagara Region, and one of them is the annual reopening of the Welland Canal. Anyone who’s driven through the area over the years can spot when the Canal, which become completely dry over the winter when the ships are put into dry-dock for repairs and any repairs to the Canal itself are made, begins to fill up again. It only takes a few days, which is amazing considering the volume of water — I haven’t been able to find a figure for the total volume of the Canal, but each of the 8 locks holds about 20 million gallons of water, and there are long stretches of water between each lock (bearing in mind that not every lock is full at the same time, but it still gives you an idea of the amount of water being let back in.

Below, you’ll see a photo of the Canal from Bridge 1 at Lakeshore Road in St. Catharines when it was partially filled, on March 4th.

On the other side of the bridge, you’re looking at the empty lock itself. The southward gate is in the forefront, and the 766-ft long Lock 1 beyond it.

Less than three weeks later, on March 21, the first southbound ship of the season, moving from Lake Ontario down to Lake Erie, left the Port Weller dry-dock

With the aid of two tugboats and moored along the Canal bank. It was the CSL (Canada Steamship Lines) ship St. Laurent.

In this view from the stern, you can see the tugboats that guided it out of the dock, their job finished.

Tied off with sturdy lines, the ship was resting in place, waiting for its move to Lock 3, where it was the star attraction of the Top Hat ceremony that kicks off each shipping season.

Not having any cargo loaded at this stage, we had a good view of the massive propeller as it sat partially out of the water.

Each year there are two Top Hat ceremonies, one in St. Catharines, the northern terminus of the Welland Canal on Lake Ontario, and the other in Port Colborne, the southern terminus on Lake Erie. March 22 dawned fairly overcast and chilly when we got up to attend the St. Catharines ceremony at the Lock 3 museum. The St. Laurent was waiting there, all flags flying in.

Numerous ceremonial flags along the lock also fluttered in the cold wind. Below you can also see the viewing platform overlooking the lock, where quite a few people were waiting for the official launch.

The weather in this region, a peninsula sandwiched between two massive lakes and bordered on the east by the Niagara Strait, which most people call the Niagara River, is highly variable — boaters always have to keep a vigilante eye on the weather reports any time they’re out on the water. From past experience with the vagaries of the local weather, this year the Top Hat ceremony was held indoors, inside the museum (which meant that we’d overdressed and were very warm).

A number of dignitaries were on hand, including the Mayor of St. Catharines, the Chair of the Niagara Region and the captain of the ship, who was given the ceremonial beaver-skin top hat in closing.

Some of the interesting facts we learned at the ceremony:

  • the average ship that traverses the St. Lawrence Seaway water transportation system carries the equivalent of 363 truckloads, making the water system much more environmentally friendly
  • the Seaway system produces its own power, so it doesn’t draw from the Ontario grid
  • since the opening of this, the 4th iteration of the Welland Canal, more than 3 billion tons of cargo have been transported
  • the St. Laurent is part of the World Biofuel Program

After the top hat was presented, with three long and two short blasts of the ship’s horn, the season was underway.

The clouds began to part as hubby and I moved to the viewing platform to get a birds-eye view of the ship.

If you’re curious as to what the deck of such a massive cargo ship looks like…

In short order, the yellow armature, called a “ship arrestor”, began to lower behind the boat (it serves as a barrier between the ship and the lock gate for extra accident prevention) and the water in the lock began to churn as the ship began to move forward…

This photo below gives you some idea of how very snugly the ships fit inside the lock. The laker pilot navigates the boat from the bridge at the rear, which is quite something to watch when you’re standing on the bridge over 700 feet away from the prow. There’s very little margin for error, which is why any ocean-going ships that use the Seaway system have to take on laker pilots to go through the locks.

Ahead of the ship, Bridge 5 at Glendale, a vertical lift bridge, was already going up.

At the same time, Lock 3 was emptying in preparation for another ship to enter it and be lifted to the next stage of the canal. The yellow apparatus you can see below is part of the Hands-Free Mooring system. On each side of the lock, the pairs hold the ship firmly in place with a vacuum seal.

You can find out much more information about the Seaway System and the Welland Canal when you visit the St. Catharines Museum at Lock 3. The museum is small, but holds some fascinating pieces of area history, such as this vintage REO motor car.

The REO Motor Car Company was based in Lansing, Michigan. Ransom E. Olds, who founded the Oldsmobile Car Company, left that to start REO, using his own initials as the name. One of the company’s plants was in St. Catharines.

Built in 1843 in downtown St. Catharines, the Russell Hotel was a popular rest spot and watering hole.

A vintage fire truck from the Victorian era displays some complicated mechanics.

There are quite a few more items to see inside, including information about the Freedom Trail that ran through the area as part of the Underground Railroad.

A nice gift shop holds a good variety of items, including copies of Ship to Shore Chef, by Catherine Schmuck, a chef on the Seaway for many years. I couldn’t resist buying a copy. In my early days working at Niagara College, I had the opportunity to go through the Canal on a big Laker ship. The voyage was fascinating, with tours from the bridge (which was where I got the eye-popping view of the front of the ship being steered from the rear almost 800 feet away) all the way down to the engine room. Our small visiting group also had a wonderful meal on board, so I can tell you from experience that the crew eat very well — thanks to chefs like Catherine. I haven’t had a chance to try out any of her recipes yet but am looking forward to it.

Outside there are an interesting assortment of artifacts to get a close-up look at.

If you can catch good weather, there’s a lot to see along the Canal in the Niagara Region.

All photos are by me, and may not be used without my express permission. E. Jurus

Good memories in tough times

Waiting to sample fresh-baked bread from adobe ovens at a harvest festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico on a recent trip

We’ve all had bad stretches in our lives, from days when we wish we’d never gotten out of bed to years when we’re especially happy to celebrate the start of a New Year to come. During rough times, research has proven that remembering good things can boost our mood and improve our outlook.

An article I just read in Nautilus magazine, The Lasting Power of Good Memories, highlights that as we age we tend to remember good times. You may have found that somewhat annoying in an older relative who keeps reliving the same experiences when they’re talking to you, but I can tell you from personal experience that once your body stops working as well as it did and all kinds of health issues dominate your life, you hang on to the good memories to remind you that life has been better.

The key, though, is to make those good memories in the first place. I see a lot of people just coast through life, carrying on through the days without making high points to offset the lows. Everyone should have something they really love doing, whether it’s a hobby, a sport they like to play, places they’ve travelled to, or even just having wonderful gatherings with friends or family.

As per the article, research has shown that “recalling happy moments triggers reward circuitry in the brain”, and that retrieving positive memories improved the test subjects’ moods. Researchers also found that the subjects who were recalling good memories, when put under stress (submerging their hands in ice water for the test), had much smaller rises in cortisol, the stress hormone, than those who even thought of neutral memories (neither good nor bad).

So rather than pooh-poohing nostalgia, let’s embrace it as the built-in stress-reliever technique that we humans are fortunate enough to have. (Maybe animals do too, but we may never be able to figure that out.)

During the pandemic lockdowns, quite a few friends and family asked my hubby and me if we were stressed about not being able to travel – we’re usually going several places every year, even as weekend jaunts. Everyone seemed stymied that we were barely bothered. But we had lots of good memories of past trips to carry us through and allow us to chill about being stuck at home. That’s not to stay that we didn’t make small trips within our own province, exploring places we’d never bothered to go to in the past, and that it wasn’t very nice to get away for a few days – even we got some cabin fever.

A long-planned cruise around the 1000 Islands during the pandemic

We also engaged in some home renovations, like most people, and made good use of our back yard, as well as any public nature spots that were open. Two of our favourite memories from that time period, when our government was advising everyone to stay separate for the different holidays are:

  • having my brother and his girlfriend over for Thanksgiving dinner outside. They felt more at ease that way, just going inside to use our bathroom as needed, and we got lucky with the weather, which was mild enough to eat out on the patio. We decorated our patio table, cooked the turkey in an infrared fryer, ate amid the yellow leaves drifting down from our linden tree, and had coffee and dessert next to a new patio firepit we’d bought for the purpose
  • sharing a Christmas picnic with our nieces and nephews on a chilly day warmed by a fire, which we built in the picnic spot’s public barbecue. We made a big thermos of hot chocolate spiked with maple cream liquor, ate beef stew that we heated in our (luckily portable) infrared fryer, and made the most of a brief window that we could all safely spend together.

My hubby and I have travelled around the world, and have many special memories that we reminisce about, and often laugh about. Many of them you’ve read about in this blog already. Those are the good memories we’ve made; yours might be different but equally precious. Just ensure that you make them, and continue to make them as time goes on, because during difficult times we need to remember that we can still have good experiences, that they aren’t all relegated to the past.

Funky diner food in a small town in Virginia

All photos are by me and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

Butterflies in winter

Wooded path on a rare sunny winter day – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

I like winter, more than summer actually, but even I look forward to the arrival to spring. Where I live we tend to have a lot of drab days from November to February. The excitement of approaching holiday festivity (putting the Christmas tree up at the end of November is a big deal at our house) gets us through those first two months, and January is an R&R month to a large extent, but February tends to be something of a downer.

Hiking in winter can be problematic, with winds that can be bitingly cold and risky footing. I cook lots of comfort food that we eat in front of a crackling fire, but towards the end of the month cabin fever tends to set in. Luckily, we live close enough to places that give a few hours of escape. One of them is the Butterfly Conservatory in Niagara Falls.

The grounds around the conservatory, where the Botanical Garden lies, are still lovely in winter if the weather’s not too cold

There’s a walk through a snowy landscape from the parking lot to the entrance, but once inside you enter a tropical fantasy world that’s 27 degrees C (81 F) — the staff recommend leaving your outerwear in the coat-check.

photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

The butterflies are everywhere, flitting all around you. They don’t seem to pay visitors much mind at all, fluttering around on their own missions. A lot of them land on the plants, windows and rocks, although the Blue Morpho butterfly seems to be in almost constant movement. This large specimen, one of the largest butterflies in the world, has a striking blue colour on the inside of its wings, camouflaged by a brown melange on the outside. When its wings are folded, though large, it can blend into the surrounding vegetation beautifully.

We saw quite a few of them when we were in the Amazon jungle a number of years ago. It was easier to photograph them there than in the Conservatory, where they flew past us constantly but rarely landed — except on my shoulder, where I couldn’t take a photo. I swear the little critter was taunting me. My hubby laughed.

One of the cool parts of the Conservatory is an Emergence Window, where you can see cocoons in several different shapes hanging delicately, and butterflies in various stages emerging and drying off. The Window is pierced with large holes through which the butterflies can exit when they’re ready.

A white morpho butterfly ready to leave the nursery – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

There are several feeding stations filled with fruit and butterflies, where they do finally sit still for a while.

photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

There’s a wide variety of butterflies to admire. Sometimes they’re very conspicuous, but just as often they’re tucked among the lush vegetation. This is a place where you want to stroll slowly and look carefully.

A rice paper butterfly on a screen – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved
The aptly-named Black Butterfly – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Meanwhile, the beautifully-dressed surroundings are warm and refreshing in the middle of a cold winter.

https://www.niagaraparks.com/visit/attractions/butterfly-conservatory/There a lot of interesting things to do in and around Niagara Falls, even in the off season. The Conservatory is definitely worth checking out. Visit its website for short video clips and more information.

photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved