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

Ice blue and shamrock green

Apologies – I completely lost track of time this week and thought today was still Thursday! It must have been the giddiness from the unusually fine weather we’ve had this week: shining sun and temperatures like a warm spring day, which, coupled with a lessening of our Covid restrictions, drew a lot of people out of their homes into the fresh air.

I headed over to the Welland Canal, the system of locks which transport ships between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Lake Erie is at a higher altitude – 326 feet higher – than Lake Ontario, so beginning in 1824 a series of versions of the canal system were built over the next 153 years into the one we have today.

Residents have a love-hate relationship with the Canal. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering that holds up road traffic numerous times every day during shipping season as the bridges are raised to let boats through.

The ships passing up and down the canal are a continual attraction, though, and the waterway is part of the St. Lawrence Seaway system, which employs a lot of people.

Over the winter, from January to March the canal is almost completely emptied of water, which usually freezes up and would be impassable to ships for several months.

This year the canal is set to reopen on March 31, but I was surprised to find that it’s already been filled back up – this past weekend there was still only a shallow trickle of water along the bottom of the deep canal.

At most of the locks you can park and walk around to get a good close-up view of the system of gates that close to allow each lock to either fill with water to raise a ship upward toward Lake Erie, or slowly empty to lower a ship downward toward Lake Ontario.

There are ships in the Port Weller Dry Docks getting their winter repairs, and tug boats waiting to guide them out when ready.

Despite temperatures of 21 degrees Celsius and bright sunshine, a thin skin of ice still floated on much of the canal water, raised upward itself as the gates began allowing water to refill the canal like a series of overflowing cups from Lake Erie.

A trail runs along the canal for walkers and bikers, and ship enthusiasts, with handy benches for rest stops or just ship-watching.

On this flat section between Locks 2 and 1, the ice blanket was extensive, but a wide crack had opened up and zigzagged almost all the way from one bank to the other, and some Canada Geese were resting at the edge. It was a great photo op that I had to stop for.

Chunks of ice also crusted the rocky banks, glittering in the warm sun.

It was a great afternoon outing, and then it was time to hit the grocers for supplies to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day next week.

Although I have no Irish background at all, each March this holiday promises that spring is just around the corner. I’m not into the green beer type of celebration, but the Irish love good food and March 17th is another great excuse to cook up something delicious.

What did we actually eat when we were in Ireland two years ago?

It rains a lot in Ireland, and I believe there’s a direct correlation between the weather and the comfort factor of Irish food.

Irish Stew, hearty and filling, is ubiquitous, and also seafood, and fish pies stuffed with a melange that often includes salmon under a topping of mashed potato.

A filling bowl of Irish lamb stew

You can find all the classics in the restaurants, from soda bread (delicious with fresh creamy Irish butter, by the way) to boxty and colcannon, but other cuisines are well represented. One evening in the Temple Bar district of London I had a fabulous Mediterranean chicken dish with lemon and olives, and in Killarney we had great pizzas at a pizza-and-ale joint just across the street from our hotel.

Breakfasts are filling, from scrambled eggs, bacon, roasted potatoes, baked beans, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, and toasts to rich bowls of oatmeal strewn with fresh fruit.

Barry’s Tea seems to be the tea of choice for a lot of restaurants, and the Irish make a pretty stiff cuppa indeed – a pot for two people usually held three teabags! Barry’s is hard to find around here, though, so typically at home we’ll drink Twinings Irish Breakfast tea.

Sweets in all their forms are really popular and just the thing to shore up your energy after a few hours of exploring. I had one of the best cinnamon buns ever from a roadside food truck as we zipped from the north to the west coast. Lunch was several hours away as we stumbled upon the little truck miles from anywhere, so we bought cups of tea and buns and perched on a picnic table enjoying the view while we refreshed.

Individual lemon meringue tarts are a common sight, and also Banoffee pie, trifles topped with whipped cream and bread pudding with sauce.

Rich slice of Banoffee pie

So if you’re of a mind to have some cozy Irish food on what, for us, will be a chill and cloudy day just on the cusp of Spring, you have lots of choices to evoke a trip to the Emerald Isle. In fact, I’m making myself hungry just completing this blog. Slainte! 😊

All photos on this site were taken by me (unless otherwise indicated), and may not be copied or used without my permission.