I went to Canada! May 31, 2001

"I've never been to Canada," I said in an annoyingly chipper tone.
"Is that right," the bored border guard asked.
"Now that you're here, what are you going to do?"
"SCUBA dive."

He sent me on my way after I assured him I had no alcohol, tobacco or firearms (we have a whole Govt dept for that, I told him) and he refused to stamp my passport.

This dive trip to the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River was heavily hyped. Tons of incredibly well-preserved, old wrecks in fresh water with 40-100ft viz, just minutes from the dock, with only moderate current (when any). The caveat was that the river is actually just the top of Lake Ontario flowing to the sea. Even at the end of May, it would be Cold.

The diving delivered on the hype with one exception. The water wasn't cold. It was 10-15 degrees warmer than Dutch Springs (the large erstwhile quarry in Pennsylvania where we do training/practice dives). I didn't use my dry gloves. One guy used a wetsuit. We stayed in the Chalet Cabins, a diver-friendly set of circa-1950 cabins. I took a picture of the refrigerator and the clock radio perched on it.

There are quite literally thousands of islands. Nearly all are quite small. Maybe a few hundred feet square; some a quarter-mile. All are verdant and most sport living structures ranging from shacks to huge castles transplanted brick-by-brick from the old country. It is an exceptionally beautiful place.

Of seven dives, the most recent vintage wreck was 1932. We dove several very large (100ft+ long) wooden three-masted schooners that sunk over 100 years ago. They are completely intact. The masts have been broken, but are lying on/off the decks. You can swim through their cargo holds and check out the riveting. Almost unbelievable until you've seen them. Average depths ranged from 50 to 115 feet. There are hundreds of old wrecks along the river. Many are too deep for recreational divers. Even on these, though, you could execute technical penetration and deco dives. In fact, one instructor was guiding a student on his final deco dives.

But we also had some very new divers. They dove with single tanks. Not all used nitrox. They were in drysuits b/c of the advertised water temps, but with their dive runtimes, they could have gone wet. There were several rebreather divers as well. I was paired with one. He was using the rental unit for the first time post-cert. Even though he had a significant efficiency advantage, I managed to put him into a deco violation on our second dive. He was not completely familiar with the computer and didn't realize he needed a 2 minute stop at 10 feet.

The viz varied, but was never less than 40ft. On the Keystorm (a couple hundred feet long steel freighter sunk in the teens), we cruised around the upper half of the wreck. The wreck sits on its starboard side, gently sloping down the shoal that sunk it. The bow is at 28 ft and it runs down to 110+. We swum in the holds and through the large complex of the forward wheelhouse. We dropped over the port side to see the large gash made when it ran aground. It was about 20 ft long, but wasn't even big enough to stick an arm thru.

Our one night dive was a wooden fuel freighter that caught fire and exploded multiple times before sinking pre-1900. It was about 125 ft long and the hull is surprisingly intact given the fire. The twilight divers found a truly ripping current, but the night (barely 1.5 hours later) was mellow. The buoy is tied into a massive boiler the size of a house. It takes several minutes simply to swim around it. The wreck lies on its port side which is perpendicular to the current. In the main part of the hull, the current wants to push you against a motley collection of spikes and loose wooden boards. Our night dive didn't have much trouble with this. Without current, though, the swarm of fish dispersed. Wherever you shone your light there was a tangle of twisted metal, melted in the fire. A very haunted vision in our small lights.

The America was a traditional flat barge contracted to remove 20,000 ft of shoal on the side of a major shipping channel. An explosion sent it down next to the shoal in 75 ft. It landed upside down and scattered its tools, etc on the bottom (which you are repeatedly advised not to touch, b/c it is saturated with oil from the accident -- once on you, it's a bitch to remove). It was possible to swim under from side to side, but the clearance was tight, and we didn't want to risk the oil peril. There was some impressive boiler-like structure at the stern. And there was one more hazard.

Since we were right in the middle of the big shipping channel (as in for big ships), we had to keep an ear out for the tell-tale loud hum of such ships. These are container cargo and oil tankers of the sort that ply the oceans. They can push a 30-35 ft draught. That means you, on the wreck, are a mere 30-35 feet from their keel and, that's right, building-sized props. We were advised: a) not to be under the barge when one came along (you...won't like it), and b) hold on to the wreck for dear life and look up. You'll never get another view like that again.


Heh. Is that a promise?

Luckily we had no such encounters, but we did see ships that big, before and after the dive, go right over the wreck.

The Lillie Parsons was our last dive. A combination drift and wreck. A wooden freighter's load shifted suddenly in bad weather and capsized, landing at about 45 feet on a sharply-sloping shoal. It was along the beach of a few loosely-connected islands serving as a park for camping, etc. We were dropped off upstream of the wreck and reached it in under 2 minutes. For any kind of control, you had to hold onto the wreck to navigate around it. You could hold onto rocks from the shoal to hold position and make progress against the current. The 4ft diameter mast was broken and ran out from under the wreck (the deck) down to 90ft. You encounter the big rudder first and can make your way along the starboard railing to the bow, where the anchor chain is still deployed.

A small shelf has been rigged on the port side for divers to put artifacts discovered nearby. All wrecks in Canada are protected, and people seem to honor the system. I had asked about things to see on the deck, if one wanted to swim under the wreck. Capt. Kevin told me that the whole thing had slid 5 feet down the shoal over the winter. I decided not to play hermit crab.

We drifted for a couple minutes along the shoal and made our way back up to about 30 ft so we could spot the yellow ropes we'd do our safety stop on. Miss them and the current, like Calgon, takes you away. Jay was about 35ft out from the shoal when he spotted them. He barely made it to them. We were much closer to the shoal. In fact, we made a game of climbing thru the large boulders. I actually used a stem move to make it, thus accomplishing more rock climbing than my AMC buddies who were rained out this weekend. :)

There was some non-diving excitement. Relaxing on the pontoon boat after the night dive our conversation was interrupted by a long, loud screeching noise coming from a large ship near the middle of the channel. We all thought it had run aground. The ship was using a powerful searchlight, pointing it into the water immediately on the port side. We made our way out there to see if any assistance was needed. The lights on the ship kept going off, until there were only a few on near the top. There was no problem. We deduced that the noise had been a sudden reverse to slow down and stop. The ship was right out of James Bond. Hyper-futuristic with a small, enclosed boat tucked in on the aft starboard side.

On the last day we were cruising home. We saw a couple divers in the water at the shore of one island. Two people were standing on shore, waving at us in distress. There was a missing boat, but we couldn't communicate over the distance, so we set up for a swing around. We had to wait for one of those supertankers to come thru. It was pushing up a 10 ft wake in front. Capt. Kevin yelled for us to secure our gear and hold on while we rode out the wake. He pointed the bow into it, so the blow was blunted. As we got back to the island we thought the folks were pointing down into the water. We weren't sure if they meant their boat had sunk, stranding the people and divers on the island. Turns out the divers were from a charter that wasn't present and had been keeping the people company. They were on a multi-day camping trip and their charter hadn't shown up as scheduled. We gave them a ride to the mainland.

And at the only restaurant dinner we took as a group, our server had been diving in Thailand, Japan, Western and Eastern Australia. But never in the river.


Message to Canada:
We'll cut out the acid rain if you stop the genetic engineering experiments, eh?