St. Lawrence Seaway Diving August 2001

My second time in Canada started much like my first. I pulled up to the border guard near midnight. "Hi! I wanna go to Canada," I announced in a chipper tone. This guard, however, was in no mood. I was asked lots of questions.

"What is your business in Canada, sir?"
"I'm going scuba diving."
"Uh, [scratch head], let's see, I got it here somewhere [dig in front seat] ..."
The Guard waits patiently for about 10 seconds.
"Where will you be staying?"
I'm still rummaging around in my stuff for the info packet that has all the details. I've been here before, so I didn't need it out for navigation.
"I think it's on King Street..."
"We have rather a lot of those here in Canada, sir."
I laugh.
"Of course you do!"
"Would you be going to Kingston or maybe Brockville?"
"Yeah! Brockville."
And I got to go to Canada.

The St. Lawrence seaway was playing host to a "Poker Run" that weekend. I had no idea what that meant, but with the quasi-Brit penchant for dressing up ugly things in ugly words, I wasn't at all sure it was benign.

Well, it's even odder than I could imagine. Scores of those high powered "cigarette" boats (read: massively fast speedboats) would zip up and down the seaway from various docks to others. It's not a race, though. At each of these docks, the boat would receive a randomly drawn playing card. See it coming? At the end of the day, the best poker hand would win. Apparently, this used to be a contest of speed, but the carnage got to be too much. We would hear the high-pitched whine of these monsters in several dives.

I was paired with Charles for most of my dives. Charles is a buff brother who teaches with the Scuba Connection. He was using his rebreather. We got along well. We especially agreed on the imposition of "silt fines" for those who kick up the bottom, leaving it soupy for others.

On the America, one would think there wouldn't be much need for these. The bottom is saturated with bunker oil and you'd rather not dive than get that all over you. Still, some people need help with their bouyancy. Charles christened one our teams "Muddy Waters and Pig-Pen". They appeared for all the world to be wrestling on top of the wreck at one point. Cruising around under the boat later I kicked one handful up. Charles pointed out the infraction and commenced to cabbage-patch in celebration, stirring up quite a bit in the process. Wayne will probably never let him forget it.

I lie transfixed by the Outdoor Life Network coverage of the LumberJack and LumberJill World Championships from, where else, British Columbia. Ah, the technical precision of the underhandchop, tricky platform chop, axe throwing and the thrilling logroll. The commentator was a slim fashion plate with a lisp named Rob. He was also the '95 champ. I must get out of this hotel room.

We went shopping to fuel the bar-b-q later. Carl gave us the nugget of wisdom in an old German saying: "Where there is a brewery, there need be no bakery." This led to re-shelving of the bread and more beer.

I joined Jim and Charles for a night dive of the Conestoga. A large freighter sunk in an outlet of the river. The top of the boiler sits above water. The average depth is about 20 feet. It is overgrown and disintegrating. It is one spooky venue.

The shadows play havoc with your peripheral vision. The current threatens to slowly deposit you behind the wreck (which seems like a dark closet, and about as inviting). You don't want to touch anything, but the current insists you take measures to avoid being slamming into something. As it is, you will inadvertantly run into protruding metal beams. This will alarm you.

I started the dive with just 850 (normally closer to what one ends with), but it's just 20ft deep, and I have double 112s. I should be fine. I was. I was following Jim and Charles throught the superstructure and around the boiler. We played a bit behind the stern and headed back up along the starboard side, into the mild current. I was kicking the whole way, but I'm in excellent shape, so I didn't use much gas. A two-foot eel crosed our path. We saw a large (for this area) lobster.

At the bow again, Jim asked how much air I had. I told him 500. He signalled to end the dive (normal procedure). I was disappointed, but figured he was playing by the book. Jim is a good diver. When we surfaced I asked him if he knew I'd started with 850. He hadn't and was almost talked into returning below.

I was to dive the "Robert Gaskin" with Wayne. He had the scooter, but I was unmotorized. I like to appreciate cool old wooden wrecks slowly anyway. The descent was done into a stiff current. We were flags in the wind. Wayne got down there first and took off into the wreck via a breach in the stern port side. The wreck looked like a miniature spanish galleon. I was way psyched for the show. I followed into the hole. You have to swim among various poles supporting the deck above and then you reach a part of the hold open to the surface. Wayne was there, paused.

I noticed instantly that he had his pony regulator deployed. His rebreather double-hose floated above his head. This can't be good, I remember thinking. Wayne scootered over to me as I emerged from the forest of beams. We were still under the deck. He signalled to me that he was out of air. The slice-across-the-throat is a graphic symbol. I took this in, waiting for a proffered explanation of the problem. The dive was over. I was mildly disappointed, but glad Wayne was OK. It didn't occur to me that he actually wanted air from me until he signalled again, with some urgency. He was breathing fine from his pony. He wasn't visibly distressed. Aside from having to cut short the dive, there seemed to be no emergency.

I unfurled my 7 foot primary regulator and gave it to him. I went to my backup. We proceeded back out the hole we came in, over to the anchor line and up it. We made our way up to the safety-stop just 7 minutes into the dive. We stayed there for a few minutes. I noticed one couple from another boat doing their stop. Something about the scene seemed wrong. Then it hit me. She didn't have a regulator in her mouth. They were buddy-breathing. When it rains...

All this nitrogen wasn't enough. I decided to go kayaking on the river.

I dove the Rothsay solo. I've been alone underwater dozens of times. My number 1 goal as a diver is self-sufficiency. This dive is about 35 feet deep at its max. No biggee. The approach is a hundred yard swim in about 10 feet along a marine line through tall grass. The waving grass and paucity of view reminded me of the scene in Jaws where the diver is surprised and bites through his regulartor mouthpiece in a panicked rush to the surface. The scuba-related details of that scene were quite accurate.

But I am brought back to the present by the sound of bubbles. Hmmm. Is my tank leaking? I turn my head and hold my breath. I can see what I think are tiny bubbles coming from my right tank valve. I can't be positive, since I am looking through the transluscent skirt of my mask. I debate quickly and turn around. I will head back to the start and get one of the guys from the next group to check it more carefully.

They do and find nothing. I think it was my nose. How's that, you say? Your nose? Well, the number one rule of scuba is: don't hold your breath. I've cultivated a habit of exhaling through my nose to equalize and in general. So much so, it seems, that even when I try to hold my breath, I am leaving some part of my tubes open to nose. I tested this theory and it would seem to be the case.

The diver in Jaws fell prey not to the shark, but to the classic dilemma in emergency ascents. Your brain is telling you to get the hell out of the water. You know you have only a lungful of air, so you want to conserve it as long as possible. Mr Boyle, though, comes along and gums up the works by having your lungs expand as you rise. If you are able to ignore the pressure without opening an escape for all that extra volume, your lungs will rupture.

All in all, I'm glad I can't hold my breath underwater.

The Rothsay itself is spectacular. I had missed it last time, but enjoyed it immensely. It was a double paddlewheeler that sank about 1890 a little over a football field from the shore. It was used for munitions practice in 1903, but "lost" thereafter. "Rediscovered" in the second half of the 20thC, it is a great dive.

It is disintegrating, but the structure is still intact. Large boilers, booms, even one of the wheels is still there. You can swim in and around the various spars and hull beams. It gives the impression of being older than it really is. More isolated than a shore dive.

The only thing I learned on this trip that I wish I hadn't, is what it feels like to sneeze into your mask.