Deep Under the St. Lawrence Seaway September 2001

My third time in Canada was nothing like my prior two. This was primarily due to 9/11. And a malfunctioning trunk-release mechanism.

As usual, I arrived late at night, but this time there were multiple guards for each passage in the plaza. And there was a (mercifully short) line. After the customary questions (and no flippancy from me), we came to the nub of the problem.

"Please open your trunk, sir."
"It doesn't open, actually."
Significant looks are passed. I continue ...
"If you have a crowbar, I'd be pleased to pry it open myself..."
The guards confer briefly and decide to let me go. I know I won't be so lucky on the way back.

Several folks bailed, so we were a small group. My mission was to complete my advanced nitrox and staged decompression cert dives. I'd be going deep. Our first dive was the Wolfe Islander II, a sunken ferry boat of recent vintage. It's not too deep, but out a bit into Lake Ontario. This means waves. And I am a world-class sea-sick type. Oh well, make the best of it.

My god, it was rough. Not the waves so much as the diesel fumes. This boat was all wrong for tech diving. The "bench" was tiny. The enclosed section where one wrestles on tanks, etc captured all the fumes of the engines. It was hell in there.

I suited up outside, hanging off the starboard, occasionally yakking up Tim Horton's. When nearly all were in the water, I had to face the music. My plan was to simply dive in and brave the horror. I was almost girded for the hard task, when one of our group did a free descent off the trailing line. This into a ripping current. Jay ditched his stage bottle and dove in after him. I managed to get my tanks on and carried fins, mask and gloves to the side of the boat. I had to wretch nearly constantly for a few minutes during the struggle. Normally it wouldn't occur to me to jump in without fins, but I wasn't gonna stay in that torture chamber one second longer than absolutely necessary.

Jay and I had arranged to meet on the wreck. I had to pull myself up a line to the bow and follow the anchorline down. I was still queasy, but felt immeasurably better. I entertained notions of simply swimming the several miles back to dock.

I found Jay with our errant adventurer and we commenced our exploration. It's a big ship. Lot's of penetration possible. We hung around in the engine room for a while and then toured the exterior hull, checking out the forward compartments. There's a collection of toys on the main deck amidships. A motorcycle, weights, a bowling ball, etc. We mugged for non-existent cameras. Jay did a backflip off the gangplank. That's what I like best about Jay: he's completely solid, but not afraid to have fun.

The return trip was better only in that I could let myself believe in a future free of mind-scrambling ab-cramps. But the oddest moment was to come. The boat pulled in alongside a dock too tall for it. We had to climb up on the superstructure and time our step onto the dock. The penalty for mistake was to plunge into murky dockwater of indeterminate depth. Naturally I almost did this with my double tanks on. Luckily I simply surged onto the dock and collapsed under the weight of my doubles. Then, of course, their momentum almost carried me over the other side of the dock. It was quite scary. If I wasn't so strong, it would have been an epic.

No more diesel fumes!!!

Jay put me through practice drills for several more dives. I planned dives according to criteria he selected. We had fun on the dives leading up to the big one scheduled for our last day.

We did a night dive on the Rothsay with scooters. This was one great night dive. Tres spooky! The wreck is normally a nightmare of twisted metal and still-recognizable but decaying ship parts. At night you can't put your field of view in context. It becomes many different wrecks, all run together. The stern is compact and still together. The midship region a jumble of (literally) exploded wood and metal beams. Big pike lingered in the current, absent during the day. The bow has the character of shipwreck that enchants children when they read about the golden age of exploration. Pointed and thin with splintered wood leading into the skeleton of a small hold.

While we were getting suited up for that dive we saw some folks walking on the side of the road. The next moment a man was offering me a flyer for the Falun Gong SOS walk. Teams were walking across Canada and other countries to publicize their cause/plight. I knew quite a bit about the Falun Gong and convinced the startled man to keep his flyer for someone who needed it. I'm not all that in favor of Falun Gong, per se, but any irritant for the Chinese government is a good thing.

We also tried the Lillie Parsons at night. We had the small pontoon boat from Franks Chalets, our host for the weekend. It wasn't very powerful, but we got around in style and comfort.

The key to a night drift dive is not missing the wreck. This we managed even though the current was ripping. No time really to admire one of the nicest wrecks up there. So, we determined to try the Lillie Parsons Escape. For this, we'd skip the normal exit just downriver of the wreck and follow the current to the next island. Through the shipping channel for almost a mile. At night. This was exciting to contemplate.

While motoring up to the start, just upriver of the Parsons, Jim and I were sitting at the bow which is square, he to starboard. We were completely suited up, wearing our tanks, and I guess it was a bit too much weight, because we bounced into the whitecaps a tad too deep once and began to submerge quite seriously. So much so that Jim instinctively put his regulator in his mouth. I delayed, but had it in hand as we were going down. I screamed and waved my hand for what seemed like a long time. The entire front quarter of the boat was underwater and just when I was about to have to deploy my reg, we eased up and resumed riding on top of the river. As enamored as we are of wrecks, it wouldn't do to go about creating our own, especially with other people's boats, eh?

Our escape was foiled by an eddy trap that prevents entering the channel unless you are quite deep and away from the island. This is a useful feature to keep the novices around in heavy current.

We motored home under a magnificent non-light-polluted sky. The milky way was in brilliant session. I saw a shooting star and wished for someone to share it with.

Our big dive was the full-on deco excursion down to 150. We were in dry suits, 40 cu ft deco bottles with 80% oxygen, double steel tanks and scooters. We were operating out of Ivy Lea Park, below the 1000 Islands Bridge. Here we stood amongst beautiful, forested islands dotted with multi-million dollar homes and a wiley current working its way toward the Atlantic. Because the entire river here is just the top of Lake Ontario coming down the seaway, it's not cold, and there are no thermoclines.

We had to scooter out for about 8 minutes to find the descent point. We would head straight down into a rocky notch in the Canadian side of the river. The light filtered, but stayed surprisingly bright. The scooters pulled us down at a rate greater than simple negative bouyancy would take us. This means we couldn't adjust our bouyancy as efficiently on the way down. So, when we paused at 100 to take stock before continuing, I was severely negative. I tried to adjust this as we continued but didn't get it right until we got to the end.

End, in this case, was 150 feet deep alongside a rocky vertical wall. I was vaguely aware of the bottom somewhere a distance below, too far to see in detail, maybe at 200+ ft. I wondered if I would get narced. I had only been narced once before, and that time my judement didn't suffer, but you can't assume anything. It was a strange place. It felt deep is how best to say it. I've been deep a bunch of times, but this felt deepest. The sound of the paltry gas entering my BCD as I attempted to get neutral reminded me I was way down there. Jay seemed narced. His eyes were big and he was futzing with his BCD low-pressure inflator hose. I was focused on taking it all in. I realized I hadn't looked down yet, and stretched myself out to take a glance.

I saw a squirrel.

Ok, I thought. This might be narcosis. The squirrel was completely intact, seemingly no different from the ones I'd chased off my gear up in the park. Only this one was 150 feet below the surface of the river. And it looked like one of those statues or stuffed squirrels you see on certain people's shelves. It had a rigor-mortis-like countenance.

The good news is that I knew I wasn't narced because my immediate reaction was to get Jay to witness the squirrel, so there could be no question later. The bad news is that short of grabbing his head and positioning it right in front of the critter, Jay wasn't interested. I noticed that he had now disconnected the BCD hose and was trying to reattach it. This took my help and then he signalled for us to ascend. We had about a minute left for our planned time at this depth, but leaving early wasn't a problem. We ascended and felt every foot of it. The expanding gas in our BCDs required near constant dumping. When we reached 30 ft we were near the current's rage. Relaxing into it, we found a large rock and hid in its lee to deploy our deco regs.

Here's the danger: breathe an oxygen-rich gas too deep and you could convulse and (no matter how close your buddy is) drown. Breath it too shallow and you don't get the decompression benefit you've calculated in advance, and maybe you get bent when you get out. Precision is the heart of the matter. And hard to manage in a rollicking current.

We roll along for the several minutes of high oxygen exposure. Then we ascend to 20 feet for another, longer session. Everything is going well, if a tad exciting. Almost right on time we reach the exit point and maneouver into the eddy of a lagoon. During the last bit we had the luxury of enjoying massive rock walls lining the riverside.

Jay is an awesome instructor, and I want to put a special plug in for the Fisch's diving establishment: The Scuba Connection

As I feared, my return was complicated by not being able to open the trunk. A nice customs officer (who looked like an oompahloompa ) helped me figure out how to disassemble my backseat to see into the trunk. Satisfied there were no "a-rabs" inside, I was allowed back into the US.