St Lawrence River – Brockville Canada
We left for Canada at 9AM on Saturday, exactly on time…the exact time Mark wanted to leave……
The Jeep was loaded…so loaded that I wanted to take some nectarines for the ride up…but there wasn’t enough room. Diving is a gear intensive sport.
8 hours later…. We were in Brockville, Ontario. I wont bore you with the details of the trip up, but will just say…..although no giraffes were involved, we made it. We stopped in the dive shop, and the other dive shop, and then checked in to the motel, Rib Fest was in full swing so we went to eat.
Rib Fest is reminiscent of Sail Fest in Island Heights, set upon the waterfront with a band playing in the pavilion and tents of vendors selling icecream and cake, beer and soda, fries and cotton candy, and of course, Ribs!
The aroma was overwhelming. You couldn’t help but be hungry. We selected samplers with ribs, chicken and pulled pork and sat down to eat and listen to the music and watch the boats and people go by until we were too stuffed to keep going and called it a day.
The next morning we again set out to check out the area. We were going to do a little sight seeing and then a dive, and then we were meeting up with the rest of our group. We headed out up river to check out some shore dive sites, stopping at the parking area for the Rothesay (it offers picnic tables, portajohn and changing area) and going all the way up to the second bridge. In between, in the town of Prescott there is a Divers Playground, similar to a Dutch Springs set up. We were going to jump in and check it out, but somehow………we didn’t have a dive flag with us…. Hmmmmmmmmmm….. How did that happen? We continued on checking out the local area and even found a small winery where we stocked up on some of the local wines.
On the way back we stopped again at the site for the Rothesay (no flag is required for permanently buoyed wrecks) and jumped in to check it out. Here, it is a short swim out to a buoy and then down to the sand (actually silt) and then follow a line across the bottom out towards mid-river to the wreck. The Rothesay is a 193 ft wooden sidewheel passenger steamer which sunk in 1889 after colliding with a tugboat. At one point the Royal Military College used the wreck for explosives practice and blew the midsection into a debris field but the intact bow and stern, along with the smoke stack and one intact paddle wheel leave a picture of the wreck that doesn’t take much to fill in with your imagination. This is a great welcome to the area dive. The current is swift but not brutal and a good way to tune in your weighting.
On the way back to town we stopped in Sea N Sky Scuba who would be our host dive shop for the trip. Edie is in charge of the shop and a sweetheart. While she filled our tanks we sat and looked through all the information she had available about the local dives and watched the video of each wreck. We also picked up nitrox fill cards for the rest of the week (what a time and energy saver and not a bad deal) and headed back to the hotel to meet up with the rest of the group who were slowly trickling in.
There were ten of us total and it turned out to be a great group all around. Carl, was our group leader (sort of a father figure), Pete our driving leader (we were never lost or late), Marty, Mark B and Rich, the 3 musketeers, Kevin the quiet one, Scott who was a tad of an ….. instigator shall we say, but I wont tell, Stirling our maturity factor (he never got crazy), and Mark and myself who got on splendidly, not arguing once. Seven of us suited up and dove the Rothesay again before dinner. This time I was able to relax and really look around the debris area and out in the sand around the wreck. Mark came across a metal furnace door with a slide bolt that really caught his attention.
2195After playing with it for several minutes, I know it was hard for him to swim away, but you take NO souvenirs from these wrecks. What you see there…. Stays there.
After a late dinner at a restaurant in walking distance of the motel we headed to bed, the next morning was our first boat dive day.
Seeway Vision Dive Charters is a great operation, we were met at the dock by Captain Kevin (who just recently stopped smoking) and Roy our mate and our dive boat a 47 footer with a large comfortable inside cabin and open sundeck on top. I immediately endear myself to him with a little story about a mood ring and our week begins. After loading on board we were off to dive the Canadian side of the river. Our first stop, the Muscallonge. At Marks urging (loudly) I was ready in record time and the first to jump in the water, showing exactly why you should launch yourself from the dive platform when giant striding off the boat. While I did not hit the boat, I was told my tanks came dangerously close. With the swift river current, you are always being pushed back towards the boat and the dive platform is lowered to the water line, so a bit of a launch is in order. Mark followed me in and were then on our way down the line to the wreck which is a 128ft steamer tug which caught fire in 1936, burning to the waterline and then exploding and sinking. She sits in about 100 ft of water fairly broken up but home to numerous fish from the river. There is a bit of a current here and at times you have to pull yourself along to navigate about the wreck. Since I was too busy looking about and poking fish, I was relieved of the camera and Mark took over the picture taking duties. Bass, perch and wall eye abounded and were begging to be poked.
Back on deck we compared notes and experiences. We had been greeted with 73 F water temps and 20- 30 ft viz which stayed with us for the entire week. Several in our group were finishing up classes in either AOW or Wreck Diving and this was a great start to the week. I explained my fish poking theory and I could see the spark of interest come across several faces. Before the end of the week, everyone…and I mean every last one of them would come over to the dark side and succumb to poking the fish….it was just a matter of time.
Our next dive was the MacDonald Point Drift. I think this was a bit of a test to see if we could pay attention and follow direction and I suspect we all passed. The mate, Roy, told us he collects antique bottles and this area is a treasure chest for finding them. This time we were hot dropped into the water and AGAIN I was the first in the water with Mark directly behind me, followed by Stirling and Scott. We lazily drifted along the river wall looking about and occasionally stopping to pick up bottles and see if there was anything of interest. Not knowing anything about antique bottles I just left them all behind. Mark so enjoys these dives, I am sure he hated to see it end, but he was looking forward to lunch and Edie’s soup. I had heard about Edie’s soup….
During the surface interval we enjoyed lunch, homemade soup (Edie makes very good soup) and sandwiches and talked about the next dive, the Robert Gaskin. This is a 113 ft wooden barge, rich in history. Originally a double masted sailing vessel, she struck a shoal and sunk but was raised and after having her masts removed was transformed into a cargo barge, which again sunk and was raised and converted to a salvage barge. The irony is that while trying to salvage a ferry in 1889, one of the salvage pontoons broke loose and shot to the surface striking the Gaskin and making a hole so large that she sank immediately for the third time. She now sits upright and fully intact in 70 ft of water. Recently, time and current have taken their toll and a portion of the ship has collapsed onto itself, but on a whole this wreck is spectacular. Descending the line, it comes into view with an impressive site of her intact portion. The detail you can see as you swim over and thru is the kind you see only in the movies. Until now the wrecks I’ve seen had consisted of 3 ribs and a pile of rubble with 20 lobsters playing hide and seek. This… was a ship…and its inhabitants were some huge carp and walleye. We swam the length of the wreck outside and then again inside. I could get used to this.
We headed in for the day and dropped our empty tanks at the shop for fills and headed out for a shore dive. This evening we were diving the Conestoga. About a 20 minute ride up river from Brockville, in the town of Cardinal, is a small park next to the Legion Hall and as you follow the road to the end you can see the smokestack of the Conestoga rising above the water.
The Conestoga was a wooden passenger freighter which caught fire in 1922 in one of the rivers locks and was flushed out into the river so it wouldn’t burn the lock. It then drifted in the river as it burned to the water line and sank.
We entered the water upstream and drifted onto the wreck exploring the length of her with the interior of the hull holding several engine mechanisms and the boilers and of course the smokestack reaching all the way up and out of the water.
2189 Off the outside of her is the propeller and the rudder laying about. After another search about the interior wreckage, I set about poking a fish or two, and I saw Mark, his hand slowly went out….towards a fish. We swam back against the current to rock the outcropping we entered at and headed in.
Tonight we all gathered and headed into town for dinner at the Keystorm Pub, then off to bed to rest up for another day on the river.
Tuesday morning we stopped at the shop and picked up our tanks and headed to the dock again. Today we were diving some of the more infamous sites on the river. For today I am wearing my Dive Princess T-shirt and for the rest of the trip Captain Kevin refers to me as Princess, especially when I am in trouble. (don’t forget to bungee your tanks at all times)
First stop was the Henry C. Daryaw. This is a 219 ft steel freighter which hit a shoal and during a salvage attempt tumbled upside down to the bottom of the river at 95 ft. After tying into the mooring line, I was again one of the first in the water with Mark hot on my heels. We came down the mooring line onto the large propellers and a swift current. Making our way around the wreck staying close and tucking in under the sides to keep out of the worst of the current, about amidships and 12 minutes into the dive I sucked in some water where water wasn’t supposed to go and had a bit of an issue catching my breath again. We tucked up under her side but I wasn’t comfortable and thumbed up. Unfortunately I cant give you anything more as we headed right back up and although I felt better at the line we went up anyway and the dive was ended.
As the rest of the gang surfaced, I heard another convert speak of the fish he poked…. twice. They were slowly coming over…ever so slowly.
Our next dive was again a drift, this time over a deep (about 180 ft) portion of the river and ending a few hundred feet from the shipping channel, called the Canyon Drift. Our same group from the day before entered the water hot dropped in and down we went. We drifted about for a bit over the deep area and then headed closer in and towards the shallower sand and rocks. Along with the usual fish sightings, and occasional poking (Scott is one of us now) Stirling came across a large river eel, which I believe he “scooted off”. We also came across an anchor just sitting in the midst of the river bottom. I could see the wheels turning in Marks head as he added the lift capacity of all our bags. Not quite enough and we moved on. We ended on schedule and Captain Kevin came in and picked us up. Lunch was already cooked and staying warm on the grill. Hotdogs and hamburgers and an assortment of chips. And now everyone was getting ready for the signature dive…. The Lillie Parsons.
You have to love this dive. The wreck, The Lillie Parsons, is a two masted schooner that was carrying a cargo of coal on August 5, 1877 (my birthday, the day not the year) when a squall came up and pinned the ship against Sparrow Island, allowing it to take on water until she capsized and sank, turtled on a ledge in 80 feet of water. The bottom of the river about 200 feet below. Her cargo of coal is spilled out onto the ledge around the wreck and the huge masts extend out into the water and on the island side rests the chain and bowsprit. As you move around the outside you come across the intact rudder but penetration is no longer advised as time and the currents are taking their toll and you don’t want to be inside for the ride off the ledge if it happens. But this isn’t even the best part of the dive.
The wreck lies on a ledge against a small island in the middle of the river with a ripping current. The captain hot drops you upstream from the wreck and you have to swim/drift like crazy for the shore and a chain that extends from the island down into the water. When you reach this you pull yourself down the chain to the wreck where there are chains and ropes around the ship to pull your self along so you don’t get blown off. After you are done exploring, you crawl up the hull to the top of the wreck and you LET GO. Now, as you are flying along, you start timing and watching your depth. In 3 minutes you want to be at 30 feet and close into the island….. There you will find a yellow nylon rope which extends up out of the water and is attached to a tree or something on the island. You grab the rope and hold on for your 3 minute stop and then surface. At this time you signal the boat you are ready and you swim like crazy across the current to the middle of the shipping channel where the boat heads right for you. And just before it reaches you it turns about and you grab for the dive ladders and hang on as the mate helps you climb on board while the captain gets the boat out of the channel and lines up to pick up the next two divers. Now this is a dive!
Again we are the first off the boat and into the water. I am not the strongest swimmer but make my way to the chain and down we go. The wreck is tremendous, not bits and pieces but this whole boat sitting upside down with chunks of coal strewn about. You make your way along and can stick your head underneath in places peering inside. Coming about the stern you see the large rudder. A basket of broken china and things lies long her side for poking about in and the masts are huge and extend out into the water far past our line of sight. We make our way around twice checking all about and now it is “time”. We make our way up the hull to the top of the wreck and there is no going back. We let go and we are off! I am sure my eyes were large as saucers as I watch the rock and ledge fly by. As I look back I see Mark calmly checking the time and depth and directing me along and I slowly calm down. Maybe a little too calm as I grab onto a rock and stop to poke a nice sized fish and Mark grabs my arm and gives me “the look“. Apparently he doesn’t think you should stop along the way when he is trying to time the drift. Go figure. On we continue and there it is, the yellow rope. We grab on and hang from it for 3 minutes like flags flapping in the breeze and then we are up and signaling the boat in for a pick up. Again, I wont be taking any Olympic medals for my current swimming abilities but Captain Kevin is on target and puts a ladder at arms length from us. We are up and on the deck in no time. Woo Hoo!! You gotta love that dive.
We head on in and again are up at the shop dropping off empty tanks and picking up full ones for the evening dive. We hit the Rothesay once more,
2197becoming quite adept at getting out and back without silting up the bottom and poking about the wreck and local residents. As we pack up our gear I hear Pete talking about the catfish, the one he poked and when it came around again he poked it again. Another convert….
We head out to another local restaurant, Kellys and were well behaved, with no one being singled out for the special birthday dessert and song, but it was tempting. Back to the motel for some rest…tomorrow we are diving the USA side of the river.
We have to hurry this morning. After picking up our tanks at the shop we have to head on down to Rockport to meet the boat for today’s dives.
We have to assemble our gear and get dressed quickly. Our first dive, the Kingshorn, is coming up fast. We pull away from the dock and Roy ties into the wreck. It lies in 92 feet of water off the end of the dock, directly in front of the customs office.
Again I am first in the water with Mr. Patience, right behind me. Are you seeing a pattern here?
This was one of seven barges being towed when it was lost in a storm in 1897. We descend down the line directly to the plaque describing the wreck. SOS (Save Our Shipwrecks) has placed plaques on all the St Lawrence wrecks giving a short description of the wreck and its demise. A nice touch and a point of interest on each wreck. But this wreck has a few more points of interest still to come.
As you swim over to the wreck the hull is fairly intact and you head up on deck. The decking is slowly giving way and if you drop into the cargo hold and swim the length of the wreck you can look up and see the calliope of ambient light coming through between the disintegrating decking. Up on the bow deck sits the ships wheel, with the rod and gear mechanisms still attached and hanging between the decking boards into the hold below.
2193There is a ships anchor on the deck but it doesn’t look quite right to belong to this wreck and farther along on a piece of machinery on deck sits a plastic Jesus. About midship as you look down you will see a potbellied stove with several beer mugs on top. This once sat on deck and has since fallen through the decking and now sits upright in the hold. And back at the bow is a lone lawn jockey with his lantern flapping in the current. This all makes for an interesting and amusing tour of the wreck.
But my favorite is yet to come. We drop over the side and down to the sand and there sits the ugliest frickin lawn jocky you have ever seen. This thing is straight out of a Chuckie movie. You just have to swim up and hug it. It is downright scary with its glowing white eyes and bright blue face but you still have to give it a hug.
Another tour of the ship and we are up the line. We play a quick game of tic tac toe on a dive slate while we hang to take up some of the time and then we are up and onboard again. I think Captain Kevin is taking a shine to me, he hasn’t given me his special talking to yet today.
We continue on out into the river as we head for US Customs before our next dive. The area is called the Thousands Islands, and for good reason. Everywhere you look there are small and large islands in the river, most with a house or cottage nestled in its midst. Some are no larger than a camping tent and some are multileveled and turreted with yards of decking and docks. And we even saw a few tiny islands with decks and lawn furniture covering the island and a houseboat on the dock.
2199Us Customs is impressive. It is a castle on an island in the middle of the river. Story has it that a rich man was building this castle for his wife and she died before it was completed. In his grief he abandoned the buildings and eventually there were taken over by the State of New York and is now used as the US Customs port for the river.
After clearing customs we head for our next dive site. We will be doing 2 dives on the A. E. Vickery. This is a 3 masted schooner which sank in 120 ft of water in 1889. It is said that the Captain of the ship was so angry at the pilot for sinking the ship he pointed his revolver at him but was stopped by from shooting him by one of the ships mates who threw the gun overboard.
We tied into the buoy and I decided to put fresh batteries in my larger dive light and take it with me. After some discussion on my choice of timing for this matter by both the Captain and Mark I again am one of the first in the water. Go figure.
This wreck offered numerous opportunities to look in and out and about and even poke a fish or two. There were plenty of penetration opportunities and we had another lunch of Edie’s soup and sandwiches and some homemade cookies and spent 2 dives swimming in and about the wreck before heading home.
Tonight we were having a bar-b-que at the motel and then doing a night dive on our new favorite dive, the Rothesay. We headed back to dinner and then out to the dive site. We swam out to the buoy under slowly darkening skies and slipped below the surface. Marty budded up with Mark and I for this dive and we struck out to see who was lurking about this evening. The wreck took on an eerie glow as night settled in and several of the larger locals came out to play. Peeking in between the debris pile, the first thing I spotted was a river crayfish, the St Lawrence version of our lobsters. I was unable to coax him out to play so I moved on. Swimming out and about we spotted several large bass and perch and then nestled in among the debris out in the sand off the wreck was an enormous pike. I waited patiently for Mark and Marty to come take a peek and the whole while he just sat there with a smug look of “I am king of this wreck and fear no one”. So…. I poked him. We swam about shining our flashlights all around and finally it was time to head on in. In the dark water we kept a close eye on the line leading to the buoy. It is a run of several hundred feet and takes about 4 to 5 minutes to make. Along the entire route we encountered dozens and dozens of catfish which swam tantalizingly close as we moved along just begging to be poked. As we exited the water I could hear several stories of fish poking being told, they are all fish pokers now…my job here is done.
Time to go back to the motel and get some rest.
When we awoke this morning things did not look good. Black clouds were on the horizon and the air had a definite chill. We picked up our tanks and headed for the dock. Again we had to clear US Customs and then we were off for our dive of one of the premier St Lawrence wrecks, the Keystorm, a 256 ft steel freighter that struck a shoal in dense fog in 1912 and sunk in 110 ft of water and is now lying on her side..
2191The skies were starting to blacken and the air was cool but I was still first in the water. It was our final day of boat diving and I was not going to be slacking.
The Captain tied into a mooring basket and down we went, a shallow ledge and then on down to the wreck. You arrive on this site on the hull side. There is not much to see on this side and the current is stiff. Heading out we first stopped at the hawse pipe that has an air pocket that you can stick your head up into and listen to the echo. It is really weird to suddenly pop your head out of the water in this little tiny room inside the ship. Weird but using a favorite word of Edies…”Sweet”. We continued along and came upon several ladders and large cargo hold openings. As you swim along you try to orientate yourself to thinking of the ship on its side. From the deck and hanging down is part of the ships chain, just hanging down the length of the ship. The thickness of the links providing some perspective as to the size of the vessel. We stuck our heads in several small porthole openings and swam about the cargo holds and pilot house. We located the SOS plaque and went sight seeing again thinking we would have a second dive here, no hurry. Mark tells me not to think…..
Our time was up and we ascended to find rough seas and blackening clouds and the boat has pulled completely from the mooring. After a discussion with the captain we headed in shore. The river was bouncing us about and we opted for 2 more dives on the Kingshorn. After passing through Canadian Customs we headed out tied in and went down the line. After some touring we revisited my friend Chuckie the lawn jockey and I gave him a big kiss. (I dont recommend this as I think I got cooties from him)
2185We swam about some more and called it a dive. Back on board we enjoyed some cheese burgers and more cookies. Mark and I decided to skip the second dive and called it a day. A nice beer was sounding good about now.
We headed back to the motel and while the rest of the group did one last dive on the Rothesay . Mark B., Mark and I headed out to get a drink. During the course of the week there has been much good natured ribbing going on and Mark has had more than his share of teasing me. Two Marks was twice as bad and we laughed non-stop. When the rest of the group arrived back and changed, we headed out to dinner one last time.
By this time we were all friends, fish pokers and exhausted but smiling from all of our diving. We had learned who was the center of the universe. Rich was over his nervousness in swimming about and in and out of the wrecks, Mark B. was safely harnessed into his weights and quiet Kevin was no longer so quiet with the help of some Skittles (we had brought him to the dark side, poking fish and joking around). We were Jersey Wreck Divers and we had just finished a week of diving the best the St Lawrence had to offer, and what a week it was. But we weren’t quite done yet, we had one more dive on our agenda. Torpedo Run
We all awoke on Friday morning and met for breakfast. Marty, Mark D and Rich were leaving early, along with Stirling and the rest of us were diving.
Torpedo Run is a drift dive. It begins in Lock28 with a short swim to the Wee Hawk, a 70 ft tug used in construction of the St Lawrence Seaway and scuttled in the 1950’s. From there you drift along the lock and into the canal. At the end of the canal is the gap out into the St Lawrence River. You keep to the right and keep your dive buddy close as you shoot through the gap and into the river and you then immediately scoot over and keep the rocky wall to your left and drift along until you come upon the Conestoga.
We suited up and cars were jockeyed around to put all but one at the exit point of the Conestoga. After a blonde moment highlighting the importance of your predive acronym of Begin With Review And Friends. it was discovered that we skipped F and my fins were in the jeep at the exit point. Scott came to the rescue with an extra set of fins and we were on our way.
We dropped into the lock and after a quick look about the Weehawk we continued on drifting through the lock and looking about. The floor of the lock is wood planking and if you look carefully you can make out the entire manmade lock. We watched for fish and there were several small to medium sized bass and perch swimming about. We drifted leisurely along watching the changing scenery and as we approached the gap we could feel the current picking up. There was a definite surge in the current at the gap and we shot into the river swimming for the shore side. Again we started drifting along and as we approached 25-30 feet in depth we began looking and shortly the Conestoga came into sight. We toured the length of the tug several times and looked at the boilers and machinery and once again revisited the paddle wheel. I poked a few more fish then it was time to go. What a great end to a great week.
We had 30-40 ft viz every day. I understand that this visibility is down from previous years due to the Gobi, which are everywhere. They are eating the zebra mussel population which is responsible for filtering the water. This year eels were set loose to dine on the Gobi and keep the things in balance. The water remained a constant 73F with no thermo cline and the weather was warm and mild. Several times during our dives (especially the drifts) we heard the distinct thump thump thump of the engines of a large freighter going overhead. Most of the wrecks are out in or near the shipping lanes. You definitely have to follow the dive briefing to dive out here.
We headed back to the dive shop and picked up the last of our tanks and said goodbye to Captain Kevin and Edie and headed out. As we headed home, we stopped at the next town and found the Tech Dive Center. This is a fully stocked tech dive shop and good place to know if you have any equipment problems or issues. From there we headed to the border, went through customs and were on our way home.
It was midnight by the time we got home…. A long drive but well worth the trip. I am already looking forward to next year.