Although my wife Kathy is from Niagara Falls, and we have spent considerable time near Lake Erie and Ontario, I don’t know much about the Great Lakes. So, when we saw that Vantage Tours had a cruise through all five Great Lakes, we decided to sign up.
Kathy, of course, knows the names of all the Great Lakes because she was taught that in grade school. But being from the West, I had trouble naming all of them. So, she told me that the acronym HOMES takes care of that little problem: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.
Perhaps some perspective is necessary to understand why the Great Lakes are so Great. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s water is saltwater, and of that only 3 percent is freshwater, most of which is made up of polar ice caps or trapped so far underground that it’s inaccessible.
Of the remaining freshwater available for human use, 20 percent of that is found in the Great Lakes. They are so big that they can have 25-foot waves, and the lakes’ bottoms are littered with more than 6,000 shipwrecks and 30,000 bodies. Gordon Lightfoot composed and sang a song about an ore carrier that sank in 1975 in Lake Superior called “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
The lakes were essentially land-locked with water draining via the roaring Niagara Falls into the Atlantic Ocean until the man-made St. Lawrence Seaway, built in 1959, finally provided the link to ports around the globe.
Before leaving for the cruise, we read a book by journalist Dan Egan called “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.” He describes how, beginning in the late 1800s, Chicago needed a way to get rid of the raw sewage that it had been dumping into Lake Michigan, so the city dug canals to allow drainage into the Mississippi River.
Once the St. Lawrence Seaway was created, ships from all over the world brought toxic water ballast and heinous sea lamprey, zebra and quagga mussels and other invaders into the lakes, wiping out native species and causing almost irreparable damage.
Finally, in 1972 the Clean Water Act was passed, but even then the Environmental Protection Agency didn’t prevent ships from dumping their “foreign” ballast into the lakes, further aggravating the problem.
Before starting the cruise, we spent some time in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls area to attend a family wedding. While there, we remembered back a couple years ago when Nik Wallenda, of the famous Flying Wallendas, walked across a cable strung over the falls from the American side to the Canadian side.
Now his wife, Erendira, was determined to do him one better by dangling from a helicopter over Niagara Falls, hanging by a mouthpiece, entering a competition called the Iron Jaw. So up she went, doing some preliminary acrobatics inside a big hula hoop and then went for it. Her husband was above her in the helicopter talking to her via a microphone and we were hoping that at the critical “Iron Jaw” moment, he didn’t ask her a question and that she didn’t open her mouth to respond to him and end up in the Whirlpool Rapids below, screaming “luv ya” all the way down. She made it, and you can watch the TV special when it’s officially broadcast.
To get to Toronto, where the actual Great Lakes cruise started, we took Amtrak from Buffalo, N.Y., to Toronto, and spent a couple days there. We visited the Art Gallery of Ontario, where they were having a special Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit. We have visited the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., but this exhibit was four times bigger, since they had brought in pieces from private collections and other museums. Superb!
When in Toronto, you have to take a ride in the elevator to the top of the CN Tower or Canadian National Tower. Opened in 1976 as a communication and observation tower, it’s some 1,800 feet high, with a walk-around restaurant at the top. We could see people watching a Toronto Blue Jays baseball game in the stadium below, which holds over 50,000 but only had at most 1,000 people in attendance. That could be that the Blue Jays haven’t won anything worth mentioning since they won the World Series in 1992 and ’93.
We boarded the good ship M/V Victory in Toronto, and left Lake Ontario, the only Great Lake below Niagara Falls, to traverse the 27-mile, eight-lock Welland Canal, rising 358 feet up to Lake Erie. We overnighted on the Canadian side of the falls so we could visit the charming town of Niagara-on-the-Lake and also sail on the good ship Hornblower under the misty Niagara Falls, getting a good soaking.
Lunch was at the Chateau des Charmes Winery. The owner, Paul Bosc, in the 1960s was really one of the true innovating brave winemakers planting grapes in the Niagara Escarpment, an eco-system that allowed grapes to grow in what was thought to be an impossible climate to grow wine grapes.
Visiting the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn reminded me of the title of the 1987 movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” The museum itself is huge and well done. It’s not just about cars, but about discovering America’s culture, inventions and people. You see not only the history of cars, but also railroads, airplanes, made in America inventions, stories about agriculture, America’s main streets, and on and on. You could spend a couple days there just soaking it all in.
From there we sailed to Cleveland, being the first commercial cruise ship to land there in 50 years. You’re probably asking yourself, ‘Why would you even go there?’ Well, the obvious reason is that’s where the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is, which to do right needs a full day of your attention. This year’s showcased rocker was John Cougar Mellencamp, who was assigned the name Cougar by a promoter to attract attention to the singer; as soon as he became popular, John dumped “Cougar” from his name.
The museum is such a flashback in time that you go through all of the exhibits with a big silly smile and can’t help but sing the songs out loud, much to the consternation of the other visitors.
There was one other place we visited in Cleveland that turned out to be very interesting; a cemetery. It turns out that Cleveland, in the later 1800s and early 1900s, was a center of industry, where many very wealthy people lived, like John D. Rockefeller. One Jeptha Wade, one of the founders of Western Union Telegraph Company, decided that there wasn’t an appropriate place for the wealthy citizens of the city to be buried, so he helped establish the Lake View Cemetery, which sat high up on a hill overlooking Lake Erie, and ended up with the remains of U.S. President James Garfield, and many other prominent people.
The absolute pièce de résistance of the whole trip was the Wade Chapel, the interior of which was partially designed by none other than Louis Comfort Tiffany. The centerpiece of the chapel is a 7 feet by 9 feet Tiffany stained glass window depicting the soul’s ascendance from earth to heaven, standing at the front of the chapel, flanked by two gold-and-glass, 8 feet by 32 feet mosaic walls. The floors, doors, pews, walls and Tiffany’s huge glass window are perfection itself. Of all the things I’ve seen, this was the most impressive. For once, I was stunned into silence!
Then the docent explained that they didn’t want a casket rolled through the front doors down the aisles to the front of the chapel — much too pedestrian. No, they had an underground entrance behind the chapel that allowed the casket to be placed on a sort of dumb-waiter affair and lifted up into the chapel, appearing magically out of the earth as the preacher sang his eulogy.
To make sure we made it to all of the lakes, the ship traveled on Lake Huron to Sault Ste. Marie, where after a quick visit, we nosed our way into Lake Superior via the Soo Locks, went a couple nautical miles, turned around and went right back out. Mission accomplished. It was a beautiful day for sailing, having lunch on the outside deck and watching the world go by.
Mackinac Island, Lake Michigan: What an interesting place. The War of 1812 started here, John Jacob Astor built his successful American Furtrading Company on the island, and what finally brought it fame was that railroads and steamship companies needed a place for people to go, on their trains and ships, to play.
So, the companies got together and built, in 1887, a giant wood frame hotel, in 93 days, bringing the necessary laborers and timber over to the island during the winter via an “ice bridge,” so that by spring the hotel could be built. The rich vacationers would generally spend the entire two-month season there, being entertained, wined and dined, and then the place would close up until the next season.
Today it’s open for a six-month season, and the hotel is still impressive, having been added onto over the years. There are no motorized vehicles allowed on the island, so everyone and everything is transported via horse-drawn carriages or wagons. The whole place has a barnyard smell, but according to our guide the best job on the island has the title of “poop scooper sanitation worker.” I’ll just take his word on that.