The waiting room at St. Lambert Lock in Montreal looks out at a quarter-mile of chain-link fence, six security camera towers, a blaze-orange derrick and a guardhouse. There, three armed men stare at a 750-foot stretch of placid, blue-green water waiting to lift 33,000-ton freighters up along the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The lock is part of the oldest and most traveled inland waterway in America – a 2,300-mile corridor that connects the Atlantic Ocean with all five Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Since deep draft navigation opened on the St. Lawrence in 1959, more than 2.5 billion tons of cargo, worth around $375 billion, has traversed the seaway.
I’d been waiting 20 minutes for my ride – a 740-foot freighter called the Algoma Equinox. The Equinox traverses the St. Lawrence and four Great Lakes twice a month, transporting iron ore west and grain back east. Like many freighters around the world, it also occasionally carries people. Travelers willing to take the slow boat get a private cabin, three meals a day and shore leave wherever the ship loads, unloads or stops at a lock.
After picking me up in Montreal, the Equinox’s captain, Ross Armstrong, told me the ship would cross Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron and Superior and drop me in Thunder Bay, Ontario – six hours north of Duluth, Minnesota. The trip would take six days.
Three crew members lowered a steel gangplank onto the parking lot curb, and I dragged my roller bag onto the ship. The Equinox is almost the exact size of the 60-story Carnegie Hall Tower in New York City, leaned over on its side. The long, blue hull floated just a few feet above the water, weighed down by 33,000 tons of iron ore pellets in the cargo holds.
All three crew members wore coveralls and hard hats. One, from Newfoundland, introduced himself as Tony. He looked like a Tony, with a bushy black mustache, pudgy cheeks and curly black hair. “You’ll be in the owner’s cabin,” he said. “Better hurry up, supper’s almost over.”
It was 5 p.m. on a warm June day. The sun was still high overhead and the air smelled like river water and algae. Fluorescent lights gave the interior of the ship a pale blue hue. The halls were timeless in a way that any steel room, like a prison cell, is timeless. My cabin was on the third floor, starboard side. It was surprisingly large. The queen-size bed could have been transplanted from a Comfort Inn. The separate sitting area had a chipboard desk and mini-fridge, and there was an en suite bathroom by the foot of the bed. The walls were covered with white plastic panels. The curtains were a kind of shiny plastic I had never seen before. Behind them, two oversized portholes looked out on a constantly moving scene.
I dropped my bags and headed straight to the mess hall. It was empty, something that appeared to please the cook, Mike Newell. The two-room dining area and kitchen were ‘s domain, though it seemed as if he would trade the keys for a plane ticket home. For a man who openly hated his job, cooked a hearty meal. The first night’s menu: chicken curry, rice, steaks, spaghetti, meatballs, short ribs, steamed veggies, salad, pie and a choice of a dozen nonalcoholic juices and drinks.
Newell self-flagellated with a dishtowel as he told me about riding lakers. He was 62 and had been sailing for 41 years. He has cloudy blue eyes and gray hair and opens his shirt a couple of buttons lower than other crew members. He was a mate once. He was an ordinary seaman who worked the decks, too. He was laid off, rehired, laid off again.
In the old days, he said, the mess hall was crowded 24 hours a day. Sailors played cards, gambled, got drunk and got into knife fights. Ex-cons, Hells Angels, mental patients and gang members hiding from the law worked there. Every now and then one would disappear over the rail in the middle of the night. There was such a demand for labor that if someone was fired, he’d be hired the next day by a competitor. When reached 25 years of service, the company gave him a clock mounted on a brass helm. responded, “You should have given me a Congressional Medal of Honor for surviving!”
Newell was still talking an hour later when I slipped out of the mess hall to catch the sunset. Armstrong gave me permission to roam the ship, as long as I wore a hard hat outside. And didn’t fall overboard. The sun was still above the treetops, and silhouetted skyscrapers in downtown Montreal 10 miles northeast looked like penciled-in shadows. The 9,400-horsepower engine vibrated the deck and every surface as the ship motored along the border toward Lac St.-Louis.
A rain shower hit, carried by a ferocious wind. Five minutes later it passed, and the evening sun hammered the deck. I had never moved this slowly as a passenger and wondered if I would lose my mind with boredom in the next six days. But the pace was meditative, too. From the 75-foot-tall wheelhouse, you notice things onshore you would typically miss in a car, train or plane. Like kids playing lacrosse in a dried-up hockey rink, a teenager peeking into his neighbors’ windows with a drone, and a red fox hunching his back and relieving himself on a beautifully manicured lawn.
The canal opened into Lac St.-Louis where it was nearly four miles wide, then narrowed again near Île Perrot. We were 300 miles due north of New York City and on the same latitude as Portland, Oregon. Elms and cottonwood bent in the breeze, casting shadowy fingers onto the water. White cedar and ash grew close to the river where 350,000 cubic feet of water passed every second. Moraines and gentle drumlins rose and fell along the riverside, creating miniature highlands shrouded in red oak and sugar maple. In between, peat bogs were laced with the skeletons of fallen trees.
Two riders on a bike path lining the dike left us in the dust. I found it hard to believe that we would be in Minnesota in six days. In my mind, it was difficult to connect Montreal and Minnesota by water at all. I was so used to driving and flying, the shape of the continent had been distorted. You get on a plane or Interstate in New York and get off in Minneapolis. Or Chicago. Or Los Angeles. Most people don’t travel anymore. They arrive. Unless you are riding the slow boat. Then you see every mile.
The Great Lakes basin spans 10 degrees of latitude and 18 degrees of longitude – set almost exactly between the Equator and the North Pole. The circumference of all five lakes combined is 10,500 miles, nearly half the distance around the world. An average of 200,000 cubic feet of precipitation falls somewhere on the lakes every second.
The first ships to sail the lakes were classic European schooners, sloops and brigs. “Canallers” were the workhorses of the mid-1800s, and by 1860, 750 of them were in service. The steam engine brought larger boats, and larger locks, too. Steam barges called “smokers” spoke to each other using “whistle talk.” Next came hookers, whaleback tows and bulkers, before steel ocean freighters sailed up the St. Lawrence and the age of the modern laker began.
These days oreboats, straight deckers, bulkers, sternenders, self unloaders, longboats and lakeboats deliver 180 million tons of cargo to and from the lakes annually. Most goes to or comes from electric utilities, steel mills, construction companies, mining companies, factories and farms. Because a freighter can transport a ton of cargo 514 miles on a single gallon of fuel – compared with 202 miles by train or 59 miles by truck – shipping is often a greener way to move people and freight as well.
Many shipping companies like CMA-CGM, Canadian Maritime, Rickmers-Linie and Grimaldi Lines offer passenger cabins on certain routes. Prices average around $100 a day for trips to most major international ports. Specialty travel agencies like Maris and A la Carte Freighter Travel book trans-Atlantic and around-the-world trips, and others like ZIM Integrated Shipping Services take applications for artist residencies on their ships.
Great Lakes freighters are unique in that almost all passenger tickets are sold through nonprofit fundraisers – mostly to benefit shipping museums – so booking a room is not easy.
I got lucky while researching a book about America’s northern border when I met Peter Winkley, vice president of Algoma Central. The border splits the St. Lawrence River and four Great Lakes, and the Equinox follows the line almost the entire journey. The only way to see it up close is on a ship, and Winkley offered me a ride.
The Equinox is the most advanced bulker on the Great Lakes. Algoma captains, engineers and naval architects designed it, making it 45 percent more fuel efficient than Algoma’s existing fleet. They added a computerized, gearless engine that occupies four stories of the engine room and gas scrubbers on the smokestack, which remove 97 percent of emitted sulfur. The result is the fastest, largest and most efficient ship sailing all five Great Lakes.
Still, the next morning mustard yellow exhaust fell from the smokestack and hovered a few feet above the water. Thick bands of clouds blocked the sun. The Equinox deck glowed dull red. Every handle is painted white and safety instructions are bright yellow.
Armstrong, the captain, looked more like a retired police officer on vacation at the helm – wearing a polo shirt, jeans and Crocs – than the captain of a $40 million ship. He was 27 when his father, a lifetime Great Lakes captain, called him from Quebec City and asked if he wanted to be a deckhand. Thirty-five years later he was celebrating his third decade as a captain.
The job is more demanding than it looks, he said. The lakes sit in a lowland between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians, creating a vortex of dangerous weather. Winds can blow 40 to 50 knots and whip up waves 25 feet tall. The slender and flexible lakers seek shelter or heave-to to survive these storms. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum estimates that 6,000 ships and 30,000 lives have been lost on the lakes. The most famous wreck, Edmund Fitzgerald, sank a few hundred miles ahead on our route.
The wheelman stood behind Armstrong, clutching a surprisingly tiny, computerized steering wheel. He wore driving gloves and turned the Equinox every few seconds in whatever direction the captain told him to. The wheel, computer monitors and what looked like a server farm filling the wheelhouse are indicative of changes in the shipping industry. Twenty years ago, it took 35 crew members to run a laker. The Equinox operates with 16, only a handful of whom are on duty at once.
I stepped onto the wheelhouse deck in Chippewa Bay to see Thousand Islands, New York, summer home to millionaires for a century and a half. There are 1,864 islands along the 50-mile stretch, many of which were retreats for business moguls and movie stars during the Gilded Age. Singer Castle’s 60-foot walls and terra-cotta roof, built by Frederick Gilbert Bourne of the Singer Sewing Machine Co., passed a few hundred yards to starboard. A couple of miles farther, we passed within a few hundred feet of another castle built by George Boldt, proprietor of New York City’s original Waldorf Astoria, then Deer Island, a retreat for Yale’s Skull and Bones club.
The channel was so tight in the American Narrows that the Equinox completely filled it. Jet-skis and mahogany runabouts zipped 30 feet in front of the bow and alongside the gunwales. An SOS message came across the VHF radio saying that a private boat had lost power and drifted into the shipping lane, and I asked the wheelsman how long it would take the Equinox to stop. “It doesn’t stop,” he said. Then he added, “You should see this place at night. Or in the fog.”
That evening we passed the windmills and farms of Wolfe Island, then broke into a deep blue plain. From the bow, Lake Ontario looked like an endless silvery horizon. The air was still and the view ahead was so wide I could see the curvature of the earth. The only sign of land was a smokestack 20 miles away on the southern shore.
The sky was dark the next morning. The land was dark, too. Flames blazed above tall, cylindrical smokestacks, casting an orange light on the Equinox. The waterfront was barricaded by black, pyramidal dunes of coal and iron ore pellets at the ArcelorMittal Dofasco steel mill. My watch read 9 a.m. We were docked in Hamilton, Ontario, steel capital of Canada.
Unloading takes about a day, so Armstrong gave me shore leave until 10 p.m. I took a cab straight to Jamesville, an unlikely arts district that recently popped up in Hamilton. I found a half-dozen art galleries, three coffee shops, a smoothie bar, eight restaurants and two boutique saloons on North James Street alone. The neighborhood didn’t look like Manhattan’s Chelsea, but it didn’t look like a steel town, either.
I wandered all day through shops and public parks, looking at hand-cut wood prints, paintings, a recording studio, mixed-media art center and the Hamilton farmers’ market, the oldest in Canada (founded in 1837). That evening at a bar called the Brain – where the owner was mid-binge with an artist friend from Berlin – a patron in skinny black jeans showed off a print headed for New York City. It was a matted grid of 28 life rings from Great Lakes ships.
Neighborhoods grew progressively darker and poorer as I rode in a cab back to the waterfront that night. An orange cloud hovered over the steel mill and flames flickered above Dofasco’s smokestacks. Inside Gate 15, earthmovers roared as they pushed piles of iron and coal around.
Nothing had changed inside the Equinox. The forced-air system whirred. The fluorescent lights made hallways and cabins bright and sterile. The only smell was of spaghetti sauce in the mess hall, where a lone crewman sat staring at his food.
By the time I woke up the next morning, the Equinox had finished unloading, crossed Lake Ontario and cleared two locks in the Welland Canal – an engineering marvel that circumvents Niagara Falls. The first Welland Canal was dug between Lake Erie and Ontario in 1829. The current one lifts ships 326 vertical feet up the Niagara escarpment over 27 miles and eight locks.
Armstrong let me off at Lock 3 and told me I had six hours to explore Niagara, before reboarding at Lock 8. I climbed a rope ladder up the lock wall and walked to a cab that took me to the Table Rock Welcome Center on the Canadian side of the falls. A rock wall with an ornate steel railing held back 1,200 humans gazing at the second-largest waterfall on the planet. It is a strange thing to see a wonder of the world in the flesh after gazing at photos of it 1,000 times. I spent a half-hour watching the river wend around rocks and submerged logs, then accelerate and shoot forward, cascading, ricocheting and vaporizing into a white cloud of mist before coalescing into a cushion of foam.
What you don’t see in photos is the view the falls have of everyone looking at them, an explosion of tourism almost as breathtaking as the cataract itself. I embraced the chaos for a moment over a Jack Daniel’s New York Strip Steak at TGI Fridays – near the Guinness World Records Museum, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Upside Down House, Brick City toy museum, Movieland Wax Museum of the Stars and the Haunted House. Then I caught a cab to an older world in Port Colborne at the opposite end of the Welland Canal.
Port Colborne sits on Lake Erie and is the kind of place where local legends include a high school kid who played in the NHL and a World War II Canadian battleship that was named after the town. Like Hamilton, Port Colborne had become a chic weekender destination and was packed with gift shops, cafes and the incredible three-generation Minor Fisheries cafeteria – where your breaded and fried perch comes in daily from the local fishing fleet.
The Equinox eased into Lock 8 around 6 p.m. After I boarded, Armstrong directed the ship into Lake Erie. Sunset comes slowly on the Great Lakes. The surface of the water morphed into an antique mirror, clouded and rippled. Before long, land on the far shore became a shadowy thumbnail, marked by a dozen bristling towers and smokestacks.
The final leg of the journey through Lakes Huron and Superior was the fastest. There is one stop at Soo Locks between those lakes, and the ship cruises at top speed the rest of the way. We were in the Detroit River when I woke up the second to last day. After I had coffee and an omelet, Detroit appeared like a house of mirrors off the port bow. From there, we steamed past Belle Isle into Lake St. Clair, through the St. Clair River and Lake Huron. Sometime that night, we turned north up St. Mary’s River to the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie and continued west across Lake Superior.
The fog set in on the last night, and I couldn’t see the bow of the ship. The dampness and cold penetrated my jacket on deck, and beads of water formed on my eyelashes. There were no buoys, ships or rocks. You could see them on the radar but not through the windshield. “Lake’s too cold,” the wheelman said.
I woke in the middle of the night and looked through the porthole. The fog had lifted and Superior was black and calm. The average depth of the lake is 483 feet. Off Grand Island, the bottom drops to 1,333 feet. Somewhere down there the Midcontinent Rift, a giant scar of hardened magma where the North American continent split in two a billion years ago, runs across the bottom. Deepwater ciscoes swim through the deepest trenches of the lake. Native lake trout and lake herring circle above them. Sleek black loons, herring gulls, harlequin ducks and oldsquaw dive at the fish on the surface, and eagles, falcons, terns and plovers glide above.
Before I went to bed, I had packed my things. I couldn’t imagine riding a boat for three months, much less 30 years as a career seaman. I stared at the ceiling for an hour, wondering if I would fall asleep. I imagined the 100-foot cliffs that border the northern shore of Lake Superior passing by, and gray wolves and black bear wandering through stands of paper birch and pine.
In a half-sleep, I dreamed of the cottony white cloud covering the lake. Above the cloud, the moon seared a crescent into the sky. The ship made a long furrow through the mist, just the smokestack poking through. It was a clear night above and a whiteout below. Lights flickered onshore. Cars zipped along highways. America went on as usual while the giant ship slid forward in the silver light.
About the book
Porter Fox’s book “Northland,” about traversing the United States-Canada border, is due out from W.W. Norton in 2018.