St. Lawrence River
Part 1: The United States invades Canada
Here in New Joizey (widely acknowledged to be the wreck diving capital of the world), rumors that it was possible to dive in the northlands of Canady began filtering down from hardy explorers several years ago. We heard stories that the vast St. Lawrence River was full of pristine shipwrecks, many more than 100 years old. This was believable, but accompanying these stories were tales of warm, clear water, unlike that found in the gray, northeast Atlantic. It seemed hardly possible. There were also rumors of a mysterious fish variously described as a “fresh water barracuda” or “an alligator without legs”. The natives called this denizen of the river the “Mooskoolunge” or something similar. It was most intriguing and called for serious investigation.
After several preliminary excursions by bands of daring NJ divers, a full-scale expedition was launched over August 23 – 27th this year. I was honored to be a member of this noble endeavor. Starting in central NJ, we formed a two-car convoy and headed north. In my trusty minivan, roommate and buddy for the trip, Jerry, aka “Pig Pen”, joined me. Our other vehicle was driven by expedition leader, Wayne (“Bring ‘em Back Alive”) accompanied by young Sven (Havin’ a Bad Hair Day) and Charles (Mr. Seven Strokes). For reasons to be described later, I was awarded the appellation “Muddy Waters” by my companions. Our other 4 companions were to join us across the border.
Leaving NJ around 1:00 PM in the afternoon, we raced northwards with a planned night dive in mind. Past the first bridge over the St. Lawrence and still in the US of A, we stopped for gas and liquid provisions in case these should be hard to find on the rustic northern frontier. Past the second bridge and into Canady itself, we passed through the border crossing. I gave the attractive young native girl at the checkpoint an amiable smile and a wink and we were able to enter without any undue unpleasantries, like strip searches and body cavity explorations. I was relieved to see that my companions also made it through safe and sound, and we headed for base camp in a town called Brockville.
We arrived around 7:30 PM at our first nights lodging. Our host was very friendly and I was relieved that he communicated in a language close to our own. In fact, apart from a few odd phrases and pronunciations, communicating with the natives proved quite easy. We learned of a possible dive site not far from our lodgings and proceeded there as soon as possible as darkness was falling. Our host indicated that he thought there was a wreck there and that there were underwater ropes leading to it. A good omen.
We pulled off the road when we spotted a trash barrel painted red with a white stripe. Could this mean that it was true that there was diving to be found here? From the shore we could see a small buoy some hundred yards out in the river and took that to be the start of our dive. We hastily assembled out equipment and got into our dry suits. We were all a little nervous about just what we might find, especially my buddy, Jerry, who began talking to himself as he got into his rig (one of his quaint personality quirks I’ve discovered.) By the time we entered the water it was full darkness. Wayne swam out to the buoy, while the rest of us waited on Jerry, who went back to shore for his forgotten gloves only find them in his hand all the time.
When all of us were assembled at the buoy, Wayne said he was going to head down to see if he could find the ropes he thought he had spotted. Young Sven and Charles soon followed. Recollections from my night diving instruction passed through my head. Didn’t they say something about only diving sites that you were familiar with? Here we were in the dark, in a strange river of unknown depth beneath us. I remembered tales of steep drop offs from shore and racing currents, while Jerry began muttering something about not wanting to dive any deeper than 40 ft. I said I’d be willing to go as deep as 100 ft., but not for very long.
Mustering our courage, Jerry and I gave each other the down sign. I vented the air from my wing and committed myself to the depths…
Whomp! I land into a cloud of silt; depth 10 ft. Gotta do something about these hard landings. Jerry soon joins me and as the silt clears, we can see no sign of our companions, but locate a yellow line leading off from some concrete blocks. So we set off in search of the others. The water is clear and surprisingly warm and I can’t feel much, if any current. The line passes over more blocks and forms a channel through the plant growth in which we see numerous small fishes. After some distance, we spy a light up ahead. It’s Charles waiting for us. We signal “OK” and continue following the line, which descends to a depth of 20 ft or so.
Suddenly, a wreck appears in front of us. It’s large and a mass of beams and debris. It’s hard to see much in the way of recognizable features, so I navigate by keeping the wreck to my right. Ahead I see Wayne and Sven’s lights. I make a mental note of another line leading into the wreck, so as to not take it on the return. We pass into an area of large timbers and what looks like twisted metal. I notice some silt underneath me and I’m puzzled because I don’t think I’m causing it. Suddenly, Jerry waves his light around and points it down beneath me. I shine my HID down and see a big head emerging from a muddy hole in the river bottom. About six inches of it protrudes from the hole and it looks an awful lot like an eel to me. Only, I’ve never heard of large fresh water eels.
I flash my light side to side in Wayne’s direction to get him over here. He sees me and gives me the OK sign. I flash my light again, point my hand down, and shine the light on it. Wayne gives me the OK sign. I shine my light on myself and gesture “Come here!”; Wayne gives me the OK sign. Finally I swim over to Wayne and try to get him to follow me back. Wayne gives me the OK sign. Meanwhile, the eel is waiting patiently in his hole, not looking too happy about the attention he’s receiving. When Wayne once again gives me the OK sign, I signal back OK to him and Jerry and I move on. After the dive, Wayne and I discuss and arrive on a mutually agreed upon signal for “Hey, look over here!”.
Jerry and I explore some more of the wreck and by now I’m thoroughly confused by its layout. The only way to return is to reverse our course and find the line back or else just surface and make the long swim back.
Jerry soon begins pointing to his gauges and holding his console in front of my face. This I’ve learned is his way of telling me he thinks it might be time to turn around. It seems we’ll need to have another little discussion about signals and how to call the dive. I find Wayne and give him the turn around sign. Meanwhile Jerry is holding his gauges up for Charles to read and Charles responds by trying to get him to switch to his pony bottle.
Finally, Wayne gets us all together and we follow the contours of the wreck reversing our path until we find the line leading back to shore. We follow this to our starting point and Wayne does a nice job of compass navigating us back close to our entry point. It’s close to 11:00 PM by the time we get started back. I’m happy, but exhausted.
It was a great dive if a little nerve wracking and an auspicious start to the expedition. We learned later that the name of the wreck is the Rothesay and it’s a popular novice dive for the area. Back at our cabin, I polished off a couple of beers and spent a largely sleepless night with eerie visions of lights reflecting off of twisted wreckage passing before my eyes.
Part 2 – Jerry Almost Goes to Montreal
At 6:30 or so the next morning, we congregated outside the hotel rooms. The sound of gear being loudly loaded into vehicles must surely have endeared Yankee scuba divers to the other guests. Two more members of our intrepid team have joined us: Dan (Not A Cajun) and Charlie (The Night Stalker). Dan and Charlie were veterans of earlier expeditions to the northlands. Our convoy, now consisting of 4 cars and trucks, set off in search of breakfast.
We located a place called “Tim Horton’s” with good coffee (though they need to figure out what a “large” coffee should be), muffins and surprisingly passable bagels. I paid for my order with a twenty-dollar bill and get back twenty three dollars and change. What a deal! Don’t you just love socialism? All of us were happy with breakfast except Charles, who wanted some eggs for breakfast. He grumbled under his breath and over his breath about needing to find a McDonalds so he can get an Egg McMuffin, while everyone did their best to pretend they didn’t know him.
With some food in our bellies, Dan then led us off in search of the dock and our dive boat for the day. We found the dock, but no boat. The morning was bright and clear and the river stunning. A great day for diving, but I felt a little pessimistic as our 8 AM departure time slipped towards 9 AM with no boat in sight.
Finally, Dan spotted it – the See Way Vision with Capt. Kevin at the wheel and mate and brother-in-law Tom helping out. It’s a really nice comfortable boat made especially so by our having it all to ourselves for three days. Kevin and Tom are really nice guys – knowledgeable and helpful about the local diving and always ready to help with gearing up and such. Together with his wife, Edie, Kevin also runs the Sea ‘n Sky Dive shop in nearby Prescott, Ontario where we got our Nitrox and air fills.
A long boat ride led us to our first dive of the day and my introduction to diving in a brisk current. The wreck is the A. E. Vickory. Tom hooked the mooring line and anchored the boat. As we discovered is common here, the mooring is some horizontal distance from the wreck and the line leads to some concrete blocks at a shallow depth. Another series of lines then leads to deeper water and the wreck. Capt. Kevin warned us about the current and I made a mental note to hang on to the line and the wreck if the current is at all strong. As turns out to be the normal case for the trip, Jerry and I were last into the water and Charlie decided to tag along with us.
The current is pretty stiff at the surface. I wrap a leg around the mooring line while waiting for Jerry to jump in. We all begin descending, when I glance over and see Jerry detached from the line adjusting his buoyancy with one hand and fiddling with his equipment with the other. He looks like he’s on a Dutch Springs quarry dive. He’s casually kicking towards the line, but not getting any closer. With visions of Jerry washing up in Montreal, I frantically wave for him to get himself back on the line. When he’s close enough, I grab him and pull him to the line. After the dive, we have a little chat. I explain to him my personal limitations on buddy diving, telling him that if he gets blown off the wreck or the line, he shouldn’t expect me to come after him. I’ll surface and tell the captain to go look for him.
The line follows the shoal into deeper water and to the bow of the wreck. Jerry and I hop over the railing onto the deck of the wreck and the current relaxes somewhat. I still feel most comfortable hanging on to something, rather than floating with the current. We head towards the stern by letting the current propel us from handhold to handhold. The Vickory is a wooden three masted schooner sunk in 1889. On the deck, which is mostly covered with zebra mussels, there’s the occasional clear spot still showing the original paint. I estimate the vis to be 50 – 60 ft and I’m just thrilled. There’s plenty of fish; I think I see bass, perch, carp and pickerel, but I’m not real familiar with fresh water fish. Jerry and I have decided on a very conservative dive plan, so he gives me the turn around sign when he hits 1800 psi and we have made it about half way to the stern. Going back into the current is a combination of kicking and pulling oneself from handhold to handhold. It’s a real treat being able to see the mooring line from practically anywhere on the wreck. We get back to the bow with plenty of gas left and fool around there for a while before heading back along the mooring line. It’s been a real blast. I get a maximum depth of 84 ft and an average of 48 ft. The water temperature was a toasty 72 degrees.
Lunch was served on board the See Vision. We dined on a local delicacy cooked up by Tom that consists of a thin cylindrical tube of some unknown processed meat. These are cooked on an open grill and served in a long receptacle made of soft bread. We were provided with various red, yellow, and green condiments to go with them. They reminded me very much of good old American hot dogs. I ate three and happily suffered no ill effects.
During lunch, the boat cruised back towards Rockport, where we arrived at our second wreck for the day. This was the Kingshorn, also known as the Rockport Wreck, sunk in 1897. It’s another wooden wreck, a barge, sitting upright in the main river channel at a depth of 92 ft. The mooring line sits outside the channel and we follow it down and horizontally to the wreck. It’s one aspect of diving here, that you don’t want to do a free ascent directly from the wreck. Although the See Vision has an inflatable chase boat that should be able to get you pretty soon, the river channels are full of speedboats traveling upwards of 100 mph and there’s the occasional monster freighter or tanker cruising down the channel. Surfacing in the main channel and waving your little safety sausage at one of these guys would be an unpleasant end.
There’s almost no current on this wreck and the vis is a whopping 100 feet or so. Jerry and I briefly head down to the “sand” (I think it’s mostly rocks and zebra mussel shells) and I get a max depth of 88 feet. This time we head from the stern towards the bow, again turning the dive before we’ve covered the entire wreck. There aren’t too many fish here, but the wreck has been “salted” with some interesting, if historically bogus, artifacts. There’s a wood stove near the stern, a toilet, and a metal bell near the tie in point. I also see a large wheel near the stern that might be the original rudder wheel.
Back on the surface, some animated discussion erupted over somebody silting up the wreck. I paid it little attention, but apparently someone doing a swim through on the wreck caused a major silt-up leaving others in our group none too happy. Charles proclaimed a new “rule”. Hence forth and ever more, anyone found guilty of silting up a wreck will be “fined” in some fashion. I began to learn that Charles is quite fond of rules.
Back at the motel, we were joined by the final two members of our team, Jim (The Walrus) and Kevin (ILikeRootBeer). Jim and Kevin spent the day exploring some other potential dive sites trying to come up with a drift dive that we all might like to try. They’ve also dove the Rothesay and recommended it highly as a day dive along with another nearby close-to-shore wreck dive – the Conestoga. Some logistical problems were solved, when they volunteered to buy groceries, leaving most of the rest of us able to head towards Sea ‘n Sky to for nitrox fills. We met Capt. Kevin there and he graciously agreed (after a suitable amount of begging and groveling on our part) to bring our filled tanks with him the next morning. We also had a little heart-to-heart discussion on how much gas an LP tank is really meant to hold.
Back at base camp we found that Jim and Kevin have bought a mess of food and have even cooked for us. After a hearty dinner, I was too tired for dessert, and after a much-needed shower, fell asleep around 9 o’clock. No night dive for anyone tonight.
Part 3 – A Gross Miscarriage of Justice is Perpetrated.
I awoke the next morning to the sounds of loud voices in the room next door and gear being loaded into trucks. I forgot to set my alarm, but Jerry and I were soon ready because we didn’t bother to bring any diving equipment into the room with us. This was an even earlier start, because there was to be a big speedboat race down the St. Lawrence this day and Capt. Kevin wants to avoid having us in the water during it. It’s another brilliantly clear morning with a touch of autumn in the air, although the sun soon warms it up nicely.
For Charles sake, we found a McDonalds for breakfast. He ordered two Egg McMuffins, but pronounced them inferior to the true American versions. Some people are very particular about breakfast.
The boat was waiting for us at the dock and our tanks were already loaded aboard (what service!). Charles discovered that he forgot the oxygen sensor for his rebreather, and so needed to make a quick run back to base camp for it. In the meantime, though, our digestive systems have processed breakfast, and several of us made a fruitless search for an unlocked bathroom at the dock site. We had to cork it back until the boat left dock, resulting in some pretty grim and serious faces.
It was another longish ride to the first wreck of the day and the poor little head on the See Vision saw a lot of traffic. Things got pretty nasty down in the cabin. I came close to losing breakfast when I made my first attempt at the head, but persevered through sheer will power and some urgent rumblings from within. I escaped to the fresh air on the rear deck where, sometime later, Charles arrived with a look of outrage on his face.
“We gotta have another rule”, he announced. “From now on, everyone has to use the bathrooms back at the motel. The air down in the cabin is so foul, I can’t breathe it. In fact, I was trying to calibrate my O2 sensor and it wouldn’t give me a reading. Instead it kept coming back saying ‘Smells like S**T!’”
Life is surely tough on these rugged diving expeditions to primitive locations.
The first wreck this day is the “Keystorm”, sunk in 1912. This is a steel freighter that lies on her starboard side. It’s on a slope so diving it offers a true multilevel experience. The upper part of the bow is at 25 ft. The port side slopes down as you head to the stern and by dropping to the bottom at the stern, one can reach a maximum depth of around 115 ft.
In some ways the wreck reminds me of one of my favorite NJ wrecks – the Stolt Dagali.
Jerry, Charlie, and I follow the mooring line down to where it’s tied into one of the long freight masts projecting horizontally out over the bottom. We then follow the mast to the deck and, turning left, make a leisurely amble down to the stern. The wreck is very intact with large open cargo holds along the deck. Passing along side one of the cargo holds, I see large clouds of silt emanating from within and think to myself “Someone is going to be in a lot of trouble when we get top side.” As it turns out, the guilty parties are from another dive boat and they believe the proper way to penetrate a wreck is by walking along the bottom.
Still taking it very conservatively, we turn back when Jerry hits 1800 psi, but this still leaves us with loads of gas when we get back to the forward freight mast. We then spend a lot of time exploring the bow area, which contains the wheelhouse. There’s numerous smallish fish all over the wreck – perch, pickerel, and what I think are walleye. I also see some sunfish and bluegills. Jerry and I do a short swim through one of the cargo holds and then end the dive, hitting a maximum depth of 93’ and an average depth of 43 ft.
I estimate the vis on the Keystorm to be 80 – 100 ft., making it possible to see most of the wreck from bow to stern. Navigating wrecks under these conditions is a lark compared to the usual NJ wreck. And to think we owe it all to the zebra mussel. After the dive I asked Capt. Kevin what the diving was like before the invasion of the zebra mussel. A man of few words, he just held his hand out, palm facing his eyes, a few feet from his face, adding, “You had to be pretty dedicated to dive in those days.” To think that this much-despised pest has made an entire recreational industry along the St. Lawrence possible boggles my mind. Perhaps NJ could use a saltwater variety.
After a lunch of delicious soup (courtesy of Edie, Capt. Kevin’s lovely wife) and sandwiches, we arrived at our second dive for the day. This is the “America”, a steel barge that was sunk while drilling and blasting the edge of the shoal along the shipping lane. It’s final resting place is right out in the main shipping lane, and Capt. Kevin warns us about not surfacing directly above the wreck and making sure we follow the mooring line back to the wreck. We also get some survival tips on what to do if a freighter or tanker passes overhead while we’re underwater. It seems that the top of the wreck is at about 60 ft and the big tankers draw about 30 ft, so one would be left with about 30 ft of clearance. With the backwash from the gigantic propellers to consider, Capt. Kevin’s advice is to grab a sturdy piece of the wreck and to hang on for dear life. I sincerely hope to avoid this experience. We were also warned to not go down to the sand around the wreck, because it’s impregnated with heavy oil.
There’s a brisk current on this wreck, but I’m getting a little more comfortable with it. The mooring line leads steeply down to the wreck, which sits upside down right next to the rocky side of the shoal. Attempting to avoid the current as much as possible, Jerry and I cruise around the outside of the wreck, remembering to stay well off the bottom. The underneath of the wreck is an interesting mess of twisted metal. We see Wayne and Sven negotiating a swim through underneath the wreck. It looks way too confining for me, so we continue along the perimeter of the wreck. There are some fish hiding out along the sides where the current is less severe, but there’s a surprising number of fish, some pretty large ones, hanging out on the flat, mainly featureless, top of the wreck. Jerry and I cruise with the current, which isn’t all that bad, towards the stern where there are some large propellers. The fish let us get pretty close to them and I wonder about a life spent largely holding oneself in one spot facing a constant current with an occasional swish of your tail to keep in position. Oh well, I long ago decided I didn’t want to be reincarnated as a fish.
Coming back I still find it easiest to pull myself along the top of the wreck by grabbing on to convenient projections.
Although this wreck is, perhaps, not as interesting as some of the earlier ones, I surfaced happy and exhilarated. We hit a maximum depth of 67 ft and an average depth of 43 ft and we were down for 44 minutes. My feelings of euphoria were quickly crushed, however, when we climbed back on the boat. As I went through the usual after dive rituals of getting out my rig and drysuit, I was faced with loud accusations and pointed fingers. We were loudly accused of silting up the wreck – of violating the rule. I resisted strenuously. Where is the proof? Who says we are guilty of this alleged crime? To my horror, many voices were raised against us. I felt like a victim of the French Revolution. Charles announced that we were silting up so badly even the fish were complaining!
I held firm to my convictions and asked, “Where’s the videotape?” but one glance at Jerry and our defense collapsed. He caved in and admitted it. Apparently at one point Jerry was happily flutter kicking his way along the wreck when Wayne caught his eye and pointed accusingly at Jerry. At which point, Jerry quickly switched to the frog kick. While Jerry sadly shakes his head and admits guilt, Wayne says it really cracked him up.
So we were punished. I was dubbed “Muddy Waters”, while Jerry got the name “Pig Pen”. Although I still dispute the validity of my sentence, I soon reconciled myself to my new name. It’s an honored name from a great musician, and since I feel innocent of any crime (so what if I contributed to a little silt on the deck of a wreck in a current), I’ll bear the name with pride. And it’s a whole lot better than “Pig Pen”.
We got back to shore by early afternoon thanks to our early morning start. By now the speedboat race was in full swing and monster powerboats were roaring noisily down the river. It’s a major event for the locals and viewing spots by the shore were crowded. I harbored dark thoughts about torpedoes and bazookas as the boats shattered the afternoon calm.
A few of us planned on a couple more dives for the day, so we raced back to the motel for a quick hamburger and to swap around some gear. Heading east to the shop, we dropped off our tanks to be filled and delivered tomorrow (with some more groveling and begging), before continuing to Cardinal, Ontario and the site of the Conestoga. Kevin came with us as guide and shore support. The smokestack of the stern mounted engine is visible from shore and Kevin pointed out the shore entry point and indicated where the bow is – a literal stone’s throw from the water’s edge.
Wayne suits up in his dry suit and doubles rig, while a youngster watches him opened mouthed. Such technical diving rigs are apparently rare here. His wonder increases when Wayne loudly talks about swimming underwater to New York.
Wayne and Sven are first in the water and Jerry and I follow shortly afterwards. A convenient rope leads the short distance to the bow of the wreck. There’s a brisk current running, and, following Kevin’s advice, we ascend up the hull of the wreck and into the open interior. The wreck sunk in 1922 after catching fire and the deck of the boat is gone, leaving the large open interior of the hull. It’s pretty sheltered from the current and full of easily navigated debris and wreckage. The shallow depth and clear water lets the sunlight through and it’s a marvelous place to be. Plants grow in abundance in this calm area and there are many fish enjoying the day along with us. Heading to the stern, we encounter a maze of cave line. Wayne and Sven are practicing with their wreck reels.
At the stern, we explore the remains of the engine, and looking upwards, see where the smoke stack breaks through the surface. Heading back towards the bow, we come across Wayne and Sven taking in the line from their reels. There’s enough current to make it a bit tricky. Reaching the bow again, Jerry and I hop to the outside of the wreck and make a leisurely tour of the perimeter. By now, we feel pretty comfortable with moderate currents like this. There are entire schools of small sunfish and bluegills sheltering where the hull and bottom form a narrow cavern. Finally, we’ve seen pretty much all there is to see and head back to shore. We were in for 55 minutes at an average depth of 16 feet and a maximum of 24 feet.
Can I handle four dives in one day?
It was getting on towards twilight, as we headed back to the entry point for the Rothesay. Jerry thought it over and decided he was just too tired for another dive, but it was a beautiful evening and I felt like I had one more dive in me. I drove the 14 miles roundtrip to the motel to drop Jerry off and met Wayne, Sven, Kevin and Jim at the Rothesay. Kevin and Jim let me tag along with them, as Wayne and Sven waited for dark. Sven was taking his Night Diver specialty course and Wayne wanted it to be a real night dive. Kevin and Jim waited patiently for me to suit up as a bunch of other divers showed up at the site. It was a large group of AOW students doing their night dive.
As quickly as I could I hustled into the water to join Kevin and Jim. They have a lot more experience than I do, and I was a little nervous about whether I’d be able to keep up with them. At the buoy on the surface, I realize I’ve forgotten my compass and tell them. Jim replies that it’s no problem. This is a purely natural navigation wreck dive. Hmm? They must know something I don’t, because my mental image of the wreck is of a really busted up pile of debris and I think a compass might be very handy.
This time my descent to the 10 ft bottom is gentle and silt free. I follow Jim along the ropes leading to the wreck. It feels a whole lot more comfortable than two nights ago. At the wreck, Jim heads right towards the remains of the bow, although to me it’s still a fantastic pile of rubble. Jim style is to stay high over the wreck in contrast to my usual rooting around close to the bottom. Behind us, Kevin suddenly signals with his light and we join him to see a huge eel slithering amongst the wreckage. Even allowing for the underwater magnification of my mask, it looks 5 or 6 ft long and 4 inches thick. I wonder if it’s the same one we saw the other night?
We continue along through beams of lumber pointing in all sorts of directions that look very eerie under the glare of our lights. Jim points out the remains of the Rothesay’s paddle wheel, which is barely recognizable to me. I’m using a rental 80 cu. ft. aluminum tank instead of my usual 98 cu. ft. tank, so I’m a little concerned about air consumption. By this time I have no idea where we are from the tie in point and I want to make sure that Jim is aware of how much air I might need for the swim back. I sign to him that I’m down to 2000 psi and he calmly leads me a short ways to the tie in rope. At least he knows exactly where he is.
At the same time, we both notice some motion underneath us. Our lights reveal another (or perhaps the same) big eel cruising underneath us. At first I think there’s something weird about its head – it looks like it has a white snout on it, but as it draws near us, I see
it’s the rear half of a luckless bluegill stuck in its mouth. Kevin joins us and under the relentless illumination of three HID lights, the eel meanders through the wreckage looking for a place to finish its meal. I guess it’s none too happy about having it’s dinner interrupted.
We continue on to what was once the stern of the Rothesay. This looks a little familiar to me. Close to the tie in point we see the many lights from the AOW students and decide it’s a good time to head back. The path along the line is now pretty silted up. We meet Wayne and Sven heading out to the wreck through the murk. I spot a large carp, maybe 3 or 4 ft long and very fat that Capt. Kevin calls a Sheepshead Carp, probably due to the peculiar lump on it’s head. Continuing along, I see a long shape ahead of me. It looks to be about 5 feet long, a bluish green and gray color and has a long, flattened, almost duckbill snout. Could this be the mythical “Mooskoolunge” or is it its less glamorous cousin, the Northern Pike. It doesn’t stick around long enough for me to mentally record any additional features. Soon we reach the up line and end the dive. It’s been a little short (32 minutes), but still a most memorable dive. In fact, upon reflection, I think this is my best night dive ever and I’ve had more than a few real good ones.
Back at the cars, we hustled out of our gear. Kevin and Jim were a lot faster than me and they beat a path back to base camp to start cooking. While I was packing up, some of the AOW divers emerge and we exchange some pleasant small talk It must be really nice to have such excellent diving nearby.
By the time I arrived back at the motel, Kevin, Jim and Charles have prepared a magnificent meal of barbecued delights. It’s a real feast, but I could hardly stay awake to finish it. When Jerry asked, “How was the dive?” I told him “You really don’t want to know.” He persisted and I gave him the full tilt boogie description of how fantastic it was.
After some great food and a couple of beers, I dragged myself off to bed. No shower tonight though I could have surely used one. Unfortunately, my tiredness and the two beers gave me an instant hangover and I spent the night mostly sleepless with a crushing headache that aspirin, Tylenol and my other pain pills couldn’t shake.
Part 4 – Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Other Adventures
The alarm beeped around 6:15 AM, but I was already awake. My headache had retreated to a kind of dull ache, but I felt a little nauseous and began to worry whether I was getting sick. Outside the day was warmer and the sky was a dull gray with a brisk wind blowing. It looked like our luck with the weather had ended.
After grabbing coffee and bagels to eat on the boat for breakfast, we headed for the dock, where Capt Kevin urged us to rush. Another dive boat was at the dock and they were planning on diving the same wreck as us. To make matters worse, they were, toots alors, “Frenchmen”, one of the other indigenous Canady tribes, though straying a bit from their native territory.
Our first wreck for the day has a bit of a reputation. It’s the Lily Parsons and Jim and Dan, who have dove it before, gave us a rundown on what to expect. There’s a real
current to deal with and the preferred approach is to “bomb” the wreck with everyone entering close to the same time and drifting on to the wreck, but this means we had to be first on the wreck. So we hurried aboard the See Way Vision and began assembling our gear and getting into our suits, while wolfing down breakfast. My stomach still wasn’t very happy.
The rush was all for naught, however, as there were several boats planning on diving the Lily Parsons. This meant that we had to dock at a small island, lug our stuff a short ways to the far side, and do a shore entry. I was actually a little relieved – all the hurrying wasn’t making me feel any better.
At the shore, Capt Kevin gave us a detailed description of the dive and we divided into several groups. Jerry and I followed Jim, who watched us like a shepherd over his flock. The entry was a little slippery, as we maneuvered over some rocks and began descending out from shore and into the current towards the wreck.
All the talk about current has me pretty nervous, so I keep myself heavy and pull myself along the rocks on the bottom. At one point, Jim points an accusing finger at me over the silt I’m kicking up, but I figure, “What the hell, I’m already “Muddy Waters!” and I don’t want the current to take me by surprise when it hits. We follow the bottom contours over a shoal and down to the wreck and suddenly there’s a strong flow of water propelling us into the wreck, which sits upside down nestled on the side of the shoal. As the current pulls us along the outside of the wreck, it’s a case of going backwards from handhold to handhold. Occasionally I grab onto a rock only to have it move or be too rounded to grip and I’m zipped along until I can stab at another handhold. Behind me I keep an eye on Jerry and ahead me I see Jim, his white hair waving in the current, as he kept a watchful eye on us. Somehow I find time to look at the wreck and some of the fish hanging around it.
As we near the bow, we’re extra careful to stay close to the wreck and take a moment’s shelter in its shadow. Soon it’s time to head face first into the current along the port side of the ship where the shoal eases the flow a bit. Here we grab on to rocks and pull ourselves along. I see some not very happy looking fish sheltering where they can under the hull of the Lily Parsons and examine large lumps of the coal that was the cargo when it sunk.
Back at the stern, it’s time for another ride. At Jim’s urging, I loosen up a bit and let myself go, flying like Superman between grabs at rocks. It’s starting to be fun. At the bow again, we grab on to a rusted, frozen anchor chain and get ready for the finale.
This means letting go and taking a wild ride along the edge of the shoal. It’s mostly flying along and giving the occasional kick to keep oneself close to the rock wall along the shoal. It’s a comic scene with divers flying through the water in various poses. Soon I see two yellow ropes heading vertically up the rocks, which mark our exit from the dive. Steering myself towards them I grab on to one for dear life and begin pulling myself up for the safety stop. At 20 ft or so I see Sven calmly huddled on a small ledge and I hop in next to him, but it’s difficult to hang on. I resort to a couple of “hand jams” into cracks in the rock that recalls my rock climbing days. After the stop, I continue climbing the rocks upwards into shallow water where the current mercifully eases and Jerry and I can
follow more yellow rope back to the boat. My computer shows a dive time of 41 minutes at a maximum depth of 61 ft with an average depth of 36 ft.
Back on board, I felt exhilarated, but a little rattled. Dan and I compared the dive to an amusement park ride. There was also no sign of Charlie. After a few nervous moments, we spotted him on the surface, some distance from the boat, but near the shore. When he got on board, he was really upset and very shook up. He was practically out of air, including his pony bottle and described the dive as “fighting for his life”.
Having started out with a low fill on his tank, he ran low on air early in the dive. He then attempted to get back to the boat, but got swept away into the middle of the channel. Staying very negative, he crawled his way along the bottom and made his way to shore, having switched to his pony at some point. His ordeal cast a pall over the boat and dampened the usual post dive banter as we headed off to our next site.
This mood, plus my tiredness and the crummy way I’m feeling, gave me an ominous feeling about the next dive - a sense that all wasn’t quite right. The gray sky and choppy conditions on the river also contributed. A smarter and more sensible person would have called the next dive, but I was there to dive. So once again I got myself into my drysuit. By now, many of our hardy troop had switched to wetsuits and were giving up on hoods and gloves. I might have joined them if not for my having left my bathing suit at home. I wasn’t ready to dive with only skivvies under a wet suit, so I was left with my dry suit. By now, the light polypro underwear I was using was pretty damp and down right rank, though it still kept me warm enough.
Our second wreck of the day is the “Muscallonge” though when I ask Capt Kevin how to spell it, he replies: “M-U-S-K-I-E”. It was a wooden tugboat that caught fire, exploded and finally sank in1936. The wreck lies on its starboard side with the line anchored to the highest point on the wreck. We drop over the side to the remains of the deck and find that this side of the wreck is pretty sheltered from the current. The first thing we do is drop down to the sand where a couple of monster sucker fish are hanging out. These look to be about 4 ft long and very fat. I’ve never been too fond of the looks of sucker fish and these guys must feel the same way about us as they slowly swim off at our approach. The vis is great – maybe 80 ft or so, but the gray skies topside make it very dark on the wreck and my light comes in very handy. The deck is pretty busted up with large beams angled off in odd directions. Jerry and I make a multilevel dive of it by cruising along the deck at different depths passing through a large school of small sunfish at one point. Despite my misgivings about the dive, it turns out picture perfect. After several days together, Jerry and I are diving like a well coordinated team.
Wayne and Kevin (I think) have brought down a couple of scooters and we see them cruising around the wreck. They look like a scene from a James Bond flick. It must be fun to be a partner in a scuba shop – you get to “test” so many neat toys. Jerry and I leave them to their fun and surface after 34 minutes at a maximum depth of 92 ft and averaging 57 ft.
Topside we headed off a short distance to a third wreck for the day. Jerry and I decided to take a longish surface interval, while many of the others jumped in before us. My mood improved, but I was feeling pretty tired as I once again pulled on my stinky underwear and slid into my dry suit in preparation for diving the “Robert Gaskin”. This
wooden barge sunk in 1899 when a sunken pontoon, being used to raise another ship, broke loose and struck it putting a big hole in its side. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to raise the barge before it finally settled into a final upright position on the bottom.
By the time Jerry and I jump in, most of the rest of the team are already done with their dives. Jerry and I descend down the line and the wreck appears before us in a panoramic view. From the bottom I swim up to the large hole in the bow and there it is. This must be the real thing – a muskellunge. It looks to be about 5 feet long and, thus larger than the maximum size given for the northern pike, and under the illumination of my HID it appears a silvery green and blue. He acts like he knows he’s the apex, kick-ass predator on this piece of St. Lawrence river bottom and doesn’t like my attention very much. I wave for Jerry to come over, but he’s busy with something else and the big fish moves off out of sight.
Jerry and I move off and cruise along the deck. There’s not much left of it – just some big beams and timbers and we can look down into the remains of the holds. It suddenly strikes me that we’re all alone on the wreck and it feels great. Heading back from the stern, we drop into the hold and swim over and under the large beams that have fallen into the hold from the deck. As we reach the bow again, the muskie reappears and, Jerry’s got his camera. As I shine the HID on the fish, Jerry snaps some pictures. I hope they turn out.
We exit through the hole in the bow and take turns photographing each other. With plenty of gas left, we then head close to the bottom along the outside of the wreck. You can still see the grain in the dark wood of the boards making up the hull and the flat headed nails holding them in place. Under the sides of the hull, where it meets the bottom, many large bass hang out. I wonder where they fit into the food chain as far as the muskellunge is concerned?
Eventually it’s time to head back. As I slowing rise up the mooring line, I turn around to see the dark, stern-to-bow view of the wreck reposing peacefully on the river bottom. It’s a ghostly image of the Robert Gaskin sure to remain imprinted in my memory.
We’ve had another great dive. My log shows a total time of 42 minutes at a maximum depth of 70 ft and averaging 48 feet.
Once more we headed back to the Sea ‘n Sky shop for some air fills for a planned night dive and the next day’s shore dives. After that, it was back to base camp where the rest of the crew was cooking up the leftover goodies for our final evening meal. By this time, I was really dragging and wondering about doing a night dive. It was still dark and gray outside and threatening to rain; I felt my enthusiasm waning by the moment. Seeing Charles at the barbeque with a beer in his hand clinched the decision for me. I popped open a brew and told Jerry I’d had it for the day. After eating, he loaded his stuff into Wayne’s truck, while I washed dishes and shot the bull with Charles.
It was only around 8:00 PM when I headed off to bed with a book. It was a good book, but over the past 4 days, I succeeded in reading about 10 pages. This night was no exception as I conked out to the sound of heavy rain outside, glad I wasn’t putting on my stinky underwear again that day.
I awoke an hour or two later when Jerry got back. He’s had a good dive on the Conestoga with Wayne and Sven. I was happy for him, but glad that I’d remained behind.Part 5 – All Good Things Must Come to an End
The next morning our hardy team split up. Jim and Kevin headed off for a shore dive in search of artifacts from the St. Lawrence River bottom. Charlie appeared to be sleeping in, while the rest of us headed off for a shore dive right in front of the Sea ‘n Sky shop. I think they call this the “Divers Playground” and it’s where they do many of their training dives.
We slip into the water and follow the now ubiquitous yellow ropes out into the river. They lead past an assortment of sign posts and markers, to a small wreck. It’s the remains of a 40 ft schooner or something similar that sits in 43 ft. of water a few hundred yards from the shore. The vis has dropped to about 50 ft or so and I think I’m getting very spoiled. We fool around for a good long time on the wreck. Wayne’s brought his scooter and he lets us try it out. It’s my first time playing with one and it’s a blast. I guess it’s the closest I’ll ever get to flying. On the way back to shore I spot a completely black bass of some variety; I guess it’s the bass equivalent of a panther. I also encounter another large (4 ft or so) sheepshead carp swimming slowly through the underwater grass.
Our final dive is a daytime trip to the Rothesay. I’m itching to see what it looks like in daylight and the weather cooperates by clearing up nicely as we suit up. I pull on my damp, disgusting undies one final time while trying to hold my breath until they’re safely sealed inside the dry suit.
Dan joins Jerry and I for the dive. In daylight the diving the wreck is completely different experience. Sections that were jumbled and confusing at night are perfectly clear during the day. The tie in rope from shore is actually very close to the stern. I realize that on our first night dive we had navigated around the stern to the port side of the wreck and probably made it pretty close to the bow before reversing course. Today, we cruise around, over, through, and every which way on the wreck. There are the remains of the massive boilers near mid-ships and just behind these is what’s left of one of the paddle wheels. The bow section is pretty intact, but the middle of the wreck is a confusion of twisted metal and wood. I can see why it was pretty spooky at night. There’s no sign of my friendly eels; they must hide very well during the day. On the return to shore I follow closely behind a walleye and slowly make my way through several schools of small perch. We get a 53 minute dive in as our farewell to the St. Lawrence.
Pretty soon, Jerry and I were storming back south. My van reeked of soggy underwear and eau de neoprene. Over the long drive I reflected on what a fabulous time I had had. Family considerations restrict my mobility and this was my first out of region dive trip since getting certified in the Dominican Republic 3 years ago. I’d been longing to get back to tropical waters and, frankly, hadn’t really believed that the diving in the St. Lawrence could really be all that terrific, regardless of the stories I had heard.
In the dive shop, one of the books on diving the St. Lawrence made the claim that it had “the best fresh water wreck diving in the world” or words to that effect. Before our trip, I would have scoffed at that, but now I was pretty well convinced. There was very little not to like about diving there and it certainly made a lasting impression on me.
It’s also a wonderful place to visit. The river is stunningly beautiful and the people warm and friendly to Americans. I hope any Canadians, having read this far, have realized that my attempts at humor were more directed at Americans than Canadians and were written very much tongue-in-cheek. If not, I guess I’d better be prepared for some “unpleasantries” the next time I cross the border, Eh?
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Copyright 2002 Carl Muhlhausen