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by Katie Butler Johnson

Thumbing through a Smithsonian travel catalogue last spring, I came across the description of a Smithsonian cruise of the Great Lakes. It began in Toronto and ended in Milwaukee - passing through all five Great Lakes: Ontario, Erie, Huron, Superior and Michigan.

Although we’d lived in Michigan briefly in the mid 80’s, I really didn’t know much about the Great Lakes. My husband and I did take our son Zach, 3 years old at the time, to the edge of Lake Huron to watch 4 wheelers driving on the frozen lake and ice fisherman setting up their winter fishing spots. That was the extent of my interaction with the Great Lakes.

When I mentioned the cruise to my daughters, Beth and Norah, they both said they’d like to go along. They cleared their calendars. We booked two adjoining cabins on the small French cruise ship hosting that Smithsonian cruise. The trip would be a triple treat for me: I’d learn about a significant part of the North American I knew little about; I’d get to practice my rusty high school French on the captive ship’s staff; And, best of all, I’d have a whole week with both daughters PLUS Granddaughter Meghan as Norah recruited her daughter to join us. Meghan had graduated high school a year early. Since she was taking a gap year, she was available to join us.

Our cruise got off to a slow start due to heavy wind. Since we had to stay an extra day docked in Toronto, a “pop-up” city tour was put together to fill our time. You hear all lots of random facts on those city tours. Here’s one I found intriguing: Did you know Babe Ruth hit his first major league home run at Hanlan’s Point Stadium in Toronto? It landed in Lake Ontario and is believed to still be there.

That windy day was the extent of the bad weather we encountered. We did have cloudy skies and dewy dawns some days – but not enough of them to dampen our spirits. And we had a wealth of blue-sky afternoons with sun highlighting endless miles of gorgeous fall foliage on the shores.

Once we set sail, we headed for Port Colborne and the Welland Canal. I’d fallen asleep early that night but was awakened around 2:30am by movement on our cabin balcony. We’d already passed through several canal locks. Beth, my cabin mate, was out there totally enthralled by the engineering of the locks. Since we had adjoining cabins and balconies with Norah and Meghan, all three of them had been watching and measuring our progress while I’d been off in dreamland. Well, although I missed some of the first 7 locks of that canal by snoozing, I definitely didn’t miss any more locks on the trip – especially that canal’s last lock, the 8th. At 421 meters in length, it’s the 2nd longest canal lock in the entire world!

Our trip took us many places. We visited Niagara Falls and got sprayed. We explored Manitoulin Island, an island in Lake Huron, where I attended Ojibwe PowWow while the other three hiked trails and took pictures of the fall scenery. We saw huge tankers plowing through the lakes and rivers. We toured Mackinac Island in a horse drawn carriage and visited that legendary Grand Hotel where we sat on the legendary front porch in those white rocking chairs. Through it all, we four, from three different generations, made memories anyone from any generation would treasure.

On a more somber note, one can’t visit the Great Lakes without being reminded how treacherous those seas can be. There are thousands of shipwrecks at the bottom of the lakes and the SS Edmund Fitzgerald is one of the most famous. It was a freighter which sank to the floor of Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975, carrying all 29 crew members aboard down with it. After extensive investigations and various theories, no final cause was ever agreed upon.

Canadian folksinger/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot wrote about that event in his song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” It made #2 on Billboard’s top 100 in 1976. The lyrics tell the story. Do you remember the song? Here’s how it starts -

“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down

Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee

The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead

When the skies of November turn gloomy

With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more

Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty

That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed

When the gales of November came early”

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