Friday, June 29, 2018

Thousands Islands June 15 - Port Colborne

My iPhone alarm rings at 5 am and my eyes snap open immediately. I get some coffee water on the bubble as Dad and Curtis awake and start sorting things out in the cabin. We disconnect the power cord, throw off the lines and are back on the water. The entrance to the Welland Canal is literally around the corner from Sugarloaf marina so we motor over and start looking for the public docks where we can tie up and put the call into the canal operator to request passage. Somehow Marty remains sleeping throughout, so we dub him "Snorri Snorleffson" because of the ear-splitting chain saw racket coming from the back berth.

We spot the docks and ease her gently into a spot and get tied up. The docks are located right in the heart of downtown Port Colborne, and on the sidewalk is the telephone booth from which you can call the operator, so I hustle up there and put in the call.  It is answered almost immediately, but the news is not good – because of a large backlog of commercial freighters, we are not getting out of here until this evening at the earliest.

I break the news to the boys, and we are a little bummed out, until we realize that gives us an entire day to goof around in Port Colborne – a town as fine as any on Lake Erie. Plus, the Portugal – Spain World Cup match is on this afternoon, so I feel a trip to the Royal Canadian Legion may be in order.

I cook up a giant breakfast on the boat – corn meal back bacon, eggs, campfire toast (black on the outside, soft and gooey in the middle), hot peppers, and juice. After the stomach stretching exercise last night, the guts are aching for more nutrition, so we eat in an unhinged manner as the sun slowly rises in the sky and the day begins for the fine people of Port Colborne.

There is another boat beside us and it’s not until after we’ve finished our meal, washed up, and enjoyed coffees in the cockpit that an older fellow emerges and comes over to say hi. “Are you going through the Welland?” my dad asks him.

“Well, we’re trying to,” he says, frustrated.

“What do you mean? How long have you been here?”

“Three days.”

“Three days?? You’re kidding!”

“No, we arrived Tuesday and have been calling the Seaway folks every 12 hours, and every time they tell us to call back in another 12 hours. We’re glad to see you guys - maybe if more boats show up they will finally let us go through.”

Now this is a surprise. All the research I had done indicated that the longest any pleasure boat ever waits to get in the canal is six to ten hours. The Welland canal is a busy commercial shipping channel so the first priority is getting the giant freighters through. I’ve read that the big boats pay something in the neighbourhood of $25,000 for passage, while small pleasure craft like mine pays a paltry $200, so you can guess where the priority lies.

As we’re standing on the dock, pondering the likely consequences of being stuck here for days, we see a small motor-sailor boat heading for the lift bridge. There is a signalling system to alert boats when it is safe to pass through the bridges and locks, and the signal was a lively, bright red, indicating stay back. Well this guy charges right through and keeps on going even when the workers jump out of the office and start yelling at him, telling him to stop. He squeaks through just before the bridge lowers and we wait for the sound of machine gun fire. 30 minutes later the bridge opens again and the boat sheepishly winds its way back and zeroes in on our dock. As the vessel approaches to within earshot, a ragged and weary looking man staggers out of the cockpit, points at us and yells, "Hey, is this Buffalo?"

"Buffalo?? Wrong country dude – you're in Canada."

"Canada?? Damn. Hey, do you guys mind if I pull up and dock beside you?"

"They are public docks, no problem, we'll give you a hand."

We help him get docked and tie up his lines and then stand back to survey what's in front of us. The boat is a disaster – ropes laying everywhere, mast strapped sloppily to the top of the cabin, gas cans and junk piled up in the center cockpit, fenders that are black with grime, and so much crap lying around that he can barely move. Our new friend, let's call him Captain Buffalo, is sailing solo and looks thoroughly exhausted, like he hasn't slept for a while, which is confirmed when he tells us he left from Leamington two days before and hadn't taken a break because the lake got wild and he was beaten to hell by the wind. I remember that we had taken the leftovers from breakfast and made a triple decker bacon sandwich, now foil-wrapped, and waiting patiently the refrigerator. Well, I've never seen a man more in need of a bacon sandwich in my life, so I disappear into the cabin below, grab the bacon sammie and a few of the delicious blueberry muffins Anna had given us the night before, and offer it to Captain Buffalo. He looks so hungry I fear he's going to eat right through the foil. As we watch the wild-eyed skipper, he still seems to think he is in Buffalo, and maybe suspects he is just the victim of an unkind prank by the locals, so we tell him he should grab some sleep and we can talk later about which way he should go to find Buffalo.

Next up, two giant powerboats arrive, one brand new 60' Carver and another slightly smaller. We walk over to help them dock and are hoping to get an invitation aboard to watch the 75" tv and wash the caviar blinis down with expensive champagne. But that doesn't happen so perhaps it will take longer for our friendship to gel.
Well there's just non-stop action at this marina – yet another boat pulls up to the dock and three older fellers pile out and march down the gangway. The leader, let's call him Captain Bulldog, introduces himself as....Captain Bulldog. He's about 65, authoritative, brash, loud, and is wearing a white skipper hat and freshly ironed khaki flood pants with a US Coast Guard shirt tucked in further than it seems possible. He has a rich American accent and immediately dives into this story that involves him as the hero, and something about egg salad sandwiches and something else about him demanding all the women off another guy's boat as payment for some sort of marine infraction. None of it makes much sense, so we get out of there before we get hoisted aloft by all the stifling, hot air.
Port Colborne has always been one of my favourite towns. It is a water town, and the downtown centre is squared in by Lake Erie to the south and the Welland Canal to the east making it a perfect walking venue. The lads and I take a stroll and find ourselves at the weekly farmers market and see a great deal of fresh food we’d like to buy, but since we are fully provisioned there is little room left on the boat for more supplies. Curt and I are approached by one of the town ambassadors, a lovely older lady who tells us all about Port Colborne and suggests two or three places of interest. We notice she has a strangely swollen arm, right from the shoulder down, almost like she’s been bitten by a bee.

Our next stop is the barbershop, to belt out some enticing harmonies and let brother Curt get his hipster side shave, long on top all freshened up. While he’s having a great chat with the barber, the rest of us are rifling through the Sports Illustrated magazines, but since none of us like sports (except soccer every four years…), the only issues worth reviewing are the swimsuit editions, which seems to be the most worn ones, to nobody’s surprise.
On the way out of the barbershop, we see another lady with a hugely swollen arm, and it’s not the same lady. What is this, some sort of local affliction? The feared Port Colborne swell arm? We survey the locals as we walk and notice that many women have swollen asses too. Hugely swollen asses. We decide right then and there that under no circumstances we will drink the Port Colborne water.

Fishing runs deep in the Olson family, so we scout out the local bait shop to get some worms for an anticipated afternoon dock fishing expedition. Beside the bait shop is a French fry truck, so we order a large French fries and gravy, douse it in vinegar and salt, and then gather round the picnic table to mange les pommes frites. Stoking the hunger organs, we return to the boat for a giant feed of egg salad sandwiches, assembled tenderly in the galley by Dad while the rest of us throw a few casts and catch absolutely nothing.

Next up, the World Cup Portugal versus Spain match! And what better place to watch a game than at the Royal Canadian Legion. We walk in and inhale that unmistakable odour of 60 years of spilled beer, old worn carpet, cigarette smoke stank that has somehow endured 20 years of no smoking rules, and old man aftershave. There’s hardly anybody there so we grab prime seating and Marty heads up to the bar to check out the beer choices. But being the Legion, we know there really is no beer choice at all. The Legion constitution states, “No beer shall be served that offers any discernable character, taste or colour. Any brand of beer served must end with the word “Light” and any attempts to serve beer that could be described with any adjectives other than “sad” or “pissy” will result in the revocation of liquor license.” They make the added mistake of serving in clear pitchers, so when Marty plops down the jug of Coors Light, the rest of us eye it curiously. It is weak lemonade? Is it water that somebody has pissed half a shot of urine into? Or maybe it is actually water, but with some remnants of yellow dish washing liquid. In any case, it tastes just like it looks, but who cares? The game is on, it's Friday and we're not at work!

The game winds up a tie at three goals each, which is as good a soccer match at you can ever hope to expect, as opposed to a nil-nil boredom fest. We head back to the dock, and as we are getting close we see Captain Bulldog going head to head with a local cop. It's hard to tell what's going on, but Marty thinks the cop is giving him a citation for talking too much and trying to be the boss. Or it could be a fashion infraction for tucking his shirt in too tight. Captain Bulldog spots us and hurries over, looks us over, motions to Marty and then says to me, "Hey, you better watch your brother's ears."

"What? Why?"

"Look at them, they are all sunburned. They are scorched red. You gotta watch that," he says as he pokes and prods at Marty's ears, gently flipping the tips back and forth with his pudgy index finger.
I look at Marty's ears and they seem just fine to me. Marty simply looks confused, and perhaps irritated as I did see him lathering up the sunscreen all over his bald head and face and ears this morning. Before Marty winds up and punches the Bulldog in the snout, he scurries off to go and talk to somebody else he recognizes, saving us the embarrassment of whaling on a Yankee southerner right in front of a cop, who likely would have stood back and watched. Actually, I lie. The Olson boys are lovers, not fighters. But still, you don't go flicking somebody's ear and expect to get away with it.

Back to the boat yet again, for more afternoon fishing and a nap for some of us. Dad actually manages to do both at the same time and I grab a picture of him sitting on the dock, fishing rod out, sound asleep. Them retirees sure do develop some fabulous napping skills.

It's time to walk the dock to catch up on the latest gossip. Now there are seven boats, all waiting to get into the canal, and no doubt many of them have been calling for updates. We devise a plan. We will take the huge bag of brownies that Anna sent us home with last night, arrange them beautifully on my non-skid Hunter boat plates, and offer brownies to the sailors in exchange for information. Marty and I head out on our mission and the conversations go like this:

"Hey, how are you doing? Care for a home-made brownie"

"Oooh, they look great. Is there weed in them? That would be awesome!"

"Uhhh, no. But they were made by a famous pastry chef."

"Great, we'll try them.  Mmmmmm, delicious."

It's amazing how people can be so paranoid about everything these days – vaccines, super viruses, airplane travel, deer ticks, terrorist attacks –the list goes on, and yet a stranger offers you a brownie, and everybody partakes, but not before expressing hope that there will be some sort of illegal drug baked in. Goddamn, I love the dock life!

We discover that everybody's been told a slightly different story from the Seaway canal operator. Some were told we will be leaving at 9pm, some were told 3am, and yet others were told to call back in 12 hours. Since there's nothing we can do that will make a whiff of difference, we gather at the boat for a round of gin and tonics, and then two rounds of amazing girlie drinks that Marty makes using Ana's Malibu rum and juice. We are feeling very pretty.

At around 7pm we decide we need to top up the cooler ice supply, which is an excellent excuse to go for a walk before we get too sauced and are unable to operate the vessel in a safe and responsible manner. The temperature has dropped, so I put on my grey bunny hug (that's a "hooded sweatshirt with a pocket in front" for those of you not familiar with Saskatchewanese vernacular), grab my Bluetooth speaker, and carry it on my shoulder like a ghetto blaster so we have some tunes en route. Well, Curt suggests that looks a little too ghetto, so instead he puts it in the bunny hug hood – an excellent idea. What is the best song to play for a walk? How about "Walk" by Pantera. The four of us put on our badass faces, crank up the metal, and walk right by the cop and a bunch of weak bystanders, who were uniformly in awe of our coolness. We strut our shit and simply blow everybody away.

Now what song does one select next? How about "Walk This Way" by Run DMC and Aerosmith? Well that goes down like a fat kid on a see-saw and the whole town is talking about us. Dad and I come up with a synchronized walk that mesmerizes all the fine folk hanging out on the patio of the bar we pass, rendering them all speechless. Port Colborne has simply never seen anything like this.

We reach the Sev and I cue up some gangsta rap, that fills the store with foul language and bitchin beats. The scene is so damn hot that half the ice has melted by the time we reach the counter, but we don’t care because we're so fly.

Back at the dock, new information has surfaced. Departure time has been confirmed for either 10:30 pm or 3:00 am! We're not sure which we prefer, but we do know that we better eat and throttle back on the bevvies. I use the boat oven to heat up a magnificent shepherd's pie that Ana made for us, and after topping the steaming pan with hot peppers and my father-in-law's PRPS (Portuguese Red Pepper Sauce), we devour it ravenously. We eat it all except one sizeable slab, which we put on a paper plate, foil it up, and pass it over to Captain Buffalo, who has just woken up and still isn't sure exactly where he is, but he happily accepts the food offering.


The phone call from the Seaway controller comes at 10:45 pm and he tells that they will be ready for us at 11:15. We are finally off! We finish up the current game of Kaiser and get the boat prepped with all the fenders and protection we will need for the passage. We push off at exactly 11:15 pm and float around in the channel for a while, waiting for the lift bridge to rise. Finally, it does and the green light welcomes us in. Passing the base of the bridge is eerie, as you look up to see the lifted bridge far above, held up there by giant gears and massive chains, that look just like a bicycle chain, but on an industrial scale.

As the clock strikes midnight we are entering the first lock.

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