Words and photography by Dalene Heck
I have long eschewed the idea of a cruise. I always deemed it a lazy and impersonal way to travel with many blank days at sea and little to differentiate locale or direction. Simply coasting from port-to-port, hardly straying from dock, never actually interacting with anyone in the places being visited. This may be a stereotypical view and likely not representative of the whole, but with so many other wonderful ways to view the world, I just have never really cared to seek out the truth. But give me a smaller ship, an interesting itinerary, and a more personal experience, and that, I would consider. A Great Lakes cruise that included the interior waterways of the US instantly intrigued me.
We started down the coast from Rhode Island, up the Hudson River to Albany, then through the Erie and Oswego Canal to Lake Ontario, and then finally across four of the five Great Lakes to Chicago. That’s a lot of water to cover – 1,600 miles over 16 days – with 38 locks to pass as we gained and lost altitude along the way. We spent several lazy days solely on the water, which for this introverted Pisces meant many blissful hours of introspective time staring at waves and watching the scenery change along the shore. My favourite times to move were at night though – the gently rocking ship lulled me into a deeper sleep than I ever expected.
I stared, wrote, read, worked, ate (a lot, the food was so good), and was forced to play photographer without Pete at my side. The other passengers on the trip, less than half of capacity for the off-season cruise, did skew older and of course were almost all couples. But while there were moments in which I admitted loneliness (textbook romantic loneliness though – whilst staring out at rippling waters), I also found kinship and comfort in the others. And that was because this route does not attract the typical cruise types.
By the nature of the itinerary, it attracts adventurers.
Myself, and several of the other cruise passengers I spoke to, were first surprised that such a trip was even possible. But really, how foolish, of course it is. The Erie Canal, of which we’ve all heard of at sometime or another in our lives, and where we would spend several days of our trip, was built to make the journey possible. That canal shaped the character of this portion of the country, bringing prosperity along the route and expanding settlement all the way through the Great Lakes to Chicago and beyond. This man-made ditch allowed for goods to ship inland at 95% reduced cost and a week quicker. The areas it touched exploded in wealth and progress.
That wealth can still be seen along the canal in surprising ways. I never anticipated much from our first scheduled stop along the canal in Troy, New York, ignorant as I was of the historical relics this city holds. In the St Paul’s Episcopal Church I encountered my first moment of true awe upon seeing “the motherhood of Tiffany windows”. It is only one of four churches in the world to have so many, and as such is one of the most expensive churches to maintain. Which is a struggle for the small congregation, given the decline since.
Troy, like many other industrial cities we would visit on this path, is not the city it once was. The Erie Canal, which brought the area to the height of prosperity, lost it’s commercial activity to railroads and the St Laurence Seaway. It now primarily handles tourist traffic, and usually in the form of small personal boats. As such, maintenance of the canal is debated; its viability is always in question.
The ship we were on, built with the limits of this route in mind, is the only commercial provider of this journey (it clears the lowest bridge on the canal by only 6 inches). Our stops along the way numbered 13; many surprised (Troy!), and others provided deep lessons that I will carry with me. Some were used mostly as just a way to stretch my legs and run errands, but many were truly memorable.
new york skyline
From a mid-afternoon departure from Warren, Rhode Island, we watched the sun dip over the Race Rocks Lighthouse, built in the late 19th century after 8 vessels crashed against its treacherous island by the same name. I slept a little uneasily that first night, but Captain Dave got us through safely and upon New York just as the day was breaking. And under the fog and mist of the harbour, we strutted right up to Lady Liberty herself and hovered for several minutes. This was a remarkable and unforgettable start to the trip, as even the sight of her gets this Canadian choked up.
rochester, new york
I have to say that I wasn’t terribly disappointed when I learned that the group tour wasn’t going to be as scheduled (to the International Museum of Photography and Film via Kodak), but instead a stop at the Susan B. Anthony house. Sorry Kodak, but this lady wants to know more about this remarkable woman who fought so hard for the woman’s right to vote in America.
This lady was not disappointed. Being Canadian I knew more about our own suffragettes than I did Ms Anthony, and the tour through her Rochester home and office was simply inspiring. (More about this in our last month’s newsletter.)
I left this city wanting to know more. And maybe that is one of the points of a cruise that I was missing before – it gives just a taste so that I’ll know where to return to.
I wouldn’t say Oswego tops my list of places to return to after this trip, with little to woo me besides a place to stretch. I walked through the main part of the city but succumbed to humid heat, and rested at a boardwalk cafe to quench my thirst. That refreshing moment was pure bliss, but what made this stop worth recording was not that, nor the city itself, but instead the remarkable sunset I chased down later.
I always considered myself a bad Canadian for not visiting this, one of our most iconic treasures. A brief dip back into Canada was made in order to have views of both sides of the falls, and sorry to my homeland, but I must confess that the American side is prettier. And it’s also where we boarded our boat to take us up and close to the falls. It was then that I really got to know what it is like to shower with a few hundred total strangers. If that’s not adventure, I don’t know what is.
Call me weird, but I’ve long had a desire to visit Cleveland. Partly because as a kid one of the only VHS tapes in our house was Major League, and then while watching the (albeit fictional) adoration of the city during a few episodes of 30 Rock, my fascination was sealed. Oh, and if you didn’t know that I was a music junkie, I am. And so the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been calling to me for many years (one of MANY cool things to do in Cleveland).
We had a rainy arrival, but no matter, I heralded an Uber and headed straight for the Hall of Fame. I choked up several times, tapped my foot to melodies several more, and was there to near-closing. I then met a friend for tacos, wandered around the downtown, and got back to the ship just in time for a stunning sunset.
The city itself was stunning to me, not in the traditional sense of beauty, but in its plain intrigue. Its industry and population has been declining for several decades, but the remnants of its powerful past are everywhere with lofty bridges and buildings. I found it a fun challenge to photograph, and departed with another city on my to return list.
Cleveland! I always knew you’d be good to me.
We stepped off of our ship and back in time over a hundred years. This tiny island is less than 4 square miles and sits in between the Upper and Lower Peninsula of Michigan. It is almost entirely encompassed by a state park, built for tourism, and does not allow motorized vehicles. Everyone gets around by horse or their own two feet. People come for a multitude of cultural events, the quaint charm, and an alarming number of fudge shops.
I enjoyed it for the beautiful vistas, of which I explored plenty in our overnight stay. (And the fudge, of course.)
The Windy City was our last stop and it was glorious. Not at all because I was eager for the cruise to be over, but because I went on a date with the city.
I broke away from the group and enjoyed the day for what it was – my last as a solo traveler (for a while, at least). And I stuffed my day with as many tourist-y things as the time (and heat!) would allow. I went up the Willis Tower, devoured a deep-dish pizza, and even took the famed architectural tour that included what is now known as “Early Chicago Skyscrapers” (a UNESCO tentative site that make up one of many UNESCO World Heritage sites near route 66).
Early in that tour, just as we began, the guide dove into the history of the Chicago with a brief overview of what we’d see along the way. And most importantly, she mentioned how the Erie Canal had turned the city into a big shipping port and shaped its entire future.
It was then that my trip was brought full circle for me. How this extended passage I traveled on, done simply for my pleasure, had once played an integral part in shaping a large swath of the continent. I felt, after tracing the path and visiting diverse stops along the way, that I understood this history more than I ever could have otherwise.
It was an absolutely perfect end to the trip.
I’m still not sure I would call myself a cruise person, in the more traditional sense anyway. But I am a ship person, a boat person, an admirer of history, an adventurer, and a person who is truly appreciative of this off-beat expedition.
how to do it
It is an ambitious itinerary, but one that gave me new perspective on the history and character of this part of North America, and even a little about myself. Blount Small Ship Adventures is the only commercial option for this route, so you should probably check them out.
This post was produced by us, brought to you by Blount Small Ship Adventures.