The Great Lakes

The Great Lakes / Saint Lawrence Seaway

The Great Lakes / Saint Lawrence Seaway runs from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence on the Atlantic Ocean, taking in the St Lawrence River and the five great lakes of Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior, to the ports of Duluth, at the western tip of Lake Superior and Chicago, at the southern end of Lake Michigan – a distance of about 2,038 nautical miles or 3,700 kilometres. It includes six stretches of canal and 19 locks. The complete route opened in 1959 to provide passage for ocean-going vessels from the Atlantic into central North America and the Great Lakes, making lake ports such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, Duluth and Toronto accessible to large cargo vessels, now measuring up to 223m in length, 23.8m in width, with a cargo capacity of 28,000 tons.

Initially intended as a marine highway for the transport of steel, grain and other commodities, the Seaway is now a popular destination for the leisure boater. Every year more than 2,000 recreational boats, which must be motor powered, over 6m in length and weighing at least one ton, transit the Seaway. There are many harbours and marinas along the shores of the lakes where you can moor up and explore the historic sites, the busy, modern cites, the quiet villages and the stunning scenery with its abundant wild life.

In the canal sections there are special docks and tie-up areas for pleasure boaters and the Seaway staff are on hand to help negotiate the locks. Tolls are around 30 dollars per lock except for the Welland Canal where 30 dollars will pay for all 8 locks between Lakes Erie and Ontario. Locks are normally open between the hours of 07.00 and 19.00 from mid June to mid-September. All pleasure craft transiting the seaway are scheduled by the traffic controller or officer in charge of a lock and because of the high proportion of cargo vessels using the seaway they may be delayed so as to avoid interference with commercial vessels.

Being well prepared for your trip will make life a lot easier as you transit the Seaway. There is a guide available especially for pleasure craft with essential information and advice. It is also a requirement that all vessels have the latest editions of either U.S. or Canadian charts, as well as certain publications concerning lights, sailing directions and radio aids.

The Route And What You Can See

The Gulf of St Lawrence

The world’s largest estuary, bordered by 5 of the 10 Canadian provinces, it covers about 236,000 square kilometres and contains several islands including St Paul’s Island, Nova Scotia, called the “Graveyard of the Gulf” because of its many shipwrecks. Bonaventure Island, Ile Brion and Rochers-aux-Oiseaux are important migratory bird sanctuaries and there are national parks at Forillon, Kouchibouguac, Cape Breton Highlands, Gros Morne and Mingan Archipelago. The nutrient-rich waters of the estuary support a variety of aquatic fauna, including beluga and blue whales.

The St Lawrence River

Emptying out into the Gulf, the St Lawrence River is initially 40 km wide, soon narrowing to 16 km. The Saguenay River joins the St Lawrence through a great fjord framed by the twin capes of Eternity and Trinity. This area is noted as one of the best locations for whale watching, as well as for spotting seals and bird life. Further upstream Cap Tormente (550 m) is one of the promontories that contribute to the magnificent scenery of the shoreline, followed by the Laurentine highlands. Where the Montmorency River joins the St Lawrence there is a magnificent waterfall more than 30 m higher than Niagara. At Quebec City the river is 90 metres below the general surface level and 1.5 km wide with tides reaching nearly 6 metres.

The charming and historic Quebec City, with its distinctly French culture, is considered by many to be the most romantic city in North America. It is built into the 350 foot cliff of Cape Diamond and the area boasts restored forts from settlement days. Between Quebec City and Montreal the scenery is pastoral and hilly, with ancient farms and villages and local craftspeople and native artisans offering their original creations at fairs and village stores along the route. The cosmopolitan city of Montreal then provides a variety of entertainment, nightlife, museums, shopping and fine dining, with historic waterfront buildings dating back to the 1660s.

The Saint Lawrence Seaway

The 306 km stretch between Montreal and Lake Ontario is recognised as one of the most challenging engineering feats in history and includes 7 locks lifting vessels 75m above sea level. The Seaway project called for the flooding of a large proportion of the old river front, and ten communities, known as The Lost Villages. Upper Canada Village was constructed as part of the Seaway project’s heritage preservation plan, to preserve building and monuments as a memorial to life as it was, along the waterfront. Many old buildings were transported directly from the flooded villages. Stretching downstream for about 50 miles from Kingston are the beautiful Thousand Islands, said to be the tips of rugged mountains stripped of their tops by glaciers 12,000 years ago. There are actually 1,865 islands, forming a maze of channels among rocky outcrops, flower gardens and white pine trees. Kingston is located where the St Lawrence River flows out of Lake Ontario. It was named the first capital of the Province of Canada in 1841 and has remained an important military installation. It is nicknamed “Limestone City” because of the many heritage buildings constructed using local limestone.

Lake Ontario

The easternmost of the Great Lakes and the smallest in surface area (18,960 sq km), its average depth is 86 m with a maximum depth of 244 m. It has a significant number of sheltered harbours and lagoons with sand bars and large wetland areas supporting significant numbers of plant and animal species as well as providing important rest areas for migratory birds. At its western end the 44km Welland Canal has 8 locks, designed as a continuous flight, lifting vessels 100m over the Niagara Escarpment. This engineering marvel took 100 years to complete. A favourite excursion is to the spectacular Niagara Falls between Lakes Ontario and Erie. Niagara is the collective name for three waterfalls that straddle the international border between Canada and the USA. They have the highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world and a vertical drop of more than 50 metres.

Lake Erie

This is the fourth largest of the Great Lakes, the southernmost and the shallowest, being 388 km long with an average depth of 19 m. Its outflow at Niagara Falls provides hydroelectric power to Canada and the US. The area is sometimes known as the “thunderstorm capital of Canada” with breathtaking lightning displays and winds can kick up lively waves due to the shallow water. The lake has several major cities along the shore including Buffalo, Toledo and Cleveland, miles of sandy beaches and areas where high cliffs line the shore.

Lake Huron

The second largest of the Great Lakes with a surface area of 59,600 sq km, it has an average depth of 59m and is 332 km long. It has the largest shore line length of any of the Great Lakes, counting its 30,000 islands. The Canadian side of the lake is renowned for the beauty of its scenery and there are excellent beaches with unpolluted water for boaters and swimmers. There are also stunning rocky outcrops, such as Lake Huron’s “flowerpots”, teaming with birdlife as well as opportunities for spotting moose and bears.

Lake Michigan

Passing through the Straits of Mackinac, where Mackinac island is a Victoria-era haven, where cars are forbidden, we come to the only lake of the five located entirely within the United States. The third largest in surface area, it is 494 lm long by 190 km wide with an average depth of 85 m. Twelve million people live along its shores, mainly in the areas of Chicago and Milwaukee. The lake is attractive to tourism with its beauty and recreational opportunities. There are tumbling hills and old towns with historic buildings and churches.

Lake Superior

This lake is accessed from Lake Huron by the Soo or Sault locks on the St Mary’s River. They bypass the rapids where the water falls 7 m. This is the largest of the Great Lakes and the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area. It contains many islands and its shoreline includes several large cities including the twin ports of Duluth and Superior. Duluth is the most inland point on the St Lawrence Seaway and the most inland port in the world. The scenery is generally more rugged with wonderful areas of wilderness and bare crags and there are also many National Parks within striking distance of the lake.

By the time a vessel reaches Duluth at the head of Lake Superior it has risen 600 feet and travelled more than the distance across the Atlantic Ocean. The Great Lakes / Seaway system really does have something for everyone. It is no surprise that it is becoming such a popular waterway. What is remarkable is that it has taken so long to be discovered as a cruising area.

Author – Dee White

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