My Ride on the Big Canoe

This was a trip into northern Canada to get a parts washer and the return trip that took me on a rather large Ferry boat.




These articles, stories and accounts of my life, as I recall them, and are copywrited. Unauthorized use will be pursued at my determination, to the degree that I am inclined. Any hard feeling caused by memories that don't match yours are unfortunate and you'll just have to get over it! Feel free to contact me if you have a request for their use.


Having acquired a large assortment of Model A parts awhile back, it was becoming increasingly clear that I had to do something about cleaning them in bulk if I was ever going to get them ready to sort and or sell. I am a long time buyer and seller on Ebay so I began to look at parts washers on-line. I looked at new and used ones and paid attention to where they were located, hoping to combine it with another need to be someplace.

I finally settled on a large used one in Little Current, Ontario, Canada, made the transaction and was able to combine it with a trip to the fall Hershey swap meet in Pennsylvania, a trip to see my sister and mother near Ann Arbor, Michigan and finally a side trip to London, Ontario, Canada for a 3-day class in metal working.

I had just returned from Kansas with the last load of Model a parts that included a “bonus” of a 1946 Ford Panel Delivery that I left on the trailer in anticipation of pedaling it at the Hershey, Pa. flea market. That didn't turn out to be as anticipated as it rained, as often occurs in Hershey, and the lot that I rented was down in a low area of a little traveled area of the flea market and I got very few inquires. To top it off the muddy field made it very difficult to retrieve the trailer with our motor home. With the help of a large tractor attached to the front of the motor home I was able to get it extricated, but not before smashing the left front hubcap on a nearby Dodge Minivan with the right side trailer fender. The owner was not on site, but I left a business card and a note telling them that I would take care of the hubcap, but have not heard from them.

On to Michigan and a much anticipated visit with my sister and mother whom I don't get to see often enough. I got out of Lancaster , Pa. about 4:00 in the afternoon, still under cloudy skies and once on the Pennsylvania Turnpike I hit the “loud” pedal hoping to get somewhere near Norwalk, Ohio before having to pull over to sleep. I prefer sleeping in our camper in an area that I am somewhat familiar with, and when we were racing in the Top Dragster Division of IHRA , we made several visits to Bill Bader's Norwalk Raceway Park .

Our first visit to the Norwalk track was particularly exciting as we had never run the full quarter mile with the new “long” chassis and were still working on getting the settings right on the new cross-over delay box. It turned out to be a mediocre night, as we only went two rounds, but the first round we won was just at dusk. I still have an enlarged photo of that car, named “Sons of Thunder”, with the nose about three feet past the finish line, the driver has still had his leg in it and the car was still “up” on the back tires, and the chute had just reached full deployment barely covering the setting sun in the background. You could see a multitude of rays from the sun reaching out around the perimeter of the chute, making the sun appear to be trying to grasp onto something, anything to keep from falling in the night. Awesome!

At any rate, I continued east under the cloudy skies that eventually turned into an unusually dark night, winding my way thru the mountainous terrain until reaching the western part of Pennsylvania where the rugged landscape surrenders itself to the more rolling fields of eastern Ohio . About midnight I finally reached the Norwalk exit, and getting off the Interstate, I pulled into a familiar area, killed the beast and went to sleep in her belly.

I usually get up early and when traveling I get up very early, and this time was no exception. I woke the beast and headed west dragging the sunrise into Toledo , then motored north into southern Michigan , viewing the remnants of early October in the morning light. All of a sudden I got slightly miffed with myself for entering a state near breakfast time that doesn't have a Waffle House in it.

Anyway, I continued north looking for someplace to get some eggs, knowing that grits were out of the question. Before finding a diner on the way to Ann Arbor I passed a road sign that always makes me laugh and think of an attractive old gal that should have had the lead in an old civil war movie. It is a sign that directs you to two small towns on either side of Interstate 75 with the names Samaria and Blissfield. The name Samaria Blissfield has wafted thru my head for years in untold images and changing scenarios as I have traversed this section of highway for almost 30 years traveling between my home in the Carolinas and my birthplace in Howell , Michigan , the cantaloupe capital of the world.

Lacking even a replica of a Waffle House, I continued north until I hit I-94, then west, until I cut through to a little town called Chelsea , Michigan , on the way to meet with my sister. Chelsea boasts the oldest Ford dealership in Michigan (yes, I have checked to see if they had any Model A parts!!) and is the home of the Jiffy Grain Mills . It was there, as a grade school lad, that I would drive at night with my uncle and cousin, to deliver freshly harvested wheat to be made into the cake and cornbread mixes you see in the groceries today.

We made the 24-mile round trip drive at night because even the rural constables frown on 10-year old driving on the roads for any reason. My cousin and I were so small that we had to tape 4 x 4's to the tractor pedals to reach them, and had to stand up to get enough weight on them to depress them. I remember it always being cold and dreading having to depress either or both of the pedals, as the cold night gave me the shivers, and my legs would begin quivering, and I was scared I would eventually shake myself off the tractor. I never fell off the tractor, but I recall one very cold trip where my leg shook so badly that it vibrated the 4 x 4 loose from the brake pedal. I was nervous to begin with, and it was so cold that that brass monkey will never have children, and when that 4 x4 rotated of the pedal, I instantly thought my leg had frozen and my foot had come off. Luckily, we were at the grain mill and my uncle took over the driving duties until I could get warm.

My drive to see my kinfolks continued though Chelsea to Gregory where I met with my sister, called my mom, and we all met at a local diner for those eggs and fried ‘taters, but still no grits. It was the first time this trip that I had been offered oatmeal as a substitute.

It doesn't take mom long to get to the diner as she lives only 4 miles away and there is no traffic. I mean no traffic. The town of Unadilla was established in the early 1830's and in the ensuing 175 years have only expanded enough to warrant two stop signs and no traffic lights. Located near the edge of a state game preserve it is a beautiful rural place, but devoid of congestion and traffic. It does, however, contain one very prestigious resident other than my mother. I have noticed on several occasions as I have passed though Unadilla, that on the southern entrance to the town there is a dark colored '30-'31 roadster parked in a garage, but have never been able to meet the owner.

At breakfast I am trying to figure out what I am going to do with the '46 Ford Panel truck, and ask both my mom and sister what they think I should do with it, and as neither of them wanted it in their yard we decided to give it to a charitable group that would sell it at auction and use the money to support a mission in South America. When we arrived at the auctioneers location he was not to be found, and being in a hurry to continue the trip north, I tied the panel truck to a tree and drove out from under it. I hope it was the right tree, and if anyone asks I was a full two feet from the garden.

Resuming the odyssey, I headed towards state route #23 and headed north to pick up I-75 on my way to the northern tip of Michigan . It was mid-day and I was hoping to view Mackinac Island in the shadow of the Mackinac Bridge before stopping that evening. The trek was uneventful but awe inspiring as the leaves were turning color, and the farther north I got the more autumn revealed itself in its visual splendor.

I gave the beast a steady ride up through Flint , Saginaw , Alger and Gaylord, stopping for a bite to eat in Vanderbilt before continuing northward to Indian River and finally arriving at Mackinaw city before crossing the Mackinac Bridge which divides Lake Huron from Lake Michigan . The only northbound lane of the bridge that was open was the inner lane that has open grating through which you can see the water below. I'm glad I had to drive in that lane so I couldn't look down through it from the outer lane. There is more open area than steel in that grating and it looks like open space at a certain speed and I found that very spooky and visually unnerving, but it was not to be the last unnerving experience I would have with that “pond” called Lake Huron

Once over the bridge in the upper peninsula of Michigan , I turned east into the Straits State Park and got a self-serve campsite that offered a wide open view out over Lake Huron . It was a breath taking view with the waning light of the sunset casting slender shadows over the small waves on the second largest of the great lakes. Again, I killed the beast and slept soundly in her belly to the gentle sounds of nature's creatures and the onshore breeze.

I started out at 5:00 in the morning hoping that the one hour drive to Sault Ste. Marie would find the Customs officials tired and ready to go home rather than be interested in giving me a hard time entering Canada . I had a lot of parts that I was carrying from the Hershey flea market and I was not interested in dragging it all out for them to go through one piece at a time. As it turned out, all they wanted from me was a can of Mace we had in the cabinet above the sink, showing no interest in searching the camper.

Before reaching the customs area, while crossing the International Bridge I looked to the right trying to catch a glimpse of either a “Laker” or a “Saltie” (an ocean going vessel) going through the 21 foot rise in either the Poe or Mac Arthur locks ( nicknamed the Soo locks, and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). It was still quite dark and all I noticed were the lights that line the locks on either side of each of the locks.

After getting through customs I looked forward to the first time I was in Canada and doing my own driving. I hadn't gone but a mile or two, just having got on route 17B, when I got the first of two surprising revelations. It was still quite dark and I was in a city type environment when I came upon a rather large sign surrounded by flashing lights that said “Caution: Elderly Crossing”. I looked on both sides of the street and for the life of me I couldn't understand why the sign was there, nor the reason for it. Old folks are so slow that they are pretty easy to hit or miss depending on your inclination.

As I exited the city and began driving east on route #17 towards Echo Bay , I got my second opportunity to wake up, when I noticed the speed limit signs for the very narrow highways. I was expecting to see the speed limits increased, but was unprepared for what I saw on the first speed limit sign. On a sign very similar to ours here in the states were the numbers 80 max, 60 min., one above the other, mounted on a sign posted to the right of the road, just above a railroad crossing sign.

I remembered that I was driving a pretty large camper loaded with a lot of Model A parts and pulling a 22 foot trailer on a very narrow unfamiliar road in a foreign country. Not being sure that I could keep this rebel rig between the white lines at over 60 mile per hour, coupled with the fact that the terrain was heavily wooded on the left and the shores of the St. Mary's river on the right, and a train track just ahead, all I could think of was that I could hit either a goose or a moose, have the trailer get loose and hit a train's caboose. I wouldn't need any form of caffeine for two days, but I quickly figured out that the numbers were kilometers per hour not miles per hour. 80 kph and 60 kph roughly translates to 48 and 36 mile per hour, a much more reasonable speed for the narrow roads.

I had forgotten all about breakfast, calmed down and headed east towards Little Current, passing through Bruce Mines, Blind River and Spanish before reaching Espanola where I would turn south on route #6 passing through Whitefish Falls and over Birch Island to reach my current destination.

Thus far the terrain had been reasonably flat with scenery typical to what I had passed through in Michigan , but after turning south and leaving Whitefish Falls the road elevated somewhat and the terrain became very rocky with almost no trace of grass, or dirt for that matter. Weaving through the vertical crevices of jagged rock, except for the occasional views of the North Channel of Georgian Bay , I imagined that this might be what it would look like if you were able to drive thru the canyons and ravines of an old cowboy movie. The landscape continued like that until I crossed the bridge onto Manitoulan Island where Little Current lay just ahead.

I stopped and called the owner of the parts washer, we met and completed the transaction, and then arraigned for a backhoe operator to get it loaded it on the trailer. We had agreed on a price of $50 for the backhoe work, but when he was filling out the receipt he asked if I was the Cronkrite from NASCAR racing, and when I acknowledged that I was, he declined to take my money. I was pleasantly surprised to learn the stock car racing was so popular so far north. He also had a pretty good memory about small details.

Asking for the best route to head towards my next destination of Hamilton , Ontario , Canada , both gentlemen simultaneously responded with “take the ferry”. I was not aware of the ferry, and being hesitant to travel on large bodies of water, I'm sure my enthusiasm did not overwhelm either of them. While I showed only minimal interest it was enough that the backhoe operator, also the owner the small hotel across the street, offered to locate the schedule for me.

When he returned with the schedule it appeared that if I hurried I might make the last trip of the day. Keeping my concern regarding the ease at which I get “seasick” to myself, I mounted up, eased over to route #6 and again headed south as fast as I dared. The roads on this island were similar to the roads I was on earlier in the day in that they were slightly elevated with little or no room off to the side. The ability to pull over to the side of the road was non existent.

Making my way to South Baymouth near the southernmost point of the island, I was concerned about the size of the ferry and whether it was large enough to handle the combined length of the camper and the trailer. I kept up the pace however, as I wanted to make sure that I made the 6:10 departure time, knowing that if I missed it or chickened out, I had a very long trip ahead of me by retracing my steps back to the north and circumnavigating the entire east coast of Lake Huron.

When I arrived at the departure dock I was about 45 minutes early, and noticing only a handful of vehicles in the loading line I approached the reservation building and inquired about the possibility of having enough room for my rig. The gentleman looked at his partner, and with a smirk said “no problem, just pull up close to the rear of the last car in line”. I knew that he knew that I was not only nervous, but completely unaware of the capacity of the ferry and that seemed to humor him.

It had been a long tedious day to this point, and after pulling up to the rear of the line, I moved over to the passenger seat to have a little more room to lay back and get a better look at the channel that would eventually reveal the incoming ferry, but quickly fell asleep.

Damn! What a sound! What the hell was that? I had just been blasted out of a wonderful nap by the most God-awful noise I ever remember being exposed to. When I opened my eyes, I was still facing the channel and did not remember seeing the large white house with the funny windows that was in front of me. The house was moving! As I became more awake it was dawning on me that the “moving house” was in fact the very large ferry that had gotten well into the channel before announcing its arrival.

As I got out taking a better look at this behemoth I was startled by the sight of two very large tractor-trailers loaded to the max with logs that had pulled into line just to the rear of where I was parked. I was sure that there must be some mistake as there was no way those guys were going to be able to get loaded onto the ferry. How would they get them out at the other end? I was quite taken aback with the current sate of affairs, but as I got a better view of the ferry I realized that it was, indeed, big enough to handle the large trucks but was wondering how they were going to get them elevated to the deck.

Walking towards the loading dock to watch the docking procedure revealed the solution. As the ferry passed the dock and backed up to it, I could see that it was so large that the tail end opened up and the loading was done below the deck and from the rear, It was a drive thru arrangement providing the answer as to how the large trucks were to disembark at the far end of the trip.

However, all this did little to dispel my concerns about getting seasick, and when the command to “load-'em-up” was shouted, it was with great trepidation that I got behind the wheel and proceeded with minimal motion toward the impending submission of myself to the bowels of this huge vessel. Somehow, it seemed appropriate that I was going to drive myself up the ass-end of this thing. It seemed to fit the mood I was in.

I was courteously assigned a parking spot but was told I would have to leave the comforting confines of the motor home and ride out the trip up on the deck. About the only thing I feared more than getting sea sick was my unbridled inability to disguise it! I am still puzzled by the fact that I have never been able to overcome this propensity to upchuck my lunch due to erratic movement, but it suddenly became clear to me the origin of the old sailors term “heave-ho”.

While waiting for this wet-bellied contraption to embark southeast in the direction of Fitzwilliam Island on the way to Tobermory, I reviewed some of the literature that was given me with the purchase of my ticket and boarding pass. It seems that this ferry has been in operation since 1930 when the Owen Sound Transportation Company began service between Tobermory and South Baymouth . They began with a small eight car ferry called the Kagawong, and continued service with a number of ever increasing capacity ferries until the Ontario government took over in 1972, and in 1974 they put this ferry into service. This one is called the Chi-Cheemaun, which means “Big Canoe” in the Ojibwa tribe language, is 366 foot long and has a crew of 36 and can carry 638 passengers, and I can vouch for the fact that this rascal is a long way from a hollowed out log. Smells different too!

The schedule shows only a 20 minute turnaround time at either end of the trip, but it seemed more like a half an hour or more before I felt the shudder of the ship just a split second before I felt the deep, throaty roar of the twin Ruston Diesels as they began to call up the first portions of their combined 7,000 horsepower. No matter where you are, or the condition your in, every “gear head” in the world comes to life when metal makes motion, and for a few moments the concern over motion distress were set aside to enjoy the fantasies conjured up by the hearty sound. Disappointed at not noticing any accompanying combustion aroma, I imagined the size of the pistons and connecting rods, wondering how the fuel pump would be driven and trying to estimate the flow at each of the injectors. I wondered how the fuel tanks might be partitioned to minimize weight transfer during the sure to arrive bucking on the waves, and if they transferred the fuel in any manner to allow for the weight distribution due to the loading of the “cargo” below. Neat stuff !!!

Just as I began thinking that this trip wasn't going to be so bad, I realized that we were still inside the inlet where the loading dock was, and we were only 5 minutes into the 2 hour long journey. Oh my! Well, I figured I would just face it and went straight to the front of the top deck and picked a chair near the center where I could get a good look at the water ahead and to make sure the captain was going in the correct direction. I hate brain “farts”, but I am familiar with them, so it was no big deal when twenty minutes later I couldn't see much in the way of land, and decided to relinquish all navigational decisions to the captain.

It turned out to be the right decision as I began to notice that not only did the flag pole out on the bow begin to weave from left to right, but up and down as well. My dad was a sailor, and as much as I would have loved to be making this trip with him, I am sure glad he wouldn't have to witness my inability to handle what surely would have been considered calm seas by an old “salt”.

We were only 45 minutes into the crossing, but I had to find some other place to hang out as this area was too populated and had too many visual “points” that would show against the windows and cause a movement issue that would make me queasy. It finally dawned on me that to cut down the movement visuals, they would be minimized if I could get closer to the center of the pitching and rolling so I headed as close to the center of the ship and as close to the water line as I could get.

It worked! Not only was the movement minimized, the cool fresh air was very comforting and the view was an extremely pleasant surprise. By this time we were getting to the last portion of the trip and were approaching the eastern coastline of Cove Island , and the fixed visual of a spot of land had a calming effect for me. Then I noticed the flashing light.

The lighthouse sits at the northeast tip of Cove Island and was built in 1858 to serve as a passage point marker for those ships passing between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay . As we got closer I could distinguish the pure white exterior of the lighthouse and other structures with their bright red roofs from the dark green background of the vegetation, but what really got my attention was the water crashing up the sea wall.

During the trip, wave swells appeared to be about three feet or so with prevalent whitecaps as far as you could see. What seemed interesting to me was how high the water splashed up the side of the lighthouse after hitting the sea wall. I had learned that the lighthouse was 80 feet tall and was built at the top of the 10 foot high seawall, so it appeared that the wave would hit the sea wall with enough force to make a water spout leap about 30 or 40 feet in the air. It varied slightly in height, but widely in width, and it may have been the time of the evening, but as the water spout lost energy, the wind dispersed the water into a mist, and as it settled to the surf the setting sun played off the mist creating an undulating rainbow of uniquely pale colors.

To view an actual rainbow the sun has to be at your back. We were headed somewhat south ,the sun was setting in the west and I was looking into the sun. The only thing I could think of that would permit the viewing of a rainbow under these conditions was that the sun must have been reflected off the glass on the ferry upper structure which may have accounted for the colors being less vibrant and probably accounted for the undulating appearance as well.

As unique as this situation had to be, it got me wondering if the little house just to the left of the lighthouse may have been for some Leprechauns (they look for gold at the end of rainbows don't they?). The sight of little bearded guys harnessed in green oversized water wings darting around in the water, looking for gold while bobbing up and down in the surf, trying to hold onto a little bucket in one hand and simultaneously trying to keep their pipe lit and their tam o'shanter dr y seems kind of amusing. Real amusing if you ask me!

At this point we were about five miles from Tobermory, and I was more than ready to get back on land and get behind the wheel again, hoping to get a good start before it got dark.

Tobermory is at the northern tip of the Bruce peninsula and as I continued toward Owen Sound I became aware that hunger was traveling south faster than I was, and as I began looking for a place to eat it became apparent that folks in this part of the country didn't seem compelled to offer food to travelers in the same manner as I am used to. As I drove on though Miller Lake , Mar and toward Hepworth, I was getting both amazed and amused that there seemed to no sight of a traveler friendly place that I might slide in, sit down and savor a local spread of some sort.

As I continued my journey, I somehow managed to bypass any chophouse, coffee shack or café that might have been in or around Owen Sound and had to continue for another hour or two until I reached truck stop near Guelph, Ontario, just short of the big 401 highway.

I had settled into a booth that was surprisingly comfortable, finished a very good meal, and was just enjoying the fact that nothing was moving up or down, left or right and I didn't have to hold on to anything, when a voice from the next booth asked why they hadn't heard from me for awhile.

I turned, thinking that they had me confused with someone from this area, and I noticed an older Winston Cup jacket on the fellow that was speaking to me. He said they were local short track racers, and had followed my career somewhat of and on after Dale Earnhardt had done some driving for me. I had no idea that southern stock car racing was followed by Canadians. No reason not to I guess, I just hadn't considered it.

At any rate, we shot the crap for awhile, reviewing the different chassis setups required for short tracks versus super-speedway events, and they seemed interested in what steps were required to insure quick pit stops. I reckon they don't do a lot of that at their short track events.

We discussed the yearly cattle roundup on the Bruce Peninsula , and I asked if it was true that the Bruce Peninsula was the only place you could find the Mississauga rattle snake. They said that it was actually found in many places in Ontario , but more popular along the eastern shore of the Georgia Bay . It apparently is not to large, but pretty mean and quite poisonous, and have taken to warming themselves on city streets of all places.

I thanked them for their interest in stock car racing and excused myself saying I had to hit the road, as I was getting anxious the see if this huge parts washer was going to be able to do what I wanted it to do. Once my mind gets set on a path, I seem to not be able to concentrate on much else other than completing my current project, no matt er what it takes. That is sometimes construed as being narrow minded, but I look at it as dedication. Who knows?

I continued south towards London , Ontario , then west on the 401 toward Detroit , thru customs (what a job!), and finally headed towards Toledo and I-75 south. Once I got south of Bowling Green, Ohio, I could almost put it on autopilot because from here on it was a trip that I have made too many times to remember as this was the route to and from the Michigan Speedway. The remainder of the trip was uneventful (or else I slept thru it), and I arrived home to get the parts washer unloaded and started to work on it.