The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Alexander B. Cook
Caspian Sea Caviar, American Dressing – Toast Melba, Consommé’ Celestine with Madeira Wine, Grilled Shrimp Brochette of Hesiod – Tartar Sauce, Chateaubriand Marquise, Sauce Bearnaise, Peas a la Parisienne, Buttered White Asparagus, Noisette Potatoes, Salad with Taragon Dressing Flaming Baked Alaska, Assorted Petits Fours and Coffee, Dessert Wine: Blanc de Blancs, Brut Nature – this was the menu for the gala dinner on the MV Stella Maris II! Every meal was no less sumptuous. How the chef, Dionisios Antipas, managed in the ship’s small galley is a miracle. And happily for those who like to eat but are prone to seasickness, this floating gourmet’s paradise was kept from galloping over the waves with special Vesper fin stabilizers. But I didn’t take the trip to eat, I took it for the simple pleasure of an old-fashioned boat ride on our wonderful Inland Seas. I got it too—all 1,241 miles from Chicago to Montreal and back again. In fact, there was so much to see I felt guilty taking the time for food and sleep!
Midwest Cruises and Tours, a division of Grueninger Travel Service of Indianapolis, organized the cruise which lasts seven days. It began on June 1 and is slated to end on October 19. The Stella Maris (Greek for “Star of the Sea”) is owned by Marriott Hotels and operated by Oceanic-Sun Line Special Shipping Co., Inc., in Athens. She is under Greek registry. Built as a ferryboat in Germany in 1960 and converted for cruise service in Trieste, Italy, in 1966, she measures 290 feet in length, 44 feet in beam and is 3,500 gross tons. Her twin screws drive her along at a service speed of about 15 knots. She has steel, fin-like fenders added to her hull to protect her from scraping the lock walls in the Welland Canal and St. Lawrence Seaway. Until this year, the Stella has been operating only in the Caribbean and Greek Isles. She carries 182 passengers. Seven-day lake cruise prices, which include seaway transportation, staterooms, meals and services, range from $330 to $665 per person. Liquor, shore excursions, laundry and hairdressing services are optional extras. Not cheap— but it’s a bargain compared with any of the few ocean cruises remaining today. One of the first thrills of the trip was in leaving Chicago at dusk on Saturday, July 13. The skyline of the city with its new 110-story Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world, and other structures—several, more than a thousand feet high—stayed in view long after we departed. Evening, and the ship seemed to settle down—all except for the lounge where there was nightly entertainment. But I stayed on deck to watch for the lights of passing boats and to enjoy the stars.
The next morning the Stella neared the western shore of Michigan. Ludington came into sight through the haze of the new day and suddenly the car ferry Spartan appeared to our left, a mile or so away. She glided sweetly across our wake—on her way to Ludington from Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Next, it was the lighthouses at Big Sable Point, Manistee, Frankfort and Point Betsie against the soft background of the dunes and hills. And then as our “Star of the Sea” headed on northward, the majesty of Sleeping Bear Point came into view. Beyond were the South and North Manitous and while we bore west of those lovely green islands, we could see two steamers, upbound and light, ahead of us and going through the east channel. Soon it was dusk again and the Stella continued north and west into the night. By midnight we swung east toward the Straits of Mackinac and Mackinac Island for our first stop. The lights of Manistique on the south shore of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan came into sight on our left.
Monday, the next day, it was Mackinac Island, but not without first passing under the famous Mackinac Bridge over the Straits just seven miles west and shrouded in the gray of early morning. A few hours on the island—optional shore excursions were planned for here and our other ports of call at Windsor, Port Colborne, Toronto and Montreal—and we were on our way again. After passing to the north of Round and Bois Blanc Islands, the Stella pointed her bow into Lake Huron. As she set out for Port Huron and the St. Clair River, 243 miles to the south, it seemed as though a gentle swell pushed her along. Later that afternoon, about five miles away, and to our right, a strange shape— like the bright white upperworks of a freighter—appeared. It was the remains of the West German MV Nordmeer which stranded on Thunder Bay Island Shoal in November 1966. She had been on her way from Hamburg to Chicago with a cargo of coiled steel. Several days later during a violent storm, the 600-foot steamer Daniel J Morrell was less fortunate when she sank with twenty-eight lives lost just one hundred miles to the south—a sobering reminder that the swells on the Great Lakes aren’t always gentle.
As we cruised down the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair and Detroit River the next day, it didn’t take long for the Stella’s passengers to learn the “ship talk” of passing vessels—one long blast and we were directing our course to starboard (right) and two long blasts meant we were going to port (left). It meant, too, the anticipation and excitement of passing within only a hundred feet or so of a “laker” or a “salty.” This brought even the most aloof of passengers on the run from the lounge or their cabins below! Our ship, she of course being a salty, was in the constant care of American and Canadian pilots who exchanged master salutes (one long and two short blasts) with acquaintances on passing boats. It is such a kindred spirit that has drawn generations of young men from Midwest cities and farms to be lake men. And with no more cruise ships on the Lakes, it was a special thrill too, for the crews of passing freighters to see the trim Stella. Cooks in aprons, deckhands, engineroom oilers and even captains came on deck to wave to us as we passed!
During our stop at Windsor—where we docked by the lovely Dieppe Gardens directly across the river from Detroit—many passengers went on a shore excursion to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. By midafternoon our boat was on her way again down the Detroit River, through Livingstone Channel, by Detroit River Light, past the steamers Mercury, Thomas Wilson and Harry L. Allen and into Lake Erie. Buffeted by a warm breeze from the south, we swung east toward Pelee Passage. The top of Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial National Monument ap appeared faintly on the horizon about fifteen miles to our right. (A good pair of binoculars is recommended for a trip like this.) My fellow passengers were fascinated to learn that Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry had won his famous victory during the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813 just a few miles to the south of us. Soon after passing Colchester Reef, we brought up Pelee Passage Light and Pelee Island to our right. And then it was Southeast Shoal Light on our left as the steamer William Clay Ford lumbered by several hundred yards away.
Lake Erie, it soon became apparent to all the passengers, many of whom had come from such faraway places as Texas and California, was not dead! Commercial fishermen were out in their boats and seagulls glided about us – and the Lake was beautiful under the bright summer sky. Later that afternoon, I noticed a tiny spike-like object breaking the straight line of the horizon amidships to our right. A look through my binoculars—it was the upper part of Terminal Tower in Cleveland, twenty-five miles or so away – unbelieveable! In several hours the sky turned from blue to orange as the sun called it quits for the day and disappeared behind a bank of clouds. Before going to sleep that night, I looked out my window to see the flashing white light on Long Point.
We awoke the next morning, Wednesday, to find ourselves at Port Colborne and in Control Lock No. 8 of the Welland Canal. The longest lock in the world, it is 1,380 feet. But it wasn’t until we went into the next lock, No. 7, that the Stella began a series of descents to the level of Lake Ontario, a total of 326 feet. The next shore excursion was organized—this time to Niagara Falls. Meanwhile, the protective fin-like fenders on our boat, damaged by lockings during her previous trip from Montreal to Chicago, were repaired. The trip through the Welland locks was like going down a giant stairway. The Stella bobbed and jostled as she was lowered in each lock, keeping our crew busy with wire mooring lines and winches. Once underway in the canal itself, it seemed as though we could reach out and touch every passing ship. By dusk we were passing the lighthouse at Port Weller and heading into Lake Ontario. Toronto, our next port of call, sparkled on the dark horizon twenty-eight miles away, her tall buildings brightly lit as if to welcome us.
The following day, Thursday, after landing in Toronto, I took a cab to make a surprise visit to my friend Alan Howard, Curator of the Marine Museum of Upper Canada. The Museum, with its old steamer whistles which actually work, navigating island from the Cayuga, ship models and other nautical treasures, occupies the last remaining building of Stanley Barracks, built in 1841. The 80-foot steam tug Ned Hanlan is outside.
Later in the day, our trim cruise ship was on her way out of Toronto Harbor and headed down Lake Ontario toward Cape Vincent and the St. Lawrence River. The Lake was stormy that evening, a light sea running out of the southwest and on our starboard quarter. The Stella’s stabilizers really did their job as we moved into the black pocket of night. Few of the passengers below realized the tempests were raging outside. Early the next morning, Friday, found us sailing serenely down the St. Lawrence and through the Thousand Islands, delightful and green. We were now about 150 miles from Montreal and our boat continued her descent in a misty rain through the Iroquois, Eisenhower, Snell, Beauharnois, Cote Ste. Catherine, and St. Lambert Locks—truly among the great engineering marvels of all time.
Several small yachts accompanied us through the locks with plenty of room to spare—almost like children with their mother on an escalator in a department store. And while each lock is 766 feet long, 80 feet wide and 30 feet in depth over the sills, the Stella was unable to avoid an occasional bump and scrape on the concrete walls—providing an opportunity for her fin-like fenders to prove their mettle. The only real incident while going through the Seaway was a jammed gate in the Snell Lock. Though it delayed the boat only briefly, we dubbed that lock “The Bad Snell!”
By midnight everyone was on deck to see the lights of Montreal. We passed the site of Expo 67, now “Man and His World,” and swung around into our berth. The next morning, Saturday, July 20, most of the passengers disembarked from the Stella but not without looking up at the hammer and sickle on the bow of the big Russian cruise ship Alexander Pushkin, a regular caller to Montreal, which had docked directly astern of us during the night. Those of us who remained aboard for the return trip to Chicago bade farewell to our new friends who got off and returned to their homes by jet plane—a marked contrast to the seven days of relaxing on a cruise ship where nobody is ever in a hurry.
About the Author: Readers of INLAND SEAS are familiar with Mr. Alexander B. Cook’s pen and-ink sketches and his section in the journal concerning the Great Lakes Historical Society Museum in Vemilion, Ohio. He has been a member of the Advisory Committee of INLAND SEAS since 1957, and is currently a Vice President and Trustee of the Society, and a member of the Executive and Museum Committees. He also served as Executive Vice President from 1959 to 1964. Mr. Cook has been a special art teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools for the last ten years and in 1969 he completed a twenty-foot, panoramic mural for the Museum depicting Great Lakes Shipping. At the Society’s Spring Meeting in 1973 he received a Special Resolution of Appreciation for his “untiring devotion, perseverance and dedication” to the ideals of the Society.