At the end of May 2016, Cooper, his mom, and I crossed south under the Detroit River, across the border to Canada. In a small, fuel-efficient car, you can make it across southern Ontario to New York with one tank of gas, no currency exchange required. (Sidenote: you should always take the tunnel, no matter what Google Maps tells you, because the Ambassador Bridge belongs to Detroit’s Mr. Burns, billionaire Matty Moroun. Don’t line his pockets.)
It was Memorial Day weekend, and we were bound for Rochester, New York, where Cooper’s sister lives. Near the end of the Canadian leg of the trip, you catch glimpses of Lake Ontario out the car windows. My family taught me the excitement of glimpsing big rivers under highway bridges, gorges extending into the distance, as well as our gleeful exclamation—“Hawk alert! Hawk alert!”—upon seeing raptors overhead. I was satisfied that it was less than halfway through the year, and with Ontario, I had already seen three out of five Great Lakes that year (an April trip to Cleveland had included a brief stop at Lake Erie; more on that later).
My parents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and my grandparents on both sides crossed Ontario between New York and Michigan countless times. My Aunt Margaret has lived away from Michigan, on the other end of the Great Lakes world, for more than fifty years now.
I don’t personally know the area well, beyond the asphalt and interchanges, but still this piece of Canada, which was once part of the same inland sea as Michigan, feels a part of my heritage. Each time I make the journey with my mother, she reminisces. She describes detours to antique shops, picnics by the lake, ice cream cones and other adventures that happened long before I was born. She also tells me stories she has read about the Seneca, one of the nations of the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) League, whose land ranges across the New York-Ontario border.
Lake Ontario is connected to Lake Erie by the Niagara River; when Ontario narrows on its eastern edge, its waters travel onward to the Atlantic as the St. Lawrence Seaway. When I drive to Rochester through Canada, I reenter the U.S. below the western start of Lake Ontario, crossing the Niagara in the process. It’s faster to avoid the falls, but if you have the time and energy for crowds and parking, you can stop en route like we used to do when we were kids. It’s amazing to think, as you watch the awesome flow of water spilling over Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls (the Canadian side), that even more water surged over the cliffs before the U.S. and Canadian governments negotiated how much they could siphon off to run their power plants downstream (the water level mandated to astound the tourists varies from day to night, from tourist season to depths of winter).
In Rochester, we decided on a scenic drive for Saturday, exploring the Genesee River gorge south of Rochester near the Finger Lakes, in Letchworth State Park. The beautiful river tumbles down three impressive waterfalls and through the deep canyon it has carved since the end of the last ice age. Wooded green hills roll into the distance. At the other end of the park, the massive Mount Morris Dam mars the view, protects Rochester from flooding, and has presumably upended the ecology of that part of the river, although the Wikipedia article about this dam has no environmental section. The Genesee River flows into Rochester, which hosts another big waterfall right downtown, before emptying into Lake Ontario.
Lake Ontario was maybe the second Great Lake I ever swam in (Erie might have happened, but I have no childhood memories of it). I remember two or three summers, where after a week up north on Lake Huron, my brother and I traveled with our closest cousins to my aunt’s house in Rochester. She had to call ahead to check the water quality at the city beach, but we got to swim there a couple times. I remember once when it was safe to swim in, the water appeared almost black—I’m not sure what was floating in it, but it makes me sad. It would be so wonderful, so lucky to live in a city with a Great Lake beach—and so heartbreaking to live in sight of that wide-open water and know that heavy industry and agriculture were making it unsafe for human life. I know: I grew up along Lake St. Clair, the big lake that (along with the St. Clair and Detroit rivers) connects Lake Huron to Lake Erie, and we never wanted to swim in it because of high E. coli levels all the time.
On the drive home to Michigan, we stopped at Hamlin Beach State Park on the Ontario shore west of Rochester. The lake was darker than Lake Michigan often looks, this intense blue-green, but crystal clear in the shallows. The lake may be small in surface area, but it’s much deeper than Lake Erie. Some devotees of Michigan and Superior dismiss Ontario for being smaller, with too many cities—Hamilton, Mississauga, Toronto, Rochester—polluting its nature. Lake Ontario can’t help that. Only we can help that, protect it and clean it and forge a way of life where our cities are clean enough, wild enough—and our outlook is open enough—to appreciate the beauty lapping up on the shore right in front of us.
I read somewhere that Ontario comes from an Iroquoian word that could be translated as “sparkling water.” Now whenever I think of Ontario, province or lake, it sparkles.
I guess all that was just to say that I had a few moments with Lake Ontario last year, but it was too early in the season to swim.
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