The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
Is it too soon to be thinking about summer? By the end of the month of April we will probably sense that our ungentle northern spring is gaining ground. Summer will eventually come, and for me summer evokes travel on the water, steamboats on lake and river, a canoe at the end of evening, a fisherman hunched in his wooden rowboat at the edge of a deep channel, rod in his hand, waiting.
Last August we were sitting on a bench by the Charlottetown boardwalk, and I was hearing about the ferry that used to make a regular run from Charlottetown to Fort Amherst, carrying walkers and picnickers from the city to the historic point of land. For a while Judy’s uncle was captain of the boat.
The thought of that summer ferry takes me back to childhood in Toronto, when now and then we would escape the hot streets of the city, get on board a ferry called The Trillium and make an excursion to the park at Centre Island.
Excursion: the very word evokes an earlier world.
Here on PEI, small steamers from Charlottetown—the Harland was one of them—journeyed in both directions, westward to Victoria and eastward to Eldon. Just down the road from our house we can still see the ruins of Halliday’s wharf, and old photographs show women in long skirts and wide hats assembled for a summer outing.
Having grown up in Ontario, I know of these PEI excursions only from books, but recreational trips on shipboard were part of summer life in Upper Canada as well. A few months ago I wrote a column about Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches, and its most famous story “The Marine Excursion of the Knights of Pythias,” sometimes called “The Sinking of the Mariposa Belle.” The point of that story is that the lake involved is small and shallow, and the events offer a lyric parody of a maritime disaster.
For several years of my schooldays, I lived in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the historic town located at the mouth of the Niagara River. Twice a day in the summer months, a large steamship called the Cayuga crossed from Toronto to Niagara. From the point of land where the river met the lake, you could make out the ship as it came into sight, one of those classic proofs of the curvature of the earth’s surface. The tall smokestacks would appear, and the superstructure of the boat, and then gradually the lower decks would rise up over the horizon.
The Great Lakes are substantial bodies of water. Sinkings weren’t comic like the one in Mariposa. Gordon Lightfoot has a famous song about the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Cayuga was a large and powerful ship and could hold, they say, up to 1900 passengers. It docked in the river below the town, passengers came ashore, and in season I remember pallets loaded with peaches being wheeled aboard. It ran until 1959.
By then I had left Niagara, and in 1962 I took a job at Queen’s University and settled down in Kingston at the other end of Lake Ontario, the head of the St Lawrence River. Here too there was a ferry. This one made hourly crossings to a large island nearby. In later years I found myself spending weeks of summer in an old house on Wolfe Island only a few hundred feet from the ferry dock.
I would wake to the sound of the ferry loading in the morning, sunlight reflected off the water and glittering on the walls. At midday there might be sailboats visible in the distance. For some reason the yard behind the house was free of mosquitoes, and you could sit outside watching the ferry lights crossing the darkness from Kingston in the evening twilight.
The Trillium, the Harland, the Cayuga, the Wolfe Islander, the boats of summer. Something to think of on an evening of unreasonable April chill.