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Sunday, June 28, 2015, in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin

Hi all. Well, it’s been two weeks since I wrote, so this letter won’t bring us up to where we are in Sturgeon Bay, but I promise that the next one will, and I’ll try to write again during this week to catch up. I just don’t want to break any email boxes with the length of my rambling. Last time I wrote, we had just arrived in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

There’s one Sault Sainte Marie (or just Soo) on the Canadian side of the border and another on the American side. The city once traversed the St. Mary River, but the treaty that ended the War of 1812 established the river as the border, and the city was split. The International Bridge connects the two cities for autos, the only way to cross by land for 1000 kilometers (we’re metric here in Canada, eh?)

Two canals avoid the river’s rapids (the “sault” in the name comes from the French for “leap” or “jump” as remembered in somersault. There are two canals for maritime traffic going between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan: one on the US side for serious cargo ships and the other on the Canadian side updated from the oldest canal to accommodate recreational vessels.

The trip to the Canadian city took all morning, a cold but pleasant voyage. We weren’t changing lakes, so we didn’t come through any locks. The last third of the time was devoted to navigating the channels leading to the harbor, all marked with tiny red and green buoys and surrounded by the loveliest scenery I’d encountered since we’d been in the Lakes. Rocky shores led to mountainous walls alongside the channel, densely covered with pine. At times I was reminded of Maine; sometimes I thought about Norway’s tiny and picturesque Blindleia. The channel would have been easy to navigate even if Art hadn’t already put the entire route on autopilot at pinpoint accuracy; much of the commercial channel is divided for inbound and outbound traffic by land or a watery virtual medial strip.

We didn’t see much commercial traffic, but what we saw were mostly local lake freighters, distinctive because they are narrower and longer than their salt-water counterparts, and the bridge and superstructure are on the bow rather than the stern of the boat. They carry bulk cargo such as limestone, iron ore, grain, coal or salt from the mines to cities elsewhere on the lakes.

We arrived at Sault Ste. Marie, to the Roberta Bondar Marina, named for the first Canadian female astronaut, and escorted to a berth at the end of the relatively empty dock, maybe 15 to 20 percent occupied. We got settled in, and then took our first walk through the business area of town, and ate lunch at a place I’d picked out from glowing (and well-deserved) reviews online.

The main part of town looks not very different from the way it must have looked decades ago. Sure, the shops are affordable, but they’re also likely to be single proprietor shops; not a chain retailer to be seen, I think. On the other hand, the Station Mall adjacent to downtown sits on a mall-sized plot of reclaimed land. Anchored by a Sears at one end and a Walmart Superstore at the other, the mall was crowded and the food court was jammed at lunchtime. I had to conclude that the mall simply sucked the life out of local commerce.

Art was beginning to fret about a leak he saw in the forward part of the boat. His initial diagnosis was that the leak originated in the washer-dryer in the guest cabin; then some of his data led him to question that conclusion. After a conversation with someone knowledgeable in a future port he came up with a new theory that the leak originated from the galley sink. To test that, we decided to stop washing dishes most of the day.

That’s not a giant change for us: we do a few dishes after breakfast and a lot of dishes after dinner, but nothing else, because we go out for lunch virtually every day. But to further Art’s diagnostic capabilities, I picked up paper and Styrofoam cups, plates, bowls and utensils at the Walmart down the street.

I should have noticed that we’d been out for weeks without some debilitating disruption to life aboard. The leak had just been an annoyance, not a game-changer. But during an admittedly marathon session at dinnertime, the giant convection microwave oven went dark. At first, we remembered a time in the previous year where the temperature sensor stopped it temporarily. This time, all evening, it never came back to life, nor did it revive in the morning.

Luckily, Sharp still makes the same model, and it’s available on Amazon Prime, if only in the US. We were planning to cross the river for our reentry into the US, so the arrival of the oven would match or nearly match the arrival of us. In the meantime, Walmart solved our interim problem of being without a microwave; we bought their cheapest model for about the price of an avoided dinner out.

And, to add to our list of to-dos, the electric plug into the pedestal decided to take a walk in the middle of the night. Art had plugged it in, but it seemed like it wasn’t completely secure. But it had worked for a few days already. At 3:00 AM, the power went off, and then it came back on, and then off, and so on, making little crackling sounds that are particularly unnerving when everything around you is pitch black and quiet. Art went out to the electrical connection and rigged something up to hold the plug tighter. I admit that I was less supportive and more terrified watching him walk around on a balance beam of a dock (okay, it’s a few feet wide and easy to stay on). But the idea of someone falling into the freezing lake water is awful even during the day; at night, it’s unthinkable.

The marina is situated in the main park in town that includes a large pavilion and a small patch of grass which hosted the Saturday morning farmer’s market. Like other markets in this area, there weren’t all that many locally grown vegetables other than rhubarb, which was on every other table.

From the market, we walked along the waterfront to a different marketplace, an indoor and outdoor market that opens three days a week. This one had a guitarist performing, tents for the kids, food trucks, and an area providing goods for pets. The indoors included vendors of fish products and lots of bakers, and we succumbed to the temptation of an Italian fried dough called cullerelli. Someone else was selling a Finnish bread called pulla, and someone in the corner was selling Croatian food. I didn’t really consider that I’d find an international bazaar in the middle of Ontario.

Our next stop was an old lock on the Sault Ste. Marie Canal. The canal is the last link in an all-Canadian canal system between the St. Lawrence River and Lake Superior. The first lock was built in 1798, so long ago that it was hard for me to imagine. That lock was destroyed in the war of 1812. A new lock was completed in 1895, at the time, the largest in the world and the first operated electrically. When the lock was damaged in 1909, the emergency swing dam that was in place prevented a bigger tragedy. Today, the lock is limited to recreational vessels.

While we were looking at the canal, a tour boat that takes people up and back through the lock was returning to the harbor, so we got to watch the process from just alongside. Even this little lock is striking, moving the boat up or down 21 feet from one lake to the next. This tour boat, which probably carried fifty or a hundred tourists, was alongside the seawall when it started, and was so low when it left that even the flag at the top of its mast was at or below the level of the seawall.

There’s a symphony orchestra in this town of 75.000. A dreary but rain-free Sunday hosted an all-day festival that culminated in an orchestra performance. One benefit of municipal marinas in small towns is that you’re frequently in the middle of the biggest municipal recreation areas, and Roberta Bondar Downtown Marina was right next door to the outsized, double-tagine-shaped pavilion used for the biggest city events. Saturday had presented the high school graduation and college commencement ceremonies, and we got to watch a band of bagpipes usher students into their next life challenges. The Sunday benefit for the orchestra scheduled a medley of different performers, beginning from the most amateur (little girls in tutus) through a variety of musical genres, like a brass band jazzing up a hymn (“Get down, Moses”, anyone?) to the orchestra itself, which was the highlight of the day. We got ourselves stamped and ran out between sets, once to run back to the boat to get more layers to fend against the afternoon chill, and another time to have a quick dinner before the symphony performance.

The Bush Plane Heritage Center occupies an old airfield hangar, a comprehensive, hands-on introduction to the world of bush planes. They’ve been around for just about all of aviation’s history, tailored to get to places that are otherwise inaccessible. They take off and land on wheels or pontoons or skis; they carry mail to places that you can’t get to on roads; and they find and put out fires that threaten to become city-threatening infernos.

Planes are artfully situated all over the main floor, with descriptions of their specifications alongside stories that depict the way they were used by bush pilots, a heroic brand of adventurer. We watched two movies, one that took us through an ordinary and slightly terrifying flight, and another that showed the complex and dangerous land and air management of a forest fire.

We’d actually seen one of the planes from this museum at work, maybe even the exact one, when we were anchored at Calvi, Corsica. The fire-fighting plane glides along the sea and sucks up so much water that it can barely lift off again. Then it positions itself above the burning trees and dumps its load.

To get to the Heritage Center, we reached it along the Hub Trail, a relatively new venue that circles the city for the benefit of walkers, bikers, rollerbladers, and in winter, snowshoes and cross-country skiers. We were serenaded by the atonal sounds of geese honking and the electronic horns of stretched-out lake freighters bellowing to each other on our side of the lock to Lake Superior. Along the route, there are supplies for people who walk their pets. If only the geese would learn to use them. It’s less a trail and more a slalom for those of us in shoes.

That’s it for now. I’ll write back soon.

Love, Karen (and Art)