The Great International Steamboat Flotilla

By Gail E. and erson
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''The fleet'' steaming across Opinicon Lake on an excursion to Jones Falls.
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Rafted together, preparing to lock through.
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Entering one of the many hand-operated locks on the Rideau. We'll soon be packed in tight.
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Steve and Betty Crosby and Woodchuck. This lady (the Woodchuck, not Betty) celebrated 100 years in 1999.
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IMA subscriber Dean Merrill and Michelle Sellingham aboard SL Aggie Belle.
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View from the co-captain's seat aboard Reciproca.

The life of a steam hobbyist certainly has its ups and downs, as most of you can attest. My husband Kelly’s going through one of the “downs” these days. He’s been stinking up the place with noxious chemicals and lying on his back under his steamboat, Reciproca, scraping bubbled paint off the bottom for the last few weeks not the most pleasant of projects. He keeps shaking his head and moaning to himself “Why? Why? Why did I choose this hobby?”

When I can tell that he’s reached a new low point, that’s when I remind him of how great the “ups” can be. Like, for example, the trip we took with the boat to the 1999 Great International Steamboat Flotilla (GISF), held at Chaffey’s Lock along the Rideau Canal in Ontario.

The GISF is an annual steamboat event, held alternately in Canada and the United States, which brings together steam boaters from both sides of the border. The 1999 meet, which took place June 21-25, was headquartered at the Opinicon Inn, a rustic country resort hotel with a main lodge, several cabins situated throughout the wooded grounds, and a dining room serving some of the most delicious (and abundant) fare this side of the Arctic Circle. The Cross family, owners of the Opinicon, were marvelous hosts to the rowdy bunch which seemingly took over the place for the duration of the meet. Our condolences to them on the loss of their patriarch, Al Cross, who passed away earlier in the spring.

Flotilla organizers Bill and Diane Burwell, from Canada, and Mike Condax and C’Anne Anderson, working on the Yank side, did a great job of pulling the whole thing together, encouraging attendance, making reservations, arranging excursions, providing fuel, and taking care of all details to make sure everyone had the best boating experience possible.

The Rideau Canal extends from Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, to Kingston, a city on the St. Lawrence River, and was built after the War of 1812 to provide an alternate route for military and commercial shipping should the St. Lawrence River be blocked by American invasion. Only a few of the locks across its route been modernized; most are still operated by hand-cranked windlasses.

We arrived a couple of days early, so that we could have a chance to just hang around and relax before the real fun began, and also so that (okay, we admit it) we could get the boat off the trailer and into the water without an audience to make us self-conscious. Kelly also looked forward to some “tinker time” before the meet started.

Monday was an easy day, with lots of boats arriving, and folks going out on the water to explore the surroundings. We also learned more about the canal during a slide show by a Parks Canada ranger, and had the chance to make new pals and renew old friendships. Several readers of IMA and her sister publication, Gas Engine Magazine, were there, including Bruce Hall, Dean Merrill, Conrad Milster, and Dick Wyckoff; coincidentally, though not traveling together, all came from New York state.

Thirty-five boats in all were in attendance, and there weren’t many alike in engine size or design, which gave everyone a chance to view a great variety of motive power and ask a lot of engine questions. The state of Connecticut had the highest representation, with eight boats, followed by seven from Ontario.

Tuesday’s schedule was filled by a full-day excursion to Westport. Two and a half hours there, time to tour the town, and two and a half hours backall under a bright, hot sun and unseasonably warm temperatures. Not to mention that we were sitting on top of a boiler the whole way. Boy, that gets toasty, but what fun!

We had written in advance to get a great set of navigational charts from an organization called Friends of the Rideau, and my husband helped me learn to read them, so I got to play navigator for the trip (I like to think I’m a whiz with a road map, but this was something new). Of course, there wasn’t much danger of getting lost, since so many other boats were going the same place, but the differing speeds of the various craft really had us spread out sometimes.

The Westport trip called for us to go through two locks: Chaffey’s, which was right at our starting point; and Newboro. Locking through was a learning experience for many of us. The lockmaster and his staff directed each boat into the lock, putting some along the walls, and then fitting the others in to raft alongside and in-between (rafting means you loop a rope from your boat around something stable in the boat next to you, and hang on to the end of the rope, tight enough so that you don’t drift away aimlessly, but loosely enough to allow yourself to bob a little with the water without crunching into the other boats). By the time they were done with the task, the lock would be filled with boats, three and four abreast, fitted together like a Chinese puzzle. Then the gates would close, and up or down we’d go. Fascinating process, and a real lesson in close-quarter boat handling and etiquette.

Upon arrival at Westport, we rejuvenated ourselves with the gargantuan box lunch the Opinicon staff had packed for us, then it was time to hit the town proper to find the ice cream that everyone had been looking forward to for the whole trip. But what’s this? Intelligence reached us at the dock that the ice cream shops were closed! Unacceptable!!! We went on a forced march through the entire town until we found some creamy (and more importantly to those of us with no canopies on our boats, COLD) refreshment. It gave us a chance to enjoy all of Westport.

Luck was with us aboard Reciproca, and we had no mechanical breakdowns. Reciproca has a Blackstaffe steeple compound engine built from a casting kit, approximately 2 HP, with steam supplied by a Cliff Blackstaffe-design boiler that Kelly scratch-built himself. We find wood to be the most efficient fuel, but the boiler is so designed that it can burn either wood or coal. Top speed is about seven knots.

Our biggest difficulty was the weeds that wrapped themselves around our propeller, especially in the narrower and shallower passages we steamed through. At one point, Kelly crawled back onto the stern, looked down at the prop, and described the veil of greenery spread out behind us as reminiscent of Princess Diana’s wedding gown. It slowed us down, but couldn’t stop us.

Others weren’t so lucky, and a few fellow boaters broke down along the way. Fortunately, the Chanty, a beautiful Lord Nelson tugboat owned by Dave and Barbara Conroy which they had sailed up the Intercostals Waterway to be with us, served as “sag wagon” to pick up the stragglers.

Wednesday’s trip, a shorter one, was to Jones Falls Locks, where a series of several locks are used to negotiate the steep drop in the level of the canal. There’s lots to see here, including a restored lockmaster’s house, an operating blacksmith shop, historical displays, the acoustical marvel of a ‘whispering dam,’ and of course, an ice cream shop. The weather again was sunny and warm, which persuaded some to take a swim. That evening we all enjoyed the annual banquet and business meeting. A special ceremony, complete with cake, was held to honor the launch Woodchuck, owned by Stephen and Betty Crosby, on the occasion of her 100th birthday. Steve rescued the decaying Woodchuck from her original owners, and has done a beautiful job of restoration.

Another long trip was planned for Thursday, to the Narrows, but Kelly and I decided to just putter around the lake right close to home at a leisurely pace. In our travels we were excited to get a good look at a nesting osprey pair, and were treated to the spectacle of Papa Osprey diving for a fish in front of our boat, taking it home to Mama, and watching her feed it to the youngsters, whose fuzzy little heads were just peeping over the edge of their treetop nest. You can really see a lot when you travel in a boat powered by a nice, quiet-running steam engine.

Before we knew it, the meet was wrapped up for another year, and it was time to go home, but not before enjoying the show put on by everyone getting their boats onto their trailers and out of the water. You learn a lot watching this action, especially how not to lend a helping hand.

The next Great International Steamboat Flotilla will be held on Lake Chautauqua, in western New York state. We can’t make it to that one (we seem to operate on an every other-year rotation), but look forward to the Lee’s Mills meet on Lake Winnipesauke, New Hampshire, in September, where we hope to see lots of our steam boating friends.

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