Happy Canada Day 150 - A Michigander's Thankful Memories of Our Friendly Neighbor to the North

July 1, 2017 |

Americans, in spite of what our President says, have great neighbors to our south, and from my personal experience, to our north. 

To be quite honest, the fact that today not only is Canada Day but this year marks the 150th anniversary of Canada's independence from the United Kingdom, escaped me until a few days ago. Canada Day is less dramatic that say our Fourth of July as their independence was granted and not fought like Americans, and Canada remains part of the U.K.'s Commonwealth of Nations.

Nonetheless, celebrations are planned across the nation, and most Canadian are rightfully jubilant about this milestone. As someone who grew-up on the Michigan-Ontario border, this day reminds me of several experiences with our neighbors to the north.

One of my earliest memories of Canada was as a 5-year old in the summer of 1963 when our family visited Niagara Falls. Even though Niagara Falls was a bit of a punch line even then, the falls are a spectacular sight to behold. Unfortunately, I did not get to ride the Maid of the Mist with my four older siblings and my Dad. Maybe I was deemed too small by the operators, or maybe my parents were economizing.

On a few occasions in the mid-60s, along with several families in our Lincoln Park neighborhood, a picnic day-trip caravan to Pointe Pelee National Park on Lake Erie was organized. A short 90-minute drive from Lincoln Park, Pointe Pelee was the southernmost land in Canada. The park touted that it was on the same latitude as California - granted it was far Northern California.

Even though the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, which flows into Lake Erie famously caught fire in this era, the waters at Pointe Pelee were deemed safe, or so we were told.

Coming back from Point Pelee after a long day in the surf, the caravans would stop at a roadside corn stand to get a hot, freshly picked ear of sweet corn. I don't think I ever had corn on the cob that tasted so good.

Ask any Motown baby boomer about TOP 40 AM radio in the 1960’s and the call letters, and maybe you'll hear the singing jingo,  - C-K-L-W, the Motor City! 

Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young - great
Canadian singer-songwriters.  
A 50,000-watt flame thrower, Canadian CKLW, which was broadcast across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ont., was THE dominant force in Detroit before FM made its way into pop culture. Although my research cannot verify this, memory tells me that CKLW, either because it was the law or national pride, I cannot be sure, played lots of tunes by great Canadian singer-songwriters like Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. To this day, whenever I hear any of those three, it takes me back to listening late at night to a transistor radio. 

Speaking of Canadian radio and FM, many Detroiters and Southern Ontarians in the late 60’s and early 70’s will also remember CJOM FM. Located near the bottom of the FM spectrum, they were free-form alternative radio in the truest sense I ever heard before or after.    

Around this same time, I made my one camping trip with one of my brother's and one sister to the Pinery Provincial Park on the eastern shore of Lake Huron in Ontario. This memory is a bit fuzzier than my first trip to Niagara Falls, maybe it was the era, but the park was fabulous. Camping near the shore of an inland freshwater ocean is something to experience. I can’t say if we were in range of CJOM, but CKLW undoubtedly was. 
A summer tradition in Southeastern Michigan and Southern
Ontario, one of  three Boblo boats that ferried kids, teenagers
and parents to the popular Canadian amusement park.

Another memory of Canada for many in Motown, though many may not have realized they were making an international journey, was a trip to the Boblo Amusement Park on the Boblo Boat from Downtown Detroit or Wyandotte, Mich. Boblo Island (formally Bois Blanc Island) was on the Canadian side of the Detroit River as it opened up to the northwest corner of Lake Erie.

Geographically located in the Detroit River between Grosse Ile, Mich. and Amherstburg, Ont., Boblo Island was also located next to the Livingstone Channel. These man made channels, which were started by blasting limestone in the early 20th century and piling these huge boulders created a large, mostly lawless recreational area that straddled both countries and was populated by obnoxious Grosse Ile teenagers, of which I was one. 

By blasting the limestone, and building the large channel wall from the dredging, the limestone created a massive filtration system that formed areas of large, deep, crystal clear fresh water lakes. These lakes, or more specifically water overflow inlets, was a perfect place to learn waterskiing and partake in any number of shenanigans. 

Also, no illegal visit to the Canadian side of the river was ever complete unless you docked in Amherstburg, and walked up a few blocks to the Ontario government ran Brewers Retail Outlet for a few cases of Labatt’s or Molson’s, which were better tasting and stronger than the weak-kneed American cousins. Even though by law they were sold warm, a few bags of ice would quickly cool them down. If you had time, a trip to Duffy’s Tavern was worth the effort. 

Of course, all these visits were illegal as we should have stopped at the Customs Dock. Now and then the agents would come by and give you a friendly Canadian reminder we were breaking the law, but they knew what our intentions were. I can't imagine what it is like now seeing as you need a passport for any travel out of the U.S.  

Ironically, from what I know and have been told, the amusement park is gone and Boblo Island is now a development complete with a ferry from the Canadian side. I guess even Canadians fall prey to developers. 

Although I visited the area frequently during high school summers, during my college years the frequency fell off. However, near the end of my senior year in college, I attended the annual infamous LilliLu Memorial Day party on the beach called White Sands which was part of Livingstone Channel and connected to Boblo Island.

Without going into detail, my last visit to this area is best compared to some of the hallucinogenic experiences in Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Call it Fear and Loathing on White Sands. In retrospect, May of  1980 was an end of an era personally and nationally - months before Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy to the President, and the new get tough on drugs campaign. If this event were to happen today, it surely would have been raided by ICE, the Coast Guard, Michigan State Police, The Royal Canadian Mounties and any of the alphabet law enforcement agencies.

Although most trips I took into Canada for more than a day were in the summer, on one occasion, I had the opportunity to take the snow train that ran north from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario into the woods of northern Ontario along the Niagara Escarpment. As a side note, although the train ride was beautiful and exciting through the winter snow, another experience just outside of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. marked another milestone of sorts - my first visit to an Indian casino.

Located in between Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. and the then recently shuttered Kincheloe Airforce Base, the facility was a smoke-filled, somewhat dingy casino in what looked to be an old warehouse. As you might expect, the casino on this mid-February winters night in the Upper Peninsula was hopping - what else is there to do that time of year in the U.P of Michigan?

Though located outside of Sault Ste. Marie, I have to guess city leaders were ecstatic given the closing of Kincheloe and the loss of the area's largest employer. It might be interesting to see what sort of driver the casino has been over the last 30-plus years since that one Saturday night.

My most recent visit to Canada was in 2000 when my family made a side trip to - you guessed it - Niagara Falls. At that point, it had been 10-plus years since I had visited Canada for more than a bar run with a college friend to the "Windsor Ballet." The Falls were still flowing, and the carnie-like atmosphere of the city still retained its gaudy ambiance. 

The one difference was there seemed to be a Tim Horton's coffee shop on every corner. Now if Elk Grove could bring one of those to town, all would be right in Elk Grove.

It's been close to 17 years now since I last stepped foot in Canada. Perhaps a trip to Vancouver would be in order. Whenever I do go back, undoubtedly I'll drink some fine Canadian beer and whiskey, enjoy coffee and pastries from Tim Horton’s, and encounter some of the friendliest people in the world. 

I could go on with more, but at this point, it is probably best to congratulate the Canadians on this milestone, and to copy Bob Hope, say Thanks For the Memories!

DG - A Californian for close to 30 years, Michigan and, upon reflection, Canadian blood is still running in his veins. 



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