Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Canadian Jaunt to the Falls

We owed Ontario a visit, and we had a good excuse. 

Pleasant memories abound of trips to Canada’s West Coast—shipping out of Vancouver for a voyage through the inland passage to Alaska and an excellent land tour in the Victoria area.  But, although the Geezer has a family tie to Ontario, until last week I’d only set foot in the province once, and that was a very brief visit.

My great-grandfather, Joseph Coey, whose ancestors are buried in Ireland and Scotland, served in the Canadian Army during what is known as the Fenian War. The Fenian Society was a group of Irish-Americans dedicated to seizing Canada as a way of forcing the British to leave Ireland.  That didn’t work out. Although the Fenians mounted attacks for four years starting in 1866, the Canadians prevailed and the Fenians finally gave it up.

For his part in repulsing the invaders, Joseph Coey received a 160-acre land grant in Ontario from a grateful Canadian government. My mother inherited the land. It later returned to governmental control, but that is another story.

All things considered, why not plan a trip to Ontario as a special 51st wedding anniversary gift to ourselves? And what better destination than Niagara Falls, long a symbol of romance in North America?
Our destination--26 stories up overlooking the Canadian falls in the hotel in the center of this photo topped by the red sign. Does the high-rise to the left resemble a shot glass? A local said it was built that way because the first owner was Seagram's, a famous Canadian distiller of tasty stuff often served in shot glasses.

So off we went, bolstered by sound information and suggestions from son Lee and his fiancée Karen, who had visited the falls several times. The drive from our home covers 400 miles. Half of it is on U.S. interstate highways and half on multi-lane Canadian highways of similar design. Several important things about the roads, however, were far from similar.

About half the Michigan highways leading to the northern border crossing at Sarnia were riddled with cracks, potholes, and ridges.  Improvement work was evident on only one fairly brief stretch of interstate. Much of the time, we bounced along cursing the jolts and hoping the front end of beautiful wife Sandy’s car would arrive in Canada still connected to the rest of the vehicle.

It took five minutes to clear customs and get on the bridge to Ontario. The return trip included a half-hour wait at customs. Questions were more pointed and vehicles were being waved aside for searches. Perhaps the difference could be attributed to one-way terrorism fears?

The scenery, mostly farmland interspersed in hardwood forests, is remarkably similar when driving nearly straight east from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Niagara Falls. We caught some glimpses of foliage color along the way, but we were a bit early to experience the full effect. Although unable to be awed by fall color, we were impressed by the condition of the Canadian highways we traveled.

The going was smooth. At least 90 percent of the highways were newly paved or had been in recent years. Improvement projects were under way on most of the other 10 percent.  It was a night-and-day comparison of highway quality between the two friendly countries where much is the same, including restaurant chains and building architecture. Driving on Canadian highways was a pleasure, and not just because of the lack of bumps in the road. Several characteristics were positive.

Canada has one basic highway speed limit for all vehicles--100 kilometers per hour-- not different rates for cars and trucks. That translates roughly to 62 miles per hour versus the 70 m.p.h. top limit on U.S. interstates. On the way to the falls, almost all big trucks were driving close to the speed limit in the right lanes where they are supposed to be.  All other vehicles were traveling about 5 m.p.h over the limit. There weren’t any hangups at all. I think that was because the trucks were traveling at a reasonable and consistent speed in the proper lanes and they were easy to pass and thus didn’t impede smaller vehicles.

We returned on a Friday.  All the vehicles were going about five m.p.h. faster.  The result was the same—no hang-ups. We drove out on a Tuesday. I don’t have a clue as to why everyone was in a bigger hurry on Friday than on Tuesday. We traveled during the same hours both days. An approaching weekend, perhaps?

The net result of the lower speed limit in Canada was an improvement in gas mileage for us.  We joined the crowd and drove about five m.p.h. over the limit in both countries. We got 29 miles per gallon over the 200 U.S. miles and slightly better than 31 m.p.g. for the 200 Canadian miles.

It may be unique to Ontario, but we noticed far more Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler vehicles on the road than foreign makes. The U.S. brands were more prevalent than they are even in Michigan, home of “Motown.”

The American companies have large manufacturing facilities in Ontario. Their Canadian workers were threatening to strike during our trip. Part of the reason was the manufacturers demanded new salary controls and cuts in benefits. They did that because, after many years of lower costs in Canada, it now is cheaper to build cars in the U.S. This fact was mentioned in most U.S. media accounts of the strike negotiations. It was not included in any of the Canadian news reports I saw.

That’s the good news—Canadian highways were in vastly better condition, speed limits were more environmentally friendly, “the knights of the road” exhibited better behavior that minimized congestion, and Ontario car buyers are loyal to local brands. But the news is not all good. Those responsible for considering fundamental motorist comfort apparently had king-sized bladders and a disregard of the utility of some basic information.

On the Michigan leg of our journey we pulled into three rest areas. A few more might have been welcome considering the jolts to our kidneys from the poor road surfaces, but three did the job. Canada provided no highway rest areas whatever. An uncomfortable motorist had to take an exit to a gas station or eatery to use their rest rooms. Two we visited were in small cities.

Adding distress to the inconvenience, the Canadian signs indicating exits for small cities give the city name, but not the distance to the city. Thus, when we took an exit for Paris, Ontario, expecting nearly instant relief, we were aghast to discover that Paris was six miles away, something one learns only by driving there.  It was a near thing, but we made it to a Paris gas station! The gas was a dollar a gallon more expensive than in the U.S., but the relief was worth it.

Much of the big difference in gas prices is due to higher Canadian excise taxes. Does that explain the better road surface maintenance? Probably. Eliminating costs for roadside rest areas might also be a factor.

Although Canadian signage was delinquent regarding bladder relief, it was wonderful for tourist attractions. After about 50 miles driving through relatively sign-less rural landscapes, a golf course sign seemed to pop up beside the highway every mile or two. As we neared Niagara Falls the golf course indicators gave way to winery signs at about the same intervals.
Unlike some of the newlywed visitors, we fully mature marrieds actually spent some time looking at the falls. In fact, we went behind them and as close as you safely can get in front of them. Doing that requires proper rain gear to prevent a serious drenching by falls mist. Scenes from those and other Niagara Falls adventures will be featured in the next post.

Our route led to the good stuff.  Our stay at the falls was delightful. The next post will provide some scenes and comments. We enjoyed the whole experience. Ah, Canada! All things considered, great-grandpa would be proud.


Tom Sightings said...

Interesting travelogue. Americans could learn a thing or two from Canadians, esp. about speed limits. Unfortunately, Americans laugh at the speed limit.

We've been saying we want to go to Montreal for several years now. Maybe you'll inspire us to actually make the trip . . . oops, I dunno, B can't go more than about 1 1/2 hrs. without stopping at a rest area.

Kay said...

Oh what fun, Dick! 51 years? That is wonderful! Congratulations!!!

We have always loved Canada and Canadians. They seem to love Democrats and really disliked Bush when we were there. We just had to let them know that we didn't vote for him to acquire a Canadian friend.

The falls are really an incredible sight. I hope you did the Maid of the Mist. Gosh... We didn't do the behind the falls walk. Now we'll have to go back. :-)

Then again, not having enough rest stops would be a deterrent for us since our bladders have shrunk considerably through the years.

I'll be looking forward to your next posts.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

Interesting trip. I assume you know the Niagra Escarpment wraps around the Great Lakes and ends at Lake Winnebago in WI. Dianne

PS. Congratulations. I hope we make it to 51. We celebrated 30 this year, but David is 83. Coould he make it to 104? We shall see.

JHawk23 said...

Your observance on roads sounds a lot like the difference between driving anywhere in the eastern US and anywhere in western Europe. I think one difference is that our local and state governments are typically so strapped for funds that they go the low-bidder route but get no quality in return. There are improved and longer-lasting surfaces these days but they cost more.

My wife might find the rest stop issue enervating. As an army brat, I (and my sister) had early bladder training for cross-country trips: Get in the car, "rest stop" ONLY when we stop for gas or lunch. Still seems to stand me in pretty good stead.

joared said...

Congrats on your 51st! Glad to hear you're making the most of these years together.

We would have been only a couple years behind you had my husband lived. I'm sure the Falls surrounding area has changed considerably since we drove there up the East Coast in the 60's.

Enjoyed your trip account. Mich. family has talked of our taking such a trip some time, so your description is quite informative.

(Thought sure I'd get an interesting perspective on that Green Bay game here, but guess the news media has covered it pretty thoroughly -- and the Ref. contract resolved.)

Dick Klade said...

Three words: We wuz robbed.