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A race to catch Leon Falk Jr.

Leon Falk Jr.

It was Friday, August 16th, 1985 and that evening I decided to set the alarm on my new digital clock for the first time. I told my Mom to please make sure that I didn't sleep through my alarm because the following morning there was a REALLY important ship coming down the canal. So, with the confidence that I would be awakened early the following morning I went to bed excited for what was to come the next day.

I was 14 years old at the time and my parents had pretty much accepted the knowledge that I was by then a very avid ship watcher. The Kodak 126 camera which they'd given me for Christmas (I mean that Santa brought) in 1981 had only a few months before, been replaced with a new 35mm Minolta XG-1 camera that had been given to me by Roger Chapman in March of ‘85. With that I knew I had graduated to a real camera and I was all set for what was to come Saturday morning, August 17th.

I woke up to see sunlight beaming across my bedroom window and thought - aaahhh sweet the sun is out... Then I suddenly thought "OMG THE SUN IS OUT..!!!" - why am I still in bed..??? I jumped up out of bed, stumbled over to my desk where I'd set up the alarm clock and sank as I realized I had not been awakened in time... As I became more aware of the time my thoughts went to - O NO. I missed the ship..!!!!! MOMMMM.... !!!!! Lol...

Back then we lived on a street which was situated at a right angle to lock 2 of the Welland Canal. Every day I would stand on my bed, slide the window open then look down the street to see if any ships were there.. Day or night, hot or cold, rain or snow, I would open that window and look to see what was down the street in the lock.. Back then I still had the old BMX bike that I’d had for a number of years, painted with blue tremclad, a chain that was so over oiled that my pants were blackened from peddling and 2 clothes pins which were permanently attached to the front forks for those old hockey cards.. You know you’re from the ‘70s or ‘80s if you remember that.. Lol.

Without even being really awake I ran out into the kitchen and in a great fever called the old Welland Canal code-a-phone to see where the ship was and of course back then we had the old ROTARY PHONE!! Omg life was so unfair at that moment. Lol. Then the guy on the recording was taking his sweet old time saying allllllllllllll the upbound ships first. Omgaaaaawwwwwwdd the world was coming to an end I thought... Then finally “LEON FALK JR. - departed from lock 2 downbound” around 07:30 I believe which was great except that it was just after 08:00. O NOO......

Back then there was no paved bike path along the canal. It was instead nothing more than a deep rut in the tall grass which was the worst thing in the world to ride a bike on. What was worse though was that I had no time to put new hockey cards on the forks - I had to GOOOOO. It was a very hot summer day but that didn’t stop me from peddling as hard as I could on my cool old bike that only had 1 sprocket front and back - remember those..?? No gears at all. Speed came from peddling REALLY fast. The ride from lock 2 to lock 1 that morning seemed like an eternity but as I neared lock 1 I saw that I had in fact made it in time though without time to spare as she had already cleared the lock.

Remember what good shape we were all in as kids. The heat didn’t bother us, the sun didn’t keep us inside and no matter how slow BMX bikes were they were still cool. That morning though I had to pedal like HELL - there wasn’t even time for a drink from the water bottle I had attached to my bike frame. Down the east side of lock 1 I raced, down the oil soaked dirt road by the pilot dock and on towards the road that led to the end of the piers - no fences or gates back then...

Finally the end of the pier was in sight and for anyone who has walked down the east pier you know how far it is to the end. Had I made it I thought..?? Rounding the last turn at the end of the pier I looked back to see LEON FALK Jr. making her way past the Coast Guard station heading for the piers, only a few minutes away. As I continued peddling towards the end of the pier, only a few hundred feet away, I’ll always remember the loud reception I received from Don Dube, Doug St. Amand and Jim Sprunt - 3 very animated fellas. If you knew Don, Doug or Jim you’ll know what I mean. Lol.

So, with only minutes to spare I got there in time to see LEON FALK Jr. depart the canal for the last time... Saturday, August 17th, 1985...

Most people will never give ships a second look. Most will never give a thought to all those who sail today and beyond that to all those who have sailed through the decades long past. Few will consider all the families that were raised thanks to those who worked upon the Great Lakes and even fewer will remember the ships that have long since sailed into history.

With the passage of the old fleets those of us who love doing this have been witness to an industry in a constant state of change. For many of us the past is a loss too great to fully appreciate what exists today although we have been fortunate. Our photography has preserved all that once was.