I last visited the Great Lakes 20 summers ago. The Navy was conducting a three-month, 16-port recruiting Cruise to showcase the cutting-edge maritime forces to potential recruits and to show Americans from the Midwest how their tax dollars were put to good use.
In addition to recruiting and outreach, the deployment provided an opportunity to conduct multi-national operations with our eternal allies from the North. It was a golden opportunity for the Canadians and a cruise where every American Sailor dreamed of embarking.
That blistering summer in 1999, the Great Lakes was experiencing the lowest water levels in decades. Horrid tales of ships stuck pier-side for days on end due to low water levels spread.
Spring forward twenty years later, thanks to record snow falls and heavy springtime rains, the Great Lakes have recently hit record levels causing many ports to rise rapidly and flood.
That is why swimming in Lake Ontario was quite extraordinary. First with overcast skies and lower than normal temperatures the water was still a frigid mid-50s – unseasonably low for mid-June, but a refreshing feeling to my road-weary bones.
Lake Ontario, the last lake in the chain of five and the gateway to the St. Lawrence Seaway is evidently the most polluted. But in this grimy, grubby day, it was more than adequate to dip, immerse and gently tread water.
Rochester, the former home of Eastman Kodak and predominately a manufacturing town is a poster child of post-industrial urban decline.
It has a high unemployment rate with nearly a third of residents living below the poverty line. Despite losing residents the outlook for jobs is improving.
The city is experiencing a startup renaissance lately with downtown coming back from the throes of death.
After decades of decline, Kodak declared bankruptcy in 2012 and many of their buildings have been demolished or on the short list for the cutting block. But new-venture businesses are moving back to the decrepit Eastman Business Park, turning the downtrodden ghost-town into a venerable tech hub.
And Rochester can attract more than businesses. Overlooking expansive Lake Ontario, it is also home to a couple of picturesque beaches and idyllic camp grounds where New Yorkers and out-of-staters have flocked to as soon as the spring-time weather starts to break.
And Ontario Beach is where I found a welcomed respite from the stress-filled regimen of the open road. The calm lake, with crystal-clear water beckoned me to take a refreshing dip and the sub-tropical water temperatures felt relaxing, invigorating and perfectly idyllic.
This is where I realized the balmy Great Lakes had an edge over the surf-ridden seacoast. It wasn’t sunny Florida, but I didn’t have to fight over a parking spot and didn’t have to battle the crowds to find my spot on the beach.