If the beach was the heart of the lower town then the harbour was its soul. A safe, natural shelter enhanced by an impressive break wall that arched out from the north side with one arm. Another ran straight out to the south, then branched into a T, one wall reaching out to almost touch the north arm, the other running south to protect the swimming beach. There was a natural segregation of age and wealth to certain parts of the lakefront, but everyone came to the harbour. They came to walk and talk, share an ice cream, gawk and gape at the boats or watch the sun settle into Lake Huron. The harbour was an unrestricted social club where it was perfectly acceptable to smile and greet complete strangers with a friendly “Evening”. Seniors mingled with young families who mingled with younger couples walking hand-in-hand. Dodges and Lincolns parked side-by-side, very egalitarian. The water and even the texture of the harbour would change with the weather. Calm, hot mornings that held the promise of a blazing summer day would find the harbour drifting with a shadow just over the water’s surface in contrast to the cooler depths. Approaching storms would show themselves in an iron-gray surface that could be whipped into a fury at a moment’s notice. Storms were that much more impressive viewed from the protective shelter of the harbour, their violence more shocking compared by the efforts to keep them at bay. Evenings would deepen the harbour’s colour to match the sky and imperfectly reflect the moon and stars. There were legends of monster pike and muskie lurking in the depths and on one occasion I saw one pulled to the surface on a stringer by the proud, breathless fisherman. I always thought those who dared to dive and swim in the harbour were fools or lunatics. The thought of even falling in still has the power to make me shudder. I mean, you had no idea what was lurking on the bottom and those years when the Great Lakes water level was really low, you could see the beckoning arms of seaweed waiting to entangle anyone crazy enough to come near. Very scary stuff for a six-year-old, or a twelve-year-old, or a thirty-year-old with a hyper-imagination.
Years ago when gas was cheap and it was OK to flaunt your wealth, the rich came to Port Elgin in their floating summer resorts, mostly from Michigan, some from Ohio, or New York and once in a while (but always looking rather shabby next to their American cousins) from the RCYC in Toronto. Mahogany and chrome, ropes neatly coiled on the deck, white vinyl bumpers over the side to protect their spotless white hulls. They came from Detroit, Grosse Pointe, Cleveland and were on their way to Tobermory, the Soo and points beyond. There were kids on board who had bicycles and motor scooters mounted out back to ride about wherever they docked. They carried their world around with them like summertime gypsies. They were tanned and beautiful and privileged, but I don’t recall feeling envious. They were just part of the scenery, odd and curious like a strange fish or a spectacular sunset. At one time there were tour boats that operated out of Port Elgin, ancient vessels captained by ancient mariners who smoked pipes and wore navy blue skipper’s caps. One was called the Restless and sailed out to Miramichi Island off Southampton. I doubt it was safe to go much beyond that. I imagine the bilge pump just barely keeping pace with the leaks. For a price, you could slosh about on the waves and get a different perspective on the harbour and the shore. At least I think so; never did try it. The popularity of sail took much away from the harbour. In the early years, the north fringe was an untended, swampy thing. There used to be an abandoned barge run aground there, a massive rusting platform that kids would scramble over to explore and do make-believe battles with make-believe pirates. But it was unsightly and soon disappeared. Fishing used to be great off the north breakwater. You would walk out on the slightly slanted inner surface but anyone who was able, walked on the narrower, 3-foot wide ridge as the waves crashed or gently slopped at your feet on the lake-ward side. Back in the days when there was a fishing industry on the lake, you could actually see schools of perch swimming in unison in the shallows among the rocks. Occasionally, as they turned, there was a glimpse of orange fading into yellow, confirming that here was a school of lake perch, real fighters for their size and tasty too. Drop in a line with a fat worm on the hook and bring home dinner, guaranteed. Overfishing, lamprey eels and pollution put an end to all of that by the mid 60’s but there was still the odd fish to catch on the lake or harbourside. I once found a little pocket of small-mouth bass in the harbour off the north shore. I would throw a cast out to the limit of my reel, then draw the spinner near the edge of some tall standing weeds. It was good fun for a couple of years. I must have left several hundred dollars worth of tackle among the rocks of the lake side of the wall. There was the added convenience of being able to walk there in about 10 minutes from the cottage on Market Street. It was also the best vantage point to watch the sunset, quiet and remote, away from the lights of the harbour that would diminish the glimmer of the first stars. There were rocks to throw and tiny green frogs to chase through the grass. The north shore became civilized with time. It was cleaned up. Landfill was trucked in. A public launching ramp was built. It became a place to throw a Frisbee or walk your dog. The shore was transformed and the fish were gone. One summer I took a panorama photo from the north shore, sweeping from east to west. Six pictures in all, each one just overlapping the other. When they were developed I matched and cut each print then taped them together to form a continuous panorama. It stayed on the wall in my father’s basement until December 31st, 1989 when the family home passed on into other hands. I still have those pictures. They’re faded now and the tape has dried and cracked. But the scene remains as fresh as yesterday.