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  • freshwater   wreck   adventures
    in the St. Lawrence's Thousand Islands
    TEXT AND POTOGRAPHY BY PETE NAWROCKY


    The town of Clayton, N.Y., is on the section of the St. Lawrence River called the Thousand Islands. This picturesque area has been a vacation destination since its first settlement. Tour boats regularly travel from one historic site to another. Local antique shops and museums entice one to stop, linger and enjoy local legend and lore.

    One of the largest draws to the town is the sportfishing industry. The St. Lawrence is known for some of the best freshwater fishing in the Northeast. Pike, muskellunge (popularly known as muskies), and large and small mouth bass are just some of the sought after species.

    Years ago, the visibility in the river averaged somewhere in the range of five to 20 feet and, occasionally, it was even lower. This was owing to the high levels of natural silt, algae and organic materials in the water. But, with the introduction of Zebra Mussels into the river and lake, the visibility has improved dramatically. Theoretically, the mussels came to this area in the bilge water of large ships. With no known predators, the mussels were unbelievably prolific. The increased visibility is owing to the filtering action of trillions of mussels. Visibility can now average more than 60 feet and, as the water cools, the algae levels drop even lower, increasing the visibility to 100 feet. The dramatic increase has been a large draw to sport divers.

    Lake Ontario is the source of the St. Lawrence River. As you travel east and get closer to the ocean, the river's salinity increases and it becomes the St. Lawrence Seaway. For hundreds of years this stretch of water has been a liquid road for commerce. It can be more than 200 feet deep and it is miles in width in some places. Its great size has allowed ships of considerable tonnage to access the Great Lakes. It is possible to travel almost side by side with ships measuring up to and occasionally more than 600 feet in length.

    Winter storms can be extremely harsh and the river bottom is littered with ships that have succumbed to the elements. Dangerous shoals have also claimed a fair share of wayward ships and their crews. The cold water has kept the wrecks in very good condition, allowing divers of all abilities to find a wreck well within their comfort zone.

    The Keystorm is a perfect example. Carrying a load of coal, the Keystorm ran into the Outer Scow Shoal on October 12, 1912. The accident occurred in a dense fog and the ship sunk in a matter of minutes. Fortunately, there was no loss of life.

    The Keystorm is intact and lies on its starboard side. At 256 feet long it allows for a diverse range of diving skills, with plenty for divers to explore. The bow is in approximately 25 feet of water, with the stern at 115 feet. The wreck has settled with its keel facing into the current, placing all the interesting parts of the ship in the lee. Divers shouldn't encounter any current if they stay close to the ship, making the surface swim to and from the boat the most strenuous part of the dive.

    The large gash in the bow that caused the sinking is easily visible on the port side. Divers can swim in and out of the pilothouse and crew's quarters with relative ease. Remember, wreck penetration is only for the properly equipped and trained.

    The Islander lies just offshore Alexandria Bay, although it is usually done as a boat dive since access can be limited at different times of the year. Built in the late 1800s, the Islander burned and sank on September 15, 1909. The wreck lies only 50 feet from shore. The relatively intact bow section is in 45 feet of water, making it a very popular site. The current in this area is slight, and the flow is actually opposite the direction of the main river at the wreck site. The bottom is very silty and care must be taken to avoid a siltout. Fortunately, the current will clear the area if this happens and good visibility is possible after a short wait. Artifact collectors still search the wreck for souvenirs.

    Advanced divers may want to try the A.E. Vickory. After striking a rock near Rock Island, this three-masted schooner sank relatively quickly. The bow is in 60 feet of water; the stern in 110. The wreck faces into the current and the only place to get out of it is the hold. The strongest flow is from the surface to 30 feet. Owing to the proximity of the shipping channel, it is very important to ascend at the downline.

    Bottle collecting is another pastime enjoyed by freshwater divers. For hundreds of years, local inhabitants have disposed of innumerable bits of glassware. Diving along the town docks is permissible, but a dive flag is required. The site is dived on a regular basis but still yields treasures regularly. Clay pipes and crystal candy dishes mixed with modern soda bottles are not uncommon finds.

    The Thousand Islands Inn and Hunt's Dive Shop provide dive support. If you are in the mood for a freshwater adventure, the St. Lawrence River will not be a disappointment.



    April 1999