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COMMENTARY

A lifetime of answering the water's call on the Canadian Riviera

FORT ERIE, Ont. — The French Riviera is a storied coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. It might even be as nice as people say. But for my money — which I’m counting in loonies these days — give me the Canadian Riviera.

That’s what I like to call the stretch of beaches on Lake Erie that begin not far from the Peace Bridge and go on past Port Colborne. Scoff if you must, but this Riviera has pretty much everything the French one does — shimmering water, sandy beaches, even beer labels in French.

I’ve spent happy parts of every summer of my 65 years in a cousin-shared cottage that our grandfather bought a century ago. I’ve lived away from Buffalo since 1982, when the Courier-Express folded, and the lakeside home with the stone hearth is a saving grace for a simple reason: When I’m here, I’m home.

It’s not in Buffalo, mind you, but we can see it from here. And by home, in this case, I’m talking about both sides of a border where Americans and Canadians share the magic of living water — meaning a matched set of Great Lakes and the swift-moving strait that connects them.

Herman Melville paid tribute to North America’s great inland waterways in Moby-Dick: “For in their interflowing aggregate, those grand fresh-water seas of ours — Erie, and Ontario, and Huron, and Superior, and Michigan — possess an ocean-like expansiveness, with many of the ocean’s noblest traits.”

All this is by way of introducing a character named Steelkilt, who’s described as a “desperado from Buffalo.” (And who, as it turns out, is a mix of noble and ignoble traits himself.)

“This Lakeman, in the land-locked heart of our America,” Melville writes, learned his trade on lakes swept by winds “as direful as any that lash the salted wave.” Thus, “though an inlander, Steelkilt was wild-ocean born, and wild-ocean nurtured; as much of an audacious mariner as any.”

I think of all this as I gaze at our golden crescent of a bay, sun glinting on the waves. Some mornings, when a haze hides the American side, the view of these waters is essentially unchanged since time immemorial.

It is as it was in the mid-19th century, when Melville wrote about his great white whale. It is as it was in the early 20th century, when our grandfather took his family by ferry across the Niagara River in the sun-splashed summers before the Peace Bridge.

The continuity of a seascape that never changes is one of the things that pulls me back, always. I can’t really return to the Ken-Ton neighborhood where I grew up; no one I know lives there anymore. But on this beach, and these shores, the cottages often stay in families for generations.

When I’m here, I get to see childhood friends on the same sand where we played childhood games. Andy Hartman comes from Denver. Molly O’Connell Hart comes from Washington, D.C. They come for the same reason we all do. The water calls them.

Andy talks about the déjà vu-ness of it all, how the old rhythms return and the years roll back. Molly talks about how the smell of lake air takes her back to a time that is never really gone.

The Canadian Riviera engages all of the senses: from the smell of lake air to the feel of a brisk swim, from the sound of lapping waves to the sight of living water — oh, and the taste of freshly grilled peameal bacon, served with melted cheddar on crusty rolls.

Every day on this bay is a family reunion. My sister lives next door, and her brood arrives from as near as Buffalo and as far as Portugal. Our son is here with his wife and their 4-year-old daughter, who has a Canada Day birthday.

Our son and daughter grew up in Arlington, Va., and live there now with their families; their love of Buffalo comes by way of Canada, thanks to all those two-week trips filled with beloved beach cousins and a lake they think of as their own.

Buffalo’s waterfront is the centerpiece of the city’s renaissance. Our splendid lakes, rapid river and thundering falls are our birthright, on both sides of the border. They are who we are.

We are, like Steelkilt, wild-ocean born and wild-ocean nurtured — by those grand freshwater seas of ours.

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