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Our Shared Heritage Tour
Our Shared Heritage Tour
Notre Patrimoine Le Long des Voies Navigables
 
Schooner Lois McClure | SHIP'S LOG
MEET THE CREW
Zach Ralph
Zach Ralph
 
The uniform that he wears identifies him as a ranger with the National Park Service, and the name tag on the uniform labels him as Zach Ralph. Beneath the wide brimmed hat and grey and green uniform is him, and although his appearance is immediately associated with the wonderful ideas and values of the NPS, he's just a twenty-year-old junior at Loyola College in Maryland and a native Vermonter. He claims to have hit a turning point in his life four years ago when he went to Lille, France, with a Rotary Essex exchange program. This relatively short period of his life has brought and continues to bring him new and magnificent experiences, one of which was his acceptance as the French-speaking interpreter aboard the sailing canal boat, Lois McClure

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Departure | June 17

Zach Ralph  
 
Day 1: My Maiden Voyage
I awoke this morning with a sudden start; full of energy and excitement, despite that it was only 5:30 a.m. Today was the day that I would make my maiden voyage aboard the Lois McClure. I threw the few belongings I was allowed to have on board, due to space restrictions, into my small 1994 Saturn and headed out toward the Maritime Museum, each moment adding to my excitement and anticipation. The skies above me were clear and blue, scattered with sporadic groups of clouds, and I was in such a good mood that the enormous dark horde of clouds along the horizon ahead didn't dampen my spirits.
 
Departing Basin Harbor, Vermont
Lois McClure, C.L. Churchill and Oocher (left to right) depart for their "Our Shared Heritage Tour" from Basin Harbor, June 17, 2008.
 

Lake Champlain's calmness was disturbed only by the bustling activity coming from the deck of the Lois McClure. As I went on board to store my possessions, I could feel the enthusiasm of those who were preparing the boat to make way. It was the first time that the whole permanent crew was together. Many of the faces I recognized, but there were some that I did not. I knew that my stranger status would be short-lived, as I was going to spend the next two months in tight quarters with them all.  After placing my things in my 2x2x2 cubby, I went on deck to help make way. When the boat was ready and all of those who would take the journey were on board we had a meeting. The first to speak was our captain Roger, who as a veteran sailor knows the importance of safety and carelessness and so stressed those points. Erick, our first mate and the man behind the scenes who made the whole voyage possible spoke and so did Art the director of the Maritime Museum, each sharing their own wisdom from past Journeys along the canals and again emphasizing the importance of safety.  It was just about at this point that I realized the legitimate dangers that awaited us ahead, and it wasn't long before we started moving the dangers became a reality.
           
After I introduced myself to the crew and stressed my inexperience as a sailor to them but my willingness to learn we made way. The enormous smile slapped across my face was the only thing containing all my excitement and must have looked goofy and unpromising to the crew. As we set out we waved to our co-workers on shore who also smiled and waved, envying us for the amazing journey we were embarking on. We soon passed where Otter Creek fed into the lake.  It formed a distinct line in the water so fine that it looked as if it were drawn there, separating the muddy waters of the creek from the bluish green of the Lake.  Two reporters from the associated press were on board with us and took pictures and had interviews with the majority of the crew. It was reassuring to our cause that our small boat merited the attention of the press. The questions they asked focused on the boat and our mission, but also upon us as individuals and how we'd come to have what appeared to them as a dream job. That same question is constantly on my mind as I sit on deck and daydream, while soaking up the view of the beautiful sun swept shores and the motionless waters of the lake.
           
It wasn't before long that it came to our attention as we headed towards Burlington Harbor that there were two storms approaching - one from the north and one from the south, or at least that's what it looked like to me. As I watched the violent storms devour the once beautiful mountains my mood started to shift. The combination of the storms, the crew members' warnings about safety, and my knowledge of the boat as a not so stable water vessel with its flat hull I became frightened. The reassuring faces and comments from the crew calmed my insides down, but I was still worried. As the storms came closer and looked as if they would completely engulf us, we started to get hit by the rain. The rain passed however and we just barely missed the storms. It is my honest opinion that the high spirits aboard the ship pushed the storm away land saved us from what would have been a really rough ride.
           
A delegation from the ship, including myself, left the boat aboard the "Oocher," our inflatable speed boat, as we neared Burlington to go see the press conference. The conference was another boast of our cause and again reinforced the importance of the trip. The reassurance came from Governor Douglas, from Senator Leahy's office, from the Lake Champlain Basin Program, from representatives of both Vermont and New York Quadricentennials, and gratefully from Lois McClure herself, after whom the boat was named. They talked about the importance of cooperation between all those part of our shared heritage, as well as their own roles in helping the McClure take off. All this was emphasized by the presence of our boat which passed by and honked its horn. That tangible evidence of our voyage was all the people on shore needed to start erupting in applause and excited screams while waving at the passing boat. The rain clouds stayed away long enough so that the conference was a huge and success that put confidence into our sailors. I'd already had a taste of being on the water and so was eager to get back on board. The first day's journey brought us to an anchorage just west of a place called "the  gut." The traveling was slow and pretty uneventful, but nothing I wasn't expecting. I instead occupied myself with helping out as well as enjoying the unmistakable scenery of Lake Champlain. We made anchor, and the crew, out of exhaustion went to bed at dark, I stayed up a bit and watched the stars. I'm sure I'll learn quickly the necessity of going to bed early very shortly.
 
Day 2: Not All Fun

The error of my ways shortly became clear to me. I woke the next morning with everyone already up and about. Because this is an authentic sailing canal boat from 1862 there are the same amount of sleeping spaces as there would have been back then, which is not nearly enough for thirteen crew members to have a bed. I among others was required to set up a cot in the cargo hold with my sleeping bag as a blanket. As well as a sleeping area, the cargo hold serves as our communal living space. The cargo hold is where we hold some of our meetings, where we go to get out of the weather on deck, where we eat and make our meals, and unfortunately for me where the coffee is! One of the first lessons I learned on the boat is that once one person is up, there is no way I can sleep anymore. With my cot in the middle of the hold and everyone walking around me I looked at my cell phone clock to see that is was 5:00am. I was shocked and began to feel even more tired. On a later date when we had a day off I said to Scudder, one of the crew members, "I thought we were going to be able to sleep in today." He asked "what time did you wake up?" after I told him I woke at 7:00am, he turned to me said "well, you did."  I'll soon learn that these are the ways of a canaler.

After a breakfast of oatmeal and orange juice I was ready for the day. I helped to make way by raising the anchor. We have an authentic to the time period device on deck called a "windlass;" a simple vertical winch which is used for raising and lowering the anchor as well as the centerboard. The anchor is only ninety pounds which would not be to hard to raise if it were not for the eighty feet of thick chain which connects it to the boat. The weight of the anchor combined with that of the chain makes the job of raising the anchor, even with a windlass, very tiresome. Nate, Art's son and a senior in high school, and I each had a handle which we would pull on. Every time we pulled on the handle we would raise the anchor a couple of inches. We alternated pulling down on the handles for maximum lift power, but the process of raising eighty feet of chain at a couple of inches every pull took what felt like forever. Once the anchor was close enough we would haul it on board, clean it off and store it.  
 
My job on board is to clean below decks. Nate helped me again with my job. We started by sweeping the entire floor, from bow to stern, and port to starboard. Then we took our bucket of "Simple Green" soap and water, and our scrubbers and we began to lightly wet and scrub the entire floor to get off as much scum and dirt as possible. To get off some of the dirt requires a vigorous scrub that would draw sweat by itself.  The combination of the work and being below decks, where it can get stuffy and hot very quickly, turns what would normally be a little moisture on the forehead into a downpour of sticky sweat that covers the entire body. After we finished scrubbing Nate and I were both hot sweaty and tired.  The scrubbing however does not immediately clean the floors it leaves little pools of dirty water everywhere which are then easily mopped up to reveal a slightly cleaner floor. The cleanliness of the floor is significant; the appearance however is hardly noticeable. We then went on deck to help Tom, with scrubbing decks, this process requires constantly hosing the deck to get it wet while some one scrubs to get off the dirt and then spraying away the dirty water, and this is also done to the entire deck. Under the glaring sun, this job is not much better then scrubbing the stuffy hold. It is true that compared to many other jobs my job aboard the Lois McClure is a dream job, but it occurred to me after all this work that it is not all fun as it might appear at first glance.

We then made our way towards the Canadian border. The day's events were dominated by the sporadic rain showers. At first it was sunny and so we all had our light clothes on, and then it started to rain and so we would put our rain clothes on. After a little bit the rains would stop and the sun came out making the rain clothes too hot and so we changed out of them and by the time we were back on deck it would start raining again. This process continued throughout the entire day making the majority of the trip towards the border uncomfortable. We eventually started to come across signs on the water in French and English which notified us of our approach towards Canada. A small white house soon came into our view on the port side of the river. We made anchor parallel to the house and sent out the Oocher to the small customs house. Erick and Art soon returned, and as expected had no problems. We raised the anchor and made our way towards St-Jean, menaced by the rain the whole way. There was an almost immediate change in scenery as we passed along the Canadian waterway. The houses were different, the land was very flat with no mountains in site, and there was also a different feeling in my as if my senses told me that I was no longer in the United States. 
 
The Lois McClure crew is greeted by Parcs Canada
Lois McClure crew is warmly welcomed by Parcs Canada staff. 
 
The ride was calm and soothing and I fell asleep with my chin on my chest while watching the shores go by and listening to the gentle lapping of the water against the sides of the boat. Before long the town of St-Jean came into view. From what I saw of it, it was a small river community, but because we did not stay there long I did not get a chance to explore the town and so we will know more about it when we stop there on our way back.
 
It was at St-Jean that we met our first volunteer, Bernard. Bernard works for the canal system as a park ranger for Parcs Canada. Along with Bernard were a group of people form the local historical society who all came on board the boat. Erick was talking to them and was about to jump into his introduction of the boat when his father John volunteered me for the job. They all turned to me, staring with curious eyes at this young American dressed in a bizarre uniform they had never seen. I froze at first, returning their gaze with an equal amount of curiosity and confusion. All at once everything that I had been practicing poured out of my mouth without any form or reason and with a lot of incorrect words. I was not ready for the presentation since I thought I would give my first interpretation in French 4 days later.  With my limited vocabulary I did my best, but it was clear to me and to them that I needed some practice.  Luckily Bernard, who is Canadian speaks both French and English very well and was a valuable asset in interpreting for the group. Bernard's knowledge of the canals and of English and French will and has played a very important role on the boat. With the adrenaline still pumping through my veins I went to be that night, and also thinking about the day to come on the canals.
 

Special Thanks To:
 
The Lake Champlain Basin Program for organizing the Press Event in Burlington.
PHONE: (802) 475-2022 · WEB: www.lcmm.org · EMAIL: info@lcmm.org