Paul Wilson – The Hamilton Spectator
LEIF SODERHOLM -- Soderholm Maritime Services is the only diving firm on the harbour. Divers do quick repairs to damaged ships but the firm can also do dredging with the big crane on its scow.
What's on the bottom of Hamilton Harbour? Well, divers call it yogurt. Or loon poop, except they use another four-letter word. It's really silt down there. Silt's everywhere, but it's thicker in Hamilton Harbour. If you stood in it in some places, it might be over your head. In the lake, sediment gets moved along. In our harbour, it just sits there.
Leif (rhymes with safe) Soderholm, 48, runs Hamilton's only diving company. He has been down in our harbour many times. And he wants you to know that it's getting better out there.
About 15 years ago, one of his divers got water in his helmet and ingested some of it. He got so sick he had to go to hospital. Now his men take accidental gulps without incident.
The other change is that Hamilton Harbour is clearer. That's due to the zebra mussel. It slipped into Lake Ontario a dozen years ago and began devouring the microscopic plants and animals. This can affect a lake's entire ecological balance, but murky waters do become magically clear.
"Now we routinely have good visibility in the harbour," Soderholm says. He says companies like Lloyd's Register, which monitors ship safety and reliability, now want underwater inspections done at sites such as Hamilton Harbour because the water is so clear.
We are talking to Soderholm at his office. The phone rings every now and then. It's strapped to his belt. Gulls overhead, we're sitting in the sunshine on the warm planks of the Soderholm Maritime Services' scow.
We have a front-row view of the factory waterfront from a temporary berth at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters, in the shadow of the Skyway.
Since the cell phone, Soderholm has had no desk or chair. He'd rather be outside. In his briefcase, there's a laptop and fax. He is fully plugged in.
We're sharing this scow -- which weighs 55 tons -- with Soderholm's beloved Bucyrus Erie, a 40-year-old crane with shovel that he uses for small dredging jobs and dock construction.
The engine of this armada is a battered tug built in 1957. It has no modern comforts whatsoever, but is strong and maneuverable.
Soderholm and companion, a cocker spaniel named Jutta, are about to push down the lake for the next job. It's in Scarborough, at Bluffer's Park Marina. They're doing an installation for a colony of concrete-bottomed houseboats designed for year-round living.
Soderholm lives on firm ground, in Westdale. He was born in Loviisa, Finland, where the family had a farm. They came to Canada when Soderholm was a boy. On a church outing here, he got to use some scuba gear.
"It was for about three minutes in four feet of water. But you didn't have to come up. You could stay under. That was magical." So he became a diver.
He remembers an early job in Hamilton Harbour where he wore the old Mark V suit – brass helmet, breast plate, weight belt and heavy boots. In Port Colborne, he had to swim several hundred feet into an intake off the lake. You get danger pay for that kind of work, but he was hard to scare.
In 1975, his best friend took on a job in the Welland Canal. He was doing a pipe inspection, lost his life line, got trapped under the ice and searched for the entry hole until his air ran out.
Basic safety rules were broken there. Soderholm knows why they must be followed. He has five full-time divers, who double as concrete workers, boat operators, underwater welders. Hourly rates start at about $18, rise to over $30.
On behalf of Hamilton police, Soderholm's crew removes bodies from the harbour. They also dive for stolen cars and weapons ditched in a hurry.
But the work of choice, the work that pays best and is most appreciated, is on the ships. A ship gets a hole in its shell. It is not hard for this to happen. Soderholm asks us to picture an egg getting smashed with a hammer -- that's the force with which a vessel can hit a pier or any solid object the wrong way.
The ship might not be sinking, but regulations say it can't move until any damage is investigated. So the owner of that vessel wants fast action.
Soderholm can usually have a crew at the scene within a couple of hours, day or night, and do a patch or just assess the damage. He services lakers and salties anywhere within a four-hour drive of Hamilton.
Soderholm does not dive anymore himself. He had several heart operations and his valves were leaking badly. There is no fat on him now -- 162 pounds on a six-foot-two frame -- but he used to be a real scarecrow.
"I was all drawn, dark eyes. I would have died in a couple of years."
But then doctors did something new. They repaired his heart with grafts of Dacron, a material used for sails and even the odd wetsuit. Soderholm was a new man, with a good grasp on what's important. "I haven't turned into a wild and crazy man, but now I live every day as if it's my last."
Each winter, he goes somewhere far away -- Thailand, India, Hong Kong.
Come spring, it's back to paradise, back to Hamilton Harbour.