by Jillena Rose
Friday signaled the official beginning of river watching season for many locals thanks to the yearly opening of a sixty-two year old institution on the river—Clyde’s Drive-In.
Clyde’s has been opening every spring since 1949. The owner—Clyde Van Duesen—opened for the first time in 1949. The Drive-In is wisely located right next to the Sugar Island Ferry, a long, white flat barge with a red-trimmed navigating tower that crosses the river several times a day taking people back and forth from work to home. Just to the East of the building is the entrance to Rotary Park, a small but picturesque place where campers and local parents bring their kids to play for a few minutes at lunch or the end of the day. Clyde’s has a built-in clientele. Island hoppers come to the ferry a little early so they can park their car, step across the lot to the restaurant and enjoy a burger or a fish sandwich while they wait their turn to cross the river, and park visitors who strategically plan dog walking time to coincide with lunch or a shake break. But Clyde’s isn’t only for the locals.
License plates from all over the country and provinces in Canada are not really surprising in the line-up of cars and trucks that skirt the edge of the drive-in. Car diners typically turn their backs to the building to watch the river go by. Clyde, I am sure, approves of this position. Three of the four walls of the restaurant are floor to ceiling plate glass. Clyde knew the main attraction of his location—the river and what travels on the river. For tourists and locals alike, this is a great freighter watching location. The Soo Locks is not quite a mile west of Clyde’s, so, whether a freighter is upbound or downbound, by the time they come into view of the long flat grill behind the counter inside Clyde’s, they are moving slowly, majestically through the shipping lane, a great photo opportunity for devotees and casual observers alike. And there have been some very avid freighter watchers who’ve selected this one spot to record the comings and going of the hard-working vessels that traverse the locks. The second bench facing the river as you enter Rotary Park has a sign on the back of it:
Donated by Friends and Family of Andy La Borde
Creative Photographer, knowledgeable of Great Lakes Vessels. From Milwaukee Wi.
Please rest your bones and salute 3 long and 2 short because Andy would appreciate it.
Clyde’s has helped shape a gathering place along a river and in a city that has been the gathering place for centuries of people who come to the river to move on, to record what they see, or to remind themselves of why they stay in this quiet little town. And Clyde knows the power of these gatherings better than anyone. He met his wife at the restaurant, not long after he opened it. She was a car hop. I met both of them last May at a Mother’s Day breakfast in the basement of St Ignatius Loyola Church in St Ignace, their home. They told me about how they met and talked about the restaurant. Clyde is eighty-one now. After the gathering at church they were going to go home. Clyde was going to make dinner for his wife—hamburgers on the grill.
They’re open for the season now, until some last grey Saturday or Sunday in November when, in the silent, almost empty parking lot, workers will clean the grill, empty the coffee pots and place boards over the plate glass until next spring. And the flurry of picture takers and island hoppers will turn inward to their cars to keep warm and hurry home to gather in their kitchens until Clyde’s opens again.