Monday, December 24, 2007

Urban renewal

The December 22 Green Bay Press-Gazette brings word that the old North Point Light (shown here in 1927), on the shores of Lake Michigan in what is now urban Milwaukee, has recently been fully restored.

Like many Great Lakes lights, the North Point Light went into service as shipping on the Great Lakes boomed in the middle of the nineteenth century (1855 in the North Point light's case). It was moved once due to shoreline erosion before it eventually fell into disuse, and disrepair, in 1994.

But fortunately, the old light had a group of willing volunteers in its corner. Funds were raised, the federal government chipped in US$1.6 million, and the seventy-four-foot tower was restored in 2006. Just months ago, the nearby keepers' dwelling was also given a much-needed facelift, a move that fully returned the site to its early twentieth-century grandeur.

And there are bigger plans afoot. The light is being thrown open to the public, with guided tours and visits on the agenda for the summer months. The volunteers, who dub themselves the North Point Lighthouse Friends, also envision a maritime museum taking up residence in the old keepers' quarters.

You can read the Press-Gazette story here.

Visit the impressive North Point Lighthouse web site here.

This will be my last posting for 2007, as Leeward Press takes a much-needed holiday siesta. Look for more, including preordering information on my first book, Lake Erie Stories (due out in May), early in the new year.

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Chicago's Christmas Tree Ship

Yes, there is even a holiday-themed Great Lakes shipwreck story. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the happiest of endings.

On November 21, 1912, the weatherbeaten three-masted schooner Rouse Simmons prepared to leave Manistique, in northern Michigan, bound for Chicago. Aboard were nine men commanded by Herman Schuenemann. Their cargo? A load of Christmas trees, of course.

It was a routine run for the old schooner, which had been hauling the trees to the city for the past few years. As the boat neared port, eager families, many of them from Chicago's lower classes, would gather at the dock in order to have the pleasure of buying their trees right then and there, fresh from the northern forests. Before long, the deliveries by the Christmas Tree Ship, as the Simmons was more commonly known, became something of a Chicago tradition.

But the Simmons, built way back in 1868, was not a young vessel, and the trade in Christmas trees was not easy on her. Her owners literally stuffed her hold and piled trees high on her deck before she made the Lake Michigan crossing. The run, for obvious reasons, had to be completed in November, when the weather on Lake Michigan can be downright frightening.

What exactly happened after the Simmons left Manistique is unclear. But she was spotted the following day rolling heavily in a terrible early winter storm off Kewanee, Wisconsin, her sails shredded and her deck covered with ice. But with the lake in such a frenzy, there was no hope of rescuing her besieged crew.

Meanwhile, on the docks at Chicago her customers waited. When she failed to materialize, they hoped she had just been waylaid by the storm. Unfortunately, she would never again bring her load of Christmas trees to the Windy City. And everyone's worst fears were confirmed when, a few days later, some shattered wreckage from the Simmons washed ashore in Michigan.

The wreck itself was not found until the 1970s when divers stumbled across the Simmons, resting upright and quite peacefully on the bottom of Lake Michigan, very much by accident. Her hold, of course, was still full of its festive cargo. You can see pictures here.

To read Great Lakes author James Donahue's account of the Simmons' last voyage, click here.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Visual distraction

Lately, I've really begun to sink my teeth into the visual research for the Lake Erie book. I used to do a lot of this type of thing when I worked as a production editor at James Lorimer & Company, a small Canadian publishing house that has put out a number of history titles over the years. It was there, in fact, that the idea for this book was born.

One of the things I adore about visual research is that many of the archival images (paintings, woodcuts, and whatnot) that I turn up reveal much more about the beliefs and prejudices of the time they were created than they do about the events they portray. Case in point:

This is a seventeenth-century impression of the construction of the Griffon, the first ship ever to set sail on Lake Erie, in 1679. The Griffon was the brainchild of the explorer Rene Robert, Cavelier de La Salle. The enterprising La Salle, who would go on to gain fame for his explorations of the Mississippi River and Louisiana, planned to use the boat to haul furs out of the American Midwest and on to Montreal, where they would be processed and sent on to Europe for sale.

The image, however, looks a lot more like a scene from Tahiti than from the banks of the Niagara River, where the Griffon was built and launched. In the foreground, scantily clad Native warriors gape at the partially constructed vessel. Meanwhile, two French shipwrights forge iron beneath a very palmish-looking tree that looks like nothing I've ever come across in Escarpment country. Speaking of the Escarpment, I suppose it is represented by the towering mountains lining the background.

I'm looking forward to pressing even further on. In the end, Lake Erie: Struggle and Survival on a Freshwater Ocean will contain between 20 and 30 images, consisting of a mix of sites I've photographed myself and historical artworks like this.

If I happen across any more interesting ones, I'll let you know.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Gales of November II

Dennis Hale is a Great Lakes veteran with a sad tale to tell.

On the night of November 29, 1966, Hale was a crewman aboard the 600-foot freighter Daniel J. Morrell. With twenty-nine men aboard, the Morrell was making her last trip of the 1966 navigation season, sailing north on Lake Huron on her way to pick up a load of iron ore near Duluth, Minnesota. The crews of the big lakers almost universally dread the last trip. It comes at a time when the weather on the Great Lakes is at its worst, and the crews, by this point exhausted from sailing the big ships to too many port towns to mention, are distracted by thoughts of getting home to deeply missed loved ones and the long, restful winter layover.

The crew of the Morrell was no different. And neither was this finale to the shipping season. On that fateful November night, Lake Huron was in a frenzy, lashed by a storm of a severity not seen in many years. Seventy-mile-per-hour winds whipped the boat, and pushed the waves up to a height greater than the towering Morrell herself. It was tough going for the aged freighter, now sixty years old and made of steel that had been forged way back in the early 1900s.

Hale was in his bunk, in the Morrell's forward section, when the boat literally cracked in half at about two in the morning. Apart from the sickening sound of the splitting hull, which came apart about midship, the power went out (the Morrell's generators were located in the stern section), leaving Hale to struggle to the main deck in the pitch dark wearing nothing but his underwear, a coat, and a lifejacket. When he got there, he was confronted by a truly unbelievable spectacle: the Morrell's stern section, still driven by her powerful engines and fully lit up, was literally bashing away at the bow, where the terrified crew was now gathered. After several moments of this violent death struggle, the stern finally broke away and literally sailed off into the night, a short-lived vessel all its own. (The stern would later be found on the bottom of the lake nearly five miles from the wreckage of the Morrell's bow.)

Soon enough, the last redoubt of the Morrell's beleaguered crew began to slip beneath the swirling waves and Hale, with none of the protection of today's cold weather gear, found himself immersed in Lake Huron's icy grip. Knowing all too well that he would not last long in such conditions, he managed to swim to a nearby raft, which was occupied by three of his shipmates.

Dennis Hale would be the only one of the Daniel J. Morrell's crew to ever return home. The other men in the raft succumbed to hypothermia in the nearly forty hours it took for rescuers to get to them, and the rest, presumably, didn't last long after the bow section went down.

Hale continues to tell the story of the loss of the Daniel J. Morrell, and even wrote a book about his experience to make sure his lost crewmates aren't forgotten.

Dennis Hale was in Ashtabula, Ohio, last week. You can read more, from the Ashtabula Star-Beacon, here.

You can read more about the Daniel J. Morrell here.

For more on Dennis Hale's book, click here.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A tale of two ferries

Today's Toronto Sun carries a story about the long and troubled effort to bring regular ferry service across Lake Ontario between Toronto and New York State.

The latest effort, which went into service in 2004 in the form of a gleaming new "fast ferry" called alternately the Spirit of Ontario and the Breeze, was a bust two-times over, going bankrupt under the stewardship of both a private company and the city of Rochester. The major obstacle was too little passenger traffic, largely due to competition with freeways and trains, a lack of official permission to carry trucks, and indifference to the whole project on the Toronto end, where it took more than two years to build a suitable customs terminal for the boat.

In its usual better-late-than-never style, Toronto finally got around to finishing the facility. But it wasn't enough to save the beleaguered Spirit. Now little more than a curiosity, the multi-storey, futuristic-looking customs terminal stands not far from Cherry Beach, where it waits in silence to welcome a ferry that will never come.

The Spirit, meanwhile, has been dispatched to Spain, where she carries passengers on to Morocco under the catchy name Tanger Jet II.

To read the Toronto Sun story, click here.

Meanwhile, down Lake Erie way, late-season troubles are bedeviling the massive car ferry MV Jiimaan, which plies the waters between Kingsville and Leamington and Pelee Island. Last week, the rather top-heavy looking craft was lashed by high winds and, depending on who you believe, was either blown off course and ran over a fishing net or the net was blown into the boat's path. In any case, one of her engines was disabled by the net, which had tangled itself around a propeller shaft. Worse, the engine went down just as she was attempting to dock at Kingsville, where the harbour is a tight fit for the Jiimaan to begin with.

Down to only one engine, docking in Kingsville was no longer possible, so the captain wisely decided to divert to the larger Leamington Dock, several kilometres to the east. There, the Jiimaan unloaded a human cargo consisting of twenty-one undoubtedly shaken passengers.

But it didn't all end well. A spokesperson described the cost involved in repairing the Jiimaan's propeller shaft as "significant."

To read the Windsor Star story about the Jiimaan's troubles, click here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Homeward bound

And on the eve of Monday, November 12, 2007, it was finished. Three and a half years and 70,994 words from its humble beginnings as an idea for a little book about Pelee Island, Lake Erie: Struggle and Survival on a Freshwater Ocean staggered, with her final ounce of strength, over the finish line. She is now a fully formed manuscript.

It's not quite all done, mind you. There will be a good bit of back-and-forth between me and the editorial staff about proposed changes to the copy, and I still have to order, or scan myself, about a dozen or so archival images; and of course there will be marketing to do, mainly in the form of signings and readings. But I can at last say that the final word has been conceived, formed, and thrust upon the page (or monitor, as it were).


The Dundurn Press spring catalogue is slated to come out in early December. Thereupon, I will be able to show you the cover.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Where the boys aren't

Think Port Dover and you likely think of only one thing -- choppers. Dover, you see, is beset by thousands of large, hairy men on their shiny, crackling steeds every time a Friday falls on the 13th of the month. Summer, fall, even winter -- no matter what. The only thing the weather dictates is how hardcore those who show up really are. It's a curious tradition that sets this little tourism- and fishing-centred hamlet apart from any other Lake Erie community.

So, if you're like me, there is only one weekend that you should avoid Dover in 2008: the one that starts on June 13.

But in November, you'll find only fishermen (Dover is one of the hubs of the Lake Erie commercial fishing fleet) a few locals putting in time behind the counters of the little restaurants and gift shops that line the main drag, and the retired, many of whom, last Sunday, were taking advantage of a bit of mild weather to do a little fishing of their own off the pier.

I was in Dover last weekend to visit its impressive museum as part of my research for the Lake Erie book. The Port Dover Harbour Museum is large for a community museum, and very well kept by curator Ian Bell and his staff. Part of it occupies an old fisherman's net shanty. In that section, you'll find a raft of fishing paraphernalia -- from nets to seventies-era radars and fish finders -- and volumes of stories about the men who, for as long as there have been people on Lake Erie, have made a perilous, often bare-subsistence living fishing the lake's often tricky waters. Oddly, it's about the only place with such a complete fishing exhibit anywhere around the lake. Trust me, I've looked.

When I was done there, I did a bit of wandering. Here are a couple fall snaps of Dover and her environs:

The refuse of summer in the form of the Al's Fresh-Cut Fries & Things trailer in Hagersville, on the way in to Dover. I leave the "& Things" bit to your imagination.

The so-called Lake Erie Cross, placed up on a hill overlooking the harbour at Dover by Parks Canada in 1922. The monument commemorates French missionaries Francois Dollier de Casson and Rene de Brehant de Galinee, who were the first Europeans to winter on Lake Erie in 1669-70. It was part of an amazing year-long ordeal in which the pair, with a small party, paddled and hiked all the way from Montreal, across Lakes Erie and Ontario, up Lake Huron as far as the Straits of Mackinac before making their way back via the Ottawa River. When Galinee was here, he wrote of the Dover area in his journal as "the earthly paradise of Canada."

A view of the Lynn River from the site where Dollier and Galinee spent the winter of 1669-70 tucked away in two small buildings they constructed. Amazingly, you can still make out the outlines of the buildings, and the remnants of the earthworks, on the site.

A barn in the nearby whistlestop of Jarvis celebrates the annual Corn Fest all year long. Unfortunately, I was too late to take the actual event in this time. Perhaps next fall. The Harleys should be cleared out by then.

For the Port Dover Harbour Museum, click here.

For the Port Dover official site, click here.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Down the drain

Anyone who spent time on the Great Lakes this summer probably knows that it's been a bad year for water levels.

How bad? The upper lakes are the worst affected, with Lake Superior setting an average low in September that hasn't been seen since the U.S. government started keeping track over 147 years ago (the effects are clearly visible in these photos, taken near Duluth, Minnesota). The good news is that Superior is up slightly, though still down overall, because of record rainfall over the past few weeks.

In turn, the tourism business has been suffering, and freighters have been loaded lighter and lighter to deal with the dropping levels, meaning millions of dollars in lost revenue. On Georgian Bay, cottagers have been building ever-longer docks over the expanding mucky weed beds that mark the spots where they used to tie up their boats.

So what's the culprit? Some say the lakes are showing early signs of stress due to climate change. Others point to dredging of the St. Clair River in the 1960s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that was intended to, ironically, allow larger ships to pass between Lakes Erie and Huron. The dredging, they claim, has led to erosion of the riverbed, creating an ever-expanding and faster-flowing St. Clair, which essentially drains the upper lakes of water. One study pegs the water loss through the St. Clair "drain plug" at over 9 BILLION litres per day.

Answers are scarce. But they'll have to be found soon if we're to preserve this crucial water resource for future generations.

To read more about the Great Lakes' water-level woes, click on the links below.

Detroit Free Press
Soo Today
Kingston Whig Standard

Photos courtesy University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Program.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Up she rises

It was sunny and 24C here in Toronto today, and local mariners sensed this might be the last chance they'd get to get their boats out in decent weather. So, all across the city (and I'd wager the whole Great Lakes), cranes, winches, and boat ramps were in overdrive as an annual autumn ritual -- the boat pull-out -- hit full stride.

Swimming against the current, as usual, I decided to put my small craft in and go for a paddle. I was rewarded with a front-row seat near a local marina down on the harbour. Here is an old beauty called the Yali, or some such, that looks like she's seen her fair share of cranes:

Step 1: Slide slings under boat. Once chain is taut, quickly evacuate before lifting begins. Wonder if boat insurance policy really covers this.

Step 2: Clear water. Pray to Poseidon, benevolent god of the sea, that the hull holds together.

Step 3: The really tense part where the boat is slung out over the cement wharf, which would destroy her instantly if the line snapped and she came crashing down. The good news? The innocent bystanders would cushion the blow somewhat.

Step 4: White knuckle time. She is, as they say, in God's hands now.

Step 5: Home free. Whisper a silent thanks to Poseidon for watching over your tiny vessel and throw a tarp over the old girl. Promptly forget about her until spring, when it's time to paint that nasty algae-encrusted bottom. Again.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Summer in overtime

This is not a scene from an antiwar protest. Nor has there been an outbreak of labour unrest in the forests of eastern Ontario. This is my wife, Amy, on a late season paddling trip we took last weekend to Frontenac Provincial Park, near Kingston, Ontario.

After aborting (narrowly) an overnight paddle on Georgian Bay due to a forecast of high winds and rain, we opted for Frontenac, which is pretty well the only provincial park still open for camping.

One of the most underrated parks in Ontario's system, Frontenac is rife with gorgeous little backcountry lakes. Even more appealing, there is no car camping allowed here -- the sites are all either hike- or paddle-in, and the lovely one we set up on was at the far end of Birch Lake, about an hour's paddle from the put-in, the aptly named Snug Harbour. Wet suits were the order of the day; even though the water was definitely survivable, an unprotected bath was not something we wanted to chance.

As expected, there was no one there, and this was the source of much rejoicing as we pulled the boats up at the site, which was one of about six clustered together on a small peninsula. Each had a tent pad, a small bench, and a fire ring -- luxuries in the backcountry.

About an hour after we landed, our solitude was briefly interrupted by a small group of hikers, who lumbered out of the woods just as we were unloading the last of the gear from the boats. It's always startling to encounter other people in the forest on a windy, 8C fall day, but there they were. They said little, just a quick greeting as they passed by and set up on a neighbouring site. At this time of the year, it seems, everyone is out here for the same reason -- the silence -- and no one wants to rob their neighbour of even one moment of it.

As night set in, the temperature steadily fell, finally settling at a rather brisk, shall we say, 1C. About forty minutes after sundown we decided to give up on the outdoors, even though we had a toasty fire going, and huddled up in the tent under a heavy-duty down sleeping bag.

Decked out in several layers, including hats and gloves, both of us quickly fell into a deep sleep, which came to an end almost eleven hours later, when the gentle click-clack of tent poles in the near distance finally roused us. Our neighbours, it seems, were early birds, and were almost completely packed up and ready to get back on their way by the time we emerged from the tent. It didn't rain, thankfully, and once outside we were greeted by a different day entirely. Sunny and bright, it beckoned us back out onto the lake for the paddle back to the car (which we did an admirable job of dragging out).

I find that as I get older I'm becoming more and more enamoured of these trips, far away, as they are, from society's hustle. The result is to keep pushing deeper and deeper into what most people call the off-season in search of an even more unique experience.

Can igloo building be far behind?

Monday, October 15, 2007

The handover

The Lake Erie book recently passed an important milestone: we have made it through "substantive editing" (with great thanks to my editor, Tony Hawke at Dundurn Press), and now we're on to the shorter strokes, or copy editing. This is essentially where all my boneheaded typos, disorganized prose, missing information, and other issues are sorted out. Think "polishing."

It's a big hurdle to have cleared, especially for a manuscript that's not quite written yet (I'm still working on the introduction). And while I'm dying to tell you all about what's in it, contractually I probably can't. But there will be lots of what Lake Erie's famous for, as you can probably guess: shipwrecks, tales of rumrunning, lighthouses, settlers struggling to carve out a life for themselves in unforgiving frontier country. Stuff like that. But I hope to throw a few curveballs your way, too. Like the time when ... well, sorry. You'll have to wait for '08. May to be precise.

Except for this little bit: If you haven't read it already, you can find an excerpt that I've posted online here.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Another day, another wreck

Chalk up another one for Great Lakes shipwreck hunters Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville.

The pair, who are avid recreational divers and shipwreck devotees from upstate New York, identified the wreck of the Canadian schooner Orcadian (which would have looked a lot like the boat pictured here) last week off Rochester in Lake Ontario. The found the old wooden schooner, encrusted with zebra mussels, seventy-five metres down in the lake's frigid depths.

The Orcadian had left Bayfield, Ontario, for Oswego, New York loaded with wheat in early May of 1858 when she was involved in a collision with the Chicago-bound Lucy J. Latham. The heavily laden Orcadian took only ten minutes to disappear beneath the surface, but her crew, which included Captain James Corrigal, his wife, and their two children, was lucky. They made it over to the Latham in time to save their skins, if not their ship.

Kennard and Scoville, who fund all of their shipwreck research out of their own pockets, have made names for themselves in the field by discovering over 200 Great Lakes wrecks over the past thirty-five years. (They also found the wreck of the schooner Milan in Lake Ontario last year. To read more about her, click here.) And it's certainly a labour of love; the vast majority of vessels lost on the Great Lakes carried not treasure but more mundane cargoes -- like wheat -- that were desperately needed to help settle what was then the frontier of European settlement.

To read the full Globe and Mail story, click here.

Monday, October 1, 2007

High and dry

A different take on historical lighthouse preservation sits just down the road from the Point Abino lighthouse (see post below), near the gates to Long Point Provincial Park on the north shore of Lake Erie.

The Old Cut lighthouse today doesn't seem to mark much of anything. The wooden three-storey tower sits near no discernible shipping channel close to the base of Long Point, a natural sandspit that sticks forty kilometres out into Lake Erie from the Ontario mainland.

To see why there is a lighthouse here at all, one must look far back in time, over 170 years ago, to a dark night in 1833, when a fierce storm ripped a passage through here, allowing sailing vessels a quick route through, which saved them from having to sail a more onerous route all the way around the end of the point. The new channel was also safer, as the area around the tip is known to be difficult to navigate, strewn as it is with numerous hull-eating sandbars. (The Old Cut lighthouse is also not far from the place where Abigail Becker, the heroine of Long Point, singlehandedly saved eight men from the beached schooner Conductor in November 1854. To read more about her, click here.)

Still, the colonial government was caught a bit off guard by the sudden appearance of the new channel, and it took until 1879 to finally get the Old Cut light built and operational. And there it stood, easily visible on both sides of the point, guiding ships through the new-found shortcut until 1906, when, in another stormy night, the channel suddenly closed, disappearing for good and putting an end to Long Point's brief history as an island. The light, perhaps in hopes that the Cut might someday return, stayed lit for another ten years, until 1916, when it was finally extinguished. In 1918 the land was sold to private interests and the building was used mainly as a hunting camp, overlooking, as it does, a thick marsh that has since taken root where schooners laden with wood and stone once passed through on their way into the safety and shelter of Long Point Bay.

With the closing of the channel, it looked very much like the end for the mostly landlocked Old Cut light. It fell into considerable disrepair over the years, and by the mid-1990s was so dilapidated that it looked as though the Old Cut light might end up going the way of the shipping channel it once marked.

But the story of the Old Cut lighthouse, it turns out, is one with many endings. In 1998, a Toronto couple bought the old light and went about turning it into a summer home. To their great credit, during their renovations they brought in a professional architect who worked with them to preserve as much of the old wooden tower as possible (at no small expense to themselves, to be sure), and attach a small dwelling to the side. Inside it is said to be no less stunning, with the internal stairwell up to the lantern (which is now a non-functioning replica) reconstructed, and the furnishings done, where possible, with the fixtures that were left in the old building from its years of operation.

The result is what you see here: a well-preserved lighthouse that marks not a navigable channel, but a unique and long-forgotten period in Long Point's history.

And with no small amount of curb appeal, to boot.

(If you decide to go see the Old Cut light for yourself, please respect the owners' privacy by staying outside the fence along the road.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A stormy past

The story of the Point Abino lighthouse is one of Lake Erie's more curious tales.

The lighthouse's story actually begins six years before its construction, in 1912, when the newly built United States Lightship No. 82 took up station off Point Abino, a small peninsula surrounded by dangerous rocky shoals in Canadian waters just a few kilometres to the west of Buffalo Harbor.

It was a relatively humdrum assignment for the lightship's six-man crew, under the command of Captain Hugh H. Williams of Michigan. Life on a lightship, which was essentially a floating lighthouse anchored to the bottom, was a lonely affair. With only their crewmates for company, the men were expected to hold their place, marking dangerous waters for passing ships, for the entire navigation season, from April to late November.

That all changed in 1913. The storm that savaged the Great Lakes from November 7–10 of that year is widely regarded as the worst in the history of lake navigation. When it was over, more than a dozen freighters and 250 men had been sent to a watery grave. Lake Erie, however, remained relatively unscathed -- except for the disappearance of a tiny lightship and her crew off Point Abino. When the battered remains of No. 82 were later raised from the bottom, the battered old vessel contained no bodies. Only one crewman would ever be found, when his body drifted into Buffalo Harbor.

After the sinking, the point lacked any kind of a marker, leaving ships heading in and out of Buffalo Harbor vulnerable to the tricky shoals, until 1915 when another lightship marked the spot. Finally, after much foot-dragging, the Canadian government built the ornate Point Abino lighthouse as both a navigational aid and a memorial to the lost men.

The old light was decommissioned over ten years ago, and now stands in considerable disrepair at the tip of the point. Unfortunately the only road in is private, so access is limited;if you want to see it, you'll have to get there by boat (but please respect the private property of the surrounding residents), or show up for a tour, which runs eight Saturdays a summer.

Meantime, the old light continues to hold her place, though she no longer guides ships into Buffalo. An architectural gem as far as Great Lakes lighthouses go, she also stands as a reminder of why historical preservation is so important.

Of course, you can read more about this old light (and many others) in Lake Erie: Struggle and Survival on a Freshwater Ocean, available next May from Dundurn Press.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

North Shore Series #4: French River Village

The north shore odyssey continued toward the barren islands that mark the central and eastern outlets of the French River. As we closed in on the historic waterway, the bears became more numerous, as did the canoeists. Just after we found a site and managed to get a tarp up for shelter, the wind suddenly picked up and we found ourselves in the midst of a heavy downpour, which was fortunately short-lived. A shot of whiskey and a good sleep later, things looked a whole lot better:

It was time to take to the boats and retrace the steps of the First Nations, missionaries, and stout-hearted Hudson's Bay Company men who used to ply this river on their way from Montreal to the Canadian west.

A peculiar piece of machinery, one of many such objects that mark the place where a thriving lumber town once stood. In its heyday, French River Village, at the mouth of the river's main outlet, boasted a population of 1,400 and featured two mills, schools, churches, and just about anything else you might expect to find in an early twentieth century town. But by the 1920s, things were clearly going downhill -- the timber supply declined, the mills relocated, and only a handful of residents were left. Today, you wouldn't know a settlement ever existed on this site. The only thing that remains is the old lighthouse, long since automated.

Eventually, a decision was taken to tear many of the old buildings down before they became too unsafe. Others simply collapsed under their own weight. It was a chaotic process that left a lot of debris in the water, such as these, which look to be some type of boilers, now home only to the local beavers.

This old mill is one of the few buildings that is still somewhat identifiable. Behind it runs what used to be the main street, but it's now so overgrown that it's no longer possible to even set foot there.

Finally, after a week on the lam from society, it was time to turn east and head for home, a two-day paddle from the mysteries of French River Village, back through the aptly named Parting Channel, through the Outer Foxes, and finally past Dead Island and its scores of lost souls.

This picture is a good indication of the aftermath. Note Amy: perky, clean as a whistle, let's say "rejuvenated." By contrast, I am clearly much the worse for wear: lost, a bit confused -- haggard, even.

But the north shore left me greedily craving even more. Dreams of covering the whole coast, from Killarney to Key River and beyond, danced through my head. But in the near term, I was willing to settle for a hot shower.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

North Shore Series #3: Outer Fox Islands

The Outer Fox Islands, located just east of the main outlet of the French River, are the very definition of isolation. It was a short afternoon's paddle west from Dead Island Channel under clear, sunny skies to get into the Outer Foxes, where we promptly set up camp for a couple days of exploring. Technically within the boundaries of the French River Provincial Park, and way too far from any major city to make for viable cottage country, the Outer Foxes are a place of pin-drop silence and incredible beauty. While we were there we encountered no one, not even other paddlers; just a few fishermen out in their open aluminum boats. As such, there is not much to say about this little corner of Georgian Bay. Its story is best told in pictures.

A tree growing out of near nothingness on the shore of Major Island, the main island in the Outer Fox chain. About a kilometre and a half long, Major Island is too rugged to really even be hikeable, but there is one "official" campsite at the south end, which I assume is visited on occasion by the folks from the provincial park. The site is marked by the little yellow symbol of a tent, which national and provincial parks have been using for time immemorial and is, at least to me, a comforting little marker to stumble across in the backcountry.

It's hard to believe that the same glaciers that retreated over this land millions of years ago, creating some of the highest, most jagged cliffs I've ever seen, also carved out smooth indentations like this one -- just big enough to fit an eighteen-foot sea kayak.

Setup, campsite #2, our home on the Outer Foxes. Loading and unloading the boats like this, day in and day out, along with crouching to cook, clean, and do pretty much anything else, is mainly why Amy and I both dropped a waist size or two over the eight days we were out here. But the Foxes themselves make a great base from which to explore the millions of little inlets and channels that line both the islands themselves and the mainland to the north.

Case in point: a peaceful inlet where a perfect little marsh ecosystem, complete with a massive frog population, has set up shop on Vixen Island, on the northern end of the Outer Fox chain.

If you want to hang all of this paddling crap and just go fishing, the Georgian Bay Fishing Camp, the only place that showed any real signs of civilization on pretty much the entire trip, is your ticket. We passed the camp, which has all the trappings of a 1950s northern Ontario clapboard lodge, on our way out of the Outer Foxes. Here we encountered our first human in three days, a cheery worker and his lovely black dog, who barked incessantly at the two interlopers who had invaded the harbour in their tiny craft. "The office is open," he called from the dock, "if you need anything."

It was hard to resist asking about a cold beer, even at ten o'clock in the morning. But there was much to do; the weather was starting to turn gloomy and the French River, and whatever little island we would end up calling home when we got there, were still a good distance off.

For the Georgian Bay Fishing Camp site, click here.

Monday, September 3, 2007

North Shore Series #2: Dead Island Channel

The end of day 1 of the north shore paddling expedition landed us in Dead Island Channel, bordered on one side by the mainland and on the other by Dead Island, a rather forlorn place with a unique, and sad, story to tell.

Dead Island was the home of an ancient Ojibwa burial site (hence the name) -- until 1893, that is. For countless decades before, a local Ojibwa tribe brought their dead over to the island by canoe. Once there, the gathered mourners would place the bodies in cairns and even on platforms high up in the trees. This was done to protect the remains of their loved ones from scavenging wildlife.

But 1893 changed all that. Hungry for an attention-grabbing attraction for the World's Fair, which was opening that year in Chicago, a group of businessmen from the city decided to venture to Dead Island to investigate the stories they had heard about ancient Native burial sites that were said to be there. Predictably, once they landed on Dead Island's shores, nothing was safe; bones, relics, pretty much anything they deemed to be of interest to fairgoers was rounded up and carted away. None of it ever found its way back to Dead Island. The incident remains one of the most horrific incidents of grave robbing in Canadian history.

Nothing much remains of Dead Island's role as a burial ground today, but it is still technically a cemetery, so if you find yourself in this neighbourhood, you should keep your distance. Besides, there is no shortage of great camping here, either on the mainland or on one of the surrounding islands. We found ourselves camped on a beautiful little inlet just north of the channel.

After spending our first night out here, we were pretty pumped. Dead Island and the surrounding wilds were interesting enough, but we were about to press ahead to the Outer Fox Islands, a place reputed to be so far removed from society that bears, wolves, mink, and even the odd moose could possibly be lurking just around the next corner. From the Outer Foxes, the mouth of the French River, the old canoe highway to the west, beckoned.

It was also here that we realized that we had forgotten our frying pan, which made our planned scrambled-egg breakfast something of a challenge. In the end, water was boiled, and poaching was attempted, with moderate success. Our bellies full, we loaded up the boats and turned our bows to the west.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The North Shore Series #1: Outbound

The coastline that stretches along Georgian Bay's north shore between the Key and French Rivers has to be one of the best-kept secrets on the Great Lakes. This area contains literally thousands of windswept islands and marshy inlets that are perfect for exploring by sea kayak. With the exception of a few lumber and fishing settlements that came and went in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the north shore has been left largely untouched, and looks as wild and pristine as it did thousands of years ago.

I've just returned from seven days of paddling the north shore. Though it's impossible to nail down just a few, the following posts will contain some of the highlights, headed west toward the main outlet of the French River, from the area's best put-in for paddlers, Key Marina, just off Highway 69, in the neighbourhood of Grundy Lake Provincial Park.

Key Harbour

A former railway town perched at the western end of the Key River, Key Harbour is about a twelve-kilometre paddle west from the put-in at Key Marina.

Now a tiny community of cottagers, Key Harbour's economy consists pretty well entirely of the Key Harbour Lodge, a marina and fishing camp. But in its heyday, the town had a far more strategic use: it was a central railway transit point for iron ore, which was shipped south by rail from the Sudbury area and loaded onto waiting ships at Key Harbour, which was the port nearest to the mining operations.

But the good times didn't last long; the harbour soon proved too shallow for the larger freighters that began to populate the Great Lakes by the boom years of the 1920s, and the whole operation quickly packed up and moved further south, to the Parry Sound area. The tracks have all been ripped out now, but the remains of the dock and some of the terminal buildings still stand, reminding passing boaters of those who once worked on the docks of this remote industrial outpost.

But the facilities here are perfect for small pleasure craft and fishing boats, which, since the removal of the railway line, now provide Key Harbour's only real access to the outside world. As you can imagine, this keeps the population low, but the cost of a nice ice-cream sandwich, enjoyed by a couple of excited kayakers who were about to spend seven days away from a refrigerator, pretty high.

Click here for the Key Harbour Lodge web site. (But turn down the volume; the country song about fishing that plays in the background can be a bit loud.)