Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Adventures in television

My boss, Mindy, runs the Basset Hound Rescue of Ontario and was invited to take part in a live show called Animal Housecalls on CP24. You know it, the station that has more than 13 things going on all at once: stocks, weather, sports, headlines, and lest we forget, in the very top left corner, live programming. It is essentially news for the insane.

So Mindy, obviously scraping the bottom of her potential assistant list, asked me to come on with her and basically pet this dog, whose name is Barbie, and try not to make a scene. This was done with modest success (though I did stand up a little too early at the end, blocking a monitor and touching off a bit of furious waving among the crew). Mindy sat at the table chatting up the host while I was crouched underneath it, aiming poor Barbie at the camera. Though she's exceedingly cute, and quite old (the topic was senior dogs) we were dramatically shown up by the SPCA lady who came on before us with husky puppies. Pretty tough to beat that.

So if you were in a dentist or doctors' office, lobby, airport bar or tattoo parlour last week, you might've seen the beginnings of my invasion of the Canadian airwaves. You may keep it to yourself if I looked ridiculous.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Capital punishment

So I ventured up to Ottawa this weekend. And I got my wish on the athletic front; two kilometres of the Rideau Canal had finally frozen up and were open to skating the very day we set foot in the city.

But it came at a price; winter is still alive and well in the Ottawa Valley, even if it came a bit late this year. The first clue that you have entered a whole new climate is when the car starts to make a low-level squealing noise. This has happened to me twice now in Ottawa; my theory is that the cold is actually changing the molecular structure of the engine block. The first night was -24C (-33 including the windchill).

The morning skate took us "up" into the -20 range. Yes, if your monitor resolution is high enough you can probably see the boogers frozen to my goatee. But what a classic Canadian way to kill a morning. The National Capital Commission, which runs the place, says the canal has been officially open for skating for 37 years now. Unofficially, well, who knows?

The other thing that always strikes me about Ottawa is how compact it is. It seems as though you're driving along through nothing but miles of empty farmland when all of a sudden there it is, lurching out at you like a sleepy bear in spring. Truth is, Ottawa isn't really located that close to anything. It was originally a lumber town, but was chosen as the capital precisely because of this remoteness. It needed to be far enough inland to be defensible from the Americans, who had only invaded about fifty years before and, in the aftermath of the Civil War, looked as though they might be game to try again.

Also like the proverbial bear in the woods, it has a reputation for being a little sleepy. The long-running joke in Ottawa is that the best thing about it is that it's only two hours from Montreal. That may be a little unfair, though she certainly does go to bed early (probably because it is physically painful to be out after dark for a good chunk of the year). An evening walk past Parliament found only a lonely RCMP officer putting in time and a couple lost tourists who probably didn't make it.

Anyway, for Christmas I got Amy a ticket to see a Senators game. From the looks of it, live big-time hockey was a hit. Besides, for the price of two tickets to see my hometown Toronto Maple Leafs (if you move in the right circles to actually get your hands on 'em) one can spend a whole wicked weekend in Ottawa, and have a good chance to see some quality hockey, as opposed to what one sees here, which can often be described as, to steal a phrase from my father, "piss poor."

Oh, well. A safe journey, a safe return. I'm going to go count my toes.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Game on?

I am going to Ottawa this weekend. Such a trip is a bit of a low-level adventure, I realize, but with the way this winter has gone (good for blogs and manuscripts, not so much for winter fun), I'm probably a bit more excited about it than normal.

Along with millions of others, one of the things I like to do when I'm in the capital is lace up the ol' blades and take a scoot down the Rideau Canal, or as the National Capital Commission has sexily repackaged it, The Rideau Canal Skateway.

But with a mild winter that has left things, well, slushy, it looks like the Skateway might be something of a dream this time. Still, I keep one eye on the NCC's web site, particularly the handy and interestingly spelled "Ice-O-Metre" pictured here.

I'll be packing the hockey skates and the itchy wool socks, just in case.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Weather wackiness -- Georgian Bay style

There's a perception out there that most of this climate-change stuff has mainly to do with milder winters. But the sunny season's gone loco, too. Hence our experience near Killarney this past summer.

We'd just finished a four-day, fifty-kilometre or so circumnavigation of Phillip Edward Island (an amazing trip I highly recommend, by the way), bringing us to a final couple nights of wilderness camping on a stunning chain of granite islands called the Foxes. The weather all along had been up and down: cold wind and rain followed in just a few hours by perfect sunny and warm conditions. This was mainly due, as those of you from Ontario may recall, to a tropical storm that washed up in the area and made the much-anticipated Labour Day weekend a total wipeout.

Anyhow, after a fun morning of paddling amongst the islands in highly entertaining three-foot swells, we noticed the sky off to the east starting to darken. If there is one thing I know, it is not to tempt Georgian Bay; we scampered back to our campsite and took cover under a shelter we'd put together by lashing a tarp down to several boulders. Marine radio and snacks in hand, we waited to see what was going to go down.

What followed was definitely more than we bargained for. Golf-ball-sized raindrops quickly gave way to golf-ball-sized hail and a hard south wind, all of which lashed the tarp and the tent, taking both to their limits, but both held on. Then the most psychopathic part: The lightning came, striking the islands around us so close that the peal of thunder that followed was deafening. Minute-by-minute, things seemed to be getting worse, but there are only so many things you can prepare for in the wilderness. We laid low and hoped for the best.

Fortunately, after a very long hour or so, things started to settle down. But just as we emerged from our crude shelter, a strange sight appeared overhead. A Coast Guard helicopter circling low, as though looking for something. We caught the pilot's attention, but only for a second, then he zipped over to a neighbouring island chain and put down -- right in the water. Several minutes later, the chopper rose above the treetops and disappeared to the east. Back in town later on, we heard from a couple locals that a kayaker had been hit by one of those spikes of lightning and had to be airlifted to hospital in Sudbury. Unbelievably, we also heard that she was okay.

We finished the trip amidst chilly temperatures (a full head of steam rose off the lake each of the last two mornings), and below zero at night, which meant sleeping in all our clothes: fleece, socks, pants. Even hat and gloves. But ah, what a ride.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Note from the cellar

A lowlight from the Great Strep Throat Debacle of Christmas '06. Yep, the festive season sure could have been a heck of a lot more festive (same goes for the first two weeks of January for that matter), but we trudge on, and are nearly restored to good health.

The moral? Sometimes even those of us who consider ourselves among society's heartiest need to stay home and snuggle our cats on occasion.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Lore of the lake

This woman, Abigail Becker, is something of a legend down Long Point way. In case you don't know, Long Point is a forty-kilometre sandspit that sticks way out (almost halfway across, in fact) into Lake Erie from the Ontario shoreline.

In all, Abigail reared seventeen children, many of them in a small cabin among the dunes of Long Point that was built out of driftwood and planks from ships wrecked on the point's many sandbars. The cabin was located near the Old Cut, a natural canal that bisected Long Point near its base, allowing ships to pass through without having to go all the way around the tip. The Cut was marked by the Old Cut lighthouse, pictured here.

In her early twenties, Abigail married Jeremiah Becker, a hardscrabble local trapper who was considerably older than her and, incidentally, came with five children of his own.

Today, all of this would be enough to qualify Abigail for the Order of Canada; but this is only one small part of her story.

The event that changed Abigail's life took place on November 24, 1854. A fierce snowstorm had raged through the previous night, rattling the small cabin and stirring Lake Erie into a froth. With Jeremiah away trading furs for supplies, Abigail hadn't slept a wink. In the morning, she groggily made her way down to the lake, before her numerous children stirred, to fetch some water.

That's when she saw, just up the beach, the white, rectangular form of an overturned lifeboat. While she was going in for a closer look, something far more dreadful caught Abigail's eye -- what turned out to be the wreck of the schooner Conductor, hung up on a sandbar 200 yards offshore with only her rigging peeking above the surface of the water. What's more, Abigail could see eight men clinging to the rigging, exhausted and nearly frozen to death. Not missing a beat, she roused her children and set off down the beach, where she lit a fire and made tea, in hopes that the men would be tempted to swim for it.

And they were; one by one, starting with the captain, they dropped into the freezing, churning water and Abigail, wading in all the way up to her neck, reached out and pulled each of them to shore before the current could sweep them away. Only the cook, who couldn't swim a stroke, stayed put. Amazingly, he survived the next frigid night in the rigging and Abigail retrieved him the following morning when the lake had calmed.

Her heroism brought Abigail notoriety, a small fortune in rewards, a gold medal, and even a visit from the Prince of Wales while he was hunting at Long Point.

It's a remarkable story; one that makes me feel like, well, a bit of a lightweight, really.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Sealand update

It appears the anticipated sale of Sealand has thrown the principality's fledgling Olympic program into chaos. The silver lining? The presence of national athletes might be a boon to Sealand's resale value.

Read more here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Your own country -- only 1.14 billion big ones

Those of you who know me well are aware that I follow happenings in Sealand, the world's smallest nation, very closely (there is a link to the official Sealand web site on the left nav bar of this blog).

A brief history: In the 1960s, Sealand, then an abandoned Royal Navy platform originally built to guard the Thames estuary during World War II, was occupied by a group led by Paddy Roy Bates, a former British army major. Bates and his men physically forced the previous squatters off the platform (to the point of throwing petrol bombs at their boats when they tried to take it back) and proceeded to set up a pirate radio station there. The station never really got off the ground, but once comfortably ensconced, Roy and his merry band decided to stay.

By 1967, the British government had had enough. The following year, it dispatched the navy to drive Bates and his followers off the platform for good. But just as the Her Majesty's finest closed in for the kill, Bates fired several warning shots into the air from one of the platform's remaining cannons. The navy, deciding there was no value in provoking a firefight over the matter, backed off. Bates consequently declared the platform the Principality of Sealand. A flag, a national anthem, currency, and passports quickly followed.

But the weirdness goes further; not ready to give up, the British government summoned Bates, a British citizen, to court following the incident with the Royal Navy. Bates met his accusers with the defence that Sealand was outside British territorial waters, and therefore beyond the court's jurisdiction. Astonishingly, the court agreed. Bates and his followers interpreted the ruling as de facto recognition of Sealand's sovereignty. Freed, Bates returned to his "country" a hero.

Today, all is not well in Sealand. Last summer, fire devastated the nation. None of its citizens were hurt, but the damage was extensive, and the fire severely crippled Sealand's business community (which consists mainly of a company called HavenCo, an online gambling operation). Ever since, Sealanders have been selling everything they can to pay for repairs, from titles of nobility to singed bolts from the "Great Fire."

But to no avail, it seems. Sealand was put on the market the other day for the asking price of $C1.14 billion. Of the upsides, Roy's younger son said, "The neighbours are very quiet. There is a good sea view."

Read the full story here.

Friday, January 5, 2007

First tracks?

I found myself staring at my snowboard the other day, as it continues to collect dust in the corner of our bedroom.

When I was young, I remember busting it out of its tomb in the garage in late October, strapping it on and bouncing around the house, to the great annoyance of my mother. The countdown to winter would be officially on. There would be nightly temperature monitoring, careful watching out the window for snowflakes, and a religious scanning of the weather report for lower Michigan, which was the only snowboarding close to where I lived near Windsor, Ontario. Finally, in late November/early December, the call would go out, and we would all pile into my friend Shawn's brown Volare (complete with skateboard stickers and rust holes you could put your fist through), and with a mighty scream of her snow tires, we would be off for the border.

But now, in the era of global warming, El Nino, and a myriad of other snow-killing phenomena, the only tracks being carved are those from the January drizzle as it zigzags down my window.

Being downed by the flu for several days left me with some time on my hands , during which I came across this classic. This chubby little guy just got done ripping it up old school at Pico, Vermont, circa 1992, and then took advantage of a little downtime to annihilate an entire bag of Chips Ahoy among friends. Ah, the thrill and power of sport.