Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Requiem for a small town

Collingwood, Ontario, used to be a run-of-the mill ski town. Its main industry, up until the 1970s, was shipbuilding. But when that went into decline, taking many high-paying jobs with it, Collingwood literally hit the skids. And finding a replacement wasn't easy -- tourism started to take root, but it was tough sledding converting the dingy old port town into a shiny new attraction. When I first started going there to snowboard in the mid-1990s, it was, as they say, "grassroots." That was its charm.

Amy and I found ourselves in Collingwood last weekend to hit the slopes at Blue Mountain, the ski resort just outside of town, after closing the deal on our first home. After more than four weeks of cutthroat big-city real estate, it was a welcome retreat.

And for the most part it was just what we needed. In February in the shadow of the Niagara Escarpment, you can find what amounts to a naturalist's winter playground. Rabbits and deer abound, snowdrifts pile up as high as the car window and, just to the north, Georgian Bay quietly slumbers under a sheet of thick, creaking, snow-covered ice.

But you can also catch, from up on that limestone ridge, a glimpse of the future for many rural communities -- and it doesn't look good. A rim of semi-detached developments with names like "Lighthouse Point" now envelop Collingwood in what seems to be a totally unplanned fashion, consuming vast amounts of precious forest. "Intensification," it seems, is a concept totally lost on Collingwood's developers. Traffic congestion is rampant, and the town's infrastructure is almost audibly groaning under the strain of a rush of new residents, many of whom are retirees in need of a lot of public services.

Collingwood's consumption craze came to us in the form of a snappily dressed pitchwoman from Intrawest, the corporation that owns Blue Mountain, along with many of Canada's major ski resorts (Whistler and Mont Tremblant among them). Wrapped in a full-length North Face coat, she offered lip balm to the chapped masses huddled around the open fire that's kept constantly burning in the middle the resort village square.

Taking a stick, of course, triggered the spiel. Why drive all the way from Toronto, she asked plaintively, when you could simply buy a condo in one of the lovely communities that are going up all over town? She would, of course, be happy to give us all the information we needed.

What ever happened to the days when you could just bring your lunch in a cooler and ski?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Lock and load

While the upper Great Lakes are still entombed in ice, help is on the way for the winter-weary. Spring, and the official opening of another paddling season, are now only twenty-eight days off.

In a sign of the times, the Welland Canal announced yesterday that it will be open to shipping on March 20 this year, the earliest opening in its 180-year history.

The Welland Canal is, of course, the engineering marvel that connects Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, forging the last link in the chain of lakes that runs from the St. Lawrence all the way to Chicago. It first opened in 1833, and has been rebuilt several times since, at great risk to the lives of underpaid immigrant labourers contracted to carry out the most dangerous tasks, such as planting explosives for blasting.

The finished product is a sight to behold. To pass through, a freighter must traverse forty-four kilometres of narrow channel and eight locks. In any given year, the Canal hauls up to forty million tonnes of shipping up and down the Niagara Escarpment.

Something to ponder on your next portage.

Read about the early opening of the Canal here.

Welland Canal official site (Be sure to lower the volume if you're at work. The ship's horn on the homepage is deafening).

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Godforsaken sea

If you want to get a sense of the awesome power of the Great Lakes, there is really no better time to visit than in the dead of a frigid Canadian winter. This weekend I spent some time at Presqu'ile Provincial Park on Lake Ontario, near where my in-laws live in the little town of Brighton. The shots give me the shivers (on many levels).

This one is of some rare open water on the lake side of the park, which is essentially a peninsula:

Meanwhile, on the bay side, the waves have been washing up as high as these low-hanging branches, creating a stunning frozen waterfall effect:

And it looks as though you could walk all the way out to Gull Island, but you wouldn't get very far on this slush ice.

It's hard to believe that just across the lake from these sleepy scenes, residents of New York State are still struggling to dig out of over ten feet of snow. You can read about the plight of these poor folk here.

So get your skates sharpened. Ice-out's a ways off yet.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Remembering the Ranger

Last week saw the twenty-fifth anniversary of the loss of the Ocean Ranger, a state-of-the-art (for its day) oil rig that was drilling in the Grand Banks, off Newfoundland.

On Valentine's Day, 1982, the Ranger was lashed by gale force winds and twenty-metre waves. Just after midnight, a chilling distress signal was heard by two nearby rigs announcing that the Ocean Ranger was taking on water and its crew of eighty-four men was heading for the lifeboats. It would be the last message ever heard from the platform.

Later that night, amidst the churning waves and bitter wind, the rig capsized and sank. Rescue boats dispatched from surrounding rigs and rescue helicopters reported seeing about twenty men in the water and a lifeboat that was carrying thirty-six more. But, to the horror of the rescuers, they couldn't get close to the survivors because of the high winds. By the time they were able to, it was too late. The lifeboat had capsized and the men, lacking the dry suits that are standard issue on today's rigs, had already succumbed to the -1C water.

It was Canada's worst maritime disaster since World War II.

For the wikipedia entry on the Ocean Ranger, click here.

For the CBC archive, click here.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Lake Erie's ghost ship

Divers and archaeologists have been making steady progress uncovering some of the hundreds of shipwrecks littering the bottom of Lake Erie in recent years. They've done it mainly by using side-scan sonar, a device that essentially trails along beside a boat and allows the crew to photograph large swaths of the bottom as they cruise, zamboni-like, back and forth across a large area of water.

But this work has only just begun on Lake Erie, in which the vast majority of wrecks are either unlocated or uncatalogued. Lake Erie's "holy grail" of shipwrecks, the long-lost car ferry Marquette & Bessemer No. 2 (which also happens to be my personal favourite Great Lakes shipwreck story), is one of these long-lost vessels.

On December 9, 1909, the 350-foot car ferry steamed out of Conneaut, Ohio. Strapped to her car deck were thirty rail cars that were, in turn, heavily loaded with coal and steel. Aboard were her thirty-six-member crew, including the captain, Robert McLeod (pictured here) and his brother John, the first mate. The ship was on its way to Port Stanley, on the Canadian side, a fairly routine run in those days.

But this voyage would be anything but routine; when the ferry would have been about halfway across the lake, a vicious winter storm hit, lashing the Marquette & Bessemer No. 2 with gale-force winds, giant waves, and a blizzard that reduced visibility to zero.

What happened next is pure speculation. It is thought the ferry got close to Port Stanley, but couldn't make the harbour because of the high winds. What little evidence exists of that horrible night, which consists mainly of people along the Canadian shore who reported hearing the ship's distress signal, suggests Captain McLeod headed for Rondeau in hopes of finding shelter there. This failed, apparently, because later that night people on the Ohio shore reported hearing the same desperate signal.

In any case, the scene aboard the ferry must have been utterly terrifying as the frigid water flooded over her back deck, which was not designed to take this kind of a pounding, and the crew fought the storm for hours while searching in vain for a safe haven.

They lost that fight. The ferry disappeared, and astonishingly has never been seen since. There are theories as to where it went down: near Long Point, where McLeod might have made his final stand against the storm, off Conneaut and, of course, near its final destination of Port Stanley.

Three days after the accident, an eerie discovery was made about thirty kilometres off Conneaut: a lone lifeboat carrying nine frozen corpses, including one that was laying in the bottom of the boat with some of the others piled on top, as though, in their final moments, they were doing their best to keep the man on the floor warm.

But side-scan and every other search option have so far had no luck finding the Marquette & Bessemer No. 2, leaving the archaeological community mystified. How can such a large ship, full of rail cars, no less, be so hard to find in a lake as shallow as Erie? It's a hundred-year-old mystery that doesn't look any closer to being solved.

Read more about side-scan sonar searches on Lake Erie here.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Gales of February

Lake Erie, being the shallowest of the Great Lakes, is without question the most dangerous to shipping. This explains why she is the most wreck-laden, with the remnants of possibly 600 ships littering her sandy bottom.

On Monday, a fish tug that set out at 4 a.m. from Wheatley, Ontario, was very lucky not to join them (Great Lakes fish tugs look a lot like this one from tugfest.net). Suddenly finding themselves trapped in thick ice and whipped by a freezing offshore wind, the crew huddled around an oil burner for nearly twelve hours waiting for help to arrive. The sound the ice made as it ground against the steel hull of the boat must have been sickening, to say the least.

Read more here.