Friday, March 30, 2007

Southern comfort

According to the hometown Leamington Post (and Shopper), the MV Jiimaan bumped its way through the remaining ice in Leamington Harbour and began its season yesterday. If you don't know, the Jiimaan is the giant government car ferry that runs between the Ontario mainland and Pelee Island in western Lake Erie.

There is really no place quite like Pelee. It's about twenty kilometres long and seven wide and sits about sixteen kilometres off the tip of Point Pelee, the birder's paradise. The island was first settled back in 1834 by a fellow named William McCormick, who purchased the 999-year lease from its former owner, a War of 1812 veteran who had originally bought (swindled?) it from some local Native chiefs for what amounted to a few bags of corn.

At first, William used the island for his hogging operation and lived on the mainland, but he eventually moved his massive brood there and carved a small farmstead out of the forest at the north end. Sections of the rest of the island were leased out and soon a small, struggling community of European and Native farmers took root. But the challenges were many: The entire centre of the island was covered in marsh, which meant mosquitoes which were the size of small birds in the summer, which was (and remains) sweltering. Malaria was a constant threat.

There was also the problem of isolation. In 1833, the colonial government built a lighthouse on the island to alert passing ships of the area's many shifting shoals, but getting oil to the remote light was a constant problem, leaving it unlit for large parts of the navigation season. (The light was lovingly restored by local volunteers in 2000.)

Then, in a quirk of history the island was captured by American rabble rousers who for various reasons were loyal to Upper Canadian Rebellion leader William Lyon Mackenzie. About 400 of them marched across the frozen lake from Sandusky, drove out the settlers and plundered their farmsteads (and the lighthouse) before finally being driven off by British troops and Canadian militia. The aftermath and backbreaking reconstruction sent poor McCormick to an early grave; he died two years later.

But then things started to look up for the beleaguered islanders. The marsh was drained and turned into very rich farmland, dikes were built to keep Lake Erie in its place, and the island's economic mainstay, winemaking, took root in the late nineteenth century.

Today, Pelee retains that slightly isolated, lawless feel. Literally. There is only one police officer, one nurse ... and that's about it for public services. Life moves a little slower here; the people are welcoming, approachable and, well, chatty (especially if you're from far away). And of course there is the classic "Pelee wave," delivered by EVERY passing motorist. If you don't return it, you will certainly mark yourself as a tourist.

I've been going to Pelee since I was a kid, and it holds a very special place in my heart. Upon landing, I head straight for the Westview Tavern, a dank little place that bills itself as "Canada's Most Southern Tavern." And it is. Who can argue with geography, really? It's the only place I've ever been to that can make draft OV taste delicious. The walls are lined with hats from every small business and sports team from here to Cleveland and, in the corner, the jukebox waits to fill the place with all your seventies favourites. It is, in its own way, a little slice of heaven on earth.

From there it's off to Dick's Marina, perched on the edge of a murky swamp at the island's south end. It's home to a few fishing charters and small motorboats, and has a big lawn with scattered firepits for camping. But they charge by the tent here, so if you want to save a couple bucks, you'd better be on good terms with your fellow travellers.

And that's pretty much all there is to it. To some, boring. But to others, magical. For the latter, it's all here: tropical, sandy beaches for swimming, great wine always at the ready, light hiking, or just plain doing nothing.

Summer's coming. And I can't wait.

For more on Pelee Island, click here.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Preflight

Yesterday marked the unofficial kickoff of the '07 paddling season -- the day when I pull the Preferred Adventure Vehicle (PAV) out of winter layup and check her over. Hull in good shape? Check. Hatches good? Check. Last year's dead bugs swept out? Check.

It comes down to about an hour's worth of largely unnecessary primping and preening, then she goes back in the garage, where she is held firmly in place by Amy's patented HullSlings(TM) -- essentially two pieces of seat belt adorned with several adjustable (and decorative) buckles. It is, as they say in the trade, "bombproof."

I'm excited because this year there is a veritable Great Lakes tour planned. We usually start with the relatively easy Beausoleil Island in southern Georgian Bay, a nine-kilometre island that's remarkable for its amazing transition of topography: In the north, you get the last vestiges of Canadian Shield before it gives way to the southern St. Lawrence Lowland.

In midsummer, it's on to the cold, clear waters of Lake Superior, which we plan to set out on for the first time ever in the area of Pukaskwa National Park. Pukaskwa is on the east coast, near the town of Wawa, Ontario. It's known for a local caribou herd, unbelievable steep, serious granite cliffs and many sets of Native hieroglyphs that date back thousands of years.

But it's still a bit too early for all that. For now, launch day is unofficially set for Easter Weekend, weather permitting, at Toronto's Cherry Beach, which is home port to all sorts of unusual paddlecraft.

And a great chip truck, to boot.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Last run

Well, tomorrow I am off for my last snowboarding trip of the season. It's something that always leaves a bit of a lump in my throat; I consider myself an all-seasons type of guy, and I get something out of all of 'em, even the mean, blustery, frigid one known as winter. And there isn't much I love more than spending a crisp winter day out on the slopes.

My approach to snowboarding is what you might call meticulous. The night before, I lay everything out on the bed in the order that it will be pulled on as soon as the alarm clock goes off early the next morning: socks, long underwear, thermal sweater, fleece, toque, and so on. Then it's all stuffed into my all-purpose, fire-red backpack (which I take everywhere) and toted down the narrow front steps and into the waiting car.

For maximum granola-eater flair, I like to take along a Thermos full of coffee and a bag of sandwiches, peanuts, and whatever else can be dredged out from the back of the cupboards. When it's time for a break, this is all tantalizingly spread out on the hood of the car and ravenously devoured. Yep, only five-star for us.

Tomorrow, my coworker David and I are headed out to Mount St. Louis Moonstone, a low-key kind of place north of Barrie that boasts about thirty-five runs. There is a solid terrain park, I'm told, and while I do love the park, it's not something that was even thought of back in the day when I started, so I'm not nearly as experienced on the massive rails and boxes as today's average fourteen year old. But they sure are fun to watch.

So, it looks like it's time to bid adieu to winter 2007, stow the board in the back of the closet and look forward to paddling the lakes and sweating it out on the hiking trails. I'm sure this summer will be hotter than ever.

But for now it's time to strap in, point the nose down the hill, and pull down the goggles. There is powder to be ridden and air to be grabbed.

Friday, March 16, 2007

All about Amund

A project as enormous as a collection of stories about a Great Lake could never come off without the help of a lot of good people. People like the Eidsmoes.

While I was researching the sinking of the steamer Atlantic in 1852 (a story that I've excerpted on this blog) I came across a rather nagging problem: even though it was a tragic tale, and many lives were lost on that foggy night on Lake Erie, I just couldn't connect, on a personal level, with the story. Unable to move ahead, I tried setting the project aside for a short while, hoping an idea would form. But it didn't, and I was stuck.

So, to the Internet I went. A number of Google searches eventually pointed me to the genealogy page of the Eidsmoe family, many of whom live in the American Upper Midwest, where their descendants settled in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The site featured Amund Eidsmoe's own account of his emigration from Norway, during which he took passage on the Atlantic and survived her sinking.

I sent an e-mail to the site's webmaster, who quickly responded that, yes, the account was authentic and I was welcome to use it in the manuscript if I wished. He copied in his mother, Louise Eidsmoe of Minnesota, an indirect descendant of Amund's who provided me with even more information. She, in turn, forwarded my e-mail to Bruce Weaver of North Carolina who told me that he had, coincidentally, just written about the wreck of the Atlantic in Budstikken, a magazine for Norwegian Americans. Could I get a copy? Of course, he said, just e-mail the magazine's editor, Gayle Struska. I did, and sure enough, two weeks later the issue arrived on my doorstep -- free of charge.

But that wasn't all; when I needed to know when Amund died (in 1902, it turns out), I questioned Louise again. She referred me to Robert Eidsmoe, Amund's great grandson (now aged seventy-five and living in Arizona), who is the self-professed family historian. He responded with all the details I needed plus an entire family timeline by e-mail -- the next day.

The Eidsmoes and their friends will certainly get their props in the form of an acknowledgement as soon as I kick this sucker out the door. And they are far from alone; over the past two years I have gotten endless amounts of help from people from all around the Great Lakes. Regardless of whether this project is successful, I am in their debt.

It's taught me a lot about how kind people can really be.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

"Who's Bill Mason?"

My friend Hadley posed this question as we were cooling off after a long 9-to-5 at the pub the other night.

Bill Mason is an icon of Canadian paddling. Born in Winnipeg in 1929, his fascination with canoeing was sparked by his parents while he was a toddler. They always thought he'd outgrow it.

He never did.

Instead, Bill was entranced by the simple design and incredible maneuverability of the canoe (in the right hands, of course). He built his first boat at the age of eleven, and throughout his life he managed to combine his painting, writing, and filmmaking talents with canoeing, and quickly rose to prominence in all four (with no less than eighteen award-winning NFB films to his credit). Along the way, he established himself as the face of Canadian paddling. The old-school canvas tent and the unruly beard certainly didn't hurt, either.

His travels took him through rivers and lakes all over the continent. His favourite canoe, a red wooden Prospector 16, is his signature and was donated to the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough by his wife in 1999. And there it remains. Bill himself died of cancer in 1989.

But his books and paintings are easy to find, particularly Path of the Paddle and Song of the Paddle, which are considered bibles of Canadian-style canoeing and eco-friendly wilderness tripping.

Yes, I am becoming more and more obsessed with paddling as spring grows nearer. Is it obvious?

To read the wikipedia entry on Bill Mason, click here.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Sneak preview

Writing, they say, is lonely work.

After two years of slaving away on my Lake Erie history manuscript, I can personally vouch for that. Sometimes, sitting alone at my desk at night, I wonder whether I'm just writing for myself. People have been generous with their feedback, which is great, but I can always use more.

That's where you come in. I've posted one of four stories that will eventually make up the shipwrecks chapter elsewhere on the InterWeb, and I'd really love to hear your opinions.

To read the excerpt, click here.

When you're done, come on back and post your thoughts. All responses, from confounded to enraged to delighted, are welcome. It's all to make a better book.

Thanks!

Monday, March 5, 2007

Bobby who?

Parry Sound was in the news this week, claiming a spot as one of explore magazine's 10 best Canadian outdoor towns.

I couldn't agree more. Parry Sound is a well-kept secret that has largely done development right (I'm looking at you, Collingwood). The downtown is cozy and well-preserved, with gorgeous brick buildings dating back to its lumber-town roots at the turn of the twentieth century. Independent cafes and restaurants ring the sound itself, and are great places to spend a sweltering summer day eating ice cream and watching the floatplanes take off.

Parry Sound is also the home of Bobby Orr, whose stick-wielding figure greets you as you cross the town limits. There is no name and no face on the giant wooden cut-out -- Parry Sound, it seems, assumes you know whose house you're in.

We've spent many a day in Parry Sound, using it as a jumping-off point to Georgian Bay's many wonders, like Franklin Island, with its pristine white pine forests and cool abandoned lumber camp, and the stunning Killbear Provincial Park, where people show up in June, park their trailers and never seem to leave. (It boasts the longest average stay of any Ontario park.) Amy's love of its granite cliffs is obvious in this photo.

Yes, perhaps one day we'll even move there and live in one of these.

It's nice to dream.

See parrysound.com for more or click here for the explore site.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Thunderblizzard!

This was the scene outside Leeward Press HQ in Toronto this evening as commuters fought their way home. Today, the city was walloped by everyone's favourite winter storm event -- the thunderblizzard.

You know it: booming thunder, flashing lightning, shrieking winds, and face-scorching ice pellets. It's a rarity in these parts, but oh, so dramatic.

And when it's all over ... silence. Except, of course, for the scraping of cheap plastic shovels against the sidewalk and the soft cursing of my Portuguese neighbours as they chisel the ice off their car windows.

It's good to be home.