Sunday, April 22, 2007

Launch!

Spring came hard to Toronto this weekend. With temps of 23C yesterday and a toasty 25 today, My wife Amy and I just couldn't resist heading down to Cherry Beach to take my kayak out. (Aim's own boat remains in drydock, awaiting some critical deck and bulkhead work, so today we shared.)

The place was literally bursting with humanity. Living in a big city like Toronto is interesting because it's so pedestrian-centred. As a result, barely anyone wanders the streets on blustery winter days unless they have a very specific destination in mind, or are somewhat insane. But come the first nice spring weekend, all that pent up energy explodes outward, resulting an a surge of humanity on the streets, in the parks -- and at the beaches.

So it was this weekend. Cherry Beach sits on what is called the outer harbour, on the eastern edge of downtown smack in the middle of the mostly derelict portlands. Today, it was awash in dogs, kids, even the odd sunbather. Out on the harbour, sailboats and kayaks, fresh from their winter hiding places, cruised along aimlessly.

The outer harbour runs east-west, with Cherry Beach on the north side and Tommy Thompson Park, a peninsula, to the south. As a result, when the wind blows out of the west, as it did today, it creates a wind-tunnel effect, resulting in what can be some really fun chop. It's a boon to the kitesurfing crowd, some of whom were braving the 4C water today, as they can attain some pretty mind-blowing speeds as they swing through the narrow channel.

As for the paddling, other than the odd freezing wave breaking over the deck, it was positively June-like. When we paddle this early in the season, we tend to stick reasonably close to shore and wear Farmer John wetsuits and neoprene gloves and shoes. They are literally lifesavers; capsizing unprotected in water this cold would be unpleasant, indeed, and if you couldn't get to shore pretty darn quick, you wouldn't last too long.

But not even that grim prospect could ruin my good mood today. Slipping back into the cockpit after six months away felt like coming home, and my body instantly remembered what to do. When I slipped the blade into the clear, sparkling water, I could feel the boat respond instantly, easing forward, past the submerged paddle shaft and out toward the open water. With each subsequent stroke, she picked up a bit of speed, but remained true, heading toward a very busy Outer Harbour Marina. We did a couple hours of meandering, pausing only to watch the kitesurfers race by and a mini-regatta that was happening just down the beach, before turning back for home.

When Aim took over, I passed the time on the beach, reading and watching in amusement as people behaved as though it was midsummer. Dogs swam after sticks (what is it that allows them to swim comfortably in such cold water?), and the nearby bicycle path was literally bumper to bumper.

I know it's still early, and summer remains a long way off. But such days give one reason to feel optimistic, as though you're reconnecting with humanity after being away on a long trip.

Or maybe it's just the cabin fever.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

To the Point

My folks have lived on the boundary of Point Pelee, on the north shore of Lake Erie, for about twelve years now. But I spent most of my childhood in the area, which meant I had the good fortune to grow up playing on the Point's tranquil, sandy shores. Now, with winter finally easing its grip, Lake Erie has started to regain some of its sparkling, almost tropical, summer feel.

Point Pelee is the southernmost point of mainland Canada. Sixteen kilometres off its tip lies Pelee Island, and from there it's only a stone's throw to the American Bass Islands in Ohio. The Point has been known to First Nations for time immemorial, and Europeans, specifically the French, found their way here in the seventeenth century. Later, the British deemed the Point's delicate Carolinian forests to be perfect masts for the fleet they were building in preparation for possible war with the Americans (which came to pass in 1812).

The late 1800s saw the construction of a lifesaving station near the tip, which was permanently manned during the navigation season. When a ship ran into trouble, usually by running aground on one of the many local shoals, the men of the lifesaving station sprang into their wooden rowboat and took to the lake's churning waters to help. The legacy of the station lies in the dozens of wrecks that litter the bottom of this still-dangerous stretch of water.

In 1918, national park status was bequeathed on Point Pelee, but it didn't do much for its conservation, mainly because private landowners still held much of the new park. To make matters worse, by the 1960s a new threat, automobiles, arrived in large numbers, their occupants eager to enjoy the park's beautiful beaches. The result was that, from the air, the sandspit looked more like a giant parking lot than a nature reserve.

But by the 1970s all that began to change. The federal government banned cars, except for on the main road and in select parking areas, and constructed a small tram to take tourists out to the tip, dramatically reducing traffic congestion. Overnight camping was also done away with, which further eased the pressure on the park's fragile ecosystem. Finally, the last remaining cottagers were bought out, removing all permanent human habitation. Point Pelee was finally being given the chance to heal herself after nearly two centuries of intensive development.

The results are a testament to Mother Nature's ability to do just that. Today, little remains of the cottages, the lifesaving station, or any other structures for that matter. A rich diversity of wildlife has returned, particularly birds, which draw watchers from the farthest corners of the Earth. The newest human additions to the park have been kayakers and canoeists, who have recognized it as one of the Great Lakes' best-kept secrets. You can always find great paddling here, no matter the weather. In a strong wind, you can stick to the tranquil marshes -- or you can test your skills against Lake Erie's fury. It's a win-win.

Amy and I found ourselves here last weekend, enjoying one of my favourite times of year on Lake Erie. With spring only just coming on, the human tide has not yet washed in, and you can still find a bit of peace, say, on a lonely breakwall somewhere.

But the story will be different when the migration hits next month. If you end up in these parts then, I have some advice: either grab your binoculars -- or get out of the way.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Smoke on the water

According to today's Kingston Whig-Standard, 2007 marks a very special anniversary. Yes, Vimy Ridge is an obvious guess, but it's not what we're getting at here.

Yep, you guessed it, the 190th anniversary of the first Great Lakes steamboats. Oh, you're good.

In 1817 there were two passenger steamers operating largely in Lake Ontario -- the Canadian-built Frontenac and the Ontario, flying American colours. There is a debate over exactly which boat was the first to operate on the lakes, but it's clear that the Ontario was the most active of the two.

What's significant is that these two ships marked the beginning of the end of the Age of Sail on the Great Lakes, though the wooden schooners that had dominated the lake trade would continue to do so for much of the rest of the century, until the last one was finally decommissioned in the early 1900s.

It's hard to believe such delicate-looking craft, with their giant wooden paddlewheels, ever managed on the treacherous Great Lakes.

But they did better than that -- they went on to form the economic backbone of two nations, carrying everyone, from prime ministers to new immigrants, across the inland seas.

And with no GPS, to boot.

Friday, April 6, 2007

'06 Georgian Bay retrospective

Well, it is far too cold and crappy here in Toronto on this "Good" Friday to go out and do much of anything. As it turns out, napping and packing for our upcoming move have been the order of the day.

So, I have been going through things and have run across a number of gems from last year's paddling season. I am posting them here for your viewing pleasure. Consider it a "best-of" show.

The village of Killarney, about six hours north of Toronto, was founded in the 1820s as a fur-trading post and remained largely isolated until highway 637 opened in 1962. As a result, it remains almost entirely undeveloped and has retained much of its nineteenth-century charm. It's literally like taking a step back in time. More Killarney history here.

Gereaux Island, northern Georgian Bay. Canadian Shield at its best. The island is also home to one of the Bay's oldest lighthouses, a wooden beauty erected in 1880.

Phillip Edward Island is one of the most isolated places you'll find on the Bay. This wasn't always the case; fisheries and lumber companies flourished here in the late nineteenth century, but resource depletion led to the demise of both. Today, it's hard to find much evidence they were ever here.

The train don't come here no more. All that is left of Collins Inlet, now a ghost town near the eastern end of Phillip Edward Island. It pulled up stakes and disappeared in 1913 after the lumber industry went bust. But the supports for the once massive wooden piers, where schooners used to dock and load timber, remain.

Camp, south side of Gereaux Island. Temperature: about 25C. Hard to believe that's even possible today.

Insta-shelter, Foster Island. Take one tarp, stretch between two trees and lash to both halves of spare paddle. Tie off to local boulders. Ride out storm.

Foster Island: it was thought, briefly, that this seductive swimming technique might lure local bass into the area for catching and eating purposes. It didn't.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Harbour cam

The weather in Toronto was good enough yesterday to bust out of the apartment for a bit of cycling. I took the opportunity to see what's shaking down at the harbour, where I haven't really been since last fall.

The freighter Algobay sits in Toronto's inner harbour. The ice isn't quite gone yet, as you can see up near the Algobay's bow. The massive self-unloader has been moored here since 2002 and is said to be in need major steelwork and equipment upgrades, so who knows what will become of her.

You can read more about the Algobay's history (including two serious collisions she's been involved in on the Lakes) here.

Some early-season windsurfing at Cherry Beach. Air temperature: 6C. Water temperature: 3C. Hope you brought your drysuit.

The lifeguard station at Cherry Beach stands at the ready. The place was largely deserted except for me and an old guy out walking his dog. But in total defiance of proper economics, the chip truck was open.

Too bad I wasn't really hungry.