Saturday, May 26, 2007

Petit France

Some trivia for a Saturday afternoon: where was the first place to cast ballots in last month’s French presidential election?

If you guessed the tiny islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, about twenty-five kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland, then you’re right.

Being a fan of, oh, let's call them quirks of maritime history, I've been following the goings-on in this little place for quite some time, though I've yet to visit. The two main islands in the archipelago (which consists of eight islands in total), St. Pierre and Miquelon, are home to about 6,000 inhabitants and are an "overseas collectivity" of France, which means, essentially, that they are considered part of the mother country in all ways, except for very local matters, which are governed by a colonial council.

There is a small airline that connects St. Pierre and Miquelon to a few major Canadian cities, Halifax and Montreal among them, but because of the low load volume on these little planes, you'd better be prepared to pay up. The cheapest way to get there is to get yourself to Newfoundland and then catch the ferry from the little town of Fortune, the "Gateway to the French Islands," as it bills itself, on the west side of the Burin peninsula.

But bring your passport. And don't expect to burn off those extra loonies you’ve got left over from the St. John's Tim Hortons in the local cafes. Like France itself, the islands use the Euro. And those crazy European power outlets, too.

The locals here have deeper roots in North America than just about anyone, save for Native peoples. French (mainly Basque) fishermen first showed up here during the summer months back in the sixteenth century, and had set up a permanent settlement by the mid-seventeenth. After France was defeated by the British in North America during the Seven Years War, the 1763 peace settlement left France, once master of the entire continent, with only these small islands (and their lucrative fishing rights) as its only remaining toehold.

St. Pierre and Miquelon boomed during prohibition, when they acted as a depot for hooch being smuggled into America in the holds of ships, but quickly sank into a depression when the taps were turned back on in the U.S. in 1933.

Funnily enough, the islands also played a minor role in World War II. When France fell to the Nazis, they briefly became the territory of the collaborationist Vichy regime in France, before being liberated by a small flotilla operating in the name of the Free French in 1941 (thankfully, no shots were fired). What's not so well known is that the Canadian PM, Mackenzie King, also had the idea of storming the beaches of St. Pierre and Miquelon, afraid, as he was, that the islands were directing the U-boats that were threatening allied merchant ships on the Grand Banks.

Since the depletion of the cod fishery in the late 1980s, the French government has been trying to diversify the little colony's economy, but it's a tough go. Windswept and barren, with long, cold winters and short, windy summers, any large-scale agriculture on the islands is a non-starter. Tourism is growing, and there is hope for some offshore oil development, but today most residents work in the service sector, and the territory is reliant on a grant from France to stay afloat.

Still, if a trip to Europe isn't in the budget this year, I'm told it's the next best thing. If you go, don't forget to send me a postcard.

For the CIA World Factbook entry on St. Pierre and Miquelon, click here.

For the official site, click here.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Home port

Well, six months of no real holidays in this primitive country have finally reached an end. Europe, meanwhile, has probably had half the winter off, but I digress. It is time to take to the boats.

With practically every Torontonian exorcising their cabin fever on highway 400 this weekend, and with gas selling for more than Google shares, Amy and I decided to take a pass and spend the traditional first long weekend of the summer here in the city.

Which is not to say that we forsook good paddling. Far from it -- Toronto has lots of places to wet a paddle for those so inclined. One of the lesser-known is the Humber River, which runs north along the western boundary of the city. You can put in for free at Sunnyside Park and head west until you reach the river mouth, marked by a white suspended footbridge, where you turn north.

Once you pass under a low bridge that supports the Gardiner Expressway and the CN tracks (a GO commuter train once went over while I was under there and I thought for sure I'd lost my hearing), you're off to a lovely, serene paddle complete with bulrushes, hundreds of different bird species, and a surprising amount of silence. At some points, you'll forget you're actually in the middle of Canada's busiest city.

At others, not so much.

And, as always with the urban paddle, you can expect the unexpected. Here we have a fellow who has customized his lovely wooden kayak to carry his giant dog, who appears to be some sort of Japanese fighting breed. That thing that looks like a stuffed animal near the bow ... is actually Fido's head.

While it's no Georgian Bay or Lake Superior, it's still a great day out. And when you're all done, there is ice cream.

Not even the Canadian Shield can top that.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Handyman special

Looking to relocate? Last Saturday's Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the U.S. government, in a cost-cutting move, is looking to unload the Cleveland East Pierhead Light (pictured here from -- for free -- if it can find the right owner.

The old light is perched at the end of a long breakwall at the eastern boundary of Cleveland Harbor. Along with its companion, the West Pierhead Light (which is itself beginning to develop a slight lean due to a crumbling foundation), it has been guiding mariners into the harbour for almost a century. (The photo below, also from, is of the West Pierhead Light.)

Both were opened in 1911 when lake shipping, mainly due to the rise of large steam-powered vessels, was booming. And gritty old Cleveland, an industrial hotbed, boasted one of the busiest harbours on the Great Lakes.

Today, the Cleveland Landmarks Commission is trying to get landmark status for the old lights, but even if it's attained, according to the Plain Dealer, it's not clear whether Cleveland will be able to assist in preserving the old structures because they are not technically within city limits.

Sadly, there is not much to tempt the would-be owner at the East Pierhead Light. She's accessible only by boat, and is fully exposed to Lake Erie's legendary storms, with nothing to protect her from their ferocious winds.

So you can bet your home insurance premiums will go up. The good news? The U.S. Coast Guard will continue to maintain the solar powered beacon up top ... at no charge.

To read the full Plain Dealer story, click here.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Whale of a tale

This odd-looking beauty is the James B. Colgate, a "whaleback" freighter built in 1892 for service on the Great Lakes.

I've been absorbed by the tube-shaped whalebacks lately because I've been researching the Colgate, which went down in the "Black Friday" storm on Lake Erie in 1916, for my manuscript.

The design, by shipbuilder Alexander McDougall, a Scottish immigrant who worked his way up from the very bottom of the lake shipping trade, was initially viewed with skepticism (hence its early nickname, the "pigboat"), but there was certainly method to McDougall's madness. The hull was simple to build, cheaper than other vessels, and more efficient, mainly because their unique shape made the whalebacks resistant to high seas. So much so that they could make their way through the worst of Great Lakes storms without even having to slow down.

But the lakes are never slow to rise to a challenge, and the storm that gathered on Lake Erie on October 20, 1916 was the worst that had been seen in many years. But up in the Colgate's wheelhouse, Captain Walter Grashaw wasn't worried. He had been a mate on the Colgate for more than ten years before being promoted to captain two weeks earlier, and had seen a good number of of blows. He confidently steamed out of Buffalo at midnight, heading toward the Detroit River with a load of coal.

It wasn't long before Grashaw's confidence was put to the test. At around four in the morning, with the Colgate off Long Point, the wind started to pick up, pushing the waves into a steady chop. But the captain, trusting completely in his ship, pushed onward. It would be a fatal mistake.

By eight o' clock, the winds were lashing the Colgate at hurricane force and the waves now towered over ten metres high. By seven in the evening, they had penetrated the cargo hatches. As the Colgate began to list, it became obvious that she was in her final hours. But with no safe harbour in sight, the crew fought on. Finally, at around ten o' clock that night, the freighter mounted an oncoming wave and, while descending the trough, buried her bow deep in the frenzied water. It would not resurface. The Colgate was doomed.

In an ironic twist, when Grashaw stepped out on deck, one of the giant waves broke across it, sweeping over the side and dumping him into the water next to an overturned lifeboat that three of his crew had managed to get away. All night the frozen, terrified men clung to it, capsizing many times while trying to do so. An unbelievable thirty hours later, when a car ferry arrived on the scene, the captain was the only one left alive to greet his rescuers. There had been twenty-five men aboard the Colgate when she left Buffalo.

The rest of the whaleback fleet remained in service into the 1960s, by which time they had been largely replaced by newer, larger ships. The only surviving vessel, the S.S. Meteor, now converted into a floating museum, remains docked at West Superior, Wisconsin.

These unique ships, perhaps a little too far ahead of their time, are one of the stranger details of Great Lakes history.

For more on the whalebacks, click here.

For the S.S. Meteor whaleback museum, click here.

Saturday, May 5, 2007


Under the heading "obscure submarine news" comes word in this week's Santiago Times that the wreck of Latin America's first submarine (and the world's fifth), the Flach, may have been found in the depths of Valparaiso Bay.

The sub was built at the request of Chile's president over 140 years ago to defend the harbour at Valparaiso from the Spanish, with whom Chile was then at war. Perpetuating the stereotype of the eccentric German inventor was Karl Flach, an immigrant to Chile, who answered his new government's call. The twelve-metre-long craft he designed had two cannons on top and one in the front, and was pedal powered. (How the crew dealt with the recoil of a forward interior cannon in what was essentially a submerged tube is something I'd love to know the answer to.)

The Flach performed well during its sea trials, and looked to have a bright future ahead of it. Until 1866, that is, when she sank under mysterious circumstances, taking her crew of eleven, including Flach and his eleven-year-old son, to what was undoubtedly a horrible death at the bottom of the harbour.

Over the following century, the Flach story degraded into nothing more than a quirky footnote of Chilean history, and the location of the sub itself was essentially forgotten. That began to change in 2005, when Chilean documentary filmmaker Juan Enrique Benitez stumbled across the story and decided to spend the next two years of his life scouring Valparaiso Harbour for signs of the Flach. Last week, he and his crew hit what appears to be paydirt when they ran across a submerged metallic object matching the dimensions of the long-lost sub. The next step? Positively identify the wreck and then hopefully bring her to the surface.

What will happen to the remains of her crew, which are expected to be found inside, is less clear.

For the full Santiago Times article on the Flach, click here.