Friday, June 29, 2007

Birth announcement

This is Carrie Nation, the wildly scary temperance crusader from the Prohibition era.

Back in the early 1900s, Carrie led what today would be called an insurgency against the bars and gin joints of her native Kansas in an unsuccessful, yet highly dramatic, attempt to save the lives of the men who frequented such places, whom she saw as hopelessly addicted to the drink. But to Carrie the real victims were their wives and children, who sat at home in abject poverty while the louts sinfully drank away their paycheques.

At first none of the men in the bar would think much of the old woman who shuffled through the door in her long black dress, a group of sombre followers trailing along in her wake. The only thing slightly amiss would be her size – at six feet, 180 pounds, Nation cut an imposing figure, indeed. And this was before she got her “reputation.”

Suddenly, Nation would declare to the clientele that she was about to rescue them from “the fate of drunkards.” Then the women with her would start to pray while Carrie began one of her so-called “hatchetations,” during which she would whip out her weapon of choice, a hatchet if you hadn’t already guessed, and commence smashing liquor bottles. If they weren’t close enough, she would smash tables, chairs, glasses, pianos. Whatever was within reach, really.

When Carrie Nation appears on my blog, looking so lovely, it usually means there is news. Today the news is twofold: one is that I am finally embarking on the final chapter of the Lake Erie book. Yep, it’s about rumrunning.

Carrie is also here to tell you that I have entered into something of an agreement in principle with Dundurn Press, here in Toronto, to publish this sucker. We haven’t gotten into the fine details yet, but it appears that, barring some sort of catastrophe (a hatchetation, let's say), it is on its way out into the public. So look for it in a bookstore, library, or maybe even a gin joint near you a little less than a year from now, in May of ‘08

And you’d better buy yourself a copy. Make that two.

Or else.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


To the untrained eye, this looks like a very professional tradesperson at work. But it isn't. It is, in fact, me helping my friend David put a deck on the back of his swanky little house in Toronto.

I know little of carpentry , it turns out, but I like to think of myself as a hard worker. David, on the other hand, just finished a carpentry course at George Brown College and has a killer eye for detail -- to the point that the deck is measured and leveled, I would bet, down to the width of a human hair. He also gives instructions in a very clear, deliberate manner. This is very important.

The deck has since gone on to near completion, and is now at the point where David is shopping for the chairs and tables that will grace it. I got the satisfaction of helping out.

And I supplied a drill.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Blast from the past

When the passenger and cargo steamer General Anthony Wayne left Toledo on April 27, 1850, bound for Buffalo, there was no reason to believe this voyage would be any different from any other Lake Erie steamship cruise.

After all, such voyages were becoming more and more commonplace as the Industrial Revolution began to dawn on the Great Lakes region. The invention of the steam engine had revolutionized lake shipping, and vessels like the Wayne, which was only thirteen years old at the time, were capable of moving people and goods across the lakes at speeds that were simply unthinkable during the Age of Sail.

When the Wayne left Toledo, there were twenty-five passengers aboard. Later that night, she arrived in Sandusky and added forty more, along with a shipment of wine and whiskey. After this routine stop, the vessel set out again on Lake Erie plodding along on an easterly course. But that's where anything that was routine about this particular trip abruptly ended.

At 1:30 a.m., just off Vermilion, Ohio, one of the Wayne's two boilers, which had been just rebuilt the previous year, suddenly exploded. The carnage that followed came on with a frightful intensity. As the massive iron boilers recoiled from the blast, they heaved upward, shattering cabins, splitting the wooden hull in two and instantly setting the vessel aflame. Part of the hurricane deck, which had become somewhat separated from the rest of the wreck, actually remained afloat for a time, offering the terrified passengers some sanctuary from Erie's frigid waters, but many, panicked, leaped overboard anyway. Others were so badly scalded that they didn't survive long after the initial blast.

The shattered hull of the Wayne only remained afloat for fifteen minutes before the doomed vessel finally reared up and nosedived to the bottom of the lake. In the end, two lifeboats made it to shore, and vessels from Vermilion plucked a number of survivors from the frigid lake before it was too late. Forty passengers and crewmembers survived, but the death toll was still staggering: when the Wayne went down in a dramatic fireball that terrible night on Lake Erie, she took thirty-eight lives with her.

For 157 years, divers searched for the wreck of the General Anthony Wayne, but her final resting place remained a frustrating mystery. But no more. Today comes news that the wreck of the elusive steamer has finally turned up, ironically right where she should have been all along -- in fifteen metres of water eight miles off Vermilion.

You can read the full story, from the Columbus Dispatch here.

For more on the sinking of the General Anthony Wayne, click here.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Georgian Bay Islands National Park was born in 1929 at the Bay's southern end. Although it has swallowed up over fifty-nine islands in its short existence, by far the biggest and most popular is Beausoleil Island, a short paddle from the little town of Honey Harbour, Ontario.

To me, this place is the gateway to Ontario's north. Only 150 kilometres or so from Toronto, it is where the grassy St. Lawrence Lowland gives way to the barrenness of the Canadian Shield. The park itself is a microcosm of this: only twelve square kilometres in size, it has warm, sandy beaches at its southern extreme and, to its north, the Shield's exposed granite bedrock.

Beausoleil also has an interesting place in human history. Aboriginal tools and earthworks have been found on the island dating back centuries and, in 1615, the local Natives were first exposed to Europeans when Samuel de Champlain himself paddled through these parts while exploring the farthest reaches of what was then a very young New France. Since then, it has been in an island in flux, serving as a reserve for the Ojibwa people, a home for early French and English homesteaders and, just before it became a national park, the base for a highly destructive (and happily short-lived) logging operation.

The sky seems bigger here. Not exactly a prairie sky, mind you, but from camp on the shores of Beausoleil I have seen star constellations of breathtaking beauty and clarity, and from these same shores three years back a moonrise so crimson and clear it felt as though I could just reach out and push the glowing orb back down into the distant, shadowy fir trees.

But its not always this tranquil. One of the biggest threats to the park is its proximity to towns and cottages; and because those places are so close to the financial centre of Toronto, the inhabitants have, lets say, the means to purchase the largest, loudest, and most polluting watercraft ever invented by man.

And such humans are, unfortunately, not small in number. After school gets out in late June, Beausoleil can be besieged by teenagers, forcing park staff to do double duty to keep the kids contained and the park, well, a park -- and not Daytona Beach North.

So if you're going to go, take my advice, go in June or September.

Our early-season trip to Beausoleil has become an annual tradition, one that we continued last weekend. When we go, there is an almost mechanical ritual that is followed. First, the boats are removed from the roof of the car and carefully placed side by side on the government dock at Honey Harbour. Sunscreen is applied. Then all the gear -- from sleeping bags to headlamps to plastic food containers -- is stashed in a methodical, time-honed fashion in the hatches. By then I'm usually too hungry to start paddling, so there is a crash trip to the (only) little store in town for a bit of binge eating. This time it was pop-tarts. Four pop-tarts. In seven minutes.

But the moment I shove off from the dock is the one I anticipate the most. Soon, the drone of life's daily pressures recedes into the background and its just you and the water, the fish that constantly hover and dart beneath the hull and, especially last weekend, the warmth of the late-spring sun on your face.

And on the shore at night, it's always that same brilliant sky, the same radiant moon and, just as you are about to drift off to sleep in the tent after a long day's paddle, the same distant, plaintive call of the loon.

Welcome to the Bay.

For more on Georgian Bay Islands National Park, click here.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Saturday, 9:40 a.m.

Stoney Lake, north of Peterborough, Ontario.

Weddings can be fun. Weddings held on a small northern lake can be even more fun, especially if you are merely a guest, and you remember to bring along your sea kayak.

But not your wetsuit. Little Stoney Lake, which forms part of a network of such little lakes that connect Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay, was sweltering in thirty-degree heat this June 2. And the water temperature wasn't much cooler.

But it did herald the first swim of the season, and along with it the (pleasantly surprising) first roll. So I guess it's official: summer is here, and it's time to get out there.