Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A stormy past

The story of the Point Abino lighthouse is one of Lake Erie's more curious tales.

The lighthouse's story actually begins six years before its construction, in 1912, when the newly built United States Lightship No. 82 took up station off Point Abino, a small peninsula surrounded by dangerous rocky shoals in Canadian waters just a few kilometres to the west of Buffalo Harbor.

It was a relatively humdrum assignment for the lightship's six-man crew, under the command of Captain Hugh H. Williams of Michigan. Life on a lightship, which was essentially a floating lighthouse anchored to the bottom, was a lonely affair. With only their crewmates for company, the men were expected to hold their place, marking dangerous waters for passing ships, for the entire navigation season, from April to late November.

That all changed in 1913. The storm that savaged the Great Lakes from November 7–10 of that year is widely regarded as the worst in the history of lake navigation. When it was over, more than a dozen freighters and 250 men had been sent to a watery grave. Lake Erie, however, remained relatively unscathed -- except for the disappearance of a tiny lightship and her crew off Point Abino. When the battered remains of No. 82 were later raised from the bottom, the battered old vessel contained no bodies. Only one crewman would ever be found, when his body drifted into Buffalo Harbor.

After the sinking, the point lacked any kind of a marker, leaving ships heading in and out of Buffalo Harbor vulnerable to the tricky shoals, until 1915 when another lightship marked the spot. Finally, after much foot-dragging, the Canadian government built the ornate Point Abino lighthouse as both a navigational aid and a memorial to the lost men.

The old light was decommissioned over ten years ago, and now stands in considerable disrepair at the tip of the point. Unfortunately the only road in is private, so access is limited;if you want to see it, you'll have to get there by boat (but please respect the private property of the surrounding residents), or show up for a tour, which runs eight Saturdays a summer.

Meantime, the old light continues to hold her place, though she no longer guides ships into Buffalo. An architectural gem as far as Great Lakes lighthouses go, she also stands as a reminder of why historical preservation is so important.

Of course, you can read more about this old light (and many others) in Lake Erie: Struggle and Survival on a Freshwater Ocean, available next May from Dundurn Press.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

North Shore Series #4: French River Village

The north shore odyssey continued toward the barren islands that mark the central and eastern outlets of the French River. As we closed in on the historic waterway, the bears became more numerous, as did the canoeists. Just after we found a site and managed to get a tarp up for shelter, the wind suddenly picked up and we found ourselves in the midst of a heavy downpour, which was fortunately short-lived. A shot of whiskey and a good sleep later, things looked a whole lot better:

It was time to take to the boats and retrace the steps of the First Nations, missionaries, and stout-hearted Hudson's Bay Company men who used to ply this river on their way from Montreal to the Canadian west.

A peculiar piece of machinery, one of many such objects that mark the place where a thriving lumber town once stood. In its heyday, French River Village, at the mouth of the river's main outlet, boasted a population of 1,400 and featured two mills, schools, churches, and just about anything else you might expect to find in an early twentieth century town. But by the 1920s, things were clearly going downhill -- the timber supply declined, the mills relocated, and only a handful of residents were left. Today, you wouldn't know a settlement ever existed on this site. The only thing that remains is the old lighthouse, long since automated.

Eventually, a decision was taken to tear many of the old buildings down before they became too unsafe. Others simply collapsed under their own weight. It was a chaotic process that left a lot of debris in the water, such as these, which look to be some type of boilers, now home only to the local beavers.

This old mill is one of the few buildings that is still somewhat identifiable. Behind it runs what used to be the main street, but it's now so overgrown that it's no longer possible to even set foot there.

Finally, after a week on the lam from society, it was time to turn east and head for home, a two-day paddle from the mysteries of French River Village, back through the aptly named Parting Channel, through the Outer Foxes, and finally past Dead Island and its scores of lost souls.

This picture is a good indication of the aftermath. Note Amy: perky, clean as a whistle, let's say "rejuvenated." By contrast, I am clearly much the worse for wear: lost, a bit confused -- haggard, even.

But the north shore left me greedily craving even more. Dreams of covering the whole coast, from Killarney to Key River and beyond, danced through my head. But in the near term, I was willing to settle for a hot shower.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

North Shore Series #3: Outer Fox Islands

The Outer Fox Islands, located just east of the main outlet of the French River, are the very definition of isolation. It was a short afternoon's paddle west from Dead Island Channel under clear, sunny skies to get into the Outer Foxes, where we promptly set up camp for a couple days of exploring. Technically within the boundaries of the French River Provincial Park, and way too far from any major city to make for viable cottage country, the Outer Foxes are a place of pin-drop silence and incredible beauty. While we were there we encountered no one, not even other paddlers; just a few fishermen out in their open aluminum boats. As such, there is not much to say about this little corner of Georgian Bay. Its story is best told in pictures.

A tree growing out of near nothingness on the shore of Major Island, the main island in the Outer Fox chain. About a kilometre and a half long, Major Island is too rugged to really even be hikeable, but there is one "official" campsite at the south end, which I assume is visited on occasion by the folks from the provincial park. The site is marked by the little yellow symbol of a tent, which national and provincial parks have been using for time immemorial and is, at least to me, a comforting little marker to stumble across in the backcountry.

It's hard to believe that the same glaciers that retreated over this land millions of years ago, creating some of the highest, most jagged cliffs I've ever seen, also carved out smooth indentations like this one -- just big enough to fit an eighteen-foot sea kayak.

Setup, campsite #2, our home on the Outer Foxes. Loading and unloading the boats like this, day in and day out, along with crouching to cook, clean, and do pretty much anything else, is mainly why Amy and I both dropped a waist size or two over the eight days we were out here. But the Foxes themselves make a great base from which to explore the millions of little inlets and channels that line both the islands themselves and the mainland to the north.

Case in point: a peaceful inlet where a perfect little marsh ecosystem, complete with a massive frog population, has set up shop on Vixen Island, on the northern end of the Outer Fox chain.

If you want to hang all of this paddling crap and just go fishing, the Georgian Bay Fishing Camp, the only place that showed any real signs of civilization on pretty much the entire trip, is your ticket. We passed the camp, which has all the trappings of a 1950s northern Ontario clapboard lodge, on our way out of the Outer Foxes. Here we encountered our first human in three days, a cheery worker and his lovely black dog, who barked incessantly at the two interlopers who had invaded the harbour in their tiny craft. "The office is open," he called from the dock, "if you need anything."

It was hard to resist asking about a cold beer, even at ten o'clock in the morning. But there was much to do; the weather was starting to turn gloomy and the French River, and whatever little island we would end up calling home when we got there, were still a good distance off.

For the Georgian Bay Fishing Camp site, click here.

Monday, September 3, 2007

North Shore Series #2: Dead Island Channel

The end of day 1 of the north shore paddling expedition landed us in Dead Island Channel, bordered on one side by the mainland and on the other by Dead Island, a rather forlorn place with a unique, and sad, story to tell.

Dead Island was the home of an ancient Ojibwa burial site (hence the name) -- until 1893, that is. For countless decades before, a local Ojibwa tribe brought their dead over to the island by canoe. Once there, the gathered mourners would place the bodies in cairns and even on platforms high up in the trees. This was done to protect the remains of their loved ones from scavenging wildlife.

But 1893 changed all that. Hungry for an attention-grabbing attraction for the World's Fair, which was opening that year in Chicago, a group of businessmen from the city decided to venture to Dead Island to investigate the stories they had heard about ancient Native burial sites that were said to be there. Predictably, once they landed on Dead Island's shores, nothing was safe; bones, relics, pretty much anything they deemed to be of interest to fairgoers was rounded up and carted away. None of it ever found its way back to Dead Island. The incident remains one of the most horrific incidents of grave robbing in Canadian history.

Nothing much remains of Dead Island's role as a burial ground today, but it is still technically a cemetery, so if you find yourself in this neighbourhood, you should keep your distance. Besides, there is no shortage of great camping here, either on the mainland or on one of the surrounding islands. We found ourselves camped on a beautiful little inlet just north of the channel.

After spending our first night out here, we were pretty pumped. Dead Island and the surrounding wilds were interesting enough, but we were about to press ahead to the Outer Fox Islands, a place reputed to be so far removed from society that bears, wolves, mink, and even the odd moose could possibly be lurking just around the next corner. From the Outer Foxes, the mouth of the French River, the old canoe highway to the west, beckoned.

It was also here that we realized that we had forgotten our frying pan, which made our planned scrambled-egg breakfast something of a challenge. In the end, water was boiled, and poaching was attempted, with moderate success. Our bellies full, we loaded up the boats and turned our bows to the west.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The North Shore Series #1: Outbound

The coastline that stretches along Georgian Bay's north shore between the Key and French Rivers has to be one of the best-kept secrets on the Great Lakes. This area contains literally thousands of windswept islands and marshy inlets that are perfect for exploring by sea kayak. With the exception of a few lumber and fishing settlements that came and went in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the north shore has been left largely untouched, and looks as wild and pristine as it did thousands of years ago.

I've just returned from seven days of paddling the north shore. Though it's impossible to nail down just a few, the following posts will contain some of the highlights, headed west toward the main outlet of the French River, from the area's best put-in for paddlers, Key Marina, just off Highway 69, in the neighbourhood of Grundy Lake Provincial Park.

Key Harbour

A former railway town perched at the western end of the Key River, Key Harbour is about a twelve-kilometre paddle west from the put-in at Key Marina.

Now a tiny community of cottagers, Key Harbour's economy consists pretty well entirely of the Key Harbour Lodge, a marina and fishing camp. But in its heyday, the town had a far more strategic use: it was a central railway transit point for iron ore, which was shipped south by rail from the Sudbury area and loaded onto waiting ships at Key Harbour, which was the port nearest to the mining operations.

But the good times didn't last long; the harbour soon proved too shallow for the larger freighters that began to populate the Great Lakes by the boom years of the 1920s, and the whole operation quickly packed up and moved further south, to the Parry Sound area. The tracks have all been ripped out now, but the remains of the dock and some of the terminal buildings still stand, reminding passing boaters of those who once worked on the docks of this remote industrial outpost.

But the facilities here are perfect for small pleasure craft and fishing boats, which, since the removal of the railway line, now provide Key Harbour's only real access to the outside world. As you can imagine, this keeps the population low, but the cost of a nice ice-cream sandwich, enjoyed by a couple of excited kayakers who were about to spend seven days away from a refrigerator, pretty high.

Click here for the Key Harbour Lodge web site. (But turn down the volume; the country song about fishing that plays in the background can be a bit loud.)