Sunday, October 21, 2007

Up she rises

It was sunny and 24C here in Toronto today, and local mariners sensed this might be the last chance they'd get to get their boats out in decent weather. So, all across the city (and I'd wager the whole Great Lakes), cranes, winches, and boat ramps were in overdrive as an annual autumn ritual -- the boat pull-out -- hit full stride.

Swimming against the current, as usual, I decided to put my small craft in and go for a paddle. I was rewarded with a front-row seat near a local marina down on the harbour. Here is an old beauty called the Yali, or some such, that looks like she's seen her fair share of cranes:

Step 1: Slide slings under boat. Once chain is taut, quickly evacuate before lifting begins. Wonder if boat insurance policy really covers this.

Step 2: Clear water. Pray to Poseidon, benevolent god of the sea, that the hull holds together.

Step 3: The really tense part where the boat is slung out over the cement wharf, which would destroy her instantly if the line snapped and she came crashing down. The good news? The innocent bystanders would cushion the blow somewhat.

Step 4: White knuckle time. She is, as they say, in God's hands now.

Step 5: Home free. Whisper a silent thanks to Poseidon for watching over your tiny vessel and throw a tarp over the old girl. Promptly forget about her until spring, when it's time to paint that nasty algae-encrusted bottom. Again.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Summer in overtime

This is not a scene from an antiwar protest. Nor has there been an outbreak of labour unrest in the forests of eastern Ontario. This is my wife, Amy, on a late season paddling trip we took last weekend to Frontenac Provincial Park, near Kingston, Ontario.

After aborting (narrowly) an overnight paddle on Georgian Bay due to a forecast of high winds and rain, we opted for Frontenac, which is pretty well the only provincial park still open for camping.

One of the most underrated parks in Ontario's system, Frontenac is rife with gorgeous little backcountry lakes. Even more appealing, there is no car camping allowed here -- the sites are all either hike- or paddle-in, and the lovely one we set up on was at the far end of Birch Lake, about an hour's paddle from the put-in, the aptly named Snug Harbour. Wet suits were the order of the day; even though the water was definitely survivable, an unprotected bath was not something we wanted to chance.

As expected, there was no one there, and this was the source of much rejoicing as we pulled the boats up at the site, which was one of about six clustered together on a small peninsula. Each had a tent pad, a small bench, and a fire ring -- luxuries in the backcountry.

About an hour after we landed, our solitude was briefly interrupted by a small group of hikers, who lumbered out of the woods just as we were unloading the last of the gear from the boats. It's always startling to encounter other people in the forest on a windy, 8C fall day, but there they were. They said little, just a quick greeting as they passed by and set up on a neighbouring site. At this time of the year, it seems, everyone is out here for the same reason -- the silence -- and no one wants to rob their neighbour of even one moment of it.

As night set in, the temperature steadily fell, finally settling at a rather brisk, shall we say, 1C. About forty minutes after sundown we decided to give up on the outdoors, even though we had a toasty fire going, and huddled up in the tent under a heavy-duty down sleeping bag.

Decked out in several layers, including hats and gloves, both of us quickly fell into a deep sleep, which came to an end almost eleven hours later, when the gentle click-clack of tent poles in the near distance finally roused us. Our neighbours, it seems, were early birds, and were almost completely packed up and ready to get back on their way by the time we emerged from the tent. It didn't rain, thankfully, and once outside we were greeted by a different day entirely. Sunny and bright, it beckoned us back out onto the lake for the paddle back to the car (which we did an admirable job of dragging out).

I find that as I get older I'm becoming more and more enamoured of these trips, far away, as they are, from society's hustle. The result is to keep pushing deeper and deeper into what most people call the off-season in search of an even more unique experience.

Can igloo building be far behind?

Monday, October 15, 2007

The handover

The Lake Erie book recently passed an important milestone: we have made it through "substantive editing" (with great thanks to my editor, Tony Hawke at Dundurn Press), and now we're on to the shorter strokes, or copy editing. This is essentially where all my boneheaded typos, disorganized prose, missing information, and other issues are sorted out. Think "polishing."

It's a big hurdle to have cleared, especially for a manuscript that's not quite written yet (I'm still working on the introduction). And while I'm dying to tell you all about what's in it, contractually I probably can't. But there will be lots of what Lake Erie's famous for, as you can probably guess: shipwrecks, tales of rumrunning, lighthouses, settlers struggling to carve out a life for themselves in unforgiving frontier country. Stuff like that. But I hope to throw a few curveballs your way, too. Like the time when ... well, sorry. You'll have to wait for '08. May to be precise.

Except for this little bit: If you haven't read it already, you can find an excerpt that I've posted online here.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Another day, another wreck

Chalk up another one for Great Lakes shipwreck hunters Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville.

The pair, who are avid recreational divers and shipwreck devotees from upstate New York, identified the wreck of the Canadian schooner Orcadian (which would have looked a lot like the boat pictured here) last week off Rochester in Lake Ontario. The found the old wooden schooner, encrusted with zebra mussels, seventy-five metres down in the lake's frigid depths.

The Orcadian had left Bayfield, Ontario, for Oswego, New York loaded with wheat in early May of 1858 when she was involved in a collision with the Chicago-bound Lucy J. Latham. The heavily laden Orcadian took only ten minutes to disappear beneath the surface, but her crew, which included Captain James Corrigal, his wife, and their two children, was lucky. They made it over to the Latham in time to save their skins, if not their ship.

Kennard and Scoville, who fund all of their shipwreck research out of their own pockets, have made names for themselves in the field by discovering over 200 Great Lakes wrecks over the past thirty-five years. (They also found the wreck of the schooner Milan in Lake Ontario last year. To read more about her, click here.) And it's certainly a labour of love; the vast majority of vessels lost on the Great Lakes carried not treasure but more mundane cargoes -- like wheat -- that were desperately needed to help settle what was then the frontier of European settlement.

To read the full Globe and Mail story, click here.

Monday, October 1, 2007

High and dry

A different take on historical lighthouse preservation sits just down the road from the Point Abino lighthouse (see post below), near the gates to Long Point Provincial Park on the north shore of Lake Erie.

The Old Cut lighthouse today doesn't seem to mark much of anything. The wooden three-storey tower sits near no discernible shipping channel close to the base of Long Point, a natural sandspit that sticks forty kilometres out into Lake Erie from the Ontario mainland.

To see why there is a lighthouse here at all, one must look far back in time, over 170 years ago, to a dark night in 1833, when a fierce storm ripped a passage through here, allowing sailing vessels a quick route through, which saved them from having to sail a more onerous route all the way around the end of the point. The new channel was also safer, as the area around the tip is known to be difficult to navigate, strewn as it is with numerous hull-eating sandbars. (The Old Cut lighthouse is also not far from the place where Abigail Becker, the heroine of Long Point, singlehandedly saved eight men from the beached schooner Conductor in November 1854. To read more about her, click here.)

Still, the colonial government was caught a bit off guard by the sudden appearance of the new channel, and it took until 1879 to finally get the Old Cut light built and operational. And there it stood, easily visible on both sides of the point, guiding ships through the new-found shortcut until 1906, when, in another stormy night, the channel suddenly closed, disappearing for good and putting an end to Long Point's brief history as an island. The light, perhaps in hopes that the Cut might someday return, stayed lit for another ten years, until 1916, when it was finally extinguished. In 1918 the land was sold to private interests and the building was used mainly as a hunting camp, overlooking, as it does, a thick marsh that has since taken root where schooners laden with wood and stone once passed through on their way into the safety and shelter of Long Point Bay.

With the closing of the channel, it looked very much like the end for the mostly landlocked Old Cut light. It fell into considerable disrepair over the years, and by the mid-1990s was so dilapidated that it looked as though the Old Cut light might end up going the way of the shipping channel it once marked.

But the story of the Old Cut lighthouse, it turns out, is one with many endings. In 1998, a Toronto couple bought the old light and went about turning it into a summer home. To their great credit, during their renovations they brought in a professional architect who worked with them to preserve as much of the old wooden tower as possible (at no small expense to themselves, to be sure), and attach a small dwelling to the side. Inside it is said to be no less stunning, with the internal stairwell up to the lantern (which is now a non-functioning replica) reconstructed, and the furnishings done, where possible, with the fixtures that were left in the old building from its years of operation.

The result is what you see here: a well-preserved lighthouse that marks not a navigable channel, but a unique and long-forgotten period in Long Point's history.

And with no small amount of curb appeal, to boot.

(If you decide to go see the Old Cut light for yourself, please respect the owners' privacy by staying outside the fence along the road.)