Monday, November 26, 2007

A tale of two ferries

Today's Toronto Sun carries a story about the long and troubled effort to bring regular ferry service across Lake Ontario between Toronto and New York State.

The latest effort, which went into service in 2004 in the form of a gleaming new "fast ferry" called alternately the Spirit of Ontario and the Breeze, was a bust two-times over, going bankrupt under the stewardship of both a private company and the city of Rochester. The major obstacle was too little passenger traffic, largely due to competition with freeways and trains, a lack of official permission to carry trucks, and indifference to the whole project on the Toronto end, where it took more than two years to build a suitable customs terminal for the boat.

In its usual better-late-than-never style, Toronto finally got around to finishing the facility. But it wasn't enough to save the beleaguered Spirit. Now little more than a curiosity, the multi-storey, futuristic-looking customs terminal stands not far from Cherry Beach, where it waits in silence to welcome a ferry that will never come.

The Spirit, meanwhile, has been dispatched to Spain, where she carries passengers on to Morocco under the catchy name Tanger Jet II.

To read the Toronto Sun story, click here.

Meanwhile, down Lake Erie way, late-season troubles are bedeviling the massive car ferry MV Jiimaan, which plies the waters between Kingsville and Leamington and Pelee Island. Last week, the rather top-heavy looking craft was lashed by high winds and, depending on who you believe, was either blown off course and ran over a fishing net or the net was blown into the boat's path. In any case, one of her engines was disabled by the net, which had tangled itself around a propeller shaft. Worse, the engine went down just as she was attempting to dock at Kingsville, where the harbour is a tight fit for the Jiimaan to begin with.

Down to only one engine, docking in Kingsville was no longer possible, so the captain wisely decided to divert to the larger Leamington Dock, several kilometres to the east. There, the Jiimaan unloaded a human cargo consisting of twenty-one undoubtedly shaken passengers.

But it didn't all end well. A spokesperson described the cost involved in repairing the Jiimaan's propeller shaft as "significant."

To read the Windsor Star story about the Jiimaan's troubles, click here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Homeward bound

And on the eve of Monday, November 12, 2007, it was finished. Three and a half years and 70,994 words from its humble beginnings as an idea for a little book about Pelee Island, Lake Erie: Struggle and Survival on a Freshwater Ocean staggered, with her final ounce of strength, over the finish line. She is now a fully formed manuscript.

It's not quite all done, mind you. There will be a good bit of back-and-forth between me and the editorial staff about proposed changes to the copy, and I still have to order, or scan myself, about a dozen or so archival images; and of course there will be marketing to do, mainly in the form of signings and readings. But I can at last say that the final word has been conceived, formed, and thrust upon the page (or monitor, as it were).

Phew.

The Dundurn Press spring catalogue is slated to come out in early December. Thereupon, I will be able to show you the cover.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Where the boys aren't

Think Port Dover and you likely think of only one thing -- choppers. Dover, you see, is beset by thousands of large, hairy men on their shiny, crackling steeds every time a Friday falls on the 13th of the month. Summer, fall, even winter -- no matter what. The only thing the weather dictates is how hardcore those who show up really are. It's a curious tradition that sets this little tourism- and fishing-centred hamlet apart from any other Lake Erie community.

So, if you're like me, there is only one weekend that you should avoid Dover in 2008: the one that starts on June 13.

But in November, you'll find only fishermen (Dover is one of the hubs of the Lake Erie commercial fishing fleet) a few locals putting in time behind the counters of the little restaurants and gift shops that line the main drag, and the retired, many of whom, last Sunday, were taking advantage of a bit of mild weather to do a little fishing of their own off the pier.

I was in Dover last weekend to visit its impressive museum as part of my research for the Lake Erie book. The Port Dover Harbour Museum is large for a community museum, and very well kept by curator Ian Bell and his staff. Part of it occupies an old fisherman's net shanty. In that section, you'll find a raft of fishing paraphernalia -- from nets to seventies-era radars and fish finders -- and volumes of stories about the men who, for as long as there have been people on Lake Erie, have made a perilous, often bare-subsistence living fishing the lake's often tricky waters. Oddly, it's about the only place with such a complete fishing exhibit anywhere around the lake. Trust me, I've looked.

When I was done there, I did a bit of wandering. Here are a couple fall snaps of Dover and her environs:

The refuse of summer in the form of the Al's Fresh-Cut Fries & Things trailer in Hagersville, on the way in to Dover. I leave the "& Things" bit to your imagination.

The so-called Lake Erie Cross, placed up on a hill overlooking the harbour at Dover by Parks Canada in 1922. The monument commemorates French missionaries Francois Dollier de Casson and Rene de Brehant de Galinee, who were the first Europeans to winter on Lake Erie in 1669-70. It was part of an amazing year-long ordeal in which the pair, with a small party, paddled and hiked all the way from Montreal, across Lakes Erie and Ontario, up Lake Huron as far as the Straits of Mackinac before making their way back via the Ottawa River. When Galinee was here, he wrote of the Dover area in his journal as "the earthly paradise of Canada."

A view of the Lynn River from the site where Dollier and Galinee spent the winter of 1669-70 tucked away in two small buildings they constructed. Amazingly, you can still make out the outlines of the buildings, and the remnants of the earthworks, on the site.

A barn in the nearby whistlestop of Jarvis celebrates the annual Corn Fest all year long. Unfortunately, I was too late to take the actual event in this time. Perhaps next fall. The Harleys should be cleared out by then.

For the Port Dover Harbour Museum, click here.

For the Port Dover official site, click here.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Down the drain

Anyone who spent time on the Great Lakes this summer probably knows that it's been a bad year for water levels.

How bad? The upper lakes are the worst affected, with Lake Superior setting an average low in September that hasn't been seen since the U.S. government started keeping track over 147 years ago (the effects are clearly visible in these photos, taken near Duluth, Minnesota). The good news is that Superior is up slightly, though still down overall, because of record rainfall over the past few weeks.

In turn, the tourism business has been suffering, and freighters have been loaded lighter and lighter to deal with the dropping levels, meaning millions of dollars in lost revenue. On Georgian Bay, cottagers have been building ever-longer docks over the expanding mucky weed beds that mark the spots where they used to tie up their boats.

So what's the culprit? Some say the lakes are showing early signs of stress due to climate change. Others point to dredging of the St. Clair River in the 1960s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that was intended to, ironically, allow larger ships to pass between Lakes Erie and Huron. The dredging, they claim, has led to erosion of the riverbed, creating an ever-expanding and faster-flowing St. Clair, which essentially drains the upper lakes of water. One study pegs the water loss through the St. Clair "drain plug" at over 9 BILLION litres per day.

Answers are scarce. But they'll have to be found soon if we're to preserve this crucial water resource for future generations.

To read more about the Great Lakes' water-level woes, click on the links below.

Detroit Free Press
Soo Today
Kingston Whig Standard

Photos courtesy University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Program.