Sunday, December 21, 2008

The solstice

Winter arrived with a thud this weekend in eastern Ontario, where I was housesitting for a family member. The Peterborough area got whacked much harder than Toronto did, and the blizzard, which came and went over the past couple days, left a good twenty centimetres of fluffy powder in its wake.

I snapped this frozen lake, on the doorstep of Emily Provincial Park, earlier today. To me, the inherent peacefulness of the scene says, quite literally, "get back inside and throw another log on the fire."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Last call

On their last survey run of the season, shipwreck hunters Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville made another intriguing find in Lake Ontario, according to Friday's Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

The ship, which remains unidentified, certainly ranks among the oldest wrecks on the Great Lakes, dating back to the period of the War of 1812. According to the story, Kennard and Scoville think it may have drifted away from its dock and out into the middle of the lake, or perhaps had been under tow, when it went down.

The ship is a rare "dagger-board schooner," a type of vessel that was only used for a short time on the Great Lakes. Apparently, the dagger-board was a wooden plank that acted like a keel, and could be dropped to provide additional stability while under sail. Conversely, when the ship made port, the board could be raised in order to clear the bottom.

You can read the full Rochester Democrat and Chronicle story (which includes an amazingly clear photo of the bow section) here.

Shipwreckworld.com also has a number of photos, more information, and an informative YouTube video, here.

Finds by Kennard and Scoville have been mentioned on this blog before. They have a long history of tracking down shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, including that of the HMS Ontario, thought to be the Lakes' oldest identified wreck, which went down in a storm way back in 1780. You can read about that historic vessel here.

Shoulder injury update: Thanks so much for the kind notes about the state of my now-reattached shoulder joint. It seems to be coming along well, though I must admit the sling is taking some getting used to. I had to be gently reminded today that, no, I can't ride my bike to go out and run errands tomorrow. Oh, well. At least the next paddling season is still a long way off.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Icebreaker

The first weekend of December is a time I always look forward to in Toronto. For here, in the midst of the metropolis, we are blessed with a superb network of parks, many of which feature free outdoor rinks. And this weekend is when they open for the season, sending the locals, skates in hand, dashing out into the winter gloom.

The rinks themselves tend to rise and fall in correlation with how much the surrounding neighbourhood takes ownership of them. Some have lovely homebaked food available, and a range of scheduled family-friendly activities. Mine is a bit of a rough-and-tumble affair, rarely given the love of a good zamboni, and often the staff simply leave a shovel out so you can, as you possibly did as a child in your own backyard rink, shovel yourself an area and skate away.

One of the neat things about the city rinks is that there is often scheduled shinny, which is essentially a bare-bones version of hockey. There are three rules: no contact (no one is wearing full pads), no rising shots (again, due to the lack of pads), and, as there almost always no goalies, you can only score from in close to the opposition's net.

With these things in mind, I grabbed my stick, helmet, and puck, and set off into the cold, clear day yesterday. When I arrived at the rink, there was only one other guy -- a teenager idly batting a puck against the boards. Quickly, I laced up and joined him.

It was only moments later that it happened.

An aside: when the city rinks are first opened, the ice is not yet fully formed, and in some places can be quite thin.

Forgetting this, on about my eight circuit of the rink, I glided into one of the corners only to hit on a tiny, nearly invisible bare patch of the underlying cement. Before I knew it, I was down, and when I tried to get up, my shoulder let out a nearly audible scream. I collapsed in a heap. Unable to raise my arm at all, I plotted my next move. "Gotta get off the ice and put my shoes back on," I thought. "Then maybe I can walk all or part of the way home."

After managing to somehow skate to the bench and gather my stuff, I commenced my journey. Predictably, it ended only about 100 metres on. (Walking like this, hunched over with one arm stuck in the forward position, is something akin to swinging a throbbing elephant's trunk before you.) Moments later, salvation arrived in the form of a passing stranger who heard my whimpering and offered a cell phone and some friendly company until my wife Amy arrived with the car.

After being given a lot of drugs, a couple X-rays (I heard the technician actually chortle out loud when she saw the pictures), and a procedure that I care not to think about, I was slinged up and sent packing.

I didn't get a chance to see the X-rays themselves, but Amy did, and nicely summed up the sorry state of things later in the evening:

"There was a socket, and there was a ball. The ball was a long, long way from the socket."

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A forgotten storm

Minnesota Public Radio recently conducted an interesting interview with author Curt Brown on his new book, So Terrible A Storm.

Here on the lower Great Lakes, we don't hear much about the history of Lake Superior's distant north shore, but in this interview, Brown, a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter, gives a neat summation of the horrendous storm that lashed the region in 1905. The event has largely faded from memory, but a number of vessels were lost, including the freighter Mataafa, pictured here, which foundered after getting hung up on one of Duluth's piers.

For the full interview, click here and follow the link under "audio" on the right-hand side.

For more on the Mataafa, click here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cold comfort

Although it's fun to tell people that you are heading out paddling while you wait for the snowplows to clear the ice-covered roads of southwestern Ontario, it's more than a little dishonest.

Really, we just waited a little too long to put the kayaks away for the season.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Et voila

I'm thrilled that columnist Marty Gervais's feature on Lake Erie Stories appeared in this morning's Windsor Star.

It's huge for the book to get a mention in southwestern Ontario's major daily paper. Marty's column does a great job of capturing what the book is all about and, in timely fashion, appears right at the start of the holiday shopping season. (Christmas gift for dad, anyone?)

Click here
to read the full piece.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Star crossed

If you live in southwestern Ontario, keep an eye on your Windsor Star this week, as local writer Marty Gervais's column, entitled "Our Town," will be featuring Lake Erie Stories, how it came to be, and, I assume, some of the local flavour contained within its pages.

Marty is an established local-history author who has written, among other things, a marvellous book called The Rumrunners, about the colourful Windsor and Essex County personalities who were involved in the illegal booze trade during Prohibition. You can learn more about it here.

As soon as the article appears, I'll link it off this blog. Stay tuned.

Unrelatedly, I took a drive down old Highway #3 this weekend to Point Pelee (I've written of my love for this intriguing stretch of Ontario highway before. Click here for that). It looks like the Port Crewe-area wind farm is fully up and running. The contrast between these massive, futuristic-looking turbines and the old farms that surround them couldn't be more powerful.

It's awfully hard to keep your eyes on the road and not get sucked in by their mesmerizing rhythm.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A deadly autumn

Thursday's Toronto Star ran an excellent piece on the so-called Great Storm of 1913, widely thought to be the worst ever to hit the Great Lakes. Like the maelstroms that have sent the Edmund Fitzgerald and a number of other Great Lakes freighters to the bottom over the years, it hit in the infamous month of November, traditionally the worst month for weather on the lakes.

The beastly storm that raged from November 7-10, 1913 was notable not only for its awesome power but for the wide area it affected. In many ways, it was a classic autumn Great Lakes weather event: the result of a collision between an arctic cold front and warm air seeping up from the United States.

But when this deadly concoction finally exploded, none of the five lakes escaped its fury, though the upper lakes, Huron and Superior, suffered by far the most. During four days of ruthless pounding, no less than 250 sailors, many of whom came from small communities like Collingwood, Ontario, met their end that day, along with a number of freighters that were the pride of the Great Lakes fleet.

I touched on the Great Storm briefly in Lake Erie Stories. Though Erie escaped the worst of the nightmare, six crewmen from an American lightship off Point Abino, Ontario, never came home after those fateful days. The Point Abino lighthouse now stands in memory of the the tragedy (click here to read more about this architecturally rare building). Until it fell dark in the late 1980s, it also did what those brave men lost their lives doing -- marking a long rock shelf that juts out from the shore, posing a risk to vessels coming and going from Buffalo harbour.

To read the full Toronto Star piece, click here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The witch of November

There is a lot of remembering going on across the world today. Apart from the important sacrifices of soldiers, sailors, and airmen, though, there is another group that deserves a moment of thought this November -- those who have lost their lives on the Great Lakes.

November is characteristically one of the most deadly months on the lakes, when winds howl at gale force, and storms of a ferocity rarely seen in the summer months have the power to rage for days, often with tragic results.

On November 18, 1958, the freighter Carl D. Bradley went to the bottom of Lake Michigan, taking thirty-three men with her. Only two survived the sinking and subsequent exposure to the lake's freezing waters.

Just eight years later, on November 29, 1966, the Daniel J. Morrell met a similar fate, literally splitting in two before going down in a terrible storm on Lake Huron. In an odd twist, the boat's severed stern, powered by the still-running engines, smashed into the foundering bow section before disappearing into the night.

The lone survivor, Dennis Hale, wrote a book about his ordeal, during which he spent more than forty hours wearing little more than boxer shorts and a coat -- the only clothing he had time to grab -- on the frigid, raging waters of the lake. (You can read more about the wreck of the Daniel J. Morrell here.) Hale was the only survivor of the twenty-nine-man crew.

And perhaps the Great Lakes' most famous shipwreck, that of the massive ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald in another fierce gale on Lake Superior, occurred thirty-three years ago yesterday, on November 10, 1975. Memorial services for the "Big Fitz" and her lost crew continue to be held to this day, and the ship is most notably remembered in Gordon Lightfoot's legendary song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

The Adrian, Michigan Daily Telegram ran a touching piece yesterday about Jim Jaros, a dockworker who frequently unloaded iron ore from the Fitz at Toledo. Jaros talks about the backbreaking job of unloading a seven-hundred-foot freighter, and exposes the human side of the tragedy when he recounts wandering the Edmund Fitzgerald's decks and talking with a number of the crewmen before they left Toledo, for what would be the last time, on October 31, 1975.

To read the full Daily Telegram story, click here.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A walk in the woods

Last weekend, Presqu'ile Provincial Park sparkled under bright sunshine and balmy fall temperatures. Unable to resist, we decided to head out for a bit of a stroll. For company, we took along Amy's mom and her small, um, dog.

Aim contemplates the future as Lake Ontario sparkles in the background. Yep, the conditions were so perfect that even I could take a picture like this one.

The chilly waters of Lake Ontario roll up on the rocky shore of Presqu'ile Point. Unlike much of Lake Erie, many of the beaches on this part of Lake Ontario consist of long, rocky shelves. This can be deceptive. More than once I've driven my kayak up on what looks to be a sandy beach only to hear the sickening crunch of my hull grinding up against solid rock. In 1804, this area's most famous shipwreck, that of the schooner Speedy, occurred in a similar way, it is thought, when the Speedy's captain, Lieutenant Thomas Paxton, made a navigational error in the midst of a raging storm and smacked into an isolated rock near the mouth of Presqu'ile Bay. The results were fatal for the more than 20 passengers, many of whom made up the elite of Upper Canadian society. (You can read more about the wreck of the Speedy here.)

The day was so lovely that Amy's mom suddenly broke into a jubilant skip and chased her unsuspecting terrier halfway down the beach. To everyone's relief, the lake claimed neither dog nor lady.

After a couple of hours of well-enjoyed fresh air, and narrowly avoiding being pulled into a bustling Christmas craft show that was going on at Presqu'ile (the line is sometimes so long, it is said, that Santa's elves serve candies and other treats to the gathered masses), we decided to head back home for a much-deserved bowl of soup and a lovely afternoon nap.

Today in Toronto, it looks like it really could snow. And that perfect sunny day at Presqu'ile couldn't feel further away.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Out of the closet

Last night, as I wandered into my bedroom, I was startled to find my beloved wife Amy, pictured here, leaning up against her pillow engrossed in the most recent issue of The Beaver, a Canadian history magazine.

Amy has always vigorously claimed, in public and in private, to not give a fig about history. The sincerity of this claim is something I've always doubted, suspecting that, deep inside, there is a secret history buff just aching to come out. This is evidenced by her often limp-wristed resistance to being dragged to various forts and other historical sites around the province and, once there, her thinly disguised interest in her surroundings (I once looked on as Amy stood riveted to a musket demonstration at Fort George, literally hanging on the War of 1812 re-enactor's every word).

When she set down the copy of The Beaver last night, I saw that she had left it folded open on the floor next to the bed. When I picked it up, I noticed that the article she meant to return to was entitled, "Name games: There's a reason why researching your East Coast roots is so confusing."

What could it mean? A new interest in genealogy? A joint project in tracing our common Scottish roots? A weekend trip to the Ontario Genealogical Society conference next spring?

One can only wait and wonder.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Schooner days

Even with the November winds blowing (save for today, it seems, which is 20C and calm in Toronto), shipwrecks are still being turned up on Lake Erie, which holds the bones of hundreds of lost vessels, some known and some not, beneath its shallow waters.

Yesterday's Toledo Blade reports two new additions to the "known" list off Cleveland -- the schooners Plymouth and Riverside, the latter of which was built in 1870 and ended her career in a collision with a steamer in 1893.

The project was a joint effort between the Great Lakes Historical Society and a Cleveland-based group.

For the full story, including some fascinating underwater video, click here.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Massasauga #3: Storm clouds

Before dozing off in the tent on night three of our Massasauga Park paddling trip, I tuned into the local marine weather forecast. It looked like things might turn a bit nippy, with a forty-kilometre wind booked to start picking up around midnight, and conditions worsening through the following day. Having been out in a few doozies, we weren't too fazed; we would get up early, we thought, and make the roughly four-hour dash back to the put-in before things got too wild.

On cue, the wind picked up at about 12:30 a.m., shattering the stillness that had reigned for the previous three days. It felt significantly stronger than forty, so, just to be safe, I emerged from the tent to make sure the boats were secure. Satisfied, after a short grope through the pitch dark, I turned back in, and, still wiped out from the previous day's venture out to Wreck Island, promptly passed out.

We awoke to an even stiffer wind, and by now the waves were beginning to wash even over our sheltered little beach. The temperature had plummeted; the previous day's morning high of about fifteen Celsius had been chopped roughly in half. Worse, the revised forecast called for winds gusting to double the original prediction, or about eighty kilometres, and further dropping temperatures. If we were going to go, it had to be soon.

After a quick and unappetizing breakfast of dry bagels, we quickly disassembled our cozy haven and took to the boats. At first, we made great progress winding through the group of small islands that surround Sharpe's Island. It was only when we were about to attempt the first of two open crossings that the rain started. In only minutes, it had built into a raging downpour. Finding a bit of shelter on the inside of a rocky point, we waited it out in the boats, then eventually picked our way over to a small island about midway across the small bay we had been camped out in.

It was while we were about to make the second crossing that things got interesting. Finally, we felt the full force of those predicted gusts, and as the wind picked up, we felt it lifting up on our paddle blades with every stroke, at times threatening our grip. By now, every wave was washing over our decks, pushing us sideways and forcing us to brace. Even though we were both feeling like pulling the plug on the whole venture, we decided to proceed -- albeit slowly and carefully. Keeping close together, we dodged across the bay to the shelter of the mainland, the waves smacking up against our rear quarters the entire way.

The rest of the paddle was relatively quiet, though chilly and into a stiff headwind. After what felt like a lifetime, we arrived back at Pete's Point and our waiting car. After a quick, open-air change into dry clothes, we tightly strapped the boats down and were on our way.

My lunch at the Waubashene Truck Stop, just south of the Massasauga, was indicative of the amount of energy I expended that day: a fully loaded chicken burger with extra fries and coleslaw, chased down by numerous coffees.

Our stomachs full, we bid a fond adieu to the 2008 paddling season (barring a significant turnaround in the weather) and turned south toward the city. Spring, it seems, is a long way away.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Man of mystery

The October 19 Burlington Post ran an interesting story on Rene Robert, Cavelier de La Salle, hailing the oft-misunderstood explorer as the first European to set foot in Burlington.

La Salle is perhaps one of the most underrated explorers in Canadian history. Often recognized as the first to successfully canoe the Mississippi River, he covered lots of territory in southwestern Ontario, as well (including building the first sailing ship on Lake Erie, the Griffon, in 1679).

I spent a lot of time wrestling with the quixotic explorer and his Canadian adventures in Lake Erie Stories, but in many ways I feel as though I barely scratched the surface of La Salle's story.

He is nothing if not hard to read. At first devoted to the priesthood, he walked away from that life to answer the call of adventure in the New World. There, he became more entrepreneurial, and was obsessed with finding a trade route to China via the Great Lakes. When that didn't pan out, he became something of a colonizer, and wound up in Louisiana in an attempt to set up a settlement near the Mississippi's mouth.

He was adored by many for his accomplishments, but hated by many more for his brash personality. In the end, this cost him his life. As his attempted colonization project struggled toward its inevitable failure, some members of his party ran out of patience. They ambushed La Salle and shot him, stripping his body and leaving it out in the open.

Louis Joutel, who was with the expedition, gave La Salle perhaps the best obituary when he wrote in his journal that the explorer displayed "too haughty a behaviour" and a "rigidness" that "at last drew upon him an implacable hatred, and was the occasion of his death."

To read the full Burlington Post story, click here.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Massasauga #2: Wreck Island

Wreck Island, on the outer edge of Massasauga Park, is fully exposed to the open waters and prevailing westerly winds of Georgian Bay. As such, it has seen a lot of history, both geological and human. It is also one of the most beautiful places on the Bay. Photos don't even begin to capture this.

The Wreck Island interpretive trail runs for about 1.5 kilometres (we checked before setting out this time) through the island's interior and along its shores. Along this short distance, you can see boulders and bedrock that are billions of years old, along with dense stands of trees whose cooler microclimates nurture various species of rare and delicate plant life. It really is like enjoying all that Georgian Bay has to offer over the course of just one short walk.

Wreck Island, naturally, takes its name from the numerous ships that have met an untimely end in its vicinity. The most famous is the Waubuno, a passenger steamer that sailed out of Collingwood in the early morning hours of November 22, 1879. A brutal storm had raged the previous day, delaying her departure, but finally, just before dawn, the Waubuno's captain had seen enough. The storm was abating, and it was time to sail for Parry Sound. What ultimately happened to the Waubuno remains a mystery, but it is commonly believed, as the storm began to rage again, that she sought shelter among the rugged islands of the Bay's eastern shore. It was a fatal mistake -- as the waves rose ever higher, the Waubuno ended up being ripped apart on the rocks. Her passenger deck (and its 24 lost souls), has never been found, but her hull drifted for about eleven kilometres, finally coming to rest just off Wreck Island, where, visible from the surface, it lies in about 4.5 metres of water.

Fortunately, no such maelstrom was in store for Wreck Island on this day. As the trail opened onto the shore, we found boulders of various colours and ages jumbled up along the water. Some of these were giant "percussion boulders," which had literally been dragged along over great distances by fast-moving currents of water during the last ice age, smashing new formations into the bedrock along the way.

On the way back to camp, famished from hiking the perimeter of the island and then paddling it, we stumbled across this handy dock awkwardly plunked in the middle of nowhere to service, of all things, a lone cell phone tower. As the sun began to set, the utter tranquility of the place became ever more obvious.

But Georgian Bay is nothing if not changeable, and the weather we would wake up to the next morning would bear little resemblance to the three calm days that had preceded it. It would, in fact, look a lot more like that fateful 1879 morning that bore witness to the final cruise of the doomed Waubuno.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Massasauga #1: Moon Island

Thanksgiving weekend is the wild card of autumn in southern Ontario. Often, it is a cold and miserable three-day slog, but sometimes it can be a gift -- a veritable extra summer long weekend.

This year, we were blessed. The marine forecast called for light winds and twenty-five-degree temperatures on southern Georgian Bay. Not missing a beat, Amy and I decided tack a couple extra days onto the weekend and set off for The Massasauga Provincial Park, which consists of a number of rugged islands and cozy inland lakes along Georgian Bay's eastern shore, just south of Parry Sound.

Moon Island, a large island to the west of the area's main launch point, literally a small trailer and boat ramp called Pete's Place Access Point, is classic southern Georgian Bay landscape -- high ridges of rock combined with dense forest that, somehow, manages to hang on in mere inches of soil. From Pete's, it is about a forty-minute paddle out to the island's quiet and serene shores.

One of the things that always hits me on landing at a place like Moon Island is the smell, especially in the fall. The wafting scents of pine and fir, combined with that of brackish marsh water are overwhelming, and almost instantly my muscles relax as I downshift into "camping mode," and the stresses of daily life begin to fall away.

The Moon Island trail is a meandering, four-kilometre ramble through the varied terrain of the island's interior. It was hard to believe it was fall as we sweated past tiny lakes, rich marshes, and tall stands of coniferous trees.

In a startling brain cramp, both Amy and I, excited just to be there, entirely forgot to check the trail map before setting off. Finally, a little over an hour in, we began to question why the so-called loop trail didn't appear to be heading back to the trailhead. Was it really only four kilometres? Was it really a loop? Had we missed a turn somewhere? Why in God's name had we not brought even a few peanuts along? No one could answer any of these questions for sure.

So, after we were finished beating ourselves up, and even though we were probably only feet from the end, we decided to turn back. About an hour later, we emerged at the boats, hungry and exhausted. After flopping on the dock and gorging on the aforementioned nuts, fruit, and, for dessert, delicious M&M's, we finally took to the kayaks and completed the paddle out to our campsite, near Sharpe's Island, a stone's throw from the open waters of Georgian Bay.

Camping in a provincial park is something of a luxurious experience after a summer of flopping on the Crown land along Georgian Bay's shores. Our site came fully equipped with a firepit, a picnic table, even a privy box (essentially a wooden box set back in the forest -- for privacy, of course -- with a fold-down lid and a seat carved out of the top).

After the day's hiking and paddling excitement, and as the temperature began to drop with the early nightfall, we ate dinner and warmed ourselves around a small, hastily constructed fire. The clear sky yielded a bright blanket of stars, and soon it was time to hit the tent for a good night's rest. The next day, we planned to explore one of The Massasauga's feature attractions -- the aptly named Wreck Island.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Familiarity

One of the funny things about researching a book project is the people you become acquainted with in, let's say, uncommon, places.

Yesterday evening, for example, I was at the Ontario Archives reviewing microfilm of the York Gazette, Toronto's first newspaper, for the Lake Ontario manuscript. When I first started going to the archives, while researching Lake Erie Stories, I got the odd arched eyebrow from the staff. (I assumed this was because I'm quite a bit younger than the archives' regular clientele.) Gradually, however, this has dissipated. Last night, I shuffled in dripping wet from cycling over in a steady rain. "Still biking, eh?" asked the security guard, who rarely musters even a brief greeting.

Over at the Toronto Reference Library a week or so earlier, I approached the periodicals desk and asked for a couple volumes of Inland Seas, a great newsletter devoted to Great Lakes history, put out by the Great Lakes Historical Society.

"Oh, yeah. I remember you," said the library assistant.

"Really?" I said. "That's funny, because I haven't been here in at least a year."

"I know," he replied. "But you're the only one who ever asks for it."

Monday, October 6, 2008

Triple play

Shipwreck hunters in northern Lake Michigan had a big month last month, according to yesterday's Detroit Free Press.

Thaddius Bedford, of Mayfield, Michigan, was among those who located three (possibly four) shipwrecks in the lake's chilly depths. Bedford and his colleagues had actually found a couple of the wrecks years ago, but decided that now was the time to make their finds public.

One is the Redfern, a wooden schooner that was built in the 1890s and went down in 1937 while carrying a load of wood. She lies well below the surface, in about three hundred feet of water.

Another is a far more recent wreck, the tug Lauren Castle, which went down in 1980.

You can read more about these exciting finds in the Detroit Free Press by clicking here.

To view the story (along with some interesting underwater video) on shipwreckworld.com, click here.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Aboard Via #78

Thursday night, I took the train back from Leamington (actually Chatham) to Toronto. I love travelling by train, and it's been a few years since I've had the chance to do so. The ride is a relatively short one: three hours and twenty-two minutes. Just enough time to get a sense of the state of rail travel in southwestern Ontario today.

6:30 p.m.
The station at Chatham hasn't changed in many years. The same two plants, philodendrons, that were there when I took the train as a student, still hang from rusty chains in the corners of the room. All beiges and greys (let's call them earth tones), the place could sure use a perk up. Upon entering, I step in something brown and sticky, and spend the next five minutes struggling mightily to wipe it off on the all-weather rug in front of the ticket desk.

6:45 p.m. The train eases its way into Chatham amid a rather heavy downpour. On shuffling aboard and making my way to my seat, I am approached by the cabin steward and informed that I will be his "door person" for the duration of the trip. I am often singled out of crowds this way. There must be something about my face that says, "Offer me responsibility."

So, to the front of the car we go, where I am taught how to open the door in the event that he is "incapacitated." I strain to pay attention, except at the point where he says that if there is a river or bridge outside the stopped (and presumably burning) train car, I should "try the door on the other side." Not exactly encouraging.

For the duration of the trip, my seat is marked by a small yellow sticker that says, simply, "door."

7:15 p.m. Apparently the train still stops at some of the smaller towns. At one called Glencoe, it pauses for about thirty seconds. One lady gets on, and another gets off.

8:00 p.m. London. Student central. The train car immediately takes on the feel of a dorm as the twenty somethings clamber aboard, open up their laptops, and get to work. In a nod to the modern era, Via has installed plugs at every seat with little signs above them that say "for computer only." I can easily see how people would be tempted to bring other things aboard and plug them in (a slow cooker for a family dinner perhaps? an electric razor?)

For the next hour, silence, save for the tapping of keys, reigns.

9:00 p.m. Aldershot. I don't even think Aldershot is a town, so much as a junction where passengers connect to the GO commuter rail system that spans the Greater Toronto Area. Whatever it is, the train largely empties here. With my seatmate now gone, I shuffle over to the window seat. One gets an entirely different perspective on cities from the window of a passing train. It really is like entering them through a sort of back door. Old, rusting cars, foundries, dumpsters, and the vandalized rear walls of shopping malls dominate the scene. (A writer in explore magazine a couple months back, writing about a cross-country trip on Amtrak, described such places as "ass end America.") In the distance, the twinkling lights of the "outer" side of the city shine. It feels something like being backstage at a laser light show.

10:20 p.m.
Toronto. My wife Amy waits on the platform as I emerge from the depths of Union Station. A forty-year-old sign carved in the wall says, helpfully, "to city," and guides me out into the light. I wonder if its carvers could envision the bustling metropolis that exists outside Union today.

We emerge into the fresh, damp air. The street is alive, and Torontonians, enjoying a rare warm fall evening, are packing the patios of the bars and restaurants along King Street. It is a bit of a shock after the dim silence of the train, but I am happy to be home.

And happy, too, that I have spent the last three hours relaxing, and not fighting the gridlock out on the highways.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Back in the game

As I write this, I am staring out over a seriously churned up Lake Erie. Yesterday’s relative brightness has been replaced by a slate-grey fall sky and a stiff southwest wind, which looks like it’s going to stick around for a while. No matter.

Apart from a short run and a somewhat longer bike ride this afternoon, I have been sitting at this slightly-too-high desk in a dark corner of my mother’s underused office. The change of scene from my usual Toronto surroundings has been just enough to get my creative juices flowing, it seems. Today, I embarked on yet another grand (suicide?) mission: I sat down and scratched out the first few paragraphs of my (hopeful) next book manuscript -- working title Lake Ontario Stories.

Shifting the scene from Lake Erie to its easterly neighbour has been an idea that I have wrestled with for some time. Outlines have been written. The library has been visited more than once. Still, I wondered whether I would feel as strong of a connection to Lake Ontario, a lake I am relatively new to, as I do to Lake Erie, which was a big part of my childhood.

So I decided to start with something seriously dramatic: the story of the Gibraltar Point lighthouse, whose first keeper, according to local legend, was beaten to death by soldiers from nearby Fort York. Many believe his spirit still haunts the light, which is the oldest on the Great Lakes.

Tomorrow, I will fold up my laptop and take this encouraging start back to the city. Hopefully the almost-daily sight of Lake Ontario will prove to be equally inspiring.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Inking the stock

In an effort to get out of my head and change the scene from the desk I've been welded to for the last few months, I have entered a sort of self-imposed exile from the city and returned to the homeland -- near Point Pelee National Park. My parents have a little place here.

Last night I fell asleep to the chirping of crickets and the gentle slapping of a mostly becalmed Lake Erie. This morning I woke up feeling somewhat re-energized.

After a short run to the gates of the park and back to get my blood moving, I hopped on a friend's borrowed bicycle and headed to Pelee Wings Nature Store, where the owner has been very supportive of Lake Erie Stories, and has moved many a copy this summer.

One of the fun things about being an author is that you get to go into stores and essentially vandalize your books with your signature. Clerks require almost no proof that you are who you say you are, which I've always found amusing, and this simple act does make a difference in terms of sales. At Chapters, for instance, they'll place a "signed by author" sticker on the cover and face the books out, making them much more visible on an ultra-packed shelf.

Today, however, I was blown away to see that all of Pelee Wings' stock, save one copy, which was reserved for a friend of the owner, had sold over the last couple of weeks. Extra-satisfied, I signed it, stuck around for a bit of a chat, and saddled up.

Looks like exile is off to a pretty good start.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The guns of September

September 2008 marks the 195th anniversary of a key event from the War of 1812, an escapade known as "the war that both sides won" because, despite a significant amount of bloodshed, the border between Canada and the U.S. remained pretty much the same once the guns fell silent in 1814.

But in September 1813, events looked like they might be heading for a significantly different ending. The storied commander of the British army in Upper Canada, Isaac Brock, had been killed in the Battle of Queenston Heights nearly a year earlier, and on Lake Erie the Americans were building a fleet of impressive battleships designed to directly threaten the meagre British presence in what is today southwestern Ontario.

Standing largely alone against this threat was Henry Procter, the commander of Fort Malden, in Amherstburg. Constantly undermanned and provisioned through a tenuous waterborne supply line stretching to it from Long Point, conditions at Malden often verged on starvation for the garrison, which consisted of British soldiers and a significant number of Native warriors.

Procter's job was not shaping up to be an easy one.

Still, despite all this (or more correctly because of it), a fleet of six British warships under the command of Royal Navy commander Robert Heriot Barclay sailed out of Malden on the morning of September 10, 1813, with a single goal: to wipe out the new American fleet under the command of young Oliver Hazard Perry. Gamely, Barclay approached Perry's anchorage at Put-in-Bay, on South Bass Island, in American waters.

But Perry, who would be lionized for his role in the battle, had a key advantage -- his fleet carried a superior number of short-range carronades, which were key to taking on the British in close combat. Barclay, on the other hand, was dramatically short of cannons of all types, and many of these had been stripped from the ramparts of Fort Malden in a last, desperate attempt to fit out his flagship, HMS Detroit.

So, the early stages of the battle between the six-ship British fleet and the nine American boats looked an awful lot like a chess match, as Perry tried to bring his flagship, the Lawrence, closer to the British, while Barclay, who was reliant on long-range guns, tried to keep the gap as wide as possible. In the end, mainly owing to a favourable wind, Perry was able to close the distance, though many of his gunners paid the ultimate price, being picked off by British cannonballs and sharpshooters while the American flagship pressed closer. By the time Perry was able to slam a broadside into the Detroit, the Lawrence was nearly completely wrecked. But his guns still had a lethal effect on the British flagship.

The coup de grace came when Perry had himself rowed, fully exposed to British fire, to the Lawrence's twin, the Niagara. The latter had stayed out of the fray, for reasons that have never been fully explained, and when Perry climbed aboard and took command, he had a nearly unscathed 20-gun warship to inflict on the by-now-tattered British fleet. In the end, he made short work of them, busting through the British line and unleashing broadside after broadside into his opponents until, at the height of this ruthless pounding, one of the American officers finally spotted a white flag fluttering above the deck of the utterly shattered Detroit.

With that, it was over. And the Americans found themselves in firm possession of Lake Erie.

Today, there aren't any memorials to the fallen British and Canadian soldiers on the Canadian side of the lake. But Perry and his men were revered for their victory by their countrymen. The most telling monument to the battle, and to the peace that has existed between the Canadians and Americans since 1814, is the 107-metre Perry's monument. Built to mark the battle's centenary and completed in 1815, the single stone tower draws tourists from all over the United States (along with more than a few curious boaters from Canada). From its observation deck, you can take in a stunning view of the surrounding Lake Erie islands, including the very spot where the two fleets met on that cool, clear day in 1813.

The 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the War of 1812 is coming up in just four years. As 2012 approaches, expect to hear a lot more about this peculiar conflict from the distant past.

Meantime, you can read more about this and many other escapades on Lake Erie in Lake Erie Stories.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Hidden history

My recent shift in focus from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, her smaller, chillier neighbour, has reinvigorated my interest in some of the places I often take for granted. One of these is Brighton Bay, which borders on Presqu'ile Provincial Park. A late-summer paddle there recently reminded me of the many hidden gems, both historical and natural, that dot this part of Lake Ontario's north shore.

One of these is the presence of numerous hidden coves and anchorages, far more than on Lake Erie, whose sandy shorelines are almost unbroken in their symmetry. This lovely dock, a great (and free) place to launch kayaks from, is in a tiny park just off Harbour Street in Brighton.

The simple beauty of the kayak, photographed just off the pebbly beach of Calf Pasture Point, Presqu'ile Provincial Park. Just across the bay from the put-in, Calf Pasture, now a quiet little dent in the coastline that is mainly used for bird watching, was an important British supply depot during the War of 1812 (the Americans once burned a schooner on the stocks here). You should be careful -- if you come on the wrong weekend, you could be beset by re-enactors, who have been known to pop out of the woods and recreate historic and fictional battles alike.

This range light, near the mouth of the bay, is an important navigational marker. Nearby, the Presqu'ile Point lighthouse, one of the oldest in the area, continues to attract tourists. (You can read more about this historic light here.) This spot also holds historical significance. In 1804, HMS Speedy, which was sailing to Presqu'ile for an important murder trial, went down here in a blinding snowstorm, taking a number of prominent Upper Canadians to the bottom with it. Their loss was a severe blow to the colony's development, and the loss of the ship convinced the government that the area was unsafe for navigation, preventing the founding of a planned town on Presqu'ile.

On this day, however, the range light marked only where the waves of Lake Ontario started to rise higher as they rolled over the shallow rocky ledges that jut out from the point. Being, in essence, a ten-year-old boy, I attempted to surf the whitecaps, which resulted in two dramatic broaches that threw me from the cockpit. On the upside, Amy got an excellent opportunity to practice her rescues.

Back on the town side of the bay, Brighton presents a rather tumbledown facade that doesn't look like it's changed much since the 1960s. This also goes for some of the boats; a couple summers back, we darted around the wreck of a sailboat, just off the marina, that appeared to have slipped her moorings and capsized. Today, fortunately, all the boats, including our own, looked very buoyant.

All of this, of course, only whetted my appetite. Unlike many of my friends, who bemoan the brevity of this rather sub-par summer, I find myself welcoming the coolness of fall, and with it several guilt-free hours at the computer.

There are, after all, new projects to ponder.

For more on Presqu'ile Provincial Park, click here.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Prisque Bay Calling #2

Just south of our island encampment on Prisque Bay lie two tiny islets, oddly named Head Island and Inside Head Island. Opposite them, on the eastern shore of Georgian Bay, lies another speck on the marine chart, the unnavigable (except by paddlecraft) Mud Channel.

At the mouth of this narrow canal, which felt utterly untouched by humans, we spotted this lone heron. Curious to watch this relatively common, yet still mysterious, bird in action, we silently glided closer.

Herons generally like to feed on small fish. And their long legs, which undoubtedly look like plant stalks to their unsuspecting prey in the shallow water below, are ideally suited to this. We watched for several minutes as the bird took steps so gentle they produced not a ripple on the murky water's surface. During that time, several small fish met their untimely ends. Then the real drama began:

Suddenly, the hunter grew very still as something stirred in the water next to its leg. Patiently, it waited, and then it struck, and when its long bill emerged from the water it contained a writhing baby snake. For several minutes, a long struggle went on, as the reptile tried, in vain, to free itself by wrapping itself around the heron's bill, at points nearly hitting the giant bird's eyes with its tail.

To no avail. Eventually, the snake succumbed, and was instantly devoured.

Exhausted ourselves after watching such a struggle, we, too, returned to camp for a long, lovely afternoon of staring at the water and doing nothing. Then, after another comatose night in the tent, we set off for the four-hour paddle home, which we leisurely broke into two days by stopping at our usual waypoint, Gereaux Island. On the way, we lunched on one of the "30,000 islands" that dot the shore along the way. This one was just big enough for two people and two boats. I had to back up right to the water's edge to get this shot.

The last day returned us to Britt, and our waiting car. This was very likely the last time we'll get to this unique corner of Georgian Bay this summer. There will be other, smaller trips, no doubt, but there was certainly a lingering feeling that something had ended during the long drive home.

Still, we will carry the haunting beauty and utter silence of Prisque Bay with us through the long winter to come.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Top Shelf

Shelf Life, a publication of the Toronto Library Board, gave Lake Erie Stories a big thumbs up in its most recent issue. Reviewer Joan Sutter said:

"... anyone interested in the area ... will find a well-documented history, laid out like a map, for all to see and follow."

She also gave the book 4 1/2 "bookmarks" -- high praise, indeed.

It's great to get a nod from the libraries. Authors and publishers tend to focus on retail sales, but libraries are a key component of any book's health -- and the most accessible way to reach readers. They also provide authors with other opportunities, like speaking engagements and events. And, of course, there are few books that would ever see the light of day without the resources of a good library.

Thanks, Shelf Life.

Also, if you're in southwestern Ontario on Monday morning, tune your TV in to your local A Channel affiliate for A Channel Morning. I'll be on around 8:45 a.m. to discuss some of the wilder stories of Lake Erie's past, especially the eastern end.