Monday, May 26, 2008

Because it's there

Staring at a map some months ago, I guessed at the distance between my home in downtown Toronto and that of my in-laws, near the gates of Presqu'ile Provincial Park in Brighton. I figured that, because this was a 165-kilometre run down the 401, the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail, which runs even more directly down the shoreline, would be even shorter.

I decided that I would set out to prove that this distance was bikeable. And not only that, but that it could be done in one day. There was no other reason for doing it. Only, in the words of legendary Everest climber George Mallory, "because it's there." (Notably, Mallory was later killed on Everest.) For fun, I decided to drag my wife Amy along.

We set off from the neighbourhood Second Cup at 7:30 last Saturday morning. The bikes were tuned and ready for the excursion. We took along lots of water, snacks, even a pannier full of spare clothes (and a cell phone). No amateur adventurers were we.

The first leg of the trail proceeds down the very civilized (and paved) Martin Goodman Recreation Trail before crossing into the scruffy urban heart of Scarborough. From there, it was on to the suburban cities of Pickering, Ajax, Whitby, and Oshawa, all of which have surprisingly lovely waterfronts consisting of kilometres of paved trail and interlinked parks and marinas. We were making great time. Be in Brighton in time for the hockey game tonight, I thought.

Once we finally cleared the GTA, the trail got really interesting. At times, it was no more than a tire-wide dirt path weaving through the bush. We were astonished by some of the beautiful vistas of the lake that could be seen from the most unlikely of places. Like behind the Darlington Nuclear Power Plant, for example. There were small cottage communities accessible only by dirt roads and the odd private residential development, blocked off to public access and snuggled in between the shoreline and a vast no-man's land of weeds and shrubs -- with no neighbourhood, store, or Starbucks in sight. Then the trail suddenly dropped off, and we pedalled through a thirty-kilometre void of country roads. No rest for our rapidly deteriorating legs here. Just field after field, and hill after hill, as far as the eye could see.

By the time we reached what we thought was our ultimate salvation in Port Hope, almost twelve hours after departing, we'd had enough. But unfortunately my timing was as bad as my sense of distance; there was a big college reunion happening this weekend, said a very nice (and very patient) lady at a downtown inn, and there was not a room to be had anywhere -- not even the stable.

Forlornly, we laboured another ten kilometres on to the next town, Cobourg, where, incidentally, I had the most delicious milk shake of my life. Brighton's only thirty more clicks, offered Amy as I wallowed in an ice-cream-induced trance. Let's go for it, I responded. And we did.

The last few hills felt like that last scene in Perfect Storm, when the fishermen realize that the storm is not going to let them out, but has instead chosen to murder them within sight of sanctuary. Still, I steeled myself and mounted the last hill, which dwarfed the fifty that had preceded it, downshifted as far as my faithful steed would allow, and unleashed a stream of obscenities. Finally, just before wobbling to a stop, I cleared the crest and careened down toward Brighton. We made it just before sundown, at nine p.m., a mere 13.5 hours after starting. In the end, counting the winding nature of the trail and more than a few unplanned detours, the distance ended up being closer to 190 kilometres.

A fine trip. And I highly recommend it. But if you're going to give it a go, take my advice: do it over two days.

For the Waterfront Trail web site, click here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Like a mist"

I've received sporadic reports that Lake Erie Stories is beginning to arrive in the mailboxes of the people who were kind enough to support my little endeavour by preordering her online.

I read a piece by a fiction author on the New York Times web site the other day who described the arrival of a new book as being "like a mist." He's largely right; you sign off on the final proofs, then you wait. And wonder. A few weeks later, your publisher will tell you that they've received some finished copies. You check them over. Then silence. A few more weeks pass. Then you notice (thanks to the Internet) that a few local stores are stocking your book. A friend will comment on how good their newly received copy looks. Then more silence. Then (hopefully) a review or two. More silence.

The excruciatingly long timelines still involved with book publishing are a surprise to many in our "just-in-time" world. Lake Erie Stories has been in print for almost four weeks now, and I'm just on the leading edge of any kind of response. This can have a torturous effect on the already fragile psyche of an author, particularly a first-timer like me. I've seen enough now to know that the book is in fine shape from an editorial standpoint, and my anxiety level drops a little bit daily -- but some days I just want to hop out of the car and give it a good push. To really see what it can do.

More on the ongoing debut of Lake Erie Stories soon. Meantime, if you're interested, click here for that New York Times piece. It was originally written back in 1987, but much of it still applies today. It's an amusing look at the birth of a book.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Storm clouds

A couple days ago, a friend passed along an article that novelist Margaret Atwood wrote in the Toronto Star back on January 19.

The piece is an interesting look at Lake Erie's past, with an emphasis on her famed dark side. In it, Atwood touches on a number of aspects that I looked at in Lake Erie Stories -- shipwrecks, bootleggers, wicked weather and the like -- but her essay is much more than history. The Great Lakes, as is becoming clearer every day, are an extremely delicate ecosystem, and Lake Erie, for a number of reasons, is among the most vulnerable. If we don't start devoting some serious resources to their survival, Atwood argues, we risk losing them, and perhaps ourselves in the process.

Atwood is no stranger to Erie. As she notes in the piece, she and her partner Graeme Gibson are avid birders and have been hitting the lake's birding hotspots for years. They are also a presence on my favourite place on Lake Erie -- Pelee Island. There, they've played a pivotal role in the founding and development of a bird observatory, an organic farm, and a number of other community projects.

Enlightened reading.

To read the full Toronto Star piece, click here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A date with history

When the Canadian warship HMCS Kingston sailed from Hamilton harbour last night, she was not setting out on a typical military maneuver -- she was on her way to a rendezvous with two of her nineteenth-century forebears.

The Kingston is helping out with an archaeological survey of two British merchant ships that were commandeered and armed by the Americans during the War of 1812. It's believed the two schooners, the Scourge and the Hamilton, were used in the successful American attack on York (now Toronto), before foundering in a storm in August of 1813. Both are supposedly well-preserved in the chilly depths of Lake Ontario.

The mission, which involves officials from both Canada and the United States, is expected to last the week and, if there is time, the Kingston will lower a camera into the hold of one of the ships. What will be found? Nineteenth-century weaponry? Valuable coins? The remains of the crew? Sand?

This is, of course, why we explore these old wrecks. Stay tuned.

To read the Toronto Star story about the survey mission, click here.

Monday, May 5, 2008

And at the end of the fourth year...

There was a very real, concrete, hold-in-your-hand book.

It is a very strange feeling holding your first book for the very first time. I felt the adrenaline surge through my body as Amy and I rode the elevator up to Dundurn's office last Thursday morning to pick up my first copy. My head buzzed as I took it from the publicist's hand. She said something pleasant, I remember not what, and then Amy and I went outside, where she snapped this picture. There had not even been time for coffee.

In the days since, I have been behaving much like I believe a new parent would, both beaming with pride and nervously examining my new bundle of joy for any major defect -- what a friend calls the "career-ending moment."

But I have found nothing of any note so far. The folks at Dundurn did a top-notch editorial and production job on Lake Erie Stories, and whatever her life has in store for her, I can rest assured that she sure looks good. She's now sitting on my bookshelf at home, wedged between the Bruce Trail guidebook and a mapbook of Lake Ontario's Waterfront recreation trail. Yep, just another book to add to the library. Nothing to see here.

And as I write this, Dundurn's distributor is busy packing Lake Erie Stories into boxes and sending her out into the world. If you ordered online, you should see yours very soon, I would think, and it should be out in Canadian bookstores by about three to four weeks from now.

Meantime, I nervously await my first review.

What a ride.