Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mini-media

Lake Erie Stories continues to catch the attention of community media outlets in the small towns lining the lake's north shore.

This time it's the Kingsville Reporter, in Kingsville, Ontario, right next door to Leamington. Couch potatoes may remember that Kingsville was one of the finalists in this year's Kraft Hockeyville contest, but was thwarted by Roberval, Quebec. (Who wants a noisy NHL exhibition game in their town, anyway? Yuck.)

Anyway, I have an interview set up at with a Reporter staffer at, of course, the Kingsville Tim Hortons on August 9, with a feature to run in the paper in the following weeks. So if you're a native Kingsvillian, keep an eye out for me in the Reporter.

I'm thrilled with all the local coverage, particularly in these, the dog days of summer. I'll keep posting the highlights here.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Liberation Day

Many people from outside of Toronto would be surprised at the lengths to which many Torontonians must go to protect their bicycles from theft. My faithful steed (which I can see from the window of my office), is secured with a U-lock that could survive a nuclear blast. And this is not all I use. To make sure the criminal element doesn't make off with my bike's unsecured rear tire, I employ a vinyl-coated steel cable.

There is good reason for this. Every year, up to 4,500 bikes are estimated stolen in Toronto alone, making bike theft a significant problem. I have personally had two freed from my ownership -- one about a month after I first moved to the city and didn't yet know that I needed slightly better than a Canadian Tire cable lock, and one from the side of a house I was renting. (From under a tarp, no less.)

In both cases, the bikes were ancient and essentially valueless, but this didn't save them from their fate. The theft of a bike, a machine with whom many riders share an almost spiritual connection, is emotionally traumatizing, to say the least. Not to mention financially burdensome.

So when news broke last week that a major bike-theft ring had been busted in the city, and the loot, about 3,000 bikes in all, would be put on display in two nearby warehouses (yes, you read that right -- 3,000 bikes), I decided to go see what I could see:

A good part of the stash is displayed in the larger of the two warehouses. There are so many bikes that police apparently had to hire students to label them all and place them in lines arranged alphabetically by make. Hopeful owners, like visitors to a morgue, trooped along throughout the maze, silently hoping to be reunited with an old friend.

The second warehouse is set up essentially the same, though somewhat smaller. As with my own lost bikes, I was struck by how many were completely rusted out and essentially worthless. But the thief still felt the need to steal them. This would seem to fit the dictionary definition of "compulsion."

As it turned out, neither of my missing rides was among the recovered bodies. But there were more than a few interesting scenes at the police claims desk. One attendee, clutching a single tire, desperately tried to convince an officer that it was his, to no avail. "How can you prove a tire is yours?" the officer asked repeatedly. In a happy ending, we saw one woman pushing away an almost brand-new Miele road bike, only slightly the worse for wear. She was positively beaming.

I bet she was off to buy a pretty solid lock.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hyping the hype...

I have it on reasonably good authority that the Lake Erie Beacon, a small newspaper serving the communities along the Canadian Lake Erie shoreline, will soon be running a review of Lake Erie Stories. So if you live in one of these little towns, keep an eye out for the next issue (or perhaps the one after that) of the Beacon. We should know what it thinks of my tome shortly.

In other community-media news, I'm scheduled to do a half-hour interview with Marlene Markham, host of The Story Teller, a 30-minute TV show running on CFTV, Leamington's community station, on August 9. It's a taped interview, so I'm not sure when it will actually hit the airwaves of my hometown, but I'll keep you posted. It's gratifying to see the book get its first little bit of media traction, especially in the place that started it all.

Meantime, I continue to become more brazen about wandering into bookstores and haranguing them into ordering Lake Erie Stories. This weekend's target was Lighthouse Books, in the little town of Brighton, Ontario. It was a little tricky, because Brighton is actually on Lake Ontario, but stories of rummrunning, shipwrecks, and other nautical excitement are pretty universal, aren't they?

So if you are an eastern Ontarian craving tales from the western frontier, keep an eye on Lighthouse books. Perhaps a couple copies of Lake Erie Stories will pop up there shortly.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Homecoming #2

Along with unique island culture, you'll find no end of natural splendour on Pelee Island. Because of its extreme southern location and the fact that it is surrounded by the warm, shallow waters of Lake Erie's western basin, Pelee Island basks in its own "microclimate," which warms it up, on average, to a temperature higher than that of any other place in Canada.

True to form, Pelee was hot and humid during our recent visit. Here is a typical island road; most of them are gravel, which means that about two days after the last rainfall they turn to a fine dust. And when you're biking, you have to deal with the massive, tooth-gritting clouds that are kicked up by every passing car. But at least the motorists are kind enough to wave as they're about to blast you. The ubiquitous "Pelee wave," in which all motorists on the island are expected to wave at each other as they pass (don't do it and you'll immediately label yourself a tourist), is something I've never encountered anywhere else.

Amy takes a break from basking in the warm waters of Lake Erie off Fish Point, a nature reserve at the island's south end. Over her shoulder is Middle Island, which contains a pristine sample of lush Carolinian forest. It's the southernmost point of land in Canada. And as I've mentioned before, it is a little island with a very shady past. In an act of blatant self-promotion, I will tell you no more -- you'll have to read about it in Lake Erie Stories.

No trip to Pelee Island is complete without a visit to the Pelee Island Winery. Winemaking has been a mainstay of the island's tiny economy for a century, and the vintages here, because of the muggy, almost tropical climate, are unique, indeed. Behind the winery you can sample a choice of cheeses and picnic on a beautiful lawn. A warning: the chilled white wine served here goes down quickly on a steamy summer day. I recommend taking the winery's little tourist trolley to the ferry.

Photographing a sunset is always a hit-and-miss proposition. Usually when I try to do it, I end up with a big, red blur. Or the setting sun is so far away that it loses nearly all of its dazzle. But this one, taken on our last evening on the island, appears to be an exception.

Growing up in this area, I often heard people comment that it was known for having the most beautiful sunsets in all the world. I don't know if it's true, but I bet you'd be hard pressed to find a Pelee Islander who would disagree. And at the risk of sounding cliche, it's one of the many things that always keeps me coming back.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Homecoming #1

I’ve written a number of times here about my longtime love of Pelee Island. When I was a kid, my grandparents owned a small wooden cottage on West Shore Road, and no matter where I go in life, this little island, with its many charming quirks and its stunning natural beauty, always seems to call me back.

A couple of weeks ago I received that call yet again, and as a result Amy and I excitedly landed on the dock here last Friday for a bit of a mini-holiday. But this trip was a bit different than any I had made in the past -- I had a newborn in tow; along with the camping gear, I stuffed a box of Lake Erie Stories into the trunk of the car before we left Toronto. And, to me at least, it kind of felt like we were bringing her home.

Amy takes a break with a (mediocre?) book on the steps of the Westview Tavern, billed as the southernmost tavern in Canada. And now its title is undisputed; with the closing of the Pelee Island Hotel, just metres to the south, a couple of summers ago, the Westview stands alone as the only place to go for a cold draft on the entire island. It’s also just off the ferry dock, and a great first stop after the ninety-minute crossing. I’ve spent too many hours here to count, and was shocked this weekend to learn that the tavern had altered its dress code:

After a cold brew at the Westview (or perhaps it would be better if you went before), you can head next door to the Pelee Island Heritage Centre, where curator (and the island’s unofficial Minister of Information) Ron Tiessen will answer any questions you might have about Pelee’s rich human and natural history. The museum, which occupies the old town hall, is filled with artifacts of the island's past and priceless items from nearby Middle Island, which was both a speakeasy and a haven for rumrunners during the prohibition years. There is even a small bookstore where Ron sells a number of his excellent books on Pelee’s history. He was kind enough to allow me to deposit a few copies of Lake Erie Stories there as well, making the book's homecoming feel complete.

Amy patiently waits for a bus that will certainly never come on the island’s east side. This transit stop, stuck in the ground in front of a cottage by some prankster, remains the official property of the Toronto Transit Commission, though I bet this is the last place they’d ever come to look for it. On one side is a weathered advertisement for the TTC’s “TimeLine,” which, in its day, told you when the next bus would come. It took much of my strength to restrain myself from calling it.

A couple of times over the weekend, I heard islanders mention that they had to get ready to do their banking. I was perplexed as to how this was done; there is no bank on the island, not so much as a bank machine, actually (the white-label one in the tavern doesn’t work). Did islanders have to go to the mainland and back (three hours total ferry ride) to complete this, one of life’s simplest tasks?

Here was my answer. Last Monday, a credit union from Essex County came over and set up shop in, of all places, the local legion. I don’t know how often the credit union does this, but I assume it's only once a week. For those of us who grew up on ATM machines, it’s a stark reminder of how disconnected the island really is from the hurly-burly of mainland life. And, if you’re of the right mindset, you’ll quickly see that it’s one of the many things that make this place so very special.

To read more about Pelee Island on this blog, click here.

For the Pelee Island Heritage Centre web site, click here.

For the official Pelee Island web site, click here.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Foster Island Stories #2

Two more days of paddling around Foster Island and its neighbouring rocky islets awaited after our surprise pike dinner on night one. Here are some of the highlights:

Amy battles her way into a stiff headwind on our second-last day out. The paddle to Foster Island is relatively sheltered, but there are a number of areas, like here in Burritt's Bay, where you'll find yourself fully exposed to the prevailing west wind, which creates a playful chop in the relatively shallow water. But watch out for the rocks. Also, I'm told that it's bad luck to sing "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" at the top of your lungs when the wind is up like this. So don't.

The Gereaux Island lighthouse, built in 1880, was manned for a remarkably long time. In 1989, the last keeper finally descended from his perch for good. Now this old wooden beauty, still active, is maintained by the coast guard as part of a rescue station. It's a familiar landmark to paddlers heading toward Foster Island, as it marks the place you turn south and weave your way through the tricky rocks and shoals of the Magnetawan Ledges. The south side of Gereaux Island is also blessed with remarkable camping, and we often stay here on our last night out.

Here is one of those great Gereaux Island sites. You can forget staking a tent down here, but there are plenty of boulders to tether your shelter to. Just before paddling back to Britt for the long ride home, we sat in the early morning sun here and watched a Blanding's turtle in action, slowly (even for a turtle) hunting crawfish at the edge of the water, then busily stirring up the muck on the bottom. All the while he carried a clam, which he appeared to be saving for brunch, in his back claw.

As the day heated up, we felt the usual sadness at having to shuffle away from the silent mysteries of this unique corner of Georgian Bay and back to our busy city lives. But we intend to return soon. And it's comforting to know that nothing will have changed.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Foster Island Stories #1

When my wife Amy and I go camping, things usually go smoothly. That is perhaps an understatement. Things often operate with a choreographed precision that would make any armed forces marching band proud.

Checklists are made and followed, gear and provisions are loaded into the car, the destination is reached at the prescribed time, the kayaks are loaded and weighted just so, and we shove off. Few words are spoken.

And so the dance began anew at five a.m. sharp last Saturday morning. Our destination was Foster Island, which is an uninhabited pile of rock about a four-hour paddle south of the coastal town of Britt, on the eastern shore of Georgian Bay.

Just to the east of Foster is Prisque Bay, a name that exists only on marine charts. We have a bit of a secret campsite there, where we've been going, not really by design, for the last two Canada Days. The nearest road is several miles away, and the Magnetawan Ledges, fierce slabs of rock that rise near the water's surface, guard much of the surrounding area from pesky motorboaters. It is not uncommon to go for days at a time in this remote corner and encounter no humans at all.

Almost from the beginning, we knew our carefully laid plans were going to face a stiff challenge. The forecast called for unsettled weather, and Mother Nature didn't disappoint. We loaded the kayaks onto the car in a fierce downpour and faced howling winds and heavy rain for the entire three-hour drive to Britt. But we made it, and in no time had the car unloaded. That's when we heard the hissing sound coming from the right rear wheel.

Instinctively (although I can't remember the last time I changed a tire), I unloaded the spare from its nest deep in the trunk and set to work. As the rain pelted down and the muck splattered back into my face, I managed to jack the back end up and disassemble the right rear wheel. Fortunately, the spare went on smoothly and our hearty little automobile was soon back in working order. Dirty and sweaty, but not wanting to lose another minute, we checked the sky for thunderheads and quickly launched into a downpour.

And then, almost as if on cue, the rain stopped. After clearing Byng Inlet and looping around to the south, our muscle memory clicked in and we churned out a steady rhythm toward our destination. Four hours, and a couple of wrong turns later, we arrived in the protective confines of Prisque Bay to find not silence, but, of all things, other people. Fishermen, in fact, slowly trolling back and forth in front of our campsite. Then a miracle occurred.

As we were setting up the tent, one of the boat's occupants waved an arm in our direction. "We have two pike," he called out, "and we'd like to give you one."

Gleefully, we accepted, and they tossed this handsome guy up onto the shore. Informed only by a recently purchased copy of Fishing for Dummies, I set upon the poor creature with my shiny new filleting knife. After forty minutes, we had a good deal of meat -- and a lot of little bones. But the struggle was more than worth it. The little bits of pike, cooked only in butter, were some of the most delicious morsels I've ever eaten.

Confident in my manhood and thoroughly stuffed, I crawled into the tent and quickly fell into the kind of deep sleep that only follows a hard day's labour. The next morning, we would set out in the boats to revisit the mysteries of Foster Island. And hopefully uncover more.