Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The ghost fleet

Hot on the heels of the discovery of the wreck of HMS Ontario, a Revolutionary War vessel that sank with all hands in 1780, comes news of the potential discovery of another significant wreck on Lake Ontario, the HMS Wolfe, a warship that faced a more pedestrian fate than its Revolutionary War predecessor. No longer needed after the guns of the War of 1812 fell silent, the Wolfe was scuttled.

But the Wolfe's role in its war was more important than that played by the Ontario thirty years earlier. The Wolfe was the flagship of Sir James Lucas Yeo, commander of the British naval force on the Great Lakes during the War of 1812, and was a powerful vessel for her day, bristling with 32 cannons and carrying a crew of around 220.

She took part in a number of battles, but her most celebrated engagement came in what is known as the Burlington Races (because the battle looked more like a boat race to spectators on shore) in September 1813.

The confrontation found Yeo and the British fleet facing a potent American force led by the formidable flagship General Pike. Things were not going well for the British on the lakes at this point in the war; just days earlier, the Americans had pulled off a stunning victory on Lake Erie (you can read more about that in Lake Erie Stories), and things didn't go much better for the British on this day.

In a short, sharp fight near present-day Toronto (in the middle of a storm, no less), the American fleet poured fire into Yeo's Wolfe, dismasting her. The Americans, and the Pike in particular, were within moments of finishing her off when Captain William Howe Mulcaster, in a dramatic move, threw his ship, the Royal George, between Yeo and his pursuers. This gave the British the time they needed to slip away, which they did, finding safe haven in Burlington Bay. The Americans, fearing that pressing their luck in such terrible conditions could be catastrophic, decided not to follow. As a result, the British fleet lived on, and soon the Wolfe was repaired and back in action.

The Burlington battle is notable to historians because it is one of those seemingly inconsequential skirmishes that, had an element or two gone the other way, could have had massive consequences. The British fleet was nearly defeated. Had it been, both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie could have been lost, and the war would likely have had a very different conclusion.

For now, the location of the wreck (it has not yet been officially verified) is being kept quiet, but this is likely not the last we've heard of the legendary Wolfe.

For the National Post story on the discovery, click here.

For more on HMS Ontario, click here.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Media update

So I'm told that there is a good-sized feature on Lake Erie Stories in this week's Kingsville Reporter. If you're in the Kingsville area, run out and grab yourself a copy (and please tell me what it says -- the Reporter doesn't post its content online). Apparently we're on page 10.

Lake Erie Stories continues to get traction with the local media in the southwest of the province, which is really gratifying. If you're in that area two weeks from Monday (September 8), tune into A Channel Morning around 8:45 a.m. I'll be there -- live.

Will there be makeup? God, I hope so. For my last TV appearance, on Leamington's local station, CFTV, for a 30-minute book program called The Story Teller (check back here for updates on when that will air), I was told that the shirt I was wearing was "too busy" and would "pulsate" on camera, so I was left in the tight black T-shirt I was wearing underneath. Kind of a fifth-rate George Strombolopolous approach to local history.

Fortunately, the show went great. And from now on, we will show up in what a friend calls "a nice conservative dress shirt." Lesson learned.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lake Ontario Stories

At high summer, when the living is easy, people's thoughts tend to turn to the beach. I am no different, and these days I spend a lot of time pondering the Great Lake that is now in my back yard -- Lake Ontario.

With the Lake Erie book only just beginning to fade behind me, I've only begun to dig beneath Ontario's murky surface, but I've already pulled up some pretty action-packed history. And before you ask, yes, there are pirates.

Lake Ontario's claim to piracy comes in the form of Bill Johnston. Or, as he's more commonly known to residents of the Thousand Islands, "Pirate Bill."

Johnston had a knack for being on the wrong side of the law. Born to poor Quebec parents in 1782, he learned boatbuilding at an early age, and later took to smuggling. The Thousand Islands, with their many hidden caves and channels, were natural territory for this. Bill also had no use for the British, especially after they accused him of spying for the Americans during the War of 1812 and tossed him in jail. He escaped (not for the last time), defected to the United States, and swore that he would try to make as much trouble for the Queen's subjects in Upper Canada as he could. He took part in a number of border raids. But in 1837, he got his real chance.

That year, Upper Canadian rebel leader William Lyon Mackenzie, upset with the colony's undemocratic ruling elite, led an angry, largely drunken mob on Toronto, ostensibly to overthrow the government (you can read more about that in Lake Erie Stories). When the assault inevitably failed, the rebels dispersed, and a number of them regrouped on Navy Island, in the Niagara River, where these self-styled "Patriots" declared themselves a "government in exile."

This weird cause was the perfect bait for a man like Johnston. Perhaps predictably, he showed up at Navy Island and declared himself "commodore" of the Patriot Navy (though the Patriots, with barely enough resources to feed themselves, had nothing that could even loosely be called a navy). Then, probably oblivious to the politics of the cause, Johnston and a small crew proceeded to raise holy hell (and rake in considerable loot) raiding shipping among the Thousand Islands.

Their most notable escapade was an attack on the Sir Robert Peel, a Canadian steamer that ferried passengers through the islands. Employing Native war paint, supposedly to instill additional fear in their quarry, Johnston and his men boarded the Peel and proceeded to put its stunned (and well-heeled) passengers ashore on Wellesley Island. But, to the raiders' dismay, they didn't have nearly enough manpower to sail the Peel themselves, so they set her on fire and escaped to their "secret base," presumably a cave on a small island appropriately named the Devil's Oven. Apparently, for a time afterward, the brazen (and fashion-minded) Johnston even wore the Peel's flag as a sash.

Over the following weeks, nine of his men blundered into captivity. But Johnston remained hard at work (he is rumoured to have netted $175,000 from the Robert Peel raid alone). He kept in touch with the Patriots, and even managed to run his boat aground at the decisive Battle of the Windmill, near Prescott, which finished the rebel movement off for good.

Johnston later turned himself in to the Canadians, then escaped before eventually heading back to the States. For a pirate, he had an idyllic retirement, serving as keeper of the Rock Island lighthouse, a stone's throw from the site of the looting of the Peel. He died in New York at the age of 88, an exceptionally long life, especially for a pirate.

For the Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry on Pirate Bill, click here.

For more on "Bill Johnston's Pirate Days," a just-concluded annual festival at Alexandria Bay, click here. (According to the site, a simulated pirate attack on the village was planned for this year's festival. The fun was to begin after the village fell. Then, according to the site, the mayor was to surrender the key to the village and "everyone becomes a pirate.")

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The swap

This is my stepfather, Jim. Some days ago, Jim was enjoying a beverage at his favourite Leamington watering hole when he was approached by a friend. A friend called Woody.

In the course of the usual chit-chat, Woody let it be known that he was in possession of a brand-new grinder, and not only that, but a good grinder. A $100 grinder. And not only that, but Woody had somehow landed two of these lovely machines, straight out of the box, no less.

Interesting, thought Jim. I sure could use a new grinder.

Before Jim could say much about Woody's good fortune, his friend abruptly changed the subject. "I hear Chad has written a new book about Lake Erie," he coyly offered. "I'd sure like to get my hands on a copy."

Quickly, Jim did the math. The book has a cover price of $24.99. Woody's extra grinder was worth $100. That's a $75 difference -- by no means small potatoes. (An aside: my folks, being big-hearted people, keep a stack of Lake Erie Stories in their home, and have been highly successful in selling it to anyone who will listen to their well-honed pitch.)

It was crunch time. Jim decided to lay his cards on the table: "How about I trade you a copy of the book for one of those grinders?" he stated bluntly.

Woody smiled. It was a done deal, and a perfect deal, because both sides got exactly what they were after. Woody stopped by my parents' house a few days later; a book was taken, a shiny new grinder was left.

News of this deal made my Saturday. Of course, it has my full blessing. I hope Woody is well into his new copy of Lake Erie Stories by now. Perhaps he even keeps it in his workshop.

In fact, I am prepared to go one step further. In order to give my readers full bang for their literary buck, I openly encourage the swapping of pre-read copies of Lake Erie Stories. So, if you decide to try to move yours, and are successful, please report back here and let me know how you make out (particularly if you do better than an awesome new grinder).

Call it "Books for Grinders." Striking a blow for both literature and capitalism (and, following from that, home improvement).

Monday, August 11, 2008

The mothership

I know it's short notice, but if you happen to be in the Windsor area tomorrow (August 12), look out for me on CBC Radio One's "The Early Shift," hosted by Tony Doucette. I'm scheduled to be on around 8:15 a.m.

Tony and I will be chatting about various topics, likely including publishing a book and intriguing stories from the history of Lake Erie. Maybe we will even try to tackle the question of just what makes old Erie so temperamental, anyway?

CBC Windsor resides at 1550 on your AM dial, and you should be able to pull it in anywhere from Windsor on out to Sarnia.

For more on "The Early Shift," click here. (For a full media roundup on Lake Erie Stories, click here.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Fit to print

Last week, the Lake Erie Beacon published a glowing review of Lake Erie Stories. The Beacon is a bi-weekly broadsheet newspaper distributed to pretty well all the communities along Lake Erie's north shore. In other words, prime real estate for a review of a Lake Erie history book.

Reviewer (and long-time London radio personality) Dick Williams called Lake Erie Stories "an engaging summer read" that will "more than intrigue and inform you." Of chapter 2, on the Battle of Lake Erie, Williams writes, "Fraser brings to life the ferocious Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812, complete with broadsides of cannon fire, toppling masts and dying sailors and puts you in the thick of the conflict." He also described the book as a "fast-paced read."

Thanks to Dick and the good people at the Lake Erie Beacon for taking the time to give Lake Erie Stories a look.

Incidentally, I was down in Leamington this weekend doing some other book media (including an entire 30-minute TV show, which was lots of fun). More on these and other exciting developments soon.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

"The cottage"

When life gets crazy, people tend to crave the familiar. I am no exception to this. So, last week, with the Simcoe Day long weekend breathing down our necks, Amy and I chose to return to our favourite place on Georgian Bay, Prisque Bay, near Foster Island. Even though we had been there only a month before, and Georgian Bay is rife with magical places to explore, it was just too tempting to return to a tiny, barren piece of rock that, to us, anyway, feels strangely like home. Amy refers to it simply as "the cottage."

Along the northern shore of our remote haven runs a narrow channel, maybe five kayak widths across, that leads from Prisque Bay into Norgate Inlet. It is impossible, for us, anyway, to grow tired of the powerful landscape of this corner of Georgian Bay. As Amy says, "I could just sit and stare down that little channel all day." Here, she does just that.

The fishing was highly productive this time, and, for once, I finally managed to land dinner -- a two-pound bass that was absolutely delicious. Clubbing it over the head with a rock was not my favourite part (another lowlight was the removal of the guts, which contained a half-digested crawfish -- Amy was ready to head for the hills), but in a matter of minutes I had the handsome fellow cleaned, and we cooked him up. According to Fishing for Dummies, there is no such thing as half-cooked fish -- it is like an on/off switch. This is true. Cooking time for this particular bass was about two minutes. Add butter and couscous, and you get perfection.

In the far depths of Prisque Bay, there is nothing but rock and marsh. When we head back into such corners of Georgian Bay, I always think, "Yep, here we go. This is when we find the dead body." Amy prefers to think that we will find a canvas bag with a dollar sign printed on it. But on this day, there was only a vicious-looking pike, about the size of my arm, lazing in the sun next to a lily pad. When our eyes met, we both jumped, and, with a mighty slap of his tail, he darted out of sight.

Burritt's Bay, near Byng Inlet, is a waypoint on the paddle down to (and back from) Prisque Bay. Near these reeds, we spotted two snapping turtles -- bigger than dinner plates -- and probably many years old. Here, Amy catches her breath on a ledge tailor-made for reflecting on some of life's more significant problems -- like why we should ever have to leave such a paradise.

But, unfortunately sometimes, every journey comes to its inevitable end. After the wonders of Prisque Bay, we turned our bows for the put-in, a little resort called Georgian Bay Cottages, which has that most unique of things on Georgian Bay, a sandy beach. Perfect for unloading kayaks and packing your gear in the car for the long ride home.

In the end, "the cottage" worked its magic. This week, after three deep backwoods sleeps, my head has been clearer than it has in many months, and the course ahead obvious. Still, I can only dream of the next trip. Some days, especially in the dead of winter, I wonder what might be happening there. The absolute silence that must reign over everything.

It is this haunting, yet strangely comforting thought that always keeps me coming back.