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.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Prisque Bay Calling #1

The lure of familiar places seems to be a recurring theme for me this summer. To that end, it seemed natural, in the spirit of the unofficial end of the season (and with it, the official return of peace and quiet to Ontario's wilder places), to return to the Foster Island area, along the eastern shore of Georgian Bay.

I've written about this stunning, and largely pristine, corner of the bay numerous times before (click here for these entries), and have already visited a couple of times this summer. Once again, we camped on "our" tiny islet, in the beautiful and utterly forgotten Prisque Bay, and set off to do some exploring from there. Though it's really only a couple hundred yards of rock covered in scrub, for some reason both Amy and I feel that we could stay on this little outcropping indefinitely. Kind of like twenty-first century settlers. And, of course, the scenery never lets us down.

Coming out of the tiny port of Britt, on Byng Inlet, it's about a three-and-a-half hour paddle to our special spot. As usual this summer, Britt was shrouded in a dense mist when we set out. But, as has also been our experience, things soon dried up, leaving three luxurious days of paddling through the maze of small islands and narrow channels that make up this part of the Georgian Bay coast. Just below the surface lurk the treacherous motorboat-eating Magnetawan Ledges, which keep the boat traffic (except for kayaks, which require maybe three inches of water), to a minimum.

Britt and the neighbouring town of Byng Inlet arose out of the lumber trade in the early twentieth century. As the forest was stripped away, however, the town of Byng Inlet declined, and today stands as only a few rather forlorn-looking cottages. Britt's story went a little differently; though it looked like it, too, would die when the sawmills fell silent, the railway soon arrived, and Britt became a key shipping point on Georgian Bay (which it remains today). But now it's mostly boaters and cottagers who drive the tiny economy here. And a couple of tiny restaurants, one of which is St. Amant's, which offers the finest western sandwich one can ask for after four days of eating in the backcountry.

Upon arrival at our second home, I usually rig up my handy retractable fishing rod up and take a stab at catching dinner. Of the three times we made it here this summer, two featured delicious fish feasts (if you include one that came from generous fishermen who tossed us a pike as they motored past). No such luck this time, though. The only thing that came out of the fishing was several hours of peaceful relaxation. And this great photo, courtesy of Amy.

The fishing was brought to an abrupt end most nights by the arriving swarms of mosquitoes. For some reason, they seem heavier on the bay at this time of year. The first night they came out around 6:30, driving us first into our bug nets, and then, when the buzzing in our ears had nearly driven us mad, into the tent.

It was just as well. Things would get very interesting the next day. And the wildlife would only get wilder.