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


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, 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.