Sunday, November 30, 2008

A forgotten storm

Minnesota Public Radio recently conducted an interesting interview with author Curt Brown on his new book, So Terrible A Storm.

Here on the lower Great Lakes, we don't hear much about the history of Lake Superior's distant north shore, but in this interview, Brown, a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter, gives a neat summation of the horrendous storm that lashed the region in 1905. The event has largely faded from memory, but a number of vessels were lost, including the freighter Mataafa, pictured here, which foundered after getting hung up on one of Duluth's piers.

For the full interview, click here and follow the link under "audio" on the right-hand side.

For more on the Mataafa, click here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cold comfort

Although it's fun to tell people that you are heading out paddling while you wait for the snowplows to clear the ice-covered roads of southwestern Ontario, it's more than a little dishonest.

Really, we just waited a little too long to put the kayaks away for the season.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Et voila

I'm thrilled that columnist Marty Gervais's feature on Lake Erie Stories appeared in this morning's Windsor Star.

It's huge for the book to get a mention in southwestern Ontario's major daily paper. Marty's column does a great job of capturing what the book is all about and, in timely fashion, appears right at the start of the holiday shopping season. (Christmas gift for dad, anyone?)

Click here
to read the full piece.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Star crossed

If you live in southwestern Ontario, keep an eye on your Windsor Star this week, as local writer Marty Gervais's column, entitled "Our Town," will be featuring Lake Erie Stories, how it came to be, and, I assume, some of the local flavour contained within its pages.

Marty is an established local-history author who has written, among other things, a marvellous book called The Rumrunners, about the colourful Windsor and Essex County personalities who were involved in the illegal booze trade during Prohibition. You can learn more about it here.

As soon as the article appears, I'll link it off this blog. Stay tuned.

Unrelatedly, I took a drive down old Highway #3 this weekend to Point Pelee (I've written of my love for this intriguing stretch of Ontario highway before. Click here for that). It looks like the Port Crewe-area wind farm is fully up and running. The contrast between these massive, futuristic-looking turbines and the old farms that surround them couldn't be more powerful.

It's awfully hard to keep your eyes on the road and not get sucked in by their mesmerizing rhythm.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A deadly autumn

Thursday's Toronto Star ran an excellent piece on the so-called Great Storm of 1913, widely thought to be the worst ever to hit the Great Lakes. Like the maelstroms that have sent the Edmund Fitzgerald and a number of other Great Lakes freighters to the bottom over the years, it hit in the infamous month of November, traditionally the worst month for weather on the lakes.

The beastly storm that raged from November 7-10, 1913 was notable not only for its awesome power but for the wide area it affected. In many ways, it was a classic autumn Great Lakes weather event: the result of a collision between an arctic cold front and warm air seeping up from the United States.

But when this deadly concoction finally exploded, none of the five lakes escaped its fury, though the upper lakes, Huron and Superior, suffered by far the most. During four days of ruthless pounding, no less than 250 sailors, many of whom came from small communities like Collingwood, Ontario, met their end that day, along with a number of freighters that were the pride of the Great Lakes fleet.

I touched on the Great Storm briefly in Lake Erie Stories. Though Erie escaped the worst of the nightmare, six crewmen from an American lightship off Point Abino, Ontario, never came home after those fateful days. The Point Abino lighthouse now stands in memory of the the tragedy (click here to read more about this architecturally rare building). Until it fell dark in the late 1980s, it also did what those brave men lost their lives doing -- marking a long rock shelf that juts out from the shore, posing a risk to vessels coming and going from Buffalo harbour.

To read the full Toronto Star piece, click here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The witch of November

There is a lot of remembering going on across the world today. Apart from the important sacrifices of soldiers, sailors, and airmen, though, there is another group that deserves a moment of thought this November -- those who have lost their lives on the Great Lakes.

November is characteristically one of the most deadly months on the lakes, when winds howl at gale force, and storms of a ferocity rarely seen in the summer months have the power to rage for days, often with tragic results.

On November 18, 1958, the freighter Carl D. Bradley went to the bottom of Lake Michigan, taking thirty-three men with her. Only two survived the sinking and subsequent exposure to the lake's freezing waters.

Just eight years later, on November 29, 1966, the Daniel J. Morrell met a similar fate, literally splitting in two before going down in a terrible storm on Lake Huron. In an odd twist, the boat's severed stern, powered by the still-running engines, smashed into the foundering bow section before disappearing into the night.

The lone survivor, Dennis Hale, wrote a book about his ordeal, during which he spent more than forty hours wearing little more than boxer shorts and a coat -- the only clothing he had time to grab -- on the frigid, raging waters of the lake. (You can read more about the wreck of the Daniel J. Morrell here.) Hale was the only survivor of the twenty-nine-man crew.

And perhaps the Great Lakes' most famous shipwreck, that of the massive ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald in another fierce gale on Lake Superior, occurred thirty-three years ago yesterday, on November 10, 1975. Memorial services for the "Big Fitz" and her lost crew continue to be held to this day, and the ship is most notably remembered in Gordon Lightfoot's legendary song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

The Adrian, Michigan Daily Telegram ran a touching piece yesterday about Jim Jaros, a dockworker who frequently unloaded iron ore from the Fitz at Toledo. Jaros talks about the backbreaking job of unloading a seven-hundred-foot freighter, and exposes the human side of the tragedy when he recounts wandering the Edmund Fitzgerald's decks and talking with a number of the crewmen before they left Toledo, for what would be the last time, on October 31, 1975.

To read the full Daily Telegram story, click here.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A walk in the woods

Last weekend, Presqu'ile Provincial Park sparkled under bright sunshine and balmy fall temperatures. Unable to resist, we decided to head out for a bit of a stroll. For company, we took along Amy's mom and her small, um, dog.

Aim contemplates the future as Lake Ontario sparkles in the background. Yep, the conditions were so perfect that even I could take a picture like this one.

The chilly waters of Lake Ontario roll up on the rocky shore of Presqu'ile Point. Unlike much of Lake Erie, many of the beaches on this part of Lake Ontario consist of long, rocky shelves. This can be deceptive. More than once I've driven my kayak up on what looks to be a sandy beach only to hear the sickening crunch of my hull grinding up against solid rock. In 1804, this area's most famous shipwreck, that of the schooner Speedy, occurred in a similar way, it is thought, when the Speedy's captain, Lieutenant Thomas Paxton, made a navigational error in the midst of a raging storm and smacked into an isolated rock near the mouth of Presqu'ile Bay. The results were fatal for the more than 20 passengers, many of whom made up the elite of Upper Canadian society. (You can read more about the wreck of the Speedy here.)

The day was so lovely that Amy's mom suddenly broke into a jubilant skip and chased her unsuspecting terrier halfway down the beach. To everyone's relief, the lake claimed neither dog nor lady.

After a couple of hours of well-enjoyed fresh air, and narrowly avoiding being pulled into a bustling Christmas craft show that was going on at Presqu'ile (the line is sometimes so long, it is said, that Santa's elves serve candies and other treats to the gathered masses), we decided to head back home for a much-deserved bowl of soup and a lovely afternoon nap.

Today in Toronto, it looks like it really could snow. And that perfect sunny day at Presqu'ile couldn't feel further away.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Out of the closet

Last night, as I wandered into my bedroom, I was startled to find my beloved wife Amy, pictured here, leaning up against her pillow engrossed in the most recent issue of The Beaver, a Canadian history magazine.

Amy has always vigorously claimed, in public and in private, to not give a fig about history. The sincerity of this claim is something I've always doubted, suspecting that, deep inside, there is a secret history buff just aching to come out. This is evidenced by her often limp-wristed resistance to being dragged to various forts and other historical sites around the province and, once there, her thinly disguised interest in her surroundings (I once looked on as Amy stood riveted to a musket demonstration at Fort George, literally hanging on the War of 1812 re-enactor's every word).

When she set down the copy of The Beaver last night, I saw that she had left it folded open on the floor next to the bed. When I picked it up, I noticed that the article she meant to return to was entitled, "Name games: There's a reason why researching your East Coast roots is so confusing."

What could it mean? A new interest in genealogy? A joint project in tracing our common Scottish roots? A weekend trip to the Ontario Genealogical Society conference next spring?

One can only wait and wonder.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Schooner days

Even with the November winds blowing (save for today, it seems, which is 20C and calm in Toronto), shipwrecks are still being turned up on Lake Erie, which holds the bones of hundreds of lost vessels, some known and some not, beneath its shallow waters.

Yesterday's Toledo Blade reports two new additions to the "known" list off Cleveland -- the schooners Plymouth and Riverside, the latter of which was built in 1870 and ended her career in a collision with a steamer in 1893.

The project was a joint effort between the Great Lakes Historical Society and a Cleveland-based group.

For the full story, including some fascinating underwater video, click here.