Monday, December 7, 2009

Killbear in autumn

A couple snaps of the simple beauty of Killbear Provincial Park's Lighthouse Point, taken two weeks ago. When Amy and I biked this part of the park, there were no other humans around (but lots of deer), and the campsites, normally packed with humanity in the summer, looked like they'd been partly reclaimed by nature.

Hard to believe it's all snow-covered now. Equally hard to believe that the place will once again be crawling with campers in a few months' time.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Back to the Bay

Having decided that there's absolutely no way we can go a whole winter without Georgian Bay, Amy and I are headed up to Parry Sound, on the bay's eastern shore. It's one of our favourite rural communities, and its come to feel like something of a home away from home in recent years.

Visiting small communities like Parry Sound in the off-season is one of my favourite ways to pass Ontario’s long winters. The campers and cottagers are long gone, so you have these places largely to yourself.

Parry Sound got its start as a lumber town in the mid-nineteenth century. The railway followed soon after, and remains a major part of the town’s identity. The old trestle bridge that spans the Seguin River here was built in 1908 and is the longest in the province. If you sit on the town dock and watch a train pass, it looks almost like it’s flying right over the centre of town (this is especially true at night, when only the trains’ lights are visible).

While we're there, we'll take the bikes out for a long ride at Killbear Provincial Park, just outside of town. Killbear is one of the most stunning parks in the province’s system. It also has one of the longest average stays. This means, quite simply, that people come here in the summer and set up for weeks, if not months.

But I suspect we'll find a very quiet Killbear this weekend. And with clear weather in the forecast, conditions should be perfect for a little deer spotting.

For more on Parry Sound, click here.

For more on Killbear Provincial Park, click here.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Adieu, summer

For the past few weeks, I've been living in some denial that another winter is upon us, choosing to believe, instead, that there is still just a little bit of pleasant weather left. But as I made my way home in pitch dark this evening, I realized that it was time to let it go. Last weekend, we tucked the kayaks into their winter home, and next season, more specifically the next paddling trip to Georgian Bay, seems a long way off.

In a salute to summer '09, I offer this highlight: the season's most pleasant nap, snapped by Amy after a long ride around Pelee Island on a hot Labour Day weekend:

That was preceded a couple months earlier by another afternoon of hot action, this one after a long paddle to the Foster Island region of Georgian Bay:


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pelee Island circle tour update

Thanks to a Leeward Press reader for pointing out that this building is actually an old mission. I ran across it on my last trip to Pelee, and was curious about its origins.

According to Noah Garno's The Story of Pelee, which he wrote in the 1950s, the structure was built by George E. Pegg, who moved to Pelee from Pennsylvania in 1891.

Pegg lived in what was then called the Middle Island section of Pelee, which is, as you'd expect, near the island's centre. Seeing that there was no church or Sunday school in the area, Pegg, with the help of local citizens, built the mission in 1911.

Here's what Garno wrote of Pegg: "For many years Mr. Pegg taught school at Middle Island, in fact until 1932. He audited books and kept records for the Pelee Co-operative Association for several years, and also was treasurer for the Township of Pelee from 1914 until 1945. Mr. Pegg was always ready with kind advice; and many will not forget Mrs. Pegg, as she took care of the sick and was ready at all times to tend to the needy."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Pelee Island circle tour

After more than a year, I was finally able to make it down to Pelee Island a couple of weeks back. Pelee figures prominently in my book, Lake Erie Stories, and is a place I've always felt at home, ever since I started going there as a little kid.

If you've not heard of it, Pelee is the southernmost inhabited place in Canada. (Tiny Middle Island, about three kilometres south of Pelee, is the southernmost point, though no one lives there.) Located in Lake Erie's western basin, Pelee is about 15 kilometres long and 8 wide, and home to a small number of year-round residents. The island is best known for winemaking. Bottles of its trademark Pelee Island wine hold a dominant place in most Ontario liquor stores.

Our favourite way to experience Pelee is to get off the ferry at the West Dock and cycle around the island essentially until we run out of time, then catch the ferry home. Pelee is rich in beautiful places to stop and explore, picnic, or nap along the way.

I think it's fair to say that the recession has been harder on the province's smaller communities than it has on larger cities, and Pelee is no exception. A big part of its economy depends on pleasure boaters, and one of its two marinas, Dick's, which is located at the south end, certainly looks to be in decline. This used to be the campground, which was operational until just last year.

This is one of my favourite Pelee beaches, located on the east side, just south of lighthouse point. Here, Amy gazes out over Lake Erie into the treacherous Pelee Passage. Numerous boats have been driven to the bottom in this shallow stretch of water. I wrote about one, the wreck of the freighter Clarion in 1909, in Lake Erie Stories.

I'd love to know the history of this old structure, located in the island's interior. The archway over the door and what looks like covered windows is indicative of a church, but the simple wood construction is closer to that of a barn. Either way, it cuts a rather regal presence among the surrounding ruins of partly disassembled cars, trucks, and farm machinery.

Pelee has one of the neatest graveyards of any small community I've visited. The peaceful cemetery is shady and beautiful, the perfect place for a picnic. It's located on the island's northwest corner. Here, you can view the grave of the island's founder, William McCormick, who moved his family here way back in the 1820s. Back then, the island was largely deserted, and two-thirds covered by marshland. Former local MP Shaughnessy Cohen is also buried here. In 1998, Cohen collapsed on the floor of the House of Commons and died shortly afterward.

A couple of the graves are so old that they are literally being covered over by trees, as is the case in this photo.

Pelee Island's tiny school is also located at the north end. Just a small number of children, from kindergarten to grade 8, attend the school. When they reach high school, island kids billet with families on the mainland, and return home to the island on the weekends. I don't know about you, but I found the proximity of this "no hunting" sign to the school a little jarring.

Rain spatters against the window of the Pelee Islander on the way back to the dock in Leamington. After four beautiful days on Pelee, it was time to head back to the hustle of the city. Luckily for us, the rain held off until the trip home, which made for a rather bleak view of Lake Erie, but we were grateful, nonetheless.

It'll probably be close to another year before I'm able to make it back to Pelee Island. But vignettes from this special place come back to me almost daily, and will no doubt continue to do so through the long winter ahead.

To me, that's the mark of a great trip.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bayfield Inlet to Foster Island ... and back

A couple weeks ago, I decided to take a solo paddle from the town of Bayfield Inlet on Georgian Bay's eastern shore up to Foster Island and back. It's a beautiful, roughly 30-kilometre loop that features a wide variety of water and terrain.

The first six kilometres takes you through the Alexander Passage. Here, you'll see a number of cottages from many different eras, from simple, yet elegant log cabins to a futuristic-looking multilevel dwelling, complete with skylights and a lost-city-of-Atlantis looking bubbled front window, located just east of Meneilly Island.

Once you reach the open bay, you turn north and pass Charles Inlet, then wind your way along the coast toward the many islands that surround the mouth of the Naiscoot River's north channel. The shore here is fairly flat, and a popular spot for camping, except it's pretty low to the water. The key is not to get sucked in by the beautiful view of the Bay this area offers; the westerly winds in this area can pick up in seconds, and there's a real possibility you could wake up in a tent that feels more like a boathouse. I decided to move on, past Head Island and Inside Head Island and into the narrow passage that heads east past the south end of Foster Island.

By the end of the day, I had made it to our usual campsite in this area, a lovely secluded spot on Prisque Bay. But the sky was darkening to the northwest, and I just got the tent up before the first drops started to fall. All that night, I lay in the tent, in a deluge like few I've experienced on the Bay. Next morning, it was time to dry out:

The wind picked up considerably through the rest of the afternoon, so I decided to retrace my steps and head back toward Charles Inlet. Getting there involved about four hours of paddling straight into a stiff west wind. Soaked and exhausted, I managed to set up camp in a cozy little channel on Big Burnt Island, where, after a quick bowl of soup, I drifted off to sleep.

That night, I slept the dead sleep that I only seem to be able to attain on the Bay. But the weather radio called for yet more storms, so I loaded up and headed back to my waiting car in Bayfield Inlet.

As much as I love camping, sometimes it's better to watch a storm from a local pub. That day, I chose Wellington's, in Parry Sound, as my way station before joining the weekend traffic back to Toronto. It was a perfect transition from the wilds of Georgian Bay to the city's hustle. And the Great Canadian burger sure beat another can of soup.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Midsummer update

Over the past month and more, I've been taking a bit of a sabbatical from creative endeavours -- no extracurricular writing of any kind, really. Not even a blog post.

Part of this has been intentional, and part has been for the very happy reason that I've been spending most of my spare time paddling on Georgian Bay, which has left me very little opportunity to write about it. I'm lucky to have made a couple of glorious trips to the Foster Island area, one of my favourite spots.

One thing that always strikes me about Georgian Bay is that there is always something new to experience, no matter how many times you visit the same place. In June, our usual campsite in this area was full of plant life we hadn't noticed before, including lady slippers like these:

Amy and I also spent a few days on the Naiscoot River. The Naiscoot is a pristine waterway near Bayfield Inlet that takes you out to the open bay through either its Middle or North Channel. The beauty of the Naiscoot is that it's far too shallow and tricky for most motorboats to navigate, but perfect for sea kayaks. The river's South Channel leads from Bayfield Inlet to a small inland lake that looks like it's hardly ever visited by people. Jonathon Reynolds and Heather Smith perfectly capture the essence of this area in their Kayaking Georgian Bay guidebook when they write that this could be the perfect spot if "you are looking for a place to spend a couple nights in solitude."

More on the Naiscoot and other unique corners of Georgian Bay a little later. Meantime, if you do happen to paddle the Naiscoot this summer and can find the small stream that is supposed to connect the Middle and North Channels (you can see what I'm talking about on the topo map), please let me know.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Scenes from...

A quiet late May paddle down the Pigeon River into Omemee, Ontario:

Sunday, May 24, 2009

"Much bigger than a dinner plate"

My wife Amy had quite a surprise while she was out for a Saturday afternoon ramble in Presqu'ile Provincial Park:

This guy, a large common snapping turtle she described as "much bigger than a dinner plate," sat on the shoulder of the park's main road, likely considering crossing. Every spring, legions of snappers emerge from Presqu'ile's marshes and travel significant distances, presumably to lay eggs. (According to wikipedia, the peak laying season for snappers is June and July.) Their sheer size and prehistoric appearance can literally scare the hell out of passersby.

And you sure don't want to get too close. Though you wouldn't know it, the snapper can strike with lightning speed, and its bite (especially from one this size) can easily take off a finger or a toe.

Aim decided to use the camera's zoom lens to get these pics. A wise decision, I'd say.

For more on the common snapping turtle, click here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

In search of the Don

Having been burned by bad weather on too many past Victoria Day weekends, I've made it a policy to avoid roaming too far afield on this, the first long weekend of the summer season. Today, however, dawned bright and calm, so I decided to launch my kayak into the chilly waters of Lake Ontario at Cherry Beach, not far from my downtown home, and have a look at what was going on in Toronto Harbour.

After putting in and heading west, then north into the Eastern Gap, I emerged into the city's inner harbour. Today's mission was to search out the mouth of the Don River, which empties into the harbour at its easternmost end. It's not so easy to find; as Toronto grew, the river was covered over by freeways, redirected numerous times, and heavily polluted. As a final injustice, its mouth was completely cemented in, so it looks like any one of a number of channels in the harbour.

Still, after after a bit of poking about, I located the Keating Channel, which terminates at the mouth of the Don. The channel (named after the engineer who designed it) is very short, and is lined with a good forty years of marine refuse, from cranes and scrap metal to old fuel tanks. But there are a couple of interesting old boats in here, too.

Every summer since way back in 1833, Toronto's ferry service has moved thousands of sun-seekers to the Toronto Islands, a unique, laid-back community just off the city's shores (you can read more about the islands by clicking here). Back in 1985, the city bought the car ferry Windmill Point, seen here, to back up the four boats it currently runs. She apparently isn't needed too often these days, and looks like she's been calling the Keating Channel home for some time.

A little further on is the tug Fred Scandrett. According to, the Scandrett was launched from the Port Weller drydocks in 1963 as the C.E. Ted Smith. She went to work for the Dominion Chemical Company of Montreal, and was bought by the Toronto Harbour Commission (which is known as the Toronto Port Authority today) in 1969. Toronto author Mike Filey, in his 1998 book Discover and Explore Toronto's Waterfront, briefly refers to her as a "work boat," and notes that the real Fred Scandrett was the general manager of the Harbour Commission from 1946 to 1951.

Finally, at the far end of the Keating Channel I found the mouth of the Don. A blockade of logs kept me from going into the river itself, but despite its long and difficult past, there are parts, a little further on, that are quite lovely, and appear to have begun what will no doubt be a long, slow recovery. They're a stark contrast to the river's concrete, entirely manufactured mouth, which routinely deposits silt, branches, and all sorts of refuse into the channel, especially after a storm.

After scouting out the Keating Channel, I decided to turn for home. To the west, the ferries were running at full steam, carrying the usual crowds to the islands to enjoy a relaxing day off. Throbbing bass vibrated from nearby party boats. Tonight, fireworks are lighting the skies over the harbour.

Still, I suspect it's just another quiet night at the mouth of the Don.

To read more about the Fred Scandrett, click here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Scourge of York

The Hamilton Spectator reported this week that the city is considering allowing a new dive to the site of the Hamilton and the Scourge this summer. Both ships served in the War of 1812, and now lie in about 80 metres of water off St. Catharines. (I wrote about a recent dive to the site last year. Click here to read that post.)

Historians believe the two schooners were on hand for one of the most dramatic episodes of the war. On the morning of April 26, 1813, a massive, 14-ship American fleet appeared off York (present-day Toronto). Aboard were between 1,600 and 1,800 infantrymen under the command of Brigadier General Zebulon Pike. For months, the citizens of Upper Canada's tiny capital had been fearing just such an attack. Their worst nightmare was about to come true.

Guarding York were four companies of regulars, about 300 Canadian militiamen, and about 50 Native warriors. All were under the command of Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe. Numerically, it wasn't even close to a fair fight.

Predictably, the battle was brief, but both sides suffered heavy losses. Shortly after the landing, near today's Sunnyside Beach, the American ships unleashed a fierce bombardment with their long-range guns, pounding the cluster of wooden buildings along the shore. Sheaffe did what he could, but his men were taking heavy losses, especially after Pike ordered his troops to charge forward with their bayonets.

Sheaffe knew that victory would not be his on this day. But he had one more trick up his sleeve: as the Americans drew nearer to Fort York, he ordered his men to blow up the fort's powder magazine. This lethal maneuver killed 38 American soldiers, and injured over 200 more. The blast also fatally wounded Pike.

The Americans held York for more than a week, during which time their undisciplined troops caused a significant amount of damage. The greatest of these outrages was the burning of Upper Canada's first parliament buildings. The British and Canadians never forgot about this, according to many historians. In 1814, in one of the closing acts of the war, the British raided Washington, and held it for about a day. During this brief time, they were sure to burn down the White House and a number of other government buildings.

If they were indeed at the Battle of York, the Hamilton and Scourge would have played a pivotal role in landing men on the beach on the morning of the rout. Today, they lie in silence, under an ever-thickening blanket of zebra mussels.

To read the full Hamilton Spectator piece, click here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Return of the Wolfe

Last year, I wrote about the discovery of a 200-year-old shipwreck thought to be the Wolfe, the flagship of Sir James Lucas Yeo, commander of the British fleet on the Great Lakes during the War of 1812.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, the Wolfe survived the war, though just barely. She was heavily damaged in a battle with the American fleet on Lake Ontario known as the "Burlington Races." The battle was essentially a draw, but the fact that the British fleet survived meant the lake stayed in British hands, at a time when the war on the lakes was not going very well for the His Majesty's navy.

Ironically, the Wolfe met her end because she was no longer needed. With the signing of the peace treaty at Ghent in 1814, the British scaled back their naval presence on the Great Lakes. British interest in North America fell even further when Napoleon escaped from exile just eleven days after the treaty was signed and restarted hostilities on the continent. So the venerable old Wolfe, stripped of her armaments, was sent to the bottom of the lake she played such a key role in defending.

But she would not be entirely forgotten. Last summer, it was announced that divers had found wreckage they believed to be the remains of the Wolfe. To protect the wreck, her location was kept secret, but the discovery came on the heels of the discovery of HMS Ontario, an even older British warship that went down during a storm in 1780, at the height of the American Revolution. The Ontario is now the oldest identified shipwreck on the lakes.

This summer, a group of volunteer divers from Kingston, including a professor from Queen's University, will get to work trying to positively identify the remains as those of the Wolfe. If they do, the news will come at an auspicious time; 2012 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities, and just when the continent begins to turn its eyes back to this long-ago conflict, the Wolfe will rise again.

For the full piece on the efforts to identify the Wolfe, click here.

To read about last year's discovery of HMS Ontario, click here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Around the Sound

Last week, we decided we could take it no more. My wife Amy and I had been holding up rather well without our beloved Georgian Bay for much of the winter. But the forecast called for clear skies north of Toronto this Easter weekend, and we sensed that this was our chance. So early Friday morning we loaded the car, strapped the bikes to the roof, and pretended it was July.

Visiting small communities like Parry Sound in the off-season is one of my favourite ways to pass Ontario’s long, often frustratingly slow springs. The hordes of campers and cottagers haven’t arrived yet, so these places remain largely shrouded in silence. But you’ll always find a warm welcome, as the locals, looking forward to the boost the warm weather will soon bring, start to get ready for what will soon be upon them.

Still, there were times this weekend when we felt like we had the whole area all to ourselves.

The first stop was Killbear Provincial Park, one of the most stunning in the province’s system. It also has one of the longest average stays. This means, quite simply, that people come here and set up for weeks, if not months, which makes it pretty tough to get a campsite unless you want to take a stab at making a reservation in early February. Once, a few years ago, we managed to snag a spot here and marvelled at the site next door, where the occupants had erected a fully functional workshop, complete with a workbench, roof, and power tools.

Today, however, other than a few deer gingerly picking their way along the main road, Killbear was ghostly quiet. The park was actually gated shut, but we were able to make our way around on our bikes and then dodge the fallen trees, snowdrifts, and other remnants of winter that blocked the main road and many of the side trails. Still, at this spot near the park’s new visitors’ centre, the Bay sparkled like it does at high summer (if you ignore the snow that still blankets the opposite shore, of course).

Parry Sound got its start as a lumber town in the mid-nineteenth century. The railway followed soon after, and remains a major part of the town’s identity. The old trestle bridge that spans the Seguin River here was built in 1908 and is the longest in the province. If you sit on the town dock and watch a train pass, like Amy is about to do here, it looks almost like it’s flying right over the centre of town (this is especially true at night, when only the trains’ lights are visible).

It was striking to sit here yesterday, feeling the biting wind blow off the still partially frozen harbour, and think that in a few short weeks, the Bay will be abuzz with pleasure boats, tour boats, and even floatplanes. Back onshore, the bars, now quiet and dark, will be packed. The energy will be palpable.

And then, all too soon, the cycle will begin again, and the area will be returned to the locals – and the deer.

For more on Parry Sound, click here.

For more on Killbear Provincial Park, click here.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A distinguished career

Another beauty in Toronto's harbour right now is the Canadian Leader. According to, the Leader entered service in 1967, shortly after the Canadian Miner (see below). Back then, her name was the Feux-Follets. She was the flagship of a fleet owned by a Montreal-based company called Papachristidis Shipping Ltd.

In 1972, she was sold to Upper Lakes Shipping of Toronto, which owns her to this day, and renamed the Canadian Leader. Boatnerd descibes the Leader as a "classic Great Lakes bulk steamer." She certainly cuts an interesting profile in Toronto, where she's moored at what was once the terminal for the Spirit of Ontario, the ferry that briefly linked Toronto and Rochester. Unfortunately, the ferry service proved unsustainable. But at least the terminal, which looks like it was just finished yesterday, is being used for something close to its original purpose.

The Leader has certainly had an interesting career on the lakes. She's been involved in at least four scrapes, mostly involving groundings and minor collisions with docks and bridges. The most recent of these incidents appears to be a September 2005 grounding on the St. Lawrence River.

Still, a forty-two-year-old iron boat is bound to get a little scuffed up, and its nothing a little trip to the drydock won't fix.

To read the entry on the Canadian Leader, click here, then search for "Canadian Leader" using the box on the left-hand side.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Big city, big laker

The Canadian Miner is also moored in Toronto harbour right now. According to, the big freighter was actually built in two halves in 1965. The bow and stern sections were later welded together and the boat entered service as the Maplecliffe Hall shortly afterward.

In 1988, her original owner, Canada Steamship Lines, sold the Maplecliffe Hall to a Toronto company, which renamed her the Canadian Miner. She still prowls the Great Lakes, and looks to be in excellent shape after forty-four years of service.

We happened across the Miner while cycling back from Cherry Beach last weekend. Behind her is the Canadian Ranger, which I've written about before on this blog. Click here to read those entries.

In a sure sign of spring, the shipping season appears to be off to a flying start, at least on Lake Ontario.

It's a different story up on Lake Superior, however, where winter still appears to have some fight left in it. One freighter captain learned this the hard way yesterday; the Lee A. Tragurtha got stuck in the ice off Duluth and had to be released by a Coast Guard cutter. Click here to read more about that.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Evolution of a barge

A sunny Saturday certainly brought the masses out in Toronto today. It sent me down to the portlands to see what was going on in the city's often-overlooked harbour.

There have been many efforts to rehabilitate this part of Toronto's waterfront over the years. None have truly caught fire, and as a result this part of the city, from Cherry Street east almost to the Beach neighbourhood, is still struggling to emerge from its past as one of the city's manufacturing hubs. Exactly where the area is going is anyone's guess. But the harbour is always worth a visit. You never know what you'll find there.

Today, among other things, it was literally awash in lake freighters, including this intriguing specimen:

The Metis used to be a fully formed lake freighter, hauling cement to a number of Great Lakes ports (you can see a picture of her in her heyday, back in 1983, by clicking here).

From what I can tell, she spent a long time languishing in port at Windsor until, at some point, her wheelhouse and other superstructure were severed off and she became a "cement barge," basically used to haul cement while being pulled by a tugboat. Exactly what advantage a cement barge holds over a full-fledged cement-hauling laker is unclear, but a quick Google search reveals the Metis has been towed into many ports, on both the Canadian and U.S. shores of the Great Lakes, since at least the early 1990s.

Now she rests near the base of Cherry Street, silently awaiting her next load. She made fascinating viewing as we stopped for a snack on our way back downtown.

More on some of the other lakers currently in port in a bit. Meantime, you can find a few facts and figures on the Metis, and some interesting photos other freighter enthusiasts have taken of her, by clicking here.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The thaw

Spring definitely made an appearance in eastern Ontario last weekend. We were there mainly to visit relatives and hit the Warkworth Maple Syrup Festival (specifically its pancake breakfast). But after we'd had our fill, Amy, my friend Hadley, her beloved canine Luke and I decided to take a ramble into Presqu'ile Provincial Park to see the evidence of the changing seasons.

These unknown berries were found hanging from the branches of a small tree just off Presqu'ile's main road. We were unsure if they were new or remnants of last year, but they made for an intriguing picture nonetheless.

Amy, Hadley and Luke approach a deceptively inviting-looking Lake Ontario. There was not a whisper of wind that morning, and if you set the chilly temps aside, you'd swear it was high summer. Luke got so caught up in the mood he decided to go for a quick dip...

Never underestimate the canine tolerance for cold water. I've watched dog owners at Cherry Beach in Toronto chuck sticks far out into the lake this time of year, then stand by as their oblivious pets swim out and back, again and again, to bring them in.

No signs of hypothermia this morning, either, though Luke did perform this unique high step (to everyone's delight) for a few minutes before finally giving up.

In other news, my talk at the Port Dover Harbour Museum last Thursday seemed to go over really well. It was a great opportunity to road-test my new Lake Erie history PowerPoint presentation (yes, I'm available for parties).

Thanks again to curator Ian Bell and his staff for being such great hosts!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


The staff at the Port Dover Harbour Museum have done a great job of putting together a poster to promote my talk at the museum on Thursday night. I'll be taking the ride out to Port Dover from Toronto in the late afternoon, and I hope to see you there.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Coming event

If you're already thinking spring, and eagerly counting the days until you can get out on your favourite Great Lake, I invite you to join me on Thursday, March 19, for a presentation on Lake Erie history at the Port Dover Harbour Museum.

I'll be bringing along a slideshow that includes many of the images I collected while I was researching the book, plus a number of fun facts about the lake. I also hope you'll be keen to share some of your favourite Lake Erie stories.

And, of course, I'll be selling books, too. Here are the particulars:

March 19, 7:30 p.m.
Port Dover Harbour Museum,
44 Harbour Street,
Port Dover, Ontario,
N0A 1N0
tel.: (519) 583-2660
Admission: $5

For more details, click here.

Hope to see you there!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Warm spell

A sunny February afternoon lured my wife Amy and I out onto the frozen surface of Pigeon Lake, near Omemee, Ontario (just across from Emily Provincial Park), last Saturday. Along for the stroll were Amy's sister and her husband, and their very tiny son, who is barely visible in his pouch in the picture below. The recent melt had reduced most of the surrounding snowdrifts to ragged, dirty mounds, but the shallow lake remained solid, and more than once the smooth ice surface conjured talk of breaking out the stick and puck.

At one point, Amy said, "it's hard to take a bad black-and-white picture." As one who has taken many a poor photo, in all conditions and light levels, I would have to agree, as simply switching on the camera's monochrome function has the effect of sweeping us all back to the twenties.

Many of the folks who live along Pigeon Lake pull their docks out for the winter, but some are permanently cemented to the bottom. Standing out on the ice and looking at their bare, weather-beaten frames, it's hard to believe they will ever see a boat again, let alone thirty-degree weather.

But soon enough, they will. And then, sweltering on the dock and reaching for the sunscreen, it will be hard to believe that sunny winter Saturday ever happened at all.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Winter break

It was undoubtedly the sunny Saturday afternoon that drew the ice fishermen out onto the frozen surface of Lake Erie near Oak Harbor, Ohio. There was a stiff offshore wind blowing, but other than that, the day was downright balmy. A perfect afternoon to try their luck. This is probably why so many of them ventured out that day -- 134 in all. We know this because that’s how many the U.S. Coast Guard plucked from the ice floe they were on when it cracked away from the mainland, opening a 100-yard chasm between the fishermen and safety.

You can read more about the harrowing day these poor souls put in on Lake Erie by clicking here.

It happened that I was on the opposite side of the lake last weekend, visiting some friends and family. As such, Ohio’s offshore wind was my onshore, which meant the ice was being pushed toward the beach instead of being pulled away. While we stood in the backyard and watched the Canadian ice fishermen try their luck, this wood carving, which my folks had a local artisan do solely by chainsaw, kept a silent vigil.

I counted fourteen fishermen out on Pigeon Bay at one point. They came on foot, towing sleds full of fishing gear, on snowmobiles, and even on ATVs. With the warm winters we’ve had in recent years, this scene seemed a flashback from my youth, and something I wondered if I’d ever see again on Lake Erie.

Before climbing into the car and heading back to Toronto, we snapped this beauty, looking down the shore toward Leamington. With the day’s bright sun, it was almost possible to envision the thirty-five-degree days that often scorch this part of the country in the summer, leaving the lake about the only place to find relief.

But today, we opted to not set foot on Lake Erie. It was probably for the best.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Shipping slowdown

The turmoil that's been battering the world economy lately has been finding its way onto the Great Lakes, too. This week's Leelenau News reports that fewer lake freighters have been seen on Lake Michigan's waters over the past few months.

Part of this is due to a drastically reduced market for steel, a longtime staple of the Great Lakes shipping trade, as the piece points out. But over the longer term, the freighter fleet has simply not been renewing itself. Not since 1980, in fact, has a large new freighter been built for Great Lakes use.

The piece doesn't really explain why this is, but the reasons can be easily surmised. The rise of road transportation has no doubt been one factor, as have fluctuating commodity prices over the years.

What's interesting is how so many of the iron boats that were built during the first half of the twentieth century have somehow managed to stay in service. The piece mentions the St. Marys Challenger, which began life way back in 1906 as the William P. Snyder, and is now a cement carrier on Lake Michigan. The Challenger, in fact, is currently the oldest active lake freighter.

A good example of a blend of two old boats is the Canadian Ranger, which was moored here in Toronto for some time a couple of years ago. The Ranger is actually a meld of two boats. One, the Hilda Marjanne, was an ocean freighter built during the 1940s. The other, the Chimo, was a laker first launched in 1967. The Chimo makes up the stern section of the modern-day Ranger.

For the full Leelenau News piece, click here.

For more on the St. Marys Challenger, click here.

For more on the Canadian Ranger, click here.