Sunday, February 21, 2010

Winter on the bay

Although you'd never know it in Toronto, it's very much winter in much of the rest of the province. Right now, for example, the Parry Sound area of Georgian Bay, just a couple hundred kilometres north of the city, is wrapped in a blanket of white. We decided to spend the weekend in this winter wonderland, which, regardless of the season, is one of our favourite places.

I've written before about the sheer delight of visiting rural Ontario's provincial parks and other summertime destinations in the off season. Killbear Park, for example, is bustling in the summer. To get a site, you really have to book mid-winter, or you'll be out of luck.

But Killbear's winter personality is the direct opposite of its summer self. The hundreds of campsites that dot the park, each one complete with a fire pit and a picnic table, stand lonely, forgotten, and mostly covered in a good foot of snow.

When we ventured out to Killbear on Saturday morning, rented snowshoes in hand, the only tracks we could see belonged to the wide variety of small creatures who call the park home (and don't hibernate in the winter).

We only spotted one of the park's winter inhabitants: while we were trudging along the frozen surface of the bay, what appeared to be a small otter popped up on the bank of a still unfrozen stream, his dark form stark against the expanse of snow. After a couple of minutes of fumbling about, he noticed us and disappeared beneath the surface.

After so many years of living in the city, I'd kind of forgotten the simple joy of walking on a frozen lake in winter. When I was growing up on the shores of Lake Erie, I distinctly remember venturing out on the lake's frozen surface with my dad to go ice fishing. We even drove out a few times. It's an understatement to call that a terrifying prospect today. And we were far from the only ones.

The shallow stretch of Georgian Bay near the park's gates freezes thick enough to easily support the weight of a couple of hikers. And back in Parry Sound, the harbour is frozen so solid that small communities of ice-fishing huts dot the horizon like makeshift villages. Closer to shore, there is a good selection of large, perfectly cleared ice rinks to choose from, and the locals seem to fully embrace the season.

It's somehow comforting to know that this kind of winter still very much exists. But it doesn't last long. In another few weeks, the ice-fishing huts will give way to charter boats, and it will be hard to believe that, just a few weeks before, we walked on the bay's frozen surface, and wondered if summer would ever come.

For more on Parry Sound, click here.

For more on Killbear Provincial Park, click here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Save the depot

Having grown up near Windsor, Ontario, I'm quite familiar with the city of Detroit, located just across the river. I have fond memories of slipping across the border as a teenager to catch the odd baseball game at Tiger Stadium (now demolished), or to shop for school clothes at one of the many malls in Detroit's outlying suburbs.

For as long as I can remember, the downtown has been in a state of continuous decline. This has been sped along in recent years by the economic slowdown, which hastened the long, slow collapse of the auto industry, a mainstay of the local economy.

But Detroit is much more than a manufacturing town. What's often forgotten is that it's a city with a long, rich history. It was originally founded by a French officer named Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, way back in 1701. The site was ideal for settlement. Located on the banks of the Detroit River, it was easily accessible by water. And the surrounding farmland was extremely productive.

When you combine Detroit's long history with its relatively recent economic decline, you get a lot of stunning buildings that are currently sitting empty.

Despite its derelict appearance (or perhaps because of it), I really enjoy visiting Detroit's downtown, and try to get there at least once a year to catch a hockey game. A couple weeks ago, we found ourselves sitting in front of the burned out Michigan Central Station, which gives no clue of the crucial role it once played in the city's development, and puzzled over what the grand old building could be.

The only sign consisted of hand-cut letters placed along one of the upper floors that spelled out "Save the Depot." The building's ornate facade certainly suggested an official role, but that's as far as we could get. It wasn't until I got back home, and ran a quick Google search, that I was able to put it together.

Michigan Central was opened in 1913, and at the time was the tallest train station in the world. It remained the city's main passenger rail station until it was closed in 1988. The tower above, whose offices you can now see directly into thanks to the multitude of smashed windows, was once used by railway company officials.

A number of renovation plans have been put forward over the past couple of years, but none have come to fruition. In April 2009, Detroit City Council authorized the building's demolition, but those plans, too, seem to be on hold.

After spending a few minutes in the quiet shadow of Michigan Central Station, we decided to seek happier surroundings at nearby Nemo's sports bar, which boasts of being voted the number 3 sports bar in America by Sports Illustrated magazine. If you're headed to Detroit to catch a game, I'd wholeheartedly recommend Nemo's. It's a classic blue-collar pub with a great atmosphere. To top it off, they offer a direct bus to the game, for a mere $3 a head.

In the end, the visiting L.A. Kings bested the hometown Red Wings by a score of 3-2. As for Detroit, its future remains uncertain, as its main industry continues to shrink. But I'm optimistic. The silent factories, warehouses, and offices that line her downtown streets, many more than a century old, have too much potential to be ignored forever. They're just waiting to be resurrected as studios, galleries, small businesses and homey urban living spaces.

And I'm sure they will -- when the moment is right.

Forgotten Detroit contains a wealth of information on Detroit's abandoned buildings. Click here to visit the site.)

For a haunting, yet beautiful exhibition of abandoned Detroit homes, called "100 Abandoned Houses," click here.

Click here for more information on Nemo's sports bar.