Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Back, eh? II

Along most coasts, sea breezes behave as they are supposed to. That is, the land heats more quickly than the water, and air moves toward the heated air column over the land. The waters of the Great Lakes create sea breezes for the same reason, but in the Thousand Islands, the sea breeze (S) blowing from Lake Ontario is magnified by the prevailing southwest wind (P), yielding a  wind speed (W) greater than either: S+P=W. The other relevant equation is a standard of marine piloting, the prediction of  wave height,  which is a function of wind speed, wind duration, and fetch (the distance a wave has traveled before it reaches the observer). Meteorological math lesson is over.

The Thousand Islands is a big place, as I said before, especially from west-southwest to east-northeast, where it's some 80 km long. On our first day, we began by crossing to Sugar Island, 3.5 km out in the stream (but less than halfway to the American mainland), a moderate hour's paddle. En route, we crossed the westerly bearings to Kingston, which lies at the meeting point of the river and Lake Ontario, and Wolfe Island, the large island that we crossed returning from the Rideau Lakes some years ago, mentioned in the opening part. The horizon is close from a kayak (8-10 km). Kingston lay over 30 km west of us, and the nearest end of Wolfe lay 15 km west: both were below our horizon.  Fifteen km is a good long fetch, capable of putting up interesting waves even in a few hours of moderate wind. The forecast was for peak winds of 14-18 km/hr., which we took with a grain of salt. All five of us are experienced mariners, with eight to ten years in kayaks. We thought we might see more wind than that before the day was out.

We had already spotted a couple of ospreys  over breakfast, and encountered occupied  artificial osprey nests perched on isolated rocks (=two trees short of an island). In the several years since we had been here, these beautiful birds, nearly as large as eagles, are now thriving along the river.  They don't accompany kayaks, as the albatross does ships, but one partner will fly above any vessel getting close to the nest, whilst the partner on the nest gives warning cries and stink-eye. We would go on having the company of many of the cited 36 osprey partners in the Park Canada zone all week.

Sugar Island is most noted as the summer retreat of the American Canoe Association (ACA), which includes members interested in canoeing (duh!) kayaking, river rafting (not here) and canoe sailing. The latter term conjures up images of quaint summer camp clumsiness. During the ACA's annual descent upon the island, the competition includes a sailing regatta. Divisions range from rigs that somewhat fall into the stereotype, being sails on canoes, to 5 metre and 10 metre canoes. These latter are canoes only in being narrow and double ended. They are sophisticated racing machines that reach speeds one would think impossible in a monohull: indeed, in most motorboats of similar size. Greg and Jean, in our party, once raced 10 metre canoes here. When we were there, the summer gathering was just a week away, and members began to show up for the party all week.

If your idea of a summer retreat includes someone bringing you cocktails on the porch and three distinct meals, professionally prepared, Sugar Island is not for you. This is wilderness camping. Apart from a few small, privately owned cottages at one end of the island (grandfathered in when ACA got the place), there's nothing standing but a few tent frames and platforms, and privies. And no signs. We landed in a  secondary cove, where Greg and Jean had to think a bit to recall where the nearest privy was. Turned out to be up a particularly overgrown trail, with one false scent (literally) caused by a dead fish in the shrubbery. The necessary was of the follow-your-nose variety, basic but better than using the bushes or the water.  A weak point of kayaks is their lack of toilets, which can make cruises a matter of john to john navigation.

Having satisfied sentimental recall (Greg and Jean), curiosity (the rest of us) and relief (all hands), we set out for our next  destination, Camelot Island. It is is the Lake Fleet Islands, named after warships in these waters in the War of 1812. We had studied the Parks Canada brochure before starting out, so we headed only for islands with designated paddling landings. It looked at first like we were heading for the New York mainland, but no: that was Grindstone Island, and we were still not halfway across the river.  I cracked a joke to Jean that I hoped we wouldn't become wetbacks, since my passport was locked up at the lodge. She, ever-prepared, replied that she had brought her passport.

Camelot,like many of the park islands, has docks, but docks intended for the larger sort of power boat. There is a set of evolutions in kayaking called the dock entry and exit. basically, the kayaker gets in by sitting on the dock with feet in the cockpit, deftly swivelling round to plant keester in seat, simultaneously sliding feet under foredeck, whilst using the paddle as a balancing pole. Piece of cake, eh? Getting out is just the reverse. This actually is a piece of cake in the wider sort of recreational kayak, but four of us paddle kayaks that wiggle if you just stare at them, even on dry land.  Even friends of the technique admit it requires a low dock for best results, not one at about the paddler's eye level.

When we found the paddlers' landing we found we weren't alone. There were two gorgeous ocean kayaks pulled up on one side of the wood ramp of the landing. That ramp proved to be very slippery, so our lot pulled out on the other side and commandeered a picnic table at an unoccupied campsite.

Those Park islands that allow camping often present a sharp contrast between no-frills wilderness campsites on land, and (mostly motor) yachts with gleaming metalwork and every comfort at the docks. On weekdays at least, the votes were with the yachts. However, the owners of the other two kayaks showed up directly. We learned they were a Francophone couple from Quebec who had camped on Camelot for three days, and were off to repeat the show on another island. Kayak camping without a ridiculous deckload is an art, one which this couple had perfected. As in bicycle camping, one does have to be ready to be extremely chummy and pack a tent small enough to stow in a kayak cargo compartment.

One can point to many things the Canadians do better, and by thunder, one of them is build an outhouse. The ACA people could take notes. The privies on the St. Lawrence park islands are all composting toilets. They are odourless (the Mass Turnpike and NY Thruway johns smelled worse), cleaned frequently by people who initial their work on a chit, and are approached by wooden walkways spanned by arches made of native tree branches. My lack of a waterproof camera limited my ability to get too many underway pictures, but I could not pass up homage to the Canadian Throne:

The only thing missing from the Camelot men's was a copy of the operating instructions in English. Apparently some comedian had recently pilfered it.

By the time we were ready to go, the wind had increased  somewhat beyond the forecast levels, to Force 4, about 20-22 km/hr. We had decided over lunch that, even without a wind increase, we would head back by dodging amongst the Fleet Islands, then break from cover for the last 5 km back to the lodge. Mountaineers have peak-bagging, climbing as many mountains of a given size or range as they can. Call this island bagging: getting as close to as many islands as we could without rudeness.

We had begun to encounter geese (yes, Canada geese!) in small numbers south of Sugar Island. They began to appear in still larger numbers west and north of Camelot, probably for the one of the same reasons we were there: to stay out of the waves as long as possible.

Now is the moment to recall the meteorological math.  Our course, in island bagging,  was meant to bring us out into open water with a pretty straight shot back to the lodge. Unfortunately the wind had been as busy zig-zagging  as we. When we broke cover at last, our best course was no longer straight downwind. No watercraft really enjoy being pushed around by following seas, but kayaks manage a course straight downwind better than most. The wind shifts had us committed instead to five km of wind and sea on the starboard quarter, meaning the boats were constantly shoved around by waves propelled by a 15 km fetch times a 20 km/h wind, which a paddler could look straight in the eye, in the rare moments when the paddler wasn't very busy steering sort of straight and trying to stay upright. In addition to  wind-generated waves, we had periodic doses of large wake generated by the area's numerous tour boats. Thankfully, the other commercial traffic mostly sticks to the deep channel south of Grindstone, in American waters, or we might all have had more than we could handle.

One of the funniest (and most informative) lecturers on kayaking who ever lived was the Briton Derek Hutchinson. I had the good fortune to hear him speak on his epic kayak crossing of the North Sea not long before his passing. In it, he said "the kayaker is the butterfly of the ocean. If you stop beating your wings, you die." Open passages like the one we were on reinforced the truth behind the wry joke. We were all of us very busy beating our wings. Eventually, we shouted back and forth to make a plan. We would shift course slightly left, for Gordon Island, midway between our present location and the lodge. We hoped to find some shelter for a quick breather before taking the final leg.

Except that our course took us nowhere near Gordon's paddling landing, it worked. Those high power boat docks make excellent breakwaters but offered nowhere to land and pee. The conditions encouraged us to shoot past the lodge and approach it upwind, so that we could examine a new B&B which our landlady dismissively called "The Monstrosity."

Misty Isles Lodge is sheltered partly by Gordon, partly by three islands nearer shore, and partly by salt marsh, so the evolution seemed to go off rather well. That is, until we got ashore. The landlady, who is also a kayaking instructor, said she'd observed that we were all a bit knackered and that a couple of strokes seemed to be coming apart. I'd strained my right bicep early in the morning, so readily confessed to being one of the guilty parties. I also told her we entirely agreed about the Monstrosity. Despite the occasional infiltration of McMansions, and a handful of castles, most Thousand Island houses seem to place more value on scale and blending than on ostentation. This one, the sort of thing Palladio would have designed on crack, looked like a pair of glitter pumps at an Anglican funeral.

Since the comments to the first item here brought up water temperature, I should note that the surface water was unusually warm. So was the air temperature, which was in the upper 20s to low 30s Celsius: very hot for the region. I didn't have a chance to test how close the thermocline layer was to the surface (say, by capsizing), but I suspect one didn't have to dive very deep to find water much colder.

Dinner after securing the kayaks. Dinner preparation rotates on these trips, and it was our night to east and wash dishes.

This was not the night for my wife and I to cook, so we did our duty and ate.

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Monday, July 22, 2013

Back, eh?

Yup. And therein lies the first observation about Ontario. They do say "eh," but the near-universal affirmative is "yup." This comes more naturally to people from other parts of the US of A, where "yup" is heard in the land. Those of us brought up to some variant of "ayuh" have to school ourselves more carefully.

The trip from the North Shore to Gananoque, ON takes seven hours, according to Google Maps.  All but a tiny piece of this is on divided highways. This  time assumes drivers who don't have bladders or use some sort of underway elimination device, and who drive much faster than my spouse when she is doing her shift behind the wheel. The Google estimators must also drive vehicles with 25 gal. tanks that cruise at 26 mpg. Or better: those numbers would just barely get one there. So not only does one have to empty one's personal tank now and then (not to mention eat), one has to fill the vehicular tank. Twice, if one is foresighted. In upstate NY, gas runs about $3.87 a gallon. Not cheap, but hop over the bridge and it's $1.29...a litre. Do the math, eh? At any rate, anyone without this combination of blessings can expect the trip to take more like eight hours. Having got used to six hour trips to Ithaca, and seven hour voyages to Rochester, NY, as college parents, we soldiered on moderately well.

We must have hit some sort of slack spot crossing into Canada, because our wait was less than five minutes. The Canadian border person was young, professional, and personable, a good representative of a country that takes tourism seriously. Hold that thought until we get to the return visit.

Whenever we make this trip, we stop by our insurance agent and get what is colloquially known as a "Canada card." This certification of insurance coverage saves time and red tape in the event of an accident north of the border. We also patiently endure the lecture about how seriously Canadian provinces treat speeding offences. The patience is necessary because Canadians driving Highway 401 haven't heard it. The speed limit is 100kph (do the math: the metric system is good for you). I set my cruise control at 100 and very soon felt like we were standing still. Even so, it's only a few minutes to Gan, where we had three important errands. My wife wanted to get literature on the St. Lawrence boat tours (our rainy day fallback) and on everything else available in the area. While she was doing that, I dropped in to the LCBO to supplement the emergency supplies (Molson) that I had brought from home.

Bless us and splassh us, Precious! They has craft beer!  After much, much ado over the past decade, the provincial monopoly has caved in a limited way to market Canadian craft beer. Like everything else in the LCBOs, it's overpriced (I paid $2.80 CDN for 473ml cans), mostly comes in singles, and without having advance word on what was there and what the reviews were, I had to take my chances. I bought three Barking Squirrel lagers and three Hops and Robbers IPAs. Here are the brewers on the lager and the IPA, and here is the Beer Advocate on the former and latter. Barking Squirrel is better than off-the-shelf Canadian lager, but as BA says, still a "faux craft beer."  Hops and Robbers merits the BA's 79/100 rating, and could get better.

After the first two errands, we went to the Gan Metro. This is the down-home supermarket chain. Presumably the big stores, say in Windsor and metropolitan Toronto, have all the promoted comforts. The local here took over a former A&P location. It has the same footprint, similar limitations in merchandise, and the prices? A 2 litre carton of milk costs $3.99 CDN. Let that speak for the rest. When I consider what they pay for beer, gas and groceries, I admire the general good nature of Canadians* even more.

Our digs are the same as in 2005 and 2006. The owner is in semi-retirement, so she only takes reservations from people who have stayed there before. Once we had stashed the perishables, the first order of business was the kayaks.

Lest the reader forget, the main business of the trip is kayaking, not eating and drinking.  Thus the boats and their accoutrements got the lion's share of our attention at the start and finish of each day.  The placid body of water in the background is the St. Lawrence River. Choose your source, but past these riverside cabins flows something between one fifth and one third of all the fresh water on the planet. When one is on it, it's easy to forget that it is a river, because here in the Thousand Islands, the scale is so far beyond anything "river" means in most of the eastern USA. The weather forecast suggested that we would be able to spend all of our paddling time on the river. On past trips, high winds had led us to retreat to inland lakes with relatively less wind.

It must have been a Canadian who coined the term "Thousand Islands," because it's comparatively modest. There are actually 1864 land (or rock) masses that meet the agreed-upon definition of an island: above water 365 days a year, with at least two trees growing on it. It's largest island is bigger than Acquidneck Island, Rhode Island (with about a tenth of the population, even in summer). The smallest barely meet the standard. We passed by one that was inhabited by one woman and a dog, living in a tent and traveling by canoe. An American would have called it the Ten Thousand Islands and slackened the definition.

And Thousand Island dressing really was invented there, but we'll save that for another edition.


* I make an exception to this compliment for Habs and Laffs fans.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013


We're off to Canada next week to kayak in southern Ontario, a trip we haven't made for several years.  Various recollections rattle around in my head as I try to remember everything we have to bring.

At Ithaca College they had an Erie Canal display that observed that In New York state, seven out of every eight people live within something like ten miles of the Erie Canal route (if one includes the Port of New York in that calculation). In Ontario, a similar ratio lives a similar distance from Lake Ontario, the St Lawrence, and their chief tributaries. Step beyond this and you are truly in the boondocks.

When we made our third trip in three years up I-81 and over the bridge at Wellesley Island, we were greeted like regulars. The inspector, while welcoming, knew where we were from and in general where we were going almost before we presented our papers. I'm prepared to say we never saw the same Canadian border person twice, so the only explanation is (gasp) metadata. Bite me, Edward Snowden! The chief difference isn't whether nations collect information, but how sunk in paranoia a given nation is. Canada is a nice country, and understandably they'd like to keep it that way.

That recalls another comparison that eludes Americans, who generally approach Canada with the same dewy-eyed sentimentality they apply to many other foreign countries. This is a top-down government, to an extent most Americans would never tolerate. It is less so than most European nations, but there's a distinct difference when compared with the US of A. The result is when something really needs to get done, it usually gets done, and with far less sturm und drang. Most Americans bleat and whine about that sort of thing being an infringement on their rights, but I put it to you that Canadians are possibly freer, and certainly less anxious about their rights, than Americans. Government there seems better able to learn from its mistakes. That I think comes in part from a parliamentary form of government, run by the direct political descendants of the people who invented it. That and having a country without discernable imperial ambitions. (We may get onto Keystone as an exception to that rule some time.)

(Any time I have come back to the US from Canada in this new century, I experience a wet-blanket feeling that begins at the border, with immigration inspectors who have raised paranoia to an art form as much as has the TSA. No wonder the new agency acronym is ICE.)

Other things. Where we stay, one has to remember that people don't "Goh Owt," but "Ga Oot:" a lot like "Uncle" Lyn from Glasgow.  Yes, they say "eh." Don't try to imitate it, though: I don't think short-term American visitors can manage the offhandedness, eh? Southeast Ontario is Loyalist country, and American flag-wavers get the same bored, scant tolerance that your oversize idiot cousin gets when he tries to start a food fight at the family reunion.

We were last at the place we're staying in 2006, the depth of the Bush years. That tolerance was rubbed pretty raw here and there. I hope that's gotten better, if only because we're behaving better.

One can get poutine there, also pizza, and often from the same places.

Ontario has provincial liquor stores, called LCBOs, like New Hampshire's. Unlike New Hampshire, LCBOs also have a beer monopoly, and fairly short hours. I learned during the first of these trips to bring a six-pack to tide me over until my schedule matched the local LCBOs. When we arrived for the second trip, I had a six-pack of craft IPA and declared it. The Canadian inspector seemed pained that I didn't select the local product, and since then I've been careful to protect my thirst without offending local sensibilities.*

The chief thing one has to remember is not to be in such a goddam hurry. Impatience, not accent, is what distinguishes Americans from Canadians.

The cabin reportedly has Wi-fi now, so I may be able to keep up.


*Speaking of learning from mistakes, craft beer is appearing in Ontario and finally is in LCBOs at various locations. We can but hope we'll be near some.

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