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?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Mass travel

This is the fourth week in which I've had to surrender my precious 3 1/2 day weekend to provide office coverage for those who are not retired, and who are on salary. The plus is that I've been commuting on the bike twice as much as usual, with concomitant brain fodder.

The local paper has hosted some especially vicious pro-and-anti bicycle rants in recent weeks. These closed with the observation of a columnist, who had been as vicious and anti as anyone, that "nobody hates all bicyclists." Hoohahahahaha.

Some do. Cyclists have to accept that, be on guard, and work to change it. Once again, ranting letter writers and columnists may not hate all bicyclists, but their words enable those who do.

Mostly, though, motorists haven't got a clue what to do in the presence of a cyclist. This leads them into actions that would bring on an accident or a citation if they involved another motor vehicle. Likewise, far too many cyclists have not the least idea what their responsibilities are on the road.

Or off. About half of my commute is over a reclaimed railroad bed. This was originally paved in rottenstone (as I grew up calling it). This is a fine gravel with a high clay content. It packs to a firm surface which muddies up only in a few low spots, and is hard enough to support skinny tyres. However, nobody thought to explain this to our Electric Department, which maintains the right-of-way. They've fallen into the habit of filling in the worst low spots with washed half-inch gravel, which is about the worst possible surface for a bicycle. It has no clay content, and unless rollered in, remains a loose and shifting surface for years.

The Salem end of the right of way is paved, with a centre stripe and elegant iron gates at each end. Having lavished all that money on this treatment, the Salem authorities then didn't have the money to reclaim the rest of the right of way, so their bike path is under a mile long. Rant out.

Whilst we're commenting that motorists bicyclists are equally incompetent at obeying traffic laws and sharing public ways, let us not overlook pedestrians. My town, with its maze of 17th century streets, has a great many pedestrians in the street. Locals are in the habit but at least move when they hear something on wheels. Tourists, I suppose, are astonished that a way not much wider than the average urban sidewalk actually has vehicular traffic, and are slower to move.

My peeve of the month, though, arises from a peculiar new behaviour on the right of way. Pedestrians, and even cyclists, are moving to the left rather than the right in the face of oncoming bicycles. The surface, remember, is fairly hard, and allows a good turn of speed. To someone trained for a lifetime to keep to the right on roads, in corridors, and in watercraft (the "port-to-port" rule is international), this conduct is disconcerting. Is this the pernicious influence of British drama?

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Reflective follow-up

I had to grow up and see war and its backwash to absorb the viewpoint my father and uncles took of nearly all war movies: that they were good smash-em-up entertainment, completely divorced from reality. None of them lived long enough to see the likes of Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific, and pass judgement on them.

I do remember my father watching the 1960s series Combat! with interest. He commented that it was the only depiction he'd ever seen that approached reality. The hallmarks of the series were unrelenting grimness and a sort of film noir cinematography. After reading Atkinson, it strikes me that one departure from reality was the amount of sunshine in that and other series and films of the time. It appears that the war in Northwest Europe was mostly fought under cloud cover varied only by the amount and type of precipitation. Only the more recent films and series have captured the meterological context.

Hindsight again suggests that a veteran in a position to say whether a TV show was a tolerably accurate depiction of the fighting in Europe must have had a fair sample of the real thing.

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Pause for reflection

The Canada thing is mumbling along in the background, but it's time for a break.

I just finished Rick Atkinson's The Guns at Last Light, and with it his Liberation trilogy of World War Two in the European theatre.

There was an unexpected connection for me in the first volume, An Army at Dawn. In it was a quote from the beloved eldest son of the couple who lived across the road where I grew up: the son who had died in the North African campaign, leaving his parents devastated for the rest of their lives.

I had no such connection with the second volume, The Day of Battle, which deals with the Sicilian and Italian campaign up to the liberation of Rome, but trudged through it with a rising appreciation of the horrors of both campaigns. But it was the third volume I wanted. That, in part, addressed my father's piece of the war.

One of my peers is an Army brat whose father was in the artillery. My dad was an engineer.  My father spent a good part of his postwar life getting his balls busted by ex-infantry and Marine friends and relations for being not a real soldier. The same was true, as I understand, of the artillerist. Censorship zipped their lips during the fighting, and this childish harassment kept them zipped afterwards: in my dad's case, for the rest of his life.

I had hoped to find in The Guns at Last Light something that would shed light on the missing weeks of my father's narrative. Hindsight informed by a war of my own tells me that he cherry-picked his experiences to provide fodder for "what did you do in the war, daddy" stories. Once the facade nearly slipped, when he explained to us what the Hitler Youth were and what they did in the war. Once it cracked completely, one summer when we went to camp and got to lightly calling it "concentration camp." It upset him, so much that he described, just once, what the words really meant. As I grew older I realised that there were several weeks of his experience of which we knew nothing, had nothing but speculation.

That's what I have now, after reading this book: speculation, with corroborative detail. I might have known that even the stories he did tell were bowdlerised. My brother, a Marine in a very hot corner of Vietnam, had done the same thing in his letters home. Save only for two or three weeks of full German retreat, Dad's Ninth Army was deeply involved in combat from February to May, 1945. Engineer battalions like his, which were hard on the heels of front-line infantry, saw as much danger as any unit. Fools who like to count the merits of military experience by the number of days in action should think of this: my Marine uncle, who fought at Guadalcanal, Bougainville and Iwo Jima, saw about as many days of combat as the average Ninth Army engineer.  (If one wants to apply the calendar test, veterans of the Italian campaign beat pretty much everyone else.) My dad had no reason to feel defensive about his experience, and I wish I could tell him that.

Not just him, either. Atkinson quotes a German prisoner who was asked whether the Wehrmacht felt intimidated by American armour. Not especially, he said. What about infantry, then? Naah. But man, that American artillery! That scared the crap out of them.

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Sunday, August 04, 2013

Quiet waters and rogue kayaks

Having paddled south on our first day, through the Lake Fleet Islands, we went east the next. Or generally east, slipping south into the western edge of the Navy Islands,  some of which are large enough to provide shelter from the eternal southwest wind as it gained strength during the day.

The national park here is set up in an interesting way: public islands are blended with private ones,  some islands are divided between public and private land, and some of the private islands are nearly as wild as the park islands.

This I think is one part demographics and one part attitude. Canada is a country 60 percent the size of the United States with 11 percent of the population. Nearly a third of those people live in just two metropolitan areas, Toronto and Montreal. That leaves a lot of empty real estate. Second, while rural Canada is not immune from the the suppurating rash of McMansions (and the real kind, cancerous toys of the top percent), there seems to be a distinct preference for houses of modest scale that blend with the landscape. Andrew Jackson Downing, the 19th century American architect who believed houses should look as if they had grown from the earth, would have appreciated such clients.

We didn't have an answer for the number of empty cottages we saw, many of which clearly hadn't been opened for the season. I suppose part of it was that our vacation feel between the Canada Day holiday week and the August bank holiday. However, my childhood on a New Hampshire lake told me that cottages that didn't even have their wharves down* had received no attention at all this year.  Canada has many pluses: a long summer isn't one of them. Thus the idea of any of the few golden days in such pleasant places being wasted was strange indeed.

Due to their abundance of wild places, Canadian paddlers take a superior attitude toward places where, like pioneers, they can see the smoke of their neighbour's chimney. Their disparaging name for these parts of Ontario is "cottage country." Those of us who live close enough to our neighbours to hear their fights and their flatulence are not the least put off by cottages, especially those whose scale and blending show considerable forethought. Indeed, nosiness formed a major part of each day's agenda.

In truth, the Canadian Thousand Islands were more cottage-cluttered west of us. Between the public land, the sparsely settled private islands and the number of closed-up cottages, we had large stretches pretty much to ourselves, so far as humans go. The geese were clearly fond of the quiet water and the comparative absence of people, as were the ospreys. On this day's route, they were everywhere.

My spouse and her relations were puzzled by one thing. Assuming that the St. Lawrence is no cleaner than most large North American waters flowing past urban areas, where did the cottages get their water? Indeed, where did they get power? As the resident island dweller I had the answer to both. They certainly supplied their washing water from the river, for nearly every cottage was accompanied by a pump house near the river's edge. I supposed some of the smaller ones without a pump house got it the old-fashioned way, with a pipe led several feet under the surface and water drawn by hand. The chart told us that many of the larger islands had underwater electrical cables, and a familiar thrumming told me that many of the rest (those that didn't do without electricity altogether) ran generators. We saw relatively few solar panels: something of a disappointment despite the latitude.

As for drinking water, one either treats lake or river water or get access to a well or spring. I suppose the big islands must have had one or the other, and some were big enough to have the distribution organised, perhaps. Otherwise, I'm sure, drinking water is a scarce commodity, paid for with a good deal of fetching and carrying, and never, ever wasted. Our little island was too small for a well, and the wells on the nearby, larger islands were of borderline quality. We had an arrangement with a man we knew on the shore. He had a clear spring with the sort of water that shows that pure water does have its own flavour, more than he and his wife needed. We had huckleberry bushes and though we preferred our blueberries, the man with the spring liked huckleberries. So we had licence to draw water from his spring, and in return he had the run of our huckleberry patch. Thus do things run on islands, where the corner store may be more than an hour away by boat and bad roads.

There were certainly blueberries on many of these islands, and some at least must have supported huckleberries.  The relative wildness of the Navy Islands was reinforced at every turn by geese, by ospreys, and at one point by a mink: a mink on a mission, evidently. It was a couple of hundred metres from the nearest land, and swimming toward it with single-minded concentration. When not made in coats, minks do fish, but usually somewhat nearer land. This was perhaps a change of base, occasioned by some disruption in the mink world.

The geese were characteristically defensive of their goslings, well-grown by mid-July. Apart from idiots on jet-skis, they have few natural enemies at this season. Ospreys, while nearly the size of eagles, are focused on fish. I wonder in hindsight whether some of the birds we saw were actually young eagles, for eagles are making their way back into the Thousand Islands. If so, the ospreys may have more to worry about than the geese. When Benjamin Franklin disparaged the eagle as a thief, he was quite accurate. The eagles, given a chance, would rather be called opportunists. A well-brought-up young eagle would sooner steal a fish from an osprey than to try snatching a gosling from a gaggle of irate geese.

Camelot Island's well-built paddling ramp had lulled us into naive hopes about the landing places shown on the Parks Canada map. When we got to Mulcaster Island, our designated lunch spot, the first landing place offered a choice between a low dock and a sloping rock. We then paddled clockwise around the island, looking for a better landing spot. We would have done better to go the other way, because we were nearly back to our starting point before we found what we needed: a quiet, soft-bottomed inlet close to the big boat docks. There were recent marks from kayak or canoe keels,  showing at least that other paddlers had had the same idea.

At Mulcaster, we discovered another form of native wildlife: the self-abdicating Canadian authority figure.  Beaching and docking at the Parks Canada islands isn't free. We had to do some on-the-fly calculations that I can't remember, but the paddler's fee worked out to something like $6 US per boat. One entered a responsible name on a little form with an attached envelope, detached a receipt for proof of payment and stuffed the envelope into a green tin box.

As with many things Canadian, this seemingly naive honour system is backed up by Authority. And as we were unpacking our lunches Authority, in the form of a fairly large, male Parks Canada ranger, strolled up and passed the time of day. He welcomed us, recited a few of the island's features, and said, apologetically, "Oh,  by the way, has anyone told you about the beaching fee?" That was my bro-in-law's cue to pull out the receipt we had just filled out and paid for. The ranger thanked him and told us more about the island. His backup woman showed up about this time, having attended to the composting palace.

The cynic in me wonders whether Canadians simply skip the McMansion-style cottages and go straight to the motor yachts for conspicuous consumption.  Two of the bodies of water I've paddled up there, the Thousand Islands and the Rideau Lake and canal system, abound in large, lavish, expensive motorboats. When you've got one of these toys, you don't need a mansion. In several places during our week, we saw instances that looked as if the boat owners had gotten a bit carried away at the boat show: there they were, docked in front of a cottage and boathouse of reasonable size, looming ridiculously over boathouses half as tall as the motor boat.

The denizens of the two motorboat palaces docked at Mulcaster were pleasant enough, and their pursuits were modest enough. So modest, in fact, that it made one wonder why they needed a ten gazillion dollar gas guzzler to go somewhere and float about on water noodles. Veblen would have an answer, no doubt.

We set off as the sea breeze began to build. Between making our way between the smaller of the Navy Islands, and going downwind, we paddled along in a fool's paradise. Ducks and chicks (well, ducklings) and geese continued to scurry as we slipped along. This end of the islands was distinctly wilder than what we had seen before. Our course took us quite close to an occupied osprey tower, occupied by young and a parent in a protective frame of mind:

So much for peace and quiet. Our next leg took us out of shelter and across what turned out to be a relatively busy thoroughfare, occupied by motorboats (of the more normal size) with a little trouble seeing what was in front of them.  I favour bright colours and reflective doodads, especially for kayak paddles, as simpletons like these are known to notice bright, shiny things.

By then the sea breeze was getting up to yesterday's levels, and despite our best intention to stay together, that wasn't happening. It is said, truly, that one does not sit in a kayak: one wears it. Further, no two designs of kayak are going to behave exactly alike with identical paddlers in identical conditions.

Our party included my wife and her twin sister. The latter is a highly experienced kayaker who has devoted a great deal of attention to finding the perfect kayak. The one she now has was supposed to be the ideal boat, and this trip was the first chance to test it out. It was proving to be a few feathers short of a bird, especially when we finally left the islands and got back into head seas in open water. Barb's kayak was proving almost totally unmanageable in head seas, to the extent that she plunged away from the rest of us toward the shore. We thought she wanted calmer water, but when we got back together she said that was the only way the boat would go.

By contrast my wife's kayak, far less exotic than any of the others and notoriously hard to handle in beam seas, was happily shrugging off the head seas and ploughing ahead. The younger in-laws both have matching kayaks with sharply up-swept bows and rudders. I paddled something similar for several years and can testify to the sea-keeping abilities of that style.  Mine showed a bit of unexpected stubbornness in head seas, something it hadn't done before, but nothing as extreme as Barb was contending with. It was clear we both had some tuning to do, but first we had to get back.

There is a feature on the Ontario shore in these parts called Halstead Bay. Halstead was an optimist because, as we knew, it is only a slight indentation in the riverbank. The wind was just enough west of southwest to give us some shelter for the return if we hugged the shore. This we did, and the two recalcitrant boats behaved better, or at least more predictably. Also, the nosiness was more productive. So ended the second day.

*If you have property alongside fresh water that freezes up to a metre thick in winter, there's a constant struggle to build wharves the ice won't destroy. The best way to do that is to build wharves one can pull out for the winter. A sure sign of habitation is when such wharves go back into the water, or when fixed wharves undergo repair.