The Winnipeg readers festival

My growing pile of books. I don’t know where to start!

I was thrilled when I was invited to participate in Thin Air, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival. Few things give me greater pleasure than reading to an attentive, engaged audience—okay, that’s not entirely true. I would read to three birds, if they perched on my windowsill. I just love reading my stories aloud. Bonus if some creature, even a little bird, is actually listening.

Well there were appreciative readers aplenty at the festival. I read at noon at the library downtown to a roomful of people, some of whom may have come into the library to get warm, others who were curious about this woman who had sailed across the ocean, still others looking, perhaps, for a quiet place to eat their lunch. But all of them listened politely and asked good questions. The half hour flew by.

That evening I was driven out to Gimli, a small town on the shores of Lake Winnipeg about an hour north of the city. There a crowd had gathered in the Unitarian Church, the heart of the town’s Icelandic community and once the mother church of the Unitarian movement in Western Canada. There were sailors in the audience who nodded as I read my account of our first storm at sea and shared their stories afterwards as we gathered at the front for coffee and some home baking.

The Carman United Church, a peaceful and beautiful space.

There was another church in store for me. The next day I was driven to Carman, a very pretty prairie town about an hour south of Winnipeg, and there I read to The Wednesday Group, a couple dozen people who get together once a week to listen to speakers, think about big ideas, and ask questions. They asked some of the best questions I’ve ever fielded. You said you were never going to put yourself in the way of a broken heart again. Why did you? How do you provision for a month at sea? Were you ever lonely out there? The discussion continued over a lunch of homemade soup and fresh bread.

But as much pleasure as the readings gave me, I think sitting quietly in the audience as other writers performed was just as satisfying. So many stories. So many different voices. I was transported to the Great Bear Rainforest on the west coast of Canada in search of Sasquatch, to a modest house in Saskatoon built in 1928, inside the mind of a woman struggling with schizophrenia. To a boxing match in Las Vegas, to a horse farm in southwestern Ontario, on a walk through Winnipeg’s urban forest. From a small beach just outside St. John’s, Newfoundland to almost every place the ocean touches.

I promised myself when I came here, my suitcase already overstuffed, that I wouldn’t buy any books, but I couldn’t stop myself. The pile in my hotel room is growing steadily. It’s a good thing I’m going home today—I couldn’t carry any more books! But the festival continues until Monday. There’s still time to head down and collect your own armload of books.

This should really be called the Winnipeg Readers Festival.

Watching Dorian

Monark in the boatyard in Titusville

All of us are watching Dorian as it inches towards the east coast of the United States. Chris and I consult our many weather apps several times a day and every afternoon we watch Chris Parker’s detailed weather report, study each model he puts up on the screen with great interest. Conditions are “horrendous and life-threatening” in the Gulf Stream, he reported today, not something we’ve ever heard him say.

A few days ago, some of the models suggested that Dorian would make landfall as a Category 5 hurricane at Cape Canaveral, which is just south of Titusville, where Monark sits on the hard in a boat yard, tied down to cement blocks. We’ve removed the sails and the canvas and anything else we can from above deck, but would it be enough to withstand such a storm?

Straps ready to tie the boat to the concrete “mafia blocks”

Fortunately, this morning it looks like Titusville may be spared a direct hit (but who ever really knows.) There are still hurricane warnings up and down the coast, though Dorian has been downgraded to a Category 3 at this point. But they’re still calling for big winds—50 to 80 knots—torrential rains, and potential flooding in Titusville overnight.

But I find myself not really worrying about Monark—what will be will be. It’s out of our hands. And anyway, it’s just a boat. The reports and images of the havoc that Dorian has wrought in the Bahamas saddens me. Many of these people had so little to start with, and now they have nothing, not even fresh water. The fear is that salt water has contaminated the groundwater. What will they drink? What will they eat? Are there enough medical supplies? And how do you go about rebuilding on islands where everything has to be brought in by boat?

I find myself wondering what I can do to help. Send money for relief, obviously, but what else?

According to the BBC, “Scientists cannot say whether climate change is increasing the number of hurricanes, but the ones that do happen are likely to be more powerful and more destructive because of our warming climate.”

Why? Because an increase in sea surface temperatures strengthens the wind speeds within storms and also raises the amount of precipitation a hurricane will dump, they say. And sea levels are expected to increase by one to four feet over the next century, bringing the potential of far worse damage from sea surges and coastal flooding during storms.

Bad news for sailors, but worse news for people in coastal areas.

Dorian’s predicted track

Determined to look at what I can do to help prevent global warming, I logged into myclimate, a website with a tool for measuring the carbon impact of your activities. I entered my upcoming flight to Vancouver to attend the Whistler Writers Festival. Flying economy, I will generate 1.1 tons of CO2. According to the site, in order to stop climate change, .6 tons is the maximum amount of CO2 that can be generated by a single person in a year, Oops.

Conveniently, the site offers a way to offset my “overspending” by making donations to projects that are reducing carbon emissions in developing and emerging countries, such as providing more efficient cook stoves to women in Kenya or helping small farmers in Nicaragua with reforestation.

Now I’m not endorsing myclimate. I don’t really know anything about it. It’s just one of many non-profit carbon offset services available online. But I’m going to look more closely at it, and at reducing my carbon footprint going forward.

Time to check the afternoon forecast. I’m not entirely indifferent to the fate of our boat, just trying to keep it in perspective.

All stripped down and ready for a big blow. We hope.

Zombies invade Hart House!

I’d heard that Hart House was haunted, so I was a little nervous about doing a radio interview there at ten o’clock at night. Chris and I passed under the bell tower with particular caution—more than one person has reported seeing a man who fell to his death while polishing the bells in the 1930s plummet from the tower and land on the pavement in front of them. The most disturbing part is that this apparition appears to be a flesh and blood human being, until he just disappears.

Fortunately, no-one fell at our feet. But the building was eerily quiet as we climbed the stairs to the third floor. I kept checking behind me for ghostly apparitions. So far so good.

We were surprised to find the foyer on the second-floor foyer occupied by a group of bored looking people sitting in complete silence. Not students, just… bored people. They weren’t talking to each other, they weren’t fiddling with their phones, they were just sitting there. Waiting for something. Bored, bored, bored. I’m pretty sure they were real.

As we started up the steps to the third floor, I turned and looked back just to check, and to my horror, the man in the end chair was missing half his head and his collar was covered in blood. How can you be that bored with half your head missing? We hurried to the studio, and once inside were informed that yes, we had seen a zombie. They were shooting a NetFlix movie on campus that night. We should be prepared to run into zombies everywhere.

Did I take a picture of the zombies? Of course not. You never know what will set them off. But I’m happy to report that they were gone (or were staggering around in the dark outside) by the time the interview was over.

Except for the zombies, it was a great experience. Valentino Assenza, a writer himself, asked great questions. I couldn’t believe the half hour went by so quickly. And I’m pleased to report there were no close encounters with ghosts or zombies on our way out. Though we did run into a group of people doing the tango in front of the Royal Ontario Museum. Toronto is a very interesting city.

Listen to my interview on your mobile device.

A tale of derring-do

We laugh at storms.

I know that many of you follow this blog hoping for swashbuckling stories of life on the high seas, and there have been precious few of those of late. I can’t remember the last time we braved a storm, or wrestled with a shark, or made dinner with only one onion, a cup of rice, and a leftover chicken breast.

But have I got a tale for you.

I recently drove to downtown Owen Sound.

Yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but I was scheduled to appear on an early morning radio program and the studio is right in the heart of the city.

Downtown Owen Sound on a Thursday morning

Now Owen Sound is pretty quiet at 8:30 on a Thursday morning so I had no trouble finding the radio station. Well, little trouble. I found what I thought was the station but it was actually the local newspaper office. Fortunately a disheveled man pushing a shopping cart came by and I was able to ask him for directions. Unfortunately he just eyed me suspiciously and shambled off.

But after driving around a bit I found the station, parked in front of it (did I mention the downtown was pretty much deserted?), bravely walked through the front door, and was directed to a studio on the second floor.

Now I’ve never been interviewed on air before (who am I kidding… I’ve been interviewed by the media exactly once, over the phone) so I was quite nervous. Lucky for me, one of the other authors taking part in the show was an old hand at radio and I just did everything he did. When he put his headphones on, I put mine on. When he took them off, I took mine off. When it was my turn to talk, I leaned into the mike, made eye contact with host, and tried not to think about all the people listening.

My first on-air appearance

Actually, once I relaxed, it was a lot of fun. You can listen a recording of the interview here, if you had the misfortune to miss it. It should work on your mobile phone.

This tale of derring-do pales in comparison to the adventure we’re about to embark on. Today we head out on a whirlwind tour—three cities in three days (well, four if you count the fact that we visit Kingston twice.) You can find details on my events page. We’ll be at the Island Yacht Club in Toronto tomorrow, at the Novel Idea bookstore in Kingston at noon on Monday then at the Naval Marine Archive in Picton Monday evening. Tuesday I’m giving a travel writing workshop at the library in Kingston, then we’ll head back to Meadowlark with a trunkfull of plunder—boxes of blueberries from Waupoos.

But don’t give up on us—we’ll be back on the high seas soon enough, with tales that will shiver your timbers. (Sorry—couldn’t resist.) In the fall, we’re sailing to Cuba for the winter then next spring, we’re thinking of sailing to Europe again. So we’ll have lots of adventure stories to share with you.

But for now, I’m making blueberry jam.

The gales of November

You could say I’m from these parts. I was born at the Collingwood General and Marine Hospital, founded in 1887 as an eight-bed facility which, despite the fear of communicable diseases, was one of the few hospitals on the Great Lakes that would admit sailors. I was pretty young at the time so don’t remember meeting any sailors, but perhaps that’s where I was infected with my fascination with these waters.

So of course, on a recent visit to Bearly Used Books in Parry Sound, my eye was drawn to a copy of Into the Blue: Family secrets and the search for a great lakes shipwreck, by Andrea Curtis. Now I like family secrets as much as the next person, but it was the story of the shipwreck itself that I found most compelling..

On November 22, 1906 the J.H. Jones set out on its final journey.

On November 22, 1906, the packet steamer J.H. Jones sets out from Owen Sound on its last run of the season. It’s calm enough in the harbour, but out in the open waters of Georgian Bay, the gales of November are blowing up waves steep enough to capsize a steamer the size of the J.H. Jones. Somewhere between Cape Croker and Lion’s head, the ship disappears, claiming the lives of all on board.

Those are the bare facts. But Curtis weaves together fact and fiction to recreate the last journey of her great grandfather James Victor Crawford, who was captain of the steamer and who made the decision to set out into the gales. Here’s her imagining of how the story begins.

“Jim Crawford strokes the soft whiskers of his moustache with one hand, and grips the door frame of the wheelhouse with the other. The dull light of midday makes the long fingers of land on either side of the Jones look naked and sharp. The sky is low and there are reports of big waves out in the open, but the storm should be passing. Jim tugs his hat down over his ears and goes back inside.”

The wreck of the J.H. Jones off Cape Crocker.

It’s a fascinating read and a compassionate portrait of a man who made his living on the unpredictable waters of the Great Lakes and paid the ultimate price.

Chris and I have often sailed past the place where the J.H. Jones went down and have experienced firsthand how changeable these waters can be. On my first journey up the coast of the Bruce Peninsula, we set out on a calm, foggy morning, listening to the mournful sound of a foghorn somewhere offshore, a laker, no doubt, making its way to Tobermory.. But in the night, the winds came up and the seas built until we were forced to run for shelter into Wingfield Basin, through breaking surf across the narrow opening. I was terrified and did the only sensible thing: once we were safely anchored inside: I threw up on the deck.

After reading Into the Blue I was hungry for more. Fortunately, I’ve discovered the Ginger Press Bookstore and Café In Owen Sound which carries—and indeed publishes—a large selection of local books. A grim-looking book called Weather Bomb 1913: Life and death on the Great Lakes immediately caught my eye. As a sailor, I have more than a passing interest in anything called a weather bomb.

The SS Regina had a crew of 32 men. None survived the white hurricane of 1913.

I will confess to having read and re-read the 50-page prologue several times now. In it, author Bruce Kemp uses his skills as a fiction writer to recreate the last days of the SS Regina, a steel freighter out of Montreal, fully loaded and on its way to the head of the Great Lakes. Small by today’s standards at 250 feet in length, the Regina was top-heavy with a load of sewage pipe lashed on the deck—not ideal for heading out into the storm of the century.

Over the course of four days in November of 1913, the seas raged, the winds blew, and heavy snow fell on the Great Lakes as two storms joined to bring about the greatest natural disaster ever suffered on the lakes. A dozen big ships were lost with all hands and dozens more suffered serious damage. The death toll as a result of “the white hurricane” was estimated at 256, but that only included those aboard the big ships. The final count was probably much higher.

Here’s a description of conditions on board the Regina at the height of the storm:

“Just before ten the first wave struck. It came out of the night roaring above the wind like a freight train beyond control. No one on the bridge could see it. The first indication that this wave was different was when the crew felt the boat start to lift its forefoot. They rose straight up, like they were riding an elevator. Then the wave slammed into their port bow. It rocked the boat far over to starboard and washed across everything with solid green water.”

In Kemp’s imagining of events, that wave was the first of “three sisters” to hit the ship. The second blew out the windows in the wheelhouse and again rolled the boat over on its starboard side, but it managed to right itself. The third wave submerged the ship completely then dropped it on its side in the trough. It was over in a minute. “The Regina fluttered like and autumn leaf to the bottom of the lake and came to rest on her starboard side.”

Thanks to Gordon Lightfoot, there’s probably not a Canadian born who doesn’t know how fierce the gales of November can be. These two books, both available on Amazon, will bring them to life for you.

Not a bad way to cool off on a hot summer afternoon.

I’ll fight you!

“He’s at it again,” Chris calls from the porch.

It’s the male bluebird, doing battle with his reflection in the window of our car. I reach for the keys, press the alarm button. The horn used to scare him off, but he just keeps fluttering against the window, pecking furiously at what he thinks is another male bluebird. In his meadow!

Guess we’re going to have to move the car till nesting season is over. I trot out with the keys, move the car into the field at the bottom of the hill, behind the treeline. He’ll never find it there. I hope.

This will be our longest summer ever at Meadowlark. We arrived at the end of April and have been here to watch the long, slow unfolding of spring in the meadow. And it’s been seriously long and slow this year—today is the first day it’s been warm enough for me to write at my desk in the treehouse. This morning, the cows are moving slowly past in the meadow below me and a male wren is perched on the bird box at the edge of the cow pasture, singing loudly.

My nesting box. Mine. Is he worried about the cows?

No, the wren is probably worried about the male bluebird, but he’s busy fighting with our shiny chimney right now. We put strips of blue masking tape on it to discourage him but he can still catch glimpses of a male bluebird between the strips. Come out of there you coward! I’ll fight you!

I’m starting to understand where the term “bird brain” comes from. They can be a little single-minded.

There is a small pine tree just outside our back door and every year a pair of chipping sparrows makes a nest there. They build it no more than a foot off the ground, not exactly a recipe for success. Last year, they laid four perfect eggs, which were promptly devoured by something. A snake, we think—Chris had seen one lurking in the fenceline, and when we clean the bluebird boxes each spring, it’s not unusual to find a discarded snake skin inside. Clearly they can climb fenceposts, so slithering up the trunk of a tree would be no problem.

This year the chipping sparrows did a little better. Four eggs, just like last time, but this time they hatched! We watched hopefully as the nestlings went from balls of fluff with weird bulgy eyes to something more recognizable as birds. They were just starting to develop actual feathers when suddenly one morning they were gone, the nest torn to pieces. A skunk maybe? We’ve seen a few of them this year.

If the ability to stake out territory and defend it is any indication, the bluebirds should do just fine. He’s fighting with the Argo now. Really. He’s that tough.

Oh yeah? Oh yeah? He glowers at the bird inside the Argo. Come on. You can’t even drive that. It’s a skid steer. Come out, you coward

Then hurls himself at the windscreen.

I’ll fight you!

 

Watch the video Bluebird vs Argo, below.

 

I found Owen Sound!

I found Owen Sound! Not that it was ever lost. I’d just lost track of it over the years, somehow. When I was in my twenties, I used to drive to Owen Sound from the farm at Bright, watch the big ships come and go, gaze out on the waters of Georgian Bay, never imagining that some day I would sail there. But I never really got to know Owen Sound very well. Until now.

We’re spending the summer on our family property just south of Owen Sound. Which has become my new favourite place. Every Saturday, I drive to the market there, which not too big, not too small—just right! I pick up a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, fresh asparagus right now, a pound of coffee from a local micro-roastery (who knew there was such a thing!) And maybe a bar of lovely handmade chocolate. Oh and that gorgeous pottery bowl. And some microgreens. And a pie. And I really can’t carry anything else. Oops. I forgot the tomato plants I came for.

I’m looking forward to exploring the downtown more, the cafés and shops, maybe taking a historic walking tour. For sure I’m going to check out the Tom Thomson art gallery. And who could resist the Saints and Sinners: Corkscrew City Tour, “featuring the saints and sinners of yesterday and the brew masters of today in Owen Sound, the birthplace of the prohibition movement and the last dry city in Canada.” I think I might even be able to talk Chris into that.

But right now what I’m really looking forward to is Thursday night, when I’ll be reading from Sea Over Bow and signing books at the Ginger Press Bookshop and Café, the cultural hub of Owen Sound, I’ve been told. It’s at 848 Second Avenue East and the fun starts at 7pm.

I wonder if Owen Sound is still dry…