The rusty raft

We were anchored in Peck Lake, which is not a lake, really, just a widening in the murky intracoastal waterway. But it provides easy access to the longest stretch of undeveloped beach in Florida.

Our first morning there, we found a large rusty object washed up on the beach, a raft made of oil barrels, welded together to form four pontoons. The rudimentary hull was also made of oil barrels, cut open, hammered flat, and welded together, not very strong, clearly—the bow was crumpled and there were jagged edges of rusty steel where parts of the hull had been torn away. There were engine mounts at the stern, but no engine. There must have been a rudder of some kind, but it was long gone.

A loosely folded piece of heavy blue canvas lay at the foot of the mast—a sail? I leaned in to get a closer look at the items scattered on the floor around it. An empty burlap sack. A large plastic bottle full of murky water.

A single grey canvas running shoe.


We were in Cuba the winter before the pandemic hit. We knew food would be scarce, but we weren’t really prepared for how hard it would be to find any food at all. Rum and cigars, yes. Food, no.

Anchoring out is discouraged by the Guarda Frontera who are known to board boats, weapons at the ready, so we checked into a marina. On Saturday morning we headed to the market in the next town, just a short walk away. We turned into a street lined with what we thought were deserted houses, missing windows, crumbling walls, great holes in the roofs. But we could see faces peering out at us from the darkened interiors, a boy playing in the dirt in one of the tiny front yards.

A three-legged dog loped by.

In the town square we found a couple of tables piled high with dirty carrots, heaps of knobby potato-like things, vaguely purple underneath the red dirt. Eyes turned to us, suspicious, resentful. Of course they didn’t like us, I thought. We were buying their food, could obviously afford whatever we wanted. We had new running shoes, backpacks, sunglasses.

A man carrying a machete passed by, wheeling a barrow with a dead pig in it. People approached him and he waved away the flies and cut off hunks of meat.

We returned to the boat empty handed.

A few days later, we left the marina and sailed to a secluded anchorage far from the nearest Guarda station. As we settled in for the night, we spotted a raft sailing towards us. Fishermen with lobster to trade. We offered them a bag of coffee, which they gladly accepted, but what they really wanted was food. I pulled out a bag of chickpeas, some pasta, a couple jars of sauce. Bambino, one man implored? I gave him a dozen juice boxes and a handful of granola bars. They gave us half a dozen lobsters.


It was February when we first heard that something was going on back in Canada. They weren’t calling it a pandemic yet, but whatever it was, it was worse than the seasonal flu. People were ending up in the hospital, even dying. And it was spreading quickly. Next thing we knew, the Prime Minister sent a message to Canadians abroad telling them it was time to come home.

Normally, we would wait for just the right wind to cross the Gulf Stream, which fills the strait between Cuba and the U.S. But we had no choice. Cuba was closing its waters to foreign vessels. We had to leave. Besides, we’d sailed across the North Atlantic. How bad could it be?

Very bad, it turned out.

The current was pushing the water relentlessly east, the wind was blowing toward the west. The result was big, steep waves, six feet at least, with the occasional nine-foot wave, and we were taking them on the bow, water foaming along the deck and pouring out through the scuppers.

But we have a sturdy steel sailboat, and you can stand anything for just one night.


I can picture the rusty raft we found ghosting away from the Cuban shore just after dark. They don’t have access to the kind of weather information we do, they may not have known what they were sailing into. I imagine a calm night for them, with light winds from the west. When they enter the Gulf Stream, the seas pick up a little, but it’s nothing the little raft can’t handle. I give them a full moon to light their way.

A little boy is asleep on his mother’s lap. He stirs, its colder out on the water than his mother had imagined. The man beside her, a stranger, pulls his sweater over his head and tucks it around the boy. She looks up at him and smiles. Gracias, she murmers.

How far can a raft made out of empty barrels travel in a night? Have they made it around the tip of Florida by morning? Perhaps they spend another long night at sea. Just before dawn, the helmsman starts the engine and begins to ease the raft out of the Gulf Stream and towards a long strip of unlit beach. Now that they’re no longer travelling with the wind and the current, the raft is taking the seas on the beam and rolling sickeningly as waves smash against the hull, drenching the passengers with salt spray. Before long, the floor of the raft is awash with salt water and vomit.

A thin strip of land appears on the horizon then suddenly the water begins to shallow. Ahead of them, they can see huge waves breaking along the shore. The people aboard cry out in terror and clutch the sides of the raft, the mast, each other as the raft surfs towards the deserted beach.

I’m not sure what happens next. Does the raft capsize in the surf? Very likely, and the people are dumped into the churning seas. How many of them make it to shore? Does the woman? The little boy? I can’t imagine her terror as she tries to hang onto him in the confused seas. The empty raft rolls towards shore, the mast snaps in two, the engine is ripped from its mounts. The hull is beaten in as the raft crashes down on the submerged rocks that line the beach.

I’ll never know what happened to the people on that rusty raft. I like to think they made it to shore and have been quietly folded into the thriving Cuban ex-pat community in southern Florida. I hope they weren’t picked up by the U.S. border patrol as soon as they landed and whisked away to a detention centre.

I know I only imagined her, but as I read about the deteriorating situation in Cuba, I often find myself thinking of the woman and her son and the courage—or desperation—it takes to set out into the Gulf Stream in a rusty raft hoping for a better life.

Late-season hurricane!

When we arrived in Titusville in early November, the shoreline was already littered with boats, victims of Hurricane Ian.

When we climbed onto the boat on October 29th, I noticed that it was… wobbling, is the only way to describe it. Which is unusual for a boat up on stands. As I worked in the salon, unpacking our suitcases, I kept losing my balance. Chris said I was imagining things, then I pointed out that the oil lantern hanging from the ceiling was swaying. The wind, he said. Or maybe you’re just not used to being on the boat on the hard. I turned away so he wouldn’t see me rolling my eyes.

But later Chris checked the boat stands and several of them had loosened off. How did that happen, we wondered? Then we remembered that in September, Hurricane Ian, downgraded to a tropical storm after it made landfall on the Gulf side of Florida, passed directly over Titusville, s-l-o-w-l-y. People in the marina say there were 80-knot winds for 8 hours. No wonder our boat stands were shaken loose.

The boats in the yard did fine, but the shoreline was littered with boats that had come loose from their moorings or anchors in Hurricane Ian and ended out on the rocks. It was a sobering sight. Little did we know that shortly the “death” count would rise.

Our boat was launched on Thursday, November 3rd and we headed straight out to the mooring field planning to spend a week there provisioning and just generally getting the boat ready for the winter sailing season. Friday morning, we put the genoa up. Saturday, during our morning weather check, Chris noticed a low forming north of the Dominican Republic. “We’d better keep an eye on it,” he said.

We looked at the winds expected here at Titusville, considered going into the marina or even pulling the boat, but the greatest sustained winds we saw were 25- to 30-knots. We decided Monark could handle that and carried on with our work.

Something big is coming.

Over the weekend the low intensified and began tracking west. Monday morning, we woke up to find that the storm had a name now—Nicole—and heard the “H” word used for the first time: Nicole was looking like it could develop into a rare late-season hurricane. We took the genoa down, double-checked our mooring lines, and booked a motel for a few nights. Monark may be able to handle hurricane-force winds in a mooring field, but I knew I couldn’t. I think if Chris were here alone, he would have stayed on board. I’m glad he didn’t.

We were awakened in the night by a loud siren. The bilge alarm? No, it was coming from Chris’s phone. An amber alert? Or more common down here, a silver alert? Nope. A storm surge warning from the National Weather Centre. Be prepared to evacuate. We were doing the right thing, going to ground, we told ourselves as we completed our preparations to leave the boat. We made it to shore before the winds began to kick up, and as we drove towards our motel, another siren sounded.

“A HURRICANE WARNING is in effect for dangerous and damaging winds… Urgently complete efforts to protect life and property. Have food, water, cash, fuel, and medications for 3+ days. FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS FROM LOCAL OFFICIALS.”

Foaming surf covered Coco Beach all the way up to the dunes.

The first thing we did when we got to our motel in Coco Beach was rush to the shore to see what was going on out in the ocean. It was completely overcast by then, the sky an ominous slate grey, and the surf was huge, waves breaking on top of one another far out to sea. Something big was definitely coming our way.

Not surprisingly, we both slept soundly that first night. Neither of us had really slept the night before, between the alert sirens and the worry. I woke once, not at all sure where I was. The wind had started to moan around the concrete bunker of a building. Here it comes, I thought. A text from the owner of the motel telling us that our money would be refunded in the event of an evacuation was not particularly reassuring.

Plant-based items! Get your boiled peanuts and fried pickles here!

The next morning we went straight to the beach… but there was no beach. It was covered with foaming surf. We walked through the town, or really the long strip of stores, motels, and bars, so many bars, that is Coco Beach. A big orange pick-up truck flying a huge American flag was parked on a corner promoting the Fish Camp Grill. “Alligators,” the sign boasted. “Frogs legs. Seafood. Fried pickles. Boiled peanuts.” Oh, and “Plant-based items.” Which I would have thought peanuts were.

Then we saw the saddest sight of all. Signs on Starbucks saying “Closed due to weather.”

By evening, Nicole, now a Category 1 hurricane, was predicted to make landfall at midnight well south of us but the wind and rain in Coco Beach were already fierce. We couldn’t step out the door without getting blown sideways. We watched from the window as the wind worried the cover off the motorhome parked outside. A flowerpot rolled past, then a Muskoka chair tumbleweeded by. We closed the blinds.

Neither of us slept, really, as the wind howled and the windows rattled and rain pounded on the flat roof above our heads. We kept checking various weather apps. The storm was tracking further north than expected, that is to say, closer to us.

By three in the morning, the eye of the storm was just south of Titusville, the winds blowing a steady 60 knots in the mooring field, gusting to 80, according to Windy. We had secured Monark with heavy lines, there was no way they’d chafe through, even in these winds. Was there? But the mooring. What if it the pennant parted from the ball, or the mooring itself worked itself free from the bottom? There was nothing we could do. Be brave, Monark.

This is what the morning after a hurricane looks like.

At first light, we set out for Titusville, driving around debris on the nearly deserted roads, carefully dodging a downed power line. As we drove along the highway beside the Indian River, we tried not to look at the many boats washed ashore. So many.

We both fell silent as we approached the park at Titusville that looks out over the mooring field. The tension was unbearable. As the mooring field came in sight, we strained to see Monark through the salt spray. There were boats out there, surely fewer than before, but yes, there was Monark, bravely shouldering aside the heavy seas, looking for all the world like it was under full sail out in the ocean, beating into a gale. Which I suppose it was.

The anchor had been knocked loose by the mooring lines and was dangling at the bow, no doubt battering our long-suffering prow. We felt helpless, watching our boat battle the seas all on her own. There was nothing we could do, no way we could get out there. Hang on, Monark. The worst is over. Just hang on a little longer.

By the next morning the seas had calmed enough for us to dinghy out to the boat and assess the damage. Yes, there were anchor bites in the prow but no sign of wear on the inch-and-a-quarter lines tied to the mooring ball. I will never complain about heaving those heavy dock lines again. The boat was as dirty as we’ve ever seen it. In the shallow waters of the Indian River the spray is as much mud as water. Despite the thorough washing provided by the torrential rains, the boat was covered with a fine layer of salt and grit.

We dove below to check the bilges first which, as expected, were not exactly dry. But clearly the bilge pumps had done their job, which was surprising given that in four days without sun, the batteries had gone completely dead. They must have lasted long enough to keep the bilge pumps going through the worst of it.

Four of the 18 boats in the mooring field at Titusville were swept ashore by Hurricane Nicole.

I had stowed for sea before we left, so things weren’t flung around the cabin, but inside the lockers, things were in wild disarray. I can’t imagine what it was like on board during the worst of it. We did the right thing getting off the boat.

Over the next few days, as we talked to people at the marina, we got a fuller picture of what it had been like in the mooring field. Four of the 18 boats that had been out there ended out on the rocks. The owner of one was on board, and cut his arm badly on his anchor as he struggled to deal with his mooring lines, which eventually parted anyway. How he got from his boat onto the rocks in 80-knot winds I do not know.

As we put the boat to rights, the clouds cleared and the sun emerged, looking a little sheepish, I thought. Sorry about all that, it seemed to say. That evening, as it set, bathing the clouds in pink then red, it was as though nothing had ever happened.

Next time we’re in the path of a hurricane—and may there never be a next time—we’ve decided we’ll pull the boat and take our chances with wobbly boat stands.

Waiting for wind

Sunrise at Black Point Settlement

So far it’s been a very odd sailing season for us. The wind is either too strong, too light, or on the nose. Often all three in the course of one day.

We’re anchored in Black Point Settlement right now, well sheltered from the howling east winds, waiting to slip out into the ocean and sail south to Georgetown. There was a day when six-foot seas on the beam wouldn’t have bothered us, but this is not that day. In fact, our goal this season is to perfect the art of waiting for wind.

We had lots of practice before we left Florida, when a long spell of strong northeast winds prevented us from crossing the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. Rather than wait for a weather window at anchor in Lake Worth, we hunkered down in Peck Lake, a quiet and sheltered anchorage in the heart of the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge which boasts “the largest contiguous section of undeveloped beach in southeastern Florida.”

Now this was true last time we visited, but I’m sorry to say that there are signs of development up and down the beach now. Most of the homes are still in early stages of construction, but one we found was perfectly habitable. The buildings do blend in tastefully with the landscape, however, so it’s hard to object to them.

When the wind was finally right, we hustled down to Lake Worth, loaded up on fresh provisions, and headed out for the Bahamas. Despite a gentle six-foot swell opposing the current in the Gulf Stream, we had our most comfortable crossing ever. We cleared in at Great Harbour Cay, looked at the weather, and decided we could either stay in the marina there for a week while the next front came through or make a run for a hurricane hole in Eleuthera. We chose the latter, and after 17 hours of sailing slipped through the narrow channel in the rocks into Hatchet Bay. The light at the opening was missing, which made the entry a little unnerving, but we made it through without incident and dropped the hook in the dark.

Although our anchor set immediately and held steadfastly, wrapped, we’re pretty sure, on some piece of debris on the bottom—a pile of chain? an abandoned anchor? a refrigerator?—many other boats in the harbour dragged anchor in the gale-force gusts. We were pretty much boat-bound during our time there, fending off other boats as they drifted past us. One boat, whose owners had gone to shore for a hike, ended up hard aground. Fortunately it floated off unharmed when the tide rose, but there weren’t many dinghies going to shore after that.

The entrance to Hatchet Bay–a bit of a tight squeeze.

After a week, the winds abated and we squeezed out of Hatchet Bay and made our way across the shallow banks to the Exumas, where we plan to spend the rest of the winter. We enjoyed some beautiful sailing, but then… the winds picked up again, gusting to 30 knots from the east and kicking up waves big enough to break over our bow and drench the deck in foaming water. We ducked into Black Point and have settled right in.

We go for walks on the ocean-side beach every day, assess the seas, check out the blowhole, a source of endless fascination. It will be early next week before there’s a weather window to make the run to Georgetown. In the meantime, we’ll wait here hopefully for the supply boat to come in. Our fresh provisions are down to one orange and a wilted basil plant.

Surely it takes a while to get scurvy.

Watching the blowhole at Black Point Settlement is one of our favourite pastimes.

A wing and a prayer

“I’m not ready.”

Chris just smiles.

“You’re never ready. It’s time to go,” he says gently.

We are tied to a dock in the Titusville marina and a huge sailboat has just come in and tied up across the narrow channel from us, blocking access to the travel lift. The boatyard is essentially out of business until we leave. They’ve been very patient, but it really is time to go.

We finally have our new cooling pump installed and the engine both starts and runs without spraying water all over the engine room. The anchor windlass works, the genoa, our big foresail, has been re-sewn, and we have new battens for the mainsail. What else do we need?

“Okay,” I say dubiously.

The wind is gusting to 20 knots from the northeast, blowing us against the dock. Even if we do manage to get ourselves off, we could be blown into another boat before we’re moving fast enough to have steerage. That would be a bad thing here in the U.S., the land of litigation.

Two dockhands come to untie us and push us off. People appear on the boats around us, ready to fend us off if it all goes wrong.

“Okay,” Chris says to the men on the dock, and they untie us and push the bow out as far as they can. Chris guns the engine and as the boat slowly begins to pick up speed the helm starts to respond. We shave past the stern of the boat ahead of us with about six inches to spare. I look back and the dockhands are waving and cheering.

For the first time in almost two years we are afloat again. When we pulled the boat out of the water in Florida in March 2020 and headed back to Canada to wait out the pandemic, we had no idea we’d be away for so long. Boats are meant to float, not sit on the hard in a hot, dusty boat yard, and steel boats especially do not fare well without regular maintenance. We came back to the boat in mid November not really knowing what to expect but confident that we’d have the boat in the water and be on our way to the Bahamas before Christmas.

Sometimes life has other plans. A couple days before we were scheduled to launch, family illness called us back to Canada. No, not Covid—blood cancer. My brother-in-law was diagnosed on a Friday, given a blood transfusion over the weekend, and started chemotherapy the following Monday.

We spent Christmas at my sister’s place in Guelph, took our turn driving to and from the hospital, put up the tree, made pies. Good news came on New Year’s Eve: after two rounds of chemo, the doctors started talking about a stem cell transplant early in the new year. We flew back to Florida on January 5th and had the boat in the water a few days after.

After a couple of worrisome minutes—the helm didn’t respond properly until we worked all the air pockets out of the hydraulic steering system, Chris driving in a zig-zag pattern down the intracoastal waterway while I dripped steering fluid into the reservoir—we motored to a nearby anchorage and dropped the hook.

We spent a peaceful night at anchor, tucked behind the causeway to the Kennedy Space Centre which sheltered us from the still-gusty winds. The next morning it was calm enough for us to bend on our newly resewn foresail before setting out.

We unfurled the genoa as we left the anchorage, and as I watched it fill with wind, watched the play of the early morning sunlight on the sail, I thought here we go, on a wing and a prayer.

That’s all any of us can do, really, carry on bravely, trusting and hoping that all will be well. Perhaps the seas will calm enough for us to cross the Gulf Stream sometime soon. Perhaps the Bahamas will let us in. Perhaps we’ll spend the winter sailing over clear blue water, swimming, walking endless beaches.

And perhaps by this time next year my brother-in-law will be cycling from vineyard to vineyard in the south of France.

Bring on the beaches of the Bahamas!

I’m in love with Jack

“By the mark, twelve,” I report with a grin as the line in my hands stops feeding out just shy of the second mark. I’ve always wanted to say that. I’ve read about lead lines—literally a lead weight tied to a long piece of rope—but I never thought I’d get to use one.

I’m in the front of a rowboat, sounding the bottom as we creep into a tiny bay in the Bustard Islands before bringing Jack Tar in. Normally we would use Chris’s handheld fish finder to check the depth of uncharted water but we’re not on our boat, we’re on a friend’s sailboat, and John likes to do things the traditional way.

“By the deep, nine.”

Fortunately, Chris and I have both read Patrick O’Brian’s fine series about the sailing adventures of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin and we’ve watched Master and Commander at least a dozen times so we both know this means: The line has stopped somewhere between the first and the second mark and I’m just guessing.

“How about here,” Chris says. We take careful note of the misshapen pine tree on shore, the fringe of purple iris at the water’s edge, then row back out to Jack Tar, which we’ve left anchored in open water. There’s a big blow coming and this tiny bay will provide much better shelter for our first night at anchor in a year and a half.

It feels good to be afloat again—even though our sail from Point au Baril, where our friends John and Susan live, to the Bustards was a little more of an adventure than we had bargained for. Of course we had been watching the weather for days and Monday looked just right: favourable winds, gentle seas, a sunny day. Sure, there were thunderstorms predicted for the late afternoon, but we’d be in well before then.

And we were. Unfortunately the storm front arrived much earlier than expected.

Jack Tar is a 28-foot wooden sailboat built in the early sixties and lovingly restored to its original condition, which means no new-fangled additions like, say, a cockpit enclosure. When the wall of rain hit us there was no place to hide. We were both soaked to the skin in no time—literally. I had to wring out my underwear. But the rain was nothing compared to the lightning. You don’t know what exposed feels like until you’re huddled in an open cockpit miles from shore in the middle of a massive thunderstorm.

Fortunately it let up before we reached the Bustards so we could see the markers as we made our way into the narrow channel that leads to sheltered water inside this group of islands. We fell asleep that night listening to the lonely call of a whippoorwill on shore and woke to a chorus of white-throated sparrows singing subtle variations of the same song. As we lingered over coffee in the cockpit, the sun just rising above the crooked pine tree, the still water broken only by a pair of loons diving for their breakfast, we were pretty sure we were in heaven.

It was clear sailing after that first day, and I have to say, Jack Tar is the sweetest sailboat I’ve ever been on. Please don’t mention this to our 20-ton steel sailboat Monark—I’m counting on the fact that boats can’t read.

I’ve never steered with a tiller before, never steered that much at all, to tell the truth—the autopilot does much of the helm work on Monark. Once I got the hang of it, I really enjoyed the responsiveness of the tiller, no hydraulics between my hand and the rudder. It took me a while to get used to the idea that when I nudged the tiller right, the boat went left, but then in no time it became second nature. I just relaxed, enjoying the feel of the smooth, sun-warmed wood beneath my hand, the clear view of the sails from the open cockpit, the wind in my hair.

The other thing I love about Jack Tar is that I can do all the sail handling. Although I can, with some effort, pull out the jib on Monark I can’t raise the main—it’s just too heavy. Jack Tar not only has much smaller sails but winches at the mast to make raising the sails easy. I could rattle them up and down as fast as Paul and Cheryl Shard! Chris was happy to take the tiller while I worked the foredeck. I’ve never felt quite so sailorly.

But probably the best thing about Jack Tar is the places you can get to—and so quickly. We could spank along at five or six knots in winds that wouldn’t even move our boat, and with just five feet of draft, we could anchor in places that were inaccessible to us when we cruised these waters in Monark. We sailed the length of Collins Inlet—and back—on our way to Killarney, anchored in tiny bays, tucked in behind uninhabited islands, even rowed a line to shore and tied to a tree once. That was an entirely new experience for us.

I’m not sure I’d want to sail across the ocean in a 28-foot wooden boat, though I’m sure people have. When it comes to crossing the Gulf Stream or weathering a gale, I’m glad of our big steel boat. But for Great Lakes sailing, I can’t imagine a sweeter boat than Jack Tar.

Springtime in the meadow

After watching a male woodcock perform his dazzling evening display for several weeks, we weren’t surprised to come across a nest under a scrubby cedar at the edge of the meadow.

Each night at dusk, the woodcock would crouch in the grass emitting a buzzy peent then suddenly burst into the air, a hundred feet, two hundred feet, more, his wings twittering loudly as he zigzagged around, chirping look at me, look at me! Then suddenly he would plunge to the ground and land silently almost exactly where he had taken off. A short silence, then peent, peent, peent.

Clearly this display worked for him. The nest we found contained four spotted eggs, but when we checked the next day, we only found broken shells. They’re fine, I told myself. Newly hatched woodcock leave the nest as soon as they’re dry. I kept a lookout for little balls of fluff in the long grass.

The grouse were the next to hatch. We had been watching a nest under a pile of brush in the woods for a few weeks, managed to set up a critter cam to keep an eye on it, when one day the eggs were just gone. All seventeen of them. No egg shells, nothing. And the critter cam was knocked over. Uh oh, I thought. Raccoons. A fox. Yes, foxes like eggs, and we know they’re around here because we heard a vixen scream the other night, sounding eerily human.

I was relieved when we reviewed the pictures on the critter cam and saw a little pile of chicks tucked in beside the mother, clamouring over one another to get the best spot. I knew they too would leave the nest within a few hours. I shook my head as I watched the video. Too tiny to be stumbling around in the forest. Their mother is keeping them safe, I told myself. But I couldn’t help thinking what a delicious mouthful a chick would make for a young coyote pup just learning how to hunt.

Chris almost didn’t see the little fawn curled up in the dappled sunlight at the base of the pine tree in the middle of our meadow until the little creature opened his eyes. His spots provided the perfect camouflage, and other than following us with his eyes, he didn’t move a muscle, didn’t even flick his ears. Fawns emit almost no scent, and if they remain perfectly still, a predator will walk right by them. With a little luck.

“Where’s his mother?” I whispered to Chris.

“Grazing, making milk while the little guy sleeps. She’ll be back.”

We continued on, making a wide loop through the meadow, hoping that if a predator followed our scent it wouldn’t know there was anything of interest under the tree. We did creep back later and set up the critter cam at some distance, but then we stayed away, though it took all my willpower.

All afternoon we kept an eye on the tree, waiting for the mother to appear, but she didn’t come back, at least not while we were watching. Dusk fell. I fretted for a while, which did neither me nor the fawn any good, then finally went to bed.

I had just fallen into a troubled sleep when a pack of coyotes came howling through the meadow, pups yipping joyfully, they had something. I ran to the window, pressed my nose against the screen. I couldn’t see them in the dark, but they were so close I heard a sharp intake of breath between howls. Coyotes have to eat too, I told myself. But it brought me little comfort.

 Early the next morning we went and looked under the tree and of course the fawn was gone. We took the critter cam inside and checked the footage and there, sometime in the late afternoon, the mother appeared and the fawn woke from his long nap and toddled after her. I’m sure they were deep in the forest by the time the coyotes came through.

Springtime in the meadow is a joy, for sure. The bluebird chicks—long fledged now—swoop by, returning to their box just to sit on top and admire the view. So much nicer than being crammed inside, stepping on top of each other to look out the hole. When the adults fly overhead, the fledgelings peep frantically and flutter their wings, their beaks wide open. Feed me! Feed me!

But it’s also a season tinged with sadness. I know that not all the grouse chicks will make it, and while the fawn probably has a better chance, his life will be fraught with danger, first from coyotes then in time, from hunters.

And what about us, I find myself wondering? Are we out of danger? As a tiny patch of ladyslippers bursts into bloom, as the purple flags on the wild iris unfurl, as tiny apples begin to appear on the trees in our orchard, I dare to let myself feel hope.

In the Highlands

There are many cosy corners to curl up in here at the Ladybank Schoolhouse. I prefer the one by the window that looks out into the forest behind us, while Chris, well, Chris likes to move around. Sometimes he sits beside me, reading a book and looking very regal in the “man” chair (these Victorian chairs always come in pairs.) His chair is taller than the one I prefer and has a matching gold footstool. Other times he stretches out on the love seat, phone in hand, headphones on, watching America’s Cup races.

But every day starts with us strapping on our snowshoes and going for a long trek. The schoolhouse is tucked in the corner of a 100-acre farm here in the Grey Highlands which we are free to roam, and we do. We’ve broken a trail to the back of the property, starting right behind the schoolhouse. We have to hop a little creek and make our way through the thick evergreens behind the schoolhouse before stepping over a sturdy fence—Chris has built a snow stile so I can get over it without doing myself injury—and heading out into open pasture.

As I trundle along behind Chris, trying my best to keep up with his long stride, I think about the pioneers who wrestled these fields from the surrounding wilderness.

According to a thick history of Osprey Township I came across in the schoolhouse, they would have travelled along the Old Durham Road—the first major road through the these parts—then followed blazed trails through the bush marking the sideroads, searching for the surveyor’s stake that would tell them they had reached their property. Then what. A hastily built shanty for shelter then the back-breaking work of clearing the trees would begin.

We reach a rubble fence between two pastures, boulders cleared from the fields. They’re tricky to get over in snowshoes, but I manage by grasping the branch of a scraggly maple that has grown up between the rocks. For some reason, it has not shed its leaves. Oak trees are often reluctant to give up their leaves and beech trees will cling to them until the spring. But I’ve never seen a maple with leaves on it at this time of year.

Across more pasture land and into the hardwood forest, where the snow isn’t quite as deep as it is in the fields and our track from the day before is still clearly visible—no plunging off the side into unpacked snow. We see our first set of tracks—a deer has passed this way this morning, early—already the deep indentations are filling in. Where are all the creatures this morning, I wonder? Staying warm somewhere.

Chris strides along ahead of me, making steady progress. I try to stand up straight, take longer strides, but when I do, I lose my balance and have to windmill my arms to regain it. I’m glad he can’t see me. I go back to waddling along like a toddler with a loaded diaper.

I turn back at the wire fence that marks the back of the farm while Chris continues on into a vast wilderness area that the farm backs onto. I notice his pace picks up as he strides away.

I just stand and look at the sun shining weakly through the trees, sometimes making them cast a shadow, sometimes not. Then I carry on at my own pace.

Now that I’m not trying to keep up with Chris I can stop and admire a low bush with a few red berries still clinging to it, inspect a new set of tracks crossing the trail. Something has come by since we passed this way. They’re hard to make out in the fresh powder. A dog? A coyote? A wolf maybe? I’d love to see wolf, I think, as I trudge on.

I’m sure there are still some wolves left here in the Highlands, despite the pictures I’ve seen of men standing proudly with long strings of wolf pelts between them. Of course if I were an early settler making my way home at night through the dark woods and being stalked by wolves, I’d want them dead too. Sometimes wolves would encircle a cabin, jump up on the low roof in search of an opening. A fierce blaze in the hearth was all that prevented them coming down the chimney.

Maybe I don’t really want to see a wolf.

As I make my way through the woods, I stop from time to time and just listen. Silence. Not even the call of a chickadee breaks the stillness. Then a small gust of wind rattles the trees, clumps of snow rain down around me. I carry on.

At the edge of the hardwood forest is a bee yard, the hives almost buried in snow. I put my ear to one and listen. Not a sound. I know that deep in the hive the bees are buzzing their wings night and day to keep the queen warm, but I can’t hear anything. Perhaps the thick snow on top of the hive muffles the sound? I hope they’re okay.

Rather than strike out across the pasture, I skirt the edge of the meadow, which borders a pine forest. There are plenty of tracks here—rabbit and squirrel, for the most part, one tiny meandering mouse. I spot a pile of debris at the base of a pine tree. Bark, I think, but on closer inspection I see that it’s cone scale. Something has been sitting in the branches above my head, devouring a pine cone. Perhaps the squirrel I heard chiding me when I passed this way yesterday.

Then I spot what I realize are grouse tracks. We scared one up here yesterday, though I think we were more startled than the grouse was. I follow the chicken-like tracks until I find the spot I’m looking for. Clearly this is where the grouse took to the air with a great flapping of wings, leaving delicate feather prints in the snow.

I leave the shelter of the pines and head out across the pasture towards the schoolhouse. Out of the corner of my eye I catch something skittering across the snow. A mouse?? I watch its erratic progress. Suddenly it takes to the air. Mice almost never do that. It’s a maple leaf.

What made it finally let go, I wonder, after hanging on through the heavy rain and gusty winds of autumn, the short sunless days of January, the first few blizzards of winter?

How did the men and women who settled on this farm get through the long winters, I wonder. Keeping a path open to the barn would take some time, as would feeding and watering their team of oxen and the family cow, if they were lucky enough to have one. And the chickens, if they had any left. Making bread. Peeling turnips. There would have been some hungry winters, those first few years in the bush. Splitting and hauling wood for the fire would be an endless task. Did they haul water too? Or melt snow? Making candles and carding wool would keep idle hands busy, perhaps piecing together a quilt, if there was any daylight left.

Almost home now. I step over the stile, make my way through the bush behind the schoolhouse, hop the little creek with confidence. Too much confidence. The toe of one of my showshoes catches on the bank on the far side and I sprawl face-first in the snow. Which makes me laugh out loud. A crow sets up a loud call, whether alerting other creatures to my presence or alarmed at my clumsiness I’ll never know.

Not surprisingly, Chris gets back to the schoolhouse around the same time I do, even though he’s covered eight kilometres to my four. I settle in my chair with the history book open in my lap and Chris goes to his “office,” a writing desk in the corner where he has set up his computer.

I’m not sure what he does there, but he’s been talking about gyrocopters a lot lately. A gyrocopter, as anyone knows, is an aircraft that uses an unpowered rotor in free autorotation to develop lift. Okay fine—I had to look it up. He has spent hours researching the history of the craft, studying different designs. I fear he may be developing one of his own.

Oh well. There are worse ways to spend a wintery day in the Highlands.






A new year

I woke early on the first day of the new year, well before sunrise, which isn’t hard to do when the sun doesn’t show its face in the meadow much before eight o’clock.. After coaxing the fire back to life, I wandered around with my hands in the pockets of my pink fluffy housecoat, looking out the windows. Meadowlark started with these lovely round windows, built one winter in the garage of our townhouse in Waterloo when a boat in the meadow was still just a dream.

Running along the hull of the boat from bow to stern, each window offers a slightly different view of the world. That morning, one of the windows on the port side framed a picture of the moon setting low in the western sky, still so bright and full that it cast shadows, bare tree trunks and wiry branches, on the freshly fallen snow. A rabbit hopped out from under the boat, paused to sniff the air, then loped over to the workshop, slipped under the deck. There. Safe.

I wandered to the stern of the boat and looked out over the meadow, surely the sun will be up soon. Sun. What was I thinking. We hadn’t seen the sun in days. But there was a brightening in the eastern sky. I could make out weeds poking through the snow, the scrawny bush where the chipping sparrows nest. I scanned the meadow for signs of life. A deer, perhaps,  stepping tentatively through the deep snow, pausing every few steps to look around, listen. Or a couple of turkeys, maybe a stray porcupine, or perhaps even a fox, its red tail leaving brush marks in the snow. I would even welcome the sight of a coyote skulking along the tree line.

But nothing. I know they’re out there, these creatures. Every morning the snow in the meadow is crisscrossed with tracks, but we rarely see them.

Brighter and brighter, then a glimmer behind the trees and suddenly a sliver of light. I watched as the sun rose slowly, hung for a minute above the trees, washing the sky with gold before disappearing into the cloud cover.

It filled me with hope for the year ahead.

The year gone by wasn’t all fear and uncertainty. Being at Meadowlark for the turns of the seasons was a joy, watching winter turn slowly to spring, leaves beginning to appear on the trees, the bluebirds suddenly reappearing to claim their nesting box, the asparagus going to seed, bright red berries on graceful fronds, and oh the glorious maples. Then winter again, all colour fading from the landscape, rain for days on end, then snow.

It won’t always be like this. I gather up the things I’m looking forward to in the coming year, string them together like pearls, keep them in my pocket.

Campfires with friends and family—after the lockdown and at a safe distance, of course, though surely wood smoke provides some kind of protection.

Playing in the woods with our granddaughter Keira, making her a crown, though this year I think it will be adorned with colourful autumn leaves and berries rather than apple blossoms.

Going driving with my sister Sandy, cruising the swamp roads looking for snapping turtles.

Sitting on the dock with Brenda, watching her little dog Lila try to catch frogs.

And maybe even going sailing again before the year is out.

But for the next few months, our world will be pretty small. Tomorrow we move to the Ladybank Schoolhouse and leave hauling water and splitting firewood behind. We’ll have hot running water. A flush toilet. Central heating. A dishwasher, for goodness sake.

I’ll be happy writing my book, attempting a ridiculously complicated needlework project (I’ve never done needlework before), trying to teaching myself to paint with watercolours.

My ridiculously hard needlepoint project

I’m not sure how Chris will manage, especially with the ski hills closed indefinitely. We’ll snowshoe around Ladybank Farm and we’ll trudge in here from time to time so he can cut down a few trees. He has promised to cook dinner once a week (just thought I’d get that in writing here….) And he’s learning French, so that will keep him occupied.

Wifi. Did I mention the schoolhouse has wifi?

Chris will be fine.

Of course he’s concerned about our sailboat, sitting in a boat yard in Florida—we both are. It will be fall at the earliest before we get back to it. A steel boat needs constant maintenance, and though we have a canvas cover over the boat, the dampness and humidity will find its way in. After a season in Cuba and a rough sail back to the U.S., the boat was in pretty rough shape when we left it. A year and a half on the hard will have done little to improve it.

But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a small enough thing to worry about. As an engineer I know is fond of saying, we’ll jump off that bridge when we come to it.


Hunting season

We woke to the sound of a rifle shot at 6:29 this morning. Deer-hunting season opens today and hunting is permitted from half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after sunset. The sun rises here at 7am.

I watched the sun slip above the trees on the far side of the meadow. It washed the sky in red for a brief moment before disappearing behind the low grey cloud ceiling. It’s minus six here this morning and there is a blanket of thick, wet snow on the ground. The juncos are cold and hungry, fluttering erratically as they search for seeds on the ground below the bird feeder. Ah, the bluejays have just arrived, they will scatter lots of seed for the juncos as they dig for sunflower seeds. Oh, and a cardinal now. And a little flock of chickadees. A woodpecker flies in and clears everyone out. All the regulars have made it through the long, cold night.

We will be wearing our bright orange fleecies whenever we go outside this week and Chris will be wearing his orange toque for good measure. I hope our next-door neighbour has his deer already and will not be hunting around the edges of our property today. Last year he shot a big stag in the field opposite the guest cabin—his field.

“Before I even opened my thermos of coffee,” he complained with a big grin on his face.

I can’t imagine what butchering a deer must be like. Surely some field dressing must be done. All that blood on the fresh snow.

Lentils. Have these hunters never heard of lentils?

I think of Ed at this time of year, as the winter weather closes in. He’s the man who built the log cabin by the lake here, from trees cut down on this property, with his own two hands. He didn’t have a car, so no worries about getting snowed in for him. In fact, the trek to the neighbour’s to borrow a car to go to town was probably easier over the frozen ground around the lake. Maybe he even went across the lake. We found both skies and snowshoes in the cabin.

We didn’t expect to be here during deer-hunting season again, but everything is different this year. Our sailboat is on the hard in a boatyard in Florida and we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that we won’t be sailing somewhere warm this winter. Instead, we’re going to stay here on Meadowlark until the end of December then move to a schoolhouse we’ve rented in Grey Highlands  for the cruelest months of winter. We’ll be about 20 minutes from Blue Mountain. Chris already has his ski pass.

If you had enough firewood, lots of food, and access to a well, it wouldn’t be bad staying here on the property for the winter, though it’s a long trek out to the road—a couple of kilometres—if anything goes wrong. Ed stayed here year round. Did he hunt? Probably. We know he allowed hunting on the property. The neighbours weren’t very happy when we arrived and spread the word that we didn’t want hunting on our land. Somehow, the deer seem to know they’re safe here. This morning there was a parade of tracks in the freshly fallen snow heading into our woods.

How did Ed keep cabin fever at bay, that’s what I want to know. Reading, for sure. We found a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf along one wall of the cabin, filled with well-worn volumes of military history and shelves and shelves of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I’m sure he would have had a battery-operated radio. Maybe he ran his generator in the evenings so he could watch a little TV.

We know for sure that he kept himself busy cutting firewood. He kept a journal, noting among other things which trees he cut down each year.  I can picture him out in the bush, wielding an axe. He’s wearing a green canvas coat, a fur hat pulled low over his forehead, raccoon maybe, or coyote. Did he make it himself? I imagine him with a bushy grey beard, only his eyes are exposed to the cold. He’s wearing worn leather mittens, and a pair of beat-up work boots. I do hope they’re insulated.

I guess I’m not made of as stern stuff as Ed was. I’ll admit that I have been struggling with the isolation as winter sets in and visitors to the property dwindle. I keep myself busy—we go for walks each morning, I work on my book, I read, I write in my journal. And there’s always more firewood to split. But there’s a layer of anxiety and uncertainty underlying everything that makes me feel sad and hopeless sometimes, makes me second-guess our choices, worry about our future.

I’m sure I’m not very easy to live with these days. And it’s not that easy living with a man who experiences little doubt and almost no fear, who copes with uncertainty by mastering the physical environment around him. We have cords and cords of firewood now, stacked in neat rows. And he’s built a really nice new shower house.

Another rifle report, this one sounds close. How far can a bullet travel, I wonder? How long can a pandemic last?

I’m thinking of carrying bags of lentils in my coat pockets, approaching hunters and suggesting that there are other great food sources for the winter. Chris thinks this is a really bad idea.

He may be right.

Building a shed for the Argo will be Chris’s next project.

A feast of festivals

Exactly a year ago today I woke up in a hotel room in Winnipeg, which isn’t as sordid as it sounds. I was there to take part in the Winnipeg International Writers Festival, which I’d attended before as a reader, but this was my first time as a writer. I showered and put on my writer’s outfit—a new white blouse with pearls on it, a pair of jeans, my trusty Frye boots, my blue leather jacket—and headed out the door.

Then had to go back for my name tag.

Which said “Writer” on it.

I was lucky to take part in five writers festivals last fall, talking about my memoir Sea Over Bow. How much the literary landscape has changed in just one year. Perhaps for the better. Festivals have had to re-think how they deliver their programming. Which means you have a smorgasbord of choices to enjoy from the comfort (and safety) of your home.

Reading outdoors at the Eden Mills Writers Festival last September.

The Eden Mills Writers’ Festival was one of the first out of the gate. Normally, the festival offers outdoor events in their pretty little village just outside of Guelph, Ontario. In May 2020, they announced a free, accessible online festival which runs well into October. I helped myself to an interview with Emma Donoghue, whose new book Pull of the Stars is a very timely novel. It’s set in a Dublin maternity hospital in 1918 during the height of a flu pandemic. If that sounds bleak, it isn’t. As always, Donoghue finds light in the darkness.

There are still a handful of events left in the series, including one I’ve signed up for, Wild World, a panel discussion featuring three writers whose books of nonfiction will take you far beyond your four walls. Which you are probably mighty tired of by now.

Thin Air, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival, has just launched its 2020 season, an impressive mix of come-as-you-will and explore-as-you-go online content, as well as many real-time events. I’ve just started poking through what’s on offer and already I’ve signed up for two of the festival’s 16 writing craft workshops. John Gould’s workshop on the “unlimits” of flash fiction will provide inspiration as I put the finishing touches on a new collection of very short stories. And the timing couldn’t be better for Cordelia Strube’s workshop on building narrative. I’ve embarked on my first novel, which I thought would be easier than writing a memoir. I was wrong. I’m looking forward to her insight into how character and incidence can spin a narrative into motion.

So many name tags! Last fall I took part in five literary festivals.

True to its roots, the Whistler Writers Festival, which was launched nearly two decades ago in someone’s living room, is offering a digital festival centered around intimacy, connection, and thoughtful conversation. I’ve signed up for an event called The Domestic Thriller (can you guess the genre of my new novel?) which sounds like a lot of fun. Three award-winning authors are hosting a digital murder mystery session that will introduce you to a series of suspicious characters before asking you to guess which of them committed an imaginary crime.

From the west coast to the east, where the Cabot Trail Writers’ Festival is offering events on-line, on air, and outdoors. All their events are free, and many have a physical component—a welcome innovation for those of us who are suffering from Zoom fatigue—from yoga intermissions to a downloadable podcast of poetry and music that explores our relationship to the land. Participants are invited to enjoy a shared experience with people across the country—around the world, perhaps—by listening to this recording while taking a walk outside. I am definitely doing that!

This is just a sampling of the literary events available to you this fall. Go ahead. Fill your plate. You’ll come away from this feast of festivals with a reading list that will get you through what could be a long winter.

My favourite book from last fall’s festivals: In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond, by John Zada. Who doesn’t like a good Sasquatch book??