“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On Wednesday, May 27th at 7pm I’ll be taking part in my first Facebook Live event. My publisher, Signature Editions, has pulled together a panel of writers to talk about our very different approaches to writing about travel. Genni Gunn, Denise Roig and I will talk about why we travel in the first place, how we go about deciding what to use and what to discard, and how we choose the best genre for our stories. Fiction? Personal essays? Memoir?
“A woodcock?” I say, hesitantly. Yes, definitely a woodcock. A squat, plump bird, long beak, no neck to speak of. “What’s he doing in the middle of the laneway?”
We’ve never seen one in the daytime, only in the meadow at dusk, and then only as a silhouette against the darkening sky. They crouch in the long grass, you can’t see them, but there’s no mistaking their loud, plaintive “bzeep, bzeep, bzeep.” Suddenly one will burst from cover, fly straight up in the air, almost out of sight. Silence. Wait for it. Wait for it. A soft chippering and twittering, faint as first, then louder and louder as the bird plummets to the ground. Silence for a minute. Then “bzeep, bzeep.”
But this one crouches silently in the middle of the laneway. Slowly I get out of the car, walk towards him. He hunches down, trying to hide.
“You need to move,” I say softly, but he doesn’t. Closer, closer than I would have thought possible. Is he hurt? Finally he gets up, stumbles to the shoulder of the road on his stubby legs, clambers over a couple of twigs, nestles down in the snow. That’s as far as he’s going.
It’s been six weeks now since we left the boat. We were expecting to come back to some cool weather—I was looking forward to watching spring unfold in the meadow. But it’s not happening. Day after day we wake to gray skies, the ground covered with frost or even snow. That is, if it’s not raining steadily. Most nights it goes below freezing, Chris gets up every couple of hours to feed the fire. We spend our days splitting and hauling wood.
But we’re happy enough. Sailing in Cuba was good practice for social isolation, moving from one remote anchorage to the next. We’d often go a couple of weeks without seeing another person. And we’re well used to provisioning for long periods of time. Two weeks is nothing!
But it’s different being close to people you love and not being able to see them. In fact, not seeing people at all makes us more fearful when we do go out. And not knowing what’s ahead also takes a toll. Will we get through the pandemic unscathed? Will our friends and family? Will we ever be able to get back to the boat?
The isolation is a little easier to take now that spring migration is in full swing. We’ve put out feeders and each morning we’re visited by flocks of goldfinches, chickadees, blue jays, sparrows, so many kinds of sparrows. The chipping sparrows that nest in the small pine tree just outside our window are back. Will they never learn? They’ve yet to successfully fledge a brood. Or even a single chick. Some predator has its eye on them.
The birds who come to the feeder seem to be doing okay, but I’m a little worried about the other birds. Yesterday I watched a pair of thrashers rummaging through the leaf litter at the edge of the laneway, looking for little bugs and not having much luck, near as I could tell. The bluebirds sit on the top of the workshop all day, looking for flying insects to nab, but seldom leave their perch. It’s too cold for bugs. The robins peck at the hard ground in vain, where are the worms?
I don’t know what to do about the woodcock. Where is he this morning? He’ll be cold and weak and probably very hungry. A woodcock will eat its weight in earthworms in a day. If he can find them. Maybe he’ll eat birdseed in a pinch.
I put on my boots and winter coat, my hat and mitts, go outside and shake a handful of seed out of the feeder, walk down the lane spread it on a low rock near where we saw him.
Hang on buddy, I murmur. We’re all tired of this. It won’t be long now.
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This morning we watched a pair of mergansers trace a line across the perfectly still water of McCormick Lake. Chris was thinking—well, who ever knows what Chris is thinking. He may have been calculating the square root of a snowsuit. But as the morning sun warmed my face, I was thinking how good it was to be home, flooded with gratitude and relief that we were finally here.
Just over a month ago, we were in the Cayman Islands, planning to spend a few weeks there before starting the long journey home. Chris had gone into the customs office to clear us in and I was waiting for him on the front steps.
He came out of the office looking concerned.
“We’re in, no problem. But I heard from the customs officer that they just turned away a cruise ship because there was Covoid-19 on board.”
We eyed the tourists crowding the narrow, crumbling sidewalks of Georgetown, dodging chickens and men selling coconuts from shopping carts as they elbowed each other out of the way to get to the diamond stores. Everything looked normal. But with access to news of the world we didn’t have in Cuba, it didn’t take us long to realize that nothing was normal any more. We’d better get home, and fast.
Now fast in a sailboat, at least in Monark, isn’t very fast at all. We set off for the western tip of Cuba, with the wind on our stern, not our most comfortable point of sail. We wallowed along, rolling from gunwale to gunwale. By our third day at sea, I was covered with bruises from being flung against things, and Chris was a little worse for the wear—he’d had to change the fuel filter while we were underway. We were both relieved when we rounded Cabo de San Vincent and tucked into a mangrove swamp to wait out what promised to be the worst norther of the season.
And it was. Our anchor was firmly buried in mud, but the boat danced around as the wind clocked. We could see waves breaking across the mouth of the entrance of the little channel we were in. It took five days for things to settle down enough for us to resume our journey—straight into the wind, of course. Remember the augmented diurnal trade winds?? We had to move east right into them to get a good angle to cross the Gulf Stream to the United States. Remember the Gulf Stream? That big river out in the ocean? We didn’t want to mess with it.
But we had little choice. Rumours had reached us that the U.S. would be closing its borders, and if we couldn’t clear in there, we’d be in trouble. Hurricane season was coming, we needed to get the boat safely to the boatyard in Titusville. So we set out across the Gulf Stream, even though the wind was against the current. It was light enough, we thought, that it wouldn’t be too bad.
Boy, were we wrong. Chris doesn’t agree with me, but I think these were the worst seas we’ve ever seen, even in the gales on our North Atlantic crossing. The current was pushing the water relentlessly east, the wind was blowing relentlessly toward the west The result was big, steep waves. Three to six feet, with the occasional nine-foot wave thrown in just to keep us awake.
We’ve never taken so much sea over the bow, never had so much water in the cockpit. We found ourselves in the strongest current in the middle of the night. I was standing the first night watch—sitting, actually, on one of the side benches in the cockpit, with my harness on, clipped in—when suddenly I was drenched with water. It was like a scene from a low-budget movie, like someone had thrown a bucket of water into the cockpit. I actually laughed as it dribbled off my hat. (Sometimes, all you can do is laugh.)
But we were just out for one night. You can stand anything for one night. The next morning we were out of the worst of the current—but 50 miles west of where we wanted to be. We tacked all day against the wind and current along the south shore of the Keys, made it into Key West just before dark, dropped the anchor, and fell into bed completely exhausted.
We woke up in the morning ready for the next challenge. Would the U.S. actually let us in? As it turned out, we were able to clear in using their online app (this should worry all of us.) All that remained was to go to shore and try to get a cruising license which would allow us to travel in the States.
By this time, going to shore was more frightening than crossing the Gulf Stream. Helpful friends and family were telling us that the virus was out of control in Florida, we were on a suicide mission, trying to drive home. Gas stations in the U.S. were going to shut down any day, the Canada-U.S. border was about to be closed. We weren’t sure what kind of chaos we’d find in Key West. But we had no choice.We needed that license. And we needed groceries—we were running out of food.
As it turned out, the streets were pretty much empty first thing in the morning. Getting a cruising license was no problem, though the customs officer did ask us if we were feeling okay. Next stop: the grocery store. They were disinfecting cart handles at the front entrance, but not much else. We wore gloves. We stayed away from people as much as possible. We grabbed what we could from the almost-empty shelves and scurried back to the boat, disinfected everything before bringing it aboard, hoped for the best.
For the first time in as long as we could remember, the winds were in our favour when we set out from Key West—gentle south winds for our sail east along the Keys, a gentle west wind for our sail north. We sailed on the Gulf side of the Keys as far as we could, over calm blue waters, then punched out into the ocean at Marathon and began the big push. We would sail day and night until we got to Titusville.
The next day, Miami appeared in the distance—an unmistakable cluster of highrise buildings. We were ready to run the gauntlet of boats that normally stream in and out of the harbour … but there were none. Not a single boat. Not a freighter, not a cruise ship, nothing. We did see a tugboat pulling a barge full of garbage, but he was way off on the horizon, certainly not coming into Miami. There were four cruise ships at anchor outside the harbour, ships in quarantine perhaps? More likely just empty ships that had come to their home port to find no room for them. As we sailed past Miami, I was astonished to see that the long beach was completely empty. Clearly it had been closed. And people were actually complying.
Moving day and night in the ocean, motoring from before dawn to after dark in the intracoastal waterway (we were forced to go inside at Fort Pierce because the Canaveral barge canal was closed), we finally made it to Titusville in time for our scheduled lift. Within 24 hours, the boat was on the hard, closed up tight and covered, the car was packed, and we were on the road.
I felt safe in our familiar little bubble—yes, driving with the car packed to the roof is normal for us. We had food, we had water, we had a bucket… (don’t think about that too much.) We were good. My shoulders lifted a little as we crossed the border from Florida to Georgia.
But we now had easy access to the CBC and BBC, sources we trust, and what we were hearing wasn’t good. We decided not to listen, but dire warnings kept coming in from concerned friends and family. Trump is closing the State of New York. He’s calling out the army.
Honestly, the hardest part of this journey wasn’t the physical exertion, it was trying to manage the fear. Until now, we’d done a pretty good job of staying calm, feeling positive—okay fine: Chris is always calm and positive. I guess I’m talking about me. I couldn’t help but feel that everything was working against us.
We had planned to drive all night, sleep beside the road if we got too tired, but then, as we were driving through the mountains of some state—they all run together in my mind—stormclouds began to form in the distance, then quickly grew into a frightening thunderstorm, bolts of lightning streaking straight down, heavy rain. This was too much. We made the difficult decision to stop at a hotel, and it’s a good thing we did. Next up—flash flood warnings. It’s hard to take action to get out of the way of a flash flood when you have no idea where the creeks and rivers are.
We checked into a hotel—there were maybe three cars in the parking lot, and one nervous young woman at the front desk, keeping her distance. We let ourselves into our ground floor room (no elevators to negotiate) and began wiping down all the surfaces.
“Just like Jason Bourne,” Chris said with a grin.
I wasn’t grinning. Too tired. Too freaked out. Chris stood in the middle of the room eating some pasta-tuna salad right out of the container while I re-wiped all surfaces, just to be sure. We fell into bed exhausted.
The next day, one last push. The Canadian border was eight hours away. We were crossing at Buffalo so the last part of our journey would be through the State of New York. No army at the border. Hardly any other traffic, in fact. The roads were empty. We pulled up to a toll booth and found it closed. Puzzled, we just drove through. When we reached the toll booth at the other end of the road, a gloved woman in a mask asked us to pull ahead so she could record our license plate then waved us on. No contact. Perhaps no toll?
It was Sunday morning, so as we drove, we listened to The Sunday Edition on the CBC. There was a conversation with an expert on Covoid-19’s possible impact on geopolitical hotspots, we found that interesting. But the next guest was a conflict doctor predicting terrifying times due to lack of resources to fight Covoid-19. We decided not to listen, but just as we were switching the radio off, we heard him give an example that struck too close to home. Doctors were going to have to make some hard decisions in the days ahead. People over 60 or with chronic conditions such as diabetes might not be given ventilators.
But what if you’re both? It was too much for me. I lost it. I was driving and we had to pull into a deserted rest centre because I was crying so hard. Don’t I matter? I got out of the car and walked into a grove of trees behind the parking lot, looked up at the bare branches. Then I heard a robin singing. I haven’t heard a robin in a long time. The birds will be back when we get home, I thought. Just think about that.
I will admit that when we crossed the border into Canada I wept openly, tears of relief this time, not despair. And now we’re at Meadowlark, and the bluebirds were here to greet us, they’re fighting with a pair of grackles for the best bird box right now. And the sandhill cranes are back, three of them, flying awkwardly overhead, calling loudly to each other. I guess one of the two young ones who hatched last year made it through the winter.
May we all of us make it through this time. Let’s be kind to each other—from a safe distance—take care of each other as best we can, and try to just watch the beauty of spring as it unfolds around us.