Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Cabin at Ghostly Point

Summer without campfire stories? No way! Here’s one of mine that we will publish in three parts over the next three weeks.

Grey twilight fell across the far shore of Shkendang Lake, obscuring bit by bit the brooding shoreline, the thick-waisted white pines, and the old cabin standing alone on the rocky point. The cabin’s washed out red tin roof, and the rough hewn log porch below it, were barely visible now from the Garrison family cottage directly across the bay. 

Shainie Garrison leaned forward and squinted fiercely. Her slender 13-year-old fingers squeezed the chair armrests with a force that threatened to snap them. Lights and shadows from the campfire danced in her intense brown eyes while the faint band of freckles below them coloured with excitement.

“There it is!” she cried, propelling herself from the chair and pointing over the fire and across the lake. “It’s there again. The light.”

Shainie’s father Paul dropped an armload of split firewood and bent low to peer out over the water. Nothing. Nothing but a dark far shore and more darkness spreading across the half-kilometre of water separating them from Ghostly Point.

“Shainie,” her father sighed with exasperation. “We’ve been through this before. There is nothing there.”

“But dad there was. There was! I saw it! A light was on. Then it went out. Just like the other times.”

Paul Garrison stepped into the campfire circle and placed his hands gently on his daughter’s slim shoulders, which trembled from excitement. “Honey, no one has stayed at the cabin in decades. It’s probably the last rays of the sun glinting off a window or the roof.”

Shainie looked into the gentleness of her father’s grey eyes. Oh, how she wanted to believe him. But he was wrong. It wasn’t sunlight. It was a campfire or  lantern light. She just knew it.

Her parents were becoming concerned at her insistence that she had seen the light at Ghostly Point several times. It seemed to possess her, drawing her to sit by the campfire every evening waiting for it to reappear.

Marcella Garrison understood that her daughter was a creative child with a vivid imagination, but worried that the phantom light story was becoming more than a young girl’s fantasy. She wondered if tall tale story swapping between Shainie and her grandfather, a renowned storyteller, had anything to do with her daughter’s fantasizing.

“Maybe you shouldn’t tell her all those stories, Dad,” Marcella told her father one morning. “She needs to stop with these stories about a light at the cabin.”

“The girl has a wonderful imagination,” said Ira Desilets, a tall sun-toughened outdoorsman who had built Shainie a small cedar-strip canoe that she could take out by herself, on the strict understanding that she wear her life jacket.

“And who knows. . . maybe the girl is seeing something.”

He had encountered some genuine mysteries in his many years in bush country. Every tale of the woods, no matter how outrageous, was based on some truth. Even the story of how the lake got its name.

Shkendang is ‘grieving’ in the Ojibwe language and the Ojibwe who had lived in the area named it after a tragedy a century before.

Every spring before the Europeans arrived, the Ojibwe came to the lake to catch the lake trout that were plentiful just after the ice melted. They camped at
Ghostly Point and at night their campfires illuminated the waters surrounding the rocky point. Their chants joined the wood smoke drifting skyward to Gzhemnidoo, the great spirit, in respect and thanks for the nourishment they took from Mother Earth.

Their Gimaa, or leader, had one daughter who he affectionately called Moong, meaning Loon Who Brings Happiness. She was beautiful, happy, and skilled in the woods as a hunter, fisher and gatherer of food, much like the loons with whom they shared the lake.

Early one morning Moong canoed out to fish alone. She planned to fill her canoe bottom with trout to impress and please her father, ignoring the warning of an old man who cautioned about dark skies building on the western horizon.

Next week: Part 2 - The tragedy


Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Art of Splitting Wood

It was a long ago scene, from a time before invention of smart phones that take video. That’s unfortunate because what I saw then would have made a cool  video on the art of splitting wood.

I was at a friend’s newly-acquired bush property, helping him clean up after a wild wind storm. We had cut a downed birch tree into rounds and were exhausting ourselves splitting it for firewood.

A neighbour from up the road stopped by to introduce himself. He was a local, born and raised in the area, and you knew it from his Ottawa Valley twang. A  country lad who knew more about living with the land than we would learn in a lifetime.

We stood there and talked, just getting to know each other.  As the conversation moved along, he casually pulled my axe from a stump and swung it one handed, with little apparent force, into a birch round held firm under one foot. An imperceptible twist of the wrist and the round split into two.

He split another round the same way and continued with others as we talked. He would pause in what he was saying, glance down briefly, position a log beneath his foot and swing the axe, with little more effort than someone swinging a riding crop against their leg as they talked.

By the time conversation stopped and he had left, there was a sizeable pile of split birch at our feet. He hadn’t said anything about splitting wood, but he had left us a lesson: Splitting wood is not an act of brute force. It is more of a mental exercise.

First of all, you don’t cut or chop firewood. You split it, pushing the fibres apart until the piece becomes two pieces. It is not important to have a sharp axe. A sharp blade sticks in the wood, doing little to push the fibres apart.

Some avid wood splitters say that firewood rounds wish to be split and give you helpful hints that you should listen to. For instance, most firewood rounds have small cracks, or checks, that indicate lines for best splitting.

One expert says he always stands a round on its head to split it in the direction that it grew. Trees obviously are thicker on the bottom than at the top, so you stand a round “on its head” by putting the smaller end of the round facing down.

I don’t know if I believe that, but I do believe some other advice from expert wood splitters. Stand straight with your feet apart. Swing with straight arms. Let the axe do the work. Aim a bit closer to the edge nearest you. That way if you miss you hit the ground. Going too far to the other side and you hit the handle.   

Most avid splitters prefer a maul, which is heavier, has a fatter blade and is blunter than an axe. All the better for pushing the wood apart. Also, the thick rounded backside of the maul is ideal for hammering wedges into those tough, knotty pieces sent to frustrate and exhaust us.

Splitting firewood is an effective physical workout, reportedly burning up to 400 or 500 calories a hour. It is especially healthy for the mind. Riding the rhythm of a wood splitting session allows the mind to take a vacation.

And, few accomplishments provide more satisfaction than a well-stacked woodpile.

Bruce Hutchison, the West Coast newspaperman wrote in his 1988 book A Life in the Country that a well-stacked woodpile is as good as money in the bank. It is there waiting to help you when the weather gets frigid.

Interestingly, the word splitting is a psychological term. It is a common ego defence mechanism by which people reinforce their sense of good by demonizing others who do not share their opinions or values.

Politicians tend to suffer from splitting and it often is a sign of a personality disorder. If you have ever watched Donald Trump on television or the Internet, you get the idea.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Joys of Gardening

It has been excellent weather for the vegetable garden, thank you Ms. Weatherwoman. The peas, beans, carrots and corn are jumping so it looks like we’ll have veggies galore later this summer, and into the fall.

This is truly good fortune because a well stocked veggie pantry means I won’t have to drive down to Shoot’em Up City to turn in my guns for food vouchers. I want to  keep my guns for when Premier Pinocchio announces a guns-for-electricity-vouchers program.

At any rate, the weather gods have been generous in my patch of the world. There have been bright stretches of sunshine interrupted by brief showers of light to moderate rain.

I have watered only twice this season, more good fortune because our only water source is rain barrels. When the barrels go empty, the garden goes dry.

The barrels ran dry two or three years ago and I had to refill them by trucking water from a pond. Hauling water, then doling it out to individual veggie plants is not my idea of fun, but it did give me a new appreciation of the importance of water.

Like most Canadians my appreciation of water was not as intense as it should be. Many of us live surrounded by lakes and rivers so we believe we are water wealthy, much water wealthier than other nations.

In fact, Brazil and Russia are the world’s water wealthiest nations. Canada basically is tied for third place with Indonesia, the U.S. and China.

Surveys have shown that more than 50 per cent of Canadians consider freshwater our country’s most important natural resource. Eighty per cent of us are concerned that a water shortage will develop if we do not take steps toward conservation.

Despite this we are among the world’s leading water wasters. We rank only behind the U.S. in per capita water consumption among developed nations. Europeans use one half the water that we do.

A Canadian Water Attitudes Study some years back found that Canadians believe they use an average of only 66 litres of water a day for showering, laundry, washing dishes, in toilets and, of course, for drinking. Actual use per person is far beyond what we believe: each of us uses on average 329 litres of water a day.
Experts on water usage say that has to change because the warming of earth’s atmosphere is dramatically altering the world’s hydrological cycle.  Rainfall and snow patterns around the world, once fairly predictable, have become erratic and likely will become even more so.
The result already is being seen: more severe droughts in some places, more severe floods in others. Both have high impacts on the water we all need for life.
As the climate changes the politics of water will intensify. An example of the fighting over water that can be expected is seen in the current plan of Waukesha, Wisconsin to divert 8.4 millions of gallons of water a day from the Lake Michigan.
Waukesha, a city of 70,000, now gets its water from groundwater wells, which now are found to contain high levels of radium. A court has ordered the city to find other sources of water by 2018.
Canada and the U.S. have an agreement forbidding the diverting of Great Lakes water to any area outside the Great Lakes basin. Waukesha, a Milwaukee suburb, is working a loophole to get an exception to this rule.
The city itself is outside the Great Lakes basin, but the county in which it resides is within the basin. So Waukesha believes it should be granted an exception to  take the water it needs.
We can expect to see more of these water fights as climate change continues to upset precipitation patterns.
Hopefully the rainfall patterns will remain stable for my vegetable garden. If so, the veggies will flourish and my only worry will be the animals.
Last year my scarecrow fell asleep on the job and the raccoons snuck in and feasted on the corn. They left us one small cob.
A couple of nights later the deer, obviously upset that the raccoons beat them to the corn, ate our prized sunflowers. 


Thursday, June 9, 2016

Night in the Forest

Evening shadows arrive like cloaked ninjas descending silently into the treetops. Soon all light dims into non-existence, consumed by the night.

The forest is a different world in the dark. Anything living or travelling in it must tune the senses to night-time frequencies. Sight, the primary human sense in daylight, gives way to hearing, smell, and even touch. 

There is an increased awareness that things you cannot see are seeing you. You hear them move and you wonder. What is moving and where is it going?
A forest fact of life is that anything moving is looking for something to grab and eat. Or, trying to avoid being the something grabbed and eaten.

A research group now tells us that movement in the forest does not come from just from animals. They say their research has shown that trees move as they go to sleep at night and as they awaken in the morning.

The researchers used terrestrial laser scanning to measure the night movements of silver birch trees in Finland and Austria. The laser equipment scanned tree canopies and branches from sunset to sunrise, making intricate measurements of movement undetectable by the human eye.

Terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) is a method of collecting complex geometric data from buildings, machines and other objects, including trees. It has become an important modern tool in surveying.

TLS data collected in both Finland and Austria showed that branches hung as much as 10 centimetres lower at sunset than at sunrise. The sagging was measured over several hours, ruling out the possibility that wind moved the branches.

Some researchers believe that tree branches relax and droop at night because of a decrease in a tree’s internal water pressure. During daylight hours photosynthesis converts sunshine into energy. With no photosynthesis after sunset, water pressure decreases inside the tree and the branches relax.

The TLS studies are being used to help determine whether this is true or whether trees are simply following their own body clocks in the same way we humans do.

This kind of research sounds esoteric. However, it could be useful in understanding how trees adapt to changing environmental conditions, especially those resulting from climate change.
For anyone interested, the Finland-Austria TLS studies were reported in Frontiers in Plant Science, which can be found at

My interest in when trees sleep is much less esoteric. I wonder if I should tiptoe when walking through the woods at dawn.


A friend in Edmonton texted me Sunday afternoon with the news that Canadian singer Bobby Curtola had died. I was saddened but shocked later when I watched the evening CTV National News, which carried not a word about Curtola. Much about Mohammed Ali, shark attacks in Australia etc. but nothing about the Canadian kid who was an international sensation in the 1960s, and continued to entertain and to help others long after his star began to fade.

I don’t watch the CBC National anymore because of its pathetically poor news lineup. I am told, however, that it had an extensive segment on the singer and his life.

I found snippets about him on Twitter and other Internet sites but generally I thought national news media coverage was skimpy.

He deserved better. He had 25 Canadian gold singles and 12 Canadian gold albums. More importantly, as noted in the Canadian Encyclopaedia, he  established the first coast-to-coast music touring circuit in Canada. He also was the first to prove that it was possible to be an international pop music star living in Canada.

He did much work for charities, hosting telethons to raise money for groups scattered around the world.

Best of all, Bobby Curtola was a genuine person. I know that because we were classmates throughout high school. (He got better marks than I did despite the rising pressure and demands as a newly-discovered teen idol).

I saw him a few times over the years and fame changed him little from the nice guy who pumped gas at his dad’s gas station in Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay).

He was a natural person and a natural singer who lived a natural life. And, I imagine that unlike many entertainment stars, he died a natural death.