Friday, July 29, 2016

Our Shrinking Sand Box

Just when you think the world has enough to worry about . . . .

Now it seems our planet is running out of sand. Yes, sand. Who would have thought it? I mean there are millions of square kilometres of sand in places like the Sahara, The Kalahari, the Arabian, and many other deserts. 

However, a United Nations environmental report says that sand and gravel are being mined faster than earth can replace them. Sand is made by wind and water erosion, a process that takes thousands of years.

It has been estimated that we humans are using 40 billion tonnes of sand and gravel every year to construct buildings, bridges, roads and other stuff. That is twice the amount of sediment produced each year by all the rivers in the world.

Sand and gravel, of course, are bound with cement to make concrete. The 40 billion tonnes of aggregates we use every year is enough to build a concrete wall 27 metres high and 27 metres wide around the equator. (It wouldn’t take nearly that much to build Donald Trump’s wall between Mexico and the United States.)

China has become the world’s biggest user of concrete. Between 2011 and 2013 China is estimated to have used more concrete than the United States did in the entire 20th century. In just one year it built 146,400 kilometres of road.

Sand also is used in the production of glass, electronics and aeronautics. Land reclamation is another use that consumes huge amounts of sand and general fill.

Most of our aggregates are pulled from obscure gravel pits found off the beaten track. We pay scant attention to them.

However, sand mining is a serious environmental problem in some parts of the world where everything from monster river dredges to labourers with shovels are used to extract sand for building. In some places sand is even being taken from beneath the seas.

The environmental costs of this mining are mounting and environmental organizations are fighting for practices and laws to control it.

They blame erosion of San Francisco beaches on sand mining. And, they say sand extraction from India’s rivers is harming ecosystems, killing fish and birds. Also that hundreds of acres of forest in Vietnam have been torn up to extract sandy soil. Bridges have been undermined in some places and coral reefs have been damaged in Kenya.

In Cambodia, the big dredges moved into the Ko Kong area almost 10 years ago to pluck huge amounts of sand from the coastline. Critics say the sand is being taken illegally to support the rampant expansion of Singapore. They say mangrove and estuary ecosystems are being ruined, killing the livelihoods of local people, including those who fish for a living.

Sand is worth money and money attracts corruption faster than bear poop attracts flies. A recent New York Times opinion article estimated that sand extraction is a $70 billion industry and that’s plenty enough to attract criminal syndicates.

The UN report says that half the sand used in Morocco comes from illegal coastal sand mining. Sand is removed from beaches to build hotels, roads and other infrastructure needed for the tourism industry. Which leaves the question: when the beaches are gone, what happens to the tourist industry?

With so much sand in the world’s deserts why don’t sand mining companies pick up their pails and shovels and go there? Well, apparently desert sand is not suitable for concrete production or land reclamation because most of it is round, wind-shaped grains that do not bind well.

Environmental groups demand stiffer regulations to control sand mining. But more controls could bring other problems.

Sand is heavy and costly to transport. Trucking greater distances creates more pollution, more traffic problems and all the fallout that comes from that. So you want to get sand and gravel as close as possible to the place that you are using it. Unfortunately, the closest place often is a beach, or an environmentally delicate estuary.

The world is a complicated place, and becoming more complicated every day. Who would have thought we would ever have to worry about running out of sand?


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Mr. Mercedes

(This week's Minden Times column)

Mr. Mercedes would wear a smile wide as a western horizon if he travelled Haliburton County roads this summer.

So many potential victims to choose from. Joggers, walkers, cyclists. All poised to be smacked down and become hood ornaments because of their own stupidity. Some walking with backs to the traffic. Others with their noses into their cell phones as cars and trucks roar toward them.

Mr. Mercedes is the villain from the Stephen King novel of the same name. He steals a 12-cyclinder Mercedes and drives it into a crowd of unemployed folks at an employment opportunity fair, filling the car’s grille with a variety of body parts.

Mr. Mercedes, thankfully, is fictional. The carnage of pedestrians and cyclists on our roads, however, is real. The numbers of people being smacked down and killed or maimed for life continue to grow.

Inattention is the main cause of these tragedies. Inattention by the victims, or the drivers. Sometimes both. A mere second of inattention can turn someone out for a pleasant morning walk into just another piece of road kill.

The number of pedestrians you see travelling the roads with backs to traffic is shocking. So are the number checking their phones as they walk or jog. Or, walking two or three abreast with buddies.

And, distracted drivers are everywhere. You see their vehicles drifting over the centre line or the right edge of the pavement as they check their cell phones.

Stephen King likely got the idea for Mr. Mercedes after being whacked during an afternoon walk back in 1999. A minivan hit him when its driver became distracted by his dog acting up in the back of the van.

King spent almost one month in hospital, had five operations and almost quit writing because he could not sit for more than 40 minutes at a time.

Accidents similar to King’s happen all the time in Ontario. Ninety-four pedestrians were killed on Ontario roads in 2014. That’s almost 20 per cent of all road fatalities in the province that year. The totals that year saw 3,617 pedestrians and 1,722 bicyclists injured or killed on Ontario’s roads.

Earlier this month Toronto police reported collisions involving 20 pedestrians or cyclists in less than 24 hours. Most did not involve serious injuries, but one man did die. Another died the following day when his bike ran into a vehicle.

Toronto, where driving, walking or cycling has become a madhouse experience, has seen roughly two dozen pedestrian and cyclist deaths in the first six months of this year. By year-end the city likely will have broken the record 40 pedestrian deaths set in 2013.

Walking, jogging or cycling our roads is wonderful exercise and a wonderful way to experience the outdoors. But it is dangerous if you simply step out onto the highway without thinking about how to ensure your safety.

Leave the cell phone or iPod at home. The wind in the trees and the birds singing are all the music that you need.

Wear light-coloured, high-visibility clothing, especially on those dull, cloudy days.

And walk facing the traffic. Why anyone would walk any road not being able to keep on an eye on the two- to three-ton mass speeding toward them is beyond my comprehension.

Pay attention to the oncoming traffic because there is a good chance that one or more of those drivers is not paying attention to you.

Also, some people might think that impaired walking is much preferable to impaired driving. They are of course right. However, drinking and walking or drinking and jogging are not the safest things to do.

Centres for Disease Control statistics show that 34 per cent of all pedestrians killed in U.S. traffic in 2013 had blood alcohol levels greater than 0.08 grams per decilitre. That’s the level considered for impaired driving in most jurisdictions.

Tipsy pedestrians apparently are a significant problem in parts of Europe. A year or so ago Spain was considering legislation forcing pedestrians to submit to breathalyser tests.

At any rate, it’s summer in cottage country and walking, jogging, cycling are all part of the enjoyment. Let’s just keep it safe.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Cabin at Ghostly Point - Part 3

(This is the third and final instalment of a summer campfire ghost story. All three parts can be found at:

The open door revealed a scene like nothing Shainie had ever seen. Shafts of sunlight entering the broken windows and cracks in the walls sliced the smoky dimness of the interior, highlighting once normal cottage contents now succumbing to years of neglect and decay. She could taste on the tip of her tongue the sour-sweet smell of damp rot.

Puffs of dust rose around her feet as she moved in slow motion through the cabin. A couch along one wall looked like a cartoon sketch, springs protruding through a faded floral fabric that had been scratched, chewed and soiled by mice and other forest creatures seeking protection from winter storms. A kitchen table and chairs stood beside the side window, plates, knives and forks set out in the dust and animal droppings as if waiting for a family of ghosts to arrive for an evening meal.

As she backed away from the table, Shainie’s boot tripped against an object, sending a scrapping noise echoing through the room, and in turn setting off scurrying noises in the cabin’s dark corners. She looked down and was horrified to see the object was a doll with its face chewed off.

A shadow with glowing eyes hissed and squealed from a corner. Shainie screamed and bolted to the rear door. Sunlight blinded her as she crashed through the rotting plank door.

The rear entrance top step was missing and her boot smashed through the next one, sending her tumbling onto debris scattered below.

When her eyes opened a few seconds later, Shainie wondered where she was and why her forehead was wet and throbbing. She touched the blood seeping from a gash that extended from her right eyebrow to her right temple. The fear that had seized her inside the cabin took hold of her again as she got to her feet unsteadily. She staggered, panicky and disoriented, towards the cliffs overlooking the lake.

She stumbled along not knowing where she was going or why, confused by alternating dizziness and blackness. The lake shimmered seemingly miles below her feet, which had difficulty rooting her firmly to the ground. Suddenly they were not rooted at all, and she sensed a rushing all around her, and the sky getting farther and farther away as she fell through the air above the lake.

The wildness and wetness of a storm tore at her face. The lake tossed and roared. The wind screamed like a tormented animal. A smashed canoe and a girl calling like a loon drifted by in her unconsciousness. 

Then a light, a brilliant light steady and safe drawing her closer and closer to Ghostly Point. The light softened and through it came the blurred outline of a face, her mother’s face, followed by her mother’s voice, then the pine ceiling and other familiar surroundings of her cottage bedroom.

That evening, after the gash on Shainie’s head had been cleansed and bandaged, and after her shock had been soothed by a few hours’ sleep under a down comforter, Shainie sat with her family on the deck overlooking Shkendang Lake. A thunderstorm had just swept the lake, leaving behind a gentle grey mist and a tranquility that deepened with the advancing twilight.

Shainie’s parents had told her about waking that morning to a noise at the dock. They had looked out to see their daughter lying wet and unconscious on the dock while the stern of a birch bark canoe disappeared in the distance.

They all were lost in their reflections about this strange day, staring into the greyness when a breeze parted the mist on the lake, revealing the dark outline of Ghostly Point. Then through the dimness appeared a light, faint but clearly visible to everyone sitting on the deck across the bay. Before anyone could speak, the breeze carried to them a low moan, almost a sobbing that crept across the glassy waters and along shoreline before becoming lost in the thickness of the trees.

“Moong. Wenesh aa-zhwebak?  Moooohhhng. G’giigoonke na gamiigoong? Loon. What happened? Loo...oon. Are you fishing on the lake?”


Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Cabin at Ghostly Point - Part 2

This is the second instalment of a campfire ghost story. See the first part here.

A local legend told that on nights when the grey mist following a big storm settled over Ghostly Point on Shkendang Lake, a moaning could be heard in the trees. A moan that pricked the skin and pulled at the heart. The Ojibwa said it was their leader crying for his only daughter - Laughing Loon, Moong in Ojibwa.

“Moong. Wenesh aa-zhwebak?  Moooohhhng. G’giigoonke na gamiigoong? Loon. What happened? Loo...oon. Are you fishing on the lake?”

The legend said he never stopped calling for Moong, who went onto the lake to fish one morning and never returned.

Moong was having such a productive fishing morning she did not notice an angry sky building in the northwest. Sickly green clouds with the texture of wet campfire ash loomed over the end of the lake.

A vicious wind suddenly spun out of the green-grey wall of cloud, shaping itself into a black funnel. Before Moong could reach for her paddle the funnel slammed her canoe sideways, chewing it to pieces and sucking everything around it into its horrible screaming mouth. Minutes later calm returned to the lake but there was not a trace of Moong, her fish catch or her canoe.

The legend of Shkendang Lake intensified many years later when the family who summered at the cabin on Ghostly Point stopped coming. No one knew what happened to them but it was rumoured their young daughter drowned while canoeing in the lake.

For Shainie Garrison, the most important story was the light at the abandoned cabin and why no one else ever saw it. She was determined to solve the mystery.

The cabin was off limits to the cottage children of Shkendang Lake. Its dilapidated condition made it a dangerous place. And, the  tales of the Ojibwa princess, and the family that mysteriously abandoned the cabin, floated in the area’s sub-consciousness.

The mystery of the light at the cabin had become so much more powerful than her parent’s prohibitions that Shainie knew she must go to Ghostly Point. The next morning while everyone slept she would creep out, paddle her canoe across the bay to investigate why she kept seeing a light that no one else saw.

Ghostly Point, when seen through the evening mist was appropriately named. But at dawn, streaks of yellow-red sunlight struck the pink and grey tumble of shoreline rocks, mixing with the morning blue sparkle of the lake and the leafy greens of the woods to create a rainbow of warm color.

Shainie beached her canoe on a strip of sand between the rocks and cautiously climbed the little hill on which the cabin sat. Where the hill started to flatten out, the rocky ground disappeared, replaced by a thick, soft blanket of long, brown pine needles shed by majestic white pines. These elegant sentinels stood rooted around the rock at all sides of the cabin, thinning out only at the back where another hill rose steeply to become the high, sheer cliffs that were a feature of the east side of Shkendang Lake.

The point was very still and quiet. Shainie imagined she could hear the trees breathe and the pine needles sigh as they compressed beneath her hiking boots. The only real sounds were unnerving snaps and creaks coming from the cabin, presumably caused by the breeze moving through the gaps in the log walls and breaks in the window panes.

She took a deep breath and swallowed hard through a dry mouth and tight throat as she approached the front porch. The steps leading to it had rotted and fallen away and the porch deck itself was a patchwork of rotting boards. The front door, once a beautiful work of hand tooled white pine, was battered, hanging off kilter on one hinge.

Shainie climbed the porch, stepping gingerly on the firmest-looking spots. Her fingers touched the door latch just as a lake breeze found its way through a window crack and rattled something inside the cabin. She jumped back, one foot falling through the porch with a crash. She caught her balance and her breath and pulled herself back up, pushing the door open to get a grip on the door frame.

Next week: Inside the cabin.