Sunday, July 28, 2013


This young lady was my great aunt, who gloried in the name of Glencoe Pretoria Ladysmith Andrews.  The Boer War, ongoing at the time of her birth, must have given rise to the latter two of her given names.  We don't know why Glencoe, and since her father left her an orphan at the age of two, we probably never will.  All the same, Glencoe has been passed down the generations in the family, as has Pretoria.  If I'd been thinking at the time, I could have saddled Emily with Ladysmith, but I didn't. While watching the weather report the other day,  I discovered  that there is a place called Ladysmith in Quebec, just across the Ottawa River. Because of the tenuous family association, I said idly.  "Hmm...I should go there one day, just to see what it's like".    The chance came up on Friday to go and check it out!

The Pontiac, The Outaouais.  I'm always hearing them mentioned on the news and weather, and they ARE just across the Ottawa River from here, but to me they've always had a mystique. They're nebulous, unlikely places, pockets of anglicism in a francophone province.  With Anglo names like Shawville, Bryson, and Morrison's Island,  they were settled in the days when enormous pines lent their extravagant pagoda shapes to the rough hillsides, and the mighty rivers were the only highway into the woods.  When I say "the Pontiac"  I can see in my mind's eye the woodsmoke drifting up from hidden cabins in those blue hills.

But now, it was time to see what the north shore of the Ottawa is like in the here and now!  As we neared Renfrew on Highway 17,  the first red granite outcrops made me feel right at home.  You can take a Northern Ontario girl out of the north, but you'll never take away the longing for feet on granite, the crisp oxygenated air, and the taste of blueberries on her tongue.

We crossed the river on the hydro dams at Portage-du-Fort.  Five impassable falls were here before the river was dammed. That explained the "portage" part of the name.  Whether or not there was a fur post here in the days of the voyageurs and the fur trade is in dispute.  There was most certainly one up the river at Fort Coulonge.

  As we entered the village, I could see that it had been here for some time. (in fact, as I learned later, they'd just celebrated their 150th anniversary)   The main buildings were of limestone, rough faced with many chipped out dimples, just the way I like them.  An open green separated the lower street from the one on which the church sat.  The backhoes digging up every street in town rather destroyed the illusion, so we didn't tarry but headed north through Shawville to our destination, 20 km to the north.

We were soon out into the countryside with rolling fields of glistening barley, fat cows, and  belts of dark green woods surrounding enclaves of rich farmland.  Refreshing!

We reached our destination in no time, where we were greeted by a surprised young fox with a hairless tail.  Of course, I did not get his picture, as he melted into the grapevines by the road in no time flat.  So I took the town sign instead.

Ladysmith herself was a demure, somewhat decrepit gentlewoman who had fallen on hard times.  Never more than a cross-roads village, she still had a church with the white rose of England emblazoned on the portico, a pleasant hillside graveyard, a hotel, a former hotel, and a depanneur, which was once a store.  After exploring all that the village had to offer, we thought we would go to Fort-Coulonge, and I, tired of the garbling of place names by the feckless Brit who lives in our gps, went in to get a map. (If he converted Chemin de L'Ile to Church de la Lylee one more time, I was going to have to pull the plug on him).

The woman behind the very busy counter looked at me, sized me up, and then said  "Hello!" in English.  "How do they do that?"  I wonder every time I go somewhere in Quebec. " How do they know I'm not francophone?"  She turned out to be a German immigrant, so perhaps she instinctively recognized a fellow "tête carrée".  She didn't have a map, but gave me very explicit instructions on the best way to get to Fort-Coulonge.  The most important of these was "about a mile out of town, stay straight!"

The feckless Brit driving the car chose to ignore her instructions and sided with the advice of his electronic countryman, but that is another story!  Having achieved my objective, I was happy to go wherever we went.  As we trundled along a summer road through a nature preserve, hoping like heck we wouldn't meet anyone and have to back up for several kilometres, I was thinking....I wonder how many OTHER Ladysmiths there are.  Gotta catch 'em all!

Saturday, July 27, 2013


It is the paradox of working in the environmental assessment business that we are part of the process of irrevocable destruction of the natural world, usually in favour of soulless residential or industrial development which will forever make the land unsuitable for a return to nature.  Sometimes we can swallow the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of the stomach by saying to ourselves that at least we care about the resources that we are seeking out, and that if there is anything there to find, we will be sure to do so, because we care.  Other time we rationalize our work; after all, we have to eat too.  But sometimes, it gets to me.

We went to look at a piece of property near Ottawa the other day in order to price a job.  The land was in corn so it was going to be hard going.

"Watch out for Baseball Players!" Nick joked as we plunged into the space between the last two rows.  Within seconds we were soaked with dew and covered with miniscule cuts from the razor sharp edges of the corn leaves.  It was a jungle in there.  

Eventually, we came out of the corn into a wood.  We saw the telltale cedar rail fences, all down now, that marked the field boundaries.  Somewhere in this wood were the remains of a nineteenth century cabin.  We already knew who had lived there, an Irish emigrant, who'd left his impoverished homeland on the promise of more land that he could even imagine at home.  He'd struggled to clear the land, planted crops, made a home.  The only traces now, amid the car dealerships and hockey stadiums we knew were just on the other side of the trees, were these fences and perhaps some lumps and bumps which indicated where the foundations of the cabin had lain.  

The edge of the wood was thick with cedar, shrubs and bramble, but once inside, the going was easier.  Until I got a sharp smack on the head by a ninja grapevine, that is.  Instant goose-egg!  

As we struggled through the rest of the wood into the meadow which lay on the verge of a major road, I could feel the pain in my head, the pulling of the wet denim across my thighs. The smell of sweet white pea and road dust were in my nostrils.  I felt more alive than usual because I was doing something in the world and I'd engaged all my senses.  I felt great!

It made me think about the book I'd been reading about rewilding,  Feral, by George Monbiot.  He argues that we need to have places which are uncontrolled by humans to improve the health of the planet and reduce what he calls our "ecological boredom".   The places I'd just been were rich with plants and birds and butterflies.  The places we were walking now were sterile and supported only a few species of animal; humans, their pets and their pests, and the odd transitory bird.  Not a great trade-off.  

The feeling of loss became more intense as we explored the next part of the property.  Here we could walk easily into the woods on an old farm track, across meadows and through a cedar wood. In the warm July sunshine it was paradisical.

  Waxcap mushrooms, deerflies,  coyote scat and bicycle tracks told the story of the dominant species here.  Fritillaries fluttered among the black-eyed susans and Queen Anne's lace.  The bedrock was right at the surface here which meant that the land had never been "useful" as anything but second-rate pasture, but everywhere were signs that humans were really enjoying having the land available for recreation.  These were the very humans who had led to the destruction of this very environment by buying up the houses on offer in the next block.  Did they really imagine they'd get to keep this idyllic back forty?  You can bet they'll be p.o'd when the first shovels go in.  

Rampant urban sprawl.....coming soon to a meadow near you.....Ugh.  But as long as the almighty dollar trumps our understanding that we can't go on like this, that is what we'll get.  Makes me want to stop mowing the lawn.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


The weather is HOT.  I got up and made sour cherry jelly before the kitchen became unbearable.  Then, although it was still early, I thought, why not go for a swim.  Our local beach is a five minute drive from here.  To get down to the water you have to mince your way down a loose gravel track. Walking so slowly gives you a chance to admire the dark shade of the woods on either side, and to take in the sweet odour of cedar and sumac.  

The beach itself is not so much of a beach as a flat grassed space with trees all around.  When I arrived, no one was there, which I realized was what I'd been wanting all along.  The water was absolutely still, and the water level lower than usual.  Three fair sized boulders stood almost entirely exposed in the shallows, their mirror images reflecting in the lake, giving the whole scene a Zen quality.  
I entered the water silently.  I like to ease myself into swimming in any case.  The clarity of the water was exquisite.  It seemed to act as a convex lens.  From wherever I stood, I seemed to be in a bowl with the walls of stone rising up around me.  Tiny bubbles on the surface made giant bubble shadows on the floor of the lake.  Each concentric ring of disturbance around me created a rainbow on the lake bottom.  From certain angles of view, each stone was fringed by rainbow colours. Even my white legs, magnified, were covered in a reticulated pattern of light, as if I were some fantastic rainbow jaguar.
Soon I was creating a rainbow nimbus around my shadow and sending out overlapping fans of colour into the world.  

Time stood still.  I felt completely relaxed in the way that you did when you were a child and there were no agendas.  There was a kind of silence around me that had nothing to do with noise.  There was noise, of course.  From the cottages around the shores came laughter and the sounds of cooking.  Gulls cried, boats putted by, but I was in my little bubble of wonder.

As I treaded water (should be trod, I'm sure but that sounds wrong) I watched paired dragonflies, hunting and mating at the same time.  I watched a roiling of the water indicating a large fish feeding near the surface move toward me.  Won't he get a surprise, I thought.  Soon it was my turn to be surprised.   Around my legs I began to notice groups of curious fish of several species, neatly camouflaged by being exactly the same colour as the lake bottom, coming to see if those big yellowiah columns of my legs might be food.  Blue gills flashed their icy neon fins at me, in the company of some fish I can't identify, and once, I saw the dark tigery stripes of a young muskellunge.

A cloud darkened the bluffs on the opposite shore, and in an instant everything had changed.  An elderly couple whom I'd seen walking earlier came down to the shore, followed by a mother and two small boys, with a joyous, stick fetching black lab.  A flotilla of haughty teenaged girls in kayaks finned by, silent and majestic.  I hoped they were having a Zen moment too.  But mine was over.  I swam around a bit more, then headed for the hill.  Its a stiff climb but the last of the wild strawberries and the first of the wild blackberries gave me a good excuse to stop on the way up.

Moments like these are pure summer.

I wish I had had a camera with me, but I didn't so you'll just have to use your imagination, or go swimming, whichever one suits you best!