Second on our tour of the Georgian Bay area was Discovery Harbour, home of (replicas of) HMS Tecumseth, HM Schooner Bee and the attendant jolly-boat, skiff and gig. Neither original ship ever saw action, though both were used to transport troops and supplies following the War of 1812. The current site includes a long stretch of the shoreline and several semi-original naval buildings, one of which (the officers’ house) is deliciously air-conditioned. We wandered around until closing time, throwing occasional Patrick O’Brian quips around and carefully avoiding the golf cart-driving press-gang.
September 18, 2011
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September 4, 2011
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When Amy’s parents came over for a visit recently, we took the opportunity to do something relatively touristy and drove a few hours north to Midland and the historic sites of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons and the Martyr’s Shrine. Sainte-Marie among the Hurons was established in 1639 by French Jesuits, making it the first permanent European settlement in what is now Ontario. It would last about ten years before increasing warfare with the First Peoples forced its abandonment, and the retreating inhabitants burned it down rather than see it fall into enemy hands. The site was then forgotten about for a few hundred years, excavated in the mid-nineteenth- and mid-twentieth centuries, and reconstructed in the 1960s as a historical site and living museum.
We rolled up in the late morning, having paused somewhere north of Toronto for the audaciously-named “World’s Best Butter Tarts” at a combination bakery/estate agent/souvenir store. The site was quite a lot larger than I’d pictured it, a grassy enclosure dotted with large buildings and exuding a air of general industriousness. Wandering around, we came across a settler (unsuccessfully) demonstrating how to make fire the local way with a fire bow, a smith using a wood-fired forge to make iron nails and a baker in a stupendously hot house finishing off some corn bread (wheat would have been paddled in from Québec, and hence would have been in very short supply). The whole enterprise spoke of self-sufficiency, community and hardship in what at the time would have been a near-wilderness.
The Martyr’s Shrine next door was constructed in 1926 to commemorate the Jesuits who died at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, and enjoys spectacular views over Georgian Bay. The interior of the church is constructed to look like a birch-bark canoe, which, as the principal means of transport in the region, would have held immense significance to the settlers and native peoples alike. Statues of various saints, holy people and significant events in the life of Jesus are scattered around the grounds, including a representation of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first native North American to be beatified in the Roman Catholic Church. We shared the site with hordes of tourists/pilgrims from all over the world; remarkable for a relatively small site.
August 21, 2011
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On the warm and sunny evening following our epic tour of Montréal’s natural history attractions, I hiked up the undulating slopes of Mont-Royal to take a closer look at the imposing might of Saint Joseph’s Oratory (Oratoire Saint-Joseph). On my way, I passed the famous Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery – Canada’s largest cemetery and final home of several important figures in its history (had I know that at the time, I might have lingered there to seek out some of its luminaries).
The Oratory rises up out of the surrounding hills like a spacecraft, and therefore boasts excellent views of the city and surrounding countryside (which is of critical importance to all Assassin’s Creed II players). I approached the enormous main doors, passing a few pilgrims, and was immediately directed into the side door – the front doors are presumably only used for special occasions. In the dimly-lit basement, I encountered a small grotto with spring-water (every good site of religious significance needs one), and thousands of crutches and canes case aside by people who’d been healed. The healer in question, Brother (now Saint) André Bessette, refused to take any credit for his work and directed all enquiries up to Saint Joseph (hence the Oratory). On one of the upper floors is a small memorial to Brother André, including his tomb, hospital bed and preserved heart (somehow stolen in 1973, but recovered the following year) – the smell of formaldehyde was a little overpowering, and I beat a respectful retreat into the surprisingly Spartan main hall.
The following morning, we walked over to McGill University and the charming McCord Museum of Canadian History (Musée McCord), as the name suggests an enormous collection of artifacts and documents relating to the long and tumultuous history of Canada. Since I knew next to nothing about Canadian history, we opted for the self-guided tour and were lent an iPod with an excellent museum guide app. Among the ingenious First Nations clothing, indecipherable political cartoons and paintings of colonial unrest we came across something that Amy described as “le hockey sweater”. Inspired by my blank look, she collected a couple of museum wardens and had them give us a quick summary of francophone-anglophone tensions in modern Québec. The sweater in question was Maurice Richard‘s Montréal Canadiens ice hockey uniform, and the subject of a well-known book. We headed out for dinner significantly more knowledgeable.
November 1, 2010
By a remarkable coincidence, Amy and I had moved to a city with its very own open-to-the-public telescope: the David Dunlap Observatory. Most weekends while the weather isn’t too cold, the observatory opens its doors to the general public and allows them access to the 74-inch reflecting telescope, the largest in Canada and responsible in part for the first direct evidence of black holes. Amy and I queued up for a while, took a look at the Moon very close up and then went out onto the Observatory lawn to take a look at Jupiter and its moons through the local astronomers’ hobby scopes.
We also got the chance to test out my awesome birthday present from Amy – a hand-held 20×50 Soviet telescope in fetching party-approved colours. The stamp reads TУPИCT-3 (sometimes Romanised as TYPNCT-3), which translates to “Tourist-3”, and the manufacturer stamp indicates that it was made at the Lytkarino Optical Glass Factory (ЛЗОС/LZOS) just outside of Moscow. With a tripod (which I have, thanks to standardised thread sizes), it’s easily capable of resolving the nearer and larger heavenly bodies when the light pollution permits. I now have to figure out some way of attaching it to my camera.
May 22, 2010
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The week before last, Amy and I took a very long (around 2700 km) road trip down to North Carolina (in the USA) to attend Kate’s Ph. D. graduation. We opted to drive there (taking around two fourteen-hour days) rather than fly in an effort to save the environment – even taking infrastructure into account, multi-occupancy cars are far greener than aeroplanes. The stand-out event of the trip was our GPS inexplicably taking us along single-track roads through the middle of Kingdom Come State Park and then (almost) over a bridge that wasn’t there anymore. As we turned around to find an alternative route, a dog raced out from a nearby house and tried to attack the car, stalling us for several minutes while we crept forwards to avoid running him over. We later found out that the GPS was set to avoid toll roads, which would have cost around $8 for time savings of 1-2 hours.
Our first excursion in the subtropics was to the Durham Museum of Life and Science, a renowned centre for the natural sciences a short walk away from Kate’s house. We were given some indication of what to expect there when we were woken up by twittering cardinals, saw large turtles in a stream, were warned about copperhead snakes (Agkistrodon contortrix) on the path and stumbled across a concrete brontosaurus on our way there. We had also (coincidentally) arrived just in time to catch an insect feeding (of fruit flies to poison dart frogs and crickets to assassin bugs) and a butterfly release (of newly-hatched specimens from Ecuador).
After a quick tour of the rest of the insectarium (including an orchid mantis, Hymenopus coronatus, and various spiders, beetles and caterpillars), we braved the sweltering heat to explore the fairly large outdoor section of the museum and quickly met Ranger Greg Dodge, who was walking around showing an eyed click beetle (Alaus oculatus) he’d found to various visitors. As we wandered around the wetland habitat, spotting bears, red wolves (Canis lupus rufus), ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta), blue and green herons (Ardea herodias and Butorides virescens respectively) and lots of insects and frogs, he would show up every now and then to tell us about what we were looking at and what we’d seen on the drive down (principally roadkill, but also lots of turkey vultures, Cathartes aura).
April 10, 2010
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Amy and I were long overdue for a trip out to Fort Whyte, Winnipeg’s brilliant nature and interpretive centre, and so positively jumped at the opportunity to attend the launch of the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas. The Atlas is a long-term citizen science project which aims to build up an accurate picture of resident and visiting birds – crucial for determining habitats and numbers. We were lured there partly by the chance to chat to interesting bird-watching types and partly by the wine and cheese on offer, but mostly by the opportunity to meet a long-eared owl (Asio otus) and a northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus).
Note: No owl extermination occurred. The title of this post is one of my and Amy’s most-quoted lines from the Futurama filmBender’s Game. Enjoy it here. And yes, the title of the last post was also an appropriate Futurama quote, this time from Nibbler.
March 13, 2010
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A few days later than planned, I boarded an overnight train to Shanghai (上海) and once again entered China proper. As I watched the countryside whizz by, the sheet scale and pace of construction staggered me – there was not a single kilometre we passed that did not have either an apartment complex, road or train line being put together out of steel and concrete. Needless to say, the land itself was a Bosch-like chaos of litter, discoloured water, mud, factories and half-demolished buildings, and my reacquaintance with China was quite depressing.
I arrived in Shanghai just before lunchtime, met up with Dan (whom you may remember from previous exploits in Korea) and proceeded to find the Propaganda Poster Art Museum just over the road from his apartment. After a quick tour through communist history, we went in search of lunch and discovered that the two vegetarian restaurants in the area had both closed down (presumably due to lack of clientèle in meat-ubiquitous China). Our wanderings were frequently punctuated by the machine-gun-like reports of firecrackers going off – at New Year, everyone gets hold of as many fireworks as they can and sets them off in the street. For days after the main events, the roads and pavements are awash with tattered red confetti from the wrappings.
Left: The southern moat bridge in Suzhou. Below, left to right: Bao’en Temple from Beisi Pagoda in Suzhou.
I had an extra day before moving on, and we decided to go to nearby Suzhou (苏州) as both of us had seen quite a bit of Shanghai already. Unfortunately, several hundred other people had the same idea and we couldn’t get a train until the afternoon (though it did give us the chance to check out M50, an art collective in an old warehouse complex not unlike The Custard Factory in Birmingham). Pointedly ignoring all the taxi touts (perhaps a mistake, as things turned out), we walked over the river to Bao-en Temple and hiked up the nine-storey Beisi Pagoda to the rather precarious viewing balcony hundreds of feet above the city. Suzhou is known as the “Venice of the East”, but the only water we could see was in the temple pond behind us. We picked our way down again and walked the few kilometres to the Master of the Nets Garden, a formal garden that turned out to be closed. As did all the others – the city more or less shuts down at dusk, and we were out of time all too soon.
Left: A gazebo in Bao’en Temple. Below, left to right: Candles in Bao’en Temple, giant incense sticks in Bao’en Temple; Views from and of Beisi Pagoda.
From Shanghai, I managed to get a train going north to Qingdao (青岛) despite the New Year-travelling masses still persisting (most people had Monday to Friday off, but had to work the following Saturday and Sunday as regular days) and presented myself at the brilliantly-used Old Observatory Youth Hostel for my final days in China. I spent most of my free time walking around the European-style streets and waterfront, though did not get to see the new Olympic facilities as they turned out to be sited several miles away. Such is the rate of redevelopment in China, I reasoned that there was a good chance I’d stumble across an abandoned building while exploring (and, indeed, I did find an entire neighbourhood in mid-demolition). However, the whole place is so derelict to start with that there is no sure-fire way to tell which buildings are abandoned and which are just dilapidated and still in normal use.
Left: The Old Observatory Astrodome. Below, left to right: Qingdao from Zhongshan Park, Qingdao from Gianxiangshan Park; A vine in Gianxiangshan Park, the Old Observatory Astrodome, teh French-built telescope in the Astrodome.
Weidong Ferry, the operator that runs the China-Korea passenger routes, has two near-the-middle-of-the-line ferries packed with useful facilities such as shops, saunas and eateries. Although a rough crossing would still inevitably mark me as a landsman, I was not particularly concerned about the level of comfort I would experience and prepared my ditty bag for the midshipman’s berth accordingly. I was therefore uncommon hipped when the shuttle bus pulled up outside that infernal slug, the Queen Qingdao – an ancient transport drafted in while the more opulent New Golden Bridge V was refitted. I quickly made my assessment of the new post: nothing in the convenience store except water, Tsingtao beer and Korean canned coffee; nothing in the restaurant except rice, soup and assorted Korean pickled side dishes; no entertainment facilities except a TV in the room; no bathing room; top speed several points off the wind so we would arrive at least five hours late; rust and holes in the deck commonplace; an exterior door wedged open with another door that had fallen off; broken structural supports fixed with Sellotape; all toilet paper used up before the ship was even out of the harbour (note: unfortunately, none of this has been made up or exaggerated). There were, however, three Nutmegesque consolations that made the voyage bearable: I had my own capsule-like berth and so did not have to sail sardine class; said berth had a working power point so I could at least use my laptop; the sea was extremely smooth and I barely felt any swell at all.