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.
August 4, 2011
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On our first full day in Montréal, Amy and I stayed true to form and made a beeline for the natural history attractions. The Insectarium was closed, but we did manage to tour the Biodôme (housed in the velodrome / Judo dojo from the 1976 Olympic Games) and the Botanical Gardens (founded in 1931 after years of campaigning by Québec botanist Brother Marie-Victorin).
Top left: A flower in the Botanical Gardens. Above left: Olympic Park. Above right: Grey-winged trumpeters (Psophia crepitans). Below left: Ibis, probably scarlet. Below right: An otter, probably river.
Above left: A small turtle. Above right: A seabird, probably a tern or kittiwake. Below: Unidentified seabirds.
Above left: Flowers in the Botanical Gardens. Above right: A capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris). Below: Flowers in the Botanical Gardens.
June 18, 2011
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A few weeks ago (yes, it’s been that long since I had sufficient idle time to update), Amy and I took a mini-break in the cosmopolitan heart of colonial Canada, Montréal. Our touristy adventures at various sights will be chronicled in later posts, but I wanted to mention first and foremost what will certainly prove to be the stand-out highlight of our trip.
On our first evening in the city, we sought out dinner at a busy Italian-flavoured place and were rewarded with fresh pesto and bread (things almost undreamed-of with our single-income food budget and my lacklustre cooking skills), along with excellent pizza and salads. We took the scenic route back to our hotel, and Amy almost immediately spotted a “Hey! Join us!” sign attached to an ice hockey stick being waved from the roof of a four-storey building. Never ones to turn down a blog post hook, we yelled up at the waver and were invited up toutesuite (note: for the record, I was mildly incredulous that we would associate with strangers on rooftops but things worked out for the best, as you will read).
A runner was sent down to fetch us, and we climbed to the upper storey of the building, through a hole in the kitchen’s upper wall and then through a trapdoor onto the rooftop proper. We were greeted enthusiastically by a small group of students who were drinking cocktails out of small bowls and trying to entice more people up onto the roof to enjoy the evening. With music streaming from an internet radio station and another round of drinks forthcoming, we settled down to chat the night away above one of downtown Montréal’s busiest nightlife areas. We had so much fun, we went back the following evening with cider and snacks.
March 19, 2011
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Left: The main Parliament building.
Last week, as part of a training programme for a new volunteer position, I was whisked up to Ottawa aboard a surprisingly European-feeling train and introduced to the upper echelons of the circles in which I now move. I had hoped to take my evenings to wander around and explore the place, but the climate did not cooperate. Coming from the relatively temperate surrounds of Toronto, I was quite unprepared for Ottawa’s horizontal snow and inch-thick layer of ice on the pavements (this is not an exaggeration – I saw quite a few people with crampons, two car accidents and could easily have skated everywhere I needed to go). With the hideous weather effectively limiting me to indoor activities, I wrangled a temporary public library pass (having already approached the National Library and discovered that it isn’t actually a library) and caught up on some work that VIA Rail’s flimsy fold-out tables had prevented me from doing earlier on.
On my second night at my rather plush hotel, there was a break in the rain (that the snow had turned to) and I rushed out (very carefully now that the ice on the pavements was covered with a sheet of water) to take a look at the home of Stephen’s Regime. This is how I am unofficially referring to Canada’s government since the prime minister’s office dictated that all communications use the term “Harper Government” instead of “Government of Canada”. Most of the government buildings seemed pretty Londonesque to my untrained eyes, and sited with plenty of space to loom over pedestrians (land presumably being at less of a premium). I suppose that this means there’s more space for people to come and demonstrate too, should there be a suitable break in the weather.
Above left: The west block Parliament building. Above right: The east block Parliament building. Below left: A lamp outside Parliament. Below centre: A tower on the east block Parliament building. Below right: The National War Memorial.
January 27, 2011
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Above: The canyon floor in Zion National Park.
Sometime during the summer of 2001, I got it into my head to go hiking in the backwoods of Utah – most likely due to coming across photographs of Bryce Canyon in National Geographic or some similar publication. It was quite ambitious for my first trip outside of Europe, especially since my research had highlighted the appalling lack of public transport and the worrying presence of bears and scorpions. Nonetheless, I worked out a short itinerary from Salt Lake City and, this being the era before the criminalisation of air travel, headed off with few misgivings.
Above: Kolob Canyons, Zion National Park. Below left: The Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City.
Back then, I wasn’t paranoid about getting shot and walked the sixteen blocks from the airport bus station to my hostel without a second thought (the hostel owner found this incomprehensible – one of the first things he said to me was, “Only an Englishman would walk sixteen blocks”). An intercity bus took me down to St. George the following day (dropping me off at a fast food restaurant, where I sampled my first – and hopefully last – root beer), and I walked (again to general surprise) to the local campsite. Once settled in, I went looking for supplies and was directed towards the local Wal-Mart, a few miles away. There were no pavements, and so I had to plough through the furze on the roadside while about one out of every four cars beeped at me (when I asked the campsite proprietor why this happened, he shrugged: “Just sayin’ hi”).
Above: Snow Canyon State Park. Below left: Zion National Park.
Over the following week or two, I hit up this corner of the state’s main attractions: Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Kodachrome Basin State Park and Snow Canyon State Park (unfortunately, there wasn’t time to do Arches National Park as well). Looking back almost ten years later, much of this is now a montage of immense sandstone cliffs, roadrunners (Geococcyx californianus; actually a member of the cuckoo family), pine trees growing in sand, preposterously huge camper vans (practically mobile houses) and eerie hoodoos (small sandstone pillars formed through erosion and weathering).
I had a day to spare in Salt Lake City on my way back to Europe, and made myself rather unpopular at the Church History Museum by asking why the church leaders (whose portraits were prominently displayed) were all old white guys. The attendant replied that the church was a family, that men were the natural leaders of families and that age was equivalent to wisdom.
Above: Kodachrome Basin State Park. Below left: Snow Canyon State Park. Below right: Lava tunnels in Snow Canyon State Park.
Above left: Zion National Park. Above right: Snow Canyon State Park. Below left: Dixie National Forest. Below right: Forest from Zion National Park.
Above left: A hoodoo shaped like Queen Victoria. Above right: Cedar Breaks National Monument. Below: The Under-the-Rim Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park.
Above: Bryce Canyon National Park.