Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff

Posts Tagged ‘nature

NORWAY AND SORROW’S END

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The Spitsbergen’s thrusters whine into full power and gently push us away from the dock. In mid-harbour the helmsman takes advantage of the ship’s momentum and deftly executes an arc that turns the bow towards the channel markers. The main engines take over and we move, dead-slow, to the waiting open water just beyond the towering, treeless granite mountains standing on each side of the harbour mouth. Angry crags of rock dark from cloud shadow are sucking what sunlight they can into their crevices before the dark night clouds roll in.

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With the sun sinking behind us we are outward bound. A certain sadness sails with us.

September 19 – 3:30. On a soft, sun-filled afternoon Alice left us. She hadn’t the strength to fight any longer. Alzheimer’s had robbed her of her mind. Now it wanted her spirit. We were with her. She knew because she held Norma’s hand tightly. It was one of those late September days that borders on autumn but is reluctant to cross over. You know this because you can see the light changing – loosing its softness – the colours becoming vivid and taking on a harder edge as the sun prepares for the oncoming fall.

She was days away from her 94th birthday. We were days away from our trip to Norway.

 There was little time to grieve. Just time enough for us to stop in our tracks and think about what just happened. Time enough for arrangements and lawyers and wills and settlements and a multitude of phone calls and of course, packing and travel needs. In the midst of it all we realized that we would have to pack our sorrow and take it with us as we sailed the coast of Norway.

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There is nothing as exasperating as travel to take your mind off everything else. Caught in the computer labyrinth of check-in and customs. The lateness of flight departures. The guaranteed jet lag. The stress of tight transfer timelines. The unknown of arriving sleep deprived in an unfamiliar country. Some would say this is the down side of travel; taking yourself out of your comfort zone – trying to create a new “now” even though it is only temporary but must be mastered, quickly. Lawrence Durrell in “Bitter Lemons” described it well: “Journeys…A 1000 different circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will – whatever we may think.”

A new level of determination is needed because it is ‘travel’ – a personal challenge – a unfamiliar situation where you willingly place yourself – where the puzzle of logistics – the unfamiliar of an unknown place – the solving of ‘the way’ is your task. Maps, guidebooks, Internet recommendations don’t accurately deal with the new reality of location, language and customs. Hauling belongings. Running for trains. Searching for streets with unpronounceable names. Fighting fatigue. Lost in the din of strange words. Your best currency is your wit and your intelligence.

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When I was young. When I was dreaming dreams of traveling the world, I dreamt of sailing to strange places on a tramp steamer or a cargo ship crewed by misfits and lost souls running from their past – escaping from themselves. We would put-in to strange ports, drink rum in some noisy quayside bar, off-load cargo then sail on to repeat the same process in yet another port many nautical miles away.

I read stories of people who left their lives behind or vacationed recklessly as passengers on a rusty, creaky ship for months at a time seeking solitude, anonymity and the peace of just being themselves without the bother of having to be a tourist. This trip would be something like that only more civilized.

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The Spitsbergen is a supply ship for 200 travelers that stops in small ports up the coast of Norway, past the Arctic Circle turning at the Russian Border and heading back down again…a working ship with cruise ship amenities, but none of the luxury liner nonsense. It would be twelve days on the Norwegian Sea, time enough to move through the silent sorrow that was traveling with us.

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Lights creep towards us. As they come closer, they flash revealing a bigger ship approaching. Our bridge lights come full on. A blast from our ship’s horn startles us. Now the bridge lights of both vessels illuminate the darkness. Spitsbergen’s sister ship rushes past lights flashing as if waving. We rock with its wake. With engines full now we race ahead into the night of dark water.

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It was on this day that I learned of Henry’s passing. Henry had been a close friend since grade school. The loss of a childhood friend brings on a completely different feeling of grief than that of the loss of a family member. What is taken from you is a close relationship forged independently of family prerequisites. It is something deeply personal. A friendship founded on a sharing of intimate life-moments and experiences that infused your personality and contributed to your independence. And this independence let you leave your family; so to speak, so that you could become the individual you are now…the individual that only your friends would understand because they were there most steps of the way. Henry was one of those friends. But, like Alice, he left. And now we are sailing with the memory of them both.

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As we sailed this rugged, rocky mystic coast with its cliffs, crags, snow-capped mountains, mist, fog and fiords – this shrouded landscape with steep scree strewn slopes that slide straight into the Norwegian sea – where rain clouds chased the light until they both blended into a kaleidoscope of colours – where stars dominate the night skies and the aurorae dance to the unheard music of the universe – we realized this is the perfect place for remembrance:

 But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 30

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On a cold rainy overcast day, in an old wooden Sami church in Trumso, we lit a candle for Alice and a candle for Henry. And then we got on with our journey.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

November 13, 2016 at 3:13 PM

WALKING

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Not long ago I stood gazing up at the cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment rising high and ragged from the water on the far shore of Colpoys Bay. Not long after I found myself on the top of that same ridge marvelling at a reverse angle view of the small, curved sandy beach where I started.

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To get to this point, we entered Hope Bay Provincial Park, followed the Blue Blazes of the Bruce Trail Conservancy until the Hopeness Side Trail led us to this impressive panorama. It wasn’t a rigorous a walk up. That was yet to come when we left the trail and cautiously made our way down the cliff face in search of caves.

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We slid over leaf-mulched paths, skated down scree, circumnavigated moss covered boulders, traversed narrow slate strewn passages, free climbed short rock faces and fallen cedars while straight below us, through an occasional break in the trees, the crisp blue water of Georgian Bay sparkled in the sun.

In his essay ‘Walking’ David Henry Thoreau wrote, “When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us if we walked only in a garden or a mall?” This ‘walk’ was certainly no stroll through, “garden or mall’. The land set the pace. We had to measure up to it. Recently, though, I have leisurely strolled through fields and woods, taken walks on back roads, shorelines and town lines.

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 In fact Thoreau describes me perfectly when he writes, “…with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only…” Living here in Bruce and Grey County country has made these forays all the more possible.

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I have read Bruce Chatwin, Robert Macfarlane, Wade Davis, Edward Thomas and others. I have soaked up Robert Frost’s early poetry. I have lost myself in their stories about tracks and footprints, songlines and journeys into wild places, about their visions of the earth as a network of paths dating far back in prehistory.

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And I sometimes find myself regretting that I didn’t follow their lead a lot earlier in life. One must, in the cold face of reality, earn a living and live up to one’s obligations.

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At the same time it is important, for the sake of sanity, not to forget that there is another world beyond the borders that now hold most of us back.

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The therapeutic nature of walking, out beyond the confines of everyday circumstances and into the land, through fields, footpaths and country roads is restorative. A solitary stroll or hiking in the company of like-minded wayfarers lifts your spirit and lets you leave the known world far behind.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

July 5, 2013 at 6:00 PM

ADVERSITY

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Perhaps there is something about adversity that makes brothers and sisters of us all. Something in the sharing of what we choose to call our passion rather than just our hobby. Something about being out there in the soaking rain and wild wind, hiking a tortured root-twisted, rock-strewn, slippery trail in search of that perfect shot, that once-a-season-wildflower or that elusive bird you can hear but can’t see in the dense spring-green foliage. Birders and amateur botanists will understand. So will nature photographers, amateur or professional. At least, that’s my personal take after three foul weather days – two hiking the North Bruce and one photographing the waterfalls of Grey County (www.visitgrey.ca/waterfalls), in the company of strangers who willingly, without complaint, accepted whatever mother nature threw at us.

Day One was supposed to be spent on Flowerpot Island looking at the geology of the place and specifically orchids. But the pending high winds and storm coming in from the East cancelled the trip. Everyone was disappointed but graciously accepted Plan B. The rewards of this change first took us to the top of the National Park’s viewing tower where a Pileated Woodpecker glided by at our eye-level, banked directly in front of us, its slow, deep wing beats taking it to a treetop just eye-sight away. For some, it was a major sighting.

That afternoon on the Alvar Trail we came upon an Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake pretending to hide. We gawked and considered ourselves fortunate for the find. Continuing on we found another, coiled and from the sound of it, not pleased to be discovered. Two rattlers in the space of 15 minuets, it was a good day.

Day Two. Under darkening skies we headed to Malcolm Bluff Shores Nature Reserve (Malcolm Bluff Shores | Bruce Trail). It was cold. Winds were high. A heavy rain fell – not a good day. We hiked the lower trail. On one side it fell off steeply down to Georgian Bay. On the other a grey, cedar clad cliff face rose to a towering, heavily wooded precipice. A Black Throated Green Warbler was calling. My binoculars found it and I could finally say that I’d seen my first warbler. Not significant to anyone but me. We scrambled down a steep, slim, slippery path and scree to the rocky shoreline below to look for fossils but the pounding wind and rain drove us back up.

Malcolm Bluff Shores is a magnificent 1000 plus acre nature reserve with over 110 metres of elevation change and we happily climbed it all in what felt like a deluge. The top trail is spectacular as it hugs the crest of the cliff giving you spectacular lookouts that, in better weather, would probably present you with unlimited vistas of Georgian Bay. At that height, though, the gusts made covering the entire trail risky to say the least. So we headed home with a few lessons learned:

  • Wools socks stay warm when wet.
  • Glove liners are useless in the rain.
  • Gore Tex hiking boots are not always waterproof.
  • I need rain pants with pockets.
  • My rain gear is past its Best-Before-Date.
  • My camera doesn’t like the rain.

Day Three was a direct copy of days one and two only this time the objective was to photograph 4 different types of waterfalls. The idea of trying to shoot falling water in falling rain was amusing to me. Perhaps it was because waterfalls give off negative ions, which are supposed to be rejuvenating. That being said the adverse weather did not dampen our spirits (sorry for the pun) although at one point we did consider mutiny if only to preserve our cameras.

Plastic bags, wide brim hats and golf umbrellas held over tripods don’t necessarily keep splash spray away. In our defiance of Mother Nature the storm broke that afternoon and the sun shone…a just reward for our perseverance.

A fairly steep ascent up the side of a gorge brought us to a horseshoe shaped ‘bridal veil’ of falling water.They call Indian Falls a ‘classic plunge waterfall’ that drops about 15 metres into a bowl-shaped gorge.

Using a single leg of our tripods as walking sticks we navigated a tricky, narrow path down to its base. The drumming of the water into the bedrock sent spray all around us taking the place of the rain that had stopped. But, this was a wet infused with refreshing negative ions, so we had no choice but to be happy for it.

Our three days began under grey skies and ended under sunny skies. Through it all everyone stayed upbeat because were united under a common cause and here by choice. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why mere humans can oftentimes overcome nature’s adversity.  

A lone Dwarf Lake Iris on the Alvar Trail

Locked in the rock on the side of the gorge descending to Indian Falls

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

June 4, 2012 at 3:17 PM

HURON FRINGE – THE DAY BEFORE

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The sun is warm on my back. I am sitting at a picnic table at the edge of the Visitor’s Centre of MacGregor Point Provincial Park. It is the day before the beginning of The Huron Fringe Birding Festival. I’m here to help set up the Registration Tent…actually it’s more like one of those large steel-framed-plastic-covered garages that pop up on driveways all over town come fall. What with all the volunteers, though,  it was up in no time.

Now, I’m whiling away the morning until N. finishes with some organizational details for opening day tomorrow.

The Chickadees are feeding out of my hand. They stay in the park year-round and have no fear of people baring food. Actually, they expect handouts.

It is a spectacular day. Cool and sunny. Traces of wispy cirrus clouds are lying high in an unbelievable blue sky. I walk the trails just to waste time. It is forest-quiet except for bird sounds and bellowing bullfrogs. A turtle sunning itself on a log plops into the pond as I attempt a stealth approach. Overhead a red-winged Blackbird chases a crow. They dive, wheel and bank out over the water in tight formation…aerial acrobatics. The Blackbird wins.

Looking down I spot three brilliant yellow Lady’s Slippers. One must tread carefully out here. The spring wildflowers are starting to show.

Over the next two weekends I won’t be looking at birds. I will be spending a lot of  time looking at nature and the land, hiking the Huron Fringe coastline of Lake Huron and the Bruce Peninsula and trying to learn all about nature photography.

If my pictures are any good, I’ll show them to you. And if this beautiful country shows me anything special, I’ll tell you about that too.


BIRDING

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Early on a November Sunday.

The sun had melted the frost that came by night and the remaining moisture hung in a haze over the Sound. The grass was still green. A few leaves, drained of colour remained on the trees. The day started out warm and comfortable. It was a typical ‘British Morning’. So says Peter, our guide for the day.

I am here looking out over Owen Sound with Birders from the Owen Sound Field Naturalists. Now, I am not a birder. Far from it. But, I am outside, under an unbelievable blue sky, in the company of people who find staring at waterfowl from a distance, fascinating. They come armed with books; binoculars and spotting scopes, which make birding, look like a very expensive hobby.

As the day, progresses, and we scoot from location to location, literally circling the Sound from one shore to another searching for different species of ducks, geese and biggest genus of sea gull in the world…I am impressed. I am impressed with the fine points of difference between ducks and greater and lesser geese recently arrived, thanks to the shift in jet stream, from different parts of Canada’s north.

And there were firsts for me as well. I saw pure white Snow Geese for the first time. I had never seen Snow Buntings before. They’re big. And their winter plumage gives them hawk-like colouring. Across from the grain elevators on the foreshore just in front of the weeds a Great Blue Herron stood silent as a sentry.

Its regal head turned slowly as if watching me watching it through the binoculars. It too, is big.

I learned that is it OK to talk, but softly, as you approach birds sitting close to shore. You won’t spook them this way. They know you’re not a threat if they hear and see you. Why? Because predators move swiftly and silently.

I learned that birders never stop birding. A prime example of this happened on Grey Road One as we drove past Cobble Beach. Peter, from the open window in the lead vehicle, frantically waving and pointing skyward, suddenly pulled off the road. We scrambled to follow suit without a long rear-ender. He jumped out and ran from car to car. There up in the sky, just above us, a Bald Eagle was gracefully riding the wind off Georgian Bay in lazy circles. It must have been a crazy sight to the motorists that zipped by us…14 people with binoculars trained on a dark, white-headed bird who couldn’t care less.

Birders know what to look for and where. They love nature. They love the land. They know what they’re doing. And I would follow them again just to be amazed at a world most of us tend to ignore.

Peter discovered this epitaph on a grave in Suffolk. The author was not recorded but the date was 1560:

The wonders of this world,

The beauty and the power,

The shapes of things,

Their colours, lights and shades:

These I saw.

Look ye also, while life lasts

Good advice.