Quetico again

Setting out at Bayley's Bay

Setting out at Bayley’s Bay

On my first canoe trip to Quetico, I was too young to grow a beard. If I’d been able to do so, it would have been dark brown, almost black. On my second trip, just completed, I managed to grow a thick beard, this time all white.

Lingering snow

Lingering snow

In the intervening 53 years Quetico has remained at the heart of one of the most popular wilderness areas in the world, one that includes five major jurisdictions across the US/Canadian boundary. It’s still a place with no traffic, no roads, no plane flights, and no motorboats. There aren’t even marked campsites or portage trails.

"Enjoying" a portage

“Enjoying” a portage

At the time of our recent trip there were instead, moose, wolves, eagles, loons, beavers, frogs, turtles, and abundant plant life, but no humans or much sign of humans for nearly the entire trip.

Adapting to cold

Adapting to cold

I can now feel every joint and every muscle in my body, from my toes to my fingers. There were times on portage trails where dead trees blocked the path and rocks seemed impossibly high and slick, when I wondered what we could have been thinking to plan such a trip.

Camp visitor

Camp visitor

Pictographs at Picture Rock

Pictographs at Picture Rock

Stream between lakes

Stream between lakes

But there were other times when we could hear wolves howl or watch loons play, when we could see waterfalls, follow meandering streams, or just connect with nature in a way that rarely happens, even on Cape Cod. At those times, I felt very fortunate to have had the opportunity go on both Quetico trips, and was reminded how fortunate we all are that such (semi-)wilderness places still exist.

Canoeing to sanity?

More and more do we realize that quiet is important to our happiness. In our cities the constant beat of strange and foreign wave lengths on our primal sense beats us into neuroticism, changes us from creatures who once knew the silences to fretful, uncertain beings immersed in a cacophony of noise which destroys sanity and equilibrium. –The Singing Wilderness, 1956, by Sigurd F. Olson

Sigurd F. Olson

Sigurd F. Olson

Sigurd F. Olson was an author who sparked the environmental movement of the 1960s and 70s. It is now 60 years since he wrote The Singing Wilderness, where he talked how wilderness helps us become “aware with our entire beings rather than our senses.” Even then, he realized how modern life can destroy our “sanity and equilibrium.’

Olson spent most of his life in the Ely, MN area. For more than thirty years, he worked as a canoe guide during the summer months in the Quetico-Superior country, then taught and wrote about natural history, ecology, and outdoor life. He helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964, as well as to establish Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Point Reyes National Seashore in California.

As a culmination of his half century of effort, full wilderness status was granted to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in 1978. The combined region of contiguous lakes and forests comprising the BWCAW, Superior National Forest, Voyageurs National Park and Ontario’s Quetico and La Verendrye Provincial Parks is called the “Quetico-Superior country”, or simply the “Boundary Waters.”

Picture rocks on Crooked Lake

Picture rocks on Crooked Lake

Is it crazy to do something crazy in order to become less crazy, to seek to restore that sanity and equilibrium? Susan and I are about to set out on an adventure that should be fun, enlightening, challenging, even joyful, but which I question in my saner moments.

Back in 1963, I found that quiet beauty on a two-week trip to Quetico Provincial Park in the southern part of NW Ontario. As I wrote,

It was a wonderful trip in many ways. We stayed up most of one night watching a rare display of the Aurora Borealis, which filled the sky for hours. The sun was shining, the fishing was good, and there was great singing, story-telling, and endless argument about the meaning of life around the campfires.

However, the trip ended in disaster, as you can read in the post linked above. Coincidentally, Olson wrote about the area in a National Geographic article, “Relics from the rapids,” which appeared the very month we returned from that trip. Although I’ve canoed nearby, I’ve never been back to Quetico itself and certainly not to the Picture Rocks where the disaster occurred, until now.

Quetico Provincial Park, with 2000 lakes

Quetico Provincial Park, with 2000 lakes

There are several reasons to advise against a return to Quetico at this time. As I get closer to the day I wonder whether it’s wise to revisit the site of the disaster. Beyond that, I find that I’ve somehow grown older over the past 53 years. I hear that lakes can take longer to paddle across, that portage trails are steeper, and that nights are colder than when one is 16. On a messageboard I saw this about one of our planned portages from someone probably much younger:

The Side Lake to Sarah one known as “Heart Attack Hill” did me in but it was hot, I was low on water, and I had too much gear. I remember laying down at the top and seriously thinking that I could die. It’s rough.

The quiet beauty of Quetico derives in part from the fact that there are no trucks to move your gear. There’s also no wifi, no cell phone signal, no motorized boat craft, no flights overhead, no buildings or pavement, and no prepared campsites. Those features are 99% heavenly, and only worrisome if you choose to worry.

The major concern we have is that we’re going at the start of the season. Guidebooks suggest that June and July are uncrowded, but have more mosquitoes; August and September are warmer with fewer bugs, but more competition for good campsites. No one talks about May, because it’s too cold and the ice may not be out. Even the Canadian ranger stations are closed.

Minnesota II kevlar canoe

Minnesota II kevlar canoe

In their April 19 “dispatch” from BWCAW, Amy Freeman and Dave Freeman show photos of sled dogs, a snowman, and frozen lakes. This is from the year they’re spending there, which is south of Quetico and possibly a degree or two warmer. We’ve been told that the ice should be out on most lakes by the time we start and the day that this post should appear (May 4). I’m too charitable to think that that optimism on the ice forecast reflects the outfitter’s desire not to have to return our deposit!

Nevertheless, we’re committed to the trip. We’ll be renting new equipment, including a Wenonah Minnesota II kevlar canoe. We’re relying on a good outfitter in Ely (Piragis). We have maps, long underwear, extra socks, compass, signal mirror, and poison ivy lotion. Could anything go wrong?

Stay tuned for Part 2, when we return.


Lac-Mégantic: beauty and death

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams –W.B. Yeats

284px-Mont-Mégantic-2About six weeks ago, Susan and I canoed in Maine, then made a brief excursion into Québec.

Nature around Mont Mégantic

We planned to visit the area around Mont Mégantic, a monadnock about 15 km north of the border. It’s in the middle of the Parc national du Mont-Mégantic and is the terminus of the Sentiers Frontaliers, a hiking trail that connects with the Cohos Trail in the US, which runs north from Crawford Notch, NH to the border. The trail is in a beautiful area, and represents an even more beautiful cooperation among volunteers on both sides of the border, who are working to make ways to enjoy, but tread softly, in the forests and rivers.

Image 1The treasuring of the environment is even more evident there because the Mont Mégantic Observatory is the first site to be recognized as an International Dark-Sky Reserve. Lighting within a 50 km radius is strictly controlled to minimize the impact of artificial lighting on astral observations and on wildlife. Again, international cooperation will be needed to sustain the dark sky, but already a rare resource has been created in which both professionals and amateurs can enjoy seeing the Milky Way and know that at least in this one small region respect and love for nature prevails.

Down the grade into Lac-Mégantic

lac-meganticWe came to the Mégantic area from the east, and actually slightly north, having visited Saint-Georges. Traveling on back roads we reached the village of Nantes, at a small elevation and a few miles from Lac Mégantic.

From there we descended into to the beautiful lakeside town of Lac-Mégantic, following the little used rail line along Rue Laval. We walked for a while around the town and in the parc des Vétérans. If we had not had a B&B reservation, we might have stayed longer to enjoy the lake and the small town atmosphere, which fit so well with what we knew about the peace with nature in that region. But unlike so many who have suffered there, we were fortunate to be away when disaster struck.

On July 5, a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train engine near Nantes caught fire. That fire was extinguished and the train was left unattended, parked on the line. Hours later it rolled down the grade towards Lac-Mégantic, derailed, exploded, and turned the town into an inferno. There were soon photos of the physical destruction, but accounting for deaths has been slow due to the extreme destruction.

The cost of cheap energy

Aujourd’hui, nous sommes tous des citoyens de Lac-Mégantic.

The story has moved to the back pages of US media, even as the death toll has risen to 38, with many still unaccounted for. As awful as some more publicized recent bombings, explosions, fires, plane crashes, etc. in North America have been, this disaster is already more deadly than all of those combined.

Lac-Mégantic explosionOf course, the tragedy might not have affected me so much if I hadn’t felt some kinship with the area. But it has made me both sad and angry. It’s impossible to imagine how people can cope with the loss of loved ones and the destruction of their town.

I’m glad that people are asking questions, starting with some basic ones such as: Why was a train with 70 full tanker cars left unattended? and Why weren’t the brakes set?

It’s good that some are moving on to bigger questions: Why do Canada and the US still carry 70% of oil using a tanker car design that was deemed unsafe over 20 years ago? Why is it allowed to send dangerous cargo on regional (Class II) rail networks, which have fewer safety mechanisms and less thorough safety checks?

Maine lawmakers noted recently that “in the last year alone, crude oil shipments have increased fifteen times over” and “there have been three derailments of trains carrying hazardous materials in Maine just during the last six months.”

For some people, the answer to all of these questions is to build more pipelines, which destroy the environment more when they rupture, but may kill fewer people directly. The rail disaster will also give support to defenders of nuclear power, e.g., the aging Pilgrim, Mass. plant that uses the same design as the Fukishima reactor and strangles any possible escape route from Cape Cod. Others might call for renewable energy, which still needs to be transported at great environmental cost.

I wish that there were a moment when we might ask: Why must we design our society around cheap energy? Must every politician in every party declare that cheap gasoline is their first priority? Would it be so awful to minimize the loss of life and environment, and possibly even lessen the imperative for war? Is “cost” only what we see on a bill for goods and services?

Could we reduce energy use so that areas such as Mégantic could remain unspoiled, or at least less spoiled? And that no Lac-Mégantic would ever experience such a disaster again?

A house concert with RUNA

Moving to Wellfleet, I wondered whether I’d be trading cultural life for nature. With the National Seashore, ocean and bayside beaches, 17 ponds in Wellfleet alone, walking and biking trails, forest and dunes, I was prepared to make that trade, assuming that we’d seek out music, art, and so on, in Boston or other places. But the reality has been the opposite. Yes, the natural world feels especially close at hand, but cultural events seem more, not less accessible.

I do miss the human diversity of the university or the large city, but there’s been more on that score than I expected. In terms of public events, we’ve been to many galleries and art shows, enjoyed the Saturday Tea and Music concerts in the Wellfleet Public Library, book talks, and just saw the Blind Boys of Alabama in the recently renovated Provincetown Town Hall.

About a week ago we attended a wonderful house concert by RUNA, a Celtic music group. They’re an international ensemble comprising vocalist Shannon Lambert-Ryan, guitarist Fionán de Barra, percussionist Cheryl Prashker, and fiddler Tomoko Omura. They play both traditional and more contemporary Celtic songs and instrumental pieces from Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and the US.

The performances were excellent. I especially enjoyed the traditional songs, but some of the more recently composed ones, too. The video here is not from the concert we attended, but we did hear Fionnghuala there.

Extreme energy nightmares

Has your sleep returned to normal after BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster? If so, it may be time to think about why this was not an aberration, why we’re likely to see more and even larger disasters in the near future.

Michael Klare lays out some plausible scenarios in a recent Mother Jones article, BP-Style Extreme Energy Nightmares to Come.

The only question is: What will the next Deepwater Horizon disaster look like (other than another Deepwater Horizon disaster)? The choices are many, but here are four possible scenarios for future Gulf-scale energy calamities. None of these is inevitable, but each has a plausible basis in fact.

The only thing that seems implausible is that we can continue to extract energy at the rate we do now without ever greater environmental, political, and economic costs.

Keeping tabs

In The Public and its Problems, John Dewey (1927) talked about the need for a vibrant Public as a necessary condition for a healthy democracy. This meant the development of what’s been called a “critical, socially-engaged intelligence,” for citizens who respect each others’ diverse viewpoints, who inquire about their society, and are actively engaged in improving it. Doing this requires open diaolgue, the ability to speak without reprisals, and, it should go without saying, the confidence that one is not being hounded by agencies who operate in secret with little check on their behavior.

A colleague of mine recently showed me her copy of Jane Addams’s FBI file. It’s 188 pages of prying into the life of one of the greatest Americans. Hull House, which she co-founded (1889), was a settlement home for thousands of immigrants in Chicago, providing food, shelter, education, arts, English classes, and an introduction to particpatory democracy. It was the beginning of sociology, social work, and public health. The first little theater in America, the first playgrounds in Chicago, and so much more, came out of Addams’s lifetime of dedication to building a better world for all.

It’s true, Addams protested against World War I. For that she won the Nobel Peace Prize (1931), but also the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, thanks in part to the machinations of J. Edgar Hoover. At least those files are finally public. You can judge for yourself whether our Nation was more secure because of that assault on personal liberty.

Another colleague pointed me to a court case in Canada related to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s (CSIS) file on Tommy Douglas. Douglas was premier of Saskatchewan from 1941 to 1960, and led in the development of a universal, publicly-funded single-payer health care system. The success there led eventually to the national Medicare plan in Canada. In part for that work, Douglas was selected as “The Greatest Canadian” of all time.

Now, CSIS argues in an affidavit filed in court last month that “Secrecy is intrinsic to security intelligence matters.” They say that full disclosure of Douglas’s file could endanger the lives of confidential informants.

Since the file is secret, we can’t know whether CSIS is correct in saying that it’s absolutely necessary to maintain secrecy on its operations. For that matter, how do we know that their reluctance isn’t based on covering up their own violations? Reading the file on Addams, I’d say that the only people who might want to hide it are those in the FBI. One thing we do know is that there’s no public basis for these security investigations–no violence, no plots, no attempts to undermine the government.

If the file on Douglas is anything like the one on Addams, we should all ask about the extent to which our security services really serve the public good. Why do we create dossiers on our great leaders, without any public evidence? Does security intelligence trump all other values? Does it help create a vibrant Public when secret agencies are given free rein to explore and document our lives, with little oversight on their own actions?


CSIS trying to block release Tommy Douglas’ file. Toronto Sun.

Dewey, John (1927). The public and its problems. New York: Holt.

Maloney, Steven Douglas. The public and Its problems.

Canadian Imams issue Fatwa against terrorism

Twenty Imams affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada issued a Fatwa (or religious edict) on January 8 declaring that attacks on Canada or the United States by any extremist are an attack on the ten million Muslims living in North America.

The Fatwa is consistent with what I hear from the many Muslim friends and colleagues I have both in the US and abroad. They all condemn violence and feel just as threatened by terrorists as anyone else. Their statements and this latest Fatwa directly answer a question some people have asked: “Why don’t Muslims speak out against terrorism?”

There are several reasons we don’t hear more: Mainstream media finds it more newsworthy to publicize the latest violence than a statement deploring violence. Also, Muslims would no more consider terrorism done in the name of Islam to represent their religion than would Christians consider the Oklahoma City bombings to represent Christianity. The first response of either might be “Of course it’s wrong! How could it be my religion? Why do I need to say anything at all?”

Based on the Qur’an, the Fatwa says in part,

Muslims in Canada and the United States have complete freedom to practice Islam…In many cases, Muslims have more freedom to practice Islam here … than in many Muslim countries.

In fact, the constitutions of the United States and Canada are very close to the Islamic guiding principles of human rights and freedom. There is no conflict between the Islamic values of freedom and justice and the Canadian/US values of freedom and justice.

Therefore, any attack on Canada and the United States is an attack on the freedom of Canadian and American Muslims…[and on] thousands of mosques across North America. It is a duty of every Canadian and American Muslim to safeguard Canada and the USA. They must expose any person, Muslim OR non-Muslim, who would cause harm to fellow Canadians OR Americans.

May Allah save Canada, the United States and the entire world from the evil of wrong doers. Ameen.

hear you are — [murmur]

murmur[murmur] is a documentary oral history project that records stories and memories told about specific geographic locations. We collect and make accessible people’s personal histories and anecdotes about the places in their neighborhoods that are important to them. In each of these locations we install a [murmur] sign with a telephone number on it that anyone can call with a mobile phone to listen to that story while standing in that exact spot, and engaging in the physical experience of being right where the story takes place. Some stories suggest that the listener walk around, following a certain path through a place, while others allow a person to wander with both their feet and their gaze…

All our stories are available on the [murmur] website, but their details truly come alive as the listener walks through, around, and into the narrative. By engaging with [murmur], people develop a new intimacy with places, and “history” acquires a multitude of new voices. The physical experience of hearing a story in its actual setting – of hearing the walls talk – brings uncommon knowledge to common space, and brings people closer to the real histories that make up their world.

Being cellphone-impaired, and far from Toronto, I’m reduced to listening to the stories on the website, but they still convey a sense of the city and its history. The site’s a well-designed example of integrating oral history, geographic information systems, and mobile phones.

Yale Russian Chorus tours Quebec

My son, Stephen, writes this about the Yale Russian Chorus tour in Quebec:

In March 2009 the Yale Russian Chorus went on tour to Quebec. We sang at a variety of venues, including Laval University in Quebec City and both Francophone and Anglophone retirement homes in Montreal. The contacts we had made with the Russian Orthodox community in Montreal allowed us to end our tour with an exciting concert at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral. We stayed for most of the tour at the house of Paul and Sandy Gauthier, whom my family had met on our sabbatical to China.

To publicize these events, we had the privilege of appearing on Radio-Canada twice. The first was an interview I did over the phone to advertise our first concert, at St. Elizabeth Catholic church in North Hatley.

Halfway through our stay in Montreal, we drove to the CBC/Radio-Canada building in Montreal to appear on the morning show “C’est bien meilleur le matin”. After discussing the history of the Russian Chorus with the host, Franco Nuovo (and surmising possible connections to the CIA), I rejoined the group to sing our version of the Russian folk song “Po moriam, po volnam” (Across the seas, across the waves)

Muzzling science

I know the world of universities and research is pretty small in the greater scheme of things, and therefore not discussed much on the TV news or in newspapers. As a result, it may not be obvious how much Federal policies since 9/11 have impacted research and higher education.

For example, consider this comment from a discussion list regarding a venue for the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) conference:

Canada as a north American venue has a lot of appeal for many of our members for various reasons, one of the more important ones being visa issues (most say it’s easier to get visas for Canada than the US, and also some are uncomfortable with the fingerprinting procedure in the US and don’t want to do that).

The AoIR will probably not meet in the US next time. This is happening for other conferences, especially in the newer fields, such as Internet Research.

Put that together with new restrictions on access to scientific and technical information, new barriers for students and researchers from other countries coming to the US, cutbacks in support for research at both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, gag orders on scientists (as we saw last month at NASA), distortions of scientific findings (as in the global warming case), and politicizing of scientific review committees. The result is a negative climate for research and higher education. The impact is already evident to researchers and those in higher education, and the impact on the larger economy is beginning.

For the European Union, this is a terrific opportunity to surpass the US. They’ve already initiated a major new research program openly promoted as a way to take advantage of the US policies and to lure the most promising young researchers away from the US. It’s also opened doors for India, China, and other countries.

There are of course national security arguments made for each of these new policies. But there is even stronger evidence that they actually weaken national security. For example, the clampdown on access to scientific and technical information is making it harder to develop responses to biological warfare. It’s also very hard to understand how losing our leadership position in science and technology will make us stronger.

What’s perhaps most worrisome is that muzzling people and information in this way means that it is increasingly more difficult to have open debate about the worth of the policies. As with the Patriot Act or the Detainee Treatment Act, the new laws come with criticism-proof provisions.

Someday, we should ask whether the effort to protect what we value is actually destroying it.