blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Empress under the sea

After the submarine, the wreck. There's a museum across the road from the Pointe au Père lighthouse that commemorates a ship that rivaled the Titanic, both in its grandeur and in its demise. This was the Empress of Ireland, accidentally rammed and holed by a Norwegian coal freighter in the fog one night off Rimouski, in 1914. She sank in fourteen minutes, with the result that over a thousand lives were lost. It's a sobering story that neither Chris nor I had heard before. In the Pavillon, we saw both the 3-D recreatation on screen as well the exhibition that goes into some detail about this tragedy.

Nowadays the wreck, still down there, is an attraction for scuba divers, an party of whom we later saw setting off in a dinghy from the Rimouski port, all excited and taking photos of one another. It seems that nothing remains tragic for ever.

In the afternoon, after lunch at Les Halles in downtown Rimouski near the Institut maritime du Québec, we drove back in an easterly direction so that I could be soothed by the peaceful atmosphere of the Jardins de Métis, famous for its blue poppies (only in July however); this place is otherwise known as the Reford Gardens. Chris didn't feel like spending $16 just to go and look at some plants growing, but I did, saw some interesting artistic structures in there too, and didn't regret it at all. We met again at the gate an hour later.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


This time last week we were inside a submarine. The Onondaga , built in Britain in 1967, never took part in any battle, but was deployed for reconnaissance in the cold war against the Soviets. Decommissioned in 2000, she was towed to Rimouski's Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père from Halifax last year and has only been accessible to the public since May this year. She is 90 metres long, weighs 1600 tons and had a crew of 70 men. As I put in my notes, their quarters were "a bit cramped".

From the outside she looks like a monstrous artificial whale. We stood outside looking up at her fin or conning tower with its appendages—the periscope, radar, reception, snorkel induction, communications aerial and snorkel exhaust—listening to the recorded commentary on our audioguides which invited us to board the vessel in the "after ends" (at the back). "When you step aboard, you never know when you'll be disembarking," said the guide, a supposed former sonar operator.

Here's where you'd store your beer, he said, when the hatch wasn't being used for loading. You weren't allowed any beer during the 6 hours before your watch. A series of watertight doors divided the compartments of the sub, with sealed outlets overhead for emergencies. The signal ejector, for instance, could send up coloured smoke flares, red for danger, fire or flood. There's a horrendously small Evacuation Tube through which you'd have to swim in your bright orange survival suit, if it came to that. Before evacuation, the compartment would be flooded. Imagine.

Then we squeezed into the engine compartment. Underwater the sub moved at a cautious 4 knots on a quiet, electric motor. The batteries would last for three days at this rate, but if you had to speed up to 13 knots they'd only last half an hour. On the surface the diesel engines were used. The guide mentioned that the smell of the fuel and of the men was all pervasive in this unventilated narrow tube, but you got used to it. They started with 38,000 litres of diesel in the tanks that would be gradually replaced with sea water as it was used up. The men who worked in the engine room would have to work in 60° of heat, too, and wear ear-muffs. Beneath the engines lay the snake pit (trou de serpent) that you could reach down a ladder.

You were never permitted more than a 20second shower, as water on board was at a premium, and to encourage natural "biorhythms" you lived under red light bulbs during the night, in white light during the daytime.

We inspected the instrument panels, many of which looked very modern, the sonar screens on a "glass cockpit". They played us the sounds that a sonar engineer would analyse and often immediately be able to recognise. Each kind of sea traffic had its own acoustic signature, trawlers, cargo ships; even shoals of fish make a distinctive noise on the sonar receiver.

The Sick Bay consisted of two wall mounted cupboards near a trio of bunk beds where the only privacy you get is by pulling your curtains across. To keep up the crew's morale the ship employed first class cooks who baked their own daily bread. There was no room for everyone to sit down in a canteen so crew members would tend to carry their meals away from the galley to eat them in their bunks. How they did this in the limited space available I'm not sure. All waste was expelled from the sub. through a Garbage Ejector.

The front of the ship was the business end from which they'd have launched the torpedoes, 16 of them available. On the Onondaga they had a 6km range and would move at 100kph. This was the coolest, best ventilated compartment of the vessel so it was sometimes used as a movie theatre. For blue movies, so they hinted, but "what happens on board stays on board."

Submariners are apparently proud of "their dolphins" (the badges they wear when qualified), but the service has never earned high prestige; it's sometimes called the "silent service" because of its secret habits and (literally!) low profile. At least they have no dress code to worry about. The training lasts eight months and their evacuation procedures are taught at Rimouski. They also have to learn how to operate the valves on board blind, in case the lights go out. When they pass their exams the new submariners are thrown into the water, and it's cold.

Rather them than me.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The beauty of the island

I'll come back to my chronicle shortly; for the moment I'd like to insert some visual memories of Grand Manan. I didn't record the swish of the water against the yacht's prow, the waves breaking over the pebbly beach, the clink of the metal rings on the masts, the wind flapping lines of washing or flags, the horn of the ferry arriving and departing. You'll just have to imagine those, the smell of the seaweed and the steaming bowls of seafood chowder, too. It was an unpretentious, genuine place, not stage managed for tourists. I hope it will stay that way. Now that visitors from the USA have been largely deterred from going there because of stricter border controls and the recession, it may well. It's still a wild island away from the eastern shore; in fact when our friends were preparing their planes for takeoff on Monday they saw a cougar chasing a deer down the runway.

Anyway, here are the pictures:

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Grand Manan to Ste Flavie

Written in a notebook on Tuesday evening, when we couldn't get the Internet connection to work.

We'd booked a room at Marcel Gagnon's Centre d'Art and Auberge here in Ste. Flavie weeks ago so were obliged to arrive today. It's another place with a sea view from the bedrooms, this time including the artist's Grand Rassemblement of concrete figures wandering up onto shore or being submerged in the waves.

There's amazing clarity in the air here as well. We flew through a "mild cold front", hardly noticeable but for a few bumpy clouds and a clearing of the haze that lay over the New Brunswick coast when we took off across the island of Grand Manan to the north, with one last glimpse of the Swallowtail light, fishing weirs and cliffs. We crossed the open water parallel to the route taken by our friends in the ferry on Sunday, with a view of The Wolves, small islands in the Grand Manan channel. Even hazier views inland though we could make out the military practice area south of Gagetown and as we approached our destination we passed a series of ponds in the muskeg magically full of cloud reflections that made for some good photos (appearing here soon). Joining left base in the circuit for "Freddie" (Fredericton) we saw the elegant bridge over the St John River, and then we were down for a late breakfast in the terminal building. 70 nautical miles.

The second leg of our journey was 180 nautical miles, east of the St John River on a line almost directly north (i.e. magnetic north) from Fredericton to Mont Joli. This route took us over some very wild country where the only sign of human interference was a maze of loggers' tracks in the hilly forests. There wasn't much on the map either though I identified the Tobique River, the Kedgewick River and the Restigauche in the valleys in the vicinity of the Quebec / New Brunswick border. We could hear other pilots coming into Charlo on the Baie des Chaleurs, but I never spotted the bay for the hills that were now covered with dark blobs of shadow as the clouds thinned out. They finally disappeared as the St Laurence estuary came in sight with the sunny rolling countryside--fields of barley-- on its south bank. That's where we were headed.

While Chris was tying PTN down and having her refuelled I went into the Mont Joli terminal and rented a car for our two days at the "Gateway to the Gaspésie". We drove to our lodging then back up the hill to retrieve the SPOT device that Chris suddenly remembered leaving on PTN's nose, and so on up the road a couple of kilometres into Mont Joli which is liberally decorated with frescoes depicting past times, called Les Murmures de la Ville. I like that name. We had a snack at the railway hotel restaurant, rather a grand place considering that the Montreal-Gaspé train only stops here twice daily, both times in the middle of the night.

During the rest of the afternoon I drove us to the edge of Rimouski, discovering the Pointe-au-Père Historic Site where were three tourist attractions, the 2nd tallest lighthouse in Canada, a museum about the wreck of the Empress of Ireland (a Titanic like disaster) and a naval submarine... these to be described in the next blog because we visited them on the morrow.

We watched the sun go down behind the distant shore, at which Chris made hissing noises, then ate an excellent supper at a window table, where we could gaze at the afterglow.

On the island of Grand Manan

We spent Monday neither in the air nor on the water but on land, walking down the steep wooden steps and across the wooden bridge over a rocky chasm to the Swallowtail Light on the headland where we sat a while contemplating the sea. The curious circular or heart shaped fences in the sea are traps for herring, fishing weirs, so we learned in the afternoon after hiring a couple of bikes and having peddled against the wind along the coast road as far as the museum at Grand Harbour. The island's school was across the road, the original one being a simple shed (plus outhouse) now in the museum's back garden.

The museum showed a bit of everything, some of the exhibits put together by pupils at the school: the history of local fishing, the spoils from wrecked ships, a huge lighthouse light filling the stairway, a display of picture-rugs, a room full of stuffed birds, a model of the "slotted wave guide"(a piece of radar equipment) that a worthy islander (Ernest Guptill) had invented, as well as various model boats and everyday artefacts from the past.

While cycling back to our motel, the wind pleasurably behind us now, we paused at the salt marshes and fisheries, the sea a glorious deep blue.

The rest of our gang had departed at mid-day after we'd all lingered over breakfast at the Compass Rose in a room with another sea view. Left to our own devices that evening, Chris and I dined at Sailors Landing in North Head as on the first night, watching their slide show of photos, and before our weary legs gave way we took one last look at the Swallowtail light house from the north side of the village, walking down by the shore under the stars, then slept like logs for at least the next ten hours, with the sound of the waves in our ears.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Day 2, Sunday

Today we were on the water, our friends riding the ferry from Grand Manan to Blacks Harbour and back while Chris and I were on board the Elsie Menota from Newfoundland, seeing whales! Apparently pods of whales circled the ro-ro ferry, too, but we saw them more or less at their own level as they came up for air, spouting on the horizon and close by. With Captain Sarah at the helm and the owner of last night's restaurant, who also runs this enterprise (Whales 'n Sails), on board himself, along with a zoologist from the whale research station making notes in her electronic notebook who could identify the wildlife for us, we sailed for four and a half hours, the length of the island and out into the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. We could see the New Brunswick coast in the distance and could make out the edge of Nova Scotia as well, under the line of cumulus over there. Capt. Sarah observed that there was “a bit of a swell running” after windier conditions last night so that our inclinometer rocked to 10 degrees either side for most of the voyage -- and where we eventually slowed right down and turned around we were in white crested waves that splashed us in the bows -- but during the return to the harbour at North Head the surface calmed down to silky ripples. The sun has shone and the sea has sparkled all day. I wore five layers of clothing on the cruise, by the way, and still got cold hands, except when I got them around a mug of complimentary hot chocolate in the galley below decks.

What did we spot? A prodigious variety of sealife: a school of harbour porpoises, then seals, their heads just out of the water, swimming along like dogs, and further out, a blue-fin tuna. They can grow to 9ft long and weigh 200 lbs. There were a couple of puffins with their coloured beaks, many Manx Sheerwaters, blackback gulls and flocks of Wilson's storm petrels who come to the Bay of Fundy for a rest. They migrate all the way to the Azores and thence to the Canary Isles, the Southern Atlantic and even into Antarctic waters where they venture ashore only to mate and hatch their eggs... before they return to Canada. They are only little and skim the water, flying in “ground effect” the whole way.

As for the whales, we saw fin back whales, humpback whales and several of the rare ones, right whales. I noticed as on the other whale watching cruise we once did (from Riviere du Loup), that when we came close to them, everyone on board was as quiet as in church and the Captain cut the motor so that all we heard was the wash of the waves against the sides of the yacht and the whales breathing. The “bonus” moment, as Chris called it, was one when of the right whales came up right alongside and greeted us with a low mooing or whinnying like a land animal, only much deeper and with more of a vibrato. It's impossible to describe that sound. Then it humped its back and said goodbye to us with its tail.

Chris and I came on shore at 4 o'clock very hungry for our missed lunch, so despite the fact that we have meals booked at the Shorecrest Lodge for this evening he and I have just indulged ourselves with a bowl of seafood chowder for me and a club sandwich with fries for him at Gallaways, the restaurant next to our motel. I am now on the lawn between our bedrooms and the motel's beach, the others around me wondering what I'm typing as they help themselves to the drinks on the picnic table, soaking up the last of the warm sunshine along with the equally relaxing alcohol.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Flying to Grand Manan

We made a 9 a.m. start from Rockcliffe and an hour and a half later we were over Sherbrooke airport coming in to land for brunch. All the way we'd flown through smooth air, passing Montreal and seeing the Adirondack, Green and White Mountains to the south, with small clouds forming from the early morning mist.

On the ground at Sherbrooke we had a two hour break for lunch in the fresh air before our second leg, on an IFR flight plan taking us through the U.S. airspace over Maine. Because we were spending a couple of hours at 9000 feet Chris tested us for hypoxia with his oximeter. My blood-oxygen variably read between 87% and 90% up there, which meant that I was slightly hypoxic with a tendency towards euphoria, which comes on in any case when I'm flying like a cloud over beautiful landscapes in smooth air. At the Millinocket VOR, Boston Centre ATC gave us permission to fly “direct 6-Echo”, i.e. straight to Grand Manan, so that there were only 40 minutes more en route. We were making good time anyhow, at 130 knots with that tailwind. Mount Katahdin and White Cap Mt now behind us we continued southeast over the Penobscot River, the other aircraft in our party already ahead and talking to Bangor ATC. The scattered cu beneath us dwindled to “few” at the coastline and the sea itself, beyond Big Lake and Pocomoonshine Lake, was free of cloud.

Landing on the island was enormous fun, with a crosswind and superb views of the bays and headlands near the airport. As we taxied in, half of our friends were climbing into the taxi that was to return to pick up the rest of us once we'd tied down. We drove to the motel past a deer farm, the taxi driver being a seaweed farmer as well, who told us that this area boasts three kinds of seaweed—rockweed (used as a substitute cattle feed during the mad cow disease scare) dulse and kelp (the latter two harvested further from shore). He also told us about the 20ft tides, particularly noticeable while there's a full moon, i.e. now.

When we arrived here, Holly, the very friendly proprietress, handed me the keys for our sea-view room which the advance party of our friends had had her set aside for us. The motel has a black Labrador retriever called Zoe who, when you take her down to the beach, goes fishing, head down and tail up, for rocks, fetching them back to shore in her mouth.

We had supper at the very comfortable restaurant at Sailors Landing to which Robert and Francine contributed four carafes of white wine, so, after the bottles of beer on the motel lawn, we were quite merry under the full moon and stars and me none too capable of composing my blog. We'd seen the floodlit fishing boats in the harbour afterwards, down in the seaweed at low tide, with names like a poem: Fundy Gem and Nantucket Lady, Silver King, My Dear Boy, Second Wind.

Setting off

The sky is full of balloons (Gatineau balloon fest) and the valleys are full of mist. We are setting off for Grand Manan now, four aircraft, ten friends, and staying at the Surfside Motel on the island, probably for three nights. On Tuesday night Chris and I will be further north, at Monsieur Gagnon's Centre d'Art, in Ste Flavie, Quebec.

Friday, September 4, 2009


Susan Stromberg-Stein who created Osmosis from brass and steel, a sculpture to be found in the grounds of Rideau Hall near the cherry trees, says that by this word she means

a life process that goes on whenever two or more elements inpenetrate [sic]

and that

People, their customs and ideals go through a form of osmosis as they adapt ... to each other.

She's not only thinking of couples like Chris and me who've been adapting to each other for forty years or so, but also of the different elements in Canadian society. It's true that after a while people tend to start taking on the characteristics of the company they share. Teachers often acquire the childishness of their protégés and I'm afraid police or prison wardens risk becoming as aggressive as the criminals they're employed to control. I must confess I catch myself in old-ladyish mannerisms and ways of thinking after spending time with old ladies!

Not only have I just spent a month with a 90 year old; I have also been visiting some octogenarians recently. Chris sang (with me at the piano) to Jack a few times, I sang to Melita and Alec and I showed Claude my photos of my grandson. Of the relatively younger generation, since this time last month I've been associating with Tanya, Peter, Greta (had those three round to supper this week), Elva, Laurie, Carol, Don, Francine, Roger (going to see them all again tonight), John, Jill, Liz, Adele, Darlene, Sandy, Isabel, Pat, Barbara, Carys, and Rosemary, Alan and Sue, not forgetting Vivien, Ray and their daughter Suzie who's a music prof at Harvard. Plenty of different influences to be mixed and merged among that little crowd.

Of course willingness has to be part of it. At the Bytowne Cinema Liz, Mum and I watched a dark comedy, Easy Virtue, (based on a Noel Coward play) about an American girl's absolute refusal to be assimilated by a 1930s upper class English household. They couldn't accept her, either!

osmosis |äzˈmōsis; äs-|
noun Biology & Chemistry
• a process by which molecules of a solvent tend to pass through a semipermeable membrane from a less concentrated solution into a more concentrated one, thus equalizing the concentrations on each side of the membrane.
• the process of gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge, etc. : what she knows of the blue-blood set she learned not through birthright, not even through wealth, but through osmosis.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Off to see puffins

We're off on holiday this weekend. The plan is to leave on Saturday and spend a few days on Grand Manan Island with our aeroplane. I've booked two nights' accommodation for six of our friends, and two other couples may join in, so that there could be a dozen of us in a fleet of six aircraft. We'll see. So far, so good. The weather forecast promises sunny skies.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Origins of the postman

Something I meant to record was my visit to the Canada Postal Museum on the day Mum and I also went to see the IMAX film, Mysteries of the Great Lakes, at the Museum of Civilisation across the river.

The Postal Museum—apart from an eye-catching mosaic made of stamps by an artist working with a team of young helpers on their March break from school (V'là le facteur!)—exhibited means of communication through the ages.

Around 2000 BC, before papyrus had been thought of, people wrote with a reed stylus on soft clay. The characters written or drawn by the Assyrians or Mesopotamians were cuneiform. According to Heroditus, ancient Persians used a relay system for sending messages, their staging posts, hippones, each a day's journey by horse from the next. There's no real difference between that and the stage coaches of the 19th century. In Roman times postmen had to carry passports, diplomata, which is where the word diplomat comes from. A Pompeii fresco shows a woman writing on a wax tablet with a stylus pen, a startlingly modern image (see above), like me writing in a notebook.

Between the 10th and 15th centuries A.D. monks in Europe would carry rolls of parchment from one monastery to another which would convey the news of an abbot's death, for example. It was the medieval equivalent of a blog post or news article published on the Internet, because every time someone read it he or she would be able to add a Comment at the bottom; one such scroll was 9.5 metres long and included a poem perhaps by Héloïse in its comments. The Italian nobles of Mantua later organised their own courier service, a more secular one.

A Swiss post horn like the one depicted musically in Schubert's song, Die Post, was in one of the display cases. The Swiss, in 1874, were instrumental in founding the Universal Postal Union for the standardization of international postal services.

In Canada, they didn't have an official postal system until 1763 and mail was still being delivered by sleigh in 1919 which made sense, given the Canadian winters. When the mail had to be delivered on foot, the postmen needed spikes issued for their shoes, but this wasn't thought of until the 1970s.

I was surprised to learn that for over 30 years in the 19th century mail clerks were employed to cross the Atlantic where they spent all their time on board a ship sorting out some 15000 letters per crossing until in 1887 the sailors got tired of these land-lubbers making a nuisance of themselves and had the practice stopped, although the Titanic had a team of them, it seems.

We saw pictures of Canada's first mail men in 1874, of trams and of mail trains where the clerks who were banished from the ships must have worked. (Mum said she remembered Darlington's tramlines in England, dangerous if you got your bicycle wheel stuck in them.) In the 1920s a primitive airmail service was established.