Monday, August 20, 2012

Huron Country

I’d been talking to my friend Brian for at least 3 or 4 years about visiting him in his new home on the shores of Lake Huron.  Brian was a long time friend from Strategic Coach, the entrepreneurs course I’d been taking for more than 10 years in Toronto.  We’d both given the course up a couple of years ago (mind you I just restarted last week) but had kept in touch and had finally agreed a date.

I’d organized a car hire – a car I’d been wanting to try out for ages in fact, a Chrysler 300 gas guzzler. 

I don’t know if its just me but I have hired 2 fantastic German cars in the UK in the past year – a VW Golf and an Audi A4, both diesels, both managed 50+ mpg in town driving. In fact I’d driven the VW from York to London, spent 3 days driving all over London, down to Southend in Essex and Canterbury in Kent and still drove it down to Dover all on half a tank of diesel.  That is simply ridiculous so I struggle to get excited when I see US adverts for cars that proudly announce energy efficiency at 31 mpg for motorway driving.  Why can’t US manufacturers simply licence the technology the German car manufacturers have and save 50% on their gas costs?  

The car is great though.  Big, comfy and filled with neat gadgets designed to make me feel comfortable.  I’d also bought a GPS as after my struggle with maps on the European road trip from last year, I have given up on the map versus GPS struggle.  GPS wins hands down.  But when there’s road works you still need a map to give you a broad idea of where you’re going.

I’d never driven in Toronto so leaving was a bit of a challenge particularly when we hit the airport region near Mississauga.  Viv had specified no motorways, toll roads or unmade roads so we went almost the entire length (seemingly) of Bloor Street and hit a traffic light at the airport where we had a left turn to make without assistance from the lights amidst mayhem, manic traffic.  We survived somehow though.

Once clear of that we were in endless farmlands with the intent being to target St. Jacob’s, a pretty village somewhere in the west.  Viv had also booked us into a motel in Stratford and a play at the Festival Theatre – Henry V, part of the annual Shakespeare Festival – so we had a time constraint looming in the background particularly so as our speed of travel was distinctly in the bimbling mode.

This is pig country.  The bacon, ham and pork is just fantastic.  Clearly Thursday is a real banner day.

But the country is reaaaaaally big.  The land is laid out in vast chunks all surrounded by what are called “Line” roads.  Brian later told me in the early days farmers were assigned 100 acre square parcels, around which were laid out roads in straight ‘lines’, hence the name “Line” roads.  So out somewhere in the middle of wherever we changed from Line Road 119 to Line Road 111, which somehow doesn’t quite give the trip much romantic sparkle.  Some counties have climbed down off their perch and permitted more interesting names to be used but others are more puritan.  Speaking of whom let’s talk about the Menonites.

Menonites are protestant extremists that sprang up just after Martin Luther nailed his objections to that church in the 16th century and took his opposition to orthodox church a few steps further to the left (or right even, depending on your own politics).  To give you an idea, they thought Luther’s articles were a few hundred too few so they added on a whole bunch more, all radical, which alienated not only the Catholics but also the newly self-proclaimed Protestants as well so everyone, and I do mean everyone, persecuted them.  The Jews must have been relieved to have been given some time off, I would think.  So given the fact that there were so few of them, they fled in all directions. The Dutch went east to Russia where Catherine the Great welcomed them and sent them to Siberia, far enough away but in the knowledge they'd get things going there, whilst the German and Swiss went west, ultimately to the US mainly Pennsylvania where many protestant religious groups settled.

After US independence, large numbers left in their wagons for western Ontario as they had been treated well under the British (i.e. pretty much left alone and not been asked to join in any imperial wars) and feared that the new USA would conscript their young men into the US Army.  The Amish and other similar groups remain in Pennsylvania still but large numbers now control large tracts of farming in rural western Ontario. 

The Menonites are split into various strata as over the years many gave up orthodoxy and embraced many of the ‘new’ ways while still holding to their religious beliefs.  But some of the ‘Old Order’ remain and you can see them in their traditional garb driving their coach and horses along the highways and byways.  But they are good businessmen and have prospered over the years.  Most of the old order drive cars now (except on Sundays), the proviso being that they are black in colour to match the men’s attire.  I met a retired government property assayer who told me that he’d visited all over the region and found that the Menonites were very far advanced in their usage of modern technology even the old order so while you may consider them curiosities because of their garb, their accents and their ‘ways’, they know what they are doing and they do it really well.

A Menonite convoy.  Mind you this was Sunday so the cars were likely in the garage at home whilst they went to church in the old ways.

St. Jacob’s is a largely Menonite enclave and that was why we were heading in that direction but as the day wore on it became clear we (a) couldn’t find the damn place and (b) even when the GPS had got its act together, we’d have no time to do anything other than leave so we redirected our efforts towards Stratford and Henry V.

Stratford is really a lovely little town.  Settled like everywhere in the region in the mid 1850’s it has no big or new buildings to speak of other than a couple of theatres and retains a really nice olde worlde feel to it.  Once an industrial town doing I’m not sure what, now Stratford is solely tourism and pretty much solely Shakespeare.  Even the river running through it is called the Avon (there are some similarities with the Avon River in Christchurch, New Zealand, but not many). 

Avon River walk in Stratford, Ontario.

Once we settled ourselves at the Festival Inn on the outskirts and found the theatre we walked into town along the riverbank which was really lovely, circumnavigated the town in really quite short time and settled ourselves into the Mercer Inn for dinner, a nice boutique Inn that had declined to house us for the night but fed and watered us really well.

The Festival Theatre was nice, set out in a horseshoe pattern with the stage jutting out into the middle so the actors could easily move around in the auditorium.  We were on the left hand side but really close so felt ourselves in things. 

They kept fairly closely to the original script including all the potentially edgy bits about the English massacring the French prisoners that both Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh had omitted from their films.  All the ‘English’ accents were decent too.  And of course who wouldn’t catch a breath when Henry went into his “Once more into the breach, dear friends” and “We happy few, we band of brothers” speeches?  Shakespeare wrote some fabulous lines but he also integrated some humour and political satire as well that stands the test of time very well.

By contrast to the previous day, the next day was a breeze.  I put it down to it being Viv’s birthday of course!  We found St. Jacob’s and went through the Menonite Museum (most interesting) and the Menonite bakery next door where the cherry tarts were fanstastic.  And the drive to Grand Bend was a breeze too for the GPS had got its act together and had we not taken some deliberate detours, we would surely have arrived at Brian’s house somewhat sooner than we did.  However all’s well that ended well and we did arrive at Brian’s house (now 3 years old) which overlooks Lake Huron in very good time.

I hadn't expected to find a broom maker making brooms in the old fashioned way but here in St. Jacob's we did.
It tells you something where another protestant church (above) has been sold and turned into a toy shop and day care centre in St. Jacob's high street.  

Lake Huron as all know is one of the Great Lakes – the others being Ontario, Erie, Michigan and the largest of all by a factor of an awful lot Superior.  They are all connected by rivers, canals and other waterways, so you can get through to about half way across the continent by water provided you follow the connections properly.  Huron is 3rd one over from the Atlantic.  Michigan is just about below Huron with Superior, the monster, to the west.  Brian overlooks Huron and the view is simply sensational.

Rum Swizzle overlooking Lake Huron.  It wasn't hard to drink it!

That part of the coastline also has a real beach.  Well, real if you classify ‘beach’ in its proper way as being the stuff churned up from the sea floor by wave action but not a real beach if you classify it as being either sandy or pink like Bermuda’s.  But as Huron only has silt and mud at the bottom and not rocks and coral like Bermuda, you can’t blame it.  The texture actually reminds me of the mud flats at my home town, Southend, when the tide’s out.

Ultimately we went for a swim and it wasn’t as cold as I expected and was in fact very pleasant.  I’d never swum in a lake before or in real fresh water, so this was a new experience for me.  Huron even had waves and something of a current and undertow to make it familiar.

The hot tub on the upper balcony was pretty darn nice!

Grand Bend is interesting.  Staying with Brian enabled me to see the town in two completely distinct but parallel lights: the summer resort catering to wild young party goers and the all year round town where normal people lived normal lives.  The main street was a cut down version of Key West with fewer seedier aspects and looking back on the trip I did there last year with Viv, there must have been another side to it.  We just never saw it.  In Grand Bend we saw that through Brian’s eyes.

Brian is part of the Rotary Club who recently began a series of projects providing aid to primarily southern Africa.  Apparently in the past, each small rural township in the Huron area had had local schools and in fact a complete local infrastructure at each town. With a declining birth rate, school numbers have declined as has the population generally so the county decided to amalgamate several smaller townships’ infrastructure into larger more economically efficient structures from schools to hospitals and local administration.  At the school level this means school closures with new larger schools being built and the children being bussed in from outlying areas.  But what happens to the old schools?

Well, first the stuff in them goes into the dumpster and then the buildings get offered first to the local community and then get put up for auction.  That’s where Rotary stepped in.  They asked if they could simply take the stuff that would be thrown out and give it away to poorer places.  The answer was a qualified ‘yes’.  Qualified because the authorities didn’t want stuff given away and then being resold at a profit so they specified it had to be given away.  As Rotary had found in South Africa another Rotarian with the capability to give this stuff away, this was no problem.  So up to now they’ve filled 19 forty-foot containers (5 this year) at a cost of $5,000 a pop which Rotary themselves raise.

Anyway Brian’s group had organized to empty a school in near by Zurich and pack a container and promptly volunteered me to hump and carry as well. 

The school was jam packed full of stuff including 100 desks, 200+ chairs, teacher’s desks (that weighed a ton), blackboards (the proper slate ones weigh 10 times as much as you’d think) and I felt that there was no chance that lot would go into one container.  However 3 hours later the container was 2/3 full and I take my hat off to those guys who packed it.  I also take my hat off to the association who came up with the very creative idea and the authority who backed it.  The children in Africa will certainly benefit from this what would have been garbage.

The seedier (or parallel) side of Grand Bend, Viv and I saw as Brian and his wife Irene went off to a wedding, leaving us to fend for ourselves.  I dragged Viv into what I thought from a simple drive by to be the party place in town (called Coco’s) to have a beer.  For some reason some guys were setting up cameras and another older guy and his wife were talking away at them so I asked what was happening.  

The cameraman told me that they were videoing a documentary of the people who work and play in Grand Bend (take a look at and how they interact.  The older guy whose name was Mickey and who was the owner of Coco’s gave me a card and said the documentary was at that moment shooting. After this random people came up and started talking to/at him very loudly and the cameras sprang into action vigorously.  It all reminded me of a TV programme my son Ali watches called Jersey Shore.  I checked it out later online with Brian and I had my suspicions fulfilled whilst he was more than a little surprised to find out about it.  

Mickey is the grey haired guy next to the blond (his wife) in profile.   A few minutes after the girl in yellow joined them and began a lengthy, loud conversation that will surely make it to the next episode and should not be missed.

I’ll go back in a while and take a look at some more recent episodes to see if Viv and I have made it onto an edition.

Sunset over Lake Huron
I’d also seen what looked like a broken down old pub (called Paddington’s) so Viv and I went off there only to find not only very nice beer, very nice fresh lake fish (called pickerel) and a charming young waiter from Cayman (named Lee) who gave us a bottle of his own very hot sauce.

On our final morning Brian got up at a hideous hour to make us his legendary waffles which promised to provide enough fuel for the remainder of the day during which we’d make our way up to Muskoka, providing that the GPS allows it of course!

Thanks Grand Bend and of course Brian and Irene, it was a blast.  

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