Friday, September 25, 2009

There have been many stories written about a future without mankind. What will cities look like after the last humans have left? The stories usually portray a gradual erosion of buildings and roads. I have seen how it will really happen. Long periods without change will be punctuated by the abrupt collapse of buildings, utility poles, the sudden washing away of roads, and breakage of pipes and conduits. Time will gradually weaken structures, but it will be storms that knock it all down.

Imagine 36 hours of one-inch-per-hour rains, flowing over hard desert soils. A river of mud and debris will take out strings of power poles, float boats out of storage yards and pile them up on roads, wash cars into the sea. Drainage courses in the desert are dry so much of the time, that people build their houses, put up walls and fences right in or across them, as if they were a mere dip in the landscape and nothing to be concerned about. But walls become dams, and when they are knocked over, the resulting flood can be devastating. And when water and mud flow in under doors it can be terrifying.

Hurricane Jimena never officially touched the mainland in the Guaymas area, but it parked itself in the middle of the Gulf of California for a day and a half, and the sustained heavy rains cut roads in half and washed whole houses away, especially in poor areas. Two weeks later we have electricity and water again, but thousands are homeless, there is still debris on the roads and detours around the washed out sections. Everything will eventually be restored, but the breakdown from a single, if rare, storm is immense. This is how it will all happen when we finally leave this planet, or when, like the Mayans, we abandon our cities and our civilisation and return to a stone age culture. Hopefully that time is a long way off.

Meanwhile, life goes on in San Carlos. I for one am still acclimating to the humid heat after a wonderful five weeks in Ontario. If there is anyone who doubts the effect of humidity on the sensation of heat, or cold for that matter, think of it in terms of conductivity. Moisture in the air is like metal in the hand, versus something less conductive, like wood or plastic. And humid heat is unrelieved by sweat, which clings to clothing and skin, instead of evaporating and cooling the body. As much as I love my life here, I long for the cool fresh air of a Canadian summer and fall.

Lorena and I are considering spending more time in Canada. Since we migrate north every summer, we might as well stay longer, and make some money. This way we can avoid the extremes of temperature in both countries, and enjoy the best of what they have to offer. The tricky part is to find seasonal work so that we can come back to it every summer, and always have the job waiting for us.

Wish us luck.


Sunday, September 06, 2009

Lake Talon, 31 August, night
A pregnant moon lays a silver path across the still, black water. A thin layer of mist dances and swirls slowly over the surface . Outside the temperature is already just a few degrees above freezing, but in the bathroom, a small electric heater has kept it the toastiest room in the cottage.

I am reluctant to emerge from this sanctuary of warmth, to cross the chilly, uninsulated main lodge to the insulated, if unheated bedroom. Quickly I shiver under a down blanket and am snuggled again against my warm other half. This is life at the cottage in late summer, or at least a glimpse.

Soon we are up, getting the fire going and starting breakfast. The morning sun has lifted the night mist off the lake, and it is a bright, cheery day.

This cottage is the anchor for the Wilde family. We try to all get here when we can, to share our old stories, and make up new ones, with family and friends new and old. The building itself expresses the history of the various families that owned it, with all the various additions , the rearranged rooms, and the mismatched dishes and cutlery. Legally it belongs to my brother, Alex. This was Dad’s idea: he has seen too many family conflicts when various siblings co-own a cottage, and can’t agree on modifications and repairs, who will pay for what, and who uses it when. Management of the family cottage needs to be a dictatorship. And Alex has been a benevolent dictator, making sure it remains the Wilde family cottage.

Alex has a young family and a new farm, so the cottage has become a necessarily low priority. So when we arrived in early August, we found that this petty fiefdom had been conquered by ravaging hordes of tiny Visigoths resembling nothing more than mice and chipmunks. Also, an ill-timed family accident led the cottage to be temporarily abandoned one fall, resulting in frozen water pipes. So our first priorities were to clean out the mouse-befouled cupboards and counters, remove debris and scattered clothing and toys, and to restore the water supply to kitchen and bathroom.

Under the cottage, the copper tubing had blown out at several elbows. Just a few joints to resolder, no pipes to replace. A borrowed torch from next door, and a bit of cursing and a few burned fingers, and the job of reconnecting the pipes is done without burning down the building. I broke a plastic connector attached to the pressure tank, and managed to free it by melting it with the torch without damaging the bladder inside the tank. So everything is good from the pump to the kitchen sink and toilet.

Next is the water supply from the lake. When the ice came in it pushed the waterline right up onto the beach and broke it off at the edge of shore. It also pushed it up underground putting a kink in the line. So the kids dug up the line and found the blockage, and when we were done, the waterline was good from the pump to the lake.
Prepared for the triumphant sound of water flowing in the pipes, I filled the pipe to the lake, connected it to the pump, and then began to fill the pump. And, of course, triumph turns to defeat as water pours out through a gaping crack in the side of the pump. Shit. So now it is a trip to town to buy a used pump.

Hooking up the pump to 220V, I turned off the switch so the wires would be safe to handle. It wasn’t until I tried to turn it on that I discovered the switch was somehow bypassed and useless, and if it weren’t for the fact that the power was turned off at the main panel upstairs, I wouldn’t be typing this.

Anyway, the new pump worked once we had adjusted the pressure so that it didn’t blow the hose off every time it turned off. So we have a flushing toilet and water in the kitchen. The place is clean and orderly. Life is good. We still have to heat water on the stove, but we use the electric one for that, and a shower is a simple matter of standing in the tub and pouring hot water over your body with a dipper.

The reason we come up to Ontario in August is to split our summer into manageable halves. The summer monsoon in Sonora runs from July to early October, and is both hot and humid. So by coming to North Bay in August, although we miss the best of summer weather here, we also miss the worst of the summer down south. And we can appreciate the cool and even the cold, wet weather, as a pleasant change to extreme moist heat.

Today, however, is perfect. Sunny and clear, the day promises to be warm and dry. The lake is a bit chilly, but we can swim until late October in Sonora, so we don’t miss it as much as we might if we lived here year-round. That said, there is nothing like swimming in a warm freshwater lake. No chlorinated pool and no salty sea can compare with the joy of freshwater. I like the sea, especially snorkelling in it, for all there is to see. But it is nice to not have to rinse the salt off of you. And of you swallow a bit of lake water, you are less thirsty for it, not more.

Today we might take the SS Entropy for a stroll down the lake, maybe see if our neighbours are around. The Entropy has seen better days. A pontoon boat is like a floating dock you can drive around the lake. It has a big flat deck, and lots of comfy chairs and couches to sit on. The problem is that the sun and the rain eat away at the upholstery, the carpeted deck stays wet long after a rain, and traps mildew and sand, and eventually the boat looks like an abandoned convertible on some redneck’s front lawn. So next year we are going to replace the carpeted deck with cedar decking, and the upholstered chairs can be replaced with cedar lawn furniture. Then it will still look like a floating dock but will be much easier to maintain and will look good for years.

Lake Talon is a lovely lake. Most of the shore and surrounding terrain is Crown land, with a scattering of cottages and a few permanent homes. It is all surrounded by a mixed forest, dominated by pines near shore, and a mixture of spruce, fir, poplar, birch and maple on the slopes. High hills surround the lake and except for the cottages and a few boats, it looks like the middle of wilderness. And it will stay that way because the crown has no intention of releasing any more land. Much longer than it is wide, it is a crooked series of bays and inlets, giving it a long shoreline but no really big open water. So it is ideal for exploring by canoe or motorboat. Most of the shore is bouldery, but there are plenty of rocky outcrops and some nice sandy beaches for picnicking. There is very little boat traffic on the lake, even in summer, and at this time of the year you practically feel like you have the lake to yourself.

The lake is part of the Mattawa River, and is part of an ancient canoe route stretching across the country. At one time the portages were marked with a signpost, and each had a large brass plaque outlining the history of the river and of that particular portage. Now the portages are hard to find, though they are all still used all summer by adventurous paddlers, and during the annual North Bay to Mattawa canoe race.

Being surrounded by so much Crown land has really spoiled me. The idea that you can just push off shore in a canoe and go for days or weeks, camping anywhere suitable, catch fish for dinner, and just wander at will without having to ask anyone for permission or pay a fee seemed the most natural thing in the world to me growing up here. Now I see how rare a thing this is I feel especially lucky to have grown up here. And to have a cottage surrounded in Crown land is a rare and lucky thing. I hope it always remains like this.

A postscript: While we were away in beautiful Northern Ontario, our lovely San Carlos got hit by Hurricane Jimena. Strong winds and heavy rain battered the poor town for 36 hours, dumping nearly a half a metre of rain. As far as we know our friends in San Carlos and neighbouring Guaymas are still trapped there with no water, no electricity and the highways washed out in both directions. We wish them all the best. Please eat the food in our fridge!