Sunday, September 30, 2012

Crawford Lake Conservation Area

A Review of Our Latest Adventure - a postmodern horror story

After a week of afternoon shifts made tough because of a wicked throat and chest cold I picked up on the Grand River Dinner Cruise (an experience detailed in the previous blog entry) I was looking forward to spending the last Saturday of September exploring new areas of Southern Ontario with my wife Tammy and our chihuahua Isabeau. I was still not completely over being sick but thanks to the magic of Buckley's Cough Syrup and cherry-flavored throat lozenges my illness that morning was more a minor inconvenience than the near life-altering experience it had been. Tammy was also fighting a virus-induced fatigue/general malaise and we probably should have been planning some relaxing at-home activities instead of the "3 parks in 1 day" excursion we had in mind but darn it, the weather was sunny with patchy cloud instead of the predicted 99% chance of hazy skies and rain showers and the fall colors are ramping up their breathtakingly beautiful displays. How could we pass up the opportunity to take advantage of the good weather and relatively warm temperatures, even if we were still 'slightly under the weather' ourselves?

We arose Saturday morning and began preparations to undertake our chosen adventure... exploring 3 different local conservation areas in one afternoon, none of which we have ever been to before. After ensuring we had water for both us and Isabeau, extra clothing, fully-charged camera batteries (plus additional lenses & gear) and pretty much everything else we might need for a wilderness hike (except food - duh!) we headed out from Hamilton in high spirits. Our plan was to avoid major freeways, utilizing country routes on our circular trip which would include stops (and hopefully awesome adventures) first at Crawford Lake, then Halton Hills and lastly Rattlesnake Point. That was the plan anyway. As it turned out, we would only hit 1 of our 3 planned stops...  

Crawford Lake Conservation Area

The official Crawford Lake map/tourist guide given to visitors at the front gate describes the park as "a natural environment park that is managed by Conservation Halton. The 468 hectare park includes unique geological features, extensive forests, a rare meromictic lake and 15th century reconstructed Iroquoian village. The conservation area has significant natural habitat with a wide diversity of flora and fauna and approximately 19 km of nature trails". 

We had no idea Crawford Lake offered anything more than a gravel parking lot and some trails into the bush, a scenario we've seen at pretty much every Southern Ontario conservation area we've explored thus far. Some may have paved parking lots and some may have washrooms/outhouses but for the most part we've always just parked the car in some deserted-except-for-other-adventurers gravel lot and headed off on our choice of trails. Pay parking, if that's a requirement, is usually just a coin-operated cobwebby machine that won't accept the new 2013 twonies and loonies. I knew from my initial scout of the day's planned adventure which included inquiries at the gate of Rattlesnake Point that it and the other parks we planned on seeing were paid admission. I also learned then that admission at one of the six area parks under Conservation Halton's authority was good for all six on the same day, our planned 3 park adventure could be done for the price of one.

So it was no surprise being required to pay the adult admittance fee of $7.50 ea. to gain access to Crawford Lake Conservation Area. What was surprising was discovering the park offered far more to visitors than a place to park the car and some trails. We drove past a large wood-pole stockade fence which surrounds the reconstructed 15th century Iroquoian village and created our own parking spot at the end of a row in a very crowded lot. Like the one just inside the gate, and the one further down the road, the parking lot was packed with cars. People were moving in all directions. Not only was there the Iroquoian village attraction, a bustling interpretive center (complete with craft and park-related learning exercises and challenges for kids), an expansive picnic and playground area and numerous natural-info signs and displays beckoned curious and adventuresome park-goers alike. Even if there weren't any hiking options available, Crawford Lake certainly delivers a wide range of options for the relatively modest cost of entry...

But of course there are trails and they are the lure which draws us like moths to a flame, the call of yet unseen natural wonders and a promise - the serene riches of sensory enchantment only a forest can provide are but steps away...

In the info-packed Crawford Lake complimentary area guide the "aprox. 19 km of natures trials" are prominently marked on the map and easy to locate as the central access point is right outside Visitors Centre.A wide paved trail leads into the forest where a number of options become available. Most but not all trails are wheelchair accessible and range in length from the 1.4 km trail which loops the park's namesake lake to the 3.6 km Pine Ridge Trail which takes users on a cross-country circle route through the various landforms and ecological systems of the greater Crawford Lake Conservation Area. The guide lists 7 different trail options including ones that don't bring hikers back to where they started like portions of the Bruce Trail which intersect the park. (A 700+ km trail that seems to splay itself across the greater Niagara Escarpment area like a space-dropped pile of raked-gravel spaghetti.)

Since we still at that point intended to hit 2 other parks that day we elected to take the trail that looped around Crawford Lake, partly because it was the shortest (and thus the quickest) and partly because the lure of autumn foliage reflected in the water of the lake spoke to both our spiritual needs and our photo-artistic wants. A short winding walk through a forest almost too beautiful to describe in words we arrived at the spot the graveled path intersected with an elevated wooden boardwalk and we got our first look at Crawford Lake. The actual area from which one could view or photograph the lake was small, a break in the lakeshore trees and foliage maybe 50 ft across but it afforded some breathtaking views of the lake. After a couple of minutes there we elected to continue our journey via the wood boardwalk instead of the gravel path which appeared to circle the lake from a route deeper into the woods.

The boardwalk is relatively well maintained, there were only a couple spots where the railing's structural integrity looked compromised due to decay/rot or obvious purposeful breakage. It made for an easy stroll through forest which would have been extremely difficult and treacherous to walk through without benefit of a trail of some sorts. The ground was uneven, littered with moss-covered rocks & stones, crisscrossed with crevasses and labyrinths of fallen dead trees. In some areas trees grew from bare rock, their roots stretching and digging into the slightest of cracks and fissures. Sun rays dappled and danced across some sections while other areas saw hardly any light penetrate to the forest floor where deep green mosses created beds for ferns to root among the rocks and fungi of various types flourished on the myriad felled trees in various states of decay.

The waters of Crawford Lake can be glimpsed from the boardwalk at various times during the journey and all along the boardwalk are observation areas where people can rest on offered benches or partake in the various "clues" and "questions" on the displayed information boards, exercises promoted by or relative to the learning crafts and games suggested in the Visitors Centre. Many of the families and groups enjoying the park were avidly involved in that activity and from conversations I overheard at the various 'stops' along the boardwalk it seems kids and their parents can learn about the history of the lake, the Iroquoian Natives who once lived here, the local environment's natural flora & fauna and a whole lot more. 

Crawford Lake's elevated boardwalk and offered interactive exercises are an impressive example of providing an environmental and local history learning experience by immersing visitors into that environment without encroaching upon it. Even if, like us, you choose to forsake the fun & games of the offered learning enabled quizzes, mysteries and other child oriented exercises and opt for the Crawford Lake Trail elevated boardwalk to just to marvel at the plethora of natural wonders and beautiful sights it offers this relatively short hike is definitely worth the time. 

I can't speak to the other trails because we only did the initial forest access trail and the boardwalk around Crawford Lake but if the rest are anything like those they promise to be amazing journeys as well. We didn't check out the reconstructed native village or anything else Crawford Lake Conservation Area had to offer so I can offer no opinions about them but I'll hazard a guess and say the other attractions are probably just as fun and enriching for families and others looking for an easy-access nature adventure.

So I know some readers might be thinking "Wait a minute, isn't this supposed to be a horror story?" and it is. I just wanted to describe the park without a lot of personal emotion before I went off on a bit of a rant about why our experience there wasn't the slam-dunk whiz-bang of a good time one might expect it to be given our professed love for time spent outdoors amid the splendors of nature.(of which Crawford Lake has many.) I mean, after all, it isn't the park's fault we had a less than enjoyable time within its boundaries, an experience so mentally and emotionally exhausting that we cancelled the rest of our plans and drove straight home instead of exploring Halton Hills and Rattlesnake Point as we'd originally intended. 

What put a damper on our Crawford Lake experience, the thing that made if a test of endurance more than enjoyment was the behaviors and actions of other park users. We don't begrudge anyone going out and having a good time, nor do we normally get bothered by the sights and sounds of children and their families getting excited while discovering the joys of outdoor nature experiences. We may prefer to enjoy our outdoor adventures in relative solitude but we don't get upset when we share that experience with others seeking their own communion with that same piece of nature.

The park was crowded and that could hardly be unexpected. It was an unexpectedly beautiful and mild fall day, a Saturday at that. It's September, the famed colors of Southern Ontario's autumn foliage are a big deal to locals and tourists. Crawford Lake is within an hours drive of hundreds of thousands of GTA inhabitants... Why wouldn't it be crowded on a day like that? It was crowded, filled with families and large groups of people out enjoying the afternoon. The elevated boardwalk and its interactive learning activities was a magnet for many of those families and groups looking to make their outdoor time an experience of combined fun and learning... and we have no problem with that.

What we don't like, what we can't abide and can barely tolerate is rudeness... thoughtless inconsideration and arrogant indulgence regardless of and indifferent to the effect their selfish actions have on others around them (including the environment.) THAT kind of stuff can put a damper on almost everything and there was tons of it on display at Crawford Lake that day. It never ceases to amaze me how stupidly annoying people can be.

Why do some people think it's okay for their kids to run around screaming and shrieking at the top of their lungs irregardless of their proximity to others? Why is it okay for your kids to invade the personal space of others, often at your encouragement? What makes those parents think everyone else feels it's perfectly okay that their kids clamor and play around them? Whatever happened to time and space appropriate behavior? What happened to teaching kids to respect the rights of others? What happened to following the simple rules like "stay on the path"... why is it okay to allow your kids to run amok through the natural areas everyone is there to enjoy, to rip up and trample the foliage?

THAT is the type of behavior exhibited by a majority of park users that made our Crawford Lake experience more akin to a horror story than a pleasant hike in the outdoors. THAT was the stuff of the horror story that slowly grew in our thoughts, a story were we broke free of our self-imposed bonds of tolerance and restraint to ran amok with machetes cutting a swath through these self-centered jerks  like Jason Vorhees slaughtering teenage councilors at Camp Crystal Lake. Instead of fully enjoying the outdoors (which was impossible in those circumstances) we found ourselves harboring thoughts of violence and murder. Such was the state of mind induced during our walk around Crawford Lake.

To be fair, it wasn't everyone that acted like jerks that day. There were other families in the park who were endeavoring to balance their kids excitement and activity levels with the rights of other park users to enjoy the space. I saw more than one frustrated parent trying to explain to their own kids why some things weren't right to do, a difficulty compounded by the obvious fact other kids in the park were under no such restrictive behavioral boundaries.

It wasn't just unruly, unsupervised kids and their parents that were the issue. There were also huge numbers of adults whose behavior encroached upon the enjoyment of other park-goers... like the people who felt the need to yell every word even though they were inches apart... or the large group who decided to rest across the only staircase when numerous other options were available for those wanting to stop thus forcing those who wanted to keep walking only one option, navigate the sprawled bodies and bags of their party... or the young couple who decided to climb out of the boardwalk and eat their lunch on a rock dead center in the middle of a rare unobstructed photo-op of the lake, one which people were queuing up and sharing prior to them expropriating it for their own private picnic. 

And another thing... just because our dog Isabeau is small and cute doesn't mean she wants to meet every screaming child that comes her way. I swear some parents think it's amusing to see their toddler wobble in circles around us as Isabeau tries to avoid them. What am I supposed to do, kick the kid away? Yell at the kid? (Hey asshat! It's YOUR kid, why don't you keep it away from MY dog? Isabeau's not doing anything, she's not making noise. Our dog is quietly accompanying us... on a leash! Maybe that's something you should consider to control your miserable little spawn since you're obviously teaching it NOTHING about respecting the rights and space of others!). 

Some people even direct their kids to Isabeau... Mothers will yell "Look at the cute small dog!" and then stand there laughing (or even taking pictures), thrilling to the sight of their toddlers trying to pet her while she endeavors to avoid them and we try and run gentle interference while saying stuff like "She's kind of shy" when really we'd like to scream "GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM OUR DOG!". Seriously, some people seem to treat us and Isabeau like we're some kind of interactive park exhibit, like we're not really live people... people (& a dog) with just as much right to be left alone as anyone.

I could go on and on but you get the point. People are so freaking rude and self-centered nowadays that almost anywhere strangers congregate becomes an exercise in frustration. As beautiful as Crawford Lake was the experience was lacking in enjoyment for us. Since the odds were great that the other 2 parks we'd planned to visit would have similar crowds we just called it a day and went home. Next time we'll pick a school day and hopefully avoid most of the negatives we encountered on this trip. It is a beautiful park full of natural wonder... too bad that on this day it was so full of ugly human nature too.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Grand River Dinner Cruise - a review of events

The first day of fall doesn't get any special attention from most of the world. There are some people who take celebratory notice to mark the arrival of the Autumnal Equinox but for most people September 22, 2012 wasn't a big deal. Across the world it was business as usual...

Angry Muslims protested, sometimes violently, in numerous countries around the globe, inflamed over a poorly made independent film in which the prophet Muhammad is ridiculed. Chances are 90% of the protesters haven't even seen the movie but it appears 100% of them blame the United States for its existence.

Asian political powerhouses China and Japan are rattling sabres over some innocuous guano-covered rocks in the East China Sea. Doomsayers are predicting escalating tensions could lead to war because (for reasons unclear to me but evidently crystal-clear to the Chinese and Japanese) those remote little islets ("islets" because they're too small to be called islands) are somehow vital to national security and the future of their respective nations.

In other first day of fall news... some idiot in New York was arrested for trespassing after jumping from an elevated train into a Bronx Zoo enclosure where a 400 pound tiger named Bachuta used him as a chew toy.

Meanwhile in Southern Ontario, Canada... 2012's Autumnal Equinox saw bright skies with patchy clouds and brisk winds accompany my wife Tammy and I as we embarked with a party of 40 or so others on a Grand River Dinner Cruise...

It was actually a "lunch" cruise, the company (Grand River Cruises) offers 2 cruise options (lunch and dinner, both featuring pretty much the same menu) and our group was on the 12:30pm departure luncheon cruise which offered a meal and refreshments during a 3 hour trip on the Grand River in one of four boats - long, squat, barge-like vessels that have a one-room enclosed central dining area encircled by a narrow exterior walkway lined with benches and deck chairs.

Embarking on a dinner cruise wasn't something Tammy and I ever envisioned ourselves doing. We're not really into dining out and the whole 'cruise' idea seemed a tad too ritzy for us. We ended up on this river experience thanks to a coworker of mine at the quarry who arranged and booked the cruise. His name is Eric and this is apparently something he's arranged before. Other coworkers expressed good reviews of the dinner cruises with Dave from my crew mentioning often about how "good" the food was. Eric posted notice of the proposed date and spread the word amongst the guys on all 3 shifts with those interested signing their names to the notice. The cost worked out to just under 40 bucks a head and Eric took care of all the details, booking and paying for the Sept 22nd cruise then collecting the money from everyone, ensuring they had instructions on where and when to attend.

I talked it over with Tammy and we decided to join Eric and the others on the cruise.  My Mom was out to visit us the week before and gifted me with $100 when I saw her off at the airport so the 80 bucks to get us on the boat was covered. The cruise promised a 3 course meal of bread & salad, a main course roast beef dinner and desert which sounded fine to us but it was the chance to view the banks of the Grand River from the vantage point a boat provided which most peaked our interest. The chance of seeing birds and perhaps other wildlife during a 3 hr trip through the beauty of the Southern Ontario countryside was for us the cruise's biggest draw.

Besides me, Eric, Dave and another guy named Steve (all from my shift) and our spouses, I had no idea which guys from the quarry had signed up for the cruise. All I knew was "about 40" people were going to be sharing the boat. I don't socialize with my coworkers, I'm not friends with any of them away from the quarry. There's no sinister reason behind that, I don't harbor dislike toward any of my coworkers. In fact, in the 5 years I've worked at the quarry I've grown quite fond of a number of them. I just never 'hang out' with the people I work with.

Grand River Cruises is located on Big Creek, a tributary of the Grand River which meets Ontario's biggest Canadian Heritage river near the city of Caledonia. It was an easy 35 minute drive from our place in Hamilton, a journey filled with rolling vistas of farmland, livestock and wooded green areas which did much to ease our nervous anticipation about the upcoming adventure. While not an 'official' company function it was an outing arranged, paid for and participated in by people from work, people from work and their spouses and/or other guests. As everyone knows, those type of functions can sometimes get interesting and there's always the possibility of problems or issues arising when the work and real life characters of coworkers mingle. Not that I was expecting trouble but I couldn't discount the potential for it considering the diversity of personalities and existing on-the-job issues between many of my coworkers.

Just prior to arrival at our destination a Red-Tailed Hawk soared slowly across the highway in front of us and we took that as a positive omen of the day to come. We actually drove past Grand River Cruises without seeing it... I piloted our Hyundai Accent across some railroad tracks on the crest of a hill a tad faster than the speed recommended on the sign conveniently posted by the Highway Engineering Dept. The ensuing bump/possible-airtime hilarity caused us to go past the place totally unaware it was there and there was some momentary confusion when we reached the road's end at a T intersection without finding what we were looking for.

After backtracking without incident we parked, grabbed our jackets & cameras and joined a group of coworkers I recognized. It was an eclectic group, a cross-section of people from the 2 production shifts accompanied by people identified or assumed to be wives. There were also a number of people complete strangers to me. They turned out to be extended family or friends to some of the guys. (It never occurred to me that I could invite others to join Tammy & I on the cruise.)

I knew all the actual quarry workers of course and enjoy a pretty good work relationship with all of them and none of them were those few whose company is sometimes unbearable to keep. I was mildly surprised to see one guy I haven't seen in awhile... Clayton was production supervisor when he got fired early this year. Prior to that position he worked as a shift foreman and before that he was a "Red Hat", one of the boys for years and has a lot of friends still in the union workforce at the quarry so him attending this cruise wasn't unusual. It was for him a chance to see a lot of guys from the quarry in one place without the company being anywhere in sight. He looked real good, better than he's looked in the 5 years I've known him. Clayton said getting fired was "the best thing they ever did for me" and I was happy to hear he was doing well.

There was one other guy from work who took part in the cruise and I admit I had mixed thoughts about first the potential he might be attending and then the undeniable reality that he was when he and his companions arrived after most of the party had already boarded. He and I became embroiled in a personal conflict of sorts at work last week, a situation he initiated and one which I felt was intended to attack my  personal and professional integrity (just as much, I'm sure, as he felt about his reasons for doing so). The situation, which both the company and union were completely aware of, entangled in it as much as I was, was rectified to what I believe is mutual satisfaction and a future course of working understanding was discussed.

It should be over but I couldn't help but be a little apprehensive at the thought of spending 3-4 hours on a relatively small boat with a guy who less than a week before had in my opinion thrown me under the proverbial bus. As it turned out we pretty much never saw each other during the cruise. Aside from saying "Excuse us. Thank you." while squeezing by on the Grand River Belle's narrow exterior observation deck I never spoke or otherwise interacted with him during the entire voyage. I readily admit I have zero interest in speaking with the man aside from what's required at work to do the job and maintain a harmonious work environment, if I don't have to talk to him I won't (but at the same time I won't be unnecessarily rude to him or anyone he's with.) I won't seek or initiate any contact or conversation with him but that doesn't mean I will deliberately avoid or snub any he might initiate toward me. (Not that I expect he will.)

Actually, that's all stuff that should probably be in its own blog entry. I'd intended to keep this to a straightforward review of Grand River Cruises Luncheon Cruise and somehow digressed to talking about my various relationships with the people I work with. My apologies. Without further ado, here then is my story (and review) of Grand River Cruises Luncheon Cruise undertaken the first day of fall, Sept 22nd, 2012...

The weather was nice, sunny with lots of patchy clouds. Stiff breezes of varying strength kept the temperature in the slightly chilly to 'damn that's cold' range for most of the day but it was certainly better than what had been forecast. For over a week forecasters called for Saturday to have a 99% chance of rain all day. That predicted rainfall actually hit late Friday with heavy downpours blanketing Southern Ontario for most of the night. The revised forecast just before we left our place called for exactly what we had for our entire luncheon cruise adventure, sun & cloud with gusting winds. In other words, it was a beautiful autumn day

Members of our group slowly began moving from the parking lot to the dock area where Grand River Cruises 4 boats were tethered. Captain Bob welcomed us to our boat, "Grand River Belle", where seating was decided by personal choice and speed of arrival. The interior of the boat was essentially a rectangle with tables lining the longer sidewalls, each with 6 chairs. The rear of the boat had a couple unisex washrooms and an area where the crew presumably plated the precooked dinner fare. Captain Bob sat alone at the wheel in the front of the cabin and acted as tour guide and historian throughout the cruise.

Tammy and I grabbed 2 window seats at a table midships while the rest of the group elected to sit in various groups and positions elsewhere. We were joined by Faisal and his wife and just prior to departure an elderly couple unknown to the 4 of us sat in the last 2 seats making us a complete table of 6. Captain Bob advised us we were waiting on Eric to confirm all parties were aboard and servers would be taking beverage orders after we set off on our 3 hour round trip on the Grand River. Eric arrived with his party and confirmed all were aboard and accounted for so Captain Bob called the order to cast off and we began our first ever dinner cruise. After some neat maneuvering Capt. Bob got the Belle turned around and we began a slow trip down Big Creek before entering the much larger Grand River where we headed downriver.

The servers began taking beverage orders - 3 young women seemingly working the boat at random. Ours was quick enough getting to our table after the announcement of service but that's about the only good thing I can relate about her performance. She was amicable enough, welcomed us all to the voyage with a cheery smile and seemed delighted when the elderly couple at the end of the table ordered beers. Her demeanor turned to shock and a look of scornful incredibility when the rest of us declined an alcoholic beverage and asked for coffees instead. She even questioned our beverage choice, like she couldn't believe someone wouldn't want a beer or other alcoholic drink. She brought our coffees and we never saw her again during the rest of the cruise. A different girl brought our requested sugar & cream and later our refills.

On their website and elsewhere Grand River Cruises does a pretty good job hyping the service on their luncheon and dinner cruises so I doubt they officially condone the judgmental rudeness we received from the first of their servers. They also hype the availability of alcoholic refreshments on their cruises but surely they and their employees recognize not everyone chooses to drink and those that don't shouldn't be made to feel awkward for making that choice.

The first course arrived soon after Captain Bob piloted the Belle from the close confines of Big Creek to the wider expanse of the Grand River channel. A loaf of bread, with a knife and cutting board, arrived first. I cut a slice and elected to forgo the little packaged butter that was offered. (there was no other choice except salad dressing) I had no issue with that, I'm a fan of 'naked' bread but this was very dry and while soft the crust was very crumbly. It wasn't good enough that I went back for another slice. Tammy didn't have any but the other 4 at our table seemed to have no issues consuming most of the small loaf. In retrospect I regret not eating more of the bread because despite being dry and sorta stale it was better by far than the salad that followed it.

A small bowl of watery head lettuce with a smattering of shredded carrots, thinly sliced celery and some soggy purple foliage. Choices of dressing were limited to Kraft's French, Thousand Island or Rancher's Choice', all in small individual serving packs which were on the table when we boarded the boat. I elected to go with the Ranch but it did little to make my salad taste any less swamp-like. The lettuce which comprised the bulk of the salad was crunchy and juicy but that didn't make it palatable. I didn't finish it and neither did others at the table.

During the break before they began serving the main course Tammy & I joined a number of others outdoors on the Belle's exterior observation deck. I smoked a cigarette and enjoyed the riverbank views we cruised slowly past. To our right (South) the land belongs to the Six Nations and showed little evidence of habitation save the occasional dirt road. On the left it was a lot more inhabited. We passed trailer parks with riverside occupants that ran the gamut from ultramodern showroom model quality units with all the attendant add-ons and playthings including a floatplane moored out front, to sketchy looking trailer-treefort hybrids surrounded by beaten down cars and brush-covered piles of rusty tractor parts, proudly flying the Stars & Bars of the former Confederate States of America under a battered but still proud Maple Leaf. I even spotted a giant chicken at one place, probably 12 to 15 feet tall. Another place had a castle on a hill. Sights only visible from the river, invisible to traffic on the road paralleling the Grand's path.

Captain Bob announced the Main Course was imminent and we returned inside to our seats. Despite the unpleasantness of the first course I was still hopeful Grand River Cruises could pull off a winner with the main course, their signature roast beef dinner complete with mashed potatoes, vegetables and gravy. Seriously, it's pretty hard to mess that up, right? Sad to say, the meal was far from grand in any respect. Portion size was small. Part of my thin slice of beef was ice cold. The gravy was hot but it was more au jus than it was gravy, oily-brown in color, thin and runny. The vegetables, green & yellow beans with baby carrots, were okay. I had a couple sketchy beans but that's not uncommon anywhere and the baby carrots were cooked perfectly and quite delicious. The mashed potatoes on the other hand... Wow! They came loaded with salt. I probably ate more salt in that one serving of potatoes than I have in everything else I've eaten this month. I wasn't the only one who thought the spuds were overly salty but to be fair, I did ask a couple beer drinkers if they found them salty and neither said they'd noticed although they both headed straight for refills after dinner. I was thirsty too but stayed with coffee. I don't know if those salty potatoes were the result of a culinary accident or sinister ploy to increase beverage sales but whatever the case they killed the meal for me.

Tammy & I went outside after the main course. We didn't return for desert which was apparently some sort of cake. I had no interest in trying the final course after the disappointing first 2 offerings. The quality of the food was a big letdown, far below our expectations (which were actually quite modest. We weren't expecting something spectacular, just generous portions of good tasting food.) The service was fine except for the one blip at the start of drink service and Captain Bob was excellent - he even took us on an extended voyage by cruising past Big Creek on our return trip allowing us a look at the upstream version of the cruise - but the actual luncheon meal put a damper on our Grand River Cruise experience.

The scenery during the trip is awesome! The leaves are beginning to change color and there are numerous photo opportunities presented by things on the riverbanks. Be it fallen trees or giant truck tires used as a levee to rustic scenes of docks, boats and portable toilets, the Grand River provides plenty of things to look at during the 3-4 hours a dinner cruise takes.

As far as birdwatching goes, the cruise supplied little action but what we did see was very cool. A number of Belted Kingfishers were spotted as well as a Blue Jay and a few Turkey Vultures. I managed a few blurry shots of a kingfisher and scored a long-distance shot of a Great Blue Heron perched in a tree but the definite highlight was the following picture of a Green Heron in flight.

Overall I have mixed feelings about the Grand River Dinner Cruise. If you think the ambiance of the dining experience - cruising in a boat on the Grand River for 3 hours- is worth 40 bucks a head then don't let the mediocrity of the food dissuade you from checking out Grand River Dinner Cruises. However if receiving a decent meal is a necessity then I personally cannot recommend you spend the 40 bucks on a Grand River Dinner Cruise. That being said, I can't discount the possibility of again taking part in a dinner cruise. I truly enjoyed the lazy boat trip on the river and even for just that $40 isn't an outrageous price. We had a lot of fun and its safe to say many of our cruise-mates we're having a blast. (The boat ran out of Coors Light) As a once a year adventure I think it's worth the money and who knows, maybe next time the meal will taste great. Even if it doesn't the chances are the Grand River itself will provide an experience that makes up for it.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Post-Break Random Thoughts

I was on vacation last week so I didn't spend much time on the internet. During that time off I was able to visit with my Mom who I haven't seen in a couple years. It was a great visit and got me thinking again about the family dynamic. The evolution of the human family unit is something that has fascinated me for some time. I expect a future blog entry will explore it in more detail - my thoughts and observations about the importance of the family unit to Mankind's ability to coexist peacefully in large numbers and how the breakdown of that family unit is largely responsible for the greater breakdown of society.


Finally had a chance to see the 'movie' "Innocence of Muslims" this morning. The independent film was posted on YouTube and within days followers of Islam were attacking American embassies across the Middle East and Africa. A number of people were killed in those attacks, including the American ambassador to Libya. Given the history of extremist reaction to anything deemed blasphemous it really shouldn't come as a surprise the film gave certain Muslims reason to vent their hatred for anything western (read: American.)

What is surprising is the number of people in the western world who still don't get why so many Muslims are upset enough to riot. A common sentiment expressed by western media pundits and regular folks in the street is "In this day and age how can anyone get upset enough over a video that they would riot in the street and condemn people to death?" To me the answer seems simple... The people rioting and attacking American embassies and outposts don't live in this day and age.

This too is something I've been thinking about for some time - not the "Innocence of Muslims" film and subsequent events exactly, but the disparities between the Middle Eastern/African Muslim world and that of the western hemisphere. I expect I'll blog about my thoughts and observations concerning that in the not too distant future also. I have my own opinions about things and I'm not afraid to share them... unlike a lot of moderate Muslims residing in Canada and the U.S. who almost always remain silent when the more hardcore extremists of their religion get to acting up.


There are a number of things I've been thinking about lately, many of which I plan on writing about in future editions of "Dew On The Newts". Not because I think MY opinions are important enough that people need to hear them. (Far from it.)


The world is a big place but maybe not big enough for all of us.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Birds of a Different Feather Sticking Together

My wife and I enjoy birdwatching. For us it is what the birds do that is exciting, how they live their lives. We enjoy watching the actions of paired birds nesting and raising young. We marvel at the group dynamics within birds of the same kind and how different species interact. It's been a shared passion for almost 20 years now but only recently did knowing exactly what birds we were watching became important. Identifying the birds we saw became an exciting new part of our birdwatching experience. (One made easier and more enjoyable by the good folks at

The reason I mention any of this is to illustrate that I may not know the difference between a Green Heron and Least Bittern but I didn't just wander into the wetland yesterday. I've been doing this for awhile, almost a lifetime in fact, long before I met and married a woman with similar interest in our feathered friends. I've seen a lot of bird behaviors, a lot of bird relationships and a lot of interaction between birds of differing species over the years.

On Thursday, September 6th, 2012, my wife and I witnessed inter-species behavior unlike anything either of us have seen before. It was as baffling as it was enthralling, made even more so by us knowing the species of only one type of bird involved - a Mallard. The other was a mystery to us at the time but thanks to Whatbird users confirming my own research I now know was a Hooded Merganser. Not that knowing the mystery bird's identity made the behaviors we witnessed any less amazing.

Female Hooded Merganser:

Here is the story of what we saw...

While walking a path in a Hamilton Ontario waterfront park near a marina on the shore of Lake Ontario my wife and I came across a large group of Mallard ducks sitting on a rocky stretch of beach in the shade of some large willow trees. Numerous mallards and other birds live year-round at the park so seeing a group of mallards isn't uncommon. It was noteworthy that so many birds were peacefully coexisting in this group. Usually they keep to much smaller groups - from two to a dozen birds.

There were maybe 50-60 mallards in this group, calmly sitting on the beach or drifting lazily in the shallow water nearby, water turning various shades of green due to high algae levels. Seeing mallards in these and greater numbers is a common sight later in the fall but this seemed early for these normally quite quarrelsome birds to be hanging out together. We decided to hang out ourselves and observe the scene... partly because we were curious. Was it some instinctive per-migratory flock building (even if they were early and most were probably 'year-rounders' anyway) or perhaps the duty of moulting is better in the company of others? Did the algae bloom have anything to do with it?

We never did reach a conclusion about why so many mallards were together in this one spot because a more compelling mystery was revealed when the ducks became aware of our small dog accompanying us and a number of them casually stepped into the water. It was then we noticed one of the mallards wasn't a mallard at all - it was a female Hooded Merganser. At the time we didn't know what it was but we knew it definitely wasn't a mallard. We saw it before we actually saw it as the next picture proves. I took the shot just prior to my wife and I simultaneously spotting the "mystery bird" (Hooded Merganser) as it entered the water.

We'd seen the sketchy looking Canada Geese in the background of course but it wasn't until I loaded the photos into the computer at home that we realized our little mystery bird had been sitting amid the ducks all along.

We watched and within seconds it became apparent the little bird was completely at ease among the mallards which were obviously not of its kind and considerably larger in size. Even more compelling was the smaller bird's attachment to one particular mallard among the many. It was a male, a drake. Like lots of waterfowl around the lakefront he was sporting rather drab plumage lacking the trademark green head of its kind. The mallard seemed not at all concerned at being closely tailed by the smaller bird. In fact, the two seemed so at ease and connected in their movements they appeared almost to be a couple.

We suspected the mystery bird to be female, a guess based mostly on the uniform overall drabness of its plumage and the 99.9% sure knowledge the mallard was male. We didn't think it was possible they were connected with the ultimate goal of raising young but it wasn't beyond the realm of believable acceptability to consider the possibility they thought that way. Maybe it was some kind of mutually beneficial partnership, an alliance of chance or a benign inter-species companionship ignited by some random genetic trigger. Whatever the reason, it was obvious the mallard and its little companion were a functioning unit of two amid the numbers and personal dynamics of the rest of the mallard flock.

The mallard cruised slowly through the water dabbling his bill into the surface blooms and algae foam and its little companion did the same despite possessing a bill that looked anything but suitable to the task. It was thin and dagger-like, it looked serrated, certainly not the broad, finely molded scoop the mallard had. The mystery bird's bill looked more predatory than the bill of the mallard, one more akin to a diet of animal manner than plant stuff.

It was one thing of many that made this pairing so compelling to watch. The possibility that the mallard might somehow have adopted the mystery bird came to mind. There were instances, like the clumsy dabbling, which suggested the mystery bird was learning survival behaviors from the larger mallard but doubts arose just as quickly... The mallard was a male. Wouldn't an adoption, however unlikely, at least need the cooperation of a female mallard? and where was she?

Then there were behaviors which showed the mystery bird was anything but some weak adopted stepchild, the most obvious of which was captured in this final photo...

When other mallards came too close to "its" mallard the little mystery bird went on the offensive with aggressive displays and posturing. Without fail the mallards yielded to the smaller bird which was surprising given their proven record for eagerly initiating or accepting challenges to engage in physical combat. As seemingly aggressive and possessive of its mallard that the mystery bird was, the mallard was the leader of the pair. Those aggressive exchanges with other birds ended with the paired mallard calmly moving from the disturbance and the smaller bird following, once again a silent mimic of its larger companion.

I've never seen anything quite like it. I know many species of birds and other creatures can and do join in inter-species companionship and in some cases have hybrid offspring but it's not something one witnesses every day. I've never seen a mallard display such a close and obvious companionship with anything but another mallard.

After arriving home I loaded the pictures from our day at the park into my computer and began researching the identity of the mystery bird which led me to the Hooded Merganser, a guess confirmed by Whatbird users. If anything, learning the mallard's companion was a merganser only raised more questions. During subsequent research I've learned mallards have earned quite a reputation for cross-breeding with other species. In some parts of the world native duck species are in danger of extinction as hybrids will inevitably erase the rest if bird population numbers reach a rapidly nearing critical pivot point. I found a number of species listed as confirmed mallard crossbreeders but no mention of mergansers hooded or otherwise. Nothing I found indicated hooded mergansers crossbreed with any species and it seems unlikely they'd do so with mallards or similar ducks given the difference in diet and feeding methods. Mergansers are diving feeders whose diet is primarily animal material whereas mallards feed largely on plant material by dipping and dabbling.

Even discounting breeding as the reason for this mallard / hooded merganser partnership it's still a compelling companionship. How did these two birds come to be a pair? Why did it happen? The answers to those and other questions remain unanswered, maybe forever but that's part of the fun of birdwatching. Their are wonders aplenty supplied by our feathered friends and the lives they lead, it's impossible to know all the answers (and besides, where's the fun in that?) Knowing we were witness to something rare and wondrous is enough.

Some may scorn at the birdwatching hobbyist and consider it an exercise in wasted time and boredom but in that ignorance they are denying themselves so much. The wonder, excitement and personal fulfillment found in birdwatching is endless and good for the soul.

Thanks for reading.

If you want to know more about Hooded Mergansers and Mallards check out the links below...

Hooded Merganser Whatbird Profile
Hooded Merganser on Wikipedia
Mallard Duck Whatbird Profile
Mallard Duck on Wikipedia

Monday, September 3, 2012

Jesus Christ As Blasphemous Profanity

I got to thinking about profanity the other day, the ways, whys and whens people choose to curse. In the course of my thoughts about profanity I realized that Jesus Christ was pretty much the only religious figure whose name was regularly used as a curse. I wonder why that is?

I assume anyone able to read this blog already has a pretty good idea who Jesus Christ was but to summarize anyway...

Jesus is a pivotal figure in the Christian religion and influential to the entire world as well (We all use the same calendar, right? It starts - Year 1 - at Christ's birth 2012 years prior to me writing this blog entry) Christian's believe Jesus was born as the Son of God. Conceived of immaculate conception (his mother was the Virgin Mary) Jesus grew into a prophet of God and eventually powerful enough that the people in charge of things during those times decided he had to die. Jesus was arrested, tried and convicted to death by crucifixion, a particularly nasty method of dispatch that involves a large cross. Followers of the Christian faith believe Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice to all Mankind's sins. Throughout the many denominations and subsets of the Christian religion symbolism and ritual evoking the name and image of Jesus Christ can still be found today.

Jesus Christ is a very important dude to a lot of people
And recognized as such by many others who aren't Christians. People of other faiths and even people of no faith know that Jesus Christ is someone important and holy to Christians (just as pretty much everyone knows that Allah's last prophet Muhammad is someone important and holy to followers of Islam)

So it strikes me as odd that Jesus Christ's name somehow became a profane curse, a swear word used casually by numerous people (even some Christians). It just seems weird. It's not like other religious figures of importance get their names used by countless thousands of people every day as swear words...

Except maybe God, as in "God damn it!" which is more a demand that God damn something of your choosing. It's not exactly a prayer but it's not exactly a curse either. I'll let the deep thinkers figure that one out.

Getting back to Jesus...
I don't know when his name was first used as a curse and I don't know why. It seems weird that his name became a profanity still in use today. I mean, he died over 2000 years ago. He was a criminal of his time but was Jesus really that bad a dude his name becomes a curse word? An entire religion is based around his life, death and resurrection. Millions of people around the world have embraced Christ as their savior. How and why did his name end up as a modern day profanity (however mild) to so many?

And why are so many Christians seemingly okay with the name of Jesus Christ their savior being used as a casual profanity? Honestly, it seems like some Christians get more upset if someone takes a poke at the Catholic Pope than they do about the name of Christ being blasphemed in a curse. Not for nothing but followers of Islam get right upset if someone denigrates the name of Allah or his last prophet Muhammad. People have been killed for profaning the prophet of Islam. Seriously. I'm not suggesting Christians should start condemning to death everyone who usurps the name of Christ the Savior for their own use as a curse. I just find it odd that so many seem okay with it.

Maybe it's because "Jesus Christ", when used as an expletive, is actually a very mild one as curse words go. The more I thought about it the more I realized people use "Jesus Christ" as a curse of frustration, exasperated annoyance with someone or something often very familiar to the person vocalizing Christ's name as a profanity. Even parents who would never use curse words rhyming with "sock", "ditch", "truck" or "stunt" anywhere near the ears of young children will use "Jesus Christ" as a swear word around their kids. (Sometimes even directly at their kids.)

As curses go, "Jesus Christ" is a relatively gentle one. but that still doesn't explain why it became a profanity in the first place. Why pick the Christian's Jesus Christ as a name to profane? Why pick any religious figure at all? Surely there are more deserving individuals throughout history whose names would be more worthy for use as an expletive?

For example...

Why this:
"Jesus Christ, what a mess! Who's gonna clean this up?"
And not this:
"Adolf Hitler, what a mess! Who's gonna clean this up?"
Doesn't Adolf as a curse make more sense than Jesus? Hitler was a bad dude. Pretty much everyone agrees on that. Why isn't his name a curse? How could anyone choose Jesus Christ over Adolf Hitler for use as a profanity? I don't get it.

Here's another example...

Why this:
"You did what? Jesus Christ! What were you thinking?"
And not this:
"You did what? Mel Gibson! What were you thinking?"
Using the name of Christ is bound to offend some Christians (even if they don't overtly demonstrate that it does.) I don't think using my suggestion would offend anyone, would it?

I don't pretend to have any answers. I have no idea why the name of Jesus Christ became a relatively common profanity... one I've used myself on numerous occasions. I haven't suddenly become offended by it nor have I recently "found God" (or religion). I just got to thinking about things and Jesus showed up in the middle of my thoughts on cursing.

It just seems weird that there among the descriptive references to body parts (and their functions), sex, scatological humor and other swear word and curse expression mainstays, one finds Jesus Christ... a divine symbol of religion, God's love, salvation and rebirth.

Whether devout Christian or not, whether believer or atheist, doesn't it seem strange that "Jesus Christ" somehow morphed into a common curse, albeit a mild one?

I think so. The more I think about it the more it doesn't make sense. All considerations about my personal beliefs and faith aside... using "Jesus Christ" as an expletive just doesn't make sense so I'm going to try and not use it as such anymore. I'm not saying you should or shouldn't make the same decision. Cursing, like religion, is a matter of personal choice.

Thanks for reading.
Take care of yourself.