Saturday, October 31, 2015

Port Burwell Provincial Park, Ontario, May, 2014

In May, 2013, we went canoeing & camping to Algonquin Park, hoping to relax, enjoy Ontario’s wilderness and serenity and especially take hundreds of photographs of ubiquitous moose wandering all over the park at that time. Well, we did not take one thing into account: black flies! There were huge swarms of those tiny insects which, along with mosquitoes, were incessantly attacking us. We were forced to cut our trip short and left the park after just two nights. Not wanting to have a similar experience, we decided to go south this time, to Port Burwell Provincial Park, where black flies are non-existent. Although the area is totally different from the northern shield country, we were looking forward to visiting this park.
Our campiste

We left Toronto on May 19, 2014, on Victoria Day—the first long weekend of the season. After driving for an hour or so on Highway 401, we eventually took country roads and soon arrived at the town of Delhi (pronounced ‘dell high’), pulled into a pleasant town park next to the Tobacco Museum and parked across a small waterfall. Delhi has been known as the Heart of the Tobacco Country—it was here that basically 100% of Canadian tobacco is grown. Yet its production has declined over the past decades due to the dwindling of the number of smokers, thus leading to the weakening of the tobacco industry. Although there are still plenty of tobacco fields, we also saw a new, exotic crop—ginseng; it takes several years for it to mature and be harvested, but there is a great demand, especially from the Chinese community and its prices are very high.
Lake Erie Beach at the park-misty and mysterious...

A lot of immigrants from different countries have settled in Delhi and thus it is a very multicultural city. We saw a Polish, German, Belgian and Hungarian halls/community centers; we were told there used to be a Portuguese and Italian center as well. When we stopped at a garage sale (Catherine’s de rigeur stops), the vendors were of Dutch origin. We noticed a black flag in front of the Polish Hall; later I found out it was due to the death of Bazyli Piekarski, who used to be the manager of the Polish Hall.
Trinity Anglican Church in Port Burwell

Our next stop was the town of Vienna. When Catherine had been doing her research, somehow she got the impression that the town resembled the capital of Austria (she was told this in a phone conversation by a park office employee). I did not want to put her right and instead told her that indeed, there was an impressive Opera building and even Bizet’s “Carmen” was on. Catherine got quite excited about attending this performance.

“Why did not you tell me that in Toronto?” she asked, “I’d have brought more formal clothes.”

Once we got to Vienna, I had a great laugh! It was a very small, farming community, with just a few dozen stores. Pointing to a bigger, barn-like dilapidated building, I asked her,

“Perhaps this is the opera house?”
Plenty of wind turbines!

Yet there was another thing that might have put this town on the map: the Edison family once had lived there. Thomas Alva Edison’s father, Samuel Edison, had to escape to the United States after the Mackenzie Rebellion of 1837; otherwise Thomas Alva Edison might have been born in Canada! The young Thomas Edison spent many summers in Vienna with his grandfather. Interestingly, the original Edison homestead was moved to the USA by Henry Ford in the 1930s!

We also dropped in on a grocery store located at in intersection of two country roads. The store was doing a brisk business and it was also selling Mexican food and fabrics, mainly to the Mennonites living in the area. We were fairly surprised to see that they were using credit cards and driving all-wheel vehicles, not horse-drawn wagons!
Pet Cemetery

We also stopped at a unique cemetery for pets only (Sandy Ridge Pet Cemetery, south of Tillsonburg). There were plenty of nice headstones and tributes to the Rovers and Fidos of the world and a few fitting remembrances to the feline crowd. There were even inscriptions in Polish, Jewish, Russian, Chinese and other languages. While reading those poignant words, you could immediately feel that they were so genuine, flowing from the heart.

Upon arriving at Port Burwell Provincial Park, we went to the empty registration office. According to the posted information, we were supposed to pick a campsite and self-register. The park was virtually empty and we drove to campsite #118, covered with trillium flowers, but it backed on a factory nearby. So, we continued to search for the perfect non-reserveable site and finally found a very good site no. 36.

As I said before, the park was almost deserted (5 sites taken out of 356) and even though there were plenty of campsites around, we had been enjoying total privacy… until three college-age girls arrived and set up their tent at the adjacent campsite and proceeded to play nonstop talk radio on site even when they were off site! Honestly, sometimes I do not understand people…
Fred Bodsworth's grave in Port Burwell

The town of Port Burwell had a very distinct lighthouse (one of Canada’s oldest), Trinity Anglican Church and a cemetery where many descendants of the town’s founder, Mahlon Burwell, were buried. While camping in Port Burwell in 2006, I had seen an announcement at the local library about Fred Bodsworth, a well-known author, journalist and naturalist who was born in Port Burwell in 1918 and who was going to visit his birthplace and sign his books. Although I was not going to be in Port Burwell at that time, I managed to buy one of his most famous books, “The Last of the Curlews” (with his autograph!). Fred Bodsworth passed away in 2012 and we visited his grave at the cemetery.

The Trinity Anglican Church was the gift of Colonel Mahlon Burwell. After John Strachan’s inaugural service at Trinity on May 22nd, 1836, the church was officially opened. Unfortunately, it was closed and we were unable see its interior.

In the nineteenth century Port Burwell was well-known for its shipbuilding; in additions, a number of fisheries operated from Port Burwell, albeit their success fluctuated, depending upon the fish stocks, which eventually declined and in 2014 only one fishing tug operated from Port Burwell—it was still possible to buy fresh fish directly from fishermen.

However, one of the most memorable industries in Port Burwell was coal shipping. From 1906 to 1950 a car ferry called The Ashtabula (the name is derived from ashtepihəle, which means 'always enough fish to be shared around' in the Lenape language), with built in track to transport railcars across the lake, made round trips from Ashtabula, Ohio to Port Burwell, shipping coal across Lake Erie to Canada and carrying newsprint and limestone from Canada to the United States. The coal was then transported by rail to such areas as Tillsonburg and Woodstock and often used in kilns to dry tobacco leaves. By 1955, the Ashtabula made 12,000 round trips, up to 250 trips per year in the postwar period. Eventually coal shipping stopped when diesel engines became popular. On September 18, 1958, the Ashtabula collided with the Ben Moreell, a bulk freighter, near its port in Ohio. Although there was no loss of live, her damage was so extensive that she was scrapped. At the time of the collision she was captained by Louis Sabo, who had spent 31 years, half of his life, on the Ashtabula. The preliminary inquiry by the Coast Guard accused Sabo of various infractions that led to the accident. The night before the full inquiry for disciplinary action was to be held, Capitan Sabo went to his garage, turned on his car and was found on the floor in the morning, asphyxiated. In addition, an insurance inspector, while examining the Ashtabula, fell through a hole to his death. Thus, two deaths were indirectly caused by the accident.
Mural in Port Burwell, depicting the port and the Ashtabula 

Today it is still possible to see rotted ties at the mouth of the Big Otter Creek, where the railway terminal used to be located. The rail tracks had been lifted long ago and a narrow path marks the old train route. About ten years ago I went to Port Stanley; there was a train operated by volunteers that took tourists to St. Thomas and back. One of the train’s engineers told me that he had driven the last train from Port Burwell.

We also went to the beach (on Lake Erie). Since it had rained previously, thick mist was enveloping the dunes and driftwood — the whole area resembled a scene from a horror movie! Catherine decided to go for a walk and soon vanished in the dense mist, only to re-appear after thirty minutes.
In front of a Mennonite store in Aylmer

The next day it was raining and we drove to the town of Aylmer, where we spent a few hours at a farmers’ market a.k.a. flea market, where we bought some vegetables and sausage. Quite a few of the vendors were Mennonites. Then we drove to a nearby Ontario Police College; every police officer in Ontario must spent 13 weeks training there. We received visitors’ passes and wandered around the building. There was a small police museum and a memorial dedicated to policemen killed in the line of duty—some of them I remembered as their shootings were on the cover pages of newspapers for many days. We also saw a lot of students—all were uniformed and even carried guns, albeit not real (as I suspected—I would not like to be a teacher arguing with armed students over their grades!). Outside there was a fake mall, firing range and driving training facilities. The college was erected on the grounds of the former Royal Canadian Air Force Station, constructed during the Second World War.
Torpedo room

Yet the absolute highlight of this trip was a new attraction that awaited us in Port Burwell—namely, a real submarine! It was the HMSC Ojibwa, an Oberon-class submarine that served in the Royal Canadian Navy, mainly spying on the Warsaw Pact navy. After being decommissioned, in 2012 it arrived in Port Burwell and is open for visitors.
The Submarine in Port Burwell

We started in the forward torpedo room and our very knowledgeable guides told us a lot of fascinating details about torpedoes and the firing procedures. It was only possible to take photographs in that room. Then we proceeded to the Control Room, Engine Room, Motor Room and the Stern Torpedo Room. It was an absolutely captivating tour—finally I was able to personally see what I had only watched on TV! It was unbelievable how little privacy the crew had. There were six-foot bunks and there were more people on-board than regular bunks —after all, there was never time when everyone was asleep, so you slipped into any bunk that was unoccupied. Only the captain had a private stateroom—if you can call that a room, as it resembled a tiny cubbyhole-I am sure that inmates in Canadian penitentiary institutions enjoy bigger cells! The washrooms cubicles were so small that it was impossible to fit in without leaving the door open. Even though the submarine was decommissioned in 1998, the whole interior was permeated with the smell of diesel (which made Catherine feel nauseous). And then there was the motor room—according to the tour guide, the noise there was comparable to that of a jet taking off; those working there invariably suffered serious hearing loss. I could go on and on… the whole tour lasted just over 1 hour and cost just under $20, but other, more comprehensive tours are offered, which I would love to take in the future. In any case, I do not think I would be able to serve on a submarine, especially living there for months… I still prefer my canoe!
At Port Burwell Provincial Park--among Trillium grandiflorum, the
official flower of the Province of Ontario

We also drove along the shores of Lake Erie and arrived at Long Point—a very long peninsula, which is famous for bird migration and habitat—and checked out Long Point Provincial park. The open area, used mainly by RVs, was not very impressive, yet Catherine absolutely fell in love with much more cozy campsites close to the lake—they were sandy and much more secluded. Well, I know where we are going camping next May! Later we went to Turkey Point Provincial Park, with a long beach, albeit totally empty.

Overall, it was a very nice camping trip which allowed us to discover a new part of Ontario—and explore a real submarine! Although we still prefer the rugged Canadian Shield, we will certainly visit the shores of Lake Erie in the following years, especially in May or June.

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