Thursday, May 29, 2008

Lowering the bar at 100 km/h

Last night I was on the 401, driving past those signs that now declare it the "Highway of Heroes". I have never liked that designation. I object to it for a number of reasons. First of all, I don't care for the intrusion of militarism into our casual, everyday lives. I think it sends the wrong message. We're living in the nuclear age. The military is necessary evil that I feel is put to its best uses when it's at home, looking after our interests here, or perhaps maintaining a presence on the soil of our legal treaty allies, where we are completely welcome, as a show of solidarity and support. But mostly, I object to it because I feel it cheapens the word "hero". I'm sorry, but I don't consider someone a hero just because he died in a uniform overseas. That's unfortunate, but not necessarily heroic. That idea would anger a lot of people, but it's just because their patriotism blinds them to the actualities of it. To illustrate the point, I would remark that people knowingly take risks doing their jobs every day, but we don't think of them as heroes. Millions of people risk their lives daily on our highways, getting to and from work to do the things that, in the own small ways, contribute to the functioning of our society. And every day, a handful of them don't make it. Accidents happen, and they never get to go home again. But we don't call them heroes.

Likewise, a young man who puts on the uniform is extremely unlikely to face combat, much less die in it, and we all know that. The odds are vastly greater that he (or she, forgive me) will spend a few years fixing equipment, learning to shoot, marching, taking a turn peeling spuds, and maybe helping out when a natural disaster occurs somewhere in the country, or another country. The odds against any particular person in uniform ending up in combat or dying in it are extremely high. But even when it happens, is that necessarily the making of hero? Part of the job of a soldier, should it come to that, is to engage in combat at the risk of life and limb. But likewise, part of the job of just about any of the rest of us is to risk smashing into a bridge abutment or being t-boned by someone running a red light. It happens. It's part of the job. And let's be honest... an awful lot of the time, we're talking about guys who were in jeeps that overturned, or helicopters that crashed, or who stepped on a land mine or set off a booby trap (just as hundreds of kids do every year in the countries we "helped" in the past, but no one calls them heroes... no, they're at best "victims", and at worst, "collateral damages"). As unfortunate as that is, is it right to water down the word "hero" to apply to that?

My idea of a hero tends to focus on fire fighters. Every time they answer the call, they're at risk. And every time, it's about saving lives and property. It's not occasional, it's not a couple of times in the course of a career as it typically is for soldiers or police, it's pretty much every day. That's more in keeping with the idea of a hero to me.

I thought about it last night... what is a hero? To me, a hero is someone who, at clear and obvious risk to him or herself, does something far above and beyond what would ordinarily be expected of a person in that situation. We know what a hero really is; a hero is someone so bold and brave that he wins the Victoria Cross, or the Legion of Honour. A hero is someone who braves a burning car to save people, especially strangers, for example. I once read about a German pilot in World War II whose stricken plane was about to hit a school in France. Rather than bail out and save himself, he rode the stick down to avoid the school, and perished rather than sacrifice all those children. I look at myself and as much as I'd like to think I'd be that brave and that selfless, I strongly suspect I'd hit the silk and just hope really hard my plane missed the school. I'm not a hero. At best, I'm ordinary. And, frankly, I think so are most of the soldiers who come home to us in boxes from overseas. Unfortunate, ordinary men and women — admittedly doing a tough job, but not necessarily heroes.

No, we need to reserve that word for the truly exceptional. This... this is a hero. This is a tale of real heroism in my book.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

River valleys all weekend

Got some hiking done this weekend. A couple of excursions, both to places I'd been before, but further explorations.

Burnhamthorpe/Sixteen Mile Creek Arroyo

I had Friday off and so did P-Doug, and as we'd arranged, we returned to an abandoned farm on a stretch of Burnhamthorpe Road cut off by the construction of Hwy 407 about ten years ago. The place was suggested to me not quite two years ago by Bassmentbeats as a candidate for exploration. I went there on my own at the end of the summer in 2006, and then returned with P-Doug last summer. Both times, the exploration was limited to the heights above the river valley. This time, we made plans to get down to the river itself.

When we arrived this time there were already two vehicles at the end of the road. We didn't have any idea where the occupants were. Nevertheless, we set out and made the usual crossing by means of the wildlife access under the highway. The mud at the far end was unusually deep and P-Doug fell to his knees in it while negotiating his way out. Fortunately nearly none of it got on his clothes, he didn't get hurt, and he didn't drop his camera (that's the most important thing).

First thing we noticed on arriving at the old farm, or whatever it was, was that someone had done even more extensive work clearing an observation point than the last time we'd been there. Not only that, but benches, clearly pinched from real parks, had been added and clustered around the rather impressive view. Two of them that I could see, though P-Doug spotted one that someone had hurled down into the valley. There was also a firepit there. This is clearly a popular spot with someone, probably someone quite local. He noted to me that there was virtually no garbage in evidence, though. Whatever else, they're clearly taking care of the place.

We walked along the lip of the valley, as last time, taking note of just how recent the tire tracks looked, and how many different kinds there were. My estimation of the place shifted abruptly from my first impression, which was of an extremely isolated place probably only visited by hunters in the fall, to a place known to someone local who liked the view the second time I was there, to something much more like an unofficial municipal park in the making. Where I felt myself splendidly isolated the first two trips, this third one had the air of being someplace public, and it lost some of its charms for me.

Nevertheless, there were new ones. I've been to the lip of the arroyo there before, but I've never gone down into it more than twenty or thirty feet. This time, we went right to the source of it, with our intention being to hike the length of it down into the flood plain alongside Bronte Creek.

I'd expected the arroyo to be sandstone, sand, mud, and boulders. As it turns out, it's composed nearly entirely of shale. The shale was a sort of two-tone, alternating between a sort of pale maroon (for the most part) intermixed with a fair amount of teal. It would be interesting to learn what these differences imply for the conditions under which they were laid down long ago. In any event, where the slabs where large enough to resemble cobblestones, the effect was striking enough that P-Doug eventually dubbed the trail "The Teal-Brick Road". Starting out, he had some concerns I might get cut taking it on, but I decided to tough it out. If I had any problem, I had my sandals with me in my backpack. I wanted to see if I could make it. It wasn't always easy going, but that's part of the challenge. In some places, though, it was really pleasant to the touch, particularly where the stones were large and smooth or the water was pooled.

I'd toyed with the idea of making the trek down in the altogether, as they say. Last summer we hiked up a hillside over one of our favourite swimming locations that way, and it was really enjoyable. After all, the idea was to get down to the river for just that sort of thing anyway, and as it was, I was wearing only my shorts and my hat by that point (well, and the backpack and mosquito repellant, of course). But it wasn't long before the sounds of ATVs or motorbikes or something high over our heads at the very lip of the canyon put the thought out of my mind. We didn't see them, but the presence was overpowering, the noxious sounds ripping through the natural environment. I can't imagine why anyone would insist on encountering nature that way. It seems the very antithesis of wanting to get out a human-centred, human-scoped environment: to roar around the forest as though it were some leafy freeway? To disturb the peace of every creature within earshot? The noise of them was an intermittent intrusion the whole of the time we were there.

I got some really terrific work out of the G9, capturing pairs to line up for 3D, though I say it myself. Not every pair yielded something impressive, but nearly every pair I shot on our way down nicely captured the depth of the scene and the beauty of what we were seeing. Later on as we were crossing the field topside on our way back, P-Doug made the observation that, in ten years or so when the place will likely be covered with a subdivision, the arroyo will be crawling with people. We wondered how the town would handle that. Would they fence off the arroyo as dangerous? Or would they tame it, running the water into a pipe and running stairs up and down the length of it? Would they dare to leave it as it is? Who knows. But for now, it's lovely and nearly pristine, and I'm glad we got the chance to record it the way it looks today.

Cursory investigations I've made suggest the rock we were making our way down through dates from the Silurian Period, which makes it all between about 415 and 460 million years old, or thereabouts... obviously older the further down you go. At that time, there were no animals at all living on the land yet, and central North America was under a shallow equatorial sea. At a couple of points, P-Doug spotted shale with distinctive ripple patterns in it. It seems all the more impressive now that I know just how long ago those ripples were made.

I guess it took us twenty minutes or so to climb down to the flood plain. When we got there, I noticed at once that the trees are all young, few of them thicker than a man's calf muscle, and all pretty much the same age. I wondered if some sudden catastrophe a generation or so ago hadn't sheered off whatever had been, leaving the place bare to be covered again. So much about the geology of the place makes me wish I understood these things better. Anyway, being shod, P-Doug made better time than me in both transits, so I found him already standing in the river when I reached it, shouting something about bugs, I think. Airliners were constantly crossing over us, turning eastward from the south. For my part, I crossed over to the island that had been my own personal destination, and I laid out for about an hour to sunbathe in the brush. P-Doug hung his stuff on a tree at the riverside and explored the river channels around us. I dozed intermittently in the sun, and wandered the island a bit. From time to time I could hear the awful noise of the vehicles ripping up the path high above us.

Eventually caught sight of P-Doug passing by in the channel. I headed over to the river again but by the time I got there he'd moved out of sight upstream. I stepped into the river at a deep point, finding it surprisingly warm. After a few minutes, I saw him coming downstream towards me and we met up and he told me what he'd discovered of the way the water courses and the lay of the land alongside. He led me downstream a bit past where I'd been, where he boldly sat in the shallows, calling the water "invigorating". In the distance, we actually caught sight of someone riding a bicycle on the far side of the river downstream. On P-Doug's suggestion, I simply sat down in the river, keeping my camera out of the water. It was momentarily bracing, but not chilly. We were both surprised how far along the temperature had come already. Presently, we waded back onto the island and dressed, then crossed the river again to head back.

Climbing up again was a little easier since we were leaning forward into gravity, rather than back to keep from slipping and falling as we were on the way down. Again, P-Doug outpaced me and was quickly out of sight, but this enabled me to video a couple of minutes of the ascent without anyone in the foreground... just the view of the arroyo itself. As I approached the top, I could hear the offroaders again, roaring along the top of the canyon. I never saw them myself, but when I caught up with P-Doug at the top, he told me he'd spotted them. We decided we'd rather not get mown down by these guys coming around a blind spot at some well-treed bend, and so we followed the old wheel ruts across the field back to the dead limb of Burnhamthorpe. As we prepared to cross back under the 407, we actually saw a guy on a dirt bike emerge at the end of the road. For a moment we figured he was on his way out and we'd have to let him pass us, but instead he just charged back down the old road. We crossed back under the highway and headed home.

So far as I know, there's never been a bridge across Sixteen Mile Creek in the vicinity of Burnhamthorpe... the valley is just too steep. Plans I've seen suggest that Halton Region intends to bridge Burnhamthorpe across the valley, probably just north of Lion's Park which is itself north of Dundas Street. The idea, from what I've read, is to create Burnhamthorpe as a major employment corridor, and to do it relatively soon, in the early-to-mid 2010s. I'd had some concerns that the bridge would be right in the immediate vicinity of the existing Burnhamthorpe right-of-way, but this plan seems to avoid it by nearly a mile (though it dead-ends at Bronte Road, without crossing the 407 or meeting with Burnhamthorpe on the far side, so I'm dubious about the value of such a half-measure). I don't know what all this implies for the lost little farm we've been visiting, or the spectacular arroyo at its south end. Will the land be residential? Commercial, light industrial? Will it actually be a park? Regardless, it's clear that the region intended to change the landscape and the vista, so these shots you see here probably represent the waning years that you'll be able to see views quite like this. I guess we'll see.

P.S. Turns out I was wrong about P-Doug not getting injured in his muddy fall: "Remember that sideways step in the mud that dumped me on my left leg when we came out of the culvert for the first time? I got a scrape at the knee and another one on the top of my foot. Because of the mud, I actually didn't notice the knee scrape until I got home. However, the one on the top of my foot was further ground raw by the mud underneath my sandal strap which ran over it. That too I really wasn't aware of until the scab formed."

Bridge over the Rouge River

Sunday I didn't have much going on so I decided to undertake the exploration of that bridge over the Rouge I'd glimpsed in the distance in March. It was almost two months to the day between the two trips (March 26, May 25). Hard to believe the weather and conditions could be so different in just that amount of time. In March, I had to eventually turn back because I was getting snow in my shoes. In May... what shoes? :)

I took the 401 to Morningside Avenue, partly to get there quickly and partly because I wanted to see if they'd removed the supports for the old lost railroad bridge over the road. They haven't; they're still there. Though they have dug a pair of tunnels under the existing railroad line on the east side. Not sure exactly what they're doing.

I took Finch down to its old Bailey bridge crossing and parked at Rouge Park. I made may way down the stone stairs to the pastoral bank of the river. Last March, it took me two or three minutes to get down those stairs... they were very icy and treacherous. They looked so different to me this time that I actually wondered if the ones I'd seen two months ago hadn't been torn out and replaced.

I walked along the path to the river. I had to get across the river to access the bridge. It was further down the river than I'd remembered it. It had looked so near in March, but the forest had filled in in the meantime and didn't look quite so easy to get to now. I started across the river... the riverbed is mostly fist-sized chunks of blunt, angular rock, something like rounded rip-wrap. Not very comfortable to walk on, but reputed good exercise for the arches. As I was nearing the other side, an angler in hip waders appeared from downstream and made his way to the bank I'd just departed, while I scrambled up the far bank. I stepped into the brush and started toward the bridge.

The woodland was wild and thick, slow going. I came to a lot of woody, stalky plants with almond-shaped leaves in threes, some of the tinged in russet: I strongly suspected they were poison ivy because they set off all the same alarm bells as the ones I saw at Twelve Mile Creek, where it turned out I was right. Right or wrong, they don't seem to have caused me any problems, so I'm pleased about that. Beyond that was a beautiful field of ferns, the ancient plants that once covered the world before the arrival of flowering plants like grass. Imagine pastures of ferns instead of waving grasslands... Ferns these days are pretty much relegated to gloomy glens like the one where I found these ones.

But if this poison ivy (real or imagined) wasn't a nuisance, the red ants who seemed to own the place on the far side of the ferns sure were. They were all over me from the knees down, sometimes a dozen at a time. Every so often one of them would decide to give me a little sting or bite or whatever irritating thing it is they do. They were unpleasant enough that I decided to brave the discomforts of the riverbed and wade back on my return.

Finally I came to the bridge. What a puzzle it is. First of all, it seems to be spot-on a property line, as a chain link fence comes down the hill right to the middle of the concrete support on the west side. There's no getting past it without recourse to the river. Then, it seems to connect nothing. I didn't inspect it on the east side, but on the west, there's no hint at all of what it ever served. No road, no path, no building. Nothing. Just a bridge that stops in mid-air. Then there's the character of the bridge itself. It's a steel framework of crisscrossing beams, like the support for something, rather than constituting a bridge itself. The framework is no wider or taller than a man could spread his arms, if that. There doesn't seem to be anything that rides inside the framework, and no mechanism for transporting anything across the river inside it. I have no idea what it's for. The best guess I can offer, and it's an unlikely long shot, is that it has something to do with the Toronto Zoo's monorail system, somehow, in some capacity. I doubt it, but it's the only thing I can think of, since it's on, or at least connects to, Zoo land.

Well, I'd made it. I'd met the challenge. So I decided to go back. I climbed down the slippery bank and waded into the river, picking my footholds carefully, hoping not to fall in and ruin my cameras. I made it first to the sand bank on the east side, then crossed back over the sand and gravel on the west side, and then a third time back to the original bank on the same side as the parking lot. After that, back on the clay earth and grassy ground, the walk was a lot more pleasant.

So I headed back, got myself a turkey burger and veggie chili at Lick's, and settled back with a little Lamb's Navy Rum to enjoy the second season of Rome. Pretty nice.