Butchart Gardens is famous, and it’s one of Victoria’s premier attractions. But I knew of the Butcharts long before I came west. The Butchart mansion on 5th Avenue in Owen Sound, Ontario, was a block away from my boyhood home. It had, maybe still has, an indoor swimming pool. I remember once tramping through the snow to the front door in the hopes that I might sell a subscription to the Toronto Telegram.
Even after many, many years, I can still remember smelling chlorine through the half-open door. I probably wondered what living in a real mansion would be like. To be able to take a swim at home rather in the the minuscule YMCA pool – that would be something! Of course, it probably wouldn’t have worked very well in our 2 bedroom apartment behind the factory, but I would have been up for a try. Incidentally, I don’t believe I sold a subscription. Nor did I ever see the inside of the grand house. The Butchards, I think, were long gone anyway.
The Butchard Mansion
Even then though, I knew about the Butchard Gardens, later called The Martins. They were a few miles out of town at Balmy Beach. It was a long bike ride for a 12 year old so I never got there. I hadn’t yet heard of the west coast version. No reason I should.
A few years ago, I finally visited The Martins. It was May. I was birding along the cobbley Georgian Bay shoreline and then, almost accidentally, I was there, walking among the ruins of a grand idea from another time. Half of the real estate had been stripped way by winter ice and freak high water, the there was more recent damage. Winter storms on the Great Lakes can be fierce.
Winter’s Fallout – The Martins, Georgian Bay
About the Butcharts. The brothers, Robert and David, were born in Owen Sound in the 19th century. They ran a hardware store on what is now Main Street (2nd Avenue East), and ranked among the town’s “contemporary and go-ahead merchants”. Solid, likely Presbyterian, moderately well-off. Then they found that marl from a nearby lake bed could be converted into cement, a product in great demand in Canada’s developing industrial heartland. The discovery was huge. Soon, the Owen Sound Portland Cement Company was making some of the best cement in the country. They also shipped the product in bags rather than barrels. This innovation made the Butchards wealthy.
Marly, no longer industrial, Shallow Lake
Rich now, Robert built the mansion with indoor swimming pool on 5th Avenue and lived there until he and Jennie left for the west in 1904. His brother David stayed in Owen Sound and built something grand too. I’m not sure which of the imposing west side Owen Sound houses was his. Jennie, of course, created the Gardens at Tod Inlet near Victoria, BC, but David also created a Butchart Gardens at Balmy Beach on Georgian Bay. I wonder about this family obsession with ‘Gardens’, and where the idea came from.
In any case, the Owen Sound establishment, with its Italian Garden, Sunken Garden, tennis courts, swimming pool, and many other features, was an important tourist attraction until, one winter, unusually heavy lake ice carved away a big chunk of the property. After Hurricane Hazel destroyed much of the rest, the Gardens were finished.
It rained while I was there. Forlorn, a strange, almost haunted legacy of what was once one of the country’s largest cement fortunes, it seemed the last glimmer of the Jazz Age world of the 1920’s. I suspect the property has now been developed; it certainly looked ‘ripe for the picking’. I’ll check on it next time I’m ‘home’. Since this blog is about birds, well, I saw only one on the property, a Common Merganser. The sun flashed out for a millisecond and lit him up, and then it started to pour.
This time my post isn’t about birds. It’s a people story. It begins with a storm, a real doozy. Many of the boats in our bay dragged anchor, and moved. Of course, if your cable broke, there was only one way to go — onto the beach. Surviving that night would be tricky. In the morning, however, when the winds finally subsided and the tide ebbed, only 2 boats lay high and dry.
The little ‘Portuguese fishing boat’ was up near the curve of the seawall. Beautiful lines, high prow, white with blue trim. Eye candy out there, on calm evenings. A problem now for the owner. It turns out there is one, which is not always the case. Half of the boats are probably abandoned. The Portuguese boat was riding at anchor in a few days. Lovely. Back where she belongs.
The yellow boat I’ll call Spirit was not so fortunate. Keel high and dry, and pointing in the wrong direction, the boat is too far from the waterline. No way it’s going to float again. Out in the bay, it made for a splash of bright canary and gave the scene ‘pop’. Up close, well.
I’d seen a guy taking a 5 gallon bottle of drinking water to Spirit the night before the storm. If he’d stayed aboard through that, the experience must have been horrendous. Nothing happened to Spirit for a few days, but then the 5 gallon guy came back. He placed the figure of a seated Buddha near the bow, and got to work. He had a spade, a log fulcrum, some driftwood levers and ‘moving gear’– and a damaged wrist. He refused help. The pandemic was on, and he didn’t want anyone touching the boat.
For a long time, not much happened. A month, or more, of digging every day, of watching the tides, of prying and bumping, resulted in a bigger hole. He was creating a slipway. He had to move, what, a ton and a half of boat. One guy. Impossible.
Then, one morning after a good tide, a miracle. Spiritdid move and flipped her keel. Now, with a very high tide, she might get to the sea. And, a week later, she actually floated. Another week and she was off the beach. Not quite in deep water yet, but getting there.
I spend a month and a half rooting for the digger. I admire his spirit. He persevered to save his home. I’ve never seen someone work so hard, fight such ridiculous odds, under ridiculous circumstances. I guess it happens more often that I know. Perseverance is what humans are good at. It defines us. I always liked the Stan Rogers song, ‘The Mary Ellen Carter’. It tells a tale a bit like this one, about people getting on with it. Doing what they have to do. The song cheers us on when we face adversity — AndLike the Mary Ellen Carter rise again…rise again. Good luck to you 5 gallon!
Early morning and it’s still frosty. A cool morning, here on the west coast. As I crunch across the meadow, looking for birds, the slight breeze shifts direction. Now it carries a hint of wood smoke. I like that. Instantly, the scent, sweetly pungent, and the warming sun transport me. I’m back in my boyhood–long ago and far away, as they say. Like Proust. Wasn’t it madeleines that jogged his memory?
I’m in memory mode. It’s late morning. I’ve hiked up the Sydenham from my home in town. The snow lingers. No surprise. It’s only the beginning of April and real spring is a month away. But some south-facing hillsides are clear. Rare little islands, already freed from Winter. Comfortably warm where the sun hits them. I’m on one of them now, stretched out on the beautiful, bare dirt. I was in this place last year, and the one before. Below me, the ice is breaking up. Here and there, water pushes up noisily, recreating its channels.
I’ve got beans bubbling in a World War 2 surplus mess tin balanced on a rock, half in and half out of my little fire. This means one side of my meal will be hot as blazes and the other cold as ice. No problem, I’m used to it, and I’m hungry. By the way, all my camping gear is World War 2 surplus.
I catch movement on the far bank. It’s a fox picking his way along the icy river rim. The sun catches him. For a moment, he blazes rufous red, like fire. Alert, he lifts his head. He shoots me a look. Maybe it means that if I don’t watch my beans, I’ll burn them. I glance at my cooking pot. When I look back, the fox is gone, melted into the cold forest. The beans aren’t half bad though. A bit chewy maybe.
I took a long hiatus and finally published the third book in my Archie Stevens Mystery series. This one is called Raven Creek. Now, I’m back with nature, mixing birding with a family vacation in San Jose de Los Cabos. I head for the San Jose River estuary every morning just after sunrise. It’s a quiet time, the temperature is perfect, and the birds are active.
It’s my second visit to this estuary, this haven for dowitchers, egrets, herons, ibis, ducks, and other bird species. A Zone-tailed Hawk appears. A nice surprise. These guys usually pretend to be Turkey Vultures, and drop down on their prey who don’t expect trouble from the relatively harmless Vultures. My old pal, the Reddish Egret, is here, jumping around like a bird possessed. They hunt like this and it must work. I shouldn’t find it comical, I suppose, but I do.
A pair of Hooded Orioles flash past and dive into a Palo Verde, him a bright orange and black, her a soft moss green. They startle a Cactus Wren who lets loose with its rattling call. And Gila Woodpeckers seem to be everywhere, sounding very much like the squeaky toys babies, and dogs, seem to like.
White-faced Ibis work the shallows, probing with their long, curved bills, dressed as always as if they’ve just come from a funeral, stalking, with excessive gravitas, through groups of very busy dowitchers, plovers, sandpipers, and bright Cinnamon Teal. Lots of activity today and everyday, at least in winter; birds come and go up and down the river, moving from sandbar to sandbar, in constant motion.
White-faced Ibis – Morning Spruce-up
Several locals told me that a hotel chain is trying to get rid of the bird sanctuary here to clear the way for yet another hotel! It’s hard to imagine such foolishness, but we see a great deal of nonsense in the world these days. The birds, of course, are unaware of this. They are used to visitors and tend to ignore them. You don’t see that everywhere. This is a magical place and I hope it will remain so forever.
A side note: in 1588, two English galleons took on water from this river before they attacked and captured a Spanish treasure ship near the ‘Arches” at San Lucas. One of the ships ‘Desire’ then completed the third circumnavigation of the globe. The other ship, called ‘Content’, didn’t follow Desire and disappeared — loaded to the gunwales with treasure. With a little imagination, you can almost see two galleons standing off beyond the surf, and watch their longboats breaching the breakers so the barefoot crew can fill casks and barrels in the river.
Decades ago, some friends and I planned to drive the Pan-American Highway from Vancouver BC to Tierra Del Fuego. It never happened. The 1956 VW van I’d rebuilt and camperized never made it to Costa Rica — the government of that country took the time to us well. I finally got to the, for me, fabled highway. Not as glamorous as I thought, incidentally. More important, I got to experience Costa Rica’s wonderful wildlife.
We needed our down jackets up here. After a few nights of winds strong enough to move furniture, plus intermittent rain, we finally entered Monteverde’s Cloud Forest. Noisier than we expected. Three-wattled Bellbirds are the main culprits. Although they make, we think, some of the loudest bird calls anywhere, they are devilishly difficult to track down — even when they open their big mouths and bellow. But Bellbirds aren’t the only prizes. The Resplendent Quetzal tops the list of Cloud Forest must-sees. We get lucky. Gorgeous. So many more birds in this delightful country. I recorded over eighty lifers in Costa Rica and missed a few hundred more.
Our mild January weather is kaput. February began with a seriously rainy day but now it’s gone cold and there’s snow in the forecast. A good time to look back on my favourite bird pictures. I’ll start with everybody’s favourite — owls.