Thursday, April 27, 2017

Stale Pretzels and Soda Water

The cattle are prowlin', the coyotes are howlin'
Way out where the doggies bawl
Woo - hoo - woo - ooo - ti - de
Woo - hoo - ooo - oop - i - de - de
Woo - hoo - woo - ooo - ti - de
Yodel - odel - lo - ti – de
Singin’ his cattle call

Anyone remember that catchy but smooth yodellin’ tune? Tex Owens wrote it way back in 1934, but it has jumped out of the past and taken over my head. I’ve been humming it ever since David Dao boarded a United Airlines flight a doctor and got off a patient.

Video clips of Dr. Dao being dragged off the flight by the feet, screaming and bleeding, showed the entire world just how far the airline industry has descended into passenger Hell.

Round ‘em up, stuff ‘em in and ship ‘em out. Rawhide! Keep ‘em movin’, movin’, movin’, there’s a  bigger bottom line at the end of this ride.

Commercial airline travel these days is about being shoehorned into an increasingly crammed seating area and fed tiny packages of stale pretzels with half-filled plastic cups of soda water. Set up a compact laptop on your fold-down seatback tray and it gut punches you when the guy in front tilts his seat back one inch.

All that after being pushed through the airport check-in obstacle course, and the unpacking and undressing at security. Then after being vacuum-packed into your seat comes the anxiety of wondering whether a computer will bump you from the overbooked flight.

It didn’t used to be this way. Back in the days before airline CEOs became bean counters, passenger comfort and satisfaction were important. Claude Taylor, who ran Air Canada roughly 30 years ago, personally replied to passengers who complained about service or offered suggestions.

Then there was Max Ward, the bush pilot who built a world-class airline with a passion to make flying an enjoyable experience. And it was, until the Transport Canada  bureaucracy drove Wardair out of the business.

Wardair gave passengers first-class treatment for economy fares. Cabins were decorated in bright holiday colours. Dinners featured filet mignon cooked on board to the passenger’s preference. It was served on Royal Doulton china, with stainless steel cutlery and linen napkins. Flight attendants hand delivered individual food trays to each seat.

Drinks were free and coffee was fresh percolated. Then there was that fabulous dessert trolley.

Max Ward has been quoted as saying: “In the airline business, it’s about the journey, not the destination. It’s much more than merely getting our valued customer from A to B, and the level of service a passenger receives is indicative of exactly how the airline values the customer.”

Airline passengers today know how the carriers value them. Maybe you get to your destination, maybe you don’t. If you don’t get bumped from a flight, you arrive at your destination burping up stale pretzels.

United CEO Oscar Munoz presumably has learned a bit about the value of customers since Dr. Dao was beaten up on one of his airplanes. One of his first  statements on the incident called Dr. Dao “disruptive and belligerent” and praised the United crew.

When the incident caused millions of dollars in United stock losses, Munoz threw on the reverse thrusters and has been falling over himself apologizing to Dr. Dao, saying his treatment was horrific and promising that nothing like this ever will happen again.

He certainly hopes not because the United board has decided that his $18-million-a-year pay cheque now will be tied to a new customer satisfaction pay scheme.

Max Ward never made that kind of salary. He paid himself less than his pilots and ploughed the savings back into building a customer friendly airline.

Meanwhile, I just can’t get The Cattle Call song out of my head. Tex Owens said he wrote it after watching the snow fall in Kansas.

“My sympathy went out to cattle everywhere, and I just wished I could call them all around me and break some corn over a wagon wheel and feed them.”
Cracked corn, eh? Sounds a mite more appetizing than stale pretzels.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Maple Syrup Mysteries

Spring is a season of mysteries.

For instance: How do plants know when to start growing? How do hibernators such as bears know when to wake up? Why do mosquitoes and blackflies not move to another planet?

But surely the greatest mystery is about the sweetest of all spring things. How did maple syrup get invented?

We know that indigenous peoples were the first to have it. The mystery is how did they make the jump from bitter tree sap to the sweet golden fluid that makes pancakes and waffles so scrumptious? No one has been able to provide the answer in more than 500 years.

It is easy to speculate how these early peoples discovered sap. Walk through the spring woods and look at woodpecker holes or a broken branch. Or cut a recently blown down tree.

The sap is easy to see, or feel if you are handling wood or touching trees. But how did someone realize that collecting a large quantity of sap, then boiling it down 40 to1, would produce one of the world’s tastiest delights.

There are legends, of course. One of the most common is that a chief stuck his tomahawk into a maple tree one night before going to bed. His wife had left a bark vessel at the base of the tree below the tomahawk.

In the morning the wife found the vessel filled with what appeared to be rain water that had run down the tree. So she decided to boil a piece meat in it and noticed the water turning brown and getting thicker. The meat had a sweet maple flavour.

Not likely. The Indians had maple syrup long before the Europeans arrived and gave them metal hatchets.

More likely, maple syrup resulted from experimentation. Tree saps were used for many purposes. Spruce gum was collected, mixed with animal fat then rendered over fire to make the sticky substance used to seal canoe seams.

Someone likely was doing something similar when they dipped a finger in to test thickness, then licked the finger and Eureka!

The Indians pushed slips of bark into cuts in maple trunks to allow sap to drip into bark buckets set below. When the French arrived, the Indians showed them the process, which the newcomers modified by drilling tap holes and using metal collection and boiling pots.

Maple syrup was a nice treat for personal use but processing did not become an industry until the mid-1800s. Most of the cane sugar consumed in the United States back then came from black slave labour in the southern states and the Caribbean.

As the anti-slavery movement grew and the civil war loomed, many abolitionists urged boycotting cane sugar and use of maple sugar instead.

“Cane sugar is the result of the forced labor of the most wretched slaves, toiling under the cruel lash of a cutting whip,” William Drown wrote in the 1824 Compendium of Agriculture. “While the maple sugar is made by those who are happy and free."

Large flat evaporator pans replaced kettles for processing larger amounts of syrup and maple sugar. The rest, as they say, is history.

The maple syrup industry grew consistently with improved techniques, equipment and marketing of maple products abroad. Canada now produces 80 per cent of the world’s pure maple syrup, the majority of which comes from Quebec’s 7,000 or so producers.

The maple syrup industry generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the Canadian economy. Some estimates put maple syrup at 13 times more costly than crude oil.

It has become so valuable that it was the subject of a mystery five years ago. Someone tapping barrels in a maple syrup storehouse found that some sounded odd, or not completely full.

Further investigation revealed that thieves had stolen $18 million (wholesale price) worth of syrup over 12 months from a stockpile kept by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. Thieves with access to the warehouse drained maple syrup from 9,500 barrels and refilled them with water. They sold the stolen syrup on the black market.

Roughly 225 investigators were used in trying to solve the case. Finally, 26 people were charged in the theft, 17 of whom were eventually convicted.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Walk in the Spring Woods

A long-awaited walk in the spring woods is like stepping through a looking glass and entering a remarkably different world.

Before me is life as it was meant to be. Not uncomplicated, but certainly logical. Everything that happens back here is an act of nature. Plants, animals and other organisms are born and proceed naturally toward death.

Reality lives in the spring woods. What happens here is clear to your senses. There is no information that has been juiced or twisted. There are no alternative facts; no fake news.

It’s good to be back here after a long winter. I could have come earlier on snowshoes but it is never the same. Snow shackles freedom, unless you are seeking  physical exercise. And, winter light is too weak to show fully the sights I want to see.
A foot of snow remains in the hollows but it is rotting, changing into the water needed for new life. The hilly areas facing the afternoon sun are clear, exposing pieces of forest floor plastered with the fallen buttery yellow-brown leaves of last autumn.

Already there are signs of new life. Green shoots shoulder their way up through the mats of lifeless leaves. I am careful not to step on any, although the ground is so mushy beneath my boots that anything trampled will bounce back quickly.

The trees, coldly stiff just days ago, stretch and yawn in the morning sun. Moved by the breeze their branches sway without creaking and complaining the way they do during the bitter cold of January. The sap produced from the winter starch stored in their roots is flowing freely, lubricating every joint.

Spring sounds are abundant. A croak from a crow passing nearby. The gurgles of rivulets along the hillsides. They are not sharp or loud sounds, but muted as if not to wake anything still sleeping or just awakened and rubbing the sleep from its eyes. They will get louder as spring progresses.

I hope to hear the most exciting of spring sounds: a Tom gobbling. Regretfully there  is no sign yet of the turkey flock I saw last fall.

There is no deer sign either, and that is disturbing. Usually the eight-point buck that has lived here for the past five or six years is back on these hillsides after returning from wherever he winters.

I check for damage wreaked by winter’s snow, ice and winds. Some young trees are bent over the trail, but nothing big has been brought down. If I do see any large windfalls I mark them with fluorescent tape so I can find them later and cut them for firewood.

The hills in these woods are populated mainly by oak, maple, birch and beech, all of which burn hot and long when the cottage needs heat.

As I walk I wonder once again why the beeches with their smooth grey trunks and saw-toothed oval leaves grow only on the east side of these hills. There are none on the west side over the ridge. I make a mental note to find out why that is.

It is hard to be here without thinking about the writings of conservationists like
Henry David Thoreau of Massachusetts and John Muir, who wrote extensively about the forests of the U.S. West.

And, of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American transcendentalist who wrote his famous essay Nature in 1836.  In it he said that people do not fully understand the power and meaning of nature because they are too distracted by the demands of their societies.

“In the woods,” Emerson wrote, “we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life – no disgrace, no calamity . . . which nature cannot repair.”

These writers believed that nature can provide all we need to live good lives.

A spring storm illustrates that for me. The cottage electricity is out, leaving us without light, heat, water, and refrigeration. And of course, no means of recharging the smart phones, tablets and other electronics that are major parts of our lives.

However, we survive with wax candles, rain barrel water, and a stack of solid firewood. They provide us all the comforts that we really need.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

What Lurks Below?

I can’t delay any longer. It is April and it has to get done, so I’ll just have to screw up my nerve and get on with it - the hated spring crawl.

Every April I must enter the dark and dreaded crawl space under the cottage to convert the water system from winter to summer operation. It is a hateful job. The area is cramped and dark. The perfect nestling place for something that you never want meet.

It is a reasonably well sealed area. Concrete block walls with screened air vents. But there is a doorway and I always worry that it was left ajar last autumn just long enough for something to sneak in for the winter.

On one spring crawl I heard a low growl and shone my light into a corner, revealing the cute face of a pine marten. Cute except for the two front fangs that could turn my face to hamburger in a matter of seconds. I backed out rather quickly, leaving the door open for the marten to exit at his leisure.

I am especially nervous about this spring’s crawl because of a couple stories I heard on a recent trip to California. I accompanied my California family up into ski country near Tahoe where people have cottages like we do in Haliburton, but call them chalets.

During a social gathering one chalet owner told me he was having trouble with heating ducts that run through the chalet’s crawl space. A heating guy came and very cautiously began to check the crawl space, looking into the dark corners before fully entering.

The heating guy explained that he had gone into a similar chalet crawl space and had awakened a large black bear, which somehow had crawled in to hibernate. Terrified humans tend to move much more quickly than sleepy bears, so the heating guy escaped without harm.

Then someone else told me about being at her chalet in summer and hearing some banging and crashing in the kitchen. She assumed it was her husband and went to the kitchen to see what he was doing. He actually was outside and the noise was coming from a mama black bear going through the cupboards.

The woman ran from the kitchen only to encounter three cubs coming down a staircase from the second floor.

Getting between a mama bear and her cubs can cause some really bad scenes. Fortunately, the woman got out of the chalet without incident and the bears found their way outside.

I had a similar experience many years ago when I was a lot younger, and a lot more foolish. I came across two cubs on a bush trail and decided it would be neat to pick one up and cuddle it. The mother, who exploded from the bush with a roar, did not agree. Fortunately, fear and youth gave me the super speed needed to escape.

I had never thought of California as a place for bears, even though the state flag is known as the Bear Flag and features an image of a grizzly.

There are no grizzlies or brown bears left in California but there are an estimated 30,000 black bears. They are not always black. California black bears have fur colours that can be chocolate brown, red, blonde or cinnamon.

Interestingly, California’s black bears, almost one-half of which live in the Sierra Nevada mountains, don’t all hibernate for the entire winter. Because temperatures and snow levels vary at different altitudes, bears come and go during winter hibernation according to how weather changes affect food sources.

Ontario has an estimated 85,000 to 105,000 black bears, some of which shorten their hibernation because of warmer winters. The Orillia Packet and Times reported that a young bear emerged from its den during this January’s mild spell and was attacked on a lake and eaten by coyotes.

Most of our bears are emerging now from their winter sleeping spots. Hopefully, one of those spots was not my cottage crawl space.

I’ll soon find out. And after I check out the dreaded crawl space I’ll set to work figuring out a system to keep hungry bears out of the spring bird feeders.