Polaris Ranger TM (Part XXV)

November 17, 2018

With some surprise I just realized that I have been posting reports on our 2004 Ranger TM for ten years.  It’s probably a good time to look back on a decade of ownership of the UTV with a view to the goods, bads, and how the machine has changed life at the farm.

I’ll start with the bads. 

Ignition switches haven’t lasted at all well in an otherwise very durable machine.  I have long since lost count of the number I have replaced.  Batteries didn’t last long until I upgraded to a higher level model.  The first lasted three years and we’re on our second.

The engine no longer generates electricity, so the Ranger runs on a put-and-take battery setup like my first outboard motor, a 1958 Johnson 18.  I just charge it every week or so, but long trips are not feasible until I repair this.  Engine removal and replacement is a part of the six-hour job for a service tech, so I have held off for over a year with very little limitation on the TM’s use.

Last year a ground wire burned off the connection between the engine at the starter and the frame post where the line joins the negative cable of the battery.  When I trailered the dead UTV to the local service guy, he simply replaced the wire, charged me $75. and made no other comment.  A couple of weeks ago it burned up again.  This time I put the Ranger up on the hoist to track down the problem.  I found a very brittle 18 gauge wire which gave way to my touch.  Why would anyone replace that wire with one so fine?  Hoping it wasn’t some sort of improvised fuse, I popped a 12 gauge wire in its place and the machine has started fine ever since.

I have spent years wondering why the thing would hesitate at startup in warm weather, but eventually come to life.  This light wire connecting ground points could be the answer.

To illustrate just how reliable the Ranger TM has been in 1000 hours of operation, the only other repair parts I have bought were a pair of lower ball joints.

That’s it.  There have been lots of oil changes, spark plugs, and a set of tires last year, but the disk brakes still seem to be in fine condition.  A long time ago a local upholstery guy redid the lower seat for $150.

How has the Ranger changed over the years?

First came a full cabin frame.  The dealer had three of them in his warehouse because for government purchases he had to include an approved roll bar, not a mere cabin frame.  He sold me one of the take-offs for $250.  I found a metal roof at a dealer in North Bay for $150.  My own dealer offered a plastic windshield for $265.  Ebay provided a rear windshield for $40.  I made a plywood shield to go between the cabin and the box.  A $68 eBay mirror made driving on the road much easier when our township legalized UTV travel on local roads.

Four years ago I decided to close off the passenger side of the Ranger’s cabin for winter use.  The vinyl used for convertible tops on boats worked fine, held in place by seven stainless steel pipe clamps around tubing of the cabin frame and a variety of screws backed out of the body and reinstalled to pin the vinyl in place.  Our dog found this invisible wall confusing until I fastened strips of duct tape as a visual barrier for her.  Then she no longer tried to force her way out through the strange window.

So what tasks on the farm does the Ranger own?

It’s a good tank sprayer vehicle, either for herbicides or for irrigation.     A 25 gallon sprayer equipped with a coiled garden hose and nozzle gets its power from an old 12v tractor battery which rides around all summer in the box of the Ranger.  This takes care of any watering which needs doing.  When I must spray weeds with herbicide, I use a separate, 15 gallon tank and pump with the same battery.

Primarily the Ranger is a runabout, carrying people and tools around the property.  Typically I’ll drive it to a work area with  snips or chain saw, do the tool work, and then return with a tractor and implement  such as the chipper or dump trailer to complete the job.

Sugar-making involves the Ranger’s ability to haul sap and personnel, often with very inexperienced operators.  Visitors to the farm inevitably take the Ranger for a photo-tour of the property.  Christmas tree expeditions have become popular among friends and family as the spruces have matured.

After legalization, the Ranger has spent an increasing amount of its time as a neighbourhood runabout on the small paved roads of our township.  Helmets and daylight operation are required, but ATVs have been widely accepted by the community.

After my campaign in favour of UTVs on township roads, every trip to the mail box in Forfar is a political act.

Deadhead at 12:00!

April 19, 2016

The first cruise of the year is always an interesting trip, even if the weather is fine and the fish aren’t yet interested.  The highlight of yesterday’s expedition on Opinicon Lake (at Chaffey’s Locks, Ontario) was the huge deadhead below.  Because it was unmoving in the wind and waves, I suspect that it is rooted in the silt 26′ below.



I posted the photo on Facebook (Opinicon Lake and Chaffey’s Locks Rocks) and a comment provides a rather precise location for the log.  It’s a long way from the channel between Davis and Chaffey’s.

This picture is taken more in the middle of Opinicon Lake in front of Weatherhead’s cottage looking across the Lake at Bachenburg’s, Langlois’s and Burbank’s and Randall’s.

Dave Warren’s comment on Facebook leads me to believe that the thing may well be a local landmark.  I hadn’t ventured up to Deadlock Bay for a couple of years, and things change on a lake over time.

The Spark

By John Kenny

Incendiary Publications, 2013

Donny Robertson probably sees himself as an underdog even though he has risen within the Toronto Fire Department to the rank of Captain. Newly placed in charge of the crew in a historic fire station in downtown Toronto, he allows his more outgoing colleagues to make the small talk while he hangs back. He does, however, show a tenacious sense of duty and he keeps digging into the circumstances of a recent warehouse fire which killed his best friend and left him scarred.

So Kenny’s character makes his way through The Spark. As he doggedly searches for the truth about the fire, he comes in for more unconventional injuries than a Dick Francis jockey, and he’s no better with his fists than Bennie Cooperman. For example when Donny at one point trades pot-shots with the villain, his flare pistol’s first blast glances harmlessly off a wall and gutters to darkness on the floor. The second sets the boat on fire. Donny’s eclipsed in the reader’s mind by the villain of the piece, a twisted killer-for-hire who goes to elaborate lengths to perform simple assassinations.

Perhaps Kenny became too fond of his villain in the writing of this first novel – it’s an easy vice for a rookie. After all, the main character is pretty flat, driven by his knowledge of the world of fire fighting and his conviction that he’s not good at marriage. Hardly sexy stuff. While Donny’s courageous to a fault in fire fighting sequences – these are highly interesting, by the way — he seems quite uncomfortable in the presence of his new probationary employee, Susan, and his backhoe-operator-girlfriend.

Kenny is careful to blame NSA for all of the spook stuff in the book, even though the “gausometer” was mentioned in Signals Intelligence retiree Mike Frost’s 1990’s Canadian tell-all The Spying Game. For why should a fire department procedural not take off into the spy genre in its second half? And why not on water? Donny-the-failure-at-marriage has a good sailboat and Kenny uses a plot twist to send him up the Trent to Tobermory for the climax of the novel.

Mysteries often degenerate into run-and-duck’s by the middle chapter. Clive Cussler built a lucrative franchise on far-fetched plots, seafaring action in exotic boats, and the willing suspension of disbelief of his many readers. Kenny keeps the pages turning quickly with a combination of action sequences, semi-comic romance, detailed looks into the world of emergency services and toxic chemicals, and a very luxurious yacht.

I hope we see more of Donny Robertson and his crew in subsequent novels.

You can find The Spark on Amazon.com in Kindle or Hardcover.

“Rod, you don’t need instruments,” Dave Brown assured me when I asked if the instrument cluster was included with the motor.  Apparently they go with the boat, and this one was a stripper.  “The ECU in the engine records its hours.  Bring it by and I’ll put a gauge on it to determine oil change intervals.”  And so I went.

But then the tanks of fuel went by and I found myself wondering intensely when the first service interval was.  So I stopped by the dock and Dave had no time to scope the engine.  Further delays and I bought oil and filter and changed from the 10W30 break-in oil to Mercury’s 25W40 synthetic blend by myself.

For a variety of reasons, mostly unrelated to the health of the engine, I wanted an hour meter.   Nobody seems to sell a true revolution-counter apart from as part of a large instrument cluster.  The ignition-on hour meter, on the other hand, is widely available.  While such a counter is ridiculous on a tractor as the same person who stalls the thing likely leaves the key on, running on several hundred hours before the battery dies, this might not happen with an outboard motor.  Perhaps an ignition-timer is all I need.

The inexpensive impedance meter sensor wraps around a spark plug wire and gives a reading.  But it has a little gadgetty digital readout and looks like a cheap, well, gadget.  I wanted something I could display with pride on my instrument panel.

Princess Auto had an hour meter in the trailer section for a little less than the sale price of an axle.  Bravely I fitted a 2” Forsner bit into my best cordless drill, then perforated an empty anti-freeze container with a series of neat, round holes until I became proficient enough to try the same process on the vinyl dash of my new Princecraft.  The drilling went fine.  Sardonic comments about the makeup of the Princecraft’s dash are inappropriate at this time*.

Charlie found a pair of wire clusters behind the control unit, tucked into the valence.  I felt around with a multi-meter until I located a pair of wires which gave me 12v only when the ignition switch was on.  He hooked the gauge up with all of the best crimp-on connectors he could find in his tool boxes.

The little light began to flash with the ignition switch, but the hour meter would not move.  Ooops!

Many variations produced no success.  It wasn’t until I moved the boat into the shop, removed all of the neat connectors and jury-rigged a power source that I established there was nothing wrong with the meter.  My neutral was intermittent.  So I ran a new neutral back to the battery, twisted and taped things back together, and the gauge began to work properly.

Everything will be fine unless Dave decides he needs to hook up his computer.  I think I took one of its wires to feed the hour meter.  I’ll trip over that fence when we come to it.

The first revelation the hour meter provided was that I had greatly overestimated how many hours I was putting on the motor.  Some fishing trips on Newboro Lake use only .1 hour of engine time, though most run about .3 hours.  It’s not a huge area, and a typical 12 or 13 mile round trip doesn’t take all that long.

So far with an elapsed time of 5 hours I have used up a couple of jerry cans of regular gas (I haven’t learned how to measure mileage yet, but I’ll eventually figure a way and bore you with the details) and added several 2 lb packs of crappie fillets to the freezer hoard, as well as a few meals of largemouth fillets, as well.  Generally I keep fish every third time out, but I’m likely bringing home food more often this early in the season to justify the expensive fishing equipment this year.

BTW:  the one trip out with the GPS showed a top speed of 50 km for the boat with empty live well and one operator.  That’s a hair under 30 mph, and well within the insurance industry’s cut-off for speedboats.  At insurance time, be prepared to provide a driving and accident history of each potential driver for any vessel capable of more than 32 mph.

* Said dash has withstood several hits from astonished crappies flying through the air, and was as good as new today after a shot from the pressure washer.  The textured vinyl flooring, on the other hand, is hard to clean without the services of said pressure washer.  Over the course of two rain-free weeks the floor had become so encrusted with grime from fish and weeds that I hauled the boat home for a facelift.  It worked.
Needless to say, the fishing has been good this July.

Every now and then a book comes along which every landowner will want as a reference. The title explains the book’s purpose: A land manager’s guide to conserving habitat for forest birds in southern Ontario, by Dawn Burke, Ken Elliott, Karla Falk, and Teresa Piraino, 2011. What the title fails to convey, however, is just how exquisitely put together this Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources publication is.

On one level it’s a well-illustrated coffee table book. A flip through the volume reveals many pieces of the work of wildlife artist Peter Burke and the contributions of many photographers. The bird portraits are varied and illustrative. For example, a shot by Robert McCaw of a pair of nesting pileated woodpeckers makes the gender distinction between the otherwise-identical birds easy: the male’s red crest continues down to his beak. The female, on the other hand, has a black “moustache.” An image which sticks in my mind is a Ken Elliott shot of the forest-floor nest of an ovenbird. It’s just a dark spot in the leaf cover, but the zoom shows the nest. So much for carefree walks through forest leaves in spring: I could step on one of these and not even realize it.

A later section of the book is set up as a guide to forest-dwelling birds, beginning with my personal favourite, the ruffed grouse. Perhaps the most interesting page is the profile of the yellow-bellied sapsucker. I have long suspected this critter of killing off the odd white birch in my garden by drilling its neat rows of holes for sap and insects, but I hadn’t realized that hummingbirds depend heavily upon sapsuckers for their survival. Apparently the little guys follow sapsuckers around and can’t survive without them. I’d always wondered what happened to the hummingbirds if cottagers forgot to fill those red feeders.

If there’s a villain in the book it’s the cowbird, the biggest natural threat to the survival of songbirds in Ontario. Cowbirds don’t raise their own young. Instead, the female lays up to forty eggs per year in other birds’ nests. Robins and blue jays simply eject the strange eggs and continue nesting. Other birds don’t have that evolutionary advantage, and often raise the fast-maturing cowbird chicks to the detriment of their own smaller and later-maturing offspring. Cowbirds love lawns and closely-grazed pasture. The further the forest-dweller’s nest is from the habitat of the cowbird, the more likely the pair is to raise their young successfully. According to Elliott, that’s a main reason why houses in the woods (with their lawns) are tough on forest birds.

But the main purpose of the book is to provide a primer on forest succession and management of tree harvesting activities to protect or improve bird habitat. In a presentation at the Annual Kemptville Woodlot Conference last week, author Ken Elliott put up slides to illustrate tree growth over the thirty-year period after different harvesting methods. He explained to us that these colour illustrations had to look as good as the rest of the book, so he asked artist Peter Burke to do paintings of each type of tree, then Lyn Thompson and Ken used Photoshop to group the paintings into the denser figures for the blocks on the chart. It wouldn’t hurt to have a magnifying glass at hand when perusing this volume. A great deal of material went into it, so even the small photos hold interest.

For me the most startling illustration in the book is a map of southern Ontario which graphs tree cover. The counties north of Lake Erie show very little green on the map. This is the area which was almost a desert in 1905 when Edmund Zavitz began his lifelong mission to bring it back to health with tree plantings. Even with the 50 Million Trees Program currently under way in Ontario, Essex County still has only 5% tree cover.

Our area of eastern Ontario, on the other hand, boasts 48% tree cover, so our growth area lies in connecting forest patches and managing existing forests to increase the distance of the woodlot core from its edges and marauding cowbirds.

The core of the book’s content deals with harvesting methods in woodlots. Clear cut, shelterwood, group selection, diameter-limit, stand improvement and single-tree selection harvest plans are examined with explanations and graphs indicating the impact of each harvest method on 85 species of forest-dwelling birds.  For the forester the critique of each method may prove informative.  It appears as though, apart from clear cutting, diameter-limit harvesting is the most damaging to the health of woodlots, yet municipalities regularly legislate diameter limits because they are easy to understand and enforce.

I asked Ken, “Why should woodlot owners be concerned about the bird population of their property?”

“I think the best explanation comes on page 81 of the book. Birds have evolved as a fundamental part of these ecosystems. Although you often don’t see them or what they are doing, they can usually be heard and it should be reassuring to know that the work they do as pollinators, insect predators, seed dispersers, and fungi vectors may be critical to the overall health of forests. On top of this their beauty and elusiveness provide entertainment for many nature enthusiasts and hunters. So although we can’t say what the forest would be like without birds, we do know that having them in the forest provides an important piece of the puzzle and seeing and hearing them is a great reward for those who get time to go exploring in the woods.”


A land manager’s guide… is available in full colour online as a PDF file at http://www.mnr.gov.on.ca/en/Business/Forests/Publication/STDPROD_089385.html.

Have a look.  Then you can order a hard copy (ISBN 978-1-4435-0097-5) for $15.00 from the Landowner Resource Centre in Manotick.

Christmas Book Review

December 11, 2011

Books make good gifts if well suited to their recipients’ reading habits. Here’s a current favourite, a big, honking adventure running heavily to geeks and gun nuts:

Neal Stephenson. REAMDE. Harper Collins. 2011. $35 USD.

Neal Stephenson first came to my attention when a librarian said, “My husband loves this book.” She handed me Cryptonomicon, a tale about Alan Turing and the young mathematicians assembled at Bletchley Park in England during WWII and asked to break the codes used by the Axis powers.

Their ultimate task was to crack the code used in the German Enigma coding machines to communicate with the U-Boat fleet. England’s fate lay in the balance. Their invention of a steam-powered computational device based upon a pipe organ led eventually to the development of the modern computer.

Stephenson is comfortable with the huge canvas and several generations of characters involved in the evolution of an idea.  Crytonomicon goes from Bletchley Park through to a project laying data cables across the Pacific and a massive Indonesian gold mine.

My son and I have read all of Stephenson’s novels, and eagerly awaited REAMDE’s arrival.  So it had huge shoes to fill.

The first chapter is vintage Stephenson in its ingenuity: a shadowy, rich and oft-divorced uncle hesitantly returns to a farm in northern Idaho for the annual Thanksgiving family reunion and dinner. Formalities completed, everyone quickly dresses in heavy clothes, grabs all available firearms and lines up along the creek bed for the target shoot, an afternoon in which everyone shoots ordinary and exotic firearms for the sheer fun of it. As supplies run down the uncle slips away to the nearest Walmart to buy more ammunition. It’s clear the guy is loaded and a bit embarrassed about his wealth.

Other family members know about him primarily from his Wikipedia entry, which he claims has a number of errors of fact.

Gradually it emerges that Richard Fortrast has made his way in the world from draft dodger and B.C. hunting guide to marijuana smuggler, to developer of the largest and most lucrative video game on the planet.

We also meet, Zula, a bright and very adaptable young woman from central Africa adopted in her early teens by Richard’s sister and still troubled by her early life as a refugee.

Shooting up a ditch with a Glock isn’t likely to carry my attention much beyond the first chapter, but Richard’s video game empire is pretty interesting. The big innovation of T’Rain is the legalization of the sale of game property outside of the game world, something rigidly forbidden in other game platforms.

Seems many players of T’Rain do so professionally, gaming to earn weapons, spells and currency which can be traded for cash to other players through a number of electronic outlets, the most common a simple charge card credit. Richard’s particular genius has been in the melding of the economy of the game world with the somewhat more literal economy outside it.

Other characters arrive. The rather shifty boyfriend of the niece gets her into an awkward situation with a Russian gangster in urgent need of cash to fill an unexplainable gap in Mob books. His online payoff comes to a sudden halt when REAMDE, a new computer virus, encrypts everyone’s computer files until each machine user coughs up a ransom – in T’Rain gold, to be paid within the T’Rain game platform.

In a rage the mobster rounds up a group of mercenaries and sets out to find the writer of the virus, kill him, and complete the deal which he believes can restore his standing with the Mob. All signs point to a city in China where a large number of hackers make a living on T-Rain.

We also pick up a British MI6 employee who can easily pass herself off as a Chinese national. She’s on the scene, not because of REAMDE, but as part of a world-wide search for an Islamist terrorist, Jones.

Inevitably the Russian mobster and his mercenaries interact with the Chinese hackers and the terrorists. The leader of the mercenaries turns out to be quite an interesting character.

Our heroes of various stripes do innovative things with ships, airplanes, mountain bikes, guns, hand-to-hand combat, computers and an occasional hand grenade.

Expect to be surprised.  For example in this novel the heavily armed redneck survivalists are actually pretty good guys with solid family and religious values.  An adventure novel sprawls over many exotic settings, and this one spends time in China and Indonesia, but the main action rotates around the short stretch of border B.C. shares with Idaho.

Stephenson plugs the latest cool car (Scion xB), runs through a huge list of highly-desirable firearms, sends a group of unsuspecting geeks to an Indonesian sex-tourism hotspot, crashes around in snow-covered woods in an F-350 pickup tricked out with tracks, and generally has a good time.

It’s a fine read for those who like new gadgets, computers, globetrotting stories and unlikely ideas which work.

After a painstaking analysis of four seasons of the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, my head is full of the episodes and not much else.

You can’t really watch a sitcom at its regularly scheduled time. Commercials and the week’s distractions get in the way. No, to really watch TV nowadays, one must download the episodes, cue them up on a DVD or memory stick, and then set the player to run them in succession.

It helps the “jacked in” effect if the viewer puts on a good set of sound-excluding headphones to intensify the experience. Then one can enter the alternate universe of the sitcom.

It is no surprise that The Big Bang Theory is the most popular T.V. download on the Internet.  It’s a clever, well-written show, even when mainlined in a single sitting.

An episode usually begins with the four friends eating. The sameness of their meals, either in the lunchroom at the university lab in Pasadena where all are employed, or in the living room of roommates Leonard and Sheldon, serves as a springboard for the conversations which largely make up the interest of this program.

Sheldon, the scary-smart physicist, is a thirty-year-old child whose quirks produce much of the action in the series. The other three nerds are saved from typecasting by well-developed back stories, a series of neuroses which gain some viewer sympathy, and uniform anxiety in the presence of women.

Raj, the cosmologist, is so bothered by the presence of a nubile female that he becomes mute unless he has alcohol in his system. Too much alcohol, though, and he has a hard time keeping his clothes on. Raj is not a man of moderation.

Harold, a frail momma’s boy who works as an engineer on NASA projects, is so intimidated by women that he adopts an aggressive, roguish persona which puts everyone off. Harold’s lack of a PHD sets him up as the underdog in the group, but his connections give him access to all sorts of neat toys, from a space toilet he must fix in one episode, to a black ops satellite diverted to photograph models sunbathing, and the Mars Rover, access to the controls of which he uses to get girls until he gets it stuck in a ditch.

The most sympathetic of the four is Leonard, another physicist whose forays into the world of love are hampered by his short stature and a crippling psychologist-mother who seems incapable of affection.

The world of these four friends gains interest with the arrival of the new neighbour, an attractive would-be actress from Nebraska who works as a waitress. Penny quickly discovers she enjoys the free food and companionship of the guys across the hall, and this earthy girl provides a foil to the others, as well as keeping male viewers returning for her loveable ways.

For even though her life is a train wreck of bad relationships and unpaid bills, Penny’s fun to watch and basically generous. Her “Sweetie, …” sentences are often intended to mock the other characters, but we watch each of them grow in confidence under the nurture of this sexually confident, kind woman.

Penny even has moments of heroism. As the only non-nerd in the group, the guys with some embarrassment look to her to deal with bullies. Her responses are often as blunt as a hard kick to the groin, and she quickly gains the respect of the group and the viewers.

Familiar scenes are a big part of sitcoms. The most innovative in Big Bang involves the characters in conversation while climbing nine flights of stairs around the non-functioning elevator shaft to the apartments. Each ascent, of course, is viewed in the context of all of the others, and the directors carefully add little touches of originality. The running gag in the laundry room is Sheldon’s folding fetish.  He stretches each item of clothing over this plastic frame to crease it while he carries on a conversation.

The main romantic interest on the show for the first two seasons involves Leonard’s hopeless longing for Penny. Season three dawns with the boys’ return from the Arctic, and Penny practically ravishes Leonard in the hallway. It seems she missed him. Their affair continues throughout the third season, but then Penny opts for friendship only.   Raj’s high-flying lawyer-sister leaps into the breach at the beginning of season 4. Raj and Priya’s controlling parents appear by computer video-chat, and Priya turns inside out to avoid revealing to them that she’s seeing Leonard, a white American.

The surprise in seasons three and four is the evolution of the relationship between Sheldon and Penny. Penny’s at her best when mothering Sheldon, and the scenes where he regresses to a childlike state show the warmth that sets this program apart from lesser efforts. Leonard moves into the mix as the nervous surrogate father of this brilliant, wayward child.

So what is the effect of immersing oneself in almost a hundred, 21-minute episodes with this company of fools? Leonard, Sheldon, Penny and Raj have become my friends. Real relationships pale somewhat in contrast. This can’t be good.

Viewed in moderation, however, The Big Bang Theory is an intelligent and very amusing show.

And as a boy I loved it.
The clear blue sky
Reflected in the shining surface
Of the lakes –
The old stone house,
Resplendent on the hill,
Our home.

It has been my pleasure recently to read Don Warren’s new book, The House on the Hill:  Recollections of a Rideau Canal Lockmaster’s son.  (Trafford, 2008).

The first section consists of Don’s memories from the twenties up to World War II.  The second is a sanitized version of his military experiences, and the volume concludes with a collection of poems he has written over the years.

The Lockmaster’s House at Chaffey’s Locks is very much at the centre of this book. At the end of a long wagon ride from Newboro in his seventh year, Don took one look at the big house on the hill and fell in love with it, ghosts and all.  As he gives a lively account of the exploration of his new home, I kept checking back to the photographs he included in the volume.  I hadn’t known about the footbridge across the spillway to the rear entrance of the Mill.  I wish I could have seen the eels tumbling through the current on their way to the Atlantic.

Don’s accounts of battles with Daisy the Cow and early skirmishes with Opinicon guests with sensitive noses make it evident that the young man will not turn out to be a farmer.  The campfire sing-alongs, practical jokes, outhouse mishaps and thefts from his mother’s garden provide a warm and amusing picture of life at the lockstation during the Great Depression.

Then, as now, a lockmaster must be an agent of the government.  Don recounts his father having to tell the Chaffey’s fishing guides that they could no longer camp on the property in order to make more space for visitors from the capital.  Don carries his father’s shame at this act of “democracy” to this day.

Understandably, some of the best sequences in the memoir concern fishing.  Don lists detailed instructions on the construction of a “bob” for fishing bullheads in early spring.   He offers a few tales of his guiding experiences, as well.  For the talented young fisherman largemouth bass were seldom a problem to catch, but he greatly admired the style and equipment of the wealthy clients who came to fish for them.

Don’s remarkably modest throughout the book, and this no doubt takes away from the military saga, Guys in Gaiters.  Like many who have signed the official secrets act, Don explained to me that he preferred to concentrate on the army hi-jinks rather than explain what he was actually doing outside Antwerp during the later stages of the war.  “If it seems as though I had a four-year vacation in Europe during the war, I guess that’s a chance I have to take, but I did get shot at four times during that interval.”

Not much detail of the action sneaks into his account, though one paragraph does mention being left behind at Ardenes, Holland as the Allied forces pulled back to avoid a full-on German attack.  Don explained, “What happened was that four or five of us were left behind to warn of any enemy attack by tanks.  The trouble was that they had to be within 3000 yards for us to intercept their wireless signals.  This meant we had to be left far behind the rest of our unit.”

A member of the 3 Canadian Special Service Company, Don trained in signals interception on the Isle of Man.  One paragraph mentions Don’s crew’s discovery of a coded German radio message which went out immediately before the firing of every V2 rocket.  This insight created quite a stir in intelligence circles because it provided the people of England with an early warning of each V2 attack. This reduced the threat of Hitler’s terror weapon.

But the best part of the book is the poetry.  Don presents a great variety of rhymes, ranging from the ribald antics of The Ballad of Peter Milan, to the timeless portrait Woman of War. But Don won’t hold a serious mood for long, so these give way to the driving rhythms and the lively wit of Lesson for Old Age Dodgers:

So pull up those aged pants
Give old ways a different slant
Take a lesson from the youngsters in the crowd

The reader must not miss The Ballad of Senator Bill.  It deals humorously with an accusation of indecent exposure at the Narrows Lock.  Canoeists are apparently a vengeful lot, and in the ballad Don makes shrewd use of the rumour mill to deal with their tormentor.

The poem Old Age shows the hell of sitting with boxes of multi-coloured pills, blear-eyed and aching, “with conversations centering on the dying and the dead.”  Nestled between those of his children, Don Warren’s home couldn’t be further from this drear scene.  With a brave little dog watching his every move, a flock of turkeys at his window, swans on the ice below and a bevy of songbirds in his garden, Don traces with coffee cups and all-nighters his progress through the next volume of his memoirs.  He’s in his eighty-ninth year.

Donald H. Warren.  The House on the Hill:  Recollections of a Rideau Canal Lockmaster’s son.  Trafford Publishing.  2008.  ISBN:  978-1-4251-6019-7


One of the most splendid public institutions in Eastern Ontario is the Experimental Farm in Ottawa.  Originally conceived as a model farm to demonstrate developments in agriculture such as winter wheat, the farm has continued to fulfill its mandate long after progress should have passed it by.  The farm is the city’s jewel, an outpost of spacious greenery in a bustling urban landscape.

Walnut grower Neil Thomas has accumulated data on most stands of black walnuts in Eastern Ontario, and in his opinion the trees on Experimental Farm property near the Civic Hospital are the best he has seen.  I dropped by to gather some seed after a morning appointment.  Staff encourage the gathering of nuts from these trees, and Ottawa friends have reported seeing tree lovers stuffing the green nuts into shopping bags and baskets, laying in their supply for winter while the squirrels scold from above.

After filling all of the grocery bags I could find in my vehicle, I decided to venture over to the Arboretum in search of a shagbark hickory.  Leeds County Stewardship Coordinator  Martin Streit found one in our woodlot, but it’s a small, scrawny specimen, locked in a death struggle with a towering walnut and unlikely to survive.  Martin told me about the edible nuts this strain of hickory produces, so I thought I might try to plant a few if I could find seeds.

Not quite knowing where to look, I did the logical thing:  I flagged down a golf cart and asked the driver.  She directed me to the Friends of the Experimental Farm building, in the Arboretum just off the traffic circle south of Dow’s Lake.  I wandered through a corridor of offices until someone looked out an open door.  I asked if they had any shagbark hickory in the area.  Blank look.  An obvious language problem.  I had no idea how to translate my request, but the pleasant-looking middle-aged man turned to the younger man beside him with a quizzical look. “Carya, I think. Let me look it up.”  With me in tow he dashed down the corridor to a sort of closet, where he started rifling through a set of index cards.  “Yep, carya ovata, not carya cordiformis. There’s one just outside, across the parking lot.  Would you like me to show you?”

Away we went out a side door, and across an open space to a beautifully manicured park with a large shagbark hickory as its centerpiece.  The man looked at a tag implanted in the bark on an ingenious spring system anchored by two long brass screws.  It listed the tree’s Latin name, as well as the translation into the vulgate, “shagbark hickory” and the year of the tree’s planting.

I asked how often it produces seeds.  The guy didn’t know, but pulled down an overhanging branch and showed me some.  “Go ahead and pick any you can reach.  Check back with me if you need anything.”  I offered my surprised thanks, and away he went.

Pockets bulging with hickory nuts, I stumbled back across the parking lot, only to encounter the lady on the golf cart again.  I thanked her for the directions and asked if they had any butternuts with seeds in the Arboretum.  She gave directions to a couple of trees, but saw my blank look every time she used the word “walk”.  Hey, my pockets were bulging with hickory nuts!

Before long we were gliding over the lawns in an electric, four-passenger Club Car, her personal ride at the Experimental Farm, where she is a head hand, Ornamental Gardens division.  To my dismay I have lost her name.  (Madam, if you read this, please post a comment with your name, and that of the other guy, O.K?  I need them for a Review Mirror column. Thanks.)  Down a grassy hill we zoomed, fetching up at the bottom next to a small aesculus glabra, or Ohio Buckeye.  That’s American for a chestnut, I guess.  I picked up a nut on the ground.  She nodded, so I tore the thick, spongy husk away, to reveal a bright, chestnut-coloured, uh, chestnut.  Cool.  She told me you can eat them, as long as you don’t overdo it, at which point they become poisonous because of the high concentration of tannin in the nut.

Off we went on our quest for the perfect caryocar nuciferum, or butternut tree.  She stopped at two more carya ovata to show me how the young ones grow.

Conversation veered to heartnuts, so the cart took a detour through a tall stand of spruces to the juglans section.  I knew that one.  Juglans nigra is the black walnut.  What I hadn’t known is how many subspecies of black walnut they have growing at the Arboretum.

A large juglans ailantifolia – that’s a heartnut – graced a small knoll next to a dwarf black walnut and a magnificent full-sized black walnut planted in 1885, according to the tag on the trunk.

I explained my desire to learn how to graft heartnut branches onto black walnut rootstock.  My guide led me to believe that it might not be hard to time my grafting with some pruning of the heartnut tree at the Arboretum.

Off to the butternut tree.  We passed below a tall bluff with a carefully maintained grassy slope to the river below.  Sitting on the railing of a parking lot at the top of the hill were a number of dog owners, tossing frizbees and tennis balls down the slope for their eager retrievers who didn’t mind at all having to race up and down the steep hill.  The Arboretum has a leashes-optional policy and the dog owners flock to the exquisite park with their charges.

We arrived at the butternut tree and lo and behold, there were butternuts on the ground under it!  I’d never seen this many butternuts in one place before in my life.  The squirrels nab them first thing in our area.  I guess the grays in the park have so many hickories they haven’t had time yet for butternuts.  Whoever mowed the lawn had kindly moved a good quantity of the nuts into a pile out of the way next to the trunk

My guide encouraged me to take them and plant them, so I headed back up the hill to the office and my vehicle with a bagful of butternuts for seed, as well as the hickories, two buckeyes, and one pecan.

My V.I.P. tour of the Arboretum could hardly have been more pleasant or informative.  This large, friendly park is truly the jewel in the crown of Ottawa’s green spaces, and I encourage tree-lovers to visit frequently.

The Beast

September 7, 2008

We all make compromises as we go through life.  Some things which seemed important turn out less crucial when we weigh their cost, but occasionally there remains a glimmer, a spark, of what might have been.

It started the day I drove my first Volkswagen and it never went away, the fantastical dream, someday, to own a Porsche.  Every bump I lurched over in my old Beetle, every corner terrifyingly cut by the back axles tucking under the car – I forgave it because, beneath the rust and flaking paint, it was at heart a Porsche.

My first new car, of course, was a VW Beetle.  I had gazed longingly at the green 911 beside it, but it cost ten times what the Beetle did, and the only way I’d ever be able to afford one would be to spend three years in law school, and I just didn’t think it was worth it.

Nevertheless I deferred the decision while I taught for a couple of years. Two weeks of jury duty sickened me on the legal system, so I reconciled myself to a life of VW’s and the teaching career for which I had conceived a sneaky affection.  If it was a Porsche and the court room or a VW and a class full of eager kids, then I’d take the Volkswagen and like it because from the beginning I derived an inordinate kick out of messing with teenage minds.

Then I got old and bought my first Toyota, the vehicle for those who don’t like to think about automobiles.  My car nerve went numb.  This was not without its compensations:  I was happier, less stressed, and I gained all of my demerit points back.  Police officers smiled at me occasionally.  Waves from pedestrians often involved more than one finger.  Gas mileage improved dramatically, and Toyotas run very well, even if their steering is, to put it kindly, a bit vague.

And of course, for real driving excitement all I had to do was try to bush-hog the horse pasture with its cadre of sunken boulders waiting beneath the hay, or manoeuvre a load of logs out a convoluted trail in the woods.

The golf cart became my favourite car.  I had willingly descended into geezerhood, and then this week, like a bolt of lightning, my car nerve came alive again.

Our son Charlie drove into the yard with a 1988 Porsche 944s.  Argh!  All those temptations I had let drift away into that fond, vague field of remembrance – they came roaring back with a vengeance and I HAD TO DRIVE THIS CAR!  Oh, I was cool about it.  I looked it over, nodding at little details, chatting small talk.  But it called to me and before long I was sitting in the driver’s seat.  The leather bolsters enfolded my spine and muttered in my ear, “Let’s start up and go somewhere far away!”

From the passenger seat Charlie slid the key into the ignition.  Well, o.k.  What can it hurt?  I hit the starter and the beast roared to life.  Keeping up the disinterested façade, I asked:  “What’s the clutch like?”  I didn’t listen to the answer.  I knew what it would be like, so I fed fire to the beast and out the lane we moved, smoothly, stalking, hiding beneath the veneer of civility.  “Nice car, good air conditioning, no rattles, good ride.”  But silently the beast was gripping my spine and saying, “Let’s see what we can do!”

I behaved myself on the way in the Chaffey’s Locks Road, and did my best to impersonate a geezer taking his kid’s new car for a drive.  But then I saw a couple of s-turns without any traffic and the beast cut loose.  Man, can that car go!  It’s not the straight-line acceleration:  pretty well any modern car can do that.  But the thing corners like, well, like a Porsche.  Steering is right there.  No vagueness at all.  The gearshift is actually a bit tricky if driven moderately.  Slam it through a corner at high rev’s though, and it works just right.

It’s been a long time since I have pulled any g’s with a car, but this Porsche left me feeling like that guy with the restored Mustang in the A&W commercial where he takes his wife out for a burger.  All the forgotten lusts came rushing back.

I turned the car back to our son, who fortunately doesn’t seem to have inherited his father’s wild streak.

For him the car seems to be a mechanical puzzle to be analyzed and savoured.  First thing he did was download the 350 page factory manual onto his laptop.  The second was to make friends with a Porsche mechanic.  The third was to clean the car.

The rest of the afternoon it sat on jack stands while Charlie inspected the underside for loose fittings and corrosion, spraying with oil as he went.

He no doubt likes the beast:  his new Audi continues to sit in our yard while he drives the old one. I know he’s a much better driver than I and I hope he’ll have the sense to keep safe – and hide the Porsche keys from his dad.