A cabin in the woods

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Another long break between blogs. It’s the new normal, and that’s all there is to it. Let’s just move on, shall we? When last we left your humble blogger she had settled into a borrowed cabin in a national park. There were abundant groceries, a significant but manageable list of small home reno projects to complete, a lot of videos downloaded for evening viewing, and a host of places to run, hike and kayak in the cooling autumn weather. All of this centred around that lovely cabin that was occupied by me and me alone. It was, in short, perfect.

First I should clarify, especially for UK-based Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers, that I’m not talking about a log cabin hewn by hand from local timber and set on an outcrop of Canadian Shield surrounded by nothing but trees for miles, and with only beavers and the haunting cry of the loon for company. Despite any of your romantic notions of the vast Canadian forests, I was not trapping my own food, hauling water from the lake, or washing in an icy waterfall with a loaded rifle nearby to ward off curious brown bears. Apologies for bursting your bubble. Places like that exist here, sure. But most cabins (or cottages) cluster in neighbourhoods or long roads surrounding a lake, with power, plumbing and other useful amenities like ice cream and mini golf and gift shops selling anything/everything with a maple leaf on it.

Here’s what my immediate surroundings looked like. 

It’s a cluster of about 500 tiny houses set onto five parallel streets running down to the lake. This used to be a campground filled with temporary structures that had to be hauled away each winter and replaced each spring, like glorified ice fishing huts. They’ve gradually become permanent, and now many are new, fully modern homes with granite counter tops and cathedral ceilings (which I think is not really in the spirit of things, but as usual no one asked me). Happily, there are still some original cabins that barely cover 200 square feet and don’t even have indoor plumbing. (“The Lucky Nickel” would be spacious and well-equipped in comparison.) Residents of those cabins simply use the many toilet blocks and shower facilities dotted around the neighbourhood.

I know it looks much like a typical residential street. But here’s here’s what’s at the end of that street:

A wide clear lake, generously equipped with docks for diving from or for launching yourself in a canoe or kayak for an afternoon of adventure.

And here’s what’s a few minute’s walk from the other end of the street:

A hiking trail through a marsh, with floating boardwalks and resident beavers.

That was my home for about five weeks. The cabin is owned by some of my oldest and closest friends, who five years ago had an extension put onto it to accommodate their growing kids and their desire for indoor plumbing. The extension is very sympathetic, and the cabin itself is just big enough, and has just enough of the mod cons you might need, but maintains a cozy feeling that is most definitely perfectly in tune with the surroundings, with not a granite countertop in sight. However, the builder who did the extension was not a mad fiend for finish work, so five years on there were still windows missing trim and tiny bedrooms without baseboard (skirting board) and a general sense of unfinished-ness that was starting to get a bit wearying for my lovely and generous friends.

Which is how a perfectly synchronous arrangement evolved wherein I got to live in the cabin and have some much needed alone time in an idyllic setting. And while there, I could spend a bit of time each day gradually finishing up all the little things that needed doing. I also hasten to add that my friends would not stop pointing out that I was very very welcome to stay in the cabin even if all I did was lounge around and eat bon bons while floating on the lake. But this is the kind of work I find genuinely enjoyable, and being able to do a favour for them while they were similarly doing me a big favour just made everything better.

So it was that I pitched up with a car full of tools and spent a day or so getting myself set up and making a big list of everything to be done.

First I made this workbench to hang off the deck so I had somewhere right outside the door to put the saw. And I made those little sticky-up bits of 2x4 (4x2) clamped to the railing to support the ends of long stock while cutting. 

Days generally went like this: Wake up in the upstairs bedroom surrounded by giant windows and trees, do some yoga, have breakfast, and then get out the tools and start work on the day’s project. One day it might be adding framing and trim to a downstairs bedroom window. Or hanging a window blind. Or installing some baseboard. 

Once it was transforming this sad little nook/shelf, set between the studs in a wall...

… into this. Which was super satisfying.

Of course I also had a break mid-morning for coffee and a toasted cinnamon bun from the local bakery and a few minutes with the cryptic crossword. And I stopped for lunch too. And I was usually wrapping up in the late afternoon with plenty of time for a run through the woods before settling in for a little pandemic habit I’ve developed called “Non-Fiction Hour” which involves settling into a comfy chair after a run and a shower but before supper, with a small bowl of snacks, a cold drink, and a good book (generally non-fiction but exceptions can be allowed on a case-by-case basis). In a fit of Canadiana, I made it through Pierre Burton’s book on the Great Depression and then managed a solid start on “Merchants of Doubt”, which was a bit out of date and hard going but had some interesting stuff to say. 

Occasional alternate activities for non-fiction hour include: continuing to bash away at the crossword or drawing something either on the iPad or in my actual sketchbook.

Like this, which I was absurdly pleased with. Enough so that I made a frame for it from scrap wood and left it as a gift for the cabin. I call it “The View From Upstairs”.

And of course sometimes I just took the day off. Especially on days when the lake was calm and the sun was out. One notable Tuesday in late September it was unseasonably warm and sunny and I made it all the way across the lake on what turned out to be an epic 8km paddle that lasted all afternoon, with a few stops to linger on various shorelines for a photo op.

Warm, sun-browned and happy.

And even better, Karen managed to come visit for a few days and we hiked and kayaked and drank red wine and watched cheesy movies and roasted a chicken on the BBQ.

We also took Non-Fiction Hour snacks to a whole new level with blood orange gin & tonic, assorted crackers and cheese, hummus, hot pepper jelly, chip dip, cherry tomatoes, smoked oysters, pretzel chunks and ripple chips. Because that’s how we roll.

And we tried paddle boarding.

Paddle Boarding is an activity whose appeal I’d never understood. And now, having tried it, I still don’t. Why would you want to stand up on something that unstable? It’s just awkward and uncomfortable. I seemed to end up frozen in a hunched position, afraid to shift in the slightest. Also you’re constantly having to switch what side you’re paddling on to stay straight. I did find it interesting to try out some yoga moves on the paddle board, but only because that was challenging and on a hot day it was fun to end up in the water after a wobbly triangle pose went wrong. But paddle boarding as a pleasant means of propelling yourself across the water? No thank you.

Paddle boarding aside, living at the cabin was, without a doubt, the best month I’ve had since this whole disastrous pandemic thing started. Granted that’s an unprecedentedly low bar to clear, but it really was excellent. Then gradually the weather cooled off, and the real world started to intrude. And one morning I woke up to an email about a job. An actual job on a big show. I know I mentioned that the show I was working on in London in March was trying to start up again. This was not that. This was the Abu Dhabi National Day show, which Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall from 2015. And 2018. And 2019. Pandemic or no, a show would go on. Smaller audience. Smaller cast. Smaller staff. Socially distanced and bubbled and sanitised to within an inch of its life. But it would go on. And they wanted me. So after consulting with family and friends and colleagues and hearing about how they proposed to do a large show in the middle of a surging pandemic, I took the job. Because as nice as the cabin was, I haven’t had a pay cheque since February and six weeks of work at international rates will go a long way to keeping me going until something else emerges.

So my last couple weeks at the cabin were marked by mornings spent on the phone with colleagues in London and Abu Dhabi, catching up on everything that happens when you’re several time zones behind the rest of the show. And since my internet access was via a hotspot on my phone, there was an awful lot of additional expensive Canadian mobile data used. And a lot of logistics to sort out. And there were still some things to finish on the cabin. 

By the time thanksgiving arrived, the list was done and my friends arrived for a last weekend at the cabin before closing it up for the winter. They were appropriately thrilled at the improvements, which was gratifying. And we made an excellent dinner for thanksgiving and played games and watched movies. And most importantly, I got to just hang out with my good friends in a way that hasn’t been possible for ages. And we even got a few last moments of kayaking in, though the wind whipped up the lake to such a froth that we had to abandon that plan on the last morning after the kayaks were swamped with waves before we could even leave the dock (or in my case, before I could even get in). 

Not optimal kayaking conditions.

I stuck it out at the cabin for a couple more days after my friends left, but by that time my head and my heart just weren’t in it anymore. My brain was bubbling with work, the internet constraints at the cabin became untenable, and they moved my flight date up to allow for a longer quarantine time in Abu Dhabi. The writing was on the wall, so I gave in, packed everything up and shut down the cabin.

As I write this closing paragraph, I'm quarantined in a hotel room in Abu Dhabi after an international odyssey that definitely deserves a blog post all its own. It's bizarre to be back, and the giant steel mesh bracelet bolted to my arm monitoring my position at all times is heavy and disconcerting, but I'm grateful for the work and it's actually nice to have a bit of time to settle in and get used to this all again. I think the biggest immediate challenge is going to be the combination of not running added to three ridiculously generous room service meals a day. I already feel like I've consumed my bodyweight in pita bread and hummus. Luckily for you, there's an excellent chance you'll get at least one more post from me before work gets crazy. It's the little things, right?

How I Spent My Summer Pandemic

Monday, September 14, 2020

I’m still here. Here being Canada. Because the world is still broken, and I’m still unemployed and there is literally no reason for me to be back in the UK, other than that I miss having my own place, tiny and occasionally leaky though it may be, and I’m running out of Marmite. (Humanitarian aid packages from friends in the UK gratefully accepted. Please also include a pint of Doom Bar if you can swing it.) And yes, it’s been three months since I’ve blogged, but it really hasn’t felt like there’s anything to say. When last we left our humble blogger, there were fresh butter tarts and the weather was turning properly warm. Now the weather is swinging back the other way and I’m forcing myself to get back into it.

So… how did I spend my summer pandemic? It turns out I did manage to keep busy, mostly with odd jobs and small projects.

For instance, I helped build a raised garden bed with my niece CB, who got pretty handy with the screw gun.

And I did a bunch of associated landscaping with patio stones to tidy up a corner of the yard. And made some additional planters from scrap lumber salvaged from an old deck. There were also three light fixtures installed, and three window blinds, and one new towel rack.

Oh, and there was this homework project of CB’s that I might have helped with a bit too much. But it was cool! Very Rube Goldberg / Heath Robinson. You had to fire a water hose into the cups to spin the wheel to wind up the string to pull the watering can down enough to activate the watering process. Not overly complicated or pointless at all.

And CB and I perfected a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen for Lemon Olive Oil Tart, which you should all go make right now because it is amazing. (Note you have to sign up with their website to see the full recipe but I am telling you it's very worth it.)

I also revised my tiny robot card game many, many times and play tested it some more, including with the all-important Pomeranian demographic.

I even revived a different card game that I invented while on vacation from my Big Trip. This entailed re-drawing the existing 60 cards on the iPad (the original version was pencil crayon, but naturally I had the foresight to scan them all ages ago so I could reproduce them remotely without needing the original deck, which is still tucked away on the boat). Then I added and drew 40 new cards to expand the game. As an aside, all of that drawing with the heavy iPad held in my outstretched and twisted left hand managed to exacerbate an old pain in that wrist, which nudged further to the top of the list of bits of me that are breaking down. I think this process is known medically as “getting old”.

Oh, and I made a few different versions of packaging for the various card games, and built some custom wooden card racks for the future deluxe edition, and packed them into the Hyper-Mega-Duo Fun Pack, containing both card games and the lovingly crafted racks.

Of course I also did Zoom pub quizzes, because I think at one point almost the whole population of the planet was doing Zoom pub quizzes. Mine was the one that started back when I was in quarantine and only finally fizzled out in late June. To that end I also set four different rounds of questions for the quiz: one on identifying various flags of the world from tiny close-up images, one on various audio logos, one “What do they Have in Common?”, and the round I’m most proud of:

Name that 'Stache
Name that ’Stache!

With the help of my brother-in-law Don (He of the Chelsea Pensioners Tour) I also tackled a reno project in my sister’s basement that involved gluing laminate flooring onto the wall. Apparently that’s a thing now - flooring on the wall. Normally, you can just nail it up but of course in this case it was covering an 8’ x 8’ section of glass mirror. This meant that the only thing holding up the fairly heavy laminate was construction adhesive. I tend to get a bit wigged out when I can’t put a few mechanical fasteners into things so this was mentally taxing, plus it had the lurking threat of accidentally breaking the mirror behind the stuff, which was exhilarating. But it did mean that I got to invent an 8’ wide spreader clamp with built-in wedges to hold each course in place as the glue set.

And it worked!

And it looked great in the end, though it does now lack that 70’s vibe.

I’ve also done some experimenting with sewn book-binding, which is much easier than you might think. And to supplement my iPad drawing and give my deteriorating joints a break, I’ve started sketching with actual pencil and paper. So retro!

Really, though, there was one big, cool project that I took from idea to completion that I’m particularly pleased with. I’ve been thinking for a while now that I’d like to start bringing a few tools with me on big International jobs. There always seems to be a moment in these gigs where we’re based in an office and any kind of workshop space is a distant dream, but I still get asked for early prototypes of things. This means I inevitably end up going out with a wad of pettycash to buy another batch of crappy matte knives and glue guns and rolls of tape from the nearest Junk-o-Mart and end up making stuff from bits of string and bubble gum and re-purposed cardboard scrounged from the office. This process has its charms, but would be much improved if I could simply arrive at a job with a basic set of tools, so I started thinking about a traveling toolbox. Of course the sensible thing would be to order a knock-off Pelican Case, which would be durable and, more importantly, lightweight - a key consideration for something that will end up going as excess baggage. But where’s the fun in that?

What if instead of that, you made a light(-ish) weight wooden box to pack things into, but then the box itself converted into a workbench when you arrived? How cool would that be? (Spolier alert: It would be really quite cool).

This turned out to be an excellent project, and consumed most of July, spent happily puttering away in one side of the garage while my dad and a gradually emerging Triumph hard-top occupied the other. And because there was no rush, I got to take my time and be much more careful and methodical than I usually am. And along the way I got to learn how to solder aluminium, which it turns out is not difficult and quite satisfying.

Especially with expert assistance from the automotive division on the other side of the garage.

YouTube also taught me how to give my sheet aluminium work surface a brushed finish and how to weave paracord into an attractive custom handle for the box. And I got to know the guys at the local Bolt Supply House and Steelmet by name. I’m pretty sure I’m on their Christmas card lists now. And in the end, there’s this very pleasing thing:

This rolling case. Pay attention to the angled aluminium on the corners... they become more important below.

It opens up all the way flat.

And converts into this - those long aluminium bits and wheels become the legs. It’s not a huge work surface, but actually quite comfortable. And I can also set it up at workbench height for standing work.

I'm super pleased with how the toolbox/bench turned out. (Tool Bench? Boxtable? Benchbox? Hmmm...) Then for an encore I dug out a folding director’s chair that my dad made for me for Christmas many years ago. Mice had shredded the canvas back and seat while it was in storage so I decided to remake those pieces and revive the chair, since it would go so nicely with my new desk. And because I could, I decided to do something a bit different.

Note to self: Next time you decide to remake the seat of a director’s chair with denim, find a piece of denim that does NOT have a high percentage of lycra in it.

So that was the summer. All in all, I think I’ve filled my time usefully. I’m on my fourth different 30-day series of “Yoga with Adriene”, can sort of do real pushups and even touch my toes some days, and I’m still running four or five times a week. I guess I’m used to having long breaks between jobs, so occupying myself in a constructive way is second nature. Also because I’m used to having long breaks between paycheques, I keep a solid chunk of cash tucked away to keep me going, which has been super helpful and saved me from the stress that I know other people are dealing with.

I recently found out that the theatre show I was working on in London in March is starting up again, which has left me feeling conflicted. On the one hand, I’d like to go back and finish the job I started, even in whatever weirdo fashion that might take. But practically speaking that’s just not happening. Given that I definitely want to be in Canada for Christmas (as usual), it would mean I’d have to fly to London, quarantine on the boat for two weeks, then fly back to Canada for the holidays, quarantine again here, and then go back to London in the New Year and spend another two weeks in quarantine then. Instead, I’ve decided to stay here through to the New Year, because it just makes more sense, and because Canada seems to be doing a better job of dealing with this pandemic business than the UK (blessed as it is with vastly lower population density and a somewhat less shambolic government).

Also - and this was the clincher - I was offered the use of a summer cabin belonging to some old friends. It’s in a sublime location five minutes from a wide, clear lake and ten minutes from a bakery with excellent cinnamon buns, in a freaking National Park. It’s been about six months since I left London and I’ve spent all that time in the spare bedrooms of generous and tolerant family members. And while it has been LOVELY, I am a person who normally lives alone, so that’s kind of a long time to be with other people so, so, so much. This way my family get their spare rooms back for a bit, and I get to settle in by myself for a month or so. Happily, there are a host of small home reno jobs I can do while at the cabin, so my friends get their baseboards and windows trim installed and I get things to putter with, and some much-needed time on my own.

I also get to do go kayaking, like on this early morning when I had the lake to myself.

So that’s where I sit now: happily ensconced in the cabin, where I arrived a few days ago with a rental car, a borrowed chop saw, and what seemed like enough groceries to withstand the siege of Leningrad (if Leningrad had been stocked mostly with Pop Tarts and gin). It is, to be blunt, fucking fantastic. I kind of can’t believe how perfect a situation it is, and I'll be forever grateful to my friends for their generosity in trusting me with their place for such a long time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work do do. I think they’re gonna love the new jacuzzi extension and home cinema. And the underground parking and helicopter pad should be finished before the snow flies…

GRUB!: Butter Tarts

Sunday, May 24, 2020

It’s been two months since I left London, which seems simultaneously aeons and also the mere blink of an eye. I won’t bother trying to encapsulate the experience here, or try to express my thoughts on the pandemic, the lockdown and the state of the word in general in the form of interpretive sourdough sculpture or whatever because there is everything to say and yet also there is really nothing to say. So instead I’ll just report that weather is finally properly lovely and warm and things are green and there have been two orioles at the bird feeder recently. ORIOLES!

What have I accomplished in the two months I’ve been here? Well, I’ve drawn more that sixty tiny cartoon robots, and developed a card game revolving around them that is actually kind of playable.

Prize for anyone who can figure out the gist of the game from this random array of cards...

I also drew some other stuff and made a couple actual physical postcards to send to friends. And my cryptic crosswording skills may just be at an all-time high. And I’m one film away from finishing watching the entire Marvel movie franchise, in order. Oh, and the downward dog is… better.

Also I built a birdhouse. For the discerning wren, looking to get away from it all. No comment on whether this may be a model for my next plan, once the boat starts to feel just a bit too big and expensive. You know, what with the total collapse of the live performance industry and all.

Here are things I haven’t done in lockdown: wrap up the year-end business accounts, banish the email address from my last gig that keeps popping up annoying messages telling me it can’t log in, finish the “Boat Manual” I started ages ago, purge the photos on my computer so the hard drive isn’t bursting at the seams, clean up my online passwords, keep up with the Russian, or make banana bread.

I did, however, make something infinitely better than banana bread. I made buttertarts!

I'm Making
As I reported to Karen.

I’ve mentioned butter tarts before, but it bears repeating if only because I know I’ll struggle to get this post up to a normal word count. Butter tarts are individually sized sweet tarts made with short crust pastry and filled with a cooked mixture of butter, sugar, vanilla, egg and raisins. They occupy the same category as treacle tart, tarte au sucre, and shoofly pie, being a sugar/syrup-based filling in shortcrust pastry. Butter tarts are iconically Canadian and were recently celebrated by Canada Post in a set of truly excellent commemorative stamps that also included Saskatoon Berry Pie, Nanaimo bars, Tarts au Sucre and Blueberry Grunt.

What an outstanding collection. I’ve never had Blueberry Grunt but all the rest of those are absolute keepers.

Though I must protest at the characterisation of butter tarts as “Ontario-based”. I mean sure, they had to give the prairies the Saskatoon Pie, but really?

So I decided to make butter tarts. They’re actually pretty simple, even more so if you shortcut and use pre-made frozen tart shells, which are obviously not as nice as homemade pastry but clearly still inifintely better than no butter tarts at all. I wanted to make the pastry too because it’s nicer, and I’m not exactly short of time, and because the butter tarts of my childhood have lovely folds in the sides where the round disc of pastry wrinkles to fit into the muffin tin in which they’re baked. And I think the foldy sides are important. As, apparently, does Canada Post, because you can see the type specimen butter tart they used for their stamp is exceptionally foldy.

Thus the famed Robin Hood Prize Winning Recipes cookbook was unearthed.
(Published in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 1947.)

The locally-favoured pastry recipe I used featured Crisco vegetable shortening instead of butter, which apparently produces a flakier crust. I’m not a pastry expert by any means, and not about to get into the great debate over the right fat to use in pastry. I just went with it. Oh, and the pastry recipe called for in the Robin Hood cookbook is a sweetened one and I think these are actually better with regular unsweetened pastry, since they are not exactly lacking in the sweetness department and the plain pastry sets that off well.

Though I must register my deep disappointment that the Beehive Syrup people have abandoned the iconic yellow beehive-shaped bottle of my childhood in favour of the insipid and utterly uninspired offering shown in the photo above. Shame on you! Shame!

Pleasingly, the pastry did make somewhat foldy sides when it went into the tray.

With the pastry shells chilling in the freezer it was on to the filling, which is very simple to make, and even easier if you soften the butter in the microwave instead of bothering with a stovetop melting scenario outlined below.

The Robin Hood butter tart recipe. Surprisingly little butter for a recipe that has butter right in the name. I don’t know why they’re called that so don’t bother asking. (Also note that the bit about using one egg or two lets you produce a more liquidy oozy filling with just one egg, or a more structural, set filling with two. I went for two and I have no regrets. The flavour is the same, and they’re just easier to eat.) (Also also note that UK-based Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers lacking the correct locally sourced Beehive Syrup could probably substitute golden syrup with acceptable results.)

Also also also note that you definitely want the full 2/3 cup of raisins in this. And don’t even think about coming in here with any of your raisin-hate because it’s my blog and this blog is a place of raisins. Raisins in pie. Raisins in brownies. Raisins in Chicken Salad. Raisins anywhere I damned well want. And especially, emphatically, raisins in butter tarts.

And when I googled around about raisin pie in general, and the prairies + raisin pie filling in particular I came across this post from Facebook that is so perfect I’m including it here. It’s from someone named Wanda (already awesome) to the E.D. Smith pie filling company:
"Hi, I’m wondering why we cannot get the raisin pie filling anymore? We used to buy in the big pails to make pies for our local curling rink kitchen and it’s no longer available in Saskatchewan, Canada. We can’t even get the tins.”
So so sooooooo prairie. She can’t get enormous vats of canned raisin pie filling to make pies for the local curling rink. Because, tragically, E.D. Smith no longer make raisin pie filling AT ALL. I feel your pain Wanda. Stay strong!

To summarise: Raisins rock. Raisin haters shut up. Moving on.

The filling mixture. Note I didn’t bother with the “beaten just sufficiently to combine” business. I just dropped the eggs in and whomped the bejesus out of it and it was all fine.

Spoon the whomped up filling into the unbaked tart shells, being careful to get the raisins relatively evenly distributed. Do not hesitate to add raisins where lacking.

These went into the hot oven on the bottom rack, as required by Robin Hood himself, normally not one to be trifled with. But here I have to report that Mr. Hood led me wrong and I would recommend the middle rack, because they were very cooked and started to brown excessively after less than ten minutes so I moved them up and cracked open the oven to cool it off some and kind of watched them and hovered, but you could probably avoid that drama by using the middle rack. (Edited to add that it turns out the oven was acting up and was probably 25 degrees too hot so perhaps all the drama was a particularly local phenomenon and maybe you should just pay attention to the King of Thieves after all.) Also note that the filling puffs up a lot when baking but settles right down once the tarts are out of the oven.

Butter tarts cooling on the porch. As you might note, the pastry was perhaps excessively flaky, which is an unusual thing to complain about in pastry. However in a handheld individual tart I feel like a bit more structural integrity might be helpful.

Flakiness aside, the butter tarts were a hit, and even better on the second day, and third. And lots of them had the requisite foldy sides. And it goes without saying that these are really really good with coffee.

Reviews were good too… "excellent raisin to filling ratio, good consistency. I like the sweetness level, good pastry, over all good bake.” Great British Bake Off, here I come.

And just to really stick it to any lingering raisin-haters still hanging about, as a special bonus I include the Robin Hood Prize Winning Recipes offering for Raisin Pie.

Raisin Pie
“Good pastry is an accomplishment that brings more happiness to the world than the ability to sing a high C or fell the Sheriff of Nottingham’s deputies with a single arrow loosed from a stout English longbow!” - Robin Hood.

Grid roads, prairie fables, and other tall tales

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will know that Saskatchewan is undoubtedly the tourist hub of Canada. Forget Vancouver (too rainy), Toronto (too crowded), and Montreal (too historic). Right in the middle of everything, Saskatchewan offers an endless supply of delights for the average tourist, as evidenced by the rich offerings seen on a single 10k run down the grid roads of just one small corner of this diverse, varied and multifarious province.

Saskatchewan, like Alberta and Manitoba, was divided into square mile sections by the Dominion Land Survey, which began in 1871 and eventually became the world’s largest survey grid laid down in a singe integrated system. (Eat your heart out, Ordnance Survey!) This was to aid in settlement for agricultural purposes by making it simple to accurately describe the exact size and location of any piece of land. Each square mile section is known as a… section. Each block of 36 sections (a 6x6 square) make up a township, and each section is sub-divided into quarter sections of roughly 40 acres each. And to allow for equal access, a network of gravel roads was laid between sections, in a grid. Hence the term "grid road”. The whole system was especially important to the Dominion Land Act, which encouraged settlement and cultivation of the prairies by granting an immigrant the right to settle on a specific section of land for a $10 fee. If, after three years, at least a quarter of the section was cultivated and a permanent home was built (even if it was a simple sod hut) the settler was granted ownership of the land. Hence, we get the perfect checkerboard pattern of the prairies, and the perfect arrow-straightness of the roads.

No extraneous turns for us! Just vanishing points and sky. Historically, Saskatchewan’s grid roads were used for the testing and calibrating of plumb lines and, more recently, laser pointers. It’s also a well known that Saskatchewan is so flat, if you look carefully enough into the distance, you can see the back of your own head.

After an exciting left turn, the first point of interest I encountered on my run was this innocuous little grey box.

Often mistaken for power grid junctions or telephone exchanges these are actually what are known as Piffler Caches - emergency supply drops placed by the Royal Prairie Institute For Farm Labour Emergency Rescue.

The volunteer members of the Royal Prairie Institute For Farm Labour Emergency Rescue (R.P.I.F.F.L.E.R.) are often know by their nickname, the Pifflers. (The R was added by Royal grant in 1977 on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, long after the 1933 founding of the organisation. I remember getting a special R.P.I.F.F.L.E.R. badge for my Brownie uniform that year.) Piffler Caches are aways placed a fixed distance apart, just off the road. The exact distance was originally calculated by testing how far an able-bodied farmhand could crawl through a snowdrift in temperatures below -30 degrees celsius (though of course the original calculation was done in Fahrenheit).

Piffler caches are supposed to be stocked with a seasonally-appropriate range of supplies and secured with a lock to minimise the chance of vandalism. The padlocks normally use a numerical combination and are currently keyed to the 6-digit day, month and year that the Saskatchewan Roughriders last won the Grey Cup, a date that only a true son or daughter of Saskatchewan could be expected to recall in a half-frozen or mosquito-addled state.

My run was a casual one, so I slowed down to check out this particular piffler. Sadly, the upkeep of piffler caches and the general health of small local R.P.I.F.F.L.E.R. branches has been on a steady decline for years so I was surprised to see this one very well-stocked. Late April is still very much a shoulder season so this one had winter, spring and summer supplies including mitts, a toque, a folding shovel, rubber boots, 90-factor sunscreen, Deep Woods Off, a thermos of black coffee, a re-used margarine container of home made butter tarts, a small flask of rye & coke, two coffee crisps and a bag of Old Dutch Ripple Chips. It was good to see that the local Piffler branch is still apparently alive and kicking. (UK readers can think of the R.P.I.F.F.L.E.R. as a kind of mashup between the RNLI and the Women’s Institute, but with fewer rowboats and Victoria sponges, and more dust and down-filled clothing.)

(And of course Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recognise that R.P.I.F.F.L.E.R. and the pifflers in general are the origin of the word “piffling”. The monumental task of building, stocking and maintaining the thousands of piffler caches across the entire province is obviously referred to as piffling, a word whose definition has, over time, been ironically subverted to mean its exact opposite - something small and insignificant.)

However, it’s not all butter tarts and blue skies on the prairie. We are subject to Nature’s whims, as evidenced by this catastrophic flooding.

Graphic and terrifying spring floods.

Luckily, my run was a loop circumnavigating two complete sections in a perfect 6-mile rectangle, so I only had to brave this perilous crossing once. The piffler cache did not include a canoe or even a set of water wings but I still made it across safely and on to the next landmark of my run.

Homestead of the legendary Big John - prairie tourist Mecca. Check out the reviews on Tripadvisor! (Note: the interpretive centre and gift shop are currently closed due to the coronavirus lockdown. Normally the place is heaving with visitors. It’s quite unusual to get a photo of Big John Rock without a crowd of selfie-seekers in the way.)

Big John is a well-known prairie icon whose existence may have inspired the lesser-known legend of Paul Bunyan. Big John is said to have been able to clear, plough and seed a full section of land on a single day (before lunch), and is usually depicted accompanied by Barb, the giant blue gopher. His normal breakfast was one hundred pieces of toast, half with Cheez Whiz and half with Saskatoon berry jam, accompanied by ten gallons of black coffee that had been left on the back burner of the stove for at least six hours. John could stride across the prairies at an incredible pace, covering the distance between Davidson and Girvin in just seven steps and Barb’s burrowing created tunnels wide enough for two freight trains to pass side by side.

When he ran out of Cheez Whiz, Big John would have these giant shredded wheats for breakfast, in a bowl made out of a grain silo full of gopher milk.

Not long after I passed Big John Rock, I took the opportunity to snap this shot of:

The Great Wall of Drews. Of course I won’t pretend that this edifice is anything like as impressive as its “visible from space” eastern cousin. But it is visible from… the road. And makes up for its modest proportions with very satisfying straightness.

After a second exciting 90-degree left turn, I soon found I’d unknowingly reached the literal high point of the run, the peak of Mount Valley View.

This precipitous slope is popular with the large local downhill skiing community and is also used for summer altitude training by more serious athletes. (I didn't manage to get chair lift and chalet in frame… sorry).

Not long after there was another thrilling left turn, where I ran across this local signpost.

"Watch out for board gamers left and right”

Local residents spend a lot of time over the winter cooped up inside with their Scrabble and Monopoly and checkers (draughts for UK-based AGSWPLRs). Consequently, they tend to get a bit loopy when the spring finally arrives (usually by mid-August) and spread out indiscriminately with their tokens and dice and game boards. This sign is meant to alert passing motorists to the possible/likely presence of board gamers almost anywhere, though most pressingly, in the middle of the road. I won’t quote the sad statistics here, but the Yahtzee figures alone are tragic and the spike in serious incidents that followed the Trivial Pursuit craze in the 80’s still throws off the province’s actuarial tables.

After that sobering reminder of the harshness of prairie life I encountered one more interesting tidbit, this odd device sticking up in the lefthand ditch.

Pop-up monitor

Area 51 in Nevada may be the best known spot for run-of-the-mill alien-seekers, but those who are really in the know come north instead. Nevada may feature in the media hype and the pop-culture, but Saskatchewan, with its vast open areas (convenient for landing large or multi-dimensional craft), sparse population, and open Canadian immigration policy, has long been an attractive destination. We have welcomed not just successive waves of eastern European, Vietnamese, and Syrian refugees, but those from much, much further away. Some of these immigrants prefer to homestead below ground where they can more easily maintain alternative atmospheric and gravitational variables, and this pop-up allows them proper monitoring of the surrounding local population. This means they can keep good track of the local herd neighbours. (And at this point I hasten to add this: All hail Zlerg, Our Benevolent Galactic Overlord! Long may his tentacles ooze!)

After that it was a quick dash back to my last left turn of the day (four turns in one run!) for a well-deserved cool down. I hope loyal Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers have enjoyed this quick jaunt around the local neighbourhood, and can appreciate the rich culture and fantastically varied landscape in this corner of the prairies. And finally, as a stark reminder of the fickle nature of life on the prairies, I leave you with one last image, taken the morning of May 9th. Yes, MAY 9TH - a full two weeks AFTER the other photos in this post. Well played, Saskatchewan. Well played.

More than 3" of heavy, wet snow. If only this, too were a joke.

Dorset Coast, Day Two (or: Ready, Aim, Fire!)

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Before we were so rudely interrupted by a global pandemic, your humble blogger was fed and showered and inhabiting an upper bunk at the Lulworth Cove Youth Hostel enjoying the righteous slumber of one who has hiked 20km in a wind tunnel and then downed half a bottle of very credible red wine. At least Sunday’s hike promised to be much shorter, though I was alarmed when the morning briefing included the warning that the day's route would be "quite exposed". ("What, compared to the cozy and sheltered outing yesterday?” I thought, and braced myself.) The weather forecast also wasn’t promising, with rain expected.

Nonetheless we dutifully packed our bags, tidied the hostel, and laced up muddy boots for a ramble to Old Harry Rocks, another of those wacky rock formations you find along the chalky south coast. First, though, we drove to the start of the hike in Swanage. One of the attractions of the group's itinerary that weekend was the chance of a ride on the steam train run by the Swanage Heritage Railway, though it was unclear during the previous evening’s planning whether the train was running that day.

Empirical evidence later proved that the train was indeed in operation.

But the train rides would have to wait, for there was hiking to be done. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will have noted the clear blue sky the the photo above but rest assured it did not last. Not long after striking out to the east along the beach in Swanage the skies clouded over and we all paused to put on our waterproofs just as the rain arrived. It wasn’t torrential by any means, but it was enough to dampen my spirits. It also didn’t help that not much later we passed though a small cluster of urbanity and saw a sandwich board out on the road advertising the local pub. It promised real ale and hot food and I knew that if I hadn’t been with the group I would have peeled off without the slightest hesitation to wait things out.

And yet I didn’t. I’m still not sure why. This photo doesn’t really show the rain but it was there.

Luckily, the skies did clear and we made it to Old Harry Rocks in the sunshine. The rocks themselves are the remains of a chalk causeway that once linked the Isle of Wight to the mainland. The causeway eroded over time and left towering stacks of rock, one of which includes another natural archway (like Durdle Door) that will eventually turn into two stacks.

You can also just see the beginning of cave on the mainland in the bottom left of this photo. Eventually that will become and arch and then the opening under the arch will get taller and taller until that bit of the headland is cut off. And in case you think we’re talking about a geological time scale for this stuff, think again. Our guide Lee said that new cave wasn’t there when he did this hike a few months ago, which seems positively supersonic.

Naturally there were other people at the site taking in the view - you could just make out the Isle of Wight in the distance. But there were also signs warning people to stay away from the edge of the cliff, as there are along all those high chalk cliffs that edge the south coast. Equally naturally, there were also people blithely ignoring the signs, including one notable idiot who climbed down a particularly precarious path to a lower section of the headland. And just to make it that extra bit stupider, he did it with carrier bags tied over his shoes, so he had the least amount of grip possible. It was evolution in action, and we were all expecting to have to hang around and give statements to the air rescue pilots, so we quickly pressed on for the last leg of the walk back to Swanage.

By this time you can see that the skies had cleared a bit though it was still windy. However there were sheltered areas, and they were a welcome relief, until we encountered the last of the day’s obstacles.

I’m not saying it was Passchendale out there, but for someone a bit fed up with the general environment and wearing shoes that had recently been discovered to have small holes in the waterproof lining, this was a LOT of mud. And this is just one of the long stretches of gumbo we traversed.

It’s time to retire these shoes.

The rain started up again once we reached Swanage and I was profoundly grateful that the promised group tea at the end of the walk had to be abandoned because the tea shop at the Steam Railway was closed. It was an easy excuse to quit the group, and Piran and I hurried back to the car to seek dry shoes and socks and to make our own plans for the rest of the day, which is when things got much, much better.

Because we went to Corfe Castle!

Corfe Castle is a magnificent ruin set on a hill above the town that bears its name, located smack in the middle of the oddly named Isle of Purbeck, which is patently a peninsula and not an island at all. One would think that a nation that produces maps so superlative that they differentiate between lighthouses, disused lighthouses and beacons and have different symbols for gravel pits as opposed to sand pits could have got this one right, but apparently not. Corfe Castle was built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, and was one of the first castles in England to use stone as opposed to wood and earth. It was also one of the last Royalist strongholds during the English Civil War, before it fell to siege in 1645. After being captured, the castle was slighted on the orders of Parliament. And lest you think that slighting, in this context, means that it was not invited to the annual summer garden party, think again. This sort of slighting is a trifle more forceful than that and is a term used for deliberate damage to important buildings - especially castles - to reduce both their practical and symbolic value. In the case of Corfe Castle, they went so far as to use explosives, which is why many of the castles interior walls sit at a jaunty angle today.

Check out that jauntiness!

That weekend the castle staff were demonstrating several different medieval crafts, including a station where one woman was busily engaged in mixing up a bucket of daub near a small outbuilding that had been constructed inside the castle walls using traditional techniques. A precursor to lathe-and-plaster construction, wattle-and-daub walls are made from a lattice of thin woven sticks (the wattle) set in a structural frame and covered in a sticky mix called daub. It’s often whitewashed over, resulting in the familiar half-timbered look we usually associate with Tudor building and endless suburbs.

Small amounts of daub are usually mixed by hand, though larger batches were often mixed by animals stomping around on it. This woman’s recipe included clay, aggregate, horse manure and slaked lime. She was preparing it to repair the wall behind her.

And if you think hand-mixing animal dung into plaster is painstaking, consider the other traditional craft that was being demonstrated - the process of shaving animal horn into tiny translucent panes to be installed in a window frame, thus allowing a thin bit of yellowy light into an otherwise dark room.

This young woman, in her festive wooly cap, was using a sort of chisel to shave down the surface of a 1” x 2” bit of cow horn that had been boiled in the pot behind her. I know times were tough back then, but this seems slightly ridiculous. I know actual glass must have been rare and expensive, but who would possibly look at a bit of old cow horn and think, “You know, this stuff is ever so slightly translucent. I bet if I spent hours and hours of smelly, painstaking labour I could produce a minuscule piece of something slightly MORE translucent!"

Just visiting the castle and seeing the activities on display, especially on what turned into a lovely sunny day, would have been enough to lift my bedraggled spirits after the morning’s muddy tromp. But Corfe Castle ended up having much much more to offer because we’d arrived just in time to see the demonstration of the castle’s working trebuchet!

This is a small scale version of the traditional siege engine. However, its size is modelled on an authentic “traveling trebuchet” that was actually built at the time. Trebuchets use a counterweighted arm to throw a projectile from a sling. Modern reproductions of the largest medieval ones stand up to 60’ high and can throw an 80 lb. projectile almost a thousand feet.

The Corfe Castle trebuchet uses 3/4 ton of counterweight, and is winched into position by volunteers from the crowd, which on that day included Piran and I. And perhaps because I might have hopped up and down chanting “pick me pick me”, we were the ones chosen to assist in the firing. Yay for unbridled enthusiasm! (Screw you disappointed children - only adults allowed for this activity!) Having spent last summer winding lock gates open and shut, Piran and I were both eminently qualified for winching activities.

Once the arm was in place the National Trust volunteer running the show carefully positioned the projectile - a plastic children’s ball filled with water weighing about 12kg - in the sling. And then, in an act of supreme generosity, Piran let me step forward when one of us was given the chance to actually FIRE the loaded trebuchet. (A thousand thank yous for that!) (Also, Piran is mounting a campaign to have his own tag on the blog. Perhaps that would be just reward for such a magnanimous gesture...). And that's how this happened:

When I posted this video I titled it “Ready, Aim, Fire!”, but in my head it’s always been called: “Does this trebuchet make my ass look big?” (Answer: Yes. Yes it does.)

The trebuchet was undoubtedly the highlight of my day (week, month, life…) but later I did also enjoy a very nice warm Cornish pasty and fortifying cup of hot tea from the award winning bakery in town. And we got to meet a lovely long-haired basset hound nearby, who had a charming name I neglected to write down. Let’s say he was called Chester. I also neglected to take a picture of Chester, but he was fantastic. (And: long-haired basset hound! Who knew?)

On the way back to London we took one last detour to experience the Sandbanks Ferry, a chain ferry that crosses the entrance to Poole Harbour between Sandbanks and Shell Bay. A chain ferry, of course, is a ferry that is guided back and forth by pulling itself along a chain that’s stretched between the two banks.

Chain and ferry, with Sandbanks in the background.

Once we got to Sandbanks we took a brief spin around what, unexpectedly, turns out to be the most expensive coastal property in the world. Hard to believe, but buying a house on Sandbanks’ Panorama Road will set you back more than if you have your sights set on Monte Carlo or Miami Beach. Apparently it’s popular with footballers, though John Lennon also owned a house there. Whatever the reason, we didn’t linger and soon hit the highway back to London and real life. Despite the wind and rain and mud and group-i-ness of it all, looking back from just six weeks later it seems positively idyllic. Bunking up with total strangers crammed into a crowded hostel. Visiting public attractions. Popping in and out of shops with reckless abandon. Ah, the good old days!