Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On a fine morning the lake plays Pearl Jam

An hour before daylight is the best time to head west out of Ottawa in winter. Blue-ink sky ahead, warming glow in the rear-view, and between Carleton Place and Perth the birch stems burst out of the charcoal backdrop of the conifers. If you're lucky, as I was today, the rental car has satellite radio and you can tune in to the new all-Pearl Jam channel on Sirius. A quick stop for coffee at Fall River, westward until Kaladar and then north into the Mazinaw country the Group of Seven almost did justice to.

Just south of the Bon Echo Park boundary there's a large male coyote on the road. It's very large for a coyote, too small for a wolf. The locals up here call them "brush wolves", some mixing of wolf and coyote bloodlines may have taken place (out west wolves tend to kill coyotes; eastern ones must be more sociable). I slow, roll down the window and pull up alongside. He's not afraid, but distracted. His mate is walking parallel to him through the trees a few meters back from the road. He's torn between checking me out more closely or following her into the forest; in the end he decides on the latter.

I'm the first to reach the landing at Tapping's Bay, and am out on the ice, admiring the cliffs across the Mazinaw when the others show up. A colleague from Queen's University is here with three graduate students to take sediment cores from the lake bed, with which they plan to piece together the environmental history of the region going back to the pre-contact days. Mazinaw is deep (over 140m in the upper basin), and so it's easier to core through a hole in the ice than from a boat. A school bus arrives. We've arranged for students from the local high school to join us and try their hand at coring. It's not too high-tech a process: a plastic tube is lowered to the lakebed, then a weight is dropped which seals the top and pounds the bottom into the sediments.

There's no wind and the sun is warm. The students compete with one another to see who can auger out a hole the fastest. They lower tubes and haul them back up. We will take the cores back to the high school lab in the afternoon and my colleague will show the students what to look for in them. By letting them try their hand at this, we're hoping more of them will be inspired to go on to college or university. Each year I seem to have one student from this area in my first-year environmental studies class. I would like to see more. Kids from up here are less likely to go on to post-secondary than urban and suburban kids, especially the boys. Today is just one small bit of a larger & longer research collaboration with my colleague from Queen's and others at uOttawa and Guelph, but it's been one of the best bits so far.

The school bus is honking back at the landing; the high school students trudge back. They genuinely seem to have enjoyed themselves. Why wouldn't they on such a day? The Queen's crowd and I are left on the ice, gathering up the equipment. Small pressure cracks have been forming beneath our feet. Nothing dangerous - the ice is continuous and more than 25cm thick - but the lake is reminding us she is there, and of all the water that lies beneath our feet. At the same moment we all stop moving and talking, and listen to the lake. Together, the thousands (millions?) of ongoing cracking sounds join to create a hum which the cliffs catch, reflect. It sounds to me not unlike the humming resonance that starts the Pearl Jam song "Corduroy", only it doesn't amplify.

It has been a fine morning.

No comments: