Archive | July, 2012

Strawng and Effishient

31 Jul

Toronto is difficult to escape. It’s like an enormous sea creature, its tentacles reaching far beyond official city limits and pulling you back. For three days after we officially left Toronto, we were cottage-hopping, first staying at Anya’s parents’ cottage, and then with Anya’s family friends at a cottage they were renting. We took another rest day and went fishing.

Of course it had to be perfect cycling weather on our rest day and when we actually started going it had to rain all day. Our cycle computer got so wet that it stopped working after 75km. Our grandiose plans for making good progress crumbled. When we reached Bancroft, Anya suggested that we should do everything in our power to find a couchsurf. And that we did! We found an awesome Warm Showers host, Ed, who also has a hot tub at his house.

As usual, we had trouble leaving, and only reached the town bakery around noon. By 1:30pm we were ready to get back on the road, but the lady at the bakery heard about our project and decided to introduce us to Pat and Sherri, who run a natural building design business, Haven Craft. They just happened to be eating brunch at the table beside ours.

We started talking and before we knew it, Sherri offered us a tour of their straw bale home, which they built themselves in 1999.

The roof is made of recycled car tires, the beams and posts are trees from the backyard and the walls are straw bale and plaster. But the big bad wolf won’t be blowing this house down: some straw bale buildings are 600 years old!

Back in the day, Pat and Sherri decided to design and build their own home, and were looking for inspiration. They came across a book on straw bale construction, and the pictures captured their imaginations. Straw bale offers advantages such as excellent heat retention, moisture control, and soundproofing. It’s also a non-toxic building material, healthier for the inhabitants. Visually it can be striking, because it is easy to create rounded surfaces and curvilinear walls.

This is the shed, designed especially for the solar panels. The roof faces south and is large enough to provide most of the electricity for the house, on average. For example, last year the panels produced 110% of the annual electricity usage. The output varies with the season: more in the summer, less in the winter. It is part of the microFIT program that we mentioned previously: electricity generated by the panels feeds back into the grid.

For Pat and Sherri the learning curve was steep, but the result was a sound and very liveable structure. Since then, they’ve been sharing their knowledge with others, both through their business and through a hands-on course that Pat teaches for the Sustainable Building Design and Construction Program at Fleming College. They’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge about materials: which ones are non-toxic, which ones work well in certain situations, and so on. Each project, Pat says, has its trade-offs, prioritizing the needs and desires of the client while staying on budget.

Financing a natural builiding project is a challenge, but not for the reason you might think. Although it doesn’t cost any more than a conventional custom-built house, the banks are hesitant to give loans. Admittedly, these houses can sometimes be hard to sell as well, but there have been exceptions to this rule.

Fear and Cycling in Toronto

25 Jul

Those who know Maria will be surprised that in 5500km she has not once flipped the finger at an erratic driver on this trip. But never has she been so close to breaking this marvellous track record as when we entered Toronto city limits. Immediately drivers change from friendly and road-sharing to stressed and angry. For the first time on the trip, we were honked at and we knew for a fact the message was not “hello.”

Once past the initial hurdle of getting into the city, we were cordially greeted by Anya’s parents. Some of their friends were excited to hear about our journey, so they hosted a BBQ/storytelling session, so that we could be fed while recounting exaggerations about our cycle tour.

One of the guests suggested that because of the second law of thermodynamics (entropy always increases), sustainability is a pipe dream akin to a perpetual motion machine. This theoretical limitation would not apply to the earth alone because energy can be exchanged between the earth and the rest of the universe. Then we are talking about the universe. But the fate of the universe is a hotly debated topic and perhaps it will be renewed in a big crunch followed by another big bang. Also, this is so far into the future that first, giant crabs will take over the world, then the sun will engulf half of the planets in our solar system, and only much much later can we anticipate the heat death of the universe.

We also visited Evergreen Brick Works, where they had a fascinating exhibit called ‘MOVE‘ about transportation in Toronto. It was put together by Evergreen in collaboration with Institute Without Boundaries. It shows the history of transportation in Toronto, has cool data visualizations for current transportation stats, and suggests a whole host of ideas for how to make transportation more sustainable in the future.

Here’s one amazing guy’s collection of bicycles, displayed as part of the MOVE exhibit.

Raccoon Stew

22 Jul

Manitoulin, we are told, has been called the Saltspring Island of Ontario: it’s inhabited by artists and other interesting characters. We stayed with people whose goal is to live sustainably and self-sufficiently. They are growing their own food and getting their own energy from solar panels. Their methods are based on the permaculture system.

Our host and permaculture extraordinaire, Justin, explains that the first thing he needed to figure out was a water source for growing the food. He set up a solar powered pump to get water from the closest water source – Lake Huron.

Not too long ago, the perma-farm went completely off-grid. Justin describes cutting off the electricity as a liberating and powerful experience. The house has a composting loo, collects rainwater, and is powered by rooftop solar.

The perma-farm also has, or rather had, a lot of chickens. Recently, a raccoon mauled some 30 chickens. Retribution was in order. The clever furry guy was trapped and shot, but no part of him was wasted: the meat was cooked, the fat was separated and is to be made into soap – a Christmas present for mom, and the skin is being cured and will probably go towards some sort of fashion item. As for us, we did not pass up the unique opportunity and tasted the surprisingly delicious ‘coon meat.

 

Not all is lost. The remaining specimens are very athletic. One could say that natural selection has occurred.

The farm members are also very active in the community and hold educational programs on permaculture. They hold courses and workshops to pass along their skills and knowledge to others.

Superior Swimming

17 Jul

Okay, I’ll just spit it out. All this biking is too hard, so we decided to fly to Mexico and enjoy the beautiful beaches.

Just kidding, that’s Bathtub Island. You can wade out to this place from the sandy shore, it’s not far at all. On the island there is a small, shallow pool filled by waves sloshing in over the edge, and because it is so small it gets as warm as a bathtub. We passed it on our way to Sault Sainte Marie, or as the locals call it, the Soo.

In the Soo, we stayed with David and Cayla. David is interested in the food security aspect of sustainability. One initiative he has worked with is the Penokean Hills Farms Co-op. The members are cattle farms looking to process and sell their product locally. The alternative is to ship the cows to southern Ontario or even to the USA, where the meat is processed and then shipped back for redistribution. This is not only inefficient but also reduces the freshness of the meat. With the co-op in place, the farmers are able to get a better price while delivering a superior product to the consumers.

Interestingly, Penokean Hills Farms sells their product mostly in bakeries. The meat shops prefer to sell the cheaper, lower quality meat instead. Since the Penokean Hills Farms meat is often frozen, it does not look as appealing on display. However, the co-op has strict rules: the cattle must be naturally raised, without antibiotics or hormones. You get what you pay for. As for us, we are mostly consumers of bread and cinnamon buns at the bakeries these days: the BBQ didn’t fit in our panniers.

Bargain Hunting

14 Jul

In Thunder Bay, we took a day off.

Maria needed some caffeine, which we found at a hole-in-the-wall place on a street undergoing construction that was simultaneously a coffee roasting house and a computer repair shop. The compact size of the shop prevents anyone from holding private conversations, so the owner and customers soon knew all about our cross-Canada trip and project. Tina, a customer, told us about her energy-efficient home: it faces south, with eaves to block the summer sun while letting in the winter sun, and solar panels on the roof (she mentioned the feed-in tariff program).

By necessity, we also explored the commercial wasteland part of Thunder Bay. People told us that Thunder Bay was once two towns, but urban sprawl filled in the gap with department stores and shopping centres. As we would find out later from Tony, a grocery store owner in Schreiber, Thunder Bay is the unofficial Walmart capital of Canada. It has the most profitable Walmart in Canada and, in fact, two more Walmarts are scheduled to open soon.

Apparently, people from the surrounding smaller communities flock to Thunder Bay to shop, because it’s cheaper and there is more selection. For a local shop owner like Tony, that’s bad news. He told us that people now use his grocery store like a corner store, only coming in for cigarettes and chips. There is low turnover for his products, so he can’t sell quickly spoiling items like fruit and vegetables anymore.

Our next stop was Nipigon, and we were prepared to spend the night with the bugs again. To boost our morale, we went to a cafe for dinner. We were shocked when the waitress asked, “Are you Anya and Maria?” It turned out we had sent her a couchsurfing request! Because there is literally no phone service anywhere around here, we didn’t get her text message. And that’s how we ended up couchsurfing with Al and Maria.

After dinner, Al gave us a tour of the town. Nipigon used to have a pulp mill, like many other towns in the area. But some years ago, the mill stopped making money and was shut down. More than half the town was out of work. To get their jobs back, the townspeople formed a cooperative and bought the mill. But only a year later, the mill burned down. Since then, Nipigon has tried to attract tourists by rebranding their town. The efforts went nowhere.

But tourism is picking up for a different reason. Al told us about the recently established marine conservation area reaching from Thunder Bay to Terrace Bay, with Nipigon right in the middle. Although the park does not have any special amenities yet, it has already attracted outdoor enthusiasts.

Since Al works for the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), we also talked about hunting laws. For most species, there are enough animals so that a license will be given to anyone who requests it. Moose are an exception.

In Ontario, moose hunting is done by lottery: applicants compete for a limited number of available licences, each permitting the owner to kill one animal. Unlike the regulations in Europe where you own any animal that comes onto your property, in Ontario the animals are owned by the people in the province. From Al’s perspective, Ontario’s system makes it easier to manage wildlife populations.

Let’s say you hit the jackpot: you got a licence and killed a moose. Legally you are not allowed to waste its meat. You are also not allowed to sell the meat. So hunters either share the meat with their neighbours and friends, or freeze it, or both.  Everyone who has tried it says that it is the best meat they’ve ever had. So it’s no wonder none of our hosts had any moose meat to share with us.

Here’s Anya saying hi to Henrietta. We don’t know who shot this one, but maybe it was the late Bill Young of Young’s General Store.

Mosquitoes Gone Wild

13 Jul

To say that there are a lot of lakes in northwestern Ontario would be an understatement. The area is dotted with fishing and hunting resorts, which attract many visitors from the States. Riding along the highway, we see at least one lake every half hour. The abundant water provides habitat for moose, deer, beaver, brook trout, and walleye (also known as pickerel), but you are more likely to notice the mosquitoes.

It just so happens that it’s peak mosquito season right now.

We left Fort Frances pretty late and had to wait out a sudden and intense thunderstorm at one of the fishing resorts, so we cycled only 75km that day, and set up camp in Mine Centre. The campground was populated with perhaps 4 or 5 RVs, and one couple had a huge net set up, where they were eating their dinner. We scoffed at this luxury item.

As soon as we put the water on for dinner, however, we were viciously attacked. The bugs were so bad that we could barely stop to stir the pasta, despite being totally smeared with our heavy-duty insect repellent. We instantly became very efficient in packing up all our things, preparing to move into the tent. We took precautions such as only opening the inner entrance once the outer entrance was closed, and were doing very well, until we had to transport the dinner from the vestibule into the tent. At that point a cloud of mosquitoes invaded our tent. For the next twenty minutes we had our work cut out for us, destroying the intruders: at first just clapping at random would kill a mosquito. Once that was done, we could still hear the hungry swarm outside, buzzing like a high-voltage power line.

The other problem we ran into was the heat. The following day it was so intense that we stopped to swim three times, and went again at sunset. We also decided on an extra-early start for the day after. Maria went for a morning dip and we packed up camp in record time: we were cycling by 6am.

We were a little frustrated with the constant uphill and slow pace, but then we found the explanation.

If you are fascinated what happens on the other side, well here is your answer:

One neat thing about this sign is that the rocks used for it all contain amethysts, which are plentiful in the area.

From Quetico North to Shabaqua is a 100km stretch of nothing – in terms of people and services. As we cycled towards lunch we imagined the culinary delights Shabaqua might hold. Perhaps there would even be several restaurants to choose from! Not seeing much of a town center, we followed the first sign we saw, which included the phrase, “Home Cooking.” The lady there was a little surprised to see visitors: summer is her slow season, as she caters to mine workers. She said she would “check what was in the fridge.” We came inside not really knowing what to expect, but remember, in the wintertime this lady feeds 30 hungry guys three meals a day! We got large fruit smoothies, salad, a baked potato and sizable chicken breast each, homemade bread, cheese, coffee, homemade desserts, and wifi.

Being connected has never been tougher than here in northwestern Ontario. The hills make for spotty phone networks. As for internet, the lady told us she had to have a satellite dish installed, and they charge her an insane amount per month. We have no idea how a household (as opposed to a lodge) can afford internet around here. But that’s what life out here is all about, right? Connecting with nature, rather than connecting to the internet.

Sunny Side Up

8 Jul

We’ve officially left the prairies. Instead of fields stretching to the horizon in every direction, we now travel on roads surrounded by trees on either side. The sky has become smaller. By force of a quickly formed habit we try to check the weather forecast by observing the clouds, but they are blocked, and we feel a little claustrophobic.

After doing 284 km in two days, a rest day was in order. Luckily for us, Maria’s parents flew in for the long weekend and made sure we relaxed to the max.

We stayed in a cabin right on Lake of the Woods, near Sioux Narrows Provincial Park. We swam in the lake, hiked the trails of the park, and picked mushrooms and wild strawberries. We also spotted a beaver in the area:

Well rested and fed, we got ambitious again. We rode 90km in the scorching heat to the town of Finland, where we stopped to eat. The host informed us that there would be Canada Day fireworks at 10pm in Fort Frances. Well, it was 7pm and with Fort Frances 60km away, we figured we could make it! We quickly settled up the bill and booked it. Full of partiotism we finally arrived at 10:30pm, just barely making the tail end of the fireworks.

We camped in the park in town and in the morning Anya received a gift from the heavens.

Bon appetit. We ate breakfast in the Chinese restaurant in Fort Frances. We would never have thought to go there but it was recommended by a local guy named Kasey. We randomly met in front of Safeway and he ended up joining us for breakfast. Upon hearing about our project, he told us about his dad, who wants his house to be the first in Fort Frances to go completely off the grid. He has already installed solar panels on his roof for electricity, and he has obtained a large cistern for collecting rainwater, which he will be hooking up to the house’s plumbing system shortly.

We spotted quite a few solar panels on our way to Fort Frances, and asked Kasey about them. Ontario has a program for subsidizing clean energy projects. This program pays owners of solar installations for the energy they generate. In particular, energy produced by residential rooftop solar installations is bought at a rate 8 times the cost of buying the same amount of electricity. As a result of the subsidy, many people have installed the panels. Many community-use places such as schools and municipal halls had the panels installed as well.

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