August 31, 2011

Rodeo pros really show animals who's the boss

As published in The Erin Advocate

After watching the bull riding competition at the Erin Extreme Rodeo, I went home and turned on the TV news. There was a warning about a video clip that could be disturbing to some viewers, so of course I had to watch. It was a stunt pilot at an air show, losing control and hitting the ground in an unsurvivable fireball.

It got me to thinking about why people participate in high risk sports entertainment, and why spectators are drawn to it. For the athletes, it cannot be just for the money, even at the professional level.

The desire to defy death, with a combination of skill and luck, is not the mark of a crazy person. It seems to be a mix of testosterone and rational choice, driven by the need to take real risk, push the limit, overcome fear, feel an adrenaline rush, raise your arms before a cheering crowd, earn the admiration of your peers and maybe win some money.

For the crowd, it is as though the risk takers are mocking death on our behalf, doing things we would never dare to try ourselves.

There is a tense moment at the end of many bull rides when the bull either flails its hind hooves close to the cowboy lying in the dirt, or whirls around and stares down at him. And unless he is unconscious or paralyzed, he will be up and literally running for his life.

That's when the bullfighters (formerly known as rodeo clowns) move in to skillfully distract the angry beast, when all goes well. Their job is even more dangerous when they have to free a rider who is hung up, dangling from the bucking bull by the arm or leg.

One bull took a straight charge at a bullfighter at the Erin event. With no chance to get to the fence, he made a quick little fake and the bull rumbled harmlessly past him – just another day at the office. Bull riding is a relatively civilized North American invention, compared to the Spanish bull fighting tradition – we just annoy the bull for a few seconds instead of killing it.

It is important to laugh at danger, preferably from a distance. The rodeo announcer at one point suggested that one of the bulls was planning to give the bullfighter a "2,000-pound ivory suppository". Those horns have rounded tips, but they can throw a person 15 feet up in the air, or worse.

If you have strong stomach, go to YouTube and search "bull riding wrecks" to see 742 samplings of what can go horribly wrong. There was nothing quite that "entertaining" at the Erin rodeo, although one fellow hobbled off after his lower leg was stomped by a bull, and another rolled around in the mud clutching his stomach for several minutes after flinging himself over the fence. Most riders wore hockey helmets with face cages, but others were content with cowboy hats.

Bull riding was the grand finale that Sunday afternoon, promoted as the world's "most dangerous sport" (though there is a lot of competition for that claim). There are many sports or performances that are not primarily about violence, but draw part of their appeal through the possibility that something violent might happen at any time. There is hockey, car racing, circus acrobatics, downhill skiing, motorcycle racing, big wave surfing and competitive cheerleading.

Rodeos, of course, are mainly about horses, not bulls. Any sport involving horses has risks, due to the speed and power of the animals and the height from which a rider can fall, but professional riders make the moves look smooth and natural. The horse and rider seem to become a single entity and it is amazing to watch. The riders have a special connection with their horses, a combination of discipline and affection.

The same respect does not apply to calves, however, since they occupy a lower rung in the hierarchy of mammals. Their job is to come charging into the ring, only to be have their necks roped, their bodies flipped in the air and their legs tied.

If you tied one end of a rope to a pole and the other end around a calf's neck, then made the calf run just for the fun of seeing it jerked to a stop, some people might call it cruel. But when the calf is brought down through the skill and strength of a cowboy and horse, as part of a traditional competition, it becomes a whole different thing – quite acceptable to most people.

Calves sometimes get hurt, but like cowboys they are tough and wiry. They usually bounce back up, trot off happily, punch their time cards and relax until the next show.

August 24, 2011

Are we ambitious to fly with the birds?

As published in The Erin Advocate

The fascination that humans have for birds is perhaps based not so much on admiration of their elegant form, rich colours and quirky behaviour, but on envy of their ability to fly. I don't think they envy us, with our wheels.

We have achieved amazing personal mobility on the horizontal plane, but if future technology offers the general public that same mobility in a vertical way, it will surely cause a flap in the twittersphere.

After we have destroyed so much of their natural habitat, and erected glass buildings that fatally deceive them, they won't be impressed if flocks of humans start invading their air space. Even then, we would surely look awkward.

Personally, I am content to stay on the ground, and connect to their world with my camera. That technology has advanced to the point where you can get amazing optical zoom and automatic focus at a low price.

One no longer has to be an expert photographer with expensive equipment to capture beautiful bird pictures. I got such a crisp shot of a baby robin in a nest on my property this year that there was a clear image of the clouds reflected in its eye.

I've never been an official birdwatcher, but like to keep my eyes and ears open while hiking. You have to be willing to stop, be quiet and observe what's going on all around you – not easy if you are focused only on reaching a destination.

It can be a very intense hobby if you have the time, with some people even taking a competitive approach, in a quest to tick off as many rare birds as possible on their list. The pastime got its start in the 1800s, with a movement to protect birds from being hunted for their feathers, or as specimens for collectors.

Birding is now a lucrative niche in the tourism trade, as more people are eager to travel long distances to observe interesting species. Specialized equipment includes binocular-cameras, compact telescopes with tripods, and digital recordings of bird calls to help with identification. Popular birding areas will often have blinds or observation towers to help conceal the watchers.

The tourism people at have published a brochure and on-line guide called Trails Take Flight, identifying the 20 favourite birding trails in the Grand watershed. These include the Gilbert MacIntyre Trail at Rockwood Conservation Area and the Elora-Cataract Trail between Belwood Lake Conservation and Orton.

I took a hike on the rail trail near Fergus last week, and within a few minutes had pictures of a yellow and black American Goldfinch and a scarlet Northern Cardinal. The trail is good for birding because it cuts through marshy areas, and because many of the clearings created by railroad builders have become lush strips of meadow bordered by trees.

For an excellent summary of local species, check out the Birds of the Credit section in the CVC website,

To get more involved, may I suggest you look up the Upper Credit Field Naturalists, based in Orangeville, who bring in guest speakers on birds and other nature topics and run a Beginners Birding Course. They have organized birding trips to not-too-distant places like the Minesing Swamp near Barrie and the Luther Marsh near Grand Valley. The Guelph Field Naturalists have similar activities.

August 17, 2011

Elora has succeeded at marketing its attractions

As published in The Erin Advocate

In a recent visit to Elora, I was impressed not only with the many attractions in the village, but with the success they have had in creating a positive brand name that draws people to the area.

The Elora Farmers' Market was established in 2005 and has become a hub of community activity, with more than 20 vendors every Saturday at Bissell Park from May to October, and a winter market indoors at the Elora Raceway. It takes a bit of nerve to call yourself the World’s Prettiest Farmers’ Market, but it certainly doesn't do any harm.

Bissell Park is a large public green space right in the village – a brilliant concept. It has a nice wide boardwalk along the north bank of the Grand River, a feature that many Erin residents would like to see on our stretch of the West Credit River.

The Grand flows from Belwood Lake through Fergus towards Elora, past the quarry that supplied stone for the village's beautiful public buildings and heritage homes. It is now the 79-acre Elora Quarry Conservation Area, opened in 1976, including a two-acre swimming hole with 40-foot sheer limestone cliffs.

The river tumbles over a waterfall near the downtown core. It is joined by Irvine Creek and flows through an impressive gorge with 70-foot cliffs. For $150 (including training) you can take a zip-line ride out over the gorge, then rappel down into it.

The Elora Gorge Conservation Area has camping and riverside trails with safety barriers, and while there is no swimming or rock climbing allowed, you can try whitewater canoeing, kayaking or tubing. It was the first conservation area on the Grand, opening in 1954 after more than 20 years of promotion by local newspapers, and with strong support from the business sector.

The village is known for its active arts community, especially the Elora Festival and Singers. The summer festival has run since 1979, attracting international patrons and performers, featuring large-scale classical works for choir and orchestra and intimate concerts of jazz and popular music. The Festival Singers is a renowned chamber choir, nominated for Grammy and Juno Awards, with 12 releases on the Naxos label.

Sensational Elora is an 11-day festival, starting September 30, that combines dance, film, art, music and feasting on locally-grown food.

The old Elora Public School has been nicely maintained as home to the Elora Centre for the Arts, which hosts various exhibitions. There is a permanent gallery of works on sale from the 39 artists of the Harris Collective. The building also has the offices of the Elora Environment Centre, a non-profit group with several staff members, specializing in home energy evaluations and advocacy of sustainable lifestyles.

The village is only a couple of minutes away from the Wellington County Museum and Archives. Built in 1877 as a House of Industry and Refuge for the poor, aged and homeless, it is a National Historic Site. A trail on the grounds links two branches of the Elora-Cataract Trailway, and a renovated trestle bridge offers a stunning view of the river gorge.

Elora has 5,500 residents, about as many as Erin village is projected to have by 2031. It is part of Centre Wellington Township, including Fergus and surrounding area, which has a total population of 27,500, compared to 12,000 for the Town of Erin. Centre Wellington has a Manager of Economic Development and a strategic plan to stimulate and guide economic growth. They also have their own tourism organization for local stakeholders.

The Grand River Raceway at Elora, owned and operated by the Grand River Agricultural Society, offers dining, seasonal live harness racing, wagering on year-round simulcast racing, and 240 slot machines.

I dropped in to the OLG Slots there on a weeknight, and almost every machine was in use. I knew my limit and played within it, making it last a while with single plays on a five-cent machine. Then I hit the Maximum Bet button by mistake, and my ten bucks was pretty well gone.

In that process, I chipped 50 cents into the coffers of Centre Wellington Township. Ontario Lottery and Gaming pays five per cent of gross revenues from slot machines to the municipality. That now amounts to more than $500,000 every three months, with no strings attached.

August 10, 2011

Elora show laments loss of precious rural land

As published in The Erin Advocate

Elegy for a Stolen Land, at the Elora Centre for the Arts, is an array of startling panoramic photographs by Peter Sibbald, documenting the relentless push of urban development into rural areas.

Living close to that cutting edge, but protected for now in our little bubble, we need to think about how Erin will look in 20 or 50 years. Like Rockwood? Caledon? Orangeville? Georgetown? Elora? There are many choices to be made.

The photos at the gallery delve into the details of subdivision construction – the gaudy sales signs, the ruts in the soil, the disruption of aboriginal artifacts and burial grounds. The elegant shapes of the farmland and isolated farm buildings are contrasted with the destructive, cancer-like spread of highways, power lines and housing.

The photos are rich in detail, beautifully taken and quite thought-provoking. Some deal with the Six Nations land dispute in Caledonia, which remains an open wound on our society, not only because of the injustices to aboriginal peoples, but because of the recent failure of the Ontario government and police to protect the rights of non-Native residents in that area.

The show is not so much about politics or landscape as is about about the starkness of how the land has been abused, and how people connect with it. Sibbald is from Jackson's Point on Lake Simcoe, near the intense development of York Region, and has had a successful career in journalistic and commercial photography.

His show laments the journey from "earth mother" to "real estate" and he freely admits his bias, setting up a moral dichotomy with native spirituality and our farming ancestors on one side, and ugly urban growth on the other.

"It is a cry for environmental justice," he said at the opening last week, admitting to discouragement over the small effect his voice may have against a multi-billion dollar industry and its political allies.

The style is a bit over-dramatic for my taste, romanticizing a rural ideal and demonizing the building of homes on land approved for that purpose by democratic governments. Is our democracy failing because not enough people care, or was it never meant to keep everybody happy? It seems that many are concerned about urban sprawl, but not enough to do anything about it, and as long as it does not affect them personally.

Of course it is not the job of artists (or journalists) to come up with solutions to society's problems, but rather to ask questions and draw people's attention, prodding them to think and act. Art, like politics, is all about the spin of underlying motives. Farming, for example, could be portrayed as having an ugly side, as an industrial process that has already devastated the natural ecology.

We have been raised in a culture that makes the owning of a dwelling place a key symbol of success. Who can tell the middle class that they must give up their dream of a detached home and settle for a high-rise condo? Or that they must move hundreds of kilometres away from the offices and factories if they want an affordable house?

The Ontario government plans to welcome millions of new residents in the next 20 years by intensifying existing urban areas, promising to limit urban sprawl and preserve farmland. Many are skeptical that this can be achieved, as developers leapfrog over the protected Greenbelt into lands farther and farther from Toronto.

When we resist new subdivisions here in Erin, are we really defending farmland and the natural environment? Or are we slamming the door behind us, defending the privilege of open space that we earned simply by moving here before some others? Will a trickle of middle-income city dwellers in our midst ruin our small-town charm?

Or do we cling to the illusion of defending our real estate values, as demand for housing soars near the GTA? Will lack of development really give us the opportunity to sell our homes and farms for more than we ever dreamed possible?

The discussion will heat up during the next phases of the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP), looking at improvements to water and sewage infrastructure that would help protect the environment, but also enable a small amount new housing in our tightly defined urban areas. It could also allow for the revitalization of our downtown districts.

These matters went onto the back burner after last year's election, and there have been no meetings of the SSMP Liaison Committee since December. A public meeting expected in the Spring did not happen and there have been no updates to the SSMP website. A report dealing with a range of SSMP issues is expected in September, which should help re-focus public attention on the process.

The photo essay is online at, but I encourage people to make the 45 minute trip and check it out in person, until September 1, at 75 Melville Street in Elora ( There are lots of other things you could do while you are in Elora, but more about that next week.

August 03, 2011

Museum offers rides on antique streetcars

As published in The Erin Advocate

It was a bit spooky, wandering through the maze of antique streetcars, in the huge display barn at the Halton County Radial Railway Museum just south of Rockwood. The best of them have been protected and restored like works of art, while others remain outdoors to face the elements.

The museum is on Guelph Line in Milton, but it is just 25 minutes from Erin and makes for an interesting excursion. It is a non-profit education centre and tourist attraction, complete with gift shop and streetcar ice cream parlour, operated there since 1972.

There has been interest lately in LRT (Light Rail Transit) for urban areas – a new rail and rapid bus corridor was approved just a few weeks ago for Waterloo-Kitchener-Cambridge. But less well-known is that there was once a system of inter-city electric trains, radiating like spokes out of Toronto.

One of these radial lines, opened in 1917 by the Toronto Suburban Railway company, went to Guelph, via Meadowvale, Churchville (Eldorado Park), Georgetown, Limehouse, Acton and Rockwood. It was bought and subsidized by Canadian National Railways, but it never had commercial success and was discontinued on August 15, 1931. The Guelph Hiking Trail Club now maintains a 33 km route on the rail bed, as a link to the Bruce Trail in Limehouse.

The museum has rebuilt a section of line and overhead power supply, so they can test their collection of about 75 vehicles. They offer guests a 20 minute ride through the forest, with an attractive park at the east-end loop.

The collection includes streetcars, subway cars, trolley coaches, locomotives, box cars, cabooses, rail grinders and snow plows. There's even a bus from the Hamilton Street Railway, in the old rounded style that I used to take to high school.

Many cities used to have belt lines – rail loops through their busiest areas. The Niagara Gorge Belt Line operated from Niagara Falls to Queenston on both the U.S. and Canadian sides of the river, from 1893 to 1935, carrying up to 17,000 passengers a day. Toronto's radial railways did not go into downtown Toronto, and ultimately could not compete with standard freight trains or the expanded highway system and the conveniences offered by bus transportation.

I took a ride on Car 327, a streetcar with open sides and running boards. It is a replica built by the TTC for Toronto's centennial in 1934, with components salvaged from the original #327, built in 1892. The conductor would walk along the running board with a tin cup to collect the fares, and people would often hop on and off while it was still moving. Such vehicles were taken out of service about 1915, because of the dangers posed by that other horseless invention, which remains popular today.

The most striking aspect of the interiors of the older cars are the wooden fixtures, varnished and glowing, with attention to detail that has become unfashionable or too expensive to maintain in more modern settings. There is also some impressive woodwork in the old Rockwood train station, purchased from the town in 1971 and moved to the museum.

The Ontario Electric Railway Historical Association was formed in 1953 by a group of men who wanted to save a Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) streetcar from being sent to the scrap yard. Eventually, they started the museum, which is now open on weekends from May to October, and daily in the summer. Go to for details, including school programs and special events. There is an archive of drawings, photographs, uniforms, maps and books, which are available for research.

For those with a general interest in trains, there are museums across Canada, the largest being the Canadian Railway Museum (Exporail) south of Montreal. I have visited a few, and can recommend the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, and the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel in Cranbrook, BC, particularly notable for its preservation of intricate inlaid woodwork in the luxury cars.

Here are some more photos from my visit: