April 16, 2007
It's snowing outside. This would not be a noteworthy event if we were located in, say, Iqaluit, on Baffin Island. Nor would it be exceptional if it was mid-January and we were located just about anywhere in Canada or the northern United States. But it's not mid-January and we're not in Iqaluit. It's mid-April and our current position is 44 degrees 30 minutes north, 77 degrees 42 minutes west, or about one-and-a-half miles up the Crowe River from the village of Marmora, Ontario.
Don't feel bad if you don't know where Marmora is. Most Ontarians don't. There are only about 1400 souls living here, plus quite a number of dogs, a few horses, and (believe it or not) a small herd of llamas. We're not sure what the llamas are doing here, but we pass them whenever we drive the 30-odd miles south to Belleville, where Little Gidding is parked. Instead of the Andean peaks, the backdrop is a distant grey ridge of mine tailings. The tailings relate to one of Marmora's main claims to fame: a huge hole in the ground that used to be an iron ore mine. Back in 1820, Marmora had the distinction of being the first mining town in Upper Canada. Mining operations ceased almost 30 years ago and the big hole is now mostly filled with water. Marmora's other claim to fame is that the Virgin Mary makes the occasional appearance at Greensides farm, just outside of town. We visited the farm a couple of weeks ago. We had a pleasant (though chilly) walk around its grounds, but didn't encounter the Madonna. Apparently, in more clement weather, busloads of the faithful make the trip to Greensides from Toronto and Ottawa -- both cities about two-hours-drive away -- and we assume at least some of the pilgrims have a spiritual experience or they wouldn't keep coming. Maybe it's all in the timing.
At this point you may be wondering, "What the hell are Eileen and David doing in Marmora, lovely as the place may seem?" A good question. We left our readers somewhat abruptly last August and have been receiving queries ever since about what we're up to. To be perfectly honest, this time last year we would not have guessed that now we'd be gazing at swirling snow rather than sun-drenched palm trees. But before you start feeling sorry for us, read on. It's been an adventure.
To recap last season's cruising exploits, in May we brought Little Gidding back to her home waters of Lake Ontario for the first time in 12 years. We spent the summer at a dock in Belleville, on the lake's north shore. The choice of Belleville was largely determined by its proximity to Marmora, where the year before we had bought 1.3 acres of land with a small (very small), unfinished (very unfinished), cabin on it. The motivation behind this purchase was the desire for a summer base from which we could visit and support Eileen's aging parents in Ottawa. We also wanted to be able to make the occasional trip to Toronto, where most of our friends and business connections are located. Marmora just happens to be almost exactly halfway between Ottawa and Toronto on the Trans-Canada Highway. Also, the property we ended up buying was priced within our budget, which we quickly learned was only going to get us swampwater in most other real estate locales. Marmora's other locational attributes -- the Virgin and the big hole in the ground -- we learned about later.
The original plan was to live aboard Little Gidding for the summer and commute to Marmora on a daily basis to complete the work on our cabin. Unfortunately, we had underestimated the amount of work that was required to make the place habitable and had greatly overestimated our construction abilities. What we didn't know then about basic house building could fill volumes. It didn't help that the two main elements of the structure that we had figured were already done -- the roof and foundations -- turned out to be seriously flawed and had to be largely replaced right at the outset. Even after we had righted the past wrongs, progress continued to be two-steps-forward-one-step-back. Let's call it a learning experience. To make a long story short, our summer project turned into a winter project.
In September, we had to temporarily abandon our construction efforts and hit the road. Eileen had a full itinerary of fall concerts organized around the annual boat show circuit, beginning with the Newport International Boat Show in Rhode Island and ending with Strictly Sail in St. Petersburg, Florida. In years past, we've sailed to these venues and stayed aboard Little Gidding. This year, we travelled down the eastern seaboard in a used Honda Civic and stayed with generous friends who didn't know any better.
By the time the last gig was over and we were back in Canada, our living situation was looking a little tenuous. The problem with having a boat in Lake Ontario as opposed to a body of water like Florida Bay is that the water freezes in the winter. Most boaters around here haul their vessels before the ice and snow arrives. They pickle the engine and plumbing with antifreeze, drape a tarp over the deck and superstructure, and retreat to their warm, dry homes to dream about the next boating season. Our dilemma was that it was the end of November and we didn't have a warm, dry home to retreat to. The drywall in our cabin was incomplete, the heaters weren't installed, and the plumbing didn't function.
Luckily, we had not scared off all of our friends with our incessant freeloading. Our good cruising buddy Dave, whom we met on our first year out on the water, lives less than an hour from Marmora. He invited us to stay with him for as long as it took to make our place habitable. He blanched a bit when we showed up with our car crammed with most of our worldly possessions. "I guess it's going to take longer than a weekend," he concluded.
On Christmas Eve, a full month after our arrival on Dave's doorstep, we moved into our new cabin. The toilet and bathroom sink were connected, the heaters worked, and we had two functioning kitchen appliances: a microwave oven and refrigerator. The bedroom contained our tools and building supplies so we slept on the floor in the living room. In the ensuing weeks, our quality of life greatly improved after we installed the bathroom shower and kitchen stove. While living without hot showers wasn't a lot different from what we were used to on the boat, a constant diet of frozen packaged dinners got old fast.
Over the winter, a number of our friends who are still actively cruising noted our absence and wrote to inquire about our well-being -- as good an indication as any of how close the cruising community really is. In January, our Montreal friends Bob and Viv on Varuna 2 e-mailed us from Florida to ask, "How are you faring in a stationary place where you can wake up and see the same surroundings, all the while sleeping soundly through the night?" Our pals Oliver and Pam on Dejarlo sent us an e-mail in February from the Bahamas: "How are things going in the frozen North? How is the house coming along? Do the radiant heaters work well?" Oliver, a retired electrician, has a vested interest in those heaters; when he and Pam were staying in Ontario last summer, he drove up to help us wire the house.
We've told Bob, Viv, Oliver, Pam and countless others who have asked that, no, we haven't frozen; and, yes, we're enjoying ourselves .... most of the time, anyway. To be sure, we've sometimes missed the warm tropical breeze and the long walks on the beach, but there's also something to be said for the sense of solitude one experiences in the boreal forest during a Canadian winter -- assuming, of course, that you're dressed warmly enough. And then there's all the stuff we couldn't do if we had gone south on the boat. In January, Eileen performed at the Toronto International Boat Show (thankfully, held indoors). We were surprised at the number of people we knew from cruising in the tropics who dropped by our table to commiserate. February's highlight was the Marmora Snow Festival. Where in the Bahamas can you attend dog sled races in February (or any other time of the year, for that matter)? Throughout the winter, Eileen drove up to Ottawa every week or two to check in with her parents, always the prodigal daughter.
Although we've had our setbacks, working on the cabin has mostly been a rewarding experience. There's satisfaction in building something with your own hands. Nothing is as concrete as, well, concrete, especially when you're pouring foundations. Painstakingly slow as we are, each day has marked an incremental improvement in our abode. Yesterday was particularly significant. In a flurry of nail banging, we finished (more or less) erecting an outside storage shed. The table saw that has graced the middle of our living room for several weeks is now gone, together with most of our other tools and boxes of fasteners. Not that the job is over -- we're still working on the interior door and window trim -- but we can now look around and tell ourselves, "Hey, it doesn't look half bad."
Strange as it might sound, our return to life on land has been informed by our life at sea. We probably would not have tackled our building project if twelve years of cruising had not instilled in us a sense of self-reliance and resourcefulness. When something has to be done, you figure out how to do it. Cruising has also taught us the value of being alone and at peace with nature. Some days the only creatures we see from atop our hill in the woods are winter birds and confused squirrels. We don't feel lonely.
Most important, cruising has convinced us that we can live very simply; indeed, that we far prefer living with less rather than more. When we bought the property, few of our friends believed that we could survive comfortably in a structure as small as the one we had designed. But that's because house interiors are typically not laid out the same way as the insides of boats. Compared to our boat, we feel we have space to spare.
Virtually all of our furniture is built-in storage units, just like the settees and cabinets on a boat. Our dining table folds down, the same as the saloon table on Little Gidding. By installing compact appliances (we ordered the gas range from an RV supplier), there's enough room in the kitchen area that we can work together preparing meals -- a big plus since we both like cooking. Through the creative use of shelf units and drawer slides, we have our own separate computer work stations. This has greatly reduced the number of altercations we have about whose papers are cluttering up whose desk. To some, our bedroom may seem to be little more than a walk-in closet, but the fact we can get in and out of a full size bed without risk of injury to our sleeping partner is a vast improvement over the forward berth in Little Gidding. And for the first time in our adult lives, we have our very own clothes washer and dryer, stacked in the corner of the bathroom. Pure luxury.
We invited our friend Dave and his girlfriend Marianne for dinner last week -- a long overdue gesture to recognize the hospitality he extended to us a few months ago. His first words when he entered our cabin were, "Hey, this is just like a boat. I'd love to live in a place like this!" And the best part, Dave, is that it will never drag in the middle of the night. We made sure of that when we replaced the foundations.
It has stopped snowing now and the ground is just about clear. The weatherman is promising sunshine and warmer temperatures in a couple of days. Outside our front window, a blue jay and black squirrel are facing off over some scattered seeds under our bird feeder. A few Canada geese are paddling by in the river at the bottom of the hill. Next month, we'll close up our tiny place for the summer and drive six hours to the village of Killarney, at the northeast corner of Georgian Bay. We'll spend the next five months residing in a wilderness resort lodge located there, taking guests on sailing excursions. Our lives are different now, but except for the snow, not that different.