Tales From the Great White North

  • Posted: July 16, 2019
  • Category: Blog
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In search of America’s hidden wonders, my wife and I took a three-week road trip spent for the most part in our neighbor, the Great White North. (Anyone catch the cognitive dissonance in that thought?) My wife let it be known to friends and family that our extended time on the road was about a long wished for visit to all five Great Lakes, but we both knew that was just a story, a plausible smoke screen covering our real agenda. My dear thoughtful wife knew that Canada was atop my bucket list, a chance to luxuriate in the culture and homeland of the McKenzie Brothers.

Unknown to our impoverished children and grandchildren, conditioned as they are in the reality of comedy no more than a synonym for progressive smarm, there was an earlier time – a time fondly remembered. The decade of the 70’s was a downer in most respects, but a golden age for comedy. “Live – From New York” was once the intro to great American comedy while at the same time Canada put their own version of hilarious insightful sketch comedy on our TV sets – SCTV.

For the last half of that woeful decade SCTV was a welcome break from runaway inflation and lines at the gas station. Luckily the show came on after the kids were in bed and I was able to indulge guilt-free. My wife, preferring a gentler style of humor, often took that half hour to iron my shirts. What can I say? I have not always been so enlightened, being simply another clueless member of the patriarchy back then.

The best part of SCTV was a segment called “The Great White North”, featuring Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis as the McKenzie Brothers. Every week, Bob and Doug McKenzie, spoke from the heart and their living room couch, of life in Canada. The brothers regaled us with tales of life’s simple pleasures, back bacon & beer, as well as the frustration of a lack of parking at crowded donut shops.

Both SNL and SCTV were “must watch TV” during the Seventies. To those like myself, cursed with a need to seek meaning in the meaningless, the two shows reflected the differences of those odd brothers sharing the North American continent. Talking about the US and Canada is a bit like comparing the New York Yankees to their Canadian clone, the Minnesota Twins. Winning Yankee teams parade down the Canyon of Heroes amid blizzards of ticker tape, while victorious Twin teams sign autographs at a kiosk in the Mall of America. The Yankee megastars parade on CNN while Mr. Nice Guy Twins participate in goofy hijinks on Early Morning Minneapolis.

Instead of John Belushi, SCTV had John Candy. Instead of Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, SCTV had Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. Instead of Gilda Radner and Lorraine Newman there was Andrea Martin and Jane Curtin. Instead of Dan Akroyd, SCTV had Eugene Levy. Interesting to note that most of SCTV’s regulars are still in comedy, B movie style, while the SNL originals agonize over which one of their mansions to visit for the next round of guru guided navel gazing.

Canada is a great country and a wonderful place to live. But it is Canada’s fate to live next door to the United States. Canada is the sober and serious brother that took over the staid family business. The US more resembles the prodigal son who fought with Dad and finally stormed out one weekend, breaking their mother’s heart. But instead of landing in a pigsty, the prodigal son found fame, fortune and the bright lights.

Those of us living south of the 49th Parallel think of Canada as just like us, perhaps a bit slow and stodgy, maybe the country mouse visiting the big city. It is really hard for us to imagine that Canadians don’t want to be Americans (my phrasing once again demonstrating my own myopia). The US has invaded Canada twice, confident in a belief that they would greet us with open arms. Both times our forefathers were sorely disappointed in their actual welcome, sent packing back to the US in bloody ignominious retreat.

One of the unappreciated pleasures of traveling in Canada is the complementary newspaper provided alongside the continental breakfast in hotels. Instead of the vapid USA Today found in US hotels, Canadians get to sample a serious newspaper, the National Post. To be sure, the National Post is aimed at an Adorable readership, but it hasn’t wandered into the fever swamps – Yet! Think of the New York Times before the 2016 election.

Unlike the United States (ha ha), 2019 is a national election year in Canada. Befitting the elder brother following in the family tradition, Canada’s chief executive is a Prime Minister rather than a President. The current incumbent Canadian PM is a type of politician familiar and recognizable to folks in the US, Justin Trudeau – a Canadian amalgam of Jerry Brown, Barack Obama and Chelsea Clinton. To a visitor from down south, Mr. Trudeau appears to be an echo of California’s Jerry Brown, just another moonbeam riding the coattails of a prominent father.

Like our own Barack Obama, he is a progressive with little tolerance for compromise or the legislative process. However, Mr. Trudeau’s lack of the racial trump card has made his political life much more problematic than that accorded our now retired saint. Like Chelsea Clinton, Justin Trudeau grew up with the disturbing legacy of a libertine parent acting out a shocking life style in the public eye while married to a humorless puritan. Though in Mr. Trudeau’s case, it was his mother rather than his father whose antics between the sheets titillated the scandal sheets.

Based on the National Post, it seems one of the major issues driving the Canadian election is climate change. Unlike their pusillanimous southern neighbor, Canada has done something about it. Instead of just talk, Canada has enacted a carbon tax. To the uninitiated, a carbon tax is just one more additional tax levied on fossil fuels in an effort to discourage their use.

From what I gather from the National Post, Canada’s carbon tax is implemented on the provincial (state) level and in most cases is a fairly significant surcharge on fuel and various forms of electricity. And as in all times and places, taxes are not popular. Thus it has become a contentious campaign issue in the 2019 national election.

Echoing the American divide in Canada, the split over global warming is the urban elites versus the blue-collar heartland, the Adorables versus the Deplorables. Though befitting a sober older brother, the Canadian elite has not yet been so rude as to publicly deplore those of us choosing to remain ignorant, racist, violent and homophobic – as did our own Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Whatever else we might think or say, the Canadians get very high marks for altruism, for taking one for the team. Canada is in the front lines of those battling to save the planet from the scourge of warmer weather, even though a large part of their country is frozen tundra. While no other nation on the face of the planet has more to gain from global warming than the Canadians, they have bit the bullet, nobly saddling their citizens and economy with an unpopular tax to fight it. Why on Earth would Canadians worry about global warming? Would Mexico burden themselves to thwart a predicted return of the Ice Ages? The only logical answer is that Canadians are exemplary people, selfless humanitarians.

Suppose for a moment that the worst fears of the Green Evangelists are true and the planet warms up by 4-5 DEGF over the coming century? Canada would become a temperate paradise, vast stretches of frozen tundra morphing into fertile farmland with amazingly long sunlight hours. Hudson Bay could become a commercial crossroads rivaling the South China Sea while an ice free Northwest Passage would leave the Panama Canal with little choice but to revert back into tropical rainforest, left to market the wonders of eco-tourism to prosperous Canadian farmers.

Oh well, it is up to the Canadians themselves to decide between masochism or self-interest, between religious ecstasy or disinterested agnosticism. Our own well-meaning School Marm’s often hold up Canada, our older more traditionally prudent continental brother, as an example of a country more enlightened on environmental issues than our own. On the international stage, Justin Trudeau is often contrasted to our own crude and lewd Chief Executive, another pointed object lesson for US voters too clueless to grasp the true extent of President Trump’s vulgarian squalidness. When photographers, as they often do, pose Angela Merkel in the picture with Trump and Trudeau, we can’t help but smile at this modern remake of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Back in my professional life, I felt Canadian energy companies discriminated against US contractors such as my own company, exuding a barely disguised air of superiority towards us. There seemed to be an ostentatious concern in Canadian energy company circles over the ability of US contractors to be sufficiently environmentally conscious. Of course, a successful contractor understands that “Grin & Bear It” is the name of the game, even in the face of the most inane or bilious customer comments.

As potential Canadian clients tut-tutted over our ability to be environmentally sensitive enough, I always remembered my time just south of the Canadian border during late 1990’s. Back in the days before the unmitigated evil that is “fracking”, the oil & gas industry pursued any and all sources of natural gas, including some really (and I use the technical term here) “crappy” gas fields. The small town of Lignite, North Dakota, just a few miles south of the Canadian border, hosted a small natural gas processing plant, a very old plant. This gas plant cleaned up the gas stream produced from a very old, very small, very marginal and very sour gas field.

I was spending time in Lignite because our client was trying to keep this plant running, hoping against hope for the miracle of a positive cash flow. To make a long story short, the State of North Dakota was doing their best to shut the plant down because the plant often exceeded allowable sulfur emissions. Let it be said that we are talking about quite small levels of sulfur dioxide, measured in parts per million. It was an on-going battle between the owner of the plant and the State of North Dakota. As of today, I don’t know, but I suspect the battle to keep the plant running has been lost and the Lignite plant is now a source of used equipment.

But the whole episode reeked of wry humor, to be sure an irony little appreciated by those financially vested or depending on the continued existence of the plant for their job. Looking north from the Lignite Gas Plant, on most days one could see a large dark cloud. To the clueless visitor, such as myself, it looked like a prairie storm off in the distance. Over time I learned the cloud was not natural.

The cloud was from the Shand Power Station near Estevan, Saskatchewan just north of the US/Canadian border. The fifth unit at that power plant generating station had just gone into service a few years before with adjacent mine operations in the process of expansion as well. What amused me at later times during my attempts to assure Canadian clients of our soft hands on environmental issues was the fuel source for these power plants.

The Shand Power Station facilities were “coal” burning plants of course, but to the uninitiated it is handy to know that there are different kinds of coal. There is anthracite – known as hard coal, there is bituminous – known as soft coal, and there is – something most people would not recognize as a fuel for power plants, more resembling the petrified detritus of ancient cattle feedlots.

The name of the town, Lignite, provides a clue as to what these Canadian power plants were burning. Lignite is a form of coal with so little energy value that, over a beer or three, power engineers will admit that burning lignite is a bit like burning dirt. You have to burn a lot of it and it has a lot of other things in it besides that old devil carbon. Lignite is dirty; when it is strip mined, when it burns and when it comes out the smokestack.

That brown cloud to the north of Lignite, North Dakota was basically a stew of sulfur and nitrous oxides mixing into the atmosphere. Instead of the pounds at issue in the Lignite Gas Plant in North Dakota, the toxic sulfur/nitrogen emissions from the Shand Power Station only miles north of Lignite measured in the thousands of tons.

As you might suspect, the wind on the plains of North Dakota and Saskatchewan, her provincial neighbor to the north, blows hard and most of the time – think Wyoming on steroids. Logic would suggest that those sulfur/nitrous compounds come down to earth in North Dakota and Minnesota, rather than Canada. In fact, the smokestack at the Shand Power Station is proudly called out in tourist sites as the tallest structure in Saskatchewan. One is left to wonder why it is so tall. As practical engineers with a little poetry in their soul say – but only when the acolytes of Mother Earth aren’t around – the solution to pollution is dilution, especially if the pollution in question crosses the border into someone else’s back yard. So much for Canada’s claim to a superior level of environmental responsibility and altruism. Just sayin’.

But in our journey to experience the culture giving birth to the McKenzie Brothers, the first stop was Thunder Bay, Ontario, a few hours north of Duluth, MN on the northwest shore of Lake Superior. The north and west shore of Lake Superior is a beautiful place. Just ten thousand years ago, this area was buried beneath glacier ice, two miles deep. Then in an earlier version of Global Warming, the glaciers melted – perhaps the carbon dioxide and soot from the numerous European campfires roasting meat of that endangered species of elephant, the mammoth, drove the change.

But as the glaciers melted, Lake Superior emerged from under the ice and the rock now forming its northern shore lifted as the weight of the two mile deep layer of ice melted away. As the ground rose, the numerous streams and rivers feeding into Lake Superior cut through the granite bedrock creating one waterfall after another. Minnesota has done a superb job of creating parks allowing the public easy access to these wonders of nature – on the Canadian side, not so much. Perhaps the environmentally sensitive Canadians didn’t want human beings spoiling another pristine environment with their ubiquitous camping and gawking.

Thunder Bay, as its name suggests, is a large bay on Lake Superior offering a protected harbor for thousand foot long lake freighters carrying iron ore and prairie grain harvests to eastern markets. Thunder Bay is by far the most picturesque of the numerous bays along the NW coast of Lake Superior. This part of the world is known for abundant iron ore deposits, but it is also rich in copper. And therein lies another story.

The area around Thunder Bay, including its very large offshore island – Isle Royale, is ground zero for thousands of ancient copper pit mines scattered around the northern shores of Lake Superior and Michigan. It seems that the geologic processes forming the area left scattered deposits of copper in a nearly pure form within the fracture zones of the granite base rock, a bit like the gold mines scattered through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

The ice age glaciers scraped away the soil and soft rock covering the deep granite bedrock and when the ice melted, these rock fracture zones were left exposed and accessible. Thus virtually pure copper nuggets can be found in these surface veins.

Given the number of pit mines and their sizes, it is estimated that perhaps half a billion pounds of copper, i..e. 250,000 tons, of virtually pure copper was taken out of these pit mines. Just think about that for a minute – 250,000 tons of virtually pure copper mined in the middle of the North American continent – millennia before the arrival of Columbus.

This is a jaw dropper. Given the fact, and I speak from personal experience, that the archeological community has heart palpitations while overseeing the expenditure of uncounted millions of OPM (Other People’s Money) investigating the blackened rocks from century old Native American campfires found along pipeline right of ways, one would think that these ancient mines would attract archeological interest on a world-class scale. Surprisingly enough, this does not seem to be the case.

I am not a professional so I can’t speak to the unremunerated labors of today’s PhD candidates, but they or their work are not in evidence. Wikipedia, the gold standard for dilettantes, has a small piece on something called the Copper Culture existing among Native American tribes thousands of years ago. There are a few paltry museum exhibits of copper spear points and needles found at digs of identifiably Native American origin in the Great Lakes region. That’s all we have to show for 250,000 tons of copper. Hmmm?

Think about that amazing factoid again – 250,000 tons of copper! Surely there would be more than a few spear points to be found. Perhaps the august British Museum might have a clue. The British Museum has an exhibit of bronze axes found at varied sites in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The explanatory placard reads, in part:

“from about 2500 BC, the use of copper, formerly limited to parts of Southern Europe, suddenly swept through the rest of the Continent”

Back in the day before the soft sciences like Archeology descended into pedantic obscurantism, they used terms like – The Bronze Age. The Bronze Age was the name given to a distinct era in human history. The Bronze Age was so named because it featured the widespread use of bronze; a metal alloy of 15% tin and 85% copper. This metal, bronze, replaced the stone and animal bone tools used in an earlier era, called – wait for it, drumroll please – The Stone Age.

The Bronze Age began somewhere around 2,500 – 3,000 BC and allowed for the development of amazingly sophisticated and advanced cultures. But before 2,500 BC, bronze was scarce because accessible sources of copper were scarce and of very poor quality. But beginning around 2,500 BC, bronze became widely available, made from large quantities of high purity copper mined from an unknown source.

It is said that the source of the copper used in the Bronze Age has always been a bit of a mystery to the archeological community. Metallurgical analysis of bronze artifacts from the Bronze Age has determined that typically the alloy itself has low levels of impurities. This means that the copper used in making the bronze alloy was very pure. But Europe has no known sources of copper that could have been processed to this level of purity given ore processing techniques of the time. The logical conclusion is that the copper must have been derived from high purity nuggets imported from elsewhere.

Interestingly enough, the tin used to make the bronze of the Bronze Age had to be imported into the Mediterranean from long distances as well. The Cassiterides, a group of legendary islands, were rumored to be the source of tin throughout ancient times. But the Cassiterides were only rumors, legends. The actual source of the tin used to make bronze was a closely guarded secret of the sea traders of Gades, an immensely wealthy port in Iberia (Spain). Interesting factoid – A wealthy Jewish trader from Gades, Lucius Cornelius Balbus, was the source of finance behind the campaigns and conquests of Julius Caesar.

It is also interesting that Gades, or Cadiz as it is known today, is the Spanish port opening onto the Atlantic Ocean, controlling trade between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean. The English regions around Devon and Cornwall are rich in tin, with ample evidence of ancient mining operations. It also appears the undersea delta of the Loire River in the Bay of Biscay has evidence of numerous Bronze Age foundries, most of which have either been covered by silt or rising sea levels. Global Warming!! Will it never end?

For over a thousand years a network of cultures grew and prospered in Europe and the Near East, an interconnected global community. And then it ended, sometimes in fire and blood, sometimes in puzzling abandonment. In a collapse even more catastrophic than the fall of the Roman Empire some fifteen hundred years later, the civilizations that flourished during the Bronze Age ended for as yet unknown reasons around 1,200 BC. An excellent account of what is known about this sudden collapse can be found in a readable book written by Eric Cline and published by the Princeton University Press, 1177 B.C. – The Year Civilization Collapsed.

In an effort to provide some reference points for this era, we might turn to the Bible and Homer, the poet that is, not Bart Simpson’s dad. God was calling Abraham out of the land of Ur just as the Bronze Age was getting well under way. Moses was leading the Hebrews out of Egypt as the Bronze Age was closing. The fabulous golden City of Troy on the Turkish coast was one of the cultures that flourished during the Bronze Age. Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships whose abduction (?) led to a war between Mycenaean Greece and Troy recounted in Homer’s Iliad, dates to the last days of the Bronze Age.

Returning to the area around Thunder Bay and the ancient copper mines. Miners use rough-cut timbers to shore up the mine walls from caving in as ore is removed from the earth. These ancient mines are no exception. Carbon dating of wooden timber supports from these old mines dates has been found to date between 2,450 BC and 1,200 BC. Hmmm again?

What is one to make of all this? It is generally accepted that there was a thriving seaborne trade extending up to the British Isles along the Atlantic coast of Europe during the Bronze Age. Is it possible that ships, thousands of ships, traveled west as well, crossing and recrossing the Atlantic Ocean for over a thousand years – 2,000 years before Christ, 3,500 years before Columbus?

Could this be possible? To the unschooled speculator, there certainly seem to be a lot of strange coincidences and interesting intersections recommending the idea. But to the outsider there seems to be little interest by professional archeologists in pursuing these ideas.

Oh well. We came to Canada to enrich our appreciation of the McKenzie Brothers, not to delve into the politically fraught collision between the Adorable America’s dreamy narrative of Idylls of the Native American Past and reality. One must remember that governments and universities are the paymasters for the archeological establishment, organizations with little desire to rock politically sensitive boats in pursuit storm generating ideas. So much for scientific inquiry.

Traveling the TransCanada Highway from Thunder Bay to North Bay and then down to Toronto, returning to the US at Port Huron, we soaked in “hoser” culture. The McKenzie Brothers have it right about donuts. Canada is at the very forefront of fine breakfast pastries. The pretentious French, marooned in Quebec, can have their croissants. There is no doubt, no doubt at all, Canada’s Hoser’s have the very best apple fritters on the planet, maybe even the galaxy.

Of course Canadian back bacon is great, but tell me honestly – “Have you ever had back bacon that didn’t bring tears to your eyes at the sheer wonderfulness of God’s creation?” The McKenzie Brothers famously said, “To beer or not beer, that is the question – eh?” I see their point, but quite honestly, after rigorous and extensively taste testing I must say that I find Canadian wine more to my taste than Canadian beer. Perhaps too great an exposure to San Diego’s distinctive IPA’s has distorted my tastes.

Reflecting back on our time on the road, I have fond memories of Canada and Canadians, but make no mistake, Canada is not the US. There is a perception in the US, particularly in Adorable circles, that Canada is a gentler, fairer more inclusive place than the US, perhaps a nation where the Deplorables are less bumptious, more obsequious and respectful of their betters.

Maybe they are right, how does one tell? In the US, the practical necessity of our population mix forced us to use two official languages – Spanish & English. The Canadians have two official languages as well – French & English. But Canada’s bi-lingual administrative state is the result of a culture both sensitive and inclusive.

I couldn’t help but get a sense that Canada is a poorer place than the US. Perhaps that explains why the Canadian interior’s miners, farmers and other workers are not sold on the great need to protect the Southern California coastline and the mansions of Florida’s Gold Coast. The Canadian highways we traveled, particularly the TransCanada Highway, were not as well developed and in poorer repair. Though in all fairness, I hasten to add that Illinois – at least the part we traveled through, took the prize, hands down, for worst roads.

Chicago and Benito Mussolini are often cited as proving the existence of a Realpolitik attitude on the part of voters. This “cynical” attitude might be expressed as – one can accept corruption in government if it delivers good services, i.e. makes the trains run on time. It appears that the politicians of Chicago and Illinois are not keeping their part of the bargain and there may be a future reckoning. Perhaps his education in Chicago’s political culture explains our previous President’s somewhat skewed understanding of infrastructure spending.

With the exception of Toronto, the larger towns in Canada that we traveled through – Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, North Bay – looked old and tired. Not to say their regional cousins in the US don’t. But I got a sense of quickening life on the US side missing in Canada. North Bay, MI, across the St. Clair Strait from Sarnia, ONT, looked more prosperous as did Sault Ste. Marie, MI from Sault Ste. Marie, ONT. The Lake Superior harbors of Duluth, Two Harbors and Silver Harbor, MN were busier than that of Thunder Bay in Ontario.

Toronto, on the other hand, was a bustling city, with a picturesque downtown alive with cranes atop growing skyscrapers. Like every other urban area I know, a largely invisible population, in this case mostly Indian/Pakistani, filled the slow moving buses as they traveled between their humble jobs in the cloistered areas frequented by the Adorables and the invisible workers unseen neighborhoods.

The Deplorable/Adorable divide seems alive and well in Canada as well as the US, but I think that might be old news. But memories remain of the majestic lake freighters, memories I suspect will long remain. We spent an afternoon watching these thousand foot long ships come into Two Harbors, MN, a harbor seemingly far too small for such behemoths. It was like a slow motion ballet of bulls in a china shop.

We watched these lake giants go through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan/Huron. They were awe inspiring as they traversed the fast moving waters of the narrow St. Clair Strait between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. The iron carried in the holds of these ships built America, the America that was the Arsenal of Democracy. The grain in the holds of these ships fed the men and women that built America, the America that fed the world.

The men on these freighters do their job like most of us do our job, in anonymity. And they probably do their job like most of us, expecting only a paycheck and hoping to make the world a better place by their efforts. But theirs is a job nakedly exposed to the forces of nature, and sometimes the machines of men are not up to the task. Shockingly, nature is not a loving mother, but a cruel taskmaster – red in tooth and claw. It was a Canadian, Gordon Lightfoot, who paid homage to their sacrifices in a song – “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”.

But Gordon Lightfoot’s lyrics are from another time and place, a time and place of different understandings. The freighters still carry their loads, but they have fallen from the memory our nation. They are from a time when we knew, first hand, how to grow things, how to make things – and what it cost with the character to endure and accept that cost. Those things continue to be done, but the memories and habits are like the invisible immigrants on Toronto’s buses, present but unseen.

It is another songwriter who put down the words that measure what the future held. Perhaps Billy Joel meant to say something else, but his words measure our loss nonetheless.

“So the graduations hang on the wall

But they never really helped us at all

No, they never taught us what was real

Iron and coal

chromium steel”

Our children’s graduations hang on the wall. We are proud of them because of it. They travel between comfortable houses and the comfortable cube farms of America in comfortable cars. There is no need for them to be too hot, or too cold, to face nature’s furies or to get their hands dirty. By their efforts, the paper moves and the megabits whirl through the cloud.

But in their world of data highways and decision trees, our children are managers and facilitators, not doers. The orders are given, the money flows, the endless boxes are checked and the decisions made, but the labor, the skills, and perhaps most importantly; the fulfillment, the pride, the sense of accomplishment are for others.

We live in the belief that Billy Joel had it wrong – the graduations on the wall did help. But perhaps Billy Joel spoke of life at a deeper level than our ladders of success pretend to. Someday, our children and grandchildren may look back at us and say with bitterness and truth – “No, they never taught us what was real, iron and coal, chromium steel.”


One Response to “Tales From the Great White North”

  1. Jeff Esbenshade says:

    The Edmund Fitzgearld was named for the President of the Northwestern Mutual Life
    Insurance Co. Milwaukee WI, the insurance co held note on the ore boat.

    I was drafted Aug 1969 and reported to the Army induction station in Omaha Nebr.
    The sidewalk in front of the station was very “active” I was told I could be in
    Winnipeg in 24 hours. They would help me get a place to live, a job, and start paperwork to become a citizen of Canada!

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