Friday, May 18, 2007

Hinterland moments

Just got back from the "SOO", meaning Sault Ste-Marie. For those bereft of Canadian geography knowledge, it's where the Lake Superior connects via the Sault narrows to the Lake Huron waters. It's also where they make a lot of steel - and where they used to make even more steel, back in the heyday of the 70s and early 80s. It's also "Stompin' Tom country" as I'd started to refer to it after seeing a country band that played to an audience of about six people on a Monday night at a local watering hole...a truly small-town Canada moment.

The somewhat unfortunate fact about the 'SOO" is that it is a city of 75,000 souls that is acting, in the words of one local, as if it had only 20,000. Visiting there confirmed that notion of decay and glory days gone by...on a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon, the boardwalk on the waterfront was almost deserted, there were no organized tours of the famous locks, there were no coffeehouses or pubs with patios where a tourist like I could be lured into dropping some petty cash. In a place that has not had a facelift (to its downtown) since the 80s, and where the end of the season for the OHL (The Sault Greyhounds) team spells even less fun than usual quota, it really seemed that no one wanted my money and no one was there to promote the place. It is a shame given the rather interesting history of the region (voyageur routes criss-crossed there, War of 1812 was a factor, the first set of electricty-operated ship locks was built there in 1895, etc). I always hear about the economic stagnation of these 'Canadian hinterland' towns and cities - in the Soo, it was a palpable feeling.

The shabbiness and small-time thinking come with an upside - the people are nice and have the time of the day to talk and engage with you. I also really enjoyed an overnight backpack hike in the Gros Cap region just west of the city. That is where the shores of Lake superior form beaches and cliffs that plunge into the clear blueish waters of the lake; this is the start of that storied stretch of coast which had inspired the Group of Seven paintings. As a hiker, I enjoy and appreciate seeing this landscape, as well as felling the presence of the 'big wild'...saw many a moose, elk and black bear footprints. Nothing like fresh bear tracks to make one nervously glance over the shoulder, I tell ya'.

The Gros Cap is also home to one of Canada's largest wind farms. I walked for at least an hour through a service road ringed with these massive, 60-m high wind towers. Seen from an airplane, they form a long row alongside a ridge overlooking Lake Superior coast. The things are sci-fi-like, graceful and not too loud. Not a single human to be seen maintaining or guarding the installations. It looked extremely expensive, however, and I wonder who the resultant power is being sold to. Check out the rather poor website about the wind farm:

Not to belabour the point too much, this is an example of a cool industrial site where one could charge an admission fee and conduct tours - how many of us have actually seen and been to a large scale wind power facility? With the massive amount of coverage of Kyoto and other environmental topics, Canadian kids would do well to experience these solutions and new technologies up close, so this whole debate doesn't stay abstract and academic.

Maybe this wind farm is what Sault Ste-Marie should be promoting as the next unique attraction.

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