October, 2014

Science Island

For thirty-four years, over half my life, I have spent time nearly every summer and winter in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec. It is a region I call my “soulscape,” sapphire lakes set among emerald mountains in summer, diamond dust in winter. The thick second-growth woods are rooted among ancient, worn-down peaks, some of the oldest rocks on Earth. Once Himalayan-sized mountains, a series of massive glaciers chewed them down and gouged out the lakes and valleys, flooding them with meltwater.

In these more recent times—say the last twenty-four years—my sanctuary has been on Lac St. Brutus, my favorite place in the world. The lake has four major islands, each about an acre in size, and because they are inaccessible for half the year, none has been built upon. For fifteen years I owned one of them, l’Île Selena, but sold it with my previous house and land when I briefly contemplated moving my retreat to Ontario. (Until my then-new wife Carrie visited, loved the area, and said, “Are you sure you want to leave here?” Which makes a guy go, “Hmm . . .”)

Rich memories endure of my early days on that lake, before I even started to build a house there. Owning a stretch of wooded shoreline and an island with no buildings means no responsibilities—no expenses, no problems, no worries. Just playtime. I kept a battered old rowboat inverted onshore, and would row out to the island with our white Samoyed, Nikki (for Nikita), and a load of camping gear. For the rest of the day Nikki lounged contentedly on a shady pine-needle bed, sniffing the various aromas of lake and woods, while I cleared trails and burned deadfall in the big firepit. In the evening I poured a measure of the Macallan and sat awhile, then rose to prepare a campstove dinner—some dreadful mix of dehydrated noodles, powdered sauce, and canned fish (known to backpackers as “tuna wiggle”). The humble repast was elevated nicely by a good red wine, and an old-school percolator of dark coffee. After such an active day, I soon crawled into my little tent. It had a covered portico that just fit a curled-up Nikki, and he loved being out there with me, of course. The nights were especially magical—all stars and loons and woodsmoke. I miss that island, and sometimes think about trying to buy it back, or maybe better, one of the others—to continue the “starting over” theme.

Eagle Rock

Near the wooded, boulder-studded shores of those four islands, a few tiny islets of rock stand above the water here and there. One of them has a steep cliff into deep water that was always fun for a gang of us to jump off of. Twenty-four years ago just one solitary fir tree grew on its crown, so it became known as l’Île de Noël. (Christmas tree, see.) One neighboring couple told me that in the early years, before there were many houses, an unnamed couple once made the beast with two backs there. So they called it l’Île d’Amour. A large granite stone, an “erratic block” (meaning dropped by a retreating glacier), on top of it suggested the shape of an eagle’s head to this bird-brain, so our family called it Eagle Rock. With a young boy’s natural reductiveness, Brutus’s son Sam called it Rock-on-Top-of-Rock.

That is a lot of names for a little bump of rock, and yet another was bestowed upon it in the summer of 2014—Science Island. For all of August (the heart of summer, just as February is the heart of winter) I was fortunate to be at the lake, with Carrie and Olivia joining me for two weeks in the middle. (Leaving a solitary “reading week” on each side—hurray!) Nearly every day, five-year-old Olivia and I liked to venture out on the lake in our small electric boat, or in my sleek rowboat, and we often stopped at that little island. While pulling the boat up on the rocky shore, I showed Olivia the parallel grooves in the rock’s surface that had been left by glaciers. I explained how the tremendous mass of ice had dragged stones along and gouged out those grooves as the glacier retreated, at a speed of maybe an inch a year. Then I pointed upward as I told her the ice was once about two miles high above us.

She looked at me with that wonderful guilelessness of childhood (when does that go? About eight, maybe?) and said with a wide-open smile, “Was that before you were born?”

I assured her it was.

She pointed down at the pale green patches on the rocks and asked me what they were. I told her they were lichen, a primitive plant similar to the moss that carpeted the ground between the exposed rocks.

“They live off the stone itself,” I explained, “from its moisture and minerals.”

I thought of the old generality about “the nature of things,” and pointed around us at the wooded shores as I said, “Everything we see is either animal, vegetable, or mineral.”

She thought about that, then fastened on a natural objection. She pointed to the lake and said, “What about water?”

Ah, she had me there for a moment—but then I realized (with a little relief), water is assuredly mineral.

Growing up in California, Olivia has been raised to be conscious of water use—she explains solemnly, “because of the drought.” I told her that in Quebec we didn’t have to worry about that, which led to explanations of the water cycle of evaporation and rainfall that kept our woods green and thriving, and our lake full of clean, cold water. We talked about clouds, winds, rain, snow, the little stream that runs through our land and swells after rainstorms, fog and dew and rainbows.

While drawing and coloring one day, we talked about the proper order of colors in a rainbow. I had always used a sequence that seemed good to me, while Olivia had her own preference. We decided to see what Science said. Olivia has great respect for science, especially the natural branches, and is proud when her mother calls her “my little scientist.” (That will be helpful for her adult ambitions: to be a doctor, an astronaut, and a construction worker.) An internet search taught us the mnemonic ROY G BIV for the correct order. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Lovely.  

Riding Loonie-Back

photo by Charles Voisin

One of the oft-celebrated delights of northern lakes is the calls of loons. In our area, each lake has a resident pair that returns year after year. Their vocal tremolos are familiar in movie and TV soundtracks, and even in pop music. In the late ’80s I came back from a bicycle tour in West Africa with a cassette by a popular reggae artist from Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Alpha Blondy. The technology for sampling sounds and playing them with keyboard or drum triggers was new then, and I smiled at how Mr. Blondy was obviously very taken with samples of loon calls. He would never have heard the real thing in West Africa, but for anyone among us Nordic peoples who has, it is an unforgettable experience. Their various songs are eerie, unearthly, and endlessly haunting, especially on moonlit nights, when they can fish and move around the lake, calling to each other. Olivia and I had been seeing “our” pair of loons often, with their new baby chick. That is always an exciting event on the lake, because loon nests often fail due to a rising or falling waterline, or predators.

Most birds have hollow bones, but those of loons, one of the most ancient of species, are solid and heavy. That weight is helpful for diving deep in search of fishy food, but not for getting airborne—loons require a long laborious taxi across the water. Their feet are far back on their bodies, likewise good for swimming underwater (they also use their wings), but they cannot walk. The nest has to be right at the water’s edge, where they can push themselves onto it. If the water falls, they won’t be able to get to the nest; if it rises, the eggs float away.

While rowing around the lake one day, Olivia and I heard the adults call to each other across the lake with their “I’m over here!” three-note yodel. We saw the baby loon swimming beside one of its parents, then dive under and come up in a different spot. I told Olivia I thought it was the first day the baby loon had ever done that, and she called out, “Congratulations baby loon!”

(Obviously a triumph another child would relate to!)

Loon and Chick

photo by Craig M. Renwick

One time we saw a family of ducks called mergansers swim by, a mother and four youngsters hugging the rocks and trees of the shoreline. Not wanting to romanticize the natural world, I tried to tell Olivia delicately that they usually stayed safely close to shore like that because given the chance the loons would kill the babies. (I didn’t get too graphic—didn’t add that the loons swim up under the baby ducks and stab them with their dagger bills.) I offered the explanation that this seemingly murderous impulse was actually for “love”—intended to protect the loons’ own babies from other fish-eating competitors.

Loons typically incubate two eggs, but usually only one will survive (stacked odds, because they are laid a day apart and hatch that way, so the older chick bullies the younger one until the parents ignore it and concentrate on the one that appears stronger—more likely to survive). Both male and female loons care for the eggs and young, while mergansers are different—I have never even seen a male merganser. The flamboyantly colored males only hang around for mating season in early spring, then after the ten-to-twelve ducklings are hatched, they take off farther north to moult (so they claim . . .  the females probably think, “how convenient”). The female mergansers make up for being single parents by helping each other—I have often seen as many as thirty youngsters trailing after one mother, who is babysitting for the day.

So, with all that talk about geology, meteorology, and biology, one day when we were rowing home, Olivia said, “We should call that place Science Island.”

I said, “Yes. I like it! From now on that is its name.”

Little Pink Butterfly Hood

Olivia turned five on August 12, and that spring her mother had signed her up for biweekly swimming lessons, so she was now a strong swimmer. No more life-jacket or water-wings for her—just foam noodles for fun. Swimming “free” like that opened a whole new world of enjoying life at the lake, for both of us. (Second time around for me, of course—it’s becoming ever more difficult not to talk to Olivia about her lost sister, especially when we boat past the old house, or the island still named for Selena—she would have turned thirty-six that April. So many stories about Selena that I know Olivia would love. But I also know I have to wait until she’s better able to comprehend such world-shattering information. Maybe when she’s eight or so. I guess I’ll know—but it will be hard.) Olivia and I had a good time on the lake and in the lake nearly every day, and one hot day we went swimming four separate times.

On a cool morning when dark clouds threatened rain, we put on our rain jackets and reef shoes and walked down the gravel road to our neighbor’s house. We picked up a food container we had left there while visiting a few days before, and on the way back, I led us through the woods. I assured Olivia, “There used to be a trail here.” However, that had been fifteen years before, and it was largely overgrown—we had to do some serious bushwhacking. Olivia never faltered—just followed me through the trees, rocks, roots, and moss, pushing her way through the branches in her pink and purple butterfly raincoat. No complaints, no moans, no sighs—because we were sharing an adventure, not an ordeal. Just as last winter she was the Merida (Scottish princess in Disney movie Brave) of snowshoes, now she was the Merida of the summer woods.

When we finally fought through to the shore, I helped her across the stepping stones over the little stream, and we emerged at our dock. I told her I was proud of her, and she said, “Me too!”

Misty Morning

Rowing had long been a favorite summer exercise for me, and I had owned the boat pictured here, with sliding seat and outrigger oars, for twenty-four years. Most every summer day I went for a long row around the lake, feeling the satisfaction of driving my whole body into the oars as the nimble hull sliced through the water. However, I had always dreamed of having a real racing shell . . .

One night a heavy rain hammered down on our metal roof (wonderful sound—nature’s drum solo) for hours, and in the morning Olivia and I went down to the dock to bail out the boats. While sitting on the rowboat’s wooden seat, I leaned toward the stern with the bailing cup and heard a “snap”—the seat had broken in half. Fortunately enough of it remained for me to keep up my daily rowing routine, at least in a half-assed fashion—which was not much of a change. (Badaboom.) An internet search for a new wooden seat came up empty, but did lead me to the sites of several builders of racing shells. A spark lit up in my brain. “Yes,” I thought, “now’s the time.”

For some reason that summer, after all those years of “recreational” rowing, I rose to a new level of engagement. I reveled in the feeling while I was doing it, putting all of my strength through my back, arms, and legs into that rhythmic motion, and I loved how I felt after—unlike cross-country skiing or snowshoeing (or drumming), there was no pain, just an all-over sense of well-being. Which is why we exercise, right?

So I chose a builder who offered an old-school look with mahogany veneer over the hull, but included modern carbon-fiber hardware and oars. I placed my order for delivery next spring—ready for another summer. It’s going to be so great . . .

photo by Craig M. Renwick

Similar to cross-country skiing, the flowing rhythm of rowing is a subtle combination of many small cogs, levers, and energy sources. With much practice, they are refined into clockwork synchrony, until you don’t even have to think—each part of the body knows its job. When I decided I wanted to write about rowing, I tried to pay attention to each of those elements, and mentally put them in words.

Breathe in deeply while the body slides the seat sternward, wrists twisted to “feather” the oars (to flatten the blades and cut wind resistance). Arms extend to reach the oars forward—then twist the wrists and pull up to angle the blades just into the water, to make the “catch.” Begin to exhale as you uncoil through the shoulders, arms, trunk, and legs. Feet press hard against the footrests as the leg muscles extend, sliding you back on the seat as you pull through the whole body to drive the boat forward.

The wake surges for a moment with the propulsion, and the next time the oars meet the water a satisfying distance has been covered from the previous circles of ripples. At the end of the stroke, curve the oar blades back to feather position, keep your legs flat for a second, out of the way of your hands as you pull the handles close in to your body then start to extend them again. The handles must be low so the blades are high—not to touch the water and “catch a crab”—and staggered just the right amount, one above the other, so they don’t knock together. (The rubber covers on my old handles are battle-scarred from early trial-and-error days.)

Take a deep breath and repeat, repeat, repeat . . .

photo by Craig M. Renwick

After a long row, I return to the dock well heated up, especially on sunny days. Once the boat is tidily lashed to the whiplines, I shed my clothes, don my goggles, and ease into the water. There is an old wooden dock farther down the shore that is never visited—no house was ever built on the lot. It is about a quarter mile away, so a perfect target to swim to and back. Easing into the front crawl’s natural flow, I breathe on alternate sides, every third stroke (called “bilateral breathing”), a technique I learned long ago from the late Mike McLoughlin.

Mike was a longtime member of our touring family, starting our first merchandising operation in the late ’70s (a business continued today by his son Patrick). Back then Mike was an open-water swimming enthusiast, and on days off would go offshore in places like San Francisco Bay. When I first became interested in distance swimming, in the 1980s, Mike explained that if I started out trying that three-stroke rhythm on the front crawl I would be able to develop it, but it was very difficult to adopt later. The stamina and breath control I had built through drumming helped me to master the technique, just as they aided with long-distance cycling, cross-country skiing, and rowing.

Coming up alternately on opposite sides of your body to breathe seems clearly superior, but I notice that when I’m at the Y and using the cross-training machines, which overlook the pool, I very rarely see anyone going three strokes between breaths—always two, on the same side.

(And when I’m on those machines, or in that pool, don’t I wish I was really cross-country skiing, or rowing, or swimming in that beautiful lake?)

Distance swimming rewards the same economy of motion and smooth full-body technique as does rowing or cross-country skiing. (Or drumming.) I was pleased that Craiggie captured the particular moment shown above—not just the picturesque splash as I kicked, but my arm emerging from the water in a relaxed curve, the wrist bent and doing no “work” until it has to. Just that trailing wrist demonstrates a general principle that applies to every sport that requires rhythmic stamina. (It is certainly a principle espoused by my late drumming teacher, Freddie Gruber. “If the stick wants to fall, let it fall. If the stick wants to bounce, let it bounce.”)

photo by Keith Taylor

Which brings us naturally enough (for the fourth time) to a topic I haven’t given much “coverage” to lately: drumming.

While I was at the lake by myself for the first week, I was happy to be invited to the home of my neighbors (a few lakes away) Paul Northfield and Judy Smith. Their little house on Lac Cochon is elegant and comfortable, good taste evident in art, lighting and music, and they are both fine cooks. Paul and Judy also have long associations with the place that first brought me to the Laurentians—nearby Le Studio, where the Guys at Work and I recorded at various times from 1979 until 1995.

Paul was the engineer on many of those sessions, from Permanent Waves right up to Vapor Trails in 2001 (though recorded in Toronto), on the Buddy Rich tributes he and I recorded in the early ’90s, and on my second instructional DVD, Anatomy of a Drum Solo. Judy had been with Paul all through those years, and had managed Le Studio for five years in the mid-’90s. And of course they had known my “first family” all through that era. So we go back.

That night the subject of Le Studio’s abandonment and ruination came up, and the very next day I had an email from Meghan at our office asking me to do an interview for the guys at Banger Films (makers of the Beyond the Lighted Stage documentary). They were making a show about one of the Guys at Work, Geddy, and wanted to talk to me.

It was immediately obvious where that interview had to take place.