When Spring Comes

Stand here on the bridge with me
And look down below
See how high the river is
From all the melting snow

I think the river is laughing
Like a thousand old ladies
Like a thousand silver chimes in the wind
        ~ Jane Siberry, “When Spring Comes”

It’s physically ugly, this period between when the snow is gone and green grass has yet to take its place. But the rush of the rising river, narrowing at the rapids outside my bedroom windows, is a symphony of sound I anticipate all winter.

Massive sheets of ice detach from the shore up river and float down to the old hydro dam, just before the bridge. If the water’s high enough, they float up and over the stone and concrete barrier. If it isn’t, they shatter into a thousand pieces, sorting to the right or left, bobbing through the rapids, and riding the current downstream. The really thick sheets are pale blue icebergs, which grind and roar as they beach themselves on the concrete and melt like ice cubes in a cocktail.

Here, most of us are above the 100 year flood plain, but others downstream towards Kemptville, especially the cottages and some of the newer houses, take a hit. The turn-of-the century homes seem high and dry.

It’s a social thing, this rising of the river. It brings neighbours out from winter hibernation to linger on the bridge and chat, and most cars slow down, if not stop, to gawk.

Before long, another parade of cars and trucks will follow, this time stopping to spot the fish. Men with lanterns, ladders, poles and nets will begin arriving in the dead of night to find Walleye, Northern Pike and Muskie.

After spawning season, as high water abates and Parks Canada adjusts the flow of the river, the docks will be launched and canoeists, boaters and, finally, swimmers, will mark the start of summer.

In Burritt’s Rapids we don’t need a calendar. The river tells us everything we need to know.

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The Road Less Travelled in Lanark County: Part 1

It was that time of the day – post-sugar bush, pre-ice cream – when every mother recognizes the limitations of adding any more stops on a roadtrip. The kids, at that point, could go either way.

But they happily hopped out of the van, badminton rackets in hand, and began playing while we stood on the stoop, rang the doorbell, and waited as the sign instructed. A minute later a beautiful woman with long white braids opened the door, looking surprised to see two strangers peering through the glass. She hadn’t actually heard the bell and the antique store wasn’t actually open. Nevertheless, we were welcomed in.

Jeanie’s husband, Nic, joined us and, as happens when time is of the essence, we skipped the small talk in favour of a building tour and discussions of local craftsmen, families, likes/dislikes, history, favourite blogs, touring Italy, Burritt’s Rapids and helping to move some furniture. And I went out on a limb with a very personal request that doesn’t always fly: Could I take their portrait in the Rembrandt-like light of their shop? They agreed.


It pained me to decline the offer to view their carefully restored home that is chock-full of antiques and curiosities. But that would be left for another day, a road trip unto itself when I am not rushed or distracted by little people.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are friendships. But there are few things more satisfying than meeting congenial strangers through happenstance and seeing where it leads.



Lanark Village Antiques & Collectibles
Jeanie & Nic Maennling
84 York Street, Lanark, ON
(613) 259-2548 to check for hours




Illuminating Atlas Obscura

In an age where everything seems to have been explored and there is nothing new to be found, we celebrate a different way of looking at the world. ~ Atlas Obscura

While I have zero interest in becoming the Mayor of Subway or checking in at my local drinking hole, I am in the throes of an unmitigated love-in with the website Atlas Obscura.

Atlas Obscura is what you get when you tear out all the interesting pages from travel guides, scour the net for unusual experiences, and pick the brains of your fellow travellers for the bits that rarely see the light of day. It ignores the bulk of predictable travel landmarks in favour of the odd. It’s perfect for those who want to explore beyond the Eiffel Tower and Times Square, and want to know what they don’t know right now.

Readers are invited to delve into the database of places, things and cultural experiences, read articles, go on adventures, submit tips, and add new entries or beef up existing ones. It pins the places already visited, and tracks those yet unexplored.

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I’ve done the bulk of my retro-pinning, and recently moved on to new explorations in Vermont, New York State, Montreal and closer to home. I expect that my upcoming sixth visit to NYC will be the charm and I’ll finally shed the feeling that I’m missing all the good stuff. Then with another trip across Canada this summer, I look forward to adding my own collection of treasures to the mix.

Finally, here is an engaging collaborative project that piques my perpetual curiosity while usefully pointing me in the direction of new adventures.

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The Bells That (Really Do) Toll for Thee

And I thought how like these chimes
Are the poet’s airy rhymes,
All his rhymes and roundelays,
His conceits, and songs, and ditties,
From the belfry of his brain,
Scattered downward, though in vain,
On the roofs and stones of cities!
For by night the drowsy ear
Under its curtains cannot hear,
And by day men go their ways,
Hearing the music as they pass,
But deeming it no more, alas!
Than the hollow sound of brass.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – from Carillon, 1845


Every Sunday at 9:00am, some blessed soul pulls the rope to ring the bell at the tiny Anglican church at the top of our street, gathering the congregation. On midsummer days the doors are thrown open and voices, raised in prayer and song, fill the streets and laneways, float across the Rideau River, trailing off somewhere past the community hall.

Regardless of what I’m doing, the pealing bell stops me in my tracks to listen, absorb and reflect. Call it what you will – Pavlovian reflex, a vestige of faith, or an exercise of the collective unconscious – but I am called and I respond.

I miss the soundscapes of Western Europe where tower bells figure prominently in the minutia of daily life. I miss the rhythmic regularity that keeps me awake for the first night or two after a transatlantic time change before dissolving into the background.

Like the tourists who flock to Ottawa to expressly admire this jewel in the crown, I am attuned to the Peace Tower Carillon because I live in the country and rarely hear it. I imagine that those working on, or very near, Parliament Hill have ceased to hear it at all, although the Dominion Carilloneur, Dr. Andrea McCrady, plays more than 200 lunchtime concerts a year. She is “the live human being giving expression to the tower.”1


Dr. McCrady plays for fifteen minutes each weekday, extending her performance to an hour during high tourist season. The automated Westminster Chime marks the quarter hours, and is turned off and on by the press of a button at the beginning, and end, of each concert.

She plays in the confines of the Keyboard Room, midway up the tower, hovering above the largest six bells and below the 47 smallest. We are an audience of three on this spring equinox, and McCrady’s musical selections are appropriately thematic. My friend, Andrea Hossack of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and I join Piet Chielens of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium, a museum dedicated to the study of World War I. I don’t fully appreciate the coincidence until later. Belgium is the birthplace of the carillon and Dr. McCrady will be playing there in June. The Peace Tower was built to honour the 1918 Armistice and the soldiers of the Great War, and the bells of the carillon give voice to the fallen.

Unlike the audience at street level, she (and we) cannot hear what she plays; the music must be piped into the room via external speakers.

The wall clock counts down to noon as Dr. McCrady changes into a pair of soft-soled jazz shoes, adjusts the bench and turnbuckles, and arranges the pages on the ledge of the carillon, all the while recounting the history of the instrument, tales of the parliament buildings, and her experience playing around the world. At the stroke of twelve, she curls her fingers into loosely closed fists, adjusts her position, and launches into O Canada.

Playing the carillon requires a certain vigour. Dr. McCrady slides side to side on the bench, feet dangling above the pedal keyboard, which controls the largest bells, including the 10,000-kilogram bourdon.  Her hands and feet apply pressure to the baton-like keys as required, alternating between smooth, gentle depressions and muscle-flexing force. Each piece contains a fury of movement, followed by a brief pause as she switches up the selection. At the end, we are each permitted to sound the bourdon, taking part in a magical ritual that is hidden in plain sight.


For such a large set of bells, the carillon serves a spatially limited audience. Until 1973, restrictions limited the height of buildings in the city’s core to 45.5 metres, well below the 92.2 metre tower, so that the Peace Tower would continue to dominate the skyline. Since that time, building height and density creep have impacted the viewscape as well as the range of the bells. The carillon is best heard from one of three locations: the front lawns of the Parliament Buildings; the west-side patio of the Chateau Laurier; or the parking lot on the north side of the Supreme Court of Canada.  The concerts cannot be heard much past the Sparks Street Mall and, as the back of the tower is blocked,  they fail to reach across the river to Gatineau.


Towards the Chateau Laurier and canal


Across the Ottawa River to Quebec


Wellington Street and downtown

In the elevator, I ponder my ignorance. I’ve lived in Ottawa for 15 years, so how could I have not known about the concerts? According to Dr. McCrady, most people don’t know she exists.

Is Longfellow right, then, that the dreamy music of the belltowers of this world fall most often on (tone) deaf ears? Prime Minister Robert Borden called the Peace Tower carillon “the Voice of a Nation” and I hate to think that such a powerful instrument and cultural artifact  is anachronistic, ignored, there solely for the transient pleasure of tourists.

I hope that we’re not so tuned out to our layered soundscapes, but have instead absorbed such expressive sound on a deeper level, profoundly adding to the subconscious richness of our daily experience.

  1. http://music.cbc.ca/#/blogs/2012/4/The-Peace-Tower-Carillon-Canadas-most-iconic-instrument 

Exploring the intersection of people, their homes, and communities