‘Bergy’ Tidbits

Ice forms on Niagara Falls when it’s cold enough – photo by E. Jurus

My family lived on a farm north of Lake Superior for a couple of years when my brother and I were kids, so I’m very familiar with cold and snow. Our small community usually saw the first snowflakes fall before Halloween, spent all winter under a feet-thick white blanket, and didn’t see grass until April. I remember that the coldest day we saw during that time registered at -52oF (before Canada switched to the Celsius system), and there were a number of days when either the teacher (who lived in one of the towns at least 30 minutes away in good weather), or we students, or both couldn’t make it to school because the roads were clogged with snow.

But that life pales in comparison to what the people in Newfoundland experience, ranking in the top dozen lists of Most Snowfall (outside the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia), Biggest Blizzards and Most Days with Snow on the Ground (Snowiest Places in Canada). Newfoundland also sits somewhat enviably on the edge of Iceberg Alley, where the massive frozen chunks we call icebergs break off glaciers in Greenland and make their way southward along the prevailing currents until they eventually melt in warmer waters.

It was one of those icebergs that gouged out the starboard side of the enormous ship Titanic on the evening of April 14, 1912 and sank the world’s most famous passenger liner. Not the way the crew and passengers wanted to go down in history, by any measure.  

Icebergs are strange creatures, so much so that many places speak of them almost as if they’re alive. When they break off from their parent glacier in spring and summer, the process is called ‘calving’, and the hundreds of bergs that drift down the eastern coast of Canada are referred to as an annual migration.

Although the icebergs travel through salty ocean waters, they themselves are composed of the purest water on Earth – most of them, anyway. There are big sheets of frozen salt water that form in fall and winter around Greenland, and also break up into chunks when the thaw sets in.

Officially, though, an iceberg is a piece of freshwater ice at least 15 metres long (about 49 feet) with 5 to 15 metres (16 to 49 feet) sticking out above the water’s surface. that chunked off either a glacier or an ice shelf and floats about in open water. These pieces of ice are classified by size: bergs are either small, medium, large or very large – imagine coming face to face with a behemoth over 600 ft long and 246 tall. And because almost 90% of an iceberg’s mass is below water, you’d dearly want to avoid the part you couldn’t see!

Smaller chunks of ice from between 5 to 15 metres long are called ‘bergy bits’, while those smaller than that are called ‘growlers’. They’re all dangerous. If you think of how much the Ice Age glaciers transformed North America as they moved, carving out lakes and mountains, you get a sense of how, despite the size of the early great transatlantic liners (the RMS Titanic was 971 feet long), in a collision it was the iceberg that was the ‘immovable object’.

The iceberg that the Titanic ran into was believed to have been, according to eyewitness reports, between 50 to 100 feet tall and 200 to 400 feet long. The below-water section of it, which is what tore open the huge gash in the ship’s hull, may have been half a mile in length (over 2500 feet). When the ship’s spotters first observed the gigantic piece of ice headed straight for them at 11:39pm on that fateful night, it was only about 900 feet away, i.e. practically on top of them. Only 30 seconds later, the ship felt the impact as the helmsman frantically tried to get out of the way but the iceberg slowly ground its way past.

News quote from the era, Titanic Museum, Belfast Northern Ireland – photo by E. Jurus

So when you read about the modern-day men in Newfoundland who snag and fish out such huge chunks of ice, usually weighing several tons, (“The Iceberg Cowboys Who Wrangle the Purest Water on Earth”, “Iceberg harvesting is a swashbuckling new industry in Newfoundland and Labrador”), you may wonder if they’ve lost their minds. Many of the bergs they harvest have calved from the very same glacier that produced the one that sank the ‘ship that couldn’t be sunk’, Sermeq Kujalleq. The Titanic ran into its destroyer in Iceberg Alley, when the ship had almost made it all the way across the Atlantic and was already telegraphing Newfoundland’s Cape Race station to announce its impending arrival in New York.

The slipway where the RMS Titanic was launched on its doomed voyage is marked with the placement of the huge lifeboats that only rescued a few of the 2,240 passengers, Belfast, Northern Ireland – photo by E. Jurus

The Titanic disaster is one of the most studied in history, but still remains an enigma. That year there was an abnormally large number of icebergs in Iceberg Alley. Numerous sightings by other ships were radioed or telegraphed to the Titanic but the captain ignored them and didn’t reduce speed. And many wonder why the spotters didn’t sight the behemoth until it was too late to avoid.

The intrepid berg catchers go out in large fishing boats and with any luck can clamp an iceberg and slowly feed it through a grinding machine into storage tanks. But if the boat can’t get close enough (remember the nasty part hiding in the dark sea waters), they have to transfer to a small motorboat, wrap it in a net, haul it on board the bigger boat and hack it up into chunks. It seems to be fairly lucrative work – the pure water apparently has an amazing taste (if the taste is anything like the water we kids used to scoop out of streams that ran across those farms up in northern Ontario, I believe it – I’ve never tasted anything as wonderful since) and is used for premium Iceberg Vodka, Iceberg Beer, bottled water and fizzy ice cubes. In 2016 Newfoundland introduced a tax on iceberg harvesting.

I’d love to visit Antarctica, where 93% of the world’s mass of icebergs float around, just to see the magnificent beasts. (For some wonderful photography, check out this article in the National Geographic Resource Library Iceberg.) That’s a very expensive trip, though. A better option might be to travel to Greenland, where you can also go iceberg-watching. There you can see 5 kinds of ice:

  • White ice, which is relatively young with many air bubbles that allow light through and give it the dazzling snowy colour
  • Blue ice, which is older, from the Greenland Ice Sheet. It’s heavier, more compressed, and with a blue cast.
  • Black ice, which is clear but looks black as it floats on the water. It’s feared because it’s so hard to spot and because its weight drags the most dangerous part below the surface, where it lies in wait for unwary ships.
  • Dirty ice, which has accumulated mud and sand from blowing storms.
  • And there are the aforementioned saltwater ice chunks to content with as well.

A late friend of mine was lucky enough to hear and see an iceberg calving many years ago. When hubby and I were in New Zealand, checking out Mt. Aoraki, we witnessed several small avalanches and were struck by how noisy they were – I can only imagine the sound of an entire berg leaving home. Maybe one day we’ll get to witness it for ourselves.

In the meantime, here are a few fascinating facts about the babies that attack ships:

Different shapes of icebergs
By Romain – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=114073584
  • Each year, between 10,000 to 15,000 icebergs are calved, most of them from the Antarctic continent, which also produces the largest glaciers.
  • The ice in icebergs can be more that 15,000 years old.
  • Icebergs can contain up to 10% air bubbles by volume, and when the bubbles are released as the bergs melt, they make a fizzing sound called ‘Bergie Seltzer’.
  • We tend to think of icebergs as huge chunks just floating placidly through the water, but as they melt they can actually flip over, or even capsize. The largest bergs can create earthquakes as powerful as an atomic bomb.
  • One can tell if an iceberg is going to flip if any birds sitting on it suddenly take flight. It’s believed that the birds have such a keen sense of balance that they can detect gradual movements in icebergs long before people can see them.
  • Along with white, blue, black and dirty, icebergs can also be green, yellow and striped, depending on their water composition and algae that might be inside.
  • Icebergs are also classified by their shape: tabular (with steep sides and a flat top), non-tabular, dome, pinnacle, wedge and dry-dock (where a slot or channel has eroded into the body of the berg)
  • The largest Northern Hemisphere iceberg on record was seen in 1882 near Baffin Island. It was 8 miles (13 km) long, almost 4 miles (6km) wide and held enough water to give everyone in the world a litre of water daily for four years.
  • The Hibernia off-shore production platform, 315km away from Newfoundland, was designed to withstand the impact of an iceberg in excess of five million tonnes. It has a reinforced concrete caisson made of high-strength concrete reinforced with steel rods and pre-stressed tendons (multi-strand wires or threaded bars made from high-tensile materials), surrounded by a wall with 16 wedge-shaped concrete teeth to break up the impact of such an iceberg.
  • The Antarctic ice sheet, which actually covers a desert below it, is at least 40 million years old.
  • If that ice sheet were to melt, it would raise the world’s seas by over 60 metres (almost 200 feet) – which is one of the many reasons that global warming is so dangerous for our planet.
Non-tabular iceberg off Elephant Island in the Southern Ocean
By Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46736000

Any photos taken by me in this post may not be used without my express permission. E. Jurus

3 great reasons to love Autumn

Fall colours in the Niagara Gorge October 2022

Colours, cooler temperatures and lots of leaves to crunch underfoot — these are some of my favourite things about autumn. I don’t do well in the hot and humid summers we typically get, although this year’s wasn’t bad at all, to my great relief. When the thermometer’s hitting 32 degrees Celsius or 90 Fahrenheit, and the humidity’s also that high, summer can be like walking around in a steam bath. A lot of people become ill in those summers, and I’m invariably hiding inside to avoid throbbing migraines brought on by the blazing sunshine and heat. I start to relax when Autumn sets in.

There’s something so cozy about our Autumns, snuggling into a toasty sweater or hoodie and strolling along hiking trails or through farm markets. As soon as pumpkins show up, I’m bringing home four or five in different colours to decorate our front porch, and I start cooking hearty stews and baking cakes to have with a cup of hot tea.

Southern Ontario has been blessed with glorious fall colours this year. That isn’t always the case; what’s needed are

  • cold snaps (without frost, according to experts) to tell the trees that winter’s coming and it’s time to stop producing the green chlorophyll pigment which produces energy from sunlight and settle into their dormant winter state, and
  • enough rainfall to nourish the trees so that they keep their leaves long enough for the other pigments to shine once the chlorophyll disappears.

Normally we southerners have to go farther north in our province to see such vivid colours, and in many years the leaves are all on the ground by Halloween, which is fun to walk around in but a little depressing. We’re not guaranteed such splendour, and when I was out taking these photos, a lot of other people were out making the most of the beauty as well.

This October, Mother Nature had her entire palette out.

Moving into November, the trees were about half-bare, creating a fabulous carpet of crisp fallen leaves to walk around on. It’s a simple pleasure, but a profound one, and the first few leaves on the ground every year are a harbinger of autumn pleasures.

Once the leaves start to fall, we get to appreciate the sculptural art of the plants themselves. The mottled bark of some trees…

…the colours and shapes of giant leaves as they pack up for the winter…

…ripened berries offering food for birds and animals that winter here…

…the mellower autumn sun highlighting the shapes of plants getting ready for sleep…

So for those of you who don’t have the magic of Autumn on your doorstep, I hope these images will give you a little virtual taste of it.

All photos are by me and all rights are reserved. A selection of my best photos are available for purchase in a number of formats on my site at Fine Art America.

The golden days of late summer

I’ve never been a fan of Summer — too hot and humid for me (at least in my neck of the woods), and the contrast of light and shadow is harsh. Late Summer is alright. The daytimes are mellower, the nights are cool enough to open the windows at night for a fresh breeze, and the odd day holds a promise of fall weather.

Just as we start to change our clothing over, so do gardens. The sunflowers have shed their golden collars and are going to seed.

Chestnut trees are bursting with ripening nuts.

The vegetable section of our local teaching botanical garden is lush with fall produce.

The garden is displaying a little trickery — the eggplants have turned white…

…while the peppers are deep purple.

A rainbow of onions are free of their soil beds.

Apparently, once artichokes bloom, the artichoke itself becomes inedible, but the flowers attract bees and can be dried for arrangements.

Monarch butterflies are enjoying the gardens as well.

The afternoon sunlight has a gentler tone at this time of year.

In the rose garden, some of the blossoms are beginning to fade a little.

A few of the lotus flowers have begun dropping their leaves, leaving just a seed pod and a lacy frill of stamens behind.

But soon the autumn coats will come out, flaunting their gorgeous colours to make the evergreens look even richer.

Now’s the time to get out and enjoy Nature’s last glorious party before the winter sleep!

All photos are by me, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

Exploring Niagara Falls from different viewpoints

A full rainbow forms in the mists churned up by Niagara Falls

What happens when you explore in (more or less) your ‘own backyard’?

You find amazing things that have been around much longer than you thought, and new attractions that celebrate history.

Niagara Falls, the longtime honeymoon cliche that was made even more famous by two movies, Niagara (1953), starring Marilyn Monroe, and Superman II (1980), is a natural wonder that has been reinventing itself for almost 11,000 years. At that time, the Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the three falls in the cluster, and which forms the border between Canada and the U.S., was about six miles downstream, stretching between the towns of Queenston on the Canadian side and Lewiston on the U.S. side. and started as a small arch.

Today those falls are a large curve 2,590 feet wide, tossing 85,000 cubic feet of water over the edge every second (on average). The cities that overlook the spectacle, both named after the falls, are thriving tourist meccas, and most people who live in easy driving distance, at least on the Canadian side, tend to avoid the area in peak tourist season because the traffic slows to a crawl. On our side, the city is a mix of party town, attractions ranging from cool to cheesy, decent restaurants, and some beautiful old homes (many of which have been turned into B&Bs). The falls themselves are surrounded by hotels, eateries and casinos, so it’s hard to get a sense of what they must have looked like when their full natural beauty could be appreciated.

But, like most tourist destinations, there are ways to see the sights that are more authentic. It’s fun to walk beside the falls, watching the water churn over like gallons upon gallons of green gelatin and getting damp from the far-reaching spray, but to truly appreciate the falls you need to see them from other points of view.

One of those is the White Water Walk, a boardwalk with viewing platforms right along the edge of the Niagara River below the falls, crashing and rushing through Class 6 rapids.

From 1876 to 1934 these views were accessible by a steam-powered incline railway. In 1934 the railway was destroyed by a fire. The Niagara Parks Commission leased the land to a private company, Niagara Concessions, and this enterprise built a 230-foot elevator shaft down to the floor of the valley the river cuts through, along with a 240-foot tunnel to get closer to the river through the rainforest-like profusion of trees and ferns that line the river banks. A boardwalk was built, but was frequently damaged by the raging waters and winter ice floes. However, in the mid 1900s a weir was built above the falls to control the flow for the power plants on either side of the border, and the lowered water flow allowed for a new boardwalk to be built.

I can only say that, if the pounding water that we saw when we did the White Water Walk recently is the reduced version of the river’s flow, the original flow must have been truly ferocious.

The boardwalk runs for 1/4 of a mile and is an easy walk. Good walking shoes or sandals are all that’s needed; there’s no spray from the water to worry about.

Take time to notice the lush vegetation on the other side of the boardwalk, like a scene out of 10,000 Years B.C.

Remnants of the old boardwalks are still visible, rusted monuments to our fascination with this magical piece of nature.

But the water is the biggest attraction, as it rides roughshod over everything in its path, like a green monster on a rampage. The colour of the water is a result of the dissolved salts and powdered rock dust that fills it.

The water is mesmerizing. Allow yourself some time to just watch it leap, curl, dive and crash its way through the chasm. There are viewing platforms that jut out from the boardwalk in a couple of places, allowing you to get even closer to the river (they’re not wheelchair accessible).

It didn’t take people long to realize what a fabulous source of power the falls presented. In 1892 the Niagara Falls Power Company began construction of the Edward Dean Adams Power Plant.

It was the first large-scale alternating current generating plant in the world, Westinghouse Electric built the 5,000 horsepower generators, which were based on designs by Nikola Tesla and Benjamin Lamme, an American electrical engineer.

What a fantastic and exciting enterprise that must have been. Touring the historic power plant today gives a small idea of the mammoth amount of construction, particularly walking through the 2,200-foot long, brick-lined tunnel that discharged the used water back into the Niagara River. It was excavated by lantern-light, using only shovels, pickaxes and dynamite. The new Tunnel attraction takes you from the floor of the plant, down and down in a glass-walled elevator, past the huge pipes and turbines, to the floor of the tunnel, where you can follow a self-guided excursion all the way to the river and the edge of the Horseshoe Falls.

The tunnel is huge, at least 12 to 15 feet wide, and maybe thirty feet high (just my own estimates, I haven’t been able to find actual stats), and runs for half a mile. Imagine the massive amount of water rushing through there in the plant’s heyday. The new floor is damp from water seepage, but textured enough that it’s not slippery. Thick walls and a depth of 180 feet below ground keep the air inside quite chilly, and the walk, if you want to read all the fascinating information kiosks, is long, so don’t go in shorts and a tank top.

If you don’t rush through to get to the prize at the end, where the tunnel opens up to the roar of the falls (as we saw some people do), you’ll notice interesting things like the funky trumpet-shaped fungi growing right out of the walls.

An arch of glowing daylight marks the end of the tunnel…

…and a unique view of all three falls (Horseshoe below), as well as the intrepid boats that take poncho-shrouded, awe-struck visitors as close to the base of the thundering waters as it’s safe to go. We did the boat ride several years ago, and the power of the falls has to be seen to be believed; if you’re visiting, the ride is one thing you absolutely shouldn’t miss.

Across the river, you can watch visitors on the American side get their own close-up views from the top of the Horseshoe Falls, while rainbows form in the mists at the bottom…

…and along platforms near the base of Bridal Veil Falls and the American Falls.

One could easily, if it were available, spend an entire afternoon on the viewing platform, sipping drinks at a riverside table. Unfortunately, the platform would fill up quickly that way, but you can linger as long as you want. There’s much to be seen back up in the power plant, however, if, as I am, you’re fascinated by vintage machinery and architecture. You can walk around by yourself, poking around at your leisure, or take a guided tour.

There is an excellent gift shop as well, filled with well-thought out electricity-themed goods, not kitschy tourist junk.

I also recommend that you come back at night for the new sound-and-light show, Currents, which with wonderful light effects, music and narration tells the story of water and the power it has generated at Niagara Falls for over 100 years.

The interior space of the power plant is turned into an immersive, interactive journey. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

When patterns are projected onto the floor, you can even walk and jump around to make them follow your movement (kids in the audience, and quite a few adults, really got into that). There are a handful of benches that you can sit on if you need to be more sedentary.

The falls in Niagara aren’t the only wonder to behold — people’s ingenuity at creating an enduring source of power that feeds much of Ontario and New York State, as well as innovative ways to appreciate Nature’s artistry, have highlighted the core of what makes Niagara Falls special.

All photos are by me, and all rights are reserved. These photos may not be reproduced without my express permission. E. Jurus

Giving our brains a much needed rest

How often do you take a break from daily life? If you’re like most North Americans, probably not very often. And yet studies were showing, long before the pandemic, that not only our bodies, but especially our brains, need some down time. How much more do we need it now, bombarded by successive waves of the pandemic and political instability around the world?

Breaks throughout the day refresh our brains. When I was working in the counselling department of a college, lunch times were sacrosanct for all the staff, and knocking on an office door when it was closed had to be backed up with a damned good reason.

In the mid 1990s, studies demonstrated that our brains demand a lot of energy – 20 percent to make our bodies run, and even more when we’re doing mental work. Is it any wonder that we so often ‘hit a wall’ before the end of the work day?

The interesting thing, though, was that even when we’re at rest, perhaps just daydreaming, there was still considerable communication going on between certain regions of the brain, which the researchers called the default mode network. That’s an interesting name, including the word ‘default’. It turns out that letting our minds to drift into this basic state allows our brain to process all kinds of information that’s been accumulated but not dealt with. When our brains aren’t occupied with external pressures, they have time to make sense of everything, order it, imagine solutions and connect all the dots.

Some of our most creative moments occur when we’re not trying to find them. As a writer, I’ve found many times over that if I’ve reached a place in my novel’s plot where I’m not sure how to address a problem or move the story from one point to the next, the answer occurs to me when I’m lying in bed, essentially day-dreaming before I fall asleep, or first thing in the morning as I’m awakening but haven’t felt like getting out of bed yet. First thing in the morning is better; last thing at night requires me to tap a quick note into my phone lest I forget, unless it’s something so brilliant that the idea carries through to the next day.

And indeed studies have shown that the default mode network is more active in more creative people, not necessarily because those people have different brains but perhaps devote more time to getting out of the way of their own minds.

Try it out the next time you feel overwhelmed, like your brain is ‘fried’. Take a break and go for a walk, without your phone. It should preferably be in nature, whether it’s a park or even a path through a garden, and un-occupy your mind. Be alone with your own thoughts, and let them flow like the breezes around you. Notice the things going on all around you, from the butterflies flitting from flower to flower to the texture of the path beneath your feet and the colour of the sky. You’ll be amazed both by how refreshed you feel afterward, and by what interesting things your mind will come up with.

When I need to decompress, I love to take walks around our extensive local botanical garden. There’s always something interesting to see in every season, and the peace and quiet are soothing within the first few minutes.

For even better breaks, go on as long a vacation as you can, and make it a complete getaway. The modern penchant for managing your entire trip through a series of apps totally defeats the purpose of getting away from it all. You can check the day’s weather, or find a restaurant, but apart from that it’s important that you put away your electronic devices and just be in the moment. Take some photos if you like to do that, but only a few of yourself. What you should be noticing is the place you’re in and all its wonders, not worrying about how good you look for a series of selfies.

One of the best vacations my hubby and I ever had was our first safari in Africa. Deep in the wilds of Botswana, we spent days bouncing along sandy roads, feeling the wind ruffle our hair and keeping our eyes peeled for the next herd of zebras or elephants, gazing into the golden eyes of a lioness lying under a bush near the road, having morning tea while we watched antelopes graze by the river while hippos snorted in the water. We’d left all our problems at home and immersed ourselves in the hot African sun and the stillness of a place without the noise of other humans. At night we fell asleep to the chirping of tree frogs, woke up to the chatter of francolin birds. It rejuvenated us after a very challenging year, made us feel alive and whole again.

When you’re standing in the magnificent ruins of ancient Machu Picchu in Peru, dazzled by the remarkable stonework somehow built on the top of a mountain surrounded by other blue-green peaks as far as the eye can see, your mind imagines what life must have been like all those hundreds of years ago, waking up with the dawn, walking along paths that overlooked the silvery Urubamba River far below, gathering food from the steep terraces just below the city and feeling the spirituality of the many sacred huaca stones all around you. You’re far, far away from the daily grind, breathing in the crisp, fresh mountain air, watching a lizard skitter across the intricately laid stones right next to you.

Taking down time is essential to our well-being. Make sure you use it well.

All photos are by me, and all rights are reserved.

Green Day

A painted turtle shows off its colours while it basks on a pond log

Apologies folks! I was so busy last week prepping for a family dinner on Easter weekend that I lost track of my blog post schedule. But today is perfect timing to celebrate Earth Day, and in honour of the event, this week’s post features green things on our planet. Green is the colour of nature, of growing things, of hope. As Spring very slowly makes its appearance in my neck of the woods (we had snow again just a few days ago!), burgeoning green plants are a signpost that the change of season is really happening.

The theme of this year’s Earth Day is “Invest in Our Planet”. Check out the website for listings of global livestream events as well as a map of any local events that may be taking place near you.

If there’s nothing near you, I encourage you to take a walk in nature and appreciate its richness and beauty. Be grateful that we still have so much greenness to enjoy and celebrate.

Bright daffodils with their rich green leaves and stems
Green mixed with shades of burgundy and purple on tulips pushing out of the ground
A carpet of green grass studded with blue flowers under a venerable old tree waiting to unfurl its leaves
Spectacular unidentified shrub, possibly a kind of bamboo?
The soft jade of a sedum cluster
Even water can be green – here the Niagara River as it flows under the Queenston-Lewiston border bridge

So many shades of green! Let’s all do our part in preventing that colour from going extinct.

All photos are by me unless otherwise specified and all rights reserved. E. Jurus