Get unplugged

Special guest blog by Alison Taylor

Sometimes, it’s the simple things that make me happy. Well, to be truthful, most times it is the simple things.

Living in a country setting really makes you appreciate the quiet calm of the countryside. I am lucky to have access to hundreds of acres of fields and bush that I can walk through with my pal, Molly (friend of the four legged kind).

I like to get away from “devices” and unplug. I don’t disconnect though….I rather connect in a different way and use my senses to observe and interact with the “natural” kind. Sometimes it is the stillness, and peacefulness of the experience. Other times, the wind is howling, snow is crunching under your big boots, and you feel exhilarated.

There can be those moments where you see wildlife and marvel at their resilience, or watch the birds flittering in the grasses and listen to their songs and time stands still.

For me, I like to unplug as much as I can on weekends. My work week is full of the latest buzz words: high tech, digital disruption, seeking electronic efficiencies, etc.  It is nice to spend my weekend on what really matters, and spend time “unplugged” and surrounded by an environment that has stood the test of time and will be around many years to come whether I plug in or not.

Tap into liquid gold

Clare tapping a maple treePing. Ping. Ping.

As the days get longer and the late winter sun grows stronger, families and farms in eastern Canada turn to a time-worn tradition: tapping trees.

Since moving to Eastern Ontario twenty years ago, I have spent many a March in the sugar bush.

In the early years, it was tapping trees and boiling sap in the sugar shack at my best friend’s farm in Parham. For the past four or five years, we’ve tapped a half a dozen maple trees on our property– something fun to make the endless month of March pass by quickly and to teach the kids about being sustainable.

Unless you’ve made maple syrup before, you can’t truly appreciate the work and effort that goes into making that precious one litre of liquid gold.

I remember one year, when the kids were just babies, Leslie and I wading through thigh-high snow, dragging the kids bundled up in snowsuits and scarves behind us on the toboggan to tap trees. We didn’t even make it halfway to the sugar shack before giving up because the snow was so deep.

Then there is the lugging of the buckets. On our property, the maple trees are down at the lake. We store the sap and boil off outside the barn. That means lugging heavy buckets full of sap daily up our big hill. I swear by the end of the season, my arms are about two inches longer than they were at the start of the season.

Finally, the hours and hours of boiling until you hit that critical moment when the sap thickens into syrup and you can sugar off. Most people don’t realize how critical the timing is. Wait too long, and you have crystallized candy on your hands. Sugar off too soon and you’ve wasted hours of boiling to create runny syrup.

Luckily, we learned how to determine the perfect consistency and exact time to sugar off from the very best—Audrey Tarasick, Leslie’s mother. Audrey would stand over the evaporator with her silver ladle, testing every five minutes how thick the sap was by seeing if the liquid formed a half moon drop on the end of the ladle. If it did, the sap was ready to sugar off.

For us, I’ve calculated it costs us about $80 in propane to get our 4 litres of maple syrup. Sure, we could buy it cheaper, but the fun and memories it’s given us over the years are priceless.

This week’s #HappyAct is to tap into some liquid gold this month. Little Cataraqui Conservation Authority’s Maple Madness runs this year from March 11 to 19 (March Break), and on the weekends of March 25 and 26 and April 1 and 2. One litre of syrup will run you $26.25.

Girl with sap bucket
One of our first years tapping on our property


Hail to the harvest moon

harvest-moonLast night, I drove to Kingston to meet friends for dinner. As I got closer to Kingston, I could see the moon starting to crest the treetops across the fields. The giant orange orb played peek a boo, before revealing itself and rising magnificently in the sky.

This summer and fall have been spectacular for full moons. September was the harvest moon, the full moon closest to the start of the autumnal equinox. Last night’s moon was a supermoon, when the moon is closest to the earth.

Throughout the year, the moon rises about 50 minutes later each day. The Harvest Moon rises only 23 minutes later each day, giving the illusion of experiencing full moons over several consecutive days.

In astrological circles, full moons can portend times of change in your life or flashes of insight or perspective. Common mythology also has it that full moons are times when crazy things can happen. When I used to work in a hospital, the nurses swore they saw the wildest things on nights when there was a full moon.

Whether you believe this or not, there is something spiritual and powerful about a full moon.

This week’s #HappyAct is to keep your fingers crossed that the skies clear and witness the rise of the supermoon. Let the power of its light inspire positive change in your life and revel in its mystical beauty.

Walk a country road

Woman and dog walking on country road
Our road with our new yellow line. Clare liked this angled picture best

It’s another glorious Thanksgiving weekend.

When Dave and I used to live in the city, we’d go for a drive in October in the Caledon Hills or the Hockley Valley. This area will always have a special place in our heart, because it’s where we got married 24 years ago this month.

As much as the drive was beautiful, I would yearn to get out of the car and walk the country roads.

There’s something special about walking a country road. Seeing the farms and fields ablaze in autumnal hues, feeling the warmth of the fall sun on your face, gazing up at piercing blue skies that perfectly frame nature’s masterpiece, and wondering what picturesque view lies beyond the next bend in the road.

Clare took this amazing picture of a mushroom village we discovered

Yesterday, Clare and I walked our country road. Today, I plan to discover new roads with my best friend Leslie as we go on the Westport studio tour. I can’t imagine a better way to spend Thanksgiving Sunday.

This week’s #HappyAct is to escape for an hour this weekend from family gatherings and gobfuls of turkey and get out and walk a country road. Enjoy the brilliant sunshine, fall colours and promise of adventure around every curve.

Ed. note: Interesting side fact. Until this year, our road never had a yellow line. The roads crew painted it on Canada Day weekend. We cheered when we saw them (when you live in the country, this is our excitement), but I’m still not used to it. Maybe when winter comes, I’ll appreciate our bright yellow line.

Poison ivy
Poison ivy leaves turn a beautiful red in the fall, but they are still lethal–avoid them at all costs!

Country road

Life’s a beach

Girl riding beach toyWhat a summer we’ve had in eastern Canada—one of the hottest on record. The best way to beat the heat is to hit the beach with your favourite floating toy.

This year on the July long weekend, my brother and his wife brought the kids the latest installment in our collection of exotic beach toys: a big yellow banana. Yes, riding the Big Banana has taken on a whole new meaning in the Swinton household this summer.

There have been epic noodle fights, rodeo rides and spectacular spills on that banana, especially the time Dave tried to ride it. I can’t help but wonder what the cottagers across the lake think when they look across and see The Big Yellow Banana.

Beach toys are a part of summer. We have a raft of old beach toys crumpled up in a deflated pile in our barn. Oh the memories. There was Homer Simpson, who one year we found floating at the other end of the lake in early spring. The Montreal Canadiens life raft—symbolic I think. And too many floating chairs to mention now sunk in the graveyard of water toys in our barn.

This week’s #HappyAct is to keep cool with a cool beach toy–whatever floats your boat. Ours just happens to be a big yellow banana.

Ed. note: As a kid cottaging on Lake Simcoe, I remember we used to dive off huge inner tubes that came from military truck tires. There was a guy in Port Credit who used to sell those inner tubes. They’re fantastic for jumping and diving, and rafting. If anyone knows where you can get inner tubes, post a comment.

Girl on a floating raft

Explore a National Park

acadia national park beach at sunset
Exploring the tide pools at sunset outside Seawall campground, Acadia National park

Yesterday we returned home from two weeks down east. We spent time in Quebec City, Halifax, Nova Scotia and Maine. By far, our favourite days were exploring our continent’s beautiful national parks.

In the United States, the National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The first National Park in the United States was Yellowstone in Wyoming. In Canada, our national park system is even older—the first national park established in Canada was Banff National Park in 1885. Dave and I have been to both of these remarkable places and I encourage you to go.

On this trip, we explored three national parks—Kouchibougouac National Park in New Brunswick, Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia and Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island in Maine.

ocean inlet
Inlet at Kouchibougouac National Park in New Brunswick

On our last night camping in Acadia, we went to a talk given by the park ranger called “National Treasures: the story of our national parks”. The reasons why these unique places were preserved was because a select few people, visionaries, recognized the importance of preserving these important ecosystems while at the same time, making them accessible to people to enjoy for generations to come.

The park ranger asked an interesting question. What if one hundred years ago, these same people had designated Niagara Falls a national park? How different would that landscape and experience be? It was a theme Dave and I discussed several times this trip after visiting places like Peggy’s Cove, a quaint fishing village now overrun with tour buses and tourists.

This week’s #HappyAct is to explore a national park. Pitch a tent and gaze at the stars or just explore for a day. See why these incredible places have been designated national treasures and commune with nature.

Instead of trying to describe these magical places in words, I’ll share their beauty in pictures.

If you go with kids: both our national parks and the U.S. park service has a “junior rangers” program where kids are given a booklet and encouraged to answer questions about the park’s attractions. In Canada, Clare collected dog tags at each national park and historic site we visited—in the U.S. they give out badges for junior rangers who complete their booklets.

Ed. note: In the U.S., Niagara Falls was a state park but was designated by Congress in 2008 as a National Heritage Area. In Canada, the Niagara Parks Commission was formed to preserve Niagara’s beauty.

cabot trail view
Cabot Trail, Cape Breton Highlands National Park
ocean bluffs
The bluffs at White Point, Cape Breton, one of the most beautiful spots on earth
ocean views
On the road to White Point
mountain view
Panoramic from the top of Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park

Wage war on summer’s tormentors

deer flies on hatI am Canadian. I live in the woods. But I have never, and will never make peace with bugs.

You’ve heard me say before it’s a cruel joke that when the weather gets nice, the bugs get brutal. First it’s blackflies, then mosquitoes, and then the scumbugs of the insect world, the dreaded deer fly.

When it comes to bugs, I choose to go on the offensive. Bug zappers are an effective weapon for mosquitoes, but not for deer and horse flies. No siree, when it comes deer flies, you have to unleash summer’s secret weapon: the deer fly patch.

If you’ve never used a deer fly patch before, let me educate you. It’s a sticky strip of tape that you attach to the back of your hat. When the deer fly lands on your hat, bam, you got him! He sticks to the strip like glue. You can even watch him trying to lift his spindly legs and see the look of panic in his beady little eyes when he knows his buzzing days are over.

On our nightly walks, we make it a contest—who can capture the most deer flies with one strip. I beat Clare this week with lucky thirteen, but there was one time when I came back with 23 deer flies on my hat after a long canoe trip. That’s my all-time record.

This week’s #HappyAct is to get a deer fly patch, or share your favourite weapon of bug destruction. I’m curious whether anyone has tried those high end bug zappers at Canadian Tire. Do they work? We need to stick together and share intelligence in the war against bugs. Leave a comment.

deer fly strip package

Discover your Ultimate Attitude Adjuster

lillies at the lakeThere are some weeks when Friday can’t come fast enough. This was one of them.

That’s when you need to rely on your UAA: Ultimate Attitude Adjuster. I discovered mine 13 years ago when we moved to this house.

Mine goes something like this. I walk in the door around 6 p.m. The house is empty but I can hear squeals and laughter at the lake. I grab my bathing suit off the back deck railing, a bag of chips and a cold beer or cooler from the fridge. I head straight to the lake and after three or four sips, dive head first into the cold water. Within minutes, the stressors of the week wash off of me and dissipate in the ripples of the water, and life is good again.

Living on a lake has become a huge part of my work life balance. No matter how bad a work day we’ve had, Dave and I know we can always come home to our Ultimate Attitude Adjuster, a plunge into our beautiful spring-fed lake.

This week’s #HappyAct is to find or share your UAA. How do you destress after a busy week? Leave a comment.

Ed. note: Even though we live on a lake, I’ve discovered we have a sad lack of fish and dock pictures in our archive, so I’m sharing two shots I took at the lake this weekend that I like. The frog was cool–he was kind of a mutant and looked like he was half frog with green on the top and half toad, with brown on the bottom. I’ll save the snake videos for another week, just for you Jessica Schonewille!


Spring’s symphony


Spring is a delight for the senses, especially sounds. For the past few weeks on my nightly walk, I’ve been serenaded with the symphonic sounds of spring.

The first movement begins with the dolce sounds of a songbird, introducing the sweet melody in the opening sonata. His solo transitions into a chorus of sopranos and altos: spring peepers and chorus frogs whose peep, peep, peep and crick, crick, crick fill the night air with fanfare.

The staccato sounds of a woodpecker pierce the night air, rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat. A barred owl takes centre stage in the spotlight demanding, “who, who, who cooks for you”. The final movement builds in intensity, as the drumming beat of a grouse drives the last few refrains. Quiet descends.

A perfect performance on nature’s stage.

This week’s #HappyAct is to get out and enjoy the symphonic sounds of spring.

Hear the sounds.

Watch these videos to learn more about the performers in spring’s symphony.

Western chorus frog

Spring peepers


Imagine your dream home

Girl looking up lakeThere’s a vacant lot up the road. It faces west, has a clearing with a charming apple tree and is surrounded by beautiful pines. It would be the perfect spot to build your dream home.

We’ve never built before and probably never will, but it’s fun to imagine…

…a quaint Cape Cod style house with a large wrap-around deck with a screened in porch to enjoy bug-free summer nights…

…beautiful English style perennial gardens, a hot tub on the back deck and a swim-up bar at the lake…

…a games room with a pool table, ping pong table, air hockey and shuffleboard…

…two bathrooms, and a bedroom with a walk-in closet…

I think that’s reasonable, don’t you? Grace on the other hand has a different dream: to build a tiny house that she’d leave on our property, but that would be on wheels so she could move if she got tired of us (our kids clearly watch too much HGTV). Clare’s dream home would have a hockey rink.

Actually, I don’t have to imagine my dream home. I’ve found it. There’s a cottage on Sydenham Lake that is absolutely stunning. I’d be happy to live in their garage.

cottage on lake
My dream house on Sydenham Lake

This week’s #HappyAct is to imagine your dream home. What would yours look like? Leave a comment, and have fun dreaming.