Friday, January 27, 2017

Mansion in the Woods - Part 1

During my reckless younger years (before I developed what they call a conscience), I had an adventure that was troubling and if I hadn't been there myself, I probably would have thought it was made up.

I was in college, studying literature and making ends meet by living with a crowd of other girls. I was working part-time, robbing fruit from farmer's fields on the side, dumpster diving when possible, and occasionally foraging in the woods to help put food on the table (I ate a cooked squirrel once...for was horrible....another story).

My boyfriend at the time was really adventurous and loved to explore. One day he said there was a neat piece of property that he wanted to show me. We drove out of the city to a secluded area, walked through woods and acres and acres of fields that were dry and barren until we came upon a giant old stone house. There were also a few abandoned outbuildings and a giant old silo or water tank that was completely overgrown with weeds and thorns.

The old brick mansion had boarded-up windows that looked like blinded eyes. Then we both noticed a hole in the wall, a broken-in window, just above the level of the ground. There was a "No Trespassing" sign above it. We crawled through and lowered ourselves legs first into the darkness below (remember, pre-conscience days).  We found ourselves in the pitch-black of a cold, dark cellar that smelled of rotting wood and alcohol. He managed to locate a staircase that brought us up into the main floor. It was a little difficult to see, but we were aware of big empty doorways and a giant wooden stair-case. There was a glow of light at the top of the stairs, and we went up to explore.

One of the windows had a few boards missing, which let in enough light to show us that we were in a old children's nursery. Dusty furniture and bits of old toys lay about. There was a journal lying on the dresser. It said Miranda's Journal on the cover. I picked it up and began reading:

"Why is mommy so mean to me?" It started out. "She took the head off my doll. She says no one can know I'm here."

Starting to feel upset, I closed the journal and looked up to see these words written in red on the wall: Miranda is watching you. I felt really sick, and told my boyfriend we had to So we went downstairs, and made our way back to the basement stairs. He stumbled over a pile of dirt, and picked up a couple of pencil crayon drawings. They were sweet, and kid-scribbly, and signed, Miranda. 

I wasn't sorry to leave that place.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Mansion in the Woods - Part 2

The mysterious abandoned house niggled in the back of my mind. What was that place? Who was Miranda? Was she still there? So we decided to go back and do some more detective work.

This time we brought back-up in the form of Forager John. If there is ever a zombie apocalypse, a nuclear war, a tsunami, or some other form of disaster that would make me run for the hills, I would want to be with Forager John. Not only does he know every kind of edible plant in the woods, but he can hunt, build fires from scratch, and survive better than anyone else I know. Plus, he is a good six feet, seven inches high, and he promised to bring "gear". Our fourth friend, Emily, came as well. All four of us hiked back to the abandoned house late one afternoon. Forager John brought flashlights and a giant hatchet.

We all lowered ourselves back through the hole again, and If I thought that having a flashlight would make things less creepy this time, I was wrong. The light revealed the dead body of a cat, stretched out in front of us. We all stopped for a second. Then we saw the light glancing off of bottles and bottles of some kind of reddish-golden liquid.

We went up the basement stairs into the kitchen, out into the main hall, up the main stairway again, and back into the nursery. I showed the others Miranda's journal, and we decided fully explore the building. There was also a bit of food on the kitchen shelves.

It turned into a horror story set. First we stumbled over a little girl's dress that was ripped and covered in purple stains. Then we opened a closet door in the nursery. A tiny little bed was made up in the two by four foot space, and the words "I will be good, I will be good, I will be good..." were scrawled over and over again on the bottom half of the door. We explored the next room and found a headless doll with a dried reddish-purple hand print on it lying in the middle of the empty floor. We also found a mattress and some razor blades that looked like they had been recently moved there.

All of us were feeling sick at this point, and Forager John declared that it was a set-up, but we were all happy to go back downstairs again.

Downstairs we found our way to a high-ceilinged room with a fireplace and mouldy red velvet curtains stretching from the ceiling to floor. Half expecting Miss Havisham to walk in, we stood quietly by the empty fireplace grate. It was dark in the room except for the glow of John's flashlight. Suddenly, we heard a strange whining noise that caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand up and my heart to almost stop beating. Forager John's large figure was lit up by the flashlight with the axe frozen in mid-air above his head as he listened. None of us moved until the sound stopped. He lowered the weapon and declared it was either raccoons in the walls or coyotes outside on the property.

At this point, we realized that no glints of light were coming through the cracks in the boarded up windows and that the sun had set. We decided to leave through the basement window and go home.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Mansion in the Woods - Part 3

We all relaxed and began to chat about what we'd seen in the building. We all agreed that it seemed like a movie set-up, but then what about all the bottles of alcohol in the basement and the kids' drawings on the kitchen floor (they really looked kid-drawn) and the squatter mattress in the middle of the room?

The moon was out and we were only a few meters away from the house when we realized that a truck was driving up the long road towards us. The driveway was the length of the farmer's field, so we had lots of time to kill our flashlights and dive into the woods.

The truck got closer and closer and then stopped just about where we had jumped into the bushes. No one got out. The engine just kept running. We lay on our stomachs and watched. Then the truck slowly started to back away down the long driveway.

 The bubble of tension burst and we all started running back through the woods. We ran as fast as we could, not caring if we were making a terrible racket. My boyfriend, who was a horticulturalist, got distracted by some rare flowers and stopped to pick them. He ran the rest of the way out of the woods carefully holding the plant.

When we got to the edge of the highway, we looked carefully in both directions before leaving the woods. John had been smart and parked his car far away from the property. We found the car and put as many miles between us and that old building as possible.

A few years later I went back there by myself. Emily was in grad school, my boyfriend and I had broken up, and John had gotten a job in Northern Canada. The building was still the same, but the window into the basement was securely boarded up. The sun was shining, and it was just an old abandoned house in the middle of a farmer's field.

I've researched the house since then and found that it was one of the oldest buildings in the area and had passed from hands to hands with no one really living in it. We had been too afraid to notify the police about what we'd found that night because we were guilty of trespassing, but I sometimes kick myself for not calling just to be sure there was nothing dark going on there. This was a decade ago, and I still wonder if it was a set-up or old movie set or place where teenage tresspassers freaked themselves out. Or maybe....the ghost of Miranda is still watching us (dun, dun, dun!)

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Dover Beach

by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight. 
The tide is full, the moon lies fair 
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light 
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, 
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. 
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air! 
Only, from the long line of spray 
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land, 
Listen! you hear the grating roar 
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, 
At their return, up the high strand, 
Begin, and cease, and then again begin, 
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring 
The eternal note of sadness in. 

Sophocles long ago 
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought 
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow 
Of human misery; we 
Find also in the sound a thought, 
Hearing it by this distant northern sea. 

The Sea of Faith 
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore 
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. 
But now I only hear 
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 
Retreating, to the breath 
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear 
And naked shingles of the world. 

Ah, love, let us be true 
To one another! for the world, which seems 
To lie before us like a land of dreams, 
So various, so beautiful, so new, 
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, 
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; 
And we are here as on a darkling plain 
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, 
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Geppetto's Muse

I recently had the opportunity to explore a local accordion store Victoria. When I got there, I was surprised by the largeness of the store, and the number and different sizes of accordions lining the walls (800 in total, I found out later). But what most stands out about this visit was the owner. When I got there, a tiny, grey-haired man emerged from a dully lit room in the back. He was wearing a leather tool-belt that carried curious, clinking instruments on it. He blinked up at me from behind round, wire-rimmed glasses and asked  in a European accent if there was anything he could do for me. I said I was looking for a full-size accordion. His face lit up, and he asked me what kind, and before I could answer, he began to talk lovingly about different kinds of accordions: the various sizes of accordions, the sounds, feels, weights, and brands of accordions. He talked about the colours of accordions and the spacing of the keys. Then there were the European accordions that had a special tone to their notes--the "muse," he called this tone. He gazed a little dreamily into space as he talked about it. This was a man in love with accordions.

He took me into a small side room where there were about 20 accordions on the wall that you could test out. He told me to play away, and then he disappeared into a back room. I took a quick peek in there on my way out, and it was amazing! A Geppetto's workshop, the room was filled with little tools, spare accordion parts, and partly assembled instruments that he was working away at. I couldn't help but thinking after I left that if we were all as in love with our work as this man was, we'd be very fortunate!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Thoughts on Waves

The waves keep on coming, one after another, hour after hour. Sometimes we glided smoothly over gleaming sea hills while at other times, giant crashing waves fought around us for hours. Ups and downs! Lifting the boat high and then sending it flying back down a watery slope. Somewhat like life :) Troubles and thrills. Ups and downs. Problems and solutions. Forks in the road, and decisions to be made. Mysteries and sorting-outs. Questions and answers. It seems never-ending! When one thing passes, the next looms up.

Thinking about the waves out at sea helped me realize that the trick isn't trying for there to be no problems, mysteries and questions. There's no point in being angry and frightened by the next wave. Or trying to figure out just how we're going to get over a wave that hasn't even arrived yet.  How will we make it over this monster? What is past the horizon? That's just part of it - not knowing and not being able to see, yet believing, having faith that we're getting there. After all, the boat was made to float and ride out any storm! It's about learning to surf the waves, to trust that we're made to get through it and onwards to our destination. Futhermore, I do believe that all our answers come to meet us if we keep moving forward. We're not meant to cling in fear to the shore, and if we were always in simple, flat water, how boring would that be? We'd never get anywhere, and never know what we are capable of. The waves keep on coming, and each one seems more fearful and impossible than the last, but we're made to float, to ride, to survive, to thrive, and to find exhilaration in the wild impossible roller-coaster ride of life!


Kava is a drink that comes from a root and is commonly enjoyed in the South Pacific islands. As kava has a paralytic effect, you will often see people staggering home or collapsed in the street after a kava party. It's also known to cause vivid dreams! I was able to rustle up some kava in Tonga and bring it home. While completely legal, it unfortunately came as a powder packaged in suspicious little baggies. As I was being searching by New Zealand customs officers, they pulled out the baggies, looked at me like I was a hideous criminal, and demanded to know, "What is this?" When I told them it was kava, they nodded and smiled and moved on. The Canadian border officials didn't know what the heck it was, but they were happy with the description of, "A ground-up root."

This kava was not very strong--probably brewed for unexperienced visitors--but it numbed the lips and tongue and gave a feeling of slight light-headedness. It also tasted like the most disgusting dirty dishwater!! Chalk it up to an interesting cultural experience.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Musical Goodness

The Torkington clan lives on a hill overlooking a tiny ocean bay, tucked away in the midst of little rolling hills that are sprinkled with (surprise!)....sheep :) I was very lucky to find these kind people to work with for a month. The grandfather, son and his wife form a bluegrass band together, and as a family of bluegrass musicians, they have musical instruments everywhere! The fiddles and guitars strewn about made me very happy) There is always great music playing or being played (see The Pipi Pickers and Hot Diggity). From their ginormous library to their love of PG Wodehouse, and their ability to substitute popcorn for dinner, these people are great!!

Also, their backyard features the best outhouse ever, the "Turdis":

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


My cousin Theresa says that one of the first questions she gets when people find out that she was raised on a boat is, "Did you experience any big storms?" followed by "How did you shower?" A small sailing ship has no shower, and this is fine! We'd shampoo down our hair and then dive into the sea in our bathing suits to rinse off. I didn't miss the normal showers at all. However, when I was back in an Auckland hostel, my first shower in two months was a beautiful, beautiful thing :)

Friday, June 26, 2015


The Kingdom of Tonga is full of shipwrecks. The country is such a reef-filled place that this is no surprise! It takes quite a bit of skill to safely navigate the reefs and approach many of these islands.

When we were anchored at Ha'afeva, we saw marked on the charts that there was a shipwreck across the lagoon. About a mile away, the tip of an the old ship poked out of the water. The tip was visible at low tide, but completely disappeared at high tide. So choosing our time carefully, Uncle Kurt and I rowed over to explore.

A giant Korean fishing vessel lay on an angle in the water. Its stern (rear) was lodged on the reef. Its giant metal body stretched out behind this, and the prow (nose) was lying on the sandy bottom between the jungle of coral heads. At low tide, most of the ship was only about a meter below the surface, so I was able to snorkel and explore. You could still see the letters faintly painted on the metal hull, and the giant structure was an imposing form below the surface. I swam along just above the ship's deck to examine it. Then I pulled myself head-first through two of the several hatches that opened on the deck and led into it's dark belly below. Brightly coloured fish and weird shapes hung motionless in the mirk below, but I didn't dare go down into the hold. Visions of human-hungry octapuses, skeletons, and other horrors filled my mind. An old, tiled bathroom stall was shattered open on the deck, and the remains of the engine could be seen. The ship also attracted the most brilliant fish life, which hovered about the deck. The forward cabin jutted up above the rest of the main deck, so if you swam in front, you were in direct eye-level with the empty cabin as well as all the bright fish the circled about it. Pretty quickly, I stopped feeling terrified and felt instead what a little goldfish must feel when it first sees an underwater palace: tiny and in awe! I think that this wreck was perhaps most stunning experience of the whole sea adventure.

Later, in Tongatapu we saw many more shipwrecks. They weren't pretty, though, but big hulking bits of metal and wooden mess. Wrecks abound in this part of the world because no one has the money or wants to be bothered to get rid of them. The only exception was before the new king's coronation when the city towed big wrecks away to the far side of the bay where they were less visible.

Near the capital, the tip of a wrecked Chinese fishing vessel stuck out of the water. It was not too far from where we were anchored, so one afternoon I took the kayak over to explore. What looked like the whole bow of the boat jutted like a big, white tooth above the water. When I got closer, what looked like the "bow" turned out to be just the point on the actual prow of a massive white boat that disappeared into the depths below. A mast of some kind also stretched out into the blackness. The size of the ship and depth of the water was enough to keep me comfortably paddling about in the kayak and not diving down to explore. It was downright creepy!

Still, there is something fascinating about these shipwrecks. It's like a piece of history has gotten frozen where the ship went aground (a-reef, I should say). You can see exactly where time stopped for this boat.  Also, how many stories and conversations and emotions and dramas were enacted in what was once a great ship?! The Ha'afeva ship was still full of life: taken over by schools of fish and strange whiskered underwater creatures and colourful coral sprouting in patches on the deck. However,  all the human stories were hidden by time and water and only visited and vaguely imagined by the occasional snorkeler like myself.

(On a side-note, hopefully no one died; the local people are quick to help out sailors who are floundering on a reef).