An Overture in the North Country
Trip Start Oct 31, 2008
31Trip End Ongoing
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Evans Mills is the place I call home for now. It is located close to Watertown. Both can be found just east of Lake Ontario near the Canadian border. I have found the people in these parts to be very kind-hearted and helpful. Much like the Alaskans, I can hear a hint of apprehension regarding the rapidly approaching cold season, but nonetheless an optimism and knowledge of their hardiness that all will be okay. One of the enjoyable aspects of traveling is exploring the unique traits of an area or region. My first weekend I had the chance to witness the annual Christmas parade in Watertown. It was a breath of fresh air as the community gathered in anticipation of the many floats, bands, costumes and of course Santa. I stood back with a sense of security and pride as a community of people celebrated a tradition that has gone on for many, many years. For those brief minutes it could have just as easily been 1964. Some times I fear that we are losing our traditions, but the Christmas parade tradition in Watertown, NY is safe and sound and that is good for all of us. Don't get me wrong, new ideas and traditions are important as well, although as the Santa in formal wear found, acceptance is a process. I could only imagine that when I saw him later on his cell phone, he was asking the other person on the line who exactly thought a Santa in formal wear would be a big hit? All I can say is hang in there, in 2050 you might find yourself noted in Wikipedia as the "Father of the Formal Santa movement."
Two local terms were constantly brought to my attention in my interactions with folks. The first term being, "lake effect." Upon hearing this term for the first time, I immediately thought, "I know what that is." Lake effect happens when swimming at the John Martin Dam in the summer. The lake effect means that after two hours of swimming, you exit the water experiencing the effects of sunburn skin, a dirty, gritty feeling covering your entire body and smelling like a catfish. So much for applying southeastern Colorado knowledge to north country terms. Had I paid more attention to the nonverbal messages given off by the locals, I would have realized it meant something very different. When some locals talk about the lake effect, their eyes go down and their arms go up over their heads as if to shelter them from some great calamity and indeed, lake effect in the north country can be a calamity. Huge amounts of snow are dumped on the area when cold wind moves across the warmer water of the Great Lakes. Volumes of water is picked up and dumped in western NY as snow. A lake effect storm can dump many feet of snow at one time. I'm hoping I can avoid a lake effect snow storm in my time here.
The second term is a regional term and reflects more of a Canadian phenomenon - "poutine." I was eating in a local diner when I first heard the word. It was described as a Canadian delicacy that was always associated with the term delicious. It's ingredients consist of french fries, gravy and something called cheese curd. I dismissed the term until I noticed that it was creeping up multiple times in conversation. In every case the word delicious was used as a descriptor. I decided there must be something to this food that deserves further investigation so I decided a special trip to Canada was in order to experience this dish. I set out early in the morning as the sun was rising and the moon was setting. My first challenge came as I reached the Canadian customs checkpoint. A stern woman staffed the booth and put me through intense scrutiny. "Where are you from?, Why is a Texan here?, Where are you staying?, Why are you driving a vehicle with Nevada plates?, Are you taking anything over the border that you plan on leaving? Her face was serious and focused on my every verbal and nonverbal response. Finally, the big question came, Why are you coming to Canada? She was looking straight through me. I felt like Dudley Do Right might jump out of nowhere and tackle me at any moment. In a tone appropriate to the moment I replied, I am on a mission to discover and experience the Canadian mystery called poutine. She laughed out loud. With the intensity broken, she proceeded to give me a thorough history of poutine to include its pronunciation (pooh teen, with an accent on the teen). She noted that it was known to be promote body equilibrium after an evening of drinking, but it was generally enjoyed by all anytime from lunch into the evening. After a nice conversation with finger-tapping drivers waiting patiently in the rear, I entered the land of our northern neighbor. I had a feeling she would have ordered a Canadian escort to lead me to the best poutine in Kingston if I only asked.
After a pleasant walk around the town center of Kingston, enjoying the many gothic style church cathedrals, I stopped by Genevieve's Crepe Cafe-Bistro. I had a wonderfully light and delicious fresh fruit crepe created for me by Chef Genevieve herself. Hannah attended to my culinary needs and supplied a wealth of information about Kingston and in particular about poutine locations. I learned that the traditional poutine had expanded to include many new variations. I decided that I must experience the traditional version on this trip. The staff supplied me with many options. If ever in Kingston, you will not go wrong by stopping in to enjoy a delicate meal and wonderful company at Genevieve's.
After a morning of shopping and sightseeing, I stopped in at Bubba's on King Street to sample my first taste of poutine. I decided on Bubba's due to the name. After living in Texas for 26 years there seemed to be a comfort level there. Bubba's is recognized as the original and best location to get poutine. I watched as Mary worked her magic and I got my first up close view of this strange ingredient called cheese curd. My first thoughts were if I put these curds together in one glob it would resemble a superball or one of those jacks balls the girls used to play with in elementary school. I was quite sure this milk biproduct would be another one of those spoiled products with bugs living in it kind of like yogurt. I was pleasantly surprised to experience a wonderfully tasty meal that met the standards of all of its previous hype.
There is a richness of history and culture in the north country. No visit to this neck of the woods would be complete without a trip to Sackets Harbor. Sackets Harbor is a famous battleground during the War of 1812. A determined group of Americans fought off the surprise invasion of British. A visit to the battleground and original buildings sets off the imagination and provides one more example of the courage, commitment and sacrifice so many have made in defense of our great nation.
Driving through the rural countryside along the scenic St. Lawrence river, there are beautiful hills and valleys dotted with farms and old barns. Suddenly you come upon the famous Thousand Islands area. I couldn't believe there were over 1,000 islands spread throughout the St. Lawrence river some with storied histories like that of Boldt Castle. The construction of the castle on Hart Island was begun by George Boldt. When Boldt's wife died in 1904, construction was halted. The project was later resumed and completed and today makes for an interesting visit via ferry.
Multiple lighthouses can be found along the river and throughout the lakes. I enjoyed visiting Tibbett's Point Lighthouse where the St. Lawrence river and Lake Ontario meet at Cape Vincent. There are many interesting spots along the Thousand Islands area including Clayton, a quaint shorefront community. I enjoyed a nice breakfast at the local cafe where oldtimers spoke of boats and water temperatures and other nautical topics and yes in case you were wondering, it is in Clayton that Thousand Islands dressing made its first appearance.
Within about three hours, is Montreal. It is worth the trip to walk the streets of Old Montreal. It has European charm and great architecture. The Basilica of Notre Dame is worth the trip alone.
There is much to do and see in the north country. It is a nice region to visit. If I don't get back to you before Christmas or New Year, I hope your holidays are wonderful and you appreciate the traditions of Christmas where you live and those you experienced in your families.