For a town of just 3,500 souls, Bancroft, Ontario, has a lot of spunk. Throughout its two-hundred or so years of history, there have been a couple of almost-successes, mostly having to do with mines and minerals. Although there are some fairly exotic minerals in the area, the attempt Bancroft Bandshell to corner the market on sodalite failed, about fifty years ago, because there simply wasn't enough of it to be worth shipping out. So the production of the sodalite mine was dumped not far away from the train station and now is a Sight On The Walking Tour. It's called the CN Dump. Failing to attract major manufacturing interest, Bancroft has declared victory by announcing itself as the rockhounding center of Ontario, with an annual Gemfest in late summer.
The Best Western Sword Motel in Bancroft showed the same kind of civic enthusiasm, and evidently was enjoying some success, as it had expanded from one to four buildings over the years. The owner had a collection of fighting swords and knives from around the world, which were displayed in a case in the hall between the lobby and the restaurant. On the other side of the hall was a game room with a coin-operated shuffleboard table and pool table, and beyond that the indoor pool. There was a tiny gift shop next to the lobby, and the restaurant featured fresh blueberries for breakfast. Outside our window was a largely grassy lawn, alternately occupied during our stay by kids playing on the playground equipment, geese munching on the grass, the hulking, looming groundskeeper peering into the rooms, sunbathing teenie-boppers, and once -- after the late-night thunderstorm -- a small new Canadian lake.
The motel owner had a plaque on the wall praising him for his service on the Chamber of Commerce, and there were some locally printed brochures describing A Walking Tour of Historic Bancroft and a four-hour driving tour in the region (before you set out on this tour why not make Loonies and Toonies reservations for an extra night).
The stores in Bancroft, though small, apparently attract people from the surrounding area, because they are all busy; it's one of the few places where the parking lot at the laundromat was completely filled each time we went by. The bookstore stocks a respectable number of both new and used books, although the owner rather ruefully says it's more of a hobby for him than a business. We sampled more Canadian ice Cream at the Kawartha Dairy at the edge of town.
We modified the Sword Motel driving tour, navigating through the tiny grey and brown (on the map) roads in the area. We did find a few hay-and-cattle farms, but no crops, and few of the country homes displayed any great prosperity. The countryside reminded us a little of some of the smaller, poorer areas of the Northeast United States. Generally too rocky to farm, too cold in the winter, and with nearby high-tech areas to beckon away all the bright young kids.
We had passed the Bancroft Bandshell on our Bancroft walking tour, just before watching the boys jumping off the bridge into the river. It (the bandshell, not the bridge) was built of logs, and stood in a park just north of the Sword Motel. One evening the room began to vibrate with the all-too-familiar sound of powerful amplifiers driving giant woofers. The bandshell, it turns out, gets used for pickup performances by local Trent-Severn Waterway artists on summer evenings. Surprisingly, and mercifully, the rock group ran out of the music they knew pretty quickly, and packed up their kit. Next on stage was a group of three: a fiddler, an accordionist, and a guitarist-cum-folksinger who entertained us with Irish ballads.
We're enjoying the little differences that make it clear you're in another country, although there aren't too many. Nobody in Canada from the government down calls the one- and two-dollar coins anything but "loonies" and "toonies." Tea comes with milk, you have to specify ALL your sandwich condiments (or risk getting meat between two pieces of bread), all bread is White or Brown. The distinctive Ontario accent ("aboot" and "agayne") seems to be fading under the relentless push of television to develop accent-free language. Peameal bacon is a culinary treat (the stuff you buy in the U.S. called Canadian bacon is never, ever sold in Canada). Every town has two or three chip trucks which sell "hand cut" french fries. Speaking of potatoes, the gravies which Canadians love over their mashed or fries all seem to come out of the same can. All in all, though, the culture of Canada is remarkably similar to the culture of the U.S. Even some of the Canadian washrooms are now labelled as restrooms!
As we left Bancroft we found ourselves nearing the western edge of the Trent-Severn Waterway, a long and complex canal system from the St. Lawrence to Lake Huron, which passes through many of the lakes and rivers of central Ontario. It's open in summers only and used mostly by recreational boaters; the trip from one end to another takes about a week, and there are many places to stop along the way. Houseboats are available to rent; we saw such a transaction as a middle-aged couple hired a boat and set off. Why is it that the man always drives the boat while the woman handles the mooring lines? Perhaps in this particular case it should have been the other way around. The man seemed to be learning what Kirkfield Hydraulic Lift the various controls did as he went, trying to figure out how to point the thing the way he wanted to go. His wife, clad in black pedalpushers, a gauzy blouse and high-heeled sandals, was futilely pushing against the concrete walls of the canal trying to keep the boat from crashing into them. They managed to wedge the houseboat crosswise between the sides of the canal. The skipper of another boat waiting to lock through muttered something about a ten-minute boating safety video. On the other hand, the boat's owner did not want to lose the rental, and helped the couple extricate themselves and get started again.
Locks are always fascinating, and it's nice to think of how all that work is done just by the force of gravity. The Kirkfield hydraulic lift lock was wonderful to behold. Two enormous boxes rest on top of giant pistons, in turn sitting in cylinders filled with water. The high water is 49 feet above the lower level. Each box contains water plus one or more boats. The upper box is kept heavier than the lower one. When a valve is opened, water from one cylinder can flow into the other, allowing the heavier box to move down while the counterbalancing lower box is pushed up. When the boats exit the boxes, the water level is adjusted so the upper box is heavier and the process is ready to begin again. The principle is analogous to the seesaw. As a plus, the highway is built through the middle of the lock, halfway between the water level of the upper and lower canals.
From the canoe trails of Algonquin Park to the Trent-Severn Waterway, and through all the myriad lakes and waterfront activities, it's clear that water shapes the Ontario geography, commerce, economy, and recreation. It's a fascinating study.