Shipwrecks of Tobormory

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The first long weekend after the onset of Spring is during the second weekend of May with the third Monday of May celebrated as Victoria Day. Queen Victoria was Canada’s sovereign at the time of Confederation in 1867. When Queen Victoria died in 1901, Parliament made her birthday an annual holiday to be celebrated on May 24. In 1952, the Parliament ruled that the Monday before May 24 be celebrated as Victoria Day. The weekend is known in Canada as the unofficial start of summer and is the oldest state holiday.

Gardening enthusiasts like us make use of the long weekend to begin planting annual saplings in the gardens. It was a family affair as usual with Marina and children, all joining and helping to plan and layout a garden which would be treat to everyone’s eyes. We brought many plants from the local nursery, and some saplings we had grown indoors, to go with the new colour scheme we had decided. Two weeks prior we had visited the city’s recycling yard to collect compost to feed the garden as we have been practising organic farming.

We finished with planting our garden early by Saturday afternoon, and hence decided to drive to Tobermory, about 300 km North of Toronto to enjoy the rest of the long weekend.  Tobermory derives its name from Scottish dialect where in ‘Tobar Mhoire’ means the ‘well of Mary’. The name was given by Scottish fishermen after the port of Tobermory on the Island of Mull in Scotland. We reached Tobermoryby 7 PM and checked into a motel there.

Tobermory is known as the Scuba Diving Capital of Canada and is located at the mouth of Big Tub Harbour on the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron. The area comes under Fathom Five Park, Canada’s first National Marine Park. The park is known for over 20 shipwrecks and 19 islands, notably Flowerpot Island, within its boundaries. Only two shipwrecks in the harbour are intact and visible from the water surface. The other wrecks are disintegrated and dispersed around on the lake bed in the Georgian Bay.   The deep clear water and the numerous shipwrecks attract over 8,000 divers from around the world each year. We booked for a boat cruise for Sunday morning to explore the Fathom Five Marine Park.

We set off on the boat with about 30 other tourists. The boat’s guide briefed everyone about the safety drills and then we took off to the Big Tub Harbour. The boat had a glass bottom and we could see the lake’s bed clearly. The algae and lichens in the cold water and the lime stones in the lake bed ensures that the water remains crystal clear all through the year. Our first stop was atop the wreckage of The Sweepstakes, a Great Lakes Ship Built in 1867 in Burlington, Ontario. The wreckage is at a depth of about 20 feet. This double masted, 120 feet long ship was damaged while hauling coal late in the summer of 1885 and then towed to Big Tub Harbour to be repaired. In September of 1885 it was determined that the damage was too extensive to be repaired. She was stripped of anything of value before sinking where she lies today. Her hull is still intact and is considered one of the best preserved nineteenth century great lakes ships to ever be discovered. In order to reinforce the hull and reduce further deterioration, metal bars throughout the inside of her hull have been installed by Parks Canada.

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The next halt was 100 meters away at the wreckage site of a passenger ship – The City of Grand Rapids. She was an elegant a double-decked passenger steamer until it burned and sank in October, 1907. Its charred remains now lie in shallow water about 15 ft deep. On the evening of October 29, 1907, fire broke out aboard the Grand Rapids while docked in the Little Tub Harbour. A tug towed the burning ship out of the harbour, and released it. The City of Grand Rapids then drifted into Big Tub Harbor. It continued to burn, and eventually came to rest at the head of the harbour, where it burned to the waterline, rolled to starboard and sank. Today, the iron-sheathed hull is intact and is filled with coal used for the boilers, as well as silt. The charred tips of the frames can be seen on both the starboard and port sides. Lying on the bottom and clearly visible mid-way along the starboard side is part of the smoke stack and a metal frame from the piano that once entertained the guests on board.

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Our next stop was at the Big Tub Lighthouse. In 1871 Captain John Charles Earl settled at The Big Tub Harbour. In those days, vessels were extensively used to transport coal, lumber, fur, blubber etc as part of the trade through the Great Lakes. The perfect safety with which vessels could lie in the basin at Tobermory had made this harbour much frequented harbour of refuge. For the convenience of navigators, Captain Earl started hanging a lantern at the top of a high pole to ensure safe navigation for vessels entering the harbor from the treacherous waters of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. The number of shipwrecks offshore testify to the dangerous waters of this area. He was remunerated for this service by various captains, they presenting him with useful house supplies, such as a bag of potatoes, flour, etc. In the course of a few years the Government acknowledged this service and paid him a salary of about $30 a year. The first lighthouse was constructed in 1885 for a cost of $675. The original structure was later replaced by the six-sided, 14 meter high wooden lighthouse of today. The lighthouse, a fully automated one today, still guides boats through powerful currents, frequent fogs and numerous shoals to the safety of Big Tub Harbour.

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From the lighthouse, the boat sped away, skimming the waters to reach the Flowerpot Island, one of Canada’s most fascinating natural attractions, about 6 km away. This is the only island in the park which has camping facilities, marked trails, caves and its namesake flowerpots.

The Flowerpots are a type of sea stack, formed over many years as wind, rain, waves and ice hammered away at the cliff that once stood alongside the water’s edge.  The softer rock eroded more quickly, leaving the harder rock remaining in the shape of Flowerpots. There are many flowerpots all along the waters on the Island.

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The caves on the island were formed after the ice age, approximately 12,000 years ago, when the glacial Lake Algonquin completely covered Flowerpot Island. As the lake levels fell in stages, the cliffs were exposed to the eroding effects of the lake for varying durations of time. This phenomenon caused numerous caves to form in the cliffs throughout the island.

After a well deserved break, we returned home by evening on Sunday, to tend to the saplings we planted and for the summer months to arrive.

Tulip Festival

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April rains bring in May flowers’ is a common saying in Canada, especially as everyone awaits the April rains to help wash away the winter snow that had been shoveled to form little mounds around their homes. Whether the plants, especially the tulips and daffodils, whether it rained or not, by end of April they sprout out to mark the beginning of spring.

This year around we did not receive many showers in April and it did have a telling effect on the quality and size of tulip plants and flowers. In our garden too, this effect was visible (Please refer image). The tulips and daffodils did not perform too well.

Tulips Originated in Persia and Turkey and were brought to Europe in the 16th century. They got their common name from the Turkish word for gauze (with which turbans were wrapped) – reflecting the turban-like appearance of a tulip in full bloom. By the 17th century, the popularity of tulips, particularly in the Netherlands, became so great that the price of a single bulb soared to new heights, causing markets to crash and putting into motion ‘tulip-mania’. Many are even said to have sold their houses and fortresses during the ‘tulip-mania’.

Different tulip colors denotes different aspects – yellow tulips symbolizing cheerful thoughts, white conveying forgiveness and purple representing royalty. The Red Tulip became associated with love based on a Turkish legend that a prince named Farhad was love struck by a maiden named Shirin.  When Farhad learned that Shirin had been killed, he was so overcome with grief that he killed himself – riding his horse over the edge of a cliff. It is believed that a scarlet tulip sprang up from each droplet of his blood, giving the red tulip the meaning ‘perfect love’. The eleventh wedding anniversary flower is also tulip. It is said that the tulip’s velvety black center represents a lover’s heart, darkened by the heat of passion.

For all our neighbours, friends and family, our garden becomes a place of celebration and many call it ‘Tulip Festival’. Close by in Ottawa, the Capital City of Canada, the largest tulip festival in North America and is held every year in May. This festival is a celebration founded on international friendship with Netherlands, the home of tulips. It all begun in 1945 with the presentation of 100,000 tulip bulbs from Princess Juliana of the Netherlands to Ottawa, Canada’s capital, given in appreciation of the safe haven that members of Holland’s exiled royal family received during World War II in Ottawa and in recognition of the role which Canadian troops played in the liberation of the Netherlands. Since then, the tulip has become Ottawa’s official flower and, each spring, the National Capital Region blooms with magnificent tulip beds planted by the National Capital Commission, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors. As a thank-you gift, the Netherlands sends more than a million tulips to Ottawa every year.

The Canadian Tulip Festival is also a celebration of the return of spring, with over a million tulips in 50 varieties blooming in public spaces across the National Capital Region. The highest concentration of tulips can be viewed in the flower beds of Commissioners Park, on the banks of Dow’s Lake, where 300,000 flowers bloom. During the Festival the international community adds to the pageantry and programming with cultural displays and performances reflecting the diversity of the National Capital community.

This year, during the Tulip Festival in Ottawa, an official Canadian delegation, lead by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, consisting mainly of veterans and their relatives, was in the Netherlands to attend a series of ceremonies and events honouring the sacrifices Canadian soldiers made when they liberated the Dutch from Nazi occupation 70 years ago. About a dozen veterans, 90s, and frail flew into Netherlands in a Canadian Armed Forces plane. The aircraft flew trans-Atlantic, unusually low, around 12,000 feet, to avoid a situation where a rapid cabin depressurization might irreparably harm an elderly passenger without the speed or strength to put on an oxygen mask.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flew Canadian Second World War veterans and their families from the airline’s five Canadian gateways – Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton – to the Netherlands for the commemorative celebrations. The biggest delegation consisting of 300 participants, including some 40 veterans left from Toronto on May 1. The youngest veterans was 88 (who was 15 when he fought the war as he had forged his documents) and the oldest 97. They were greeted in the boarding area by the flight crew for a pre-departure ceremony. Inside the aircraft, the airline had personalized the seat headrests with Canadian and Dutch flags. The group was acknowledged on numerous occasions during the flight with special announcements, and the crew handed out keepsake souvenirs to the passengers.

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This is John Gay, ready to board the KLM flight, a cook during WWII and at 97 years old, one of the oldest veterans who participated. He was part of the artillery and helped free up the city of Caen and the Falaise Gap. He cooked for the soldiers in England and Normandy, which got harder and harder because of food supplies and he had to make do with dehydrated potatoes, dehydrated cabbage and meat called “Spam”. He could cook up 6 gallons of stew and would distribute this amongst the soldiers in cans. John is visiting the Netherlands for the 10th time this year, travelling with his son and other family members.

To make this flight extra special and show the veterans how much we appreciate and respect them, arrangements were made to honour them. There were special cakes decorated with the Dutch and Canadian flags. Flight attendants handed out and pinned on Carnation Flowers with gratitude and respect. Every veteran got a Delftsblauw salt and pepper shaker set, there were special headrest covers and when we landed at Schiphol airport, the plane was escorted to the gate and the fire brigade welcomed the veterans with a water canon salute, also known as the ‘Shower of Affection’. Just before landing, bagpipe music filled the airplane.

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On Monday May 04, 2015, the delegation of veterans attended a ceremony at the Holten Canadian War Cemetery. The cemetery is the final resting place for 1,393 Commonwealth soldiers who died during the liberation campaign, many of whom were killed in the late stages of the war as the allies cleared the Netherlands and pushed into Germany. The village of Holten was liberated by Canadians on April 8, 1945 after fierce house to house fighting. Harper said that the bond was forged between Canada and the Netherlands in those dark days still endures. He recalled that each headstone on each cemetery was a stark reminder that doing the right thing often comes at a great cost — but a cost that must be paid.

Harper spoke of the great sacrifices made by the now-dwindling war-time generation, saying they understood that some things were worth fighting and dying for; a sentiment that remains today. he added that the heroes who liberated the Netherlands, like the men and women who serve our country today understood that when there arises a great evil, a threat to all the things that define our existence as a free and just people, such enemies must be confronted.

I would conclude by quoting from the speech delivered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the visit “When tyranny threatens the free, when cruelty torments the innocent, when desperation overwhelms the human spirit, we choose to respond, we choose the high road forward, not the easy way out. We choose risk not for reward, but for righteousness, we choose to fight for freedom, we choose to defend the innocent, we choose to bring hope to the world.”

“Canadians will never forget the welcome our troops received in this country as the war ended. Canadians will never cease to marvel at how this starving and scarred land so quickly became the prosperous, progressive and generous country we know today, a partner in so many things, including Iraq.”

Evolution of Sainik School Amaravathinagar Through the Biology Department

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Sainik (Military) School Amaravathinagar in Tamil Nadu state of India, where I did my schooling from grade 5 to grade 11, was established in 1962 as feeder institutes for the National Defence Academy(NDA).   There were about a dozen more such schools, one in each state, established at the same time. The aim was to attract youth from all the states of India and from all the classes of the society. The idea was mooted by Mr VK Krishna Menon, then Defence Minister of India. Sainik schools were meant to be the ordinary citizen’s public school where deserving students can get high quality education irrespective of their income or class background. These schools did achieve this aim – General Suhag, the present Army Chief is a Sainik School product.

Amaravathinagar was chosen as the site for our school as the area was on the foothills of the Western Ghats and adjacent to the Amaravathi Dam. The weather of area suited the school and the terrain provided ideal backdrop for various adventure activities. The dam ensured a constant supply of water and also a site for water sports like canoeing.

Another reason for choosing Amaravathinagar as the site was that there were many sheds, buildings, staff quarters left vacant on completion of the dam. One of the workshop buildings became the Cadet Mess, one a gymnasium. The administrative area of the dam construction became the administrative offices and the rest became class rooms. Some staff quarters, closer to the class rooms were turned into Cadets’ living and the rest became staff quarters.

Over the years, a new well equipped Cadet Mess, Academic Block, Cadet Dormitories, swimming pool and many other buildings were added. Today the schools stands out as one of best in India – both for quality of infrastructure and educational value.

When theses schools started in 1962, the teachers were paid a notch better than the UGC scale and over the years it hardly ever increased, making teaching in Sainik Schools less attractive. To compound the problem, all teachers join as teachers and retire as a teacher without any promotion in either status or appointment.

When we joined the school in 1971, the teachers were all-rounders; good at academics, sports and organising hobbies and clubs, extracurricular activities and adventure activities. We were taught sciences by Mr Venkiteswaran (Venky) in Grade 5 and Mr Raghavan in Grade 6. Mr Raghavan was better known as Mr Jiggs for his style and actions. Mr Venky taught zoology and Mr Jiggs botany and both were excellent teachers and also were very good at cricket and tennis. Mr Venky played in all sports teams of the school and was an excellent mentor cum coach for students. His afternoons began with playing French-Cricket with grade 5 students and later played football, basketball and hockey with senior students. His day ended with a round of tennis at the tennis court, mostly playing with Colonel Thamburaj, our Principal and Mr Raghavan.

As the remuneration of the teachers did not keep pace with the inflation, by 1973 many teachers of very high caliber left our school for greener pastures at various Public schools in Ooty and Kodaikanal as they offered better remuneration. That was when we bid goodbye to Mr Venky and Mr Raghavan. The only girl in our class was Sita, daughter of Mr Seshadiri, the English teacher. As Mr Seshadiri too left for similar reasons, our batch became all male.

Mr Paul Sathya Kumar and Mr AD George replaced Mr Venky and Mr Raghavan. They too had similar traits as they were not only outstanding teachers, but also great sportsmen. Mr Paul coached the school cricket team and Mr George the football team. Mr Paul was also an excellent musician who could play most instruments. He would accompany the school choir on his organ during the morning assembly and was an integral part of all plays and cultural activities the students staged.

Similarly, the exodus of teachers of 1973 affected most departments and there were many new teachers, majority of them as good or even a notch better than whom they replaced. The noteworthy exceptions were Mrs & Mr Cherian and Mr KG Warrier, for whom the call of the money would not have been all that important for obvious reasons.

The next exodus of teachers took place in 1985 after we left school. The Navodaya Schools were established in 1985 in every district of India to provide residential school level education for the common man. Most of the teachers, Mr Paul and Mr George included, moved out as principals to these schools – obviously for better pay and status. Further, the scheme being funded entirely by the centre (and states as in case of Sainik schools), most of these Navodaya schools got established with better infrastructure. Another advantage was that the children studying in their own district in most cases and the girls also get equal opportunity unlike the Sainik Schools.

Has the Sainik Schools achieved their goals? An often asked question. These schools are now deteriorating for sure, mainly because of lack of funds. The way out is for the Defence Ministry at the centre to take over these schools in entirety from selection of staff and students to providing scholarships as being done in case of the Navodaya Schools.

Another important issue that need to be addressed is of the Defence Officers posted to these schools as Principals, Headmasters and Registrars. The Army Education Corps (Navy and Air Force too) officers are normally posted and most are incapable of motivating the cadets – in any way – forget about joining the Army. Any of our batch mates from Sainik Schools will vouch for it. Today most regular officers are better qualified academically than these (un) Educated Officers and would any day be better academicians, organisers, leaders and motivators.

In case the army wishes to resuscitate these Sainik Schools, the way out is for the center government to finance the scholarships as in Navodaya Vidyalaya and also remove the Education Corps officers from the system.