Retreat Ceremony at Hussainiwala


During our visit to India to attend the Golden Jubilee celebrations of raising of our regiment – 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River) – we watched the Retreat Ceremony at Hussainiwala Border Post.  Unlike most international borders, where no such daily ceremonies are held, retreat ceremonies are held on Indo-Pak border at dusk.

Canada and USA share the longest International Boundary in the world, which is mostly unmanned, except at crossing points.  The border came into existence at the end of bitterly fought American Revolutionary War between Great Britain and the United States with the Treaty of Paris of 1783.  In 1925, the International Boundary Commission came into being with the task of surveying and mapping the boundary, maintaining boundary pillars and buoys and keeping the boundary clear of bush and vegetation for six meters.

Ontario province has 14 road border crossings, one truck ferry, and four passenger ferries with the United States.  The most popular crossing is the Rainbow Bridge near Niagara Falls.  This is a popular border crossing for pedestrians, however, trucks are not permitted to use this bridge.  The boundary runs through the centre of this bridge.  Surely, the two countries hardly ever hold any border ceremonies.

There are only three trading posts, Wagah (Punjab), Chakan da Bagh (Rajouri, Kashmir) and Kaman (Uri, Kashmir) on the Indo-Pak border through which people and goods move.  Chakan da Bagh Post and Kaman Post is manned by Indian Army soldiers and they do not hold any ‘retreat’ ceremonies.  However, they exchange sweets on important national and religious days.

A ‘retreat ceremony’ in military parlance signals the end of duty day and when the national flag is brought down.  The band if present or the bugler will sound ‘retreat’.  The lowering of the flag is coordinated with the playing of the music so the two are completed at the same time.  It is a ritual in every military unit and often coincides with the change of guard for the night.

Retreat ceremonies are held on the Indo-Pak border in Punjab at Wagah (Amritsar), Hussainiwala (Firozepur and Sadiqi (Fazilka) by the Border Security Force (BSF) of India and Rangers of Pakistan.  Neither the Indian Army nor the Pakistan Army is involved in this heavily choreographed flag-lowering ceremony.  The drill movements are over exaggerated and at times is near ridiculous and mostly absurd.  One would even wonder as to whether such ceremonies hold any value in modern civilised world.  Whatever it may be, the ritual has endured through half a century despite many diplomatic upheavals, border skirmishes, economic warfare and mutual misunderstandings.

Hussainiwala Border served as the major road crossing between Indian and Pakistan till 1970. At that time, it acted as a trade route for truckers, mainly to import Kandahari Angoor (dehydrated grapes) as well as other fruits and food products from Pakistan and Afghanistan.   The post was closed for trade in 1970 as tensions rose between India and Pakistan.  The retreat ceremony commenced in 1972 after the Indo-Pak War.

We were all seated in the Amphitheatre to witness the ceremony.  On the Indian side there was no segregation of. men and women.  The only concern was the glare of the setting sun as we face Westwards.

On the Pakistan side, there were separate enclosures for men and women.   The only commonality was most women and men including the Rangers – all wore Salwar Kameez.

As the seats were getting filled up, the audio systems from both sides begun belching out ‘patriotic’ songs with as much volume they could muster.  At the auspicious time of 5 PM, the soldiers from both sides ‘enacted’ their choreographed drills.

They marched ‘Goose Stepping’, throwing their legs as high as they could.  This was a form of extreme marching held by German, Prussian, and Russian military to be an ultimate display of the unbreakable will and discipline of its soldiers.  Most modern armies have done away with this ‘facist’ approach to marching as being extreme.  Only a few countries use it as a powerful display of military discipline.

Foot drill is a fundamental activity of the military and is practised regularly during initial military training.   Foot drill involves marching with an exaggerated heel strike, and regimented manoeuvres performed while marching and standing characterised by an exaggerated stamping of one foot into the ground.

The soldiers were wearing leather soled boots with heavy metal attached to them.  It made ‘metallic’ sound when they came in contact with the concrete floor every time the a soldier stamped his foot, that too much higher than needed.

The soldiers from both the sides pose showing their aggression and fearlessness.  They widen their chests, twirl their mustaches, thrust open their  eyeballs, and what not – all to invite applause and cheers from the audience on either side.

After enacting all these choreographed caricature of a drill, soldiers  cross the white line to come to the other country and form a beautiful cross X with the flag threads. Both the flags are held together at the junction and then are brought down at speed and folded neatly.  Throughout the ceremony sloganeering and clapping many a times reached frenzied levels.  The only saving grace during the entire routine was the exchanges of sly smiles between the soldiers of both nations.

The question here is as whether we need such exaggerated drills to incite national passion and fervour among the citizens?  How long can a country sustain such a fervour?  What about the soldiers who are enacting this routine?  Have you considered the unwanted  physical and mental stress they undergo?

High levels of bone strain caused by such exaggerated drills will surely result in stress fracture.  It may also cause micro-damage to bones.  Digging down of heels, especially with the foot raised over the heads may cause severe strain to the neck and spine and also brain damage.  These soldiers may also end up with joint pains, migraine and headaches

Ultimately who cares?  The show must go on.

 

Hussainiwala – A Village on Indo-Pak Border


During our visit to India to attend the Golden Jubilee celebrations of raising of our regiment – 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River) – we watched the Retreat Ceremony at Hussainiwala Border Post.


Railway line connecting Peshawar to Mumbai was built in 1885, passing through Hussianiwala.  During the Pre-Partition days, Punjab Mail connected the cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Ferozepur, Lahore and Peshawar. In those days, most British troops and businessmen would arrive at Mumbai and make their way to their destinations in the North-West Frontier Province by train. The train track from Ferozepur to Hussainiwala was an engineering fete, with Qaiser-e-Hind bridge, which stood over several round pillars (all of them intact even today, as depicted in the image above).


When Pakistan was carved out of British India, the border was drawn along the Sutlej River in Punjab and it passed through Hussainiwala Village.  Now, Sutlej River has changed its course over the years, running further East in Indian territory.  This made Hussainiwala an enclave into Pakistan, with the Sutlej River behind it.


Hussainiwala is named after a Muslim Peer (Saint), Hussaini Baba, whose shrine is located at the entrance to the Border Post.  This small hamlet came into prominence on the evening of 23 March 1931 when British soldiers tried to cremate the bodies of three young Indian freedom fighters – Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Raj Guru – who were hanged at the Lahore Central Jail.  The hanging, scheduled for 24 March was rescheduled a day earlier as the British feared a revolt in Lahore as the situation had become very tense.  They  secretly transported their bodies to Hussainiwala and while cremating them on the banks of the Sutlej, the locals got wind of it.  They assembled near the cremation site.  Fearing repercussions, British soldiers fled the scene, leaving behind the dead bodies which was cremated by the villagers.  This site today is a memorial – aptly called ‘Prerana Sthal‘ (Motivation Site).


Later Bhagat Singh’s mother, Vidyawati, and freedom fighter BK Dutt were cremated at this site as per their wishes. The cremation site is called ‘Shaheedi Sthal’ (Martyyrs’ Place).   This is where Indians from all over the country make an annual pilgrimage to honour the martyrs on March 23 as they observe ‘Shaheedi Diwas’ (Martyrs’ Day).


(Defences on the Indian side on Bund (wall) with a bunker as inset)

This enclave has witnessed three bloody battles between India and Pakistan,  with the very first one fought on 18 March 1956.  At that time, heavy floods had damaged Bela Bund and Sulaimanki Headworks at Hussainiwala and as the Indian engineers were repairing the damage, Pakistan Army launched an unprovoked attack at 9 PM.  4 JAK RIF was guarding the bund, and they fought  gallantly causing heavy causalities on the enemy.  This resulted in a hasty withdrawal by the attackers.


During partition of British India in 1947,  Hussainiwala, an enclave of 12 villages went to Pakistan. The railway line no more had trains running through Hussainiwala.  The railway station at Hussainiwala as it exists today is depicted in the image above.  Now Punjab Mail connects Mumbai to Ferozepur via Delhi.  Pakistan destroyed  Qaisere- Hind Bridge leaving behind the round pillars across the river. The Shaheedi Sthal was in a dilapidated state without any maintenance. In 1961, Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister, brokered an exchange deal and Hussainiwala came to India while Sulaimanki Headworks –  from where three major canals which supply irrigation water to a large area in Pakistan  Punjab originate –  went to Pakistan. India immediately restored Shaheedi Sthal to its due dignity and reverence.

During Indo-Pakistan War of 1965, 2 Maratha Light Infantry (Kali Panchwin) was deployed to defend Hussainiwala. The battalion fought valiantly to thwart a  frontal attack resulting in two enemy tanks destroyed and two captured, with several enemy killed. The Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Nolan was killed in enemy artillery shelling. The unit ensured that the Samadhi of Bhagat Singh was not desecrated by Pakistan Army. The battalion was visited by then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Defence Minister YB Chavan, Congress Party President  K Kamraj, the Chief of Army Staff and other senior officers. Kali Panchwin was awarded the battle honour ‘Hussainiwala’ for its role in the 1965 War. The citizens of Firozpur, in honour of the Battalion’s contribution in defending the Bridge and Firozpur town, presented a silver replica of the Hussaniwala Bridge.

During the 1971 War, it was 15 PUNJAB defending Hussainiwala enclave and the Memorial.  On 03 December, Pakistan Army launched a heavy attack.  The valiant Punjabis withstood the attack gallantly despite suffering heavy casualties until withdrawing on 04 December night.


Did the three freedom fighters, who laid down their lives for Indian independence in their wildest dreams ever visualise that post independence, there would be a partition on religious lines and it would all end up in three bloody wars at the very same site their ‘Samadhi’ stood?

Military Lounge @ Buffalo Airport


On 04 February 2018, I traveled to Buffalo Airport, USA to pick up Reshma Sameer, daughter of Veteran Brigadier Azad Sameer. To read more about Brigadier Sameer,Please Click Here.

Buffalo Airport is 160 km from our home, about two hours of drive by car.  She was scheduled to land at 2 PM.  It was snowing in the morning and was foggy.  Hence, I left home by 10 AM, catering adequate time for a slow drive,  breaks, and crossing at the Canada-US border.  We generally cater for about 30 minutes for border crossing formalities.


As I pulled up at the US Customs & Border Protection counter, there was hardly anyone waiting there to cross.  I drove up to the counter and the officer manning the post came out.  As I was handing over my passport he asked “Sir, aren’t you watching the Super Bowl?”  “I am off to Buffalo Airport to pick up our family friend”  I answered.  Returning my passport he said “Drive safely, have a nice day, Sir.”  This quick clearance must have been due to the ‘Veteran’ Licence Plate of my car.

The Super Bowl is the final game of the National Football League (NFL), played on the first Sunday in February.  It is one of the most watched TV event in United States with more than 100 million people from the United States alone watching it.  Every year the TV commercials, known as Super Bowl ads attract a lot of interest and also money.  This year it featured Hollywood stars Cardi B, Tiffany Haddish, Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman.

I reached the Airport at noon and was looking for a place to spend two hours at my disposal.  I picked a book I had in the car and my reading glasses after parking the car in the parking lot.  As I entered the arrival area, I read a sign ‘Freedom Lounge – A Courtesy Centre for Military Service Members and Veterans.’

This lounge was setup in 2016 by WNY Freedom Lounge Inc in recognition of  sacrifices by the US Military Service personnel.  It ensures a welcoming environment for traveling Military personnel & Veterans at the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport. The lounge is open to members of the military, veterans and their families free of charge.


WNY Freedom Lounge Inc is a private, non-profit organization, headed by Veteran Lieutenant Colonel Dan Walther of Kenmore, who raised funds and made arrangements for the lounge. The lounge provides morale and recreational services to members of the US Military and their families. The lounge offers comfortable seating, reading material, TV, phone, snacks, and internet access. It is staffed by veteran volunteers, veteran organizations and military supporters.

I was welcomed in by Veteran Chief Petty Officer Ronald of the US Navy.  After exchanging usual pleasantries, he ushered me in and showed me three rooms – a reception area, a kitchenette and a small living room with sofas and chairs.  He opened the fridge, well stocked with beverages and asked “What would you like to have Sir?”  “Black Coffee” I replied.  He brewed a cup for me in the coffee maker and we sat down and talked.

He said that this lounge has been created for transitioning Military personnel, who  often have significant wait times between connecting flights.  Most Military personnel often travel alone and they need a place to rest.  The lounge is staffed and maintained fully by volunteers.  It is generally open from 9 AM to 10 PM and during other times, the Information Desk staff would open it.

We spoke about all matters two Veterans would speak – about our service in the Forces, places served, family, children, aspirations, dreams, et al.  At the end I realised that we Veterans – from US and India – why from world all over – speak the very same language.  The Military is in our blood and it cannot be shed easily.

Canada’s African Lion Safari

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It has become a ritual for me to take our guests to the African Lion Safari, located in Cambridge, Ontario.  I have even lost count on the number of times I have been there.  I can for sure claim that I am now an accomplished tour guide for anyone visiting the Safari.  When Air Vice Marshal TD Joseph (Joe) and Sophie Joseph came calling in May 2016, how could I omit the African Lion Safari from the itinerary.

African Lion Safari, a family owned private entrepreneurship, is a picturesque and fun-filled Wildlife Park that offers not only a Safari trip of 9 km, but also conducts educative shows on birds and elephants.    This conservation theme-park showcases many different and rare animals from Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas. The drive through the game reserve will get you as close as you can ever get with fascinating wild life.

At the Safari, animals are exhibited in an entirely different way – visitors are caged in their cars or tour bus, and the animals are free to roam the 5 to 50 acre reserve, in their natural habitat.  The Safari Trail comprises seven game reserves that showcase a diverse collection of species such as lions, cheetahs, baboons, rhinos, ostriches, giraffes, and many other exotic and native species.

In case you take your own car, you are in better control of the time that you spend observing and photographing the animals, and it affords a great deal of flexibility. There is a  guided tour on the Safari bus, which takes just over an hour.  The tour guides offer unique and information about the animals you encounter.  Visitors who spend a full day at the African Lion Safari, often exercise both options. I prefer the drive in our car and surely there are a few risks involved.

It is worthwhile to note some interesting facts about the founder of this wonderful place. Late Colonel GD Dailley founded the Safari with a vision to create an environment for self-sustaining populations of declining wildlife species.  It opened with 40 lions  in three reserves in 1969.  Today the park houses in excess of 1,000 animals comprised of more than 100 species.

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Colonel Gordon Debenham Dailley  (July 24, 1911 – May 3, 1989), was born in Winnipeg, Canada and was educated at St John’s College and at the University of Manitoba.   He was a member of the team which won the gold medal in ice hockey for Great Britain at the 1936 Winter Olympics. The team consisted mostly of British-born Canadian citizens, as well as Dailley, whose only justification for playing for Britain lay in his long years of living in England.  He led the team to European Championships in 1937 and 1938,  after which he left hockey to join the Canadian Army.

Colonel Dailley served in England throughout World War II. After the war, he remained with the Canadian Forces and held a number of posts in Ottawa and served on the United Nations Armistice Commission in Korea. He was promoted to the rank of Colonel in 1955 and was assigned to Belgrade, Yugoslavia as the Canadian Military Attaché.  In August 1960 he was appointed the base commander at Gagetown in New Brunswick.  He retired from the army in 1964.


After about an hour’s drive from our home, we generally reach the Safari gates at 9:55 AM, five minutes before the gates open.  In order to avoid the rush, it would be better to visit the park on a weekday, that too well before the schools close for summer vacations.  This gives all the time o watch and photograph the animals as there is no pressure from the vehicles following.


First reserve is Nairobi Sanctuary which houses elegant birds like the crowned crane and white stork  with llamas and robust Watusi cattle from Africa with its large distinctive horns that can reach up to 8 feet.


Next is the Simba Lion Country, home to a large pride of lions, perched on large rocks or in the shade of trees.


If you are lucky, you can capture the lions in such poses too.

There is a separate enclosure for the White Lions.  They are same as their African Lion cousins with a rare color mutation.  They are found in the Timbavati area of South Africa.

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Adjacent to the lion sanctuary  is  the Duma Cheetah Preserve.  African Lion Safari has been very successful with breeding cheetahs, who are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, with over 40 cubs to date.

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Most entertaining reserve is Wankie Bushland Trail where you will encounter baboons.  This is where the risk of taking your car lies.  These baboons have developed special skills to pull at wipers or peel rubber stripping or to simply perch atop the car’s roof and take a ride around their habitat.

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Next enclosure is the Rocky Ridge Veldt representing the Savannahs of Africa.  It is home to a mix of species from the curious ostrich to the highly endangered Rothschild giraffes, as well as  zebras, eland and rhinos.

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Ostriches and giraffes come very close to the cars and this shot of the giraffe saying hello through the moon-roof  of our car.

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Last reserve takes you to North America which houses animals like elk and the bison.

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There are also a number of entertaining, educative  and informative shows starting with the Elephant Swim.  The keepers bring the Asian elephants, all cutely holding the tail of one in front by their trunk. They range from the oldest at 35 to the youngest at two years

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Next show, the ‘Birds of Paradise’ where various birds showcase their incredible intelligence like a crow cleaning up tin cans to put in a blue recycle bin to a macaw deciphering colours, as well as the red-legged Seriemas,  a long legged bird from South America, showing off their natural abilities.  The Serena displayed its skill at killing a snake by picking it up and throwing it repeatedly hard on to the ground.  They also showcased a wide assortment of birds like macaws, emu, an Indian bat,  peacock and ended the show with a talking and singing parrot.

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The next is another great show, the ‘Birds of Prey’.  The flying and hunting skills predator birds are on display here.  The birds include marabou stork, a bald and golden eagle, a couple of owls and peregrine falcon ,the fastest moving creature in the animal kingdom.

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Elephant Round-Up show is a display of elephant’s impressive strength, agility and intelligence.  One even paints a t-shirt in the show, holding the paint brush in its trunk.  It was heartening to see that not even once was an elephant shouted at or goaded with a pointed metal rod as seen in some parts of Asia. African Lion Safari is home to the largest Asian elephant herd in any zoological facility in North America and has one of the most successful breeding programme.  The Safari announced the birth of Jake in 2009, a healthy male calf , through artificial insemination, the first ever in Canada.

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African Queen boat cruise piloted by one of the parks guides, circles a lake to see exotic birds, primates, ring-tailed lemurs, ground horn-bills, spider monkeys, black and white ruffed lemur and endangered Angolan Colombus monkeys that reside on the islands.

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The shows were conducted mostly by university students, many pursuing their degrees in zoology related fields.  What an opportunity and environment for these students to earn, learn and apply their knowledge and also improve their confidence levels, communication skills and self-esteem?

How do these animals, mostly from the tropics, survive through the harsh Canadian winter?  The Safari has large barn-like centrally heated housing where the animals can go in and out.  As per the Safari staff, the Cheetahs love playing in the snow and enjoy the winters.

Since its inception in 1969, the Park has been successful in breeding 30 species, considered endangered, and 20 species, considered threatened. The original idea of maintaining self-sustaining populations of species in decline is still the Park’s priority, all while providing its visitors with a safe, entertaining, and educational environment.

Fishing @ PEI


In the summer of 2010, we decided to travel to the Eastern most province of Canada, the Prince Edward Islands (PEI). PEI is located close to the Eastern Canadian coast in the Atlantic Ocean. The Confederation Bridge links Prince Edward Island with mainland Canada. The 12.9-kilometre bridge opened on 31 May 1997. One can also reach the island on a ferry. There is no toll on the bridge or charges on the ferry while entering PEI, but on leaving one got to pay.

The island is named after Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, the fourth son of King George III and the father of Queen Victoria. The Island is 224 km long and from 6 to 64 km wide with a total area of 5,660 square km. No place in the province is more than 16 km from the sea and the highest point is 152 metres or 466 feet above sea level. The island has three counties: Prince, Queens and Kings. The Island is formed from sedimentary bed rock of soft, red sandstone which produces the rich, red soil. The redness of the soil is due to the high iron-oxide (rust) content.

Agriculture remains the dominant industry, especially potato farming in the red soil. The province currently accounts for a quarter of Canada’s total potato production. In the PEI, fishing, particularly lobster fishing as well as oyster fishing and mussel farming, is second to farming as an occupation and is a highly regulated industry.


The lobsters are fished using a lobster trap. Lobster traps are constructed of wire and wood and an opening permits the lobster to enter a tunnel of netting. The size of the opening depends upon the size of the lobster to be caught. The majority of the newer traps consist of a plastic-coated metal frame.  Traps are usually constructed in two parts, called the ‘kitchen’, where there is bait, and exits into the ‘parlour’, where the lobster is trapped from escape. Bait fish is placed inside the trap, and the traps are dropped onto the sea floor. A long rope is attached to each trap, at the end of which is a plastic or Styrofoam buoy that bears the owner’s license number and is identified by their colour coding. During the fishing season, the traps are checked every day by the fisherman and re-baited if necessary.

The activity that really enthused us was the lobster and crab fishing tour, operated by Captain Mark Jerkins and assisted by his younger brother Codi. Captain Mark runs this tour in July and August at the end of the fishing season. During the tour we experienced what the lobster fisher folk undergo. It involved locating a buoy, hauling a trap and banding a claw of the lobsters. The claws are banded to ensure that the lobsters do not fight with each other and lose their claws. Watch how Cody holds the lobster’s claws in the image. Outside water, if not handled properly, these claws will fall-off as they are really heavy.


As per Mark, this Lobster is about 40 yrs old.


Everyone took a turn at the boat’s wheel and learned how to use modern technologies to fish for lobster. Captain Mark also shared his personal experiences while fishing for lobster and also how this fourth generation lobster fishing family makes their living on the water. At the end of the tour we were treated to a sumptuous dinner of lobsters and crabs.


More than 1,200 lobster fishers set out for these waters to haul in lobsters during thefirst fishing season in PEI that runs from April 30 to June 30 each year. Setting Day marks the start of the eight-week lobster fishing season. The annual event starts at 4:45 am when the fishing communities across the island come out to cheer on their local fishing fleets as they head out to the sea. The first lobster boat that leaves the wharf is that of the most veteran fisher and his crew and other boats follow and the wharf roars with the sounds of engines, cheers and silent prayers. Some harbours invite local clergy to bless the boats and crews during this annual spring rite.

PEI’s lobster industry strongly believes in sustainability and would never jeopardize their rich resources for short term gains. Its fishery is strong because of the aggressive and sustainable management strategies implemented throughout its history. The Canada government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) sets minimum legal sizes to sustain the lobster fishery and fines fishermen caught with smaller lobsters on their boats.

The smaller lobsters called the ‘Canners’ are unique to the PEI, where the warmer temperatures cause the lobsters to mature quickly. These small lobsters were canned in the earlier days and so they got their name. Minimum size of ‘Canners’ is now set to 72 mm and they weigh between 250 and 375 grams. This is where the marine-scientific community believes the population is sustainable, as 50% of female lobsters in PEI’s waters would have reproduced at least once by the time they reach this size. In other regions, the minimum legal size is 81 mm. The waters are colder there and it takes longer for the lobsters to mature – when they do, they are much bigger. The ‘Market’ lobsters are about 81 mm and weigh more than a pound. They are used in the restaurants and are exported live to the United States.


The Island’s 27 crab fishermen are engaged in the trade.  Their allotted annual quota for PEI fishermen is about 600 tons which include snow crab, rock crab and spider crab.


In PEI, during a  tuna fishing season (mid July to mid October), each licence is allotted  one tuna and the captain owns that fish, to conserve Bluefin tuna population. According to Captain Mark, he stays in the high-seas until a Bluefin Tuna  weighing about 400 kg is caught.  Tunas are fished using ‘tended line’ method where a baited hook is attached on a line, connected to a powerful motor on the boat to reel in the catch.  At the hook end Captain Mark ties a kite which flutters in the air and goes down once the fish bites the bait.  The line is now pulled in and if the tuna is not large enough, is released and the operation is repeated.


95 %of the Bluefin Tuna is exported to Japan. A fish can be caught on a Monday, trucked to Halifax on Tuesday and arrive by plane in Tokyo on Thursday.  A fish that fetches about $25,000 at the PEI Wharf may fetch half a million dollars in the Tokyo’s fish market auction.

The fishing industry being regulated stipulates that there is a need for a licence to fish lobsters. The licenses are passed on from generation to generation and it is not that easy to get a new license as the DFO has put a cap on it. With each licence comes stipulations regarding the harvesting season dates, area they can set their traps, the number of traps permitted, the minimum and the maximum size of the lobsters that can be caught. Any violation of the stipulations will lead to hefty fines and also suspension of the license for three days. There have been hardly any violations reported as a three day suspension during a sixty day harvesting season will prove to be big loss.

The fishing community along with the DFO officials and the environmentalist have succeeded in maintaining the equilibrium of the fragile eco-system and also ensure optimum market value for their catches.

 

From Bog to Bottle – Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh


On October 24, 2017, we travelled to Bala in Muskoka Region of Ontario to visit Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh. Johnston and his wife, Wendy Hogarth, now run the oldest commercial cranberry farm in Ontario. The farm was founded in 1950 by Johnston’s father, Orville, and his wife June.

The early settlers from Europe called it ‘crane berry’ as the shape of the blossom resembles the head of a crane. Over time, they dropped the ‘e’ and the fruit came to be called cranberry. Captain Henry Hall was the first to successfully cultivate cranberries with the first documented harvest occurring in 1816 in Dennis, Massachusetts, USA. William MacNeil planted Canada’s first commercial cranberry farm in Nova Scotia in 1870.

Cranberry is a native fruit of Canada. The vines on which the cranberry grows is very hardy and can easily survive a Canadian winter. The fruit is packed with antioxidants and other healthy plant chemicals. Cranberry got a boost in the early 1990s when scientists at Harvard University found that drinking cranberry juice was a natural way of preventing and relieving Urinary Tract Infections (UTI). Then came research that said cranberries helped to keep the arteries healthy, are a good source of vitamin C and may even help to prevent cancer. This resulted in most retail grocery stores selling cranberry and various other cranberry related products like juices, crasins (dried cranberries), sauces, capsules, etc.


The cranberry vines grow in bogs. These bogs evolved from deposits left by the glaciers more than 10,000 years ago. These deposits were left in low lying areas lined with clay. The clay prevents materials from leaching into the groundwater. As the glaciers receded after the ice age, they deposited peat, sand and moss in these low lying areas, creating a marshy land.


Cranberries thrive best in these bogs, which consist of alternating layers of sand, peat, gravel and clay. Cranberry vines produce horizontal stems called runners that may grow up to 2 meters long and spread profusely over the bog’s floor. The runners spread along the ground and would rise only a foot above. The fruit grows at the lower side of the runners and hence picking it is a difficult job. Cranberry growing season extends from April to October. Thus it is often the last of the fruits to be harvested in Ontario.


Many people believe that cranberries are grown in water. The berries are mostly depicted floating on top of the water during harvest. The vines flower in early spring, but the chill of the Canadian Spring may damage them. To prevent this damage, the bogs are flooded to ensure that the blooms and the tender buds are not exposed to the cold. The vines need to be irrigated all through their growing season.


There is an extensive network of pumps and pipelines, coupled with water reservoirs controlled with floodgates all through the farm for irrigation. Most of the irrigation and flooding is carried out from these reservoirs with the water flowing down due to gravity.


Come harvest time in the Fall and the bogs are flooded again to facilitate picking. The cranberry fruit has four air pockets and hence they float in water. Once the bogs are flooded with about 2 feet of water, the vines holding the cranberry fruits rise up.


A water reel picker now rakes the fruits off the vines. The cranberry fruits float up on the water surface as the picker moves ahead. This method ensures that the vines are not damaged while picking.


The red berries floating on top of the water are swept together with the help of a floating hosepipe and pumped into trucks to be taken to the packing plant for further processing.


The truck carrying the cranberries from the bogs empty them into a hopper. From here begins the packing journey of the cranberries. The cranberries now travel through a conveyer belt up to the Vibrating Table of the Air-Cleaner. The table has holes, adequate enough to let the cranberries pass through. The vines are collected here. From this table, the cranberries fall through a wind tunnel. The wind clears all the leaves.


The cranberries again travel up a conveyer belt to the Dryer. The dryers houses a huge fan which blows cold air on to the cranberries. As the cranberries move from the top step to the bottom one, the forced cold air dries surface moisture off the fruits. This process last about one hour.


The dried fruit is delivered to fresh fruit receiving stations where it is graded and screened based on color and ability to bounce. These berries bounce because they have four air-pockets in them. An early cranberry grower named John Webb had a wooden leg – and he couldn’t carry his cranberries down the stairs. So apparently he dropped them instead. The story goes that “He soon noticed that the firmest berries bounced to the bottom but the rotten ones stayed on the steps.”

Most of the cranberries are red, but there are white ones too. They are surely ripe ones. They are white because they did not get enough exposure to sunlight. The anthocyanin (red pigment) that gives red colour to these berries have not come out to the surface. Cooking or freezing these white cranberries will turn them Red. At the Johnston’s farm, they convert these white cranberries into their speciality product – White Cranberry Wine. It has become very popular and are an immediate sellout.


The bogs are also flooded in winter to form a protective layer of ice over the vines. Sand is then placed on the ice, where it falls to the bog floor in spring, allowing the vines’ long runners to set roots. At the Johnston’s farm, they convert the bogs into a 10 km skiing and skating trail that wind around and through the 350 acre farm.

The Johnstons run a Shop at their farm, open all year around. The shop sells fresh cranberries during harvest season and cranberry products like wines, crasins, jams, jellies, preserves etc through the year. The products are hand made by Mrs June Johnston and is sold as ‘Mrs J’s Preserves’. Mrs Johnston also and wrote a cookbook and is also available in the store.


The farm also offers a tour of the farm aptly named ‘ Bog to Bottle Tour’. The tour commenced with a briefing about cranberry, its history, how the Johnston’s farm was established etc. Then we moved to the bogs to see how cranberry is grown and harvested. the tour gave many interesting insight into cranberry and its cultivation.


The tour ended at the shop with wine tasting. We tasted their famous Cranberry Wine, Blueberry Wine, Red Maple Dessert Wine and also their signature White Cranberry Wine. At the end we picked up a few bottles of wine to be taken home.


As we bid goodbye to the Johnstons Farm, rain clouds had formed up in the sky. As we drove through the countryside, a huge rainbow appeared in the horizon. Might be wishing us all the luck for our next journey.

Butterfly Conservatory @ Niagara Falls

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When Air Vice Marshal TD Joseph (Joe) and Sophie Joseph visited us in May 2016, how could we miss a trip to the Niagara Falls.   Niagara Region has much more to offer, other than the falls, like Niagara Gorge, Welland Canal, and Wine Country.  (Please click on each one to read about them on my earlier Blog Posts).

The place, a nature lover should not miss is the Butterfly Conservatory, filled with beautiful free flying butterflies, a tropical wonderland located on the grounds of the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden. It really is a near ethereal experience.

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Whenever I see butterflies, my mind races back to the nostalgic memories of our childhood in Kerala, India.  Kerala is home to more than 500 birds, 330 butterfly species from the largest butterfly in India, Birdwing, with a wingspan of about 25 cm to the smallest, the Grass Jewel with only 2 cm.  It is also home to 68 species of dragonflies –   the most common types being Malabar Torrent Dart, Yellow Bush Dart, Pied Reed Tail, and the Long-legged Clubtail.  Many writers and poets were fascinated and inspired by these romantic creatures that they became subjects of some great contributions to Indian literature.

As kids, we enjoyed the sight of butterflies and dragonflies fluttering around, especially after the monsoons (June to August) and during the Onam Festival (end August / early September), when the flowers would be in full bloom.  We chased and caught a few of them.  We used to catch these little beauties and tie a small thread to their tails so as to control them and make them take short flights.

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We would prompt the dragonfly in our captivity to pick up small pebbles. We increased the size of the stones until the dragonfly could lift no more.  This sadistic game ended with the death of the dragonfly, when it severed its head from its torso.

Advent of rubber cultivation and extensive use of pesticides in Kerala for over three decades have driven these beautiful creations of God from our farmlands.

Thumbi Thullal (Dance of Dragonfly) is a dance performed by women of Kerala as a part of Onam celebrations.  About six to seven women sit in a circle and the lead performer (called Thumbi meaning Dragonfly) sits in the middle of the circle. The lead performer sings melodious fast paced songs and other performers clap their hands and sway to the melody.  Gradually the tempo of the song increases and the lead performer brushes the floor with her hair as if she is possessed by a spirit.  It usually ends with the lead performer fainting or playacting so.

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Back from nostalgia. At the commencement of the Niagara Gorge, about 10 km from the spectacular falls is the Butterfly Conservatory.  This glass-enclosed conservatory is home to over 2000 butterflies.  This state of the art facility is designed to have a tropical environment within a Canadian climate characterised by both warm and cold weather.  The mechanical and electrical systems maintain optimum environmental conditions for the butterflies and plants while accommodating comfort needs for its visitors.

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Around 45 different species of butterflies can be found fluttering in this rainforest setting spread over 11,000 square feet. The exact number of butterflies and species fluctuate on a day to day basis.  The butterfly conservatory accommodates as much as 300 visitors per hour.

The self-guided walking tour of the Butterfly Conservatory begins with a short, informative video presentation that is close captioned for the hearing impaired.  After this, one is allowed to explore the area and spot different species of butterflies as they fly all around you. The setting has a lovely pond, waterfall and a series of meandering pathways amidst several tropical plants with lovely flowers.

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The jungle vegetation and delightful fluttering of hundreds of beautiful butterflies are unusual and a very uplifting experience.  Everywhere there are exquisite butterflies floating in the warm, moist air or spreading their iridescent wings on leaves and flowers.  One can even catch them mating.

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It is a great place to see beautiful butterflies up close but you are not allowed to touch them, because if you touch their wings they get damaged and they cannot fly anymore and may die.  One may photograph them, but surely they need to be kept out of harm’s way.

The Conservatory currently hosts species such as Monarchs, Swallowtails, Owls, Mosaics, Red Lacewings, Blue Morphos and Small Postmans. The green house setting also hosts goldfish, turtles, beetles, toads and Eurasian quails to help regulate insect population.

The best part about the tour is that you can actually get the butterflies to land on you. Some might be even willing to rest on your outstretched hand. Visitors are encouraged to wear bright clothes, wear perfume or cologne and move slowly if they wish to have butterflies land on them.

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Plates filled with fruits are kept at certain places to attract butterflies who like to feed on these and you can watch them doing so.

Most of the butterflies have been imported from farms in tropical countries while some have been raised in a greenhouse behind the conservatory.  The tour is not only entertaining but also educative.  One can watch the metamorphosis process and the life cycle of a butterfly in real time.  One can also observe the butterflies come out of their cocoon, dry their wings and take their first flight.

Adjacent to the Butterfly Conservatory is the Floral Clock.  This unique and stunning display is a very popular stop and is photographed almost as often as the Falls.  The planted face is maintained by the Niagara Parks horticulture staff, while the mechanism is kept in working order by Ontario Hydro, the originally builders of the clock.

The Floral Clock is 40 feet wide, with a planted area 38 feet wide, making it one of the largest such clocks in the world.  The Tower at the back of the clock, houses Westminster chimes that chime at each quarter of an hour.  There is a 10-feet wide water garden that curves 85 feet around the base of the timepiece.

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If you are lucky you may come across the Niagara Parks Commission’s gardeners crawling along the special aluminium ladder they lay across the face of the clock, in order to plant and tend the clock face. Designs are created a year in advance to allow for the proper preparations. Tin dividers are built and installed to prevent soil slippage caused by the slope of the face of the clock. The clock is stopped during the planting process.

The floral design is changed twice each year.  Spring designs are made up with Tulips, Forget-Me-Nots or similar plants, therefore, do not last long.  It is followed by Violas planted in late Spring to provide a colourful design.  From the latter part of May, traditional carpet bedding material is used until frost occurs. The summer designs in general are made up of approximately 24,000 carpet plants whose foliage rather than their blooms provide the necessary contrasting colors. Flowering plants are not suitable for summer planting because the plants that are used must be kept trimmed to form relatively sharp contrasting patterns and not be allowed to grow up and interfere with the movement of the hands. For this reason reddish, green and yellow Alternanthera and Santolina form the background and markings of the various dial designs from year-to-year.   California Golden Privet and Blue Festuca Grass may be used for contrast. In winter, the summer design is perpetuated by using rock chips of various colours.

Anyone planning a visit to the Niagara Falls on the Canadian side must include these little wonderful sites in their itinerary.  Always remember that the falls are better viewed from the Canadian side as one can hardly see it from the US side.  So, always obtain a Canadian Visa in case you are visiting the Niagara Falls.