Happy New Year
from
Steve and Deborah Gilchrist

It has been difficult to sit down and get started on a New Year's letter this year.  The horrible enormity of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, which continues to affect many of the places Deborah and I have travelled to in the past, dwarfs my own personal reflections whenever I begin to think about what to write.

We did have another wonderful year. Our families on both sides are still in good health and growing, and we love hearing the achievements of our nieces and nephews.  Deborah continues to teach grade four at Oakridge, and still loves it there.  I've moved on, promoted to vice-principal at Danforth Gardens, a kindergarten to grade 8 school where I was a rookie teacher during the second and third years of my public school teaching career, some fifteen years ago.  I often miss my workshop at Samuel Hearne, but at the same time I enjoy learning to deal with the daily challenges of administration.  It certainly isn't a job for someone who loves the routine of the classroom timetable, but I feel good when I'm able to solve problems, resolve conflicts, and smooth the waters on a daily basis for teachers, students and parents - it is very much a "people" job.

We went on a three week cruise in the North Channel for our summer vacation, on a CS22 sailboat. We took Maxie, to the amazement and amusement of everyone we met: "Is that your dog?  You need a bigger sailboat!" 
The TrailerSailor's Association featured a shot of her on their home page this fall, sitting in Deborah's lap on the cliff above Covered Portage Cove.



This is how Maxie got back and forth from boat to shore - in the "Maxie Taxi"!





There many wonderful photos on the Trailer Sailor's website.  Go to http://www.trailersailors.org/photoalbums.html and click on the various albums.  You'll see more of Maxie in the Miscellaneous album.  I also compiled a CD of 669 photos that fellow cruisers took, so that I can watch slideshows on my computer and relive our summer during the dark, cold winter days ahead.

When we returned from the North Channel, we bought a Mirage 27, which we enjoyed for a couple of months right into the new school year.  This is a much bigger (27'), beautifully built sailboat that I can stand fully erect inside, and it handles Lake Ontario wind and waves quite comfortably. We're looking forward to next summer, when we plan to sail her to the Thousand Islands, up near Kingston and Brockville.  Here are a couple of photos:




As Christmas break rolled around, we considered staying at home, since there seemed to be a list of chores to be done, and I needed a rest, but at the last minute I couldn't stand the idea of not packing yet another adventure into every available opportunity - we're going to be dead for a long time, after all - so we quickly bought a tent and loaded up the enormous trunk of our nineteen year old Grand Marquis, tossed Maxie in the back seat, and drove to Florida. (This need to get away could also have had something to do with the final twelve day work week wrapped around a four-day weekend I'd spent with our grade sixes at our outdoor education school just before Christmas!)

Exactly two years earlier we had trailered our Boler to northern Florida to snorkel with the manatees and explore the many famous springs. This time we were able to drive down and back a little faster because of our chosen accommodation, a simple nylon tent.  It was really comfortable - Deb was very pleasantly surprised at how quickly and easily the tent was assembled, with pastic clips onto shock-cord poles. One important key to our comfort was a queen-sized air bed and high capacity pump - eight inches thick, filled with exactly 140 quick strokes from the pump.  What an improvement over the airbeds we slept on as kids...mind you, on a couple of those chillier nights, the down sleeping bags we took with us were also an important element of our comfort!  And the RV park amenities such as the jacuzzi hot tubs...



On a windy night, though, you really ought to use the guy ropes and tent pegs provided, otherwise the flexible poles will pop inside out and leave your tent looking like this:



I think that lump inside is Maxie, still soundly snoring through it - lazy old dog...

We spent ten days down there and two days driving each way. We saw the Keys all the way down to Key West, the Everglades National Park, Naples, Sanibel and Captiva islands, and the lovely new post-hurricane communities of Homestead and Florida City. They are all places that were on my list of destinations I'd hoped to visit some day.  I'd really hoped to camp on Elliot Key in Biscayne National Park, but that'll be on my next visit to the area, I guess. We booked the campground, but the tour boat wouldn't go out to it on the day we were supposed to leave - ten foot waves and wind from the wrong direction, apparently. I had planned to snorkel, but the timing was never right - too cold, wind and/or waves too high - so we just took lots of boat tours, saw an immense amount of bird life and "more alligators than you can shake a stick at", as the saying goes. I'm not sure what good it would do to shake a stick at an alligator.  They were everywhere. 



The bird life was awesome.  Great, common cattle and snowy egrets, Great Blue herons and smaller green ones, endangered wood storks, ibis, barred owls, black headed and yellow headed night herons, red-shouldered hawks, laughing gulls, brown pelicans, white pelicans, double crested cormorants, anhingas - the list goes on and on.  We saw endangered Key deer, lots of turtles...but no frogs, which was odd.  We ate frogs legs in a restaurant, though...perhaps that was the problem...?  They were delicious. We also had superb Cuban coffee every day, and ribs from a roadside BBQ, and a magnificent pot luck feast for Christmas dinner in the rec hall of the RV park we were camped in, with "fried" turkey (really delicious, not at all what you might imagine), baked ham and eighty or more different
home-made side dishes and desserts. You've never been to a buffet like this!

In Key West we saw what I've decided to call "Key West chickens" - a flock of ibis as tame as the pigeons and chickens, scratching in a back yard while the resident was hanging out her laundry.  The brown one with the grey neck is a juvenile.



On Sanibel we saw a red-shouldered hawk on a low bough beside the road.  He'd caught a snake, probably easily spotted from the sky while crossing the road, and he feasted on it ten feet from us, without any sense of concern for our presence:



There was one chilly morning that we took an airboat ride on the north side of the Tamiami highway.  We pulled out our winter coats, toques, ski gloves and the earplugs that are standard equipment for a tent camper, especially for campsites in the Keys which are all right beside the only highway (because any further off the road, and you'd be in the water!) and we got our own personal, private airboat ride through the Everglades - no other customers on board!  But we were toasty, dressed for the experience - we're from Canada, don'cha know!  (That's what Floridians grump about anyone swimming in December, by the way, even in a heated pool - "Must be Canayjuns!")



The Everglades is unbelievably huge and wonderful.  A million and a half square miles of grass that looks like hard prairie, but is actually growing out of a slow moving river only a few inches deep, making its way to the coast.  With a million and a half alligators in it, at last count, plus a lot of other wildlife. The larger animals live in "hammocks", which are hardwood cypress, magnolia, "gumbo limbo", pine, mangrove and palm tree islands growing wherever the surface rises an inch or two above the water.  It was four million square miles before humans began to drain and divert many regions of the Everglades.  It was so very much like the Okavango Delta which we had visited in '96 that I couldn't help watching for hippo.



I guess you can tell that I'm still pretty filled up with our trip - we have so many great photos and so much to tell you about it.  But we're looking forward to the future...here's Deborah on the beach at the tip of Captiva Island, looking forward to her future with her new binoculars - with built in compass and range-finder inside the eyepieces.  She asked for them for Christmas, to assist in her navigational duties when we're sailing, but they came in very handy for bird-watching on this trip, too.


There's a bird...she looks so close...these must be really great binoculars...!


And speaking of sailing, that brings me to the close of this letter...we want to wish you all smooth sailing and soft winds for the year to come, and as you can see, we're lookin' out for ya...

Love,

Steve and Deborah



P. S.  On the way down and back, we stayed in motels overnight.  We snuck Maxie into one of them, and we wouldn't let her on the bed, but she refused to sleep on the floor. I heard an odd creaking sound in the middle of the night that I couldn't quite place; but I was tired and didn't come fully awake to investigate...we woke up next morning to learn how she'd solved her problem.  Most people just won't believe that a Great Dane can roll herself up into such a compact little ball, but here's your proof. 
It wasn't a very large chair, either:



click here to go to Steve's home page...