Friday, 6 August 2010

Lucky Gord. Poor Hilly. Renfrew Tales

Renfrew. The luckiest town in the Ottawa Valley
The unfortunate love story of Lucky Gord and Hilly.

By Stephen Weir
a rare unpublished fiction short-story based on fact/family history

DeMoss, the hired hand who spent his winters in the lean-to barn at the end of our unpaved lane, said I was lucky that I lived in Renfrew. The clean Ottawa Valley air. The good huntin'. Best of all, an arena that let you play full contact hockey without havin' to wear sissy protective gear.
DeMoss never thought to talk to me about the women. Didn't say anything about the men either. He was blissfully unaware of Renfrew mating practices.
The young males and females in Renfrew had no trouble finding each other, but they were really lucky if they could find a place to be alone together. Priests. Neighbours. Fathers. Mothers. Noisy brothers and sisters. You know the drill.
My 17-year old sister Hilly and her 30-year old fiancée, Gord Ford, took to parking his Dodge (no kidding) in a field near our home every Friday night. There was a huge sycamore bush that Gord could hide his '59 Dodge behind.
It was a piece of junk. The bumper was held onto the frame with binder twine (these were pre-Duct Tape days). He had covered up the bigger rust holes in the trunk with stick-on letters that he bought from Canadian Tire. G-O-R-D on the driver's side and H-I-L-L-Y on the right -- because that is where Hilly sat when they drove past our house (the rest of the time she was pretty well on his lap).
Gord was a "Stash" grad. In Renfrew that was the term given to kids who never made it into high school. The principal let the perennially failing male students stay in Grade School until such a time as their moustache grew longer than that of the gym teacher, one Weiner Waite.
Gord was lucky that the Weiner sported a Clark Gable style pencil moustache under his oft broken nose. He only had to repeat Grade-8 a couple of times before the Stash Rule was invoked and he was set free into the working world.
His first job (and only job) was working in the Renfrew Foundry making manhole covers. True fact, there are Renfrew-made manhole covers on streets in every city in Canada, and, most of them were made by Gord Ford.
The money he saved from working in the Foundry went into the Ford Dodge. We all knew when Hilly was going out on a date; that noisy backfiring beast could be heard 10-minutes before it came to a shuddering gasping stop outside our home. Gord was lucky that my father preferred to stay in the basement whenever he heard the Dodge’s death rattle. If he had taken a close look at it he would have forbade sis from climbing in. It was the Friday Fright Night Ride and Hilly lived for it.
One cold fall evening I was on my way home and I happen to amble by the sycamore stand. I could see the glow of the Ford Dodge taillights through the foliage. The engine was running, the headlights were out, and two small purple passion lights blazed under the dash.
Gord is afraid of ghosts. I thought I would put a scare into him. I crawled on the ground beside the car and then jumped up and yelled Boo! No reaction from Gord. His head was against the window; Hilly had her head leaning against his chest.
I rattled the door handle, rocked the car and yelled some more.
I looked in. Gord and Hilly were both mouth-open unconscious.
I pulled them out. I gave mouth-to-mouth to my sister (and it is indeed like getting a tie in hockey) and booted Harvey a few times in the ribs to get his heart going.
They lived. Lucky thing too ... the rag that Gord had tied around the muffler had slipped and the exhaust had found its way into the car – not a mean feat considering the porous car floor.
Nursing his sore ribs Gord said he sure was lucky and swore he would never forget what I had done and promised to reward me. Hilly made me promise I wouldn't tell.
Yes he was lucky. Shortly after that he won the lottery. I bought the ticket for him. Wintario. He also won my sister's hand. Gord never noticed my hand out at the wedding reception nor heard me muttering about saving his life.
The new couple bought a modest bungalow in town near the Legion Hall (Gord's home away from home). It had running water but no fridge. Had a Renfrew ceiling; pull the tarp off the roof when it isn't raining and you get direct sunlight down into the kitchen!
Hilly was lucky if she saw her hubby once a week. Making manhole covers is a dirty thirsty business and thanks to his change in fortunes, Gord had a means of quenching that thirst (too bad he didn’t fix the dirt problem while he was at it).
I was working at Butson's Bar on the edge of town. I was locally famous because I invented a drink I called Renfrew's Lucky Red Eye. It was a mug of Brador malt liquor (over-proof beer from Quebec) and Heinz tomato juice. At the bottom of the mug was an upside down shot glass filled with Seagram's whisky, which oozed into the beer as you tipped the stein up to your mouth. What was so lucky about my concoction? You were, if you could drink three glasses and still be able to find your pickup truck in the parking lot.
Gord had had four Lucky Red Eyes before closing time. I told him that if he drove like the wind he could make it to Club Riviere in Portage-du-Fort on the other side of the Ottawa River. The Quebec bar closed one hour later than us.
Gord was fortunate to make it over to the Riviere in time. In fact he was able to down two quick Oeil Rouge Chanceux (they stole my recipe). He also bought the house a round (remember he won the lottery).
On the way home to Hilly he decided he would have to stop and answer nature's call. He pulled over halfway across the Chenaux Bridge that traversed high over the mighty Ottawa River. Standing on the edge of the structure, in the still of a very cold night, he looked up to see dancing green lights in the black sky. "Lucky to see the Northern Lights this far south" he said to himself.
It was then that he lost his balance and tumbled over the bridge. It was a 90 ft fall into the half-frozen river below. The Rescue Team said he was really lucky that he was able to make it ashore with two broken legs. He was also lucky they only dropped him twice as they climbed up the slippery hill to the waiting ambulance.
Hilly was some mad. But Gord won her back by buying their first fridge once the casts came off. She loved that refrigerator. Gord kept opening the door to see if the light was still on.
One warm day when the tarp was off, a raven flew in through the hole and into the kitchen. Gord thought it was a bad omen. He grabbed his 22 from under the bed and fired off a round or two at the black bird. Untouched the startled raven escaped back through the roof opening.
Gord missed the bird but hit the fridge. Lucky he aimed high, he destroyed the meat freezer but the beer in the vegetable crisper was only shaken but not stirred (by the bullets).
That was about when Hilly left him. Lucky for Gord my sister didn't know about support payments.
I didn't see him all that next winter. In the spring he dragged himself up to my bar and asked for another Renfrew Lucky Red Eye. I told him I wouldn't serve him because he owed my sister half of his assets, and, “by-the-way you owed me something for saving your life.”
He pulled out his wallet and handed me a $5 bill. Said he’d been saving it since that night in the field. He swore that it was his lucky sawbuck and told me to split it with Hilly, because it was also the last money he had left in the world.
The next day I bought a lottery ticket.
Cutline: Gord Ford's lucky day - His Wintario number comes up
Picture of downtown Renfrew's post office

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Sublimnos - Muse for James Cameron



Sublimnos No Longer Out Of Sight
… And Definitely Not Out of Mind

By Stephen Weir

It will take a long long time for a piece of Canadian dive history to rust into dust. Given the hard feelings surrounding the historic Sublimnos Project, the deteriorating, remains of that underwater habitat could well be an above-water Lake Ontario eyesore for years until rust indeed becomes dust.
Back in the summer of 1969 Sublimnos was set down in the waters of Georgian Bay near Tobermory, Ontario the self-described "fresh water scuba diving capital of the world" .It was a bargain basement underwater research station. Constructed from a railroad tanker for just $10,000.00, Sublimnos became Canada’s first subsurface research laboratory.
From 1969 to 1971 the Sublimnos project, funded and spearhead by physician, author, explorer and frequent Diver Magazine contributor Dr. Joe McInnis, was headline news around the world. Built to accommodate up to four divers at a time, in its first two-years of operation it is reported that over 3,000 divers (from high school students to scientists to artists) had used it.
Constructed at a time when many other countries were creating their first underwater research stations, Sublimnos stood out. That is because it was the only freshwater underwater lab, the only under-ice station and it was the only “free “submerged habitat in the world. Dr. Joe McInnis called it his “Open Hatch” policy.
“Any qualified diver of any age from anywhere who has a legitimate reason for using Sublimnos is welcome to do so free,” Dr. Joe McInnis told Popular Mechanics Magazine in April 1971. “All he has to do is write me so we can schedule a diving time. We can afford the open-hatch policy because we operate on what I call people power instead of money power. Enthusiasm frequently can be more effective than dollars and most of our workers are enthusiastic volunteers.”
Sublimnos resembled an hourglass. At the top was a yellow and blue air filled pod with windows and a small dome. The much larger bottom pod was a weighted ballast tank, which kept the top section from bobbing up to the surface. Four lifeline cables and pipes fed Sublimnos compressed air, hot water, electricity and communications linked from a small building on shore.
2009 is the 40th anniversary of Sublimnos being installed on the bottom of Georgian Bay. The grand experiment ran for about five years. The habitat was eventually brought out of the water and taken to the Seneca College’s lake north of Toronto where it was used by the College’s commercial diver programme. By 1988 it was acquired by Kenn Feigelman, who had formed a non-profit company called Deep Quest. Deep Quest had provincial funding to study freshwater artificial reefs and wanted to use Sublimnos once again as a subsurface research station.
Sublimnos was taken to Prince Edward County (a peninsula in Lake Ontario) cleaned up and re-sunk. When Deep Quest lost its funding 15-years Sublimnos was abandoned on the bottom of Lake Ontario, a few hundred feet from shore in just 10 feet of water. There it stayed, a foul weather dive site and a popular shore dive site.
In 2007 it was pulled out of the water, apparently by a local dive shop and left on shore. It remains there today.

“It is an historical Canadian artifact. It was a pioneer, now it is a rusting piece of shit.” said Kenn Feigelman, the outspoken former owner of the underwater habitat. “ It should be underwater or in a museum. I don’t think Canadians would learn anything from it now but it is a remnant of Canada’s first ever-underwater research laboratory. As rudimentary as it was, it was our first and it is history.”
“ It belongs in a museum,” said Toronto filmmaker Diane Woods. “ I think it should be on display at the Fathom Five interpretation centre in Tobermory. It should be back where it all started.”
Diane Woods has wanted to produce a documentary movie, Saving Sublimnos, Canada’s First Underwater Comes Home, for over a decade. She sees the project – proving that humans can live underwater – as a catalyst that encouraged Canadians to take up diving.
“ The Americans had Sea Hunt (a weekly black and white TV action show) and we had Sublimnos,” she continued. “It was inspiration to Pierre Trudeau, who himself was a diver. It is said that Canadian film director James Cameron (Abyss, Titanic, etc) was inspired to dive after seeing Sublimnos on a flatbed truck in front of the Royal Ontario Museum here in Toronto.”
Wood’s company, aquaCULTURE Pictures Inc, has shelved its plan to film the history of the Sublimnos, because of an apparent disagreement between the current owners of what is left of the underwater habitat and a group of divers, including Dr. Joe McInnis, who want to see it become part of a historical display.
George Wheeler and Susan Yankoo own and operate Ducks Dive in Lake Ontario. They, and a number of volunteer divers brought the habitat up from the bottom of Lake Ontario and placed it on shore near their Point Traverse lakeside resort.
“The Sublimnos was 'recovered' in August 2007. At that time it was inaccessible and stuck deep in mud. You can see how deep (it was stuck in the mud) based on the lack of zebras mussels on much of it” posted Paul Tetley on the popular Ontario Diving social media website. “It was quite the exercise to 'recover' it.”
“There was a project last summer (2007) to refurbish it and return it to a usable position in the lake, using elevator cable to secure it to the bottom,” continued Mr. Tetley in response to written questions from Diver Magazine. “That project didn't gel, and I'm not sure if there is a project on the books for this summer.”
Susan Yankoo doesn’t want to be quoted about what happened when she and George Wheeler were approached about the habitat and asked to bring it up from the bottom and give it up for a museum display. She does say that there was a disagreement when they talked to Dr McInnis about the museum project five or six years ago. Ms. Yankoo will say that she and George Wheeler were dissed during those talks to bring what was left of Sublimnos to a museum. She did say that they have no plans to move it from the shoreline at least not this year.
“ We are more concerned about what is happening to shipwrecks at this end of the Lake than we are about that (Sublimnos) thing,” said Ms. Yankoo.
“Joe wanted to put into Fathom Five, and went to see them (George Wheeler and Susan Yankoo) and they were really rude to him. I think Joe was willing to pay $1,000 for it,” said Feigelman. “But they told him to fuck off. That was the end of that, at least for now.”
Now it is on the shore. Battered. Half covered in Zebra mussels. Lying on its side looking like an over-grown blue and yellow beer can. It wasn’t always so.
“ Sublimnos was built from a couple of old propane rail‐cars. (Dr Joe) McInnis had envisioned thee design and had the build done to be inexpensive and genuinely “low key” and on a budget. It simply worked!” explained Doug Elsey, the 1970 Project Manager, for the Sublimnos Project.
“ I joined the Sublimnos Project in the spring of 1970 – just after it had been placed in the water in Tobermory. I was a student in Ocean engineering at Florida Atlantic University and I was on a 6-month co-op work-study program. I was “hired” (more like volunteered) as the pay was absolutely minimal – just enough for food – but the opportunity to work on the project far outweighed the financial return.”
“ Now we have this technology passport that allows us to go underwater and spend a lot of time there,” Dr Joe McInnis tells Canadian in a CBC news documentary that aired nationally March 23rd 1971 and can be seen on the web at:
“ It is really a very primitive kind of place in many ways in this habitat Sublimnos, it is very Spartan in the fittings. You see we have dials and a clock, windows. It is much like an explorers tent – it allows us the most important element to any observer, the artist or scientist that is the element of time. We can look at the whole pyramid of life that exists down here below the surface. “
“Edwin Link and his wife Marion became life long friends of Dr. Joe McInnis,” said Diane Woods in describing the scope of the project. “Link built SPID which stands for a Submersible Portable Inflatable Dwelling. SPID and Sublimnos plus three other underwater habitats (Sub Igloo) were in Dunk's Bay (Tobermory) for one season. This was a world first! “
“Link was a remarkable man and had a major impact on underwater diving, “ she continued. “SPID was at one time in the lake at Seneca College King Campus (with Sublimnos) for many years, then in a farmer’s field, and then sent to the land fill - the Smithsonian would kill to get their hands on it!”
“ I had heard it was molding away at Seneca. It was no longer being used, students would get into just to have a smoke,” explain Kenn Feigelman. “We are talking 1988 and Sublimnos, or what was left of it, looked at it. The school said I could have it if I talked to Joe (McInnis). I did and he said okay.”
Feigelman and Deep Quest were going to build four artificial reefs near Port Traverse. One reef would be made of tires, the second of retired ships, the third of cinder blocks and the fourth of concrete water pipes. Sublimnos was to be the hub of the reefs.
“ At that point in time Ducks Dive was just getting started,” said Feigelman. “ We were all good friends. We sunk Sublimnos near their resort – no one know about their facility until we did that.”
His provincial government funding ran out in 1991. Feigelman quit the organization he started, and everyone but the dive community once again abandoned Sublimnos.
Sublimnos’ upper pod (the lower ballast pod is still submerged near Tobermory) sat in 30 ft of water, perfect for night dives, navigational training dives and for novice check-out dives. Hundreds of divers have visited the popular site from ’91 until its removal from the water last year.
Questions have been raised about who exactly owns the habitat. Feigelman figures the province might own it since it has been on the bottom of Lake Ontario for 20 years.
The owners of Ducks Dive don’t agree. “We own it,” said Susan Yankoo, “and if someone wants to buy it, we can prove it.”
Top: Sublimnos on land. Photo taken summer of 2010 by Jim Kozmik
Bottom: Aaron Szimanski took this picture several years as the Sublimnos was lifted off the bottom of Lake Ontario.

Deep Discount Habitat - sidebar to featured article on Sublimnos



Scientists. Students. Divers. Thanks to the media the world came to see
Sublimnos. In Canada almost every major news outlet from the Toronto
Star to the CBC came to Tobermory. The international media came too.
National Geographic Society helped fund the Sublimnos project and their
magazine covered the story as well.
“David Doubilet is notably one of the most famous National Geographic
photographers and a mentor to photographers today,” said film producer
Diana Woods. “One of his first photography assignments was Sublimnos
in Tobermory in 1969!”
Probably the most definitive U.S. article on Sublimnos appeared in Popular
Mechanics Magazine (PMM) in April 1971. Back then PMM was ‘the’ voice
of innovation and invention for Americans. At the time its readership was
over 6.6 million, so the MacInnis Sublimnos Project gained high profile
throughout the English-speaking world.
Entitled Bargain Basement Habitat, the story was written by Douglas
Hicks and informed readers how Dr. MacInnis’ project was something that
students and dive clubs could replicate for $2,000.00. In talking about the
project, the PMM article noted that Sublimnos:
• … “is a made up word taken from the root word limnology, meaning the
study of the physical meteorological and biological conditions of fresh
water.”• … “builders decided to modify the carrier (which was built of threequarter
inch/2cm steel) and then spray the inside with two inches (5cm)
of foam plastic for insulation. Sparse furnishings were added and the
structure was joined to its bottom half, which is nothing but a steel cylinder
filled with 10 tons of iron ore ballast”
• … “had light streaming in from the transparent dome and the four
windows. In front of two of the windows were fold-down tables. Scattered
around the walls were hooks for gear. Half way up the wall was a little lamp
on a drooping gooseneck. The humidity was so high … I could see a fine
mist in the air.”
• …“ thermometer on the wall reported the inside temperature at 68°F
(20ºC), fairly comfortable even in a wet suit. I asked the water temperature.
It’s 63°F (17ºC).” (There was a heater inside that was used in the winter.)
The Popular Mechanics article is available on line at
The March 23, 1971 CBC Telescope feature on the project can be seen at:
ht tp : / / a rchiv e s.cbc.c a / s cienc e_t e chnology / na tur al_s cienc e /
DIVER Magazine is grateful to Parks Canada, Diane Woods of AquaCULTURE
Pictures, Inc., Doug Elsey and Aaron Szimanski for the use of photographs