Tuesday, September 17, 2019



Journalists, like smart lawyers in a courtroom, should generally have a good idea about the answer when they pose a question.
Except this time I don't.
Once upon a time, I was part of the chorus of alarm about how zebra mussels were the great and growing menace in Ontario's cottage country and in all the streams and lakes that had anything to do with the Great Lakes.
The invasion of the mussels had transformed our rivers and lakes, plugging intake pipes, cutting hands and feet, and generally being a pain in other parts for boaters, swimmers and waders.
I didn't work in the Trent River without gloves and old shoes, that is if I didn't want to suffer countless paper cuts. In effect,  I used armour whenever I set out to repair the shoreline or a dock. And it was yet another reason for scaredy-cat kids not to go into the water no matter how much their sweating dad yelled.
But then the other day I swam out to one speed marker in the Northumberland Narrows which is ignored by 99% of the boaters, 100% of the Sea-Doos and 125%  of the OPP. Supposedly you are limited to 10 km/h (which is like a fast walk) which just happens to be the major speed limit close to the shore for most of Canada.
As I clung there (and a tidal wave thrown up by a passing yacht rolled over me) I noticed that on the barrel of the marker were a few zebra mussels. I can remember when there would have been several layers and if I had not been cautious, I would have tiny cuts that would have stung as if they were inflicted by a sword.
So I swam along the shoreline of Burnt Point when I returned to my cottage, watching out for personal water craft which are the bumble bee curse of cottage country, and found only a few mussels on border rocks which once would have been coated.
So my question for the experts who used to write about the mussel menace since it was imported from Europe in the ballast water of a freighter is whether the mussels are in a lull, part of a boom or bust cycle which is common to Nature, or whether they have eaten themselves out of house and home and are just going to go away, another of the great blights that were going to ruin the world but then petered out over time.
The Internet is still stuffed with features about the billions of dollars in damage that zebra mussels were inflicting on us. Plenty of coverage about how they were changing fishing even as they were killing off other species.
But no stories about how in recent years the zebra mussels just seemed to have largely gone away without anyone noticing. I hope that is true. It certainly seems to be the situation in my stretch of the Trent River, and I hope devoutly that it is true for much of Ontario.
But I really don't know! Do you!

Friday, September 13, 2019



Even if the Liberals were not led by a devious and obsequious drama queen, I would not vote Grit.
But since Pete Trudeau's family still has one skeletal claw on the party, it's easy to vote for a party led by a Tory who doesn't act as if he has cornered all the morality in the country.
My first brush with the Trudeaus came as a Dodger fan when Jackie Robinson smashed the colour bar in baseball when he was promoted courageously from the Montreal Royals, a team largely owned and controlled by Peter Trudeau's father. That was mentioned in the English press but wasn't a big deal.
My next contact came, although I didn't know it, as I squinted into the blizzard over the Yukon's Lake LaBarge (of Robert Service fame.) We had made two forced landing with wheels on the rotten ice. My story made the front pages of the country because I was covering James Sinclair, a major cabinet minister who years later became the father-in-law to Pete, the pirouetting PM, and the grandfather to our current PM.
I was in charge of the Tely coverage when the politician who always contrived vainly to be really different - like boycotting the honourable war and lying about his age - became leader of the county much to the shock of the people who really knew him.
As the Tely skidded into the mists, I had on my desk one of the sexiest pictures I have ever seen outside the famous Marilyn Monroe calendar picture. It was said by the photographer, who wanted the kingly sum of $600, to be 18 year-old Margaret Sinclair in a bathing suit on the beach in Tahiti where she met a much older man who said diffidently over drinks that he was the prime minister of her country.
I never ran that picture on Page One because such was the relationship between the Telegram and the Liberals that I knew they would sue or humiliate us if it was really some other voluptuous creature. I left the picture on my desk as I put out the final edition and walked out of the silent building that has just been destroyed by the Globe.
I never knew that in my future was a profane encounter between me and Margaret in Caracas when I came to the defense of the PM's private secretary when Margaret was calling him every possible obscenity in front of dozens of tourists in a hotel lobby.
I was irked and tired so I used the F word in every possible construction, matched vowel by vowel by Margaret who was so infuriated by me that she marched into the state dinner and gave a Nazi salute to the Maple Leaf flag.
Then on the plane home,  I coaxed her into singing the silly songs she had made up to serenade the wives of the leaders  of the countries we had toured, and woke the next day to find myself being vilified on TV and radio as Margaret insisted into every mike that I had told her it was all off the record. (She had waited for every last tape recorder to be fired up.)
I could go on, like the time she led an alternative march at a UN conference in Vancouver that was to highlight the pails of drinking water that women in the Third World had to lug home daily. I pointed out that she had an inch of water in her pail, while the cabinet minister assigned by the PM to escort her for the day was loyally carting a full pail. She flounced off on a profane cloud.
She flirted from famous Manhattan night clubs to rooms with suspicious smells in Toronto - often spectacularly without her panties -while her husband confounded friend and foe in Ottawa. I was slightly handicapped in trying to figure out what stunt he would pull next because he generally ignored my questions. We once had a conversation about his SCUBA diving with Fidel Castro which ended abruptly when he remembered he was actually talking to someone from the despised Sun.
On one walkabout at the Kortright Centre, Pete encouraged Sacha to go into the crowd and shake hands with another cute toddler who just happened to be my youngest son, Mark, and film of the kids made the National. The same secretary who I had defended in Venezuela whispered with relish that he was going to be pleased to tell the boss that it was a Downing kid just to watch him scowl because he was a great hater.
By the way, that same Sacha, the PM's youngest brother, is a film-maker who got into trouble with a flesh-eating disease while shooting a documentary in Madagascar and was rescued by a young film director from Toronto, Gordon Weiske. He was carried through the jungle on Gord's back to the medical help which saved his life.
After my friend Gordon related the story to me, I asked whether a friendship had sprung up as a result. "No," Gord said, "he never even thanked me,"
"Sounds like the family, " I said. "After all, you didn't have anything more to offer, like votes, or a private island for a free vacation."

Sunday, September 8, 2019



I have been watching out for game wardens for decades. I have even used them as a threat to fishermen hanging close to my point for days at a time. But I have only had one experience with them, and it was a nice one.
My grandfather had no fun in his life except for two days of fishing a year. He laboured putting the final finish on furniture at the big Krug Brothers factory in Chesley long after most retired because there were no pensions. Then he came home when he was 72, grey with fatigue, and died a few weeks later.
Every Victoria Day and Labour Day holiday, he dug worms in our second lot where he grew all the vegetables to feed us year-round and with bamboo poles for my two sisters and I clambered along the Saugeen banks fishing for bass, and if we were lucky, suckers.
The first stop was at the Three Sisters, three stumps that are still there decades later. He had fished first there with his five daughters, even though all we caught there were rock bass, more bones than flesh. If we were lucky, maybe a bucket mouth or more elite bass closer to the big dam.
By the time we got to Scone, a couple of kilometres from town, we would have a pail of fish, even real bass. Grandpa kept everything!
And then we would trudge back, chewing the last stick of Wrigley's Gum --the treat for the day--water sloshing over the top of the pail.
We met the game warden on the big bridge that has just had to be rebuilt. He was Mr. Sanderson (also my Grade 7 teacher with no first name because public school teachers in my day only had last names).
And he looked down into the big pail where there were a few bass that wouldn't be legal to catch for another five weeks. "Fine catch, Mr. Hoogstad," he boomed. Because he knew in a town of 1,800 where everyone knew everything about you that the jockey-sized man from Holland had taken in three orphans and had no money to do anything other than feed them and twice a year to go fishing.
So I remember Mr. Hetherington for that compassionate afternoon when he could have confiscated our humble gear and fined the old man for keeping a catch out of season.(He also once brought to class a large Snowy owl which stared at us with the hauteur of a dowager.)
For decades now at my point in the Trent River south of Havelock, the spectre of game wardens has hung over a few of us in our pursuit of pickerel, bass and muskie. Yet most cottage neighbours and the locals seem to pay no attention, just as they routinely speed far above the limit in the Northumberland Narrows.
The major reason for that is obvious. I have never seen a warden, or whatever you want to call them, at my point for the 39 years I have been the humble owner. And the OPP make a token appearance a few times a year, perhaps to get the dust off the boat.
Except you can still use wardens as a threat. One fall a boat showed up for five days and fished every daylight hour just feet from my shore. To hell with my privacy! So finally I stood there and said sarcastically that the five of them seemed to be doing quite well. They said they were from Ohio and came every year  to my point and fished for 10 days. "We catch our limit every day," one boasted drunkenly.
I said that meant they had caught more than 200 bass, walleye and muskie. Since the fishing regulations only allow you to have a fraction of that number in your possession, I said they must have great fish suppers every night back at the fishing camp.
They started to argue numbers of possession with me. I told them that they could debate with the game warden that I had called, and I was sure it would be OK. I walked back to the cottage and when I looked out, they were gone.
Indeed, they haven't been back.
They really had no excuse but I once said in an email to a friend who was appointed the provincial minister in charge of administering wildlife regulations that I find the regs to be as clear as mud. The minister sent my letter through the bureaucratic hoops and some official crafted an official reply in case I was going to write a column.
It was a lengthy defense of how complicated it was to set the rules for the various waters in this large province to protect the fish in the varying habitat. But at the bottom of the official letter, the minister scrawled agreement with my complaint.
Once upon a time I can remember when on the back concessions, farmers who did a little trapping and hunting did so with one eye peeled for the wardens. Shooting pike with a .22 in the spring creeks was normal practise.
 My late brother-in-law, Gordon Long, was overrun on his farm near Schomberg with deer eating his vegetables and cutting up his fields with their hoofs. He also appreciated venison. So if some big buck persisted in nibbling the lettuce, Gord would drop it with a crossbow and the thick bolt/arrow.
Why a crossbow? Because the theory with the area farmers was that a rifle shot or a shotgun blast might be heard by a warden who would come snooping. It wasn't just the threat of the fine and having your equipment confiscated. It wasn't unknown for a farmer to have a still above the pig pen that would mask the smell, and this was less than a hour north of the Big Smoke!
If you think that was unusual, you should know that years before just a short distance to the north there was a big swamp where rustlers kept their stolen cattle in the middle away from casual detection. One rustling ring was busted but they didn't get much punishment because their lawyer, one Nathan Phillips, got them a good deal. (Yes the same mayor they named a square after.)
As they sang on that TV show, those were the days, before we called wardens with the more PC title of  conservation officers and they weren't grizzle oldtimers but career people who may even have gone to college.
Now Queen's Park has changed the rules on pickerel. I am sure I will look them up if I ever catch a big pickerel again. Once my point was known around the area as the best place to fish and I was besieged by land and sea. But that has changed since the wonderful late autumn night when my cousin Dave Prescott and I practically had giant fish jumping into our arms.
Prescott is scrupulous and knowledgeable about the rules governing everything from Scrabble and golf to hunting and fishing. Except that night, we broke the pickerel rules and didn't realize it until months after we had consumed all the delicious fillets.
The fishing regs are still too complicated, and I still see fishing out of season all the time, but I have never been confronted by a game warden since Mr. Hetherington stopped Grandpa on the Chesley bridge.
Maybe wardens I mean, ahem, conservation officers, don't exist in any meaningful numbers since fishing is hardly high on the priority of politicians who are more carp than trout in their activities. The government has stolen the revenue from fishing licences to pay for their stupider promises - just like the taxes on our gas no longer go for roads, which was the original excuse - and it has closed most of the hatcheries that replenish the poor man's sport.
So it would not surprise me to find that most game wardens have vanished and the ghost of the threat is the only thing that stops those jerks from Ohio from coming every October and savaging all the fish around my Burnt Point.
I don't miss them at all. Neither does the great blue heron that flops down on the point to listen to classical music with me.  It is so peaceful then in cottage  country that I would even give a warden - I mean a conservation officer - a beer and not bitch about murky regulations.