Canada’s Eye on the Universe: Acid Rain, Ghost Dances, Moon Terrain & Solar Neutrons

Oh Canada! As an American, I find Canada fascinating. It’s so similar to the United States that Canadians easily blend into the US scene and people are often surprised when certain Canadians are outed as such. Growing up, I was flabbergasted when I found out that Michael J Fox was actually Canadian-yet his character Alex Keaton on Family Ties was the quintessential Reagan American. Despite my pretense of being Canadian while traveling abroad (especially during huge anti-American fervor), my first trip to Canada didn’t happen until my mid-20s when I was actually already in graduate school. Because at that time I lived on the west coast I did frequent road trips up and down the US Western coast; in particular to learn about this strange west coast land that as an east Coaster was so foreign to me. I had the pleasure of going to Vancouver which, in my opinion, is far prettier than San Francisco -which is kind of its sister city. Since then I have taken numerous trips to the sparsely populated land of Canada and have developed a love affair with it. For my Montreal excursion, I Amtraked it up and was excited to discover excellent Lebanese restaurants. Now, while Vancouver was similar to San Francisco; Montreal is a French New York with even more attitude. Seriously! People say New York has an attitude ..pulease! But it was charming, nonetheless.


My favorite part of Canada is its Heartland-if I am allowed to use an American descriptor. I had the cool experience of road tripping through the province of Ontario on the Trans-Canada Highway from Sault Ste Marie (entering through Michigan) to Ottawa. And while it seems similar to the heartland of the United States, Ontario is the second most diverse province with 22.8% of the population consisting of visible minorities. It’s interesting that Canadians use the term of visible minorities-in light of how Brazil constructs its racial categories around varying degrees of skin color.  Does Canada have similar issues around race that we do in the United States? What about Hispanic Canadians? Are they visible minorities? I am actually going to have to dive into this topic more at some other time.


Back to the journey at hand. The small towns en route to Ottawa were quaint, sparsely populated and the real deal! The trip on the Trans-Canada highway slowly started becoming, although not originally intended as such, as another one of our ghost hunting trips as the roads were empty and the small towns had some interesting folklore. One of the eye-opening segments of our road trip included our brief excursion into First Nations territory- what us Americans colloquially refer to us as Indian Reservations. While these were on the more interior part of the country, the ones we came across were on nice lake front areas and weren’t squirreled away in rocky or barren terrain. Somehow, but I readily admit I am an outsider, they seemed to me to be more integrated and better treated. The name “Ontario” comes from an Iroquoian word, loosely translated as “beautiful” or “sparkling” water or lake and that definitely stood out when we visited the lands. First Nations Land (from what I could see) were a huge contrast to American Indian Reservations. Going onto one of the “reservations” one could not help but feel that the old spirits were still part of the land and were a guiding force. In particular, when you go onto the powwow grounds there was an eerie sense of calm.  Admittedly, the pow wow ground appeared a little touristy but the feeling of the ghost dance was still there as well.  On this one reservation there was this beautiful children’s playground right in front of the Lake that didn’t seem to be used much by children. There was abundant graffiti and there was an interesting spaceship type of kid’s play structure that perhaps was paying homage to Sudbury’s NASA connection (more on that below). The lack of children did make me wonder what does the future of that particular population look like.  Although, Canada clearly refers to Native Americans as First Nations, we did come across graffiti on the highway that noted that “this is indian land.”  Unfortunately, I was not long enough in the area to figure out  what the juxtaposition of indian land versus first nations really means to those there.  Regardless, you do get a sense of the history and spirit of the lands.

Speaking of folklore and ghost hunting trips, we made the town of Sudbury one of the focal parts of our Trans-Canada journey. In the late 19th century, mining centers exploded in Canada leading to the creation of the town of Sudbury which seems to consist of many small communities scattered around an enormous number of lakes and among hills of rock blackened by long-term mining activity.  The region became blanketed with exposed rocky outcrops permanently stained charcoal black, first by the air pollution from the roasting yards then by the acid rain in a layer which penetrates up to three inches into the once pink-gray granite. The blackened hills give it a bit of an ominous look and feel. At times we joked that we were in the movie The Hills Have Eyes. According to anthropologists, the Sudbury region was sparsely inhabited by the Ojibwe people of the Algonquin group as early as 9000 years ago following the retreat of the ice sheets. As we neared Sudbury we talked to several locals at restaurants and heard about the acid rain that blankets Sudbury.  Acid rain, the long-standing history of first nations and the blackened hills give Sudbury a sense of being one of those cities that survive apocalypses and such: could very well be end of the world shows like Jericho are based on.


Interestingly, during the Apollo manned lunar exploration program, NASA astronauts trained in Sudbury to become familiar with shatter cones, a rare rock formation connected with meteorite impacts.  Because Sudbury supposedly so closely resembles the rocky, lifeless surface of the moon an urban myth was started that NASA was training in Sudbury because it was actually a transplanted (fallen) piece of the moon. To add to the urban legends surrounding Sudbury, there is the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) which is located 6,800 feet underground. The observatory was designed to detect solar neutrinos through their interactions with a large tank of heavy water. The detector was turned on in1999, and was turned off in 2006.  It was open for seven “lucky” years.  Hmmm…This SNO was tagged as Canada’s Eye on the Universe but mystery remains as to why it was really turned off and what is taking place down there now.  Adding to the odd charm of Sudbury were the old-style adds throughout the town such as an Old Milwaukee Ad that used old-school women’s charms to sell beer.


In a way, the town of Sudbury reminded me of the small town of Wendover, Nevada which is rooted in a time of the wild wild west.  There is a feeling in the air that anything goes and anything, any otherworldly event can happen there.   Canada may be quiet on the world stage but it appears to have the pulse of the world and universe.  Go ahead and explore and see what you find!

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