Monday, November 7, 2011
This posting is part of occasional series, based upon a bicycle tour around the Great Lakes, starting with Lake Huron.
July 24, 2011
I wasn’t exactly sure where to begin this journey, but eventually decided upon Sarnia, Ontario. Mostly this is because it was the shortest drive from Ithaca, and close to the U.S. border. After a little web investigation, I learned that it had a train station where I could leave my car, free, “at my own risk.” Ideal.
It’s about a six hour drive to Sarnia from Ithaca, across the New York State Thruway, and then over the Lewiston Bridge into Canada. It’s not exactly a picturesque drive. It seems that the area up from Buffalo over to Hamilton, St. Catherines, and Toronto, has become quite the megalopolis.
I haven’t been to this part of Canada in a while, and you notice the ethnic and racial diversity that has resulted from Canada’s relatively liberal immigration policies. As anti-immigration sentiment has increased in the U.S., Canada has become increasingly attractive to immigrants, a factor that has no doubt contributed to the vibrancy of its economy, not to mention its cultural diversity.
When I needed gas, the station's pumps wouldn't take my credit card. I went to ask about the problem. "The machines won't take American cards," the clerk informed me. "You need to scan it in here." "Don't trust Americans, I see." I joked. She laughed. "I don't blame you."
I checked into a Comfort Inn in Sarnia and asked where the train station was. The clerk at the registration desk directed me to the other side of town. The ride over gave me a chance to check out the place. The city was quite deserted on a Sunday evening, exactly as you might expect. I noticed a nice park along the river.
Unfortunately, the interstate runs right through the city’s center, bifurcating it. Still, it seemed like a nice place, with active businesses and stable neighborhoods. Sarnia, with a population of just over 70,000, is the largest city on Lake Huron. As a general rule, I like Canadian cities.
The great French explorer LaSalle named Sarnia “The Rapids,” due to its location on what was eventually called the St. Claire River. Sarnia is an oil town. Nearby Oil Springs was the location of the first commercial oil drilling operation in the U.S. or Canada. The oil complex along the river is legacy to this past, and was apparently once featured on the back of the Canadian ten dollar bill.
Oil, of course, means chemicals, and Sarnia has a central place in what’s known as Canada’s “chemical valley.” Although the chemical industry has declined here, there are still a number of plants.
As a result, Sarnia has the heaviest air pollution load of any city in Ontario. In 2005, the area released 131 million kilograms of air pollutants from the 23 chemical plants nearby. Sarnia is also, it turns out, one of the leading producers of greenhouse gasses in Canada, representing 21 percent of Ontario’s total emissions.
Near to Sarnia is an Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve. The health of the residents there has been severely affected by all of the chemical pollution. Live births of males are nearly half of those for live females, making it the lowest recorded anywhere on earth. Such a pattern would be consistent with exposure to chemical toxins.
Miscarriage and stillborn rates have been reported to be as high as 39 percent. Moreover, it isn’t just the native population being affected. A study comparing hospital admission rates between Sarnia and London found much higher rates for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases in Sarnia. You won't find this information on the Sarnia Wikipedia page or city website.
Sarnia had a moment in the pop cultural sunlight when Michael Moore came to interview residents for his 2004 film, Bowling for Columbine, and he later returned for more interviews for his 2007 film, Sicko.
I found an ATM that would work and decided to take a fair amount of cash. Conflicts over the debt ceiling increase have been raging in the U.S. I was a little worried that there might be a default. The dollar's collapse would make the Canadian part of this trip a lot more expensive.
I found a Thai restaurant for dinner. The owner was very friendly, and I ate as a violent storm made its way through. It had rained heavily for much of the drive over. I was hoping that it would clear out a little. I don’t mind riding in the rain, especially if it’s a warm rain, but lightening makes me nervous.