Sunday, 13 January 2008

On how I got into cycle touring, part 2. A field of Camlann

Maybe it was the fact that the trip to the San Juan Islands took place in November, a frequently melancholy month, but there was tinge of sadness to the trip. The damp weather common in the area may also have played a part. My eldest brother had questioned my rationale (and rationality) even before I had arrived in Vancouver. He described November as the start of the monsoon season. Then again, he is a "the glass is half empty" type.

The San Juan Islands were the site of the Pig War. While some, if not most, descriptions of the boundary dispute give the casualty list as 1 pig, British, KIA, a careful reading of the history, not to mention a visit to the sites, reveals a different story.

The Pig War was started by an poorly worded treaty describing the water boundaries between the colony of British Columbia (later a part of the Dominion of Canada) and the United States which both sides interpreted as meaning they owned the San Juan Islands. Matters came to a head when a pig belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company ate the crops of an American settler. The pig was shot and eaten by the American resulting in the HBC trying to claim compensation. The bickering got out of hand leading to a military confrontation during the summer 1859. The situation could have resulted in a war between the British Empire and the United States. Both sides were under orders to not to start a fight, but to respond if provoked. This was not a healthy situation. The last battle in the Arthurian cycle was on the field of Camlann. It had been meant as a negotiation, but one knight drew his sword to kill a snake and the glory that had been Camelot was ended.

Maybe I am reading too much into the situation. For one thing, given that the American soldiers were heavily outnumbered by the British, I doubt they would have started anything. However, there was a real danger of war.

Cooler heads prevailed and both sides agreed to disagree about the ownership of the islands and settled down to negotiate a settlement via diplomatic means while small military detachments from either side occupied discretely separate camps on opposite ends of San Juan Island. However, owning to the American Civil War and other events, it took 12 years and the help of the noted pacifist Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany to sort out the ownership of the islands. Those years were not without casualties. I will return to those casualties later.

Margo, Chris and I, with our bikes on the roof of Margo's Subaru, drove to a parking lot near the Tsawwassen ferry terminal. Arriving at around dawn, we got on the ferry to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island. After breakfast on the ferry, we rode the short distance to Sidney where we caught the ferry to San Juan Island.

I don't know why the San Juan ferry doesn't stop at Swartz Bay. However, I suspect the reason has something to do with customs and immigration controls. (It might also be because of commercial differences between the BC and Washington state ferry companies.) This was the first time I had officially crossed the Canada-U.S. border by boat. While I knew that Americans had tightened up immigration controls because of 9/11 and the effing Millennium bomber, the number of people involved seemed excessive for such a minor ferry run. There was a friendly, somewhat large, Southern black woman whom I like to think as coming from Georgia who checked our passports in Sidney before we even got on the ferry. There was also a somewhat less friendly man with a sniffer dog at the other end. We wondered what the dog was trained to sniff out. Someone said explosives, but I was (and still am) of the opinion that BC bud was the more likely target.

Another person then did something that amused me as it involved a question based on a mistaken assumption I had hoped would never be asked by a certain class of person. Luckily, he wasn't that that class.

I was born in London, Ontario. This is very minor accident of fate and I have remarkably little attachment to the place as I have spent less than twenty four hours there since I was about three months old. Nonetheless, it is listed as my place of birth on my passport. More precisely, my passport describes it as: LONDON CAN. I had sometimes wondered what would happen if some hijacker would look at my passport and think that I was British and therefore a nasty imperialist running dog or possibly a limey occupier (if the hijacker was IRA) rather than a Canadian dupe. However, in this case, one of the American customs officials, having just inquired about when my uncle became a Canadian citizen (Chris was born in England and moved to Canada as a young man) and seeing my place of birth was "London" assumed that I was also an immigrant to Canada and asked me when had I become a Canadian citizen. While some could construe this as stupidity on his part, in all fairness, he accepted our assurances that the "London" in question was, in fact, in Canada very readily, and thus, hence, therefore, or otherwise I was simply a native-born Canadian citizen.

However, the relatively complicated border crossing process contributed to the sense of sadness. Not so long ago, you could cross into the States with little more than a smile and a few words. Years ago, you could get a car load of people across the border in Derby Line, Vermont, just by saying "Drive-in" in the evenings. It is very sad that the Americans have succumb to a paranoid fortress mentality whilst the Europeans are going in the opposite direction. Last May, when Margo, Chris and I crossed into Portugal from Spain on a fairly significant road, there wasn't even a sign saying: "Bem-vindo a Portugal." So much has been lost in the last decade or so. While the sense of official watchfulness was a mite off-putting, the Americans were friendly enough. There were handy tourist maps of San Juan Island available, the roads had nice shoulders and the drivers were surprisingly courteous. At least to a Montrealer. ;-) As well, Washington State Ferries have designated spots for bikes complete with lengths of rope with which to lash bikes to the side of the ferry.

We had arrived in the early afternoon having had lunch on the ferry. It was decided that we would bicycle around the Island, first heading to the English camp, and then if time and weather permitted to the American camp. So off we went through the woods that made up the northern half of the island. The British had set up their camp in a relatively cosy cove, protected from the winds. While the camp was obviously orderly, it had the feeling of a quiet English garden.
The spot the Americans chose for their camp was a rather exposed and lonely point, relatively near Seattle. It had none of the coziness of the English Camp. That fact may explain why a not-insignificant number of soldiers died there from disease and suicide. These were the casualties of the Pig War. Not all casualties of war are those caused by the enemy. Historically, disease tended to kill more wartime soldiers than battle. World War I is sometimes regarded as the first major war where the enemy was the greater killer. Thus, the Pig War had human casualties, and they were not insignificant given the numbers of potential combatants.
Americans are big on planting signs on their lawns. Some flippant, and others not. It was surprising to see just how confused, if not divided the United States was (and still is). Signs on both sides of the debate about the War on Terror were surprisingly numerous and in some cases, quite heartfelt. Obviously, some were jingoist statements of American pride. Other were simple hopes that "our" service people make it back home in good shape. Some were breathtakingly naïve and reactionary. What was remarkable about one of the latter was that it was it came from the left-wing side. We tend to assume reactionaries are ring-wing. What fools we be. The signs gave me the uneasy feeling that there is considerable political tension in the United States. The War on Terror may yet have casualties that might not show up in history books. And far closer to home.

As we cycled through the gathering darkness to the hostel we had chosen as our rest for the night, I was amused by the notion that we had used our lights twice that day, once in the morning and once in the evening.

That night, we pondered where to go next in light of the weather which promised to be rather wet on the day after the next. After certain amount of dithering and fussing, we chose the riskier but ultimately more rewarding route. Which will have to wait for another post.

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