Here There Be Spiders

I was lucky enough over the last few days to be able to make a family trip to the cottage my parents are renting — all of us this time! My husband, Thing 1 and Thing 2, Mom and Dad, my younger brother, and his friend B. We could only schedule the eight of us for a single overnight trip, which happened to be the hottest, stickiest time I’ve spent at the lake yet. The kids didn’t mind so much, except that they didn’t sleep very well that night.

Other than the heat, the first day’s weather was lovely. Thing 1 and Thing 2 spent a lot of time fishing with her Gramps; Thing 2 is finally mastering the patience required to catch little rock bass. And of course, when the kids weren’t fishing or otherwise playing on shore, they were in the lake itself burning off some energy whilst cooling down.

We all kind of avoided one part of the dock/retaining wall for all of these activities, though, because an enormous dock spider had spun a web there. Female dock spiders can get up to about 9cm long, and I think this particular specimen was a good example. It was fascinating enough to peek at and to take pictures — even the kids wanted to see it! But nobody wanted to get too close. Probably a good thing, actually, because according to a bit of research after the fact, dock spiders don’t spin webs to catch prey: they spin them to protect their egg sacks! My best guess is that her egg sack was down inside the crevice she was protecting. I’m glad we didn’t disturb her! (I mean, it’s also possible that the web was from another spider, but she was very assiduously sticking to one spot.)

Anyway, after all of the swimming and the fishing and the arachnid discovery, we had a cold supper (because who wants to cook on an evening that hot?). We spread out the breads and cheeses and cold cuts and salads at the table, but it definitely wasn’t a formal affair.

In my case, dinner consisted of a bacon, lactose-free Havarti cheese, and avocado sandwich on freshly-baked beer bread. (Okay, I lied, I cooked one thing, but cooking a loaf of bread in the bread machine on the deck didn’t warm up the cottage.) The bread was a new recipe that I’m currently testing, and everyone seemed to like it. I hope to post the recipe soon. I paired it with Mom’s Potato Salad (without the optional bacon, and actually made by my mom the night before), and a hard-boiled egg.

Algonquin Park Camping: Day 2

Day 2 of camping at at the Achray Campground on Grand Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park dawned rainy, but the precipitation quickly moved on. This left us with clouds in the morning, a brief rainstorm in the afternoon, and a mix of sun and clouds for the afternoon and evening. Unfortunately, there was never much of a breeze, so nothing we brought with us really dried out, but we had fun anyway.

The day began with cooking bacon, eggs, and toast (with bread machine bread baked in advance of our trip) on the old Coleman camp stove. I am particularly fond of the camp toaster, which was always my favourite part of the setup as a child.

It was a hearty and delicious way to start the day!

After cleanup we headed out to the lake, which is where we spent the majority of our day.

The shallow, sandy beaches meant that the kids were quite content to play and explore for hours.

We found teeny tiny catfish (at most an inch and a half long) in the weedy shallows, where they were industriously cleaning the lake bed.

There were also tonnes of tadpoles in every stage of becoming frogs — some had no legs, some had two, some had four, and some were basically frogs with tails — alongside full-grown frogs. A few swam by us while we were swimming, while others stuck to the weedier or rockier areas.

I honestly think that our favourite part of the day was all of the tiny minnows that swam around our feet and nibbled on our toes while we waded in the shallows. Video of that will have to wait until I can get it off of my other camera, but I think it’ll be what the kids remember the most from this trip.

When we headed away from the water we found wild raspberries, which was an unexpected and tasty treat.

I cooked dinner over the single-burner backpacking stove, since the old Coleman decided to act up for a bit. I basically made tuna noodle casserole, but with frozen corn instead of canned, and canned salmon instead of tuna. Also, having no oven, I couldn’t bake the dish.

I don’t think that my alterations improved the dish any; without the potato chips topping and baking to combine the flavours, it was pretty bland. I should at least have grated some cheese on top, but I didn’t think of it. But it was warm and filling and we were sitting somewhere dry, which sometimes is all you can ask for when camping. As a bonus, the only perishable ingredient was the frozen corn, which in its turn helped keep the other food cold.

Also, did I mention that there were butterflies? Well, there were a lot of butterflies. The monarchs in the area really like the milkweed blossoms, which were just coming out of bloom, and milkweed was everywhere. Apparently these monarchs are endangered, but you’d never know it from how plentiful they were around our little corner of the park.

Spending Time at the Lake

I was lucky enough to spend a few days this week at the cottage my parents are renting. We had a delightful time. Mornings were lazy and, when we finally dragged ourselves out of bed, I cooked brunch.

That’s bacon, eggs over easy, apple slices, and whole wheat toast — made of store-bought bread, which is unlike me. I decided I needed to remedy that situation and so after we cleaned up from brunch, I started to throw together some homemade loaves. I didn’t have access to the internet or my plethora of cookbooks, so I used the White Bread recipe from page 596 of the Joy of Cooking (Rombauer & Becker, 2006 edition). (Actually, I used the app since it has the whole cookbook on my phone and doesn’t need Internet access, but it’s the same recipe either way.) In the recipe I substituted olive oil in the same quantities for the lard and butter, which has worked in the past and did so this time as well.

That’s a horrible picture of the loons on the lake because my zoom lens isn’t spectacular. You’d think it’d be easier to get a photo of a bird that can grow to almost a meter long, but these ones had no interest in coming any closer. The loons were calling away while I was kneading my dough. I find it a very soothing sound, but I grew up with it. In understand that to some people a loon call, especially their mournful, echoing night call, can be kind of creepy. My father likes to tell us the story of going camping and being approached by frightened tourists in the next site over who were sure they were hearing the sobbing souls of the damned.

Anyway, after brunch and bread and loons, we all needed a dip in the lake…

Followed by a drive out to the ice cream parlour for a cool treat and some reading time.

It wasn’t too long before it was time to go back to the cottage to bake the bread, and then to make dinner. I made shrimp with garlic butter, jasmine rice with furikake, corn on the cob, and of course the freshly-baked bread.

Dessert was cherry drop biscuits baked the day before using the Rolled Biscuits recipe from page 638 of the Joy of Cooking (or the app again). I added a bunch of pitted, quartered cherries stirred into the batter and a sprinkle of sugar on the top of each biscuit before baking. I got lazy and just made them drop biscuits instead of rolled, and they turned out fine that way.

Then it was time for one last dip in the lake, followed swiftly by bedtime for the kiddos, who had had a long, fun day. I took the opportunity to bring my glass of maple Sortil√®ge on the rocks out to the screened-in sun room (the mosquitoes are much too bad in the evening to simply sit outside) so that I could watch the sun set. It wasn’t the most spectacular that I’ve viewed from this spot, seeing as there wasn’t a cloud in sight, but I think I can live with that.

Ice Storms

Freezing rain happens every winter here in Ottawa. The temperature will be steadily below freezing for a while, freezing the ground and all exterior surfaces, and then we’ll get a day or two of warmer weather that brings rain. The rain freezes when it comes into contact with those cold surfaces, turning immediately to ice. This encases everything outdoors in a slick coating that can make driving or even walking extremely dangerous. Most of the time, the ice doesn’t end up being very thick, and it can be dealt with by a generous coating of road salt and sand. Often, it’ll bring on a snow day (the schools stay open, but the buses are cancelled). Then the weather will shift again and either melt the ice or snow over it.


Photo taken by one of my parents.

Twice in my life I can remember the weather going from “freezing rain” to “ice storm”. The difference is really a matter of scale; we don’t call it an ice storm until the coating of ice is thick enough to damage trees and power lines. The first one I remember was in 1986, pictured above. That’s my little brother and I taking a slow and careful walk around the neighborhood we lived in at the time. It wouldn’t have been a snow day, since the storm occurred over the Christmas break (not that my brother was old enough yet to be in school anyway). I even found an old news broadcast in the CBC Digital Archives.


My parents’ Neon after the 1998 ice storm.

The second ice storm that I remember happened in from January 4th to 10th, 1998. I’m vastly understating the case when I state that this was a much bigger deal. The ice coating was so thick that the weight crumpled enormous hydro pylons, in addition to downing power lines, trees, and tree branches (which then took down power lines, smashed cars, and wrecked roofs of homes and outbuildings). Roads were shut down, over one and a half million people were without power; 945 people were injured and 35 lost their lives (Source: Historica Canada). The storm damage cost billions of dollars to repair. It is considered one of the worst natural disasters in Canadian history.


This birch was bent almost double by the weight of the ice, then the ice froze the branches to the ground.

We were very, very lucky because of where we were living at the time. First of all, we didn’t get as much precipitation as some other areas, which received up to 100mm. That alone saved much of our area. We were on a relatively-new residential street, so the power lines were buried underground. Because we were in a city, even though the power cut out often, it never went out for long. Also because the neighborhood was relatively new, we didn’t have any massive trees that, when downed, could do much damage. Sure, many people lost their trees (or had to trim them back severely), and some fell across the roads and had to be cleared, but nothing was growing tall enough to fall on peoples’ roofs, for example.


An ice-coated park near where we lived at the time.

We were also very lucky that we had a well-stocked freezer and pantry, so we didn’t have to travel until the roads were safe again. We went for a walk on Day 2, which is when I took the photographs, but we only made it to the end of our street before we turned back, worried that we might slip and fall and be injured. Emergency vehicles were having just as tough of a time with the roads as everyone else, so you were in real trouble if you got hurt.


My mom looking through frozen branches.

It was something like two weeks that the schools were closed — and I mean fully closed, not just “snow day closed”. Nobody was going anywhere. Some of my friends, who lived outside of town, stayed out of school longer because their roads were not yet safe, they had no power, and they had to feed the fireplace to keep their houses from freezing.


Branches and berries under the ice. I think this photo is right-side-up.

The reason I am writing about these ice storms is twofold. Firstly, it’s almost exactly twenty years since the 1998 ice storm, an event which had great repercussions along an west-east path of something like 500km. If you lived in the area that the storm affected, and were old enough to have memories of that year at all, you remember the Ice Storm of 1998.


This bush collapsed almost entirely over the fence, weighed down by the ice stuck to its branches and leaves.

Secondly, we had freezing rain yesterday morning, although it was warm enough for most of it to melt later in the day. Overnight it rained, and then this afternoon it is supposed to go below freezing again so that everything will freeze up. The temperature is supposed to drop until it’s back to more seasonal norms, falling over 20 degrees Celsius in twenty-four hours. We’re supposed to get a combination of rain, freezing rain, and snow. I really hope that this doesn’t end up being a proper ice storm. I wouldn’t be at all surprise if we get frost quakes, though.

Milkweed

When I was a kid, one of the big things we did as a family was go for nature walks. In the woods, in the wetlands or fields, it didn’t matter, so long as we went and explored. Sometimes my parents would drive us quite some distance to check out the local scenery. Sometimes we stayed within minutes of home. As I grew older, I was allowed to roam with other children or on my own.


Me carrying Bud, my friends’ rescued pigeon, through the woods on a walk near the friends’ parents’ cottage. I was about 11 in this photo.

In retrospect, I never went all that far from wherever my parents were, but I reveled in the freedom of exploring on my own. My favourite time to explore was in the fall when the milkweed pods were dried out and bursting. I loved picking the pods and freeing all of the seeds and the silk. Flinging handfuls of silk into the air was akin to blowing on a giant dandelion.


Milkweed flowers; I’m pretty sure the kind commonly found around here is either common milkweed or prairie milkweed.

I’ve only discovered recently that parts of milkweed are also edible. From page 183-184 of Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat Ellen Zachos, 2013):

There are a lot of misconceptions about milkweed passed around in books and online. Some people claim it’s bitter; others say it’s downright poisonous. Correctly harvested and prepared, it is neither. […] Here’s what you need to know. No milkweed parts should be eaten raw. The shoots, flower buds, and pods of milkweed should be boiled, or blanched and then cooked to completion in a second way. It’s not necessary to boil in three changes of water, as some people believe. However, cooking in water takes away the milky latex (not pleasant to eat), which is why I recommend blanching, even if you choose to cook the milkweed in a different way. […] Also, mature milkweed foliage can indeed be bitter and should be stripped from the young shoots before cooking. If cooked, the large leaves will impart their bitterness and obscure the taste of the milkweed stems, which would be a crying shame.

This book goes on to identify the best practices for collecting and preparing shoots, flower buds, flowers, and young seedpods. There is also a tempting recipe for milkweed flower syrup on page 212.


Immature milkweed seed pods.


Immature milkweed seed pods opened.


Immature milkweed seed pods interior. This pod was over 1.5″ long, so probably too old to eat, but it was still fully white inside.

My copy of The Edible Wild: A complete cookbook and guide to edible wild plants in Canada and North America (Berndt Berglund & Clare E. Bolsby, 1971) also has a section on milkweed starting on page 53:

The young shoots of milkweed may be boiled in the spring. The older stems are too acid and milky for use, but the very young seed pods are excellent when cooked. […] The young seed pods, no larger than a walnut, I usually fry in fat of any kind. If I have a little flour, I mix this into the fat and make a stew of the pods.


Mature milkweed pod, much too old for eating.


Milkweed silk.

The Edible Wild has recipes for:

– milkweed pods soup
– cream of milkweed pods soup
– young milkweed pods, blanched and buttered
– milkweed stalks and wild onions in sour cream
– milkweed stalks with ham and cheese
– steamed and buttered milkweed stalks
– young milkweed stalks braised with wild onions
– glazed milkweed stalks
– stewed milkweed pods with frogs’ legs
– baked milkweed stalks omelet
– steamed milkweed stalks with brandy butter
– milkweed pods and chicken pie

Obviously, the authors have had to have eaten a lot of milkweed to come up with these recipes, which gives me confidence to try it out myself. I am often a little bit wary of foraging plants without an expert in the subject showing me what to do. Perhaps I can find someone local who is willing to teach me, and then I will try out the milkweed pods and chicken pie, which looks delicious. I may skip out on the frogs’ legs, though.

Despite all of the culinary potential of milkweed, I still find this plant at its most appealing when it’s at its least edible. I love it when there are fields so thickly coated with bursts of silk that it looks like the first snow of the season.

Milkweed is such a part of my childhood that I was very surprised when I started talking about it to a relative from the Sudbury area, and they’d never heard of it. While it’s thick on the ground around Ottawa, apparently the conditions aren’t right for it to grow further north. I guess it was silly of me to assume that every Ontarian’s childhood included milkweed. I hope that they at least had cattails! (Parts of which are also edible, by the way.) In the fall, once the plants have started to dry out, a cattail’s flower head explodes wonderfully into a mess of seeds and fluff when rubbed on a hard surface. It’s not quite as satisfying as cracking open milkweed pods, but it’s close.

Breakfast With a View

I spent the weekend at my in-laws’ cottage, which is built uphill from a lake and hence commands beautiful views from one side. ¬†(The other sides look into the woods, which is quite pretty, but definitely isn’t expansive.) I love that the side overlooking the lake has a screened-in porch where we can eat meals undisturbed by mosquitos and, in the evenings, moths attracted by the lights. I would love a screened-in porch outside of my patio door, despite the fact that I would only overlook my own back yard. I think that almost every summer meal would be eaten out there.

Breakfast on Sunday was two eggs over-easy, a slice of buttered crusty white bread fresh from the bread maker, a grilled chicken burger patty left over from the previous night’s dinner, and a banana.

And of course, then there was The View. What a fantastic way to start the day.