Americas Archive

Sailing the St Lawrence Seaway

Sixty years ago today, the first cargo ship began sailing the 2,300-mile length of the Great Lakes St Lawrence Seaway System, the world’s largest inland waterway, which connects the Atlantic Ocean with the western tip of Lake Superior. Traffic is no longer what it was at its height in the mid-1970s, but the seaway remains an important waterway, and one increasingly used by pleasure craft. I travelled part of it last autumn on a cruise ship, the Canadian Empress, for Telegraph Travel.

The vanishing island

There was an email from The New York Times in my inbox this morning headed: “Climate: The most important story of our time.” It’s a story that’s certainly receiving some attention this week in Britain, thanks to the demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion in London and last night’s BBC1 programme presented by David Attenborough, Climate Change — The Facts. During that programme, a campaigner representing Gulf Coast communities declared that people of that region could become “the first climate-change refugees” in the United States. 

  Equally endangered is a settlement in the middle of America’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay — the subject of Earl Swift’s Chesapeake Requiem, published in the US towards the end of last year. Swift’s is a story of a small and singular place seeing changes that will soon affect the whole world. At the broadest point of the bay, “at the mercy of nature’s wildest whims”, sits Tangier Island, whose inhabitants for generations have harvested crabs and oysters. The very water that sustains their community — one of 470 conservative and deeply religious people — is also slowly erasing it. Scientists say that the island, which has lost two thirds of its land since 1850, could become the first American town to fall victim to rising sea levels caused by climate change; the locals say the problem is erosion — and they have been told anyway by Donald Trump, who is hugely popular on Tangier, that there is no reason to worry. Swift lived among the islanders, and his account, at once affectionate and inquiring, is a superb piece of reporting. If you have any interest in writing about place and/or climate change, you ought to read it.

How Gunnar helped make the Canyon Grand

‘View from Yaki Point’ by Gunnar Widforss. Courtesy the Gunnar Widforss Catalogue Raisonné Project

A hundred years ago today, the Grand Canyon became a national park. One of the people who did most to promote it in its early days was a Swedish watercolour painter, Gunnar Widforss, and to mark the anniversary I followed the Widforss trail for Telegraph Travel. My pilgrimage was prompted by a book: The Art of Flying (Penguin) by Fredrik Sjöberg, another Swede; you can read an extract from that on Deskbound Traveller. To find out more about the artist, see the Gunnar Widforss Catalogue Raisonné Project, established by Alan Petersen, curator of fine arts at the Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff, who is currently appealing for funds to complete a catalogue of Widforss’s works (you can contribute through the website GoFundMe).

“100 Years of Grand”, a project of Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and Grand Canyon National Park, brings together thousand of photographs, documents and correspondence relating to the park’s history.

  If you’re planning a trip to the canyon, this year or later, I’d recommend you read Stephen J Pyne’s history, How The Canyon Became Grand (Penguin), and Pete McBride’s The Grand Canyon: Between River and Rim (Rizzoli), which I mentioned in my roundup of picture books of 2018.

On this day…

… in 1948, the novelist Lawrence Durrell wrote a letter to his friend Mary Hadkinson with some observations about Argentina:

You envy us? Argentina is a large flat melancholy and rather superb-looking country full of stale air, blue featureless sierra, and businessmen drinking Coca-Cola. One eats endless beef and is so bored one could scream. It is the most lazy-making climate I have ever struck: not as bad as Egypt, of course: but I’d give a lifetime of Argentina for three weeks of Greece.

Wright and Cantú in running for US award

God Save Texas, Lawrence Wright’s clear-eyed portrait of the Lone Star State, and The Line Becomes A River, Francisco Cantú’s memoir of his time as a US Border Patrol agent, are both included in the non-fiction section of finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards for 2018, which were announced today. The awards will be presented on March 14 at the New School in New York City.

How Gunnar helped make the Canyon Grand

‘View from Yaki Point’ by Gunnar Widforss. Courtesy the Gunnar Widforss Catalogue Raisonné Project

It’s nearly a century (February 26, 1919) since the Grand Canyon became a national park. One of the people who did most to promote it in its early days was a Swedish watercolour painter, Gunnar Widforss, and to mark the anniversary I’ve been following the Widforss trail for Telegraph Travel. It was a book that prompted my pilgrimage: The Art of Flying by Fredrik Sjöberg, another Swede. You can read an extract from that on Deskbound Traveller. To find out more about the artist, see the Gunnar Widforss Catalogue Raisonné Project, established by Alan Petersen, curator of fine arts at the Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff.

“100 Years of Grand”, a project of Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and Grand Canyon National Park, brings together thousand of photographs, documents and correspondence relating to the park’s history.

Chile and me, by Sara Wheeler

This month brings the silver anniversary of the publication of Travels in a Thin Country, Sara Wheeler’s account of her love affair with Chile. In a piece today for the Review section of The Observer, she reflects on how the country, and she herself, have changed in 25 years. Wheeler, who made her third visit to Chile a few months ago, is due to talk about her experience in a members-only event at the Royal Geographical Society in London tomorrow evening.

Losing weight, and girlfriends, in the Grand Canyon

In my roundup of books of the year, I mentioned The Grand Canyon: Between River and Rim by Pete McBride (Rizzoli, £40), who trekked the length of the canyon with his friend Kevin Fedarko. I’ve just been alerted by the Twitter feed of The New Yorker to a piece the magazine published in September, by Nick Paumgarten, who was invited to join McBride and Fedarko — and found reasons to say no. From his summary of what they went through, it sounds as though he was wise…

On the trek, they each carried packs that averaged about fifty pounds, containing eight days or so of food, as much water as they could hold, and not much in the way of accommodations. They carried a plastic syringe to draw water from potholes in the rock. McBride carried just one camera, one lens, and a solar charger; on cold nights, he kept the batteries warm in his armpit. The temperature ranged from a hundred and twelve degrees Fahrenheit to five degrees. There were hardly any trails, save for those made by game. “Sheep shit was our G.P.S.,” McBride said. They climbed over a hundred thousand vertical feet. “We went through seven pairs of shoes, four ankles”—they each sprained both—“and two girlfriends” (both McBride’s). There were broken fingers, and surgery to remove a cactus spine. McBride, still a bull of a man at forty-seven, lost thirty-five pounds, and, just five days into the first leg, nearly perished of hyponatremia, salt depletion from over-hydration, which is the leading cause of death in Grand Canyon. Once the project was complete, he needed heart surgery.

Burke on books

Until April 2018, I’d never set foot in New Orleans, but I’d travelled there — and to other parts of Louisiana — countless times in the pages of the great James Lee Burke. Burke’s latest Detective Robicheaux story, The New Iberia Blues, is due out on January 10, and the author has been talking to The New York Times about his own reading, how he got hooked on crime fiction and what makes a good mystery.

… and talking about Tangier Island…

Earl Swift (see previous post) has been interviewed for the Writer’s Voice podcast (produced from the University of Massachusetts) by Francesca Rheannon. His contribution starts about 35 minutes in. There’s also a link to the site of the e-book service Scribd, where you can read an extract from Chesapeake Requiem.