How to beat summer’s heat without electricity

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On one of those insufferably muggy days earlier this week, I visited Charlie Donevan at Landon Bay Centre, just east of Gananoque. I wanted to talk with him about old ways of doing things, and I wasn’t disappointed, especially when, at the end of the afternoon, he took me to see one of the most spectacular sights in Ontario.

Charlie is 78 years old, the patriarch of Donevan’s Hardware in Gananoque, which was started by his grandfather 130 years ago. In the store you can still buy things out of bins, find kerosene lamps, and talk to Charlie about how to use your wood stove to reduce your hot water bill.

When he was growing up, there still were people who got by without electricity. I wanted to learn about them, because now electricity is used for everything, especially in summer when air conditioners increase demand on coal-fired, smog-producing generating stations.

Of all the old ways that he described, the ram pump fascinated me the most because it works with no outside power source. It converts the momentum of flowing water in streams into air pressure that can be used to push water long distances or uphill.

Charlie has such a pump. I won’t get into details about how it works, but it’s made of cast iron, is shaped like a giant light bulb standing upright in a socket, and is about the height of a milk carton. Farmers once used such pumps to get water to their barns.

Nowadays you could use them to maintain a pond, fill a cistern, create a brook running by a cottage, or send a cascade of water down a stone wall in a restaurant to cool inside air.

One of the simplest ways that people kept a house cool a hundred years ago was to build a small, ventilated cupola on the roof. Then they’d plant trees on the north side of the house. When windows were opened, cool air from under the trees would be drawn in to circulate through the house, and eventually escape through the cupola.

Most houses today aren’t built with cupolas, but if there is a furnace in the basement, Charlie suggested turning on the furnace fan. It will draw only a tiny amount of electricity, vastly less than an air conditioner, and it will distribute cool basement air throughout the house.

He also mentioned cold rooms in which people stored their vegetables, and it reminded me that when I visit friends, I often see two refrigerators: one for the kitchen, and one for the beer. With a cold room in the basement, they could throw out the second refrigerator and save handsomely on electricity.

Cold rooms are easy to install, if you don’t mind digging a hole beside your house. The simplest ones simply jut out from the basement. There’s no insulation, and when the door is shut, they stay cool.

We have one. It’s great for beer, and we’ve just finished the carrots, leeks, onions, celery, and cabbages that we stored in it last fall.

After chatting about cold rooms, Charlie suggested it was time to see the lookout. Landon Bay Centre spreads over 100 hectares. He and five friends decided in 1960 that it was too unique to lose to development, so they raised the money to buy it. Now it belongs to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and is leased to a foundation that operates it as a wildlife sanctuary and a campground.

The lookout is a rocky promontory offering a majestic view of the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River. This is the Canadian Shield at its evocative best.

If you want to see it, get off the highway at Gananoque and follow the  Thousand Islands Parkway East along the river about six kilometres to the centre. Then climb to the lookout through a fairly old second-growth forest. Charlie remains active in the centre and, if you bump into him, find a place to sit in the shade and trade stories. You’ll be glad you did.

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