In the early days of settlement along the coastal shores of the Great Lakes, it was a time when water was the highway, when everything from transportation of goods to earning a livelihood and getting much-needed supplies to communities that were being built, depended on the lakes and rivers.
Along the shores, ports and harbours used the unique system of raising giant wicker baskets, in cone and drum shapes, from a pole in different patterns to represent and tell sailors of different weather conditions. These storm signals at 35 stations along the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River and the Atlantic seaboard, provided storm and gale warnings for sailors. A primitive but relatively successful signalling system that continued as late as the l950s.
These storm signals were part of the early landscape at the mouth of the Saugeen River mouth at Lake Huron in Southampton, that led into the Harbour of Refuge overseen by Chantry Island Lighthouse. Today, the area is known as Pioneer Park.
In the park, now maintained by the Marine Heritage Society (MHS)/Propeller Club, ‘replica’ storm signals were installed in the 1990s as part of continuing the historic marine heritage of Southampton on Lake Huron. The original storm basket and part of the pole on which it was hoisted is now in the Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre (Southampton) as part of its Marine gallery exhibit. Given that Lake Huron weather can cause deterioration to even the stoutest of shoreline items, the MHS decided it was time to re-create a new storm signal basket.
Working in the Southampton Boathouse, eight groups, working in teams of two in two-hour shifts, began to reproduce one of the giant conical storm signal baskets patterned after an existing one.
The project was lead by Chantry Island Tour Guide Helen Geissinger, an accomplished basket weaver. “I learned weaving from a blind man in Guelph who had been taught by the Canadian Institute for the Blind (CNIB),” said Geissinger.
The new storm signal, based on the existing intricate pattern, uses pemalang reeds imported from southeast Asia. The reed grows like a vine into the forest canopy and, a type of rattan, it does not increase in diameter as it ages but only increases in length with some species of vines growing to a few hundred feet. The reed is cut into long pieces, approximately 20 feet or more, tied into manageable bundles and carried or dragged out of the forest and, once cured is exported.
Before being used in the weaving process, the reeds that come in bundles have to be soaked in water, as they are too brittle to be woven in their dry state.
Soaking them makes them become flexible and easy to manipulate without friction and breaking the spokes, staves or ribs of the “skeleton” of the basket as the weavers go over and under these to complete the basket shape.
Often they have to be re-immersed in water to keep them flexible.
The Marine Heritage Society/Propeller Club volunteers, who are always willing to to take on new projects, were eager to learn the technique of ‘basket’ weaving. They set about the major weaving process that involved first pre-soaking the ‘reeds’, cutting them into appropriate lengths and, finally, weaving the intricate patterns.
It was anticipated that the project would take some two weeks to complete … the volunteers did it in two days.
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From repairing a previous storm signal to creating the new one, the volunteers are already looking forward to beginning another storm signal cone later this year.
The volunteers continue to ensure that the marine heritage of the area is not forgotten and, this year, the Marine Heritage Society/Propeller Club celebrates 20 years of carrying out guided tours to Chantry Island, 10 years of the Marine Heritage Society and a future of carrying on the area’s historic marine heritage for the future.