This shore ice accumulated after strong winds blew it out of Lake Erie and probably over Niagara Falls.

Before the Peace Corps, I grew up in the city of Niagara Falls, New York, a small industrial town on the Canadian border. The city sits along the Niagara River where early use of hydroelectric power fueled a chemical industry that sustained the city’s economy through the mid-twentieth century. Today the city’s economy is in a steep decline, a fate shared by many smaller cities in the Rust Belt.

Less a river in the traditional sense than a strait connecting Lake Erie with Lake Ontario, the Niagara receives almost all its water from Lake Erie.

The Great Lakes of the U.S. and Canada contain twenty percent of the world’s fresh water. Only Lake Baikal in Russia has about the same amount.

An ice-covered Lake Baikal. 344 rivers flow in. One flows out, equivalent to the Niagara. ESA.

That’s where similarities end. Lake Baikal is over thirty million years old, far older than virtually any other lake in the world. In geological terms, lakes are here today and then gone in a flash. Baikal is exceptional because it sits in a continental rift zone. The lake is over 5,000 feet deep, and getting deeper. Its age accounts for all the endemic species found in it, including the only freshwater seal in the world. Its remoteness protected its natural setting until Soviet times, and because Baikal is in the middle of Siberia, the lake freezes over completely in the winter.

The Great Lakes are much younger, the result of recent glaciation during the last ice ages, a few tens of thousands of years ago. None are nearly as deep as Lake Baikal, but four of the five are relatively deep, so deep that they do not freeze over during the winter.

A view of ice coverage in the middle of a harsh winter. Ice covers most of Lake Erie, but not the other Great Lakes. NASA

Only Lake Erie is so shallow that it exhibits a typical dimictic limnological cycle, where the lake water turns over en masse in the autumn and spring. Erie’s surface freezes solid during cold winters, too.

A close-up of the ice on Lake Erie. The Niagara River is visible in the upper right of the photo. NASA

Yes, if you are intrepid, you can walk from the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, across the lake to the northern Ontario shore, though no one would recommend it. Winds cause the ice to heave and form pressure ridges that obstruct movement. And it would be a long, cold, and dangerous walk, and one strongly discouraged by law enforcement agencies.

Every winter the New York Power Authority, which manages a large hydroelectric plant in Lewiston, New York, just north of Niagara Falls, installs an ice boom across the source of the Niagara River at Lake Erie. Made of massive timbers chained together, the ice boom floats on the lake surface and keeps lake ice from floating into the river where it might clog the intakes to the American and Canadian hydro plants.

The Lake Erie ice is held back by a boom in the lake. The Niagara River is ice-free except where ice accumulates in the gorge below the falls. NASA

Keeping ice from entering the river also helps to prevent ice jams, which sometimes cause serious flooding. In the mid-nineteenth century, an ice jam formed such a solid barrier that Niagara Falls actually went dry for a short time.

Since the boom floats, strong winds can force ice over it, which is part of the design. A few days ago continuous winds from the west blew so much lake ice over the boom and into the river that the ice continued downstream over the falls, through the gorge below the falls, and into Lake Ontario where it collected along the shoreline, which happens to include a part of my backyard. Hence the initial picture. Because of its depth, Lake Ontario never freezes over, but ice does form along the shore during the winter months.

Typical shore ice that accumulates along Lake Ontario.

By the end of March this year, the shore ice had disappeared, but a few days ago it suddenly reappeared. It was Lake Erie ice that had made its way downriver into Lake Ontario.

This isn’t rare, and usually happens when the Power Authority removes the ice boom. In this case, it happened with the boom in place. The Power Authority just began yesterday to remove the boom, but the ice remaining on the eastern end of Lake Erie is now minimal. Today most of the shore ice is already gone. Diving ducks, geese, and an occasional loon are stopping  for a feed on their journey north.

My younger daughter, Kate, has been visiting, and Kate, my wife, and myself, wanting to get some fresh air, went into the city and walked down some newly created stairs near the Whirlpool Rapids bridge, part of a larger trail-building project in the Niagara Gorge.

New stairs lead to the old gorge railway trail.

The stairs led to a section of the Old Gorge Railway roadbed.

Rockfalls and frozen seeps are characteristic of the gorge in the winter and early spring
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I took this last fall when the Buffalo News was doing a story. The News photographer was adjusting his camera.

Early spring and winter are the least scenic times to visit the gorge. Fall is my favorite, though I spent many summer days fishing there.

Until the mid-nineteen thirties, a trolley ran from Niagara Falls, through the gorge, to the village of Lewiston. In the railroad’s early days, a similar trolley ran along the Canadian side. The route was scenic, and many tourists included it in their visits to the area. In 1901, President McKinley rode it the day before he was assassinated in Buffalo, New York.

President McKinley riding on the Great Gorge Railway at Niagara Falls, Sept. 5, 1901. Photographer: G.D. Brinckerhoff. Source: Western Electrician, v.29, no.2 (September 21, 1901) p.182. Courtesy of the University of Buffalo.

Frequent rock falls and changing transportation technology forced abandonment of the trolley, but the roadbed remains in place for much of the former American route, and today it offers a convenient way to descend to the area below the international bridges where the Whirlpool rapids begin, or even farther, though shale slides make certain passages difficult. The Whirlpool rapids are Class VI, and seldom attempted by kayakers.

Two arch bridges connect Niagara Falls, New York with NIagara Falls, Ontario. One is a commercial railroad bridge. The other carries autos and trains. The first bridge built on this spot was a suspension bridge designed by John Roebling, who also designed the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. To start the cables, a kite flying contest was held. The rapids begin just beyond the bridges.

Having a unique microclimate, the gorge provides a home to many plants, including very old cedars (Thuya occidentalis), but due to the railroad and urban development, the natural flora has been severely degraded. The Nature Conservancy is in the midst of an ambitious project to restore native vegetation. After mapping invasive species, the Conservancy’s first step is to remove them, primarily Norway maple and Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima). Girdling will kill the trees, removing competitors, and letting light reach through the canopy to the forest floor, where native species can regenerate and compete.

Sap flowing from the girdled trunk darkens the bark of this maple.
Many of the larger trees are invasive, and have been girdled.

The Niagara Gorge is a small, but unique place, and totally overlooked by most tourists. Let’s hope a new trail system and an emphasis on restoration of the native vegetation will make it even more interesting.

My daughter, Kate leading the way up and out.

Following the railroad trail out of the gorge rewards the hiker with views of Niagara Falls. Indeed, the former village of Bellevue took its name from the view.

A view of the Falls from below the Whirlpool rapids bridges.

Le pays froid où le soleil est chaud

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Sefrou. 1970. Street in Seti Messaouda.

I was recently reading the blog of a PC volunteer now in Morocco, who complained bitterly of the cold. That post certainly brought back memories. El-berd! The cold! It even sounds cold in dialect. The first French resident general, Maréchal Lyautey described Morocco as a cold country with a hot sun, a remark I repeat with misgivings as it has almost become a cliche. Still, I remember Morocco’s winters far more its the summers.

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Sefrou. Bab Mkam. 1970.

For anyone living away from the Moroccan coast, cold winters forced volunteers to hunker down and cope as best we could. Our living allowance never permitted us to live with the French and the more prosperous Moroccans in the Ville Nouvelle, where there were European houses with central heating.

I lived in Sefrou, about 3,000 feet above sea level. Snow was uncommon. It only fell two of the four years I lived there.

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The Seti Messaouda gate, from inside the medina (old city).The door to my house is the last on the left.

In Chauen, where I lived for two years, I never saw snow except on the mountains, but the altitude of Chauen was only 1,800 feet.

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Chauen. Road to Ouazzan. 1977.

In Tlemcen, Algeria, at the start of the trip across the Sahara, there was a snowfall. Tlemcen is almost the same altitude as Sefrou. It was March, and snowing in Sefrou, too.

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Tlemcen, Algeria. March, 1971.

The Sefrou snow falls were dramatic, but the snow melted quickly.

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La piscine de Sefrou en été
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La piscine de Sefrou en hiver
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Sefrou, gate in city wall. Summer.
Gate in city wall, winter after snowfall.

If you lived in Ifrane, it would have been really cold, though Ifrane had no Peace Corps then, nor much of anything else.

Ifrane. 1969.
Les environs d’Ifrane. 1969b
Hôtel les Tilleuls. Ifrane 1969.

Like an Indian hill town, Ifrane then consisted of a hotel or two, shuttered houses dating from the Protectorat and a palace of the king.

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The lion and the palace.
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King’s palace. 1969.
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House in Ifrane. 1969

Today Ifrane has a university, where one of my old friends teaches.

The Morocco X group arrived in January 1968. The sun was shining on that clear, warm day as the 40 agriculture volunteers debarked from the PanAm 707 at Sale. In New York it had been frigid, so the weather in Morocco was a great contrast. Pan American airlines flew to Rabat from its remarkable Eero Saarinen terminal at JFK. That was a great convenience, but the airport in Sale was subject to occasional dense fogs. Today most trans-Atlantic flights land at Nouaceur, a former U.S. SAC base outside of Casablanca. Our flight stopped briefly in the Azores, and, I think, in Lisbon, though I don’t recall leaving the plane there. The Saarinen terminal in NY, despite much architectural acclaim, has been demolished and replaced by a larger structure, and Pan Am is no more.

Pan Am 707 refueling in the Azores. 1968.

The Morocco X group had trained in a migrant labor camp in Hemet, California. The original training locale was to have been Taos, New Mexico, but a switch took place sometime before the training started. Hemet was a small agricultural and retirement community in a large inland valley in Riverside County, and the town sat in the shadow of Mt. San Jacinto and Tahquitz Peak. Behind these dry, but forested, mountains is Palm Springs and the Mojave Desert.

The weather was summery when we arrived in Hemet in early October, but, by the end of training, had turned colder. The camp rooms were basic and had no heating. The concrete floors were unsealed, and gave up an unpleasant dust. We slept, four to a room, in the sleeping bags that we must have been counseled to bring from home. By late December, there was plenty of snow in the mountains, and we wore coats and jackets both inside and out. The only entertainment was a morning visit by a food truck selling Mexican-American food such as tacos, and a daily volleyball game. The camp food was horrible, and we all looked forward to leaving.

We weren’t in Rabat long before were went to a rural agricultural station near Tiflet, in Zemmour country, for in-country training. There was no heat there, and no hot water. Sometime into the second week, the boiler was turned on so we could all have a hot shower, but the only real warmth came on the occasional sunny day. Then we lay about on blankets, like lizards, hoping to warm as much as we could while the sun still shone.

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In-country training, Tiflet. 1968.

How much colder it got depended on the altitude of the place where you were going. Through the prism of my Weather Channel app and the Internet, I now have figures. In Morocco, the coldest part of the year is called the ellyali, and starts in mid-January and goes for a month or so. Watching the temperatures in Sefrou this year, I noticed that the nighttime lows were regularly about 32° F or 0° C. for much of December and January. While I never recall ice forming, one could always see one’s breath, inside as well as outside. I lived in a masonry house, and my room had no outside windows. It made a reasonable refrigerator, but not always a comfortable place to live. If you compare the weather now with Rabat, on the Atlantic coast, on sunny days, the daytime highs are similar, but the nighttime temperatures are 10° F or more cooler in Sefrou.

Having evaluated the situation before we left Tiflet, each and everyone in our group began developing his coping strategies. I had brought long underwear, and it helped. I also acquired an Aladdin kerosene heater. If you’re a cousin from across the ocean, and don’t recognize this American term, kerosene is what you refer to as paraffin in the British Isles.

There were many kerosene heaters for sale in the larger towns, but the Aladdin brand seemed to be the best, burning evenly and producing few fumes and little smell. None of the knockoffs were nearly as good. The trick was getting hold of new wicks. Though they were sold at the U.S Navy base store in Kenitra, we weren’t allowed to shop there, so if you knew someone with PX privileges, and they wanted to break the rules and buy one for you, you were in luck. Otherwise you had to have a wick shipped from the States or find one in Spain.

The Aladdin heater could bring my bedroom up to a tolerable temperature quickly. I used it most evenings, and even, once in a while, let it burn all night long. Though there was no exterior ventilation, the 16-18’ ceilings and huge doorway seemed to provide adequate ventilation.

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The courtyard, facing the front room on the street. It was the only room with real windows. My room, out of sight, behind me in this photo, had an equally impressive door, but no outside windows.

The door was always ajar as one of the cats would insert his paw and exert enough force to swing it wide, at least wide enough for himself to enter. I always wished he could have learned to shut it, too! The Aladdin heater was also quite portable, and could easily be moved, even while lit. Through its portal, the blue kerosene glow of the wick was quiet comfort, and never disturbed my sleep the times that I slept with it on.

While the kerosene heater did not seem to pose a serious health problem, propane fueled water heaters were another matter altogether. Today in America one might refer to them as on-demand systems. The pilot ignited a gas jet that was triggered by turning on the tap or shower. These were relatively common in apartments in larger cities. They were also commonly found all over Europe. Unfortunately, they came in many different grades and conditions, and their installation required proper venting and checking for gas leaks. Sadly, during the eight years I lived in Morocco, three volunteers died, asphyxiated, in two separate incidents. They were all girls, and, in one of the cases, two shared an apartment and died together. I, myself, was seriously poisoned by carbon monoxide while living in Chauen, but managed to crawl across the street to my French friends’ house, where I received first aid. Luckily, my friend was a doctor, working off his military service as a coopérant.

In the Sefrou house, there was no water heater. Everything was done with cold water or water heated on the kitchen two-burner stove in the large kettles we used for tea water. I had somehow acquired a very large galvanized wash tub for laundry. I could fit in it, though not without a little contortion. Occasionally the other volunteer I lived with, Gaylord Barr, or myself would heat up a lot of water, carry the tub down to our bathroom which had no sit down toilet or even much of a sink, and use it for a bath. Kettles of heated water were also handy for shaving, though I had to forgo that luxury when I was late for work. Peace Corps volunteers refer to Morocco as Posh Corps. The country was developed, and close to Europe. Just the same, depending on where you lived, you could freeze all winter long.

More often than not, we would go to the hammam in our neighborhood, sometimes with Moroccan friends. The hammam was a Turkish style bath, with a changing room and three wet rooms, each progressively hotter. The last room was the hottest. The rooms were dimly lit, and the floors warm. Perhaps there was a hypocaust as in Roman baths.

Larger cities had larger and more elaborate structures, with variations on the design, but you really need to go to the Middle East to see fine bath architecture. Our neighborhood hammam was a simple box, divided in two parts, one for women and one for men.

The hammam in Seti Messaouda, outside the wall, but not far from my house.

In the changing room off the entrance, men would strip to their underpants. Nudity for men was an offense to Muslim notions of modesty. On the other hand, women would undress completely, and, perhaps, a bit unnerving to the western women who entered the hammam, were all the prepubescent boys running around. Of course, women either had their own facility or different hours from men. My neighborhood hamman had separate entrances and facilities for men and women. One would grab a wooden bucket, go to the hottest room, which had a basin of hot water, and then, if it was too hot, retreat to the middle room. The hot water had to be diluted, too. The idea was to sweat and clear the pores of dirt, then use soap to wash and fresh water to rinse. Pumice stone and fuller’s earth helped, too. There was always someone there who would rub you down and give you a massage, for which you would pay a few ryals. If you went with friends, they would wash your back. The massages I witnessed were pretty strenuous, and I never had the desire to have one. The hot temperatures and the soap and water seemed to do their job.

The hammam was not like a shower, in and out in minutes. You went for the afternoon or the evening. It was a social event. And while you were there, you were warm! You could stay as long as you wanted, and if you got thirsty, you could go back to the changing room, buy a soda or eat an orange that you brought yourself, and then re-enter for more washing. Friends often sat around and talked. The hammam was a way to get clean, and Islam requires cleanliness as a part of ritual purity, but it was also a nice way of passing a free afternoon or evening. When you finished, you put on fresh clothes, maybe your pajamas if it were evening, threw on your djellaba, and, suffused with warmth, walked home under a cold, starry sky. No matter how cold it was, you felt warm for a few more hours. In my case in Sefrou, home was only a few hundred yards down quiet, shadowy streets, along the city wall, and through the city gate.

Speaking of djellabas, for men, at least, they, too, were a part of the strategy of keeping warm in winter. There really was nothing finer than a good djellaba. Women’s djellabas were cut from different materials, but men’s cool weather djellabas were made of wool. I bought mine in the Sefrou suq.

The wool suq, Sefrou.

I actually ordered it, and it was made to measure. It was rough wool and heavy, and I always wanted a black and white one with the fine, geometrical patterns that the Middle Atlas Berbers made in places like Imouzzer des Marmoucha, but, in the end, I never did make an effort to get one.

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The suq (market) at either Missour or Midelt. The gentlemen greeting each other wear Middle Atlas style djellabas.

Mine was serviceable, just the same, and I wore it indoors and out during the cold months. It kept me warm inside, when I could see my breath, and outside it kept me dry for hours in steady rain. The wool fibers would swell as they got wet, and keep the water out, and though the djellaba got heavier and heavier, and eventually damp, I never got wet wearing it.

Convenience was also a virtue of the garment. No one could see what you were wearing under it, so I could go out of my house in pajamas to buy milk and sfinj (doughnuts) for breakfast, without worrying about dressing.

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The sfinj maker, just outside the Seti Messaouda gate. Some people powdered them with sugar. I liked them just as they came out of the oil.

The sfinj were strung on the fronds of dwarf palms, doum (Chamaerops humilis) the only palm native to Europe by the way. In good weather, the hood became an extra pocket to carry small items like eggs, if necessary. When I took it off before going to sleep, I folded it carefully, lest a djinn would enter it at night and cause me harm. No sense taking chances.

On sunny winter days, it was possible to go up to the flat roof or terrace, and catch some sunshine, but that was not sunbathing! Warm clothes were still necessary until the weather warmed in April. The locals would promenade if the weather was warm enough, enjoying the sunshine, exercise, and fresh air. Students often studied as they walked in groups of two or three.

We tried buying a wood fired cook stove for the room used as a kitchen, but the stove never had an adequate draft, and smoked. I also bought a small stove for the guest room on the room, but that room was very cold, and when we eventually abandoned it,

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My rooftop. The little room proved impossible to heat. Khadija and her helper doing dishes. A little piece of the city wall visible to right.

I moved the stove into the courtyard and tried burning charcoal briquets in it. It produced a fair amount of heat, but it proved to be too messy and too much trouble, and it was eventually discarded. A full fire only heated the courtyard.

Occasionally volunteers moved in with others, or their girl friends came over from the States or they met a coopérante, who wanted a roommate. That sometimes proved a fun, but costly, way to stay warm. One English teacher in Sefrou got his live-in girl friend pregnant, leading to all kinds of serious complications.

Determined not to be cold in Chauen, I brought over an electric blanket. You probably have already guessed how that worked out. The power fails in the middle of the night, while you are asleep, and the bed gets colder and colder, and you slowly wake up and finally awake, realize that you are freezing and begin to desperately look for more blankets. Electricity is wonderful as long as you can count on it. You could always count on wool blankets if you had enough of them.

In the end, staying warm depended on long underwear (if only it had been woolens—the Brits know what they are doing there), the faithful Aladdin, the hammam, my djellaba, and plenty of blankets. And, maybe, my attitude. I wasn’t living that much better than my neighbors. I never spent a warm winter in Morocco, but I never took much notice of the cold after the first winter. I was young and Morocco had a lot to offer whatever the temperature inside or out.

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City gate at Derb el-miter

Where I live now, this February has been well above normal. The first days of March seem to be shaping up nicely, too. March will not come in like a lion this year. Still, I can hear the words of my late Aunt Mary, repeating what her mother, my maternal grandmother from Abruzzo, always said: “Marzo è pazzo.” March is crazy. We shall see.

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Samira, the cat. The roof was her playground, and the snow was not welcome.

More About the Merinids

An old man, resting in one of the Qarawiyyin Mosque doors. The Merinids did not build Fes, but they made it their capital.

The Merinids created one of the dynasties that a contemporary, Ibn Khaldun, was surely writing about in his Muquddimah. As the Almohads lost the confidence of their supporters and allies, the Merinids waited in the wings with fresh energy. By the end of the Almohad dynasty, Al Andalous had been reduced to the Nasirid kingdom of Granada. The Merinids took in the refugees from Spain, but confined their interests mostly to Africa. They made Fes their capital, but left their mark across North Africa.

The Almohads (and the dynasty before them, the Almoravids) were Berbers who came out of the Atlas, full of religious fervor and zeal, to establish themselves as rulers of Morocco and cross the straits to intervene in Spain. The birthplace of the Almohads, whose name derives from the oneness of God, is near Tinmel on the road to Tizi n Test in the High Atlas. Today Tinmel is nothing but a village, but it boasts the ruins of a beautiful mosque from Almohad times.

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The mosque at Tinmel
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On the road to Tizi n Test and the Souss
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Camel thorn blocks this entry door. The mihrab is visible
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The mihrab at Tinmel
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Decoration on an arch at Tinmel

The Almohads left an indelible architectural imprint on Morocco. They built the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, famous for its minaret, as well as two other massive minarets, modeled after it: the unfinished Tour Hassan in Rabat, and the Giralda Tower in Sevilla, Spain.

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The Koutoubia minaret. Approaching Marrakech from any direction, the Koutoubia can be seen for miles and dominates the old city
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Decoration on one side of the Tour Hassan minaret
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The Giralda Tower in Sevilla. Note the fine decoration. The minaret now serves as a bell tower for the cathedral

All are noted for their proportions and fine decoration as well as their size: each is large enough inside for a ramp that would allow a horse to be ridden to the top. The Giralda, in my opinion, was not improved by the Renaissance bell tower, added to grace the cathedral that replaced the grand mosque.

The Tour Hassan was never finished, nor was the mosque it was supposed to serve, and the latter was further damaged in the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Nearly 50 meters high, the Tour Hassan was for many years one of the highest structures in Rabat.

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Little remains of the huge mosque beside the Tour Hassan, which, like the minaret, was never completed

When I first visited it in 1968, there were no barriers on the top, and one could sit, if one dared, with feet dangling over the edge.

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No fence, just a 50 meter drop. But what a view! Sale is across the river in the background. The minaret far in the distance is from the Almohads’ predecessors, the Almoravids.
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There is no finer view of the Ouidayas. Walk through the cemetery out to the end of the jetty, and experience the Atlantic surf. The Ouidayas constituted the chief settlement on this side of the Bou Regreg in Almohad times, and the name Rabat is derived from its fortifications

Unfortunately a rash of accidents and suicides led to erection of an ugly chain link fence on the top of the minaret. What remains of the mosque is simply marble slabs and ruined pillars. On the south end of the site is a newly constructed tomb for Mohammed V, a beloved ruler of the current dynasty, who led Morocco to independence. I wonder if he might have preferred a simpler tomb.

The Tour Hassan has stunning views of the Casbah of the Ouidayas, the Bou Regreg River, and the city of Sale. A fortified enclosure, built by the Almohads, the Casbah of the Ouidayas dominates the river as it enters the Atlantic.

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The Almohad gateway to the Ouidayas.
The view from the Ouidayas gate across Rabat

Its massive entryway is another classic example of Almohad architecture. In March of 1973, I became severely ill in Sefrou, and ended up recuperating in the house of friends who lived in the Ouidayas and spent several weeks there. The Ouidayas has a small medina, and it had great south-facing views that attracted foreign residents. There is also a museum and walled gardens below the residential area.

On the Atlantic side of the Ouidayas is a large cemetery by the ocean.

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The cemetery behind the Oudayas

Paths run down to the jetties that protect the Bou Regreg. People fish from them, and if you walk out to the end of one, you will be rewarded with terrific views of the Atlantic Ocean swells.

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A calm day at the end of the jetty. Beyond the lighthouse is a section of the city known as l’Océan

South of the Ouidayas, the Almohads created a necropolis with royal tombs, known today as the Chellah, on the slopes of the Bou Regreg’s valley.

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The Chellah, a Merinid necropolis

The site they chose was a Phoenician trading post, and later Roman site, Sala Colonia.

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Roman and pre-Roman ruins

It had already been mostly abandoned when its Byzantine governor, Count Julian of Ceuta, surrendered to the Arab general, Oqba Ben Nafi in 683. The latter is supposed to have ridden his horse into the Atlantic, calling for God to witness that he had brought Islam to the end of the world. True or not, it is a romantic image as well as one speaking to the pride of Moroccan Muslims.

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The Merinid gate to the Chellah

Today the Chellah is surrounded by the modern city of Rabat. A wall, built by the Merinids, encloses the ruins of the various civilizations that occupied the site, and the Merinids further endowed the Chellah with a mosque and tombs, now also in ruins.

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The minaret of the ruined Merinid Mosque within the Chellah. Storks winter in Morocco, and often choose minarets for nesting sites

The Chellah is an interesting place to explore. When I was there, there was a pool with eels. Women would come to it and feed them, possibly hoping for success in getting pregnant. Cats often surrounded the pool, begging for food.

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These kids are looking at the eels…
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…and the cats hope to get what the eels don’t.

Rabat was also the home of Barbary Pirates who are often associated with Sale, Rabat’s sister city across the mouth of the Bou Regreg. Sale was founded by the Almoravids. I lived there for a while in 1973 with a Peace Corps volunteer and a Moroccan friend, Ali, who was attending the University in Rabat. Most people cross the bridge between the cities, but there is an ancient ferry service that perseveres and can save time depending where you live in Sale.

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The Sale-Rabat ferry service, on the Sale side. The Ouidayas are across the river. The ride used to cost pennies


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Tableau d’orientation at Oukaimeden

As I write, the wind is howling. The weather forecast for the night is three to six inches of snow and a wind chill of -15 to -30F° (roughly -20 to -30° C). There is shore ice on Lake Ontario and Lake Erie is rapidly freezing over. Temperature is -20° C.

Toronto is across the lake

Sitting indoors, the weather outside invites us to reflect on sunnier climes, both here and abroad. I have been thinking about Jbel Toubkal.

As it is the highest mountain in North Africa, and, one of the most easily accessible high mountains on the entire continent, hikers and climbers flock to Jbel Toubkal. A short bus or taxi ride takes one to Imlil, a large village in the valley below the mountain.

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Imlil is below, in the valley. View is toward Tachdirt

Since I first visited Toubkal about 50 years ago, a serious tourism industry has grown up in this area. In my time, other than a stone dormitory building that the Club Alpin Français (CAF) left, there was just a village there, with villagers willing to sell you food, and muleteers offering their services to take you to the CAF huts of Neltner, De Lépiney, and Tachdirt. Today I see that a second hut exists next to the renamed Neltner, that businesses have grown up around Sidi Chamharouch, and that Imlil itself has holiday lets and lodging for tourists.

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Sidi Chamharoush in 1969

Bemoaning commercialization would be mean and selfish. There is no begrudging the living that the locals can make off of tourism. Life in the mountains is always difficult, and tourism is a great addition to the local economy.

There is no pretending that Toubkal is remote. In the seventies, a motorcycle group surprised us at Neltner, getting all the way up to the hut with their large bikes. On the other hand, the hut was never crowded in those days, and, once out of the hut, one hardly saw other hikers or climbers in the mountains.

My first visit to Neltner was in the summer of 1969, with other Peace Corps friends. Mules took our baggage up, while we walked, a good way to acclimatize.

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Aroumd, looking up toward Toubkal
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Corn field in Aroumd, the highest settlement in the valley
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Trail climbing toward Neltner Hut
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Group with mules
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Rest stop
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Trail to Neltner Hut, clouds over Marrakech
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Neltner Hut in sight
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Mule eats thistles outside Neltner hut
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View up valley from Neltner

We climbed the mountain by the gulley opposite the hut, an easy walk via a steep scree slope.

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Beginning of trail to Toubkal
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Long scree slope up gulley opposite Neltner hut leads to shoulder and summit of Toubkal

John Paulas and I had fun taking giant, gliding steps in the scree, and made it down from the summit in no time.

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John Paulas looking down the scree slope. Neltner is below, Tadat is on the ridge across valley
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Shoulder and summit of Toubkal. The west ridge route joins the main route on the right

This is the standard walk up route, and not much of a problem for a reasonably fit person in dry weather. There are good views from the summit.

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Summit view of Jbel Siroua, a 10,000 foot extinct volcano, in Saharan Atlas. Want an interesting hike? Do Siroua!
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Lounging on the summit of Toubkal, in background, from right to left, Ouanoukrim, Timesguida, and Akioud Bou Imrhaz

The real dangers on Toubkal are snow, ice, and bad weather. In 1970 an ill-prepared group of embassy people had a bad accident, with a member of the Turkish embassy slipping and sliding a long way down the standard route, and suffering serious injuries. Skiers can face avalanches in the winter, too.

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View of Toubkal from Akioud
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Tizi n Ouanoums, and profile of west ridge route, from Timesguida or Ras n Ouanoukrim. Jbel Siroua in far distance. The three towers on the ridge are clearly visible.

The classic climbing route is up the west ridge, which starts at Tizi Ouanoums. I found it easy, and did it once alone, and, another time, with an Englishman whom I met at Neltner.

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Climbing the second tower on the west ridge of Toubkal.
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Setting belay on last tower, west ridge
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Rappelling down last tower on west ridge

I do remember meeting a couple of young French climbers in Imlil on one of my visits, who complained in disappointment that the rock was rotten and that the route was not very challenging. I can understand that. The climbing is straightforward, not very exposed, and the rock could be better. With my limited skills, however, I found it enjoyable, and it is more scenic than the gulley route.

Neltner, at 3,200 meters, also served as a base for other trips: Tadat, Akioud, and hikes to the Lac d’Ifni. Tadat is a rock spur or isolated tower on Tizi n Tadat. Akioud is a ridge between Ouanoukrim and Afella that offers an easy traverse. The Lac d’Ifni is a tarn lake in the Massif of Toubkal, and is said to contain native trout. One simply follows the main valley above the hut over Tizi n Ouanoums, and down to the lake. Of course, if you don’t know where you are going you may have problems. I once stood on Tizi Ouanoums shouting at the top of my lungs to my friends Maya and Dan, who wanted to go to the Lac d’Ifni, but were heading toward Tizi n Ouagane! At least a thousand feet above them, they simply could not hear me, and there were no others on the route to set them straight. They only discovered their mistake when they found no lake at the bottom of the valley! Still they had a great time.

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Trail from Neltner hut up to Tizi n Tadat
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Tadat, as sun sets, from shoulder of Toubkal

I ended up summiting most of the highest peaks around Neltner, all of which are easy walk ups. If you are thinking about doing it, go when there is snow on the mountains. They are parched and bleak in the summer.

Tadat. Cover of a special edition of the CAF Casablanca review, La Montagne Morocaine. I probably found this in the suq in Rabat. What a great piece of history.

I always wanted to climb Tadat, but never managed to do it, though my friend Jean-Michel Vrinat, and some other French friends with whom I climbed did it. Jean-Michel was a coopérant, who arrived in Morocco with a carload of sporting equipment (fencing foils, shotgun, etc.) which included climbing gear. I did lead this group, with friends Gilles and Sylvie Narbonne on a traverse of Akioud, which I had done by myself before, and I think that they really enjoyed it.

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Akioud bou Imrhaz, from west ridge of Toubkal
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Traverse of Akioud. Sylvie climbing as Gilles and Jean-Michel watch
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Jean-Michel Vrinat in chimney on Akioud. Sylvie and Gilles watch
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On top of Akioud, Jean-Michel and Gilles Narbonne nearing summit
Gilles and Sylvie Narbonne, au sommet d’Akioud. 1977. Toubkal à l’arrière plan.

Akioud is an easy walk from the Neltner Hut, and, done from south to north, requires no rappelling. A rope for belaying and security is useful, but not needed for good climbers.

Finally, a trail leads to the third CAF Hut, Tachdirt, near the village and below the pass of the same name. I visited Tachdirt twice. In the spring, there was too much snow, and I think that we spent a couple of cold days in the hut before going back down.

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From trail to Tachdirt in March
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Tachdirt after snowfall. Villagers clear snow from roofs.

A second time, we thought we could walk the ridges between Tizi n Tachdirt and connect to the trail to Neltner. We totally underestimated our physical condition and the difficulty involved. Having climbed from the pass to the ridge of Jbel Anrhemer, we camped out just below the ridge. I awoke sick the next morning. Climbing along the ridge, I became increasingly dehydrated, and needed water, which necessitated descending to the nearest snow patch (of which there were precious few—this was summer.) We ended up returning to Imlil, then walking the trail to Neltner, arriving in the middle of the night, in my case with the assistance of a mule for the last kilometer. What a day!

La montagne n’a pas voulu!


Lately I have been reading the posts of Peace Corps Volunteers currently serving in Morocco. It was a pleasure to see that a couple of them have formed chess teams, and recently had a competition.

Chess is a terrific game for kids. It requires little investment in equipment, it is easy to learn, it teaches important life skills, and it probably improves a student’s cognitive abilities. It is a truly international game, and, in fact, FIDE is the third largest sports federation in the world. Chess notation has become an international language. Girls have the same ability as boys.

I took a chess book with me as a volunteer, but, like my Russian language text, I never looked at it much. I don’t think I took a chess set, though I did play in training. I never knew anyone in Sefrou who played. Now I wish I had. Later in my life, I did play café chess for a while in Chauen.

While in the Peace Corps I had some Yugoslav friends, including Peter Kustovitch, who worked in agriculture in Fes, and knew many volunteers. There were also Yugoslav students studying at the Qarawiyin University, as well as a Yugoslav doctor in Boulemane. They all played chess much better than I did, and I could have had fun and improved my game. Peter was from Montenegro, and I hope he did not get caught up in the Balkan Wars of the Nineties.

I played chess in high school, and at other points in my life, and I never lost interest in the game. When I began teaching, I started a chess club at my high school, and continued it for about 20 years. In 2011, the school entered an interscholastic league, managed by Rochester Chess, and began competing with other schools. We always did well, but needed a bit more support, which my former school district, in conjunction with the police athletic league, are now providing.

In my last year of teaching, there were four exchange students, all Muslim. They hailed from Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, and Indonesia. As one might expect, they were a diverse group.

At one of the gates at Fort Niagara. Jordan, Kuwait, Indonesia, and Kyrgyzstan

I convinced two of them to join our scholastic chess team. Our first board had graduated, and our best player was our third board from the previous year. I guessed that the Kyrgyz might play well, coming from a former Soviet Republic, and so he could. He made the difference between a good and a mediocre season. And he turned out to be a truly nice person.

Niagara Falls Interscholastic Chess Team. Second and third from left, Ahmad from Jordan, and Kuba, from Kyrgyzstan. Kuba was first board

Dylan, by the way, was the previous year’s team’s first board, and virtually inhaled pizza!

Hockey Night in Morocco 

Kadri, number 43, scores! 2017.

In the autumn of 1967, I reported for Peace Corps training to a migrant labor camp in Hemet, California. The year had been eventful. I had graduated from college. I had visited Expo 67, the World’s Fair in Montreal. I had worked for two Peace Corps training programs in la Pocatière. I had hiked in the Canadian Rockies. I had witnessed Charles DeGaulle address to a Quebec crowd shouting “Vive le Québec libre.”  And I had listened to Foster Hewitt on Hockey Night in Canada as the Toronto Maple Leafs won their fourth Stanley Cup of the decade.
Living along the US-Canadian border for much of my life, I also had an academic interest in Canada. I didn’t play hockey, and, in fact, could barely skate, but I followed the game closely through the Toronto Globe and Mail, for which I had a subscription.
In 1967, there were only six teams in the National Hockey League, though the league was on the verge of expansion. Almost all the players were Canadians.
Tonight Liz and I tuned into the Maple Leaf game. From our home, we can receive it clearly over the air. I had been thinking about writing about the Muslim players in the NHL, and took a screen shot just as Nazem Kadri scored against Philadelphia. Kadri is one of two Muslim players in the NHL. He is a a native of London, Ontario, not too far from here. His father was born in Lebanon and emigrated to Canada where Nazem was born.
If you had suggested to me while I lived in Sefrou that I would be watching Muslim hockey players playing professional hockey, I think I would have been sceptical. When the Leafs won their last Cup, I believe that the entire team was made up of Canadian players. Today, of the twenty-three players on the roster, six are European and five are American , including their franchise player, Auston Matthews, from, of all places, Arizona.
Kadri is an elite player. He scored twice in tonight’s game, and he is one of the reasons the Leafs may finally get another chance at the Stanley Cup in the coming years. He practices his faith, and keeps the Ramadan fast as best he can, not an easy thing for a sports professional.
I don’t expect a Moroccan hockey star soon, but fifty years ago I didn’t expect Muslims in the NHL either.

Trout Fishing in America

Depending on your age and life experience, Trout Fishing in America may bring different things to mind. If you are a fisherman and fly enthusiast, it may remind you of the opening of trout season on one of America’s classic streams, such as the Delaware or the Madison.
If you are young, perhaps you will think of the homonymous band that sang children’s songs. My favorite, as a former school library media specialist, was Alien in My Nose, wherein the fate of the world is settled in a school library, saved by a kid killing time.
Then, again, if you happen to be a baby boomer, one of college age in the late nineteen sixties you may recall Richard Brautigan’s short novel.
The sixties were a time of ferment and turbulence. A counter culture arose that is familiar, and shared, at least to some small extent, by almost everyone who was young then.
By 1968 Brautigan’s book had gotten into the hands of Peace Corps volunteers. I read it, because everyone was reading it, or, perhaps, because there may have been nothing else to read at the time, but it did not captivate me. It was not long enough to fill up multiple grand taxi trips from Sefrou to work in Fes and back home. I preferred longer and more ambitious novels such as Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margarita or classics such as La chartreuse de Parme. Brautigan was mildly amusing, but shallow. Perhaps you had to be high to enjoy him.

Trout fishing in Morocco was a different matter. At the time, I was interested in hiking and climbing, and fishing was secondary. I had some tackle, and fished a bit in the Middle Atlas lakes where European pike ruled, but the real trout fishing was in the central High Atlas. Al Jessup, the local Christian missionary, was by profession a fisher of souls, but Morocco was a difficult stream to poach. He was befriended by a French sports shop owner in Fes, and the two of them went on fishing trips together. He bragged of the ease of catching rainbow trout, of size and quantity in the cold mountain lakes and streams. I am not aware that he ever caught any souls.

The rainbows were stocked, of course, as were largemouth bass, and other sport fishes. Morocco has its own native species of trout, one of which lives in Ifni Lake, in the shadow of Jbel Toubkal, a place frequently visited by hikers. All of Morocco’s trout are probably endangered today. If you are interested in Morocco’s native wildlife, you may enjoy this article on trout.
Before the Romans, Morocco probably had many of the large fauna of Africa: elephants, bears, lions. The North African elephant, was used in warfare by many armies besides those of the Carthaginians. Intensive use of North Africa for farming, and the insatiable demand for animal fights in the arenas of the Roman Empire eventually led to the extinction of most of the large fauna. Wild boar and macaque monkeys are the most serious threats you might encounter in a Moroccan forest today. I once asked a shepherd near Ifrane if he had seen any monkeys. After two years in Morocco, I had not seen one. His reply: “Are you kidding? The little sons of bitches are everywhere!” I finally did see the Barbary macaques, both in the Middle Atlas and in the Rif in the mountains overlooking Chauen. I never encountered a boar, except one my friend Jean-Michel shot and served roasted at the dinner table. Needless to say, Moroccans do not eat boar, but they do hunt them as the animals can be a nuisance. Around the turn of the twentieth century, pig sticking–hunting boar from horseback with pikes–was the dangerous pleasure of the more avid European hunters who lived in Tangier.
Thomas Pellow, an 11-year old English boy captured by Barbary pirates in 1715 and sold as a slave to Moulay Ismael, explains in his memoir, The Adventures of Thomas Pellow Mariner, what to do if one happens to cross a lion on the road:

The lion, on the other hand, shows himself boldly sitting on his breech with a very sour look in the road, about twenty or thirty paces before travellers. In this case, instead of walking on and keeping their eyes off him, they must stand still and stare him full in the face, hollowing at him and abusing him all they can ; and for fear he may not understand English, in the language — if they can — of the country. Upon this hollowing and staring at him, he gets him on his legs, and, severely lashing his loins with his tail, walks from them, roaring after a terrible manner, and sits himself down again in the road, about the distance of a mile or two, when both traveller and lion behave again in the same manner ; and after proving them thus a third time, the lion generally leaves them without interruption.

There is no danger of that today. Traditionally, it is said that the last wild Barbary lion was killed in 1920. Some put the date in the nineteen forties. Sadly, today the Barbary lions are gone except for a few in zoos and manageries such as kept by the kings.

Those caged lions had their uses. El Rogui Bou Hmara led an unsuccessful revolt against the sultan Moulay Abd el-Hafids from 1902 to 1909. When his tribal support disintegrated, El Rogui took refuge in a mosque thinking he had sanctuary. It was bombarded by the sultan’s French supplied artillery, however, and he was captured. Displayed in a cage in Fes, he was tortured and eventually thrown to lions, though it isn’t clear whether they were interested enough to actually eat him!

Extinction is a thought much on my mind these days. I’ve been following Elizabeth Kolbert’s articles in The New Yorker for years, and finally read her book, The Sixth Extinction, this spring.
This post was prompted by an article I read the other day in La Dépêche. I’ve been thinking of a hiking or climbing holiday in the Pyrenees, so I follow what goes on in the region by reading this newspaper published in Toulouse. If you have been following the news, then you know that the Catalans and Spain have many issues that are coming to a head. The Catalans have my sympathy: they suffered years of cultural suppression by Franco’s dictatorship. Yet I find rabid nationalism dangerous, too. The future of mankind, if it is to be happy, will surely entail greater economic and political integration, as well as cooperation and common sacrifice. May the coolest heads prevail and everyone receive what is most important to him.
I noticed an article on the discovery of mercury in some of the high lakes of the Pyrenees. Investigators have come to the conclusion that the mercury arrived in the form of trout fingerlings, that are raised in hatcheries and stocked in the lakes. The trout are fed meal derived from ocean fish that have bioaccumulated mercury. Here is a case where humans unknowingly are transferring toxins between species and environments.
If you’ve read The Sun Also Rises, you know that Hemingway’s idea of heaven was trout fishing in the Pyrenees. He thought Spain had the best fishing in Europe.
O brave new world!