Sarah Thomson


Against All odds

Two classic tales of survival

by   George Patrick


The enormous success of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, the true story of an ill‑fated expedition up Mount Everest, has led to a succession of books dealing with real human beings locked in a deadly struggle with the forces of nature.

Twenty‑six years ago, the equivalent book was Alive : The Story of the Andes Survivors  by Piers Paul Read.  This was one of those books that I really meant to read but never quite get around to at the time.  So when I saw a hardback copy of Alive  in the thrift store for a loonie I knew it was time to splurge.

Older readers will no doubt remember this extraordinary story which captured the headlines at the time.

In 1972, a rugby team of former students at a Uruguayan Catholic school was flying westwards over the Andes to play a match in Chile.  There were forty‑five people aboard the twin prop plane.  Somehow the two pilots seriously miscalculated their position.  Thinking that they were descending to land in Chile, they crashed high up in the Andes mountains.  Many were killed outright in the crash, others died agonizing deaths from their injuries.  For the twenty‑seven survivors of the crash, mostly young men aged about twenty, an ordeal of almost unimaginable horror began.  Ten weeks later, only fifteen would emerge from the mountains.

High above the treeline, there was no vegetation or animal life to sustain them when their meagre supply of food ran out. The air was so thin that any exertion was exhausting, and the snows so deep that they sank up to their waists.  It was desperately cold.  All around loomed great peaks: there was no way of knowing whether the best way out lay to the east (Argentina), or to the west (Chile).

Gradually, hope of rescue faded.  The pilots, both dead, had radioed such an inaccurate last position that the air search had little hope of success.  In any case, the searchers were looking for a white plane in a desert of white.

Soon all the food was gone, and famished eyes slowly turned to the frozen corpses of their friends and family members.  The unthinkable became thinkable.  Before their long agony was over, all would have eaten human flesh, including hearts , livers and brains.  Like latter day Australopithicenes, they learned to crack bones to get at the energy rich marrow of former teammates.  Calling upon Catholic theology, they compared it to the eucharist, when Catholics eat the flesh of Jesus.

This tale of cannibalism was, of course, the thing that would capture the attention of the world a few days after the miraculous survival of the fifteen was announced.  Inevitably, that is what everyone remembers about the Andes survivors.  But there is so much more to this story.

Alive  is ultimately a portrait of a small society pushed to the very limit of its endurance.  In such extremes, individual character is pared to the essence.  The strong tend to walk over the weak ‑ literally, in the cramped, fetid fuselage where they huddled for warmth at night.  The weak tend to become whining, cadging dependents.    Some, strong to begin, crumble under the stress.  And in one case, a young man, hitherto a  nondescript also‑ran, emerges as a hero of Homeric proportions.

Alive  is an unforgettable story.

Reading this classic got me to thinking about other stories of human survival in the face of Nature’s impersonal cruelty.  Growing up in Britain after World War II, I read dozens of such stories.  Most famous of these was Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon Tiki Expedition (1950), that sublime tale of a bunch of modern day Vikings sailing westwards from Peru to Easter Island on a raft.  But it was not typical of this genre.  Although the Kon Tiki lads faced great danger, it all worked out for the best.  The whole affair is a bit of a joyous lark.

Most of the stories I read were grimmer — about soldiers fleeing from Japanese POW camps, stricken with dysentery and beri beri; or torpedoed seamen drifting for weeks on rafts in the middle of the ocean, tortured by thirst.  And so on.  Of all these stories, however, one has haunted my imagination over the forty‑five years since I read it.

In 1955, David Howarth wrote We Die Alone, the incredible story of  Jan  Baalsrud.

On a whim, I tootled down to my local public library and two‑fingered the title into their computer.   I really didn’t expect to find it.  But there (bless our underfunded public library system) it was.

Jan Baalsrud was a young Norwegian.  When The Germans invaded Norway in 1940, he fought against them until resistance was futile.  He then escaped over the border to neutral Sweden, and  made his way, via Russia, Bulgaria, Egypt, Aden, Bombay, South Africa, the USA and Newfoundland, to Britain.  There, in the Scottish Highlands, he trained as a freedom fighter.

In March 1943, Jan and eleven other patriots landed on the very northern shore of Norway just north of Tromso, well above the Arctic Circle.  Their mission was to disrupt the Nazi air reconnaissance that was playing merry hell with the convoys carrying supplies into Murmansk, our Soviet ally’s icefree port in the north.  (It is worth consulting an atlas for this story.)

The twelve men were unlucky from the first.  The Germans were waiting for them.  Detonating the eight tons of explosives in the hold of their disguised fishing boat, the twelve tried to make it to shore and flee.  Only Jan made it into the snow‑ covered hills.  One foot was bare, and a German bullet had shot off half the big toe.  Jan’s only hope now was to elude the Germans who were hunting him down, cross the mountains in Arctic winter, and escape once again to Sweden.  We Die Alone  is the epic tale of Jan’s journey, a classic of human fortitude.

Before his ordeal was over, Jan would suffer as few have suffered.  He was entombed in snow more than once; swept downhill by an avalanche; wandered for days snowblind until he walked into the wall of a cabin; and was reduced by starvation and suffering to half his body weight. Yet he never lost the indomitable will to survive.  Finally, entombed once more in the snows of the high  mountain wilderness, he examined his gangrenous, frostbitten toes, and made a decision.  Taking out his pocketknife, he severed nine of them.  This is the scene that has remained with me over a lifetime.

What I had largely forgotten was how hundreds of Norwegians, finally given an opportunity to do something against the Nazi invaders, worked together, at enormous personal risk, to help their crippled young hero over the mountains to freedom.  Like Alive, this is a story about individual survival in a wasteland of snow and perishing cold.  But it is also, like Alive, a story of community, of human beings coming together to meet a challenge that few of us are ever likely to face.

David Howarth, in his introduction to We Die Alone, admits that Jan’s story defies belief.  But the author retraced  the steps of Jan’s agonizing odyssey, speaking to all the Norwegians who helped him, or who, for example, found Jan’s smashed skis where he was swept down the mountain by the avalanche.  In every detail, Jan’s story held up.

Alive  and We Die Alone  are two extraordinary testaments to the human spirit.

There are several editions of both these stories, some with modified titles.  The same is true of Kon Tiki.


Piers Paul Read.  Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (Lippincott)  1974.  352 pages.  Also a revised edition by Adventure Library 1996.

David Howarth.  We Die Alone (Collins)  1955.  256 pages.  Also in Adventure Library 1996.

Plowing transit funding forward

I have a lapel button with the words “I’ll pay for it” transposed over a subway map. It’s a reminder of all the people I’ve met over the years (while campaigning for dedicated transit funding) who were willing to pay for transit expansion as long as they knew their funds would go directly to it.

Last week Toronto City Council announced it would have to borrow $86 Million to cover cuts the Province made to social housing back in 2013. Mayor Tory had hoped to convince the province to reverse their decision but they wouldn’t, or, to be more accurate, they couldn’t reverse their decision because they too are having revenue issues.

The critics have attacked Mayor Tory on his decision to borrow the funds needed to cover this shortfall to social housing. But we can’t expect Mayor Tory or City Council to address the huge revenue problem Toronto has, when we as a city refuse to support candidates who advocate for more funding.

It’s time to deal in facts, and the very basic fact for Toronto is that there isn’t enough revenue to provide, or expand on, the services the city currently has to fulfill. From housing to transit Toronto doesn’t have the funds we need to provide the services and the anti-tax attitude dominating every issue has limited our ability to keep up with other growing cities. There are two questions we have to ask : Do you want more transit in the city? Do you want to care for those in need? Politicians who even suggest Toronto use dedicated revenue tools common in other cities, get swept aside for those who shout “no tax increases.” Our civic leaders can’t invest in our city because we refuse to give them the support to do it.

It’s time to change. Time to come together as a city and begin the work required to educate our residents on the crisis Toronto will have if we don’t act today.  We have elected someone who may turn out to be one of the best Mayor’s Toronto has ever had, he’s a consensus builder, a centrist not shackled to the far left or right. But we can’t expect Mayor Tory to deliver the services Toronto needs if we don’t provide him the funds to do it.

When it comes to revenue tools there are a number of good ideas that the Board of Trade, Metrolinx and the Transit Alliance have endorsed. Metrolinx suggested a basket of revenue tools that included a 1% sales tax, a 5 cent gas tax, parking levies, and an increase in development charges. Other North American cities have used toll roads, and the Toronto Act gives our city the ability to toll the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, which were downloaded to Toronto over 20 years ago.

It’s time for each one of us to rip away the rigid anti-tax attitude that has settled over Toronto, and held us back from building an effective and vibrant city. The first step is to envision what the city might be like if we invested in transit. Think of the jobs this kind of investment would bring, and of the future we would be building not just for today but for our children. The next step is to work actively to dispel the myth that city hall is rolling in funds with the reality – Toronto has a revenue problem that must be solved. If you would like to help, please join the Transit Alliance campaign for dedicated transit funding – you can become a member, volunteer, and share our posts on your social media wall. Forward. Together.

“Operation Soap” brought out our ugly

Today is Feb, 5th and on this day 34 years ago Toronto police organized “Operation Soap” raiding four gay bathhouses in the city and arresting over 300 innocent men. It was perhaps one of our lowest points as a city and should serve to remind all of us how easily our rights can be taken away.  Human rights are, unfortunately, easily ignored when those given power are ignorant.

Peter Bochove was co owner of the Richmond Street Health Emporium at the time of the raid in 1981 and said the police came in with crow bars and sledge hammers “ they were offered the keys to the lockers and the rooms, but they held up a crowbar and said — we brought our own. We ended up in the shower room and we were all told to strip” One of the cops who was looking at the pipes going into the shower room said, “gee, it’s too bad we can’t hook this up to gas.”

The campaign was an initiative by the metropolitan police to push gay bars and bathhouses out of business – but also to silence those who advocated for gay rights.

Instead of driving the LGBT community underground it worked as a catalyst, uniting the gay community and building support through mass demonstrations, rallies and marches.  It was the beginning of six years of steady harassment by the police of gay press and gay men across the country; but also the beginning of the gay rights movement in Canada.  Instead of hiding, gay men took to the streets, marching with their supporters, pushing the boundary and speaking out. It was the end of the silence.

Today is a day to remember, and a day to celebrate all those who stood up for gay rights and refused to stay silent.

Social media exposes all

Love it or hate it, social media is having a huge impact on the world and it is one that I view optimistically.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are the newest forms of communication and they are working to build better communities. There are some interesting trends that have developed over facebook in conjunction with Twitter and Youtube, that are causing people to be more reflective, more compassionate and better informed.

Take for instance #ThrowbackThursdays – this is a general call for users to post old pictures of themselves to share with their community.  It requires people to dig through their past and gain  little reflection in the process. Or the growing trend to capture everything on video. From kittens wrestling to puppies playing, video producers are everywhere adding a creative drive to new media that is reshaping the entertainment world.

But perhaps the most significant impact of social media is its ability to allow knowledge to grow and expand. No longer can editors act as gate-keepers, deciding what is important and what is not. In a world were pictures, videos and words can be shared with the click of a button the opportunity to learn has never been more accessible. Social media is a powerful tool that can be used as a weapon, or a form of defense – think of all the videos that have come out exposing assault, pushing people to be more.  The real strength of social media rests in its ability to expose injustice and the hidden messages that rest just under the surface.

Take for example politics. Over the past century land developers have influenced politicians to build infrastructure that will increase their property values. They might push for a railway station that connects to their property in order to increase their property value, or they might go further and influence the design of the entire rail line to have fewer stops in order to increase their land value even further – the demand for space near the stop will be much greater. However social media can easily expose this sort of corruption. Property ownership is easy to find online, connections between developers and those who created the design can be easily exposed. Can you imagine the damage that could be done to a politician promoting a rail line with few stops through the city if social media exposed that the design for the line was created by developers with property at those stops?  No longer can a group of land developers push through a poor design. No longer can politicians get away with paying off their sponsors. Social media is just starting to shape the way our society moves forward and I for one am looking forward to the impacts it will have on our future.

In pursuit of the guilt-free tan

By Kate Zankowicz

Locusts are swarming the beaches of the Canary Islands and sea turtles are washing up on the shores of Mexico. With such startling ecological costs, how can one manage to frolic in the sand without a burdened conscience this winter? Although I was initially skeptical about ecotourism, I have suffered from the shock of accidentally discovering that raw sewage pipe while innocently combing the beach for cowry shells in the past. I decided that my trip to Saint Martin/Sint Maarten had to be more environmentally kosher.

For those readers who are envisioning being tangled up in mangrove roots while tracking the elusive Sacred Ibis bird, or being forced to tag and label heaps of turtle eggs, think again. You don’t have to be a freakishly avid bird-watcher or relish portage through the jungle to be an eco-tourist. Although Costa Rica may seem to be the most obvious eco-tourist destination, there are many Caribbean islands that are making a commitment to ecologically smart tourism practices, led by CAST (the Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism) and various nature foundations and ocean reserves.

The small Dutch and French island of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, for instance, boasts a Marine park and a bird sanctuary. This has been in response to the overwhelming number of tourists (1.2 million a year) who come to cavort on 92 km of pristine white sand beaches and turquoise blue surf. Paradoxically enough, the very things that attract tourists to the island are endangered by their presence there. The main town on the Dutch side, Phillipsburg, is replete with all the trappings of any North American shopping mall. There is a Tommy Hilfiger and Gap for the 20,000 tourists who come off the cruise ship each day to do some shopping they could very well have done at home.

It’s a quaint colonial town, but one that remains surprisingly silent about its colonial past: supposedly discovered by Columbus, invaded by the Spanish, the French, the Dutch, the English, and even the Americans (Juliana Airport is the old U.S. military base). The island was a sugar plantation economy until the tourists started coming, and was a key producer of salt for Dutch herring until the resorts started being built. The border between the French and Dutch sides is marked by a solitary monument. The main difference is that there are sexier guavaberry cocktails and more nude beaches on the French side. Both sides are on the Euro currency, and accept every credit card imaginable.

In the face of a population that seems to double every few years, the marine parks and wildlife preserves are important steps in safeguarding the island from environmental degradation. The Sint Maarten Nature Foundation on the Dutch side has been instrumental in reducing the anchoring damage by establishing boat-free zones in the marine park, and also reducing the coral reef damage caused by cavorting divers. This last is done by building “reef balls,” artificial reef environments that are made from fibre-glass but simulate the real thing. These pockets of enclosed reef teem with stoplight parrot fish, cushion sea stars, queen angelfish, fire worms and conchs without endangering ecologically sensitive reef areas, and are still a diver’s delight.

The foundation also plants palm and mangrove to counter beach erosion, and has established a Turtle Watch to keep tabs on the three species that lay their eggs on the island: the green turtle, the hawksbill and the leatherback.

Although ecotourism sometimes seems like a shameless marketing tool, promising adventure in the rain forest, life-changing ancient cave exploration, or botanically enlightened hikes with native guides, Sint Maarten’s ecotourism is of a quieter variety. There are many hotels that profess to be “ecolodges” simply because they offer bird watching tours, and one should, of course, be aware that “eco” can be misleading.

But as I lolled about the beach, or sat beneath the tamarind trees, a hibiscus bloom behind my ear, I felt considerably more at ease knowing that just beyond the sand was a pelican reserve, and that my brief stint with scuba diving didn’t damage a single coral polyp. The fact that no one asked me to label a sea turtle egg made it even sweeter. And thankfully, there was not a single biblical swarm of locusts to be found.

Transit integration moves forward for GTHA

Today GO Transit and the TTC announced a partnership on a pilot project to give metropass holders the opportunity to purchase a new monthly GO fare sticker for $60 that can be used  for unlimited travel between Exhibition, Union and Danforth GO Stations. It will begin on Feb 1, 2015. The new stickers will go on sale on Jan. 26, at Exhibition, Union and Danforth GO Stations.

CEO of Metrolinx, Bruce McCuaig said, “This project is more than about saving time. It’s about working together to provide the best transit service”

The goal is to attract people to use different transit options, and to inform them of all the transit choices that are available to them. Transit officials say this will save commuters between 10 to 15 minutes per trip during rush hour.

Ontario Transportation Minister, Steven Del Duca announced that the project would last one year, and offer Metrolinx a lot of information to analyse in order to help them with long-term planning.

Here is how to get the sticker

1. Bring your TTC Metropass (for the current or upcoming month) to the ticket counter at Exhibition, Union or Danforth GO Station.

2. A GO station Attendant will attach the GO fare sticker to your valid TTC Metropass.

Safe travels.

Twitter impacts women more than men

How does social media use impact stress?

A new survey done by Pew Research Center on 1,801 adults, asked participants about the extent “to which they felt their lives were stressful, using an established scale of stress called the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS).” The survey was based on 10 questions measured through PSS to determine the levels of stress participants had. The findings demonstrated that overall people who use social media do not have higher stress levels and in fact the study demonstrated that women who use “twitter, email and cell phone picture sharing report lower levels of stress.”

The study also found that increased awareness of stressful events in the lives of others is tied to higher levels of stress especially in women. It is termed “the cost of caring” and the study found that the stress is not connected to the frequency of use of social media but with more to the awareness of distressing events in others.  Learning about the massacre in Nigeria, or the attacks in Paris, has an impact those relating to it. In other words it is the content or knowledge gained, and not the way in which that knowledge is gained that actually causes stress. This might seem obvious but for decades people have wanted to blame technology for the additional stress in our lives.

The study also demonstrated that there are benefits from social media interaction. Those who use social media are more likely to have more friends, more trust in people and more support than those who do not use social media.  But when balanced with the additional stress caused by increased awareness the stress levels in those who use social media balance out with those who don’t.

However women tend to report more stress than men from social media use, but those who use it to communicate with others report less stress than women who do not use social media.

Women who use social media are much more aware and impacted by stressful events in the lives of others and
the number of undesirable events associated with stress is greater in women than men.

When it comes to men there is no difference in stress levels between men who use social media and those who don’t.

So what does this mean? Men collect and process information differently than women, they are not as impacted by learning that a friend is in a stressful situation, nor does sharing information reduce stress in them.  Women are impacted by stress in others and social media can relieve stress in women if they share with it.

I wonder what this knowledge might do in the way of developing new apps or to the strategies of campaigns targeting , what changes to political oline strategies might occur to target women and unlike my male counterparts how they will use it? You might say that it’s stressin’ me out.

Caille Blanc, St. Lucia

The birds wake you in the morning as the sun rises, a soft breeze passes through the shutters and I understand now why there isn’t any glass in the windows. This is the way to wake up in St. Lucia.

We are staying in the southern area of Soufriere, up high on a mountain overlooking the Pitons and the Caribbean. At night when the birds go to sleep you can hear the waves crashing on the rocks far below, during the day when the sun is high the bugs seem to take over the air waves but they haven’t come out of their hiding yet. Our boys are sleeping without misquito nets and haven’t had a bite yet.

The rain comes often in short, light mist and then disappears with the sun drying up everything in a few minutes.

The hummingbirds are everywhere, with gold finches, morning doves and songbirds that I can’t name.

The villa has an Italian/Spanish flare to it, and with the mountains so close it feels a little like Italy and Costa Rica rolled into one.

The gardner comes at 7 a.m. and I can hear his brooms sweeping the leaves off the front step. My son rushes out to help him feed the gold fish in the small fish pond beside the kitchen gazebo. At nine the chef comes to make us breakfast, she prepares dinner leaving it for us to cook. My husband and I like to make dinner together so it works out perfectly.

Yesterday we walked down the road to the beach, it was hot and beautiful. I dream about building a place like this with our boys in another few years…

If you are planning a vacation this is a beautiful place to relax and you can book it here: 

What makes a city great?

I doubt anyone could point to just one feature that makes a city a great place to live, instead  a great city depends on thousands of small parts that collectively make it a success or a failure.  Toronto has some terrific features but also some big challenges. We sit beside a huge fresh water lake, but because of our location climate change has a harsh impact on us — from ice storms to floods — and scientists are predicting that extreme weather conditions will increase. Toronto must look for ways to  fortify our city for the weather to come, and for the increase in population that is expected.

But let’s get back to one of the small features that cities around the world are using to improve the quality of life for their residents — Trees. Not only do trees improve air quality, produce oxygen, and combat the greenhouse effect, they cool the streets, conserve energy and save water. Given all the positive impacts of having a large and healthy urban tree canopy (over 50% coverage) where does Toronto sit in comparison to other cities in North America?

Below are the top ten cities in North America and their percentage of tree and bush coverage:

1.     Atlanta -52%

2.     Nashville – 49%

3.     Pittsburg – 42%

4.     Halifax – 41%

5.     Albuquerque – 38%

6.     Washington D.C – 36%

7.     Minneapolis – 34%

8.     Tampa – 32%

9.     Austin – 31%

10.  Portland – 30%

Toronto isn’t even on the list of top ten, but we sit at a measly 26% tree coverage   —  we can and should do better!


Trees by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see   
A poem lovely as a tree.   
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest   
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;   
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;   
A tree that may in summer wear   
A nest of robins in her hair;   
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;   
Who intimately lives with rain. 
Poems are made by fools like me,   
But only God can make a tree.