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The World Beneath Your Nose

How a little hop across some stones in a pond can lead you places you couldn’t dream of.

Andrew and I drove down to Barrhaven to check out a small section of forest with a trail through it by the Jock River. It caught my eye because it had full Street View coverage, rare for private roads. We discovered a nice leafy lane, gated off by the City to be a “park” but with bicycle tire marks to show it’s being well used.

The road came to a T at the river; off to the right it met up with another residential street, but to the left it ended at the remains of a dam, which was more interesting. Beautiful laminar flow met rocks and tree limbs, becoming a rush of chaotic foot-deep rapids. Andrew felt the urge to jump between the large rocks that dotted the water despite carrying a pricey camera, his phone, and his life. Naturally there came a moment when he had crossed and I necessarily had to follow. My phone is waterproof, I had no camera, and I mentally signed the required waivers and forms to allow me to write off my life’s worth for sixty seconds.

You’re thinking something happens here, and I forgive you. But no, waivers are a total waste of time nearly all the time, and my shoes stayed dry that day. On the other side of the river we picked up another trail and began walking downstream towards the next bridge. We discussed whether it was safe to eat the sumac along the path. I pointed out that since poison sumac exists, that variety must be the exception not the rule, and so it was likely that most sumac was non-poisonous. Andrew agreed with my logic. We still did not eat any sumac.

I have to thank Andrew for two things he did that turned the initial trip into an adventure, one was crossing the river and the second was noticing something unusual in a back yard adjacent to the path we were taking. He pointed at a large white silo in the yard with a domed roof that made it look like an observatory, and joked that we could go ask whether it was that or not. I didn’t see it as a joking matter, and walked over and rang the doorbell, noting the security camera on the porch. The owner answered the door.

We asked him whether the structure was “a telescope or something”, and he confirmed that and offered to show it to us. Side note: you know you’ve made it if you can tell guests to go around your house “either way”. A rabbit made a warp-drive exit from the lawn as the owner met us at the observatory, which had a rotating dome with a vertically opening cover slot for the telescope to look out through. He opened a short door on the side.

“Want to go in?”

This gets crazier?

“In?”

“Yep.”

We ducked through the doorway and into the spaceship. Time dilation gripped us and while we must have only been in it for a couple of minutes, I could not give a full description of everything it contained and that we discussed without writing for pages.

The curved wall was adorned with several circuit boards and equipment boxes, placed neatly and not all together, as though there was plenty of space for future additions. The dome rested on a toothed ring that ran around the entire wall. A little covered white plastic box held the motor to rotate it. But all that was merely support for the Machine that stood taller than us in the center of the space, beginning as a dumb steel pedestal rising from the ground, then a much more refined mount with a motor-driven guidance with ports and blinking lights. Atop that sat a tube the size of a barrel, one end of which pointed up and the other of which held a Photographic Device, not a terrestrial camera you’d recognize but a thing that by a process of elimination could only be a camera.

“Why does the camera have a heatsink and fan on it?” I asked, expecting that it was to remove waste heat generated by the chip. I was not right.

“Well at subzero temperatures [he either said -20 or -40, I forget] the camera sensor is more stable and you get better results.”

I haven’t finished describing the Machine. The barrel had a fat middle, like a drum magazine for a machine gun. We were told it contained several lens filters that could be automatically cycled through so the ultrasensitive monochrome sensor could see light at various wavelengths for post-processing. A smaller - I hesitate to say small - telescope was mounted to the side of the large telescope, with its own fan-cooled camera chip.

Oh, yes. The Machine was remotely controlled and fully automatic, from the tracking of celestial objects and the cycling of the lens filters, down to the closing of the dome when rain was sensed by the mini weather station situated outside. The pilot confided in us that he rarely visited it in person anymore, as there was no need. He merely had to remotely command it to collect photographs of an object and it would dutifully oblige, finding time between rainstorms and clouds and lighting conditions to snap the perfect image for him.

Of course we asked him why he had such a thing sitting in his backyard, built on a foundation eight feet deep. It turns out his company designs and manufactures the cameras, known for their incredible sensitivity, and other related equipment. The software for the cameras and the observatory is all custom as well. He uses his backyard observatory as a testbed for new products. The company has been in business for 25 years and its camera technology is applicable to a wide range of uses including astronomy and medicine, with customers from enthusiasts to NASA. I looked up the company’s website and it turns out they’re a next door neighbour to a very familiar street.

After one orbit of the Solar System, the spaceship landed without even the slightest hint of a bump, and Andrew and I ducked to disembark through the short hatch. We thanked the owner for the tour and headed back around the house the way we had come, even though we could have gone around the house either way.

And that is how a little hop across some stones in a pond can lead you places you couldn’t dream of.

Hop hop hop.

Hop.

Hop hop.

Hop.