Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Native Cultural Centre boosts Whistler

Seeking some cultural enlightenment in the hedonistic, sports-crazy Whistler, B.C., my dearest and I wandered over to the Squamish-Lilwat Cultural Centre, an imposing and dramatic building set against soaring snow-capped mountains, that has quickly become a landmark since it opened in 2008. A large lobby with sweeping windows echoes a Squamish long house. Attached is a circular Lilwat istken, or pit house, its domed roof covered in native plants.
Drumming and a welcome song greeted us. We wandered amongst displays and large dugout canoes made from single old-growth cedar trees. We watched a film that explained the life of the two neighbouring nations and how they have lived side by side for millennia. A tour guide explained the difference between the cultures of the two nations. The Lilwat, more a forest people, traditionally wore leather buckskin clothing, while the Squamish, more a coastal people, built sea-going canoes and wore clothes woven of wool and cedar.
In the museum, dozens of beautiful ceremonial masks are displayed, similar to those used for thousands of years. “These masks,” explained the guide, “are used today in important ceremonies such as weddings and name giving. Next to the masks, two modern snowboards hung on the wall, decorated with bright traditional designs.
At the café, my dearest enjoyed a traditional salmon chowder accompanied by bannock infused with salmonberries while I wolfed done a bowl of venison chilli.
During the 2010 Olympic Games, the world’s attention will focus on Whistler. “The Olympics are going to be crazy, incredibly busy,” Sarah Goodwin, the training and program development manager told us. “These Olympics will have the greatest participation by indigenous peoples in Games history, and our Centre will be right at the heart of things. We are bringing in performers and artists from across Canada and offering story-telling and musical and dancing presentations. The public will participate in weaving and carving.”
We wandered behind the main building to a Squamish long house with cedar beams over three-feet in diameter. Youth ambassadors helped my dearest create a traditional cedar bracelet. Then we strolled along a forest trail with display boards describing various facets of this alpine forest and showing the close connection between native people and nature.
We departed, happy that the Cultural Centre has added an enormous dimension to Whistler and is ready to welcome the world.

More Info

Whistler: Majestic opulence

My dearest and I arrived in Whistler, British Columbia, in October before the much-awaited snows of ski season. We discovered that the village is over the top. It’s an area of grand alpine scenery with dramatic snow-capped peaks, raging rivers and thick forests. It offers mad, mad outdoor sports: down-hill skiing, mountain climbing, white-water rafting, hiking, horse-back riding and now the latest craze, plunging down steep slopes aboard a shock-absorbered two-wheeler while encased in more armour than a hockey player. And it is opulent! The village is full of million-dollar homes, the streets packed with Mercedes, BMWs and big SUVs and visitors aren’t shy about opening their wallets wide. Now the 2010 Olympic Winter Games are raising the Gucci standard to an even higher level.

Both close-to-the-earth, cheapskate types, we were pleasantly surprised to find that British Columbia’s top tourist draw, although expensive, is getting many things right. Whistler has had good urban planning from the get-go. The “downtown” is attractive, centred on a meandering pedestrian walkway with cafes and outdoor tables. The “suburbs” are built in pods with good bus connections. There are no ugly box stores or neon strips. Furthermore, their vision for the future includes a cap on future expansion. And Whistlerians are passionate about recycling.

One morning we clambered aboard the Village Gondola and rose and rose for over 25 minutes until we had gained 1200m/3900ft elevation and reached near the top of Whistler Mountain. We then had a stunning ride to Blackcomb Mountain aboard the new Peak 2 Peak gondola, which holds records for the longest span (4.4 km), height above ground (436m/1427ft) and speed. We hiked trails on the upper edge of the tree line past boulders splattered with green and black lichen. Glaciers beckoned, a marmot whistled at us and far, far below lay Whistler.

Every day we took a hike. Our favourite was to Cheakamus Lake passing through sombre old-growth forest. At Nairn Falls, the reds and oranges of fall were interspersed with the dark greens of hemlocks and firs. Fresh with rainwater, the Brandywine Falls cascaded dramatically over a cliff.

Our highlight was the ZipTrek Ecotour. The first step off the very high platform deep in the forest was scary indeed. Then the excitement built and built as we took a series of frenetic, heart-pulsing zip runs along thin wires that hung high, high above Fitzsimmons Creek. The longest line stretched 1100 feet. Between flights we walked high in the canopy between observation platforms and learned about forest life and the ways in which we should be helping preserve nature. Returning to base, we stopped at the new Olympic sliding track and watched only a few metres away as a skeleton sled hurtled past at over a 100 km/hr.

All too soon, the week was over and we set off along the beautiful Sea to Sky Highway.

If You Go

Monday, October 5, 2009

Tofino: Wild, wild beauty

We arrived in Tofino and settled into a rental house on Chesterman Beach with two other couples. After unpacking we strolled the long sandy beach, watching the rollers crash in from far out in the Pacific Ocean. The afternoon light glinted in the water reflecting the clouds and highlighting the many surfers clad in their black rubber suits, toting their boards. At a rocky promontory, anemones and orange and purple sea stars clung to the rocks at water’s edge.

Next day we strolled to the Wickanninish Inn, which is perched on a rocky point so you feel almost amongst the wild waves. It’s the perfect place for winter storm watching. I chatted with Charles McDiarmid, the managing director, and learned this is a family business. The Inn is decorated with west coast Native art including a magnificent long house entrance, masks and totems. But my favourite was a simple carving shed, almost hidden in the trees about a hundred meters down the beach. Here I watched artists create Native carvings.

The highlight was a visit with John Dowd, the legendary long-distance kayaker, and his charming wife, Bea, who live on a nearby island. John picked us up in a marvellous contraption, an amphibious boat that lowered its wheels when we approached his island and drove right up to his home. And what a home it is! John and Bea have chosen to live a simple, close-to-the-earth life. Their island has no electricity or running water, yet their wooden home has charm, elegance and beauty. Working from a wood-fuelled stove, Bea served one of the best meals I’ve ever devoured: starters of smoked salmon garnished with home-made tartar sauce, home-cured salmon caviar and crackers with egg salad, with the egg provided by Bea’s own chickens. The main course was a coho salmon (caught by John the evening before), fried and served with home-grown vegetables. It was a memorable afternoon.

Next day my dearest and I explored the other face of Tofino, the rain forest. We wandered along boardwalks that meandered through giant cedars and Douglas firs. Moss hung from branches. Ferns and nursery logs covered the ground. Green, moist primordial growth surrounded us.

Before departing we took a last walk along Long Beach. A tangle of bleached logs marked the high-tide line; a father and son manoeuvred a kite; big waves crashed on the sandy shore, and the beach stretched for miles. Bliss!

The Road to Tofino

Vancouver Island, perched on the western edge of Canada, is a wondrous place. Its eastern shore is protected, with soft gentle islets lying betwixt it and the fjord-carved mainland. The western shore has a completely different personality with a harsh but compelling beauty: big waves, fog-enshrouded beaches, treacherous islands and the Graveyard of the Pacific. Getting there is an adventure in itself. Recently, my dearest and I travelled the road.

A few miles west of Parksville, we entered MacMillan Provincial Park and Cathedral Grove, like a sombre deep canyon, with grand tall trees filtering the sun. This stand of old growth forest is just like a mighty cathedral. We wandered in awe amongst Douglas fir and western red cedar that soared skyward like turrets and flying buttresses. Some trees exceeded 800 years in age with a girth of over nine metres. Shafts of golden light angled down to the dusky forest floor like sunbeams through high stained-glass windows. Traffic sounds were replaced by silence. The occasional chirping of birds sounded like monks quietly chanting. The air was still and full of spirits. Amongst these ancient creatures, moss covered logs and ferns, I felt a reverence, a spirituality, a deep intimate closeness with nature.

We followed the road to Port Alberni, the Salmon Capital of the World, and then entered Sproat Lake Provincial Park. A short walk took us to one of the finest panels of prehistoric petroglyphs (figures carved on rock) in BC, named K’ak’awin. These are likely the work of the ancestors of the Hucasapath First Nation, who have traditionally occupied this region. We looked at nine figures carved into the side of a small cliff on the edge of the lake. Most of them featured some sort of whale. A few had what appeared to be dorsal fins; another had a wolf-like head. Do they represent a mythical marine creature, perhaps an ancient Loch Ness monster? Scratching our heads, we drove westward, heading for the surf and sand of Tofino.

For More Information

Cathedral Grove

- www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/macmillan.html

- www.britishcolumbia.com/parks/?id=286


- www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/sproat.html

- www.britishcolumbia.com/parks/?id=393

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Splash: A magical evening of music afloat

As the sun settles low on the horizon, the inner harbour of Victoria is swarming with boats. My dearest, Allyson, and I are in our kayaks, paddling across the harbour, heading with friends and dozens and dozens of small craft toward a large industrial barge moored in front of the legislature buildings. We weave around opulent pleasure boats, one with a string quartet playing on its foredeck. Small harbour ferries flit to and fro like bathtub toys. A float plane thrums onto the water and passes in front of us.

Then we are at the barge, jostling for front-row seats with the most amazing collection of canoes, rowboats, kayaks, zodiacs, skiffs, dinghies and even two surf boards. This is the annual Symphony Splash, and everyone is smiling and laughing. Over 40,000 people are in attendance for this unusual event, which is held on British Columbia day.

Most of the crowd is assembled on shore, but the best place is on the water. One double kayak has a candelabra on its deck while its occupants sip wine. On a dinghy, hot dogs are being barbequed and then passed to nearby boaters using a long paddle. A blonde lady is quaffing champagne straight from the bottle. Our group is enjoying chardonnay and Thai chicken satay.

Then dusk deepens and a hush falls. The Victoria Symphony Orchestra, led by dishy maestra Tania Miller, begins to play, the lights of the legislature building wink on, and an almost-full moon rises in a cloudless sky. Spellbound, we listen to Rhapsody in Blue, the Star Wars theme and other classics. The concert ends with the 1812 Overture. Reaching its climax, real cannons are fired and fireworks light up the sky. For the encore, massed pipers played Amazing Grace. There is nary a dry eye in the crowd.
As the crowd disperses, my dearest and I get separated. I paddle alone across the now-dark harbour. Occasionally light glints from paddles of other boats wending their way homeward. The moon hangs overhead. The lights of the city glimmer on the water. This has been one of the most magical evenings of my life.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Kayaking in the Gulf Islands - Part 2

I awake to the chirping, trilling, warbling of an avian orchestra, interrupted occasionally by the brash honk of a Canadian goose. Soon the tent is down and I push off into calm waters under a cloudless pale blue sky. Two squabbling young raccoons rush to the water’s edge but when they spot me they melt into the forest. I have a deep sense of pleasure for yesterday’s hard work has paid off: I’m immersed, alone, in achingly beautiful nature. The cliffs are scored into rectilinear blocks by cracks and fissures that tilt at bizarre angles. Broad-leaved stonecrops form patches of yellow on the steepest crags. Acorn barnacles and purple sea stars adorn the rocks near the waterline.
I cruise into Echo Bay and bounce my voice off the tall rock walls. Then I turn the corner and feel like I’ve entered a cathedral. Majestic cliffs bathed in golden morning sun soar heavenward. The rock is an attractive buff to brownish-yellow colour and has been sculpted into attractive curves and numerous circular hollows that range from pockmarks to grottos several metres in diameter, all arranged in delightful patterns. I’m overcome with reverence for nature and am glad that I’m spending time alone to re-connect with her.
Patches of bull kelp show the current is running my way. Ahead I hear loud bleating and baaing and then I see three feral goats, sure-footedly grazing along a steep slope.
I roll over huge 3-foot waves from a fishing boat that roars past in a cloud of foam and slowly work toward the Java Islets. From a distance I hear splashing and crashing and then I see that seals are frolicking in the water, enjoying this perfect day. Many more are lolling on sunny rocks all eyes watching my kayak. Soon they are in the water and I am followed by a flotilla of curious heads.
For lunch I pull in at Taylor Point, part of the Gulf Island National Park, and amble along the beach, around the old stone walls of the Taylor residence, which are decorated by slender bright-purple foxgloves, and the remnants of the quarry.
The long crossing from Saturna Island to the south tip of Pender Island is windless and like riding on glorious rolling glass. The swells are gentle, like caresses. Clouds are reflected and distorted in the water. This is heaven.
I paddle past Blunden Islet, then Gowlland and Tilley Points. An afternoon wind rises and now the water’s surface is a rough, unfriendly texture. I paddle on past luxury yachts at Poets Cove Resort and arrive at Medicine Beach with its layered middens speaking of a long native heritage.
All too soon this blissful retreat into solitude and nature is over.
For information on the Gulf Islands National Park visit: . www.pc.gc.ca/gulf

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Kayaking the Gulf Islands: a Metaphor for Life

The sky is blue and a brisk wind is creating a smattering of whitecaps as I lower my red kayak off the dock on Pender Island and start my annual solo, overnight expedition. I work against a headwind and tidal current. Soon I’m in the middle of Plumper Sound and enjoying the solitude, floating on this watery world that I cannot see into. One stroke automatically follows another. Time passes. My initial destination, Mayne Island, gets closer very slowly. It’s like watching the hour hand on a clock. For the last part of the crossing the wind picks up, whitecaps increase and I paddle harder.

Then I round St. John Point and it is bliss. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can beat sitting in a kayak with the wind and current flowing with you and surrounded by the soft landscape of the Gulf Islands. An eagle passes overhead and a seal’s head pops out of the water to inspect my progress.

Soon I am through Georgeson Passage and emerge into Georgia Strait and the Belle Chain Islets. The wind becomes calm, the sea surface is like gently rolling glass, and nary a cloud mars the perfect blue sky. I pass a rocky islet crowded with seals and sea lions, whose roars and grunts can be heard far away. After lunch on an islet a strong head wind suddenly appears and the bull kemp, the weather vanes of the sea, tell that the current is also running against me, contrary to what the current atlas predicted!!#@! Now the work becomes difficult and after an hour I am exhausted, for my aged body is not used to this. I pass an eagle and eaglet eating a fish on a driftwood log. A river otter with a long tail is sun tanning on an islet. Curious seals regularly check me out. Slowly I inch southeast along Samuel and then Saturna Islands. After an eternity I reach East Point and the aptly named Boiling Reef. I go ashore, eat a granola bar, gather my will power and then head around the point.

At first it’s not so bad. My kayak cuts smoothly through the eddies and swirls. But as I proceed the waves rise and become chaotic. The wind and tide, of course, run against me. I paddle like a maniac stabilizing against the tossing waves and turning to face the larger ones. Every now and again a wave surprises me from behind and rolls over the deck. Even in my weariness I notice that the light is soft and the waves form beautiful sculptures that are constantly changing shape. In contrast, the sandstone cliffs with delicate whorls and grottos are also beautiful, but are frozen in time. While battling through this wild art gallery a small fishing boat bears at me, stops and a man shouts out that I shouldn’t proceed, it’s too rough. But I have no choice, I can’t go back. I struggle on and after an agonizing hour arrive at the Narvaez Bay campground, part of the Gulf Islands National Park, about 2.5 hours behind schedule.

I hope it’s a metaphor for life, but having passed through purgatory I am now in paradise. Two Canada geese and their yellow, fuzzy gosling are in residence, the campground is sheltered from the wind, my tent is bathed in sunlight and, best of all, no one else is here. I’m alone in solitude.
For information on the Gulf Islands National Park visit: www.pc.gc.ca/gulf

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Three Jewels of London, Ontario

The bicycle is a wonderful contraption. Leaving no carbon footprint whatsoever, you are free to meander where your heart and impulses carry you. Here are three gems I discovered while cycling hither and thither in London.

- The Museum of Archaeology, located in the northwestern suburbs, is London’s best-kept secret. I was lured because it is the only active archaeological dig inside a major city in Canada. Wandering through a 500-year old Iroquois village complete with stockade, longhouse, sweatlodge and, of course, some diggings, I had fantasies of Indiana Jones, raiding war parties and mysterious old relics.

- I dismounted next at Fanshawe Pioneer Village, located in Fanshawe Conservation Area, a delightful large parkland surrounding Fanshawe reservoir that offers camping, fishing, hiking and more. But for me, the highlight was the Pioneer Village. I love history and wandering amongst the old hotel, school, sawmills, general store and many other historic buildings carried me back to the early 1800s. I can’t wait to return when they hold the War of 1812 re-enactment.

- Weary and saddle sore I arrived next at Banting House National Historic Site, the humble two-story house where Dr. Frederick Banting practiced family medicine downstairs while living upstairs. I gazed at the bed where he awoke one night with the idea that led to insulin as a means of treating diabetes. Another room displayed the Military Cross that he won in the Second World War. Colourful landscapes, which Banting painted under the mentorship of A.Y. Jackson, adorned a wall. I cycled away, profoundly moved by this gifted Canadian.

- If You Go
-London Information: www.londontourism.ca
-Archaeology Museum: www.uwo.ca/museum

London, Ontario: A river runs through it

My butt is sore, but the rest of me is happy! I’ve just spent two sunny days astride a Raleigh Tomahawk mountain bike, pedaling the paths that line the Thames River in London, Ontario. Two branches of the river flow from the east, right into the heart of the city, where they join and then continue westward as one. The riverside paths follow a cornucopia of parks, playgrounds and nature, and it quickly became clear why London is called the Forest City. As I discovered, the Thames-side trails are as good as any inner-city bike paths in North America, and a great way to explore London.

My friend Marty Rice and I started in the west end at Story Book Gardens and Springbank Park. We dodged around mothers pushing baby carriages and geese shepherding little fuzzy goslings across the path. We stopped for gelatos at the recently renovated Wonderland Gardens, where Glen Miller and Guy Lombardo once played on sultry summer evenings. A plaque marked the site of one of Canada’s greatest maritime disasters, the sinking of a pleasure boat with the loss of 182 lives. The paths also offer views of the city’s underbelly: we looked into back yards, passed old pumping plants and at the Labatt’s brewery the smell of hops hung in the air. We hopped off the bikes to wander through the gardens of Eldon House (London's oldest residence), to stroll about the elegant grey limestone buildings of the University of Western Ontario and to savour a hot dog at Grandpa’s Chip Wagon. With the sun sinking low and our legs pleasantly weary, we gingerly dismounted and headed for a pub.

-If you Go
-Bike rentals: Herms Sport Exchange: http://www.hermssports.com/
-London information and bike maps: http://www.londontourism.ca/
-Accommodation: Residence Inn, Marriott: www.marriott.com/yxuri, or University of Western residences (May to August): http://www.stayatwestern.com/

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Great Ocean Road Bids Us Farewell

Australia is indeed blessed. Here is an immense island rimmed by thousands of miles of sandstone headlands, bays with azure waters and golden sand beaches. Living with the sea is an integral part of being an Aussie. Our last two days before returning to Canada were spent, appropriately, driving from Adelaide to Melbourne which, happily, includes the famous Great Ocean Road, probably the most beautiful coastal drive in the world.
The first day was mostly inland with some glimpses of the coast. We stayed overnight at Robe in South Australia, an attractive town with dozens of historic buildings of buff sandstone blocks and dating to the early 1800s. An obelisk (a cheap version of a lighthouse) built in 1855 stands guard on a cliff with turquoise waves pounding against the rocks below.
The second day we were immersed in the incredible beauty of the Great Ocean Road. Viewpoints were many, but the best was the Twelve Apostles (OK, perhaps only 9 and a half), large jagged stacks of rock that have been separated from the mainland by erosion. Mist swirled, waves rolled in from far out in the Southern Ocean and they stood impassively like giant sentinels.
The narrow winding road, often marked with "Drive on the left in Australia" signs led us to a broad white sand beach where we stripped down to our bathers for a final bit of sun.
Then the road turned inland and all too soon we were in Geelong and then Melbourne. Next day a giant metal box with wings carried us back to the tail-end of a Canadian winter.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Barossa Valley and Other Vinophilic Temptations

As my dearest and I discovered after many a blurry morning, Australia is a wine lover’s (vinophile’s?) paradise. Everywhere we went we saw rows of vineyards, often draped in netting, marching up and down rolling hills: in Tasmania, on Kangaroo Island, and in hundreds of places in South Australia and Victoria. It is clear that wine is one of Australia’s main industries.
Furthermore, it’s easy and inexpensive to purchase wine. In Canada, liquor stores are government-run, over-priced and inconvenient. In Australia, Bottle Shops, as they are called, are ubiquitous and, get this, many of them are drive-through. Best of all, the prices are very reasonable, starting at $5 Australian per bottle; boxed wines are even more of a bargain. Of course, some wines such as the famous Penfolds Grange can exceed a thousand dollars per bottle.
One day we made a pilgrimage to the Mecca of wine, the Barossa Valley north of Adelaide in South Australia, where world-class wines have been produced since 1850. We wended our way through gentle arid hills dotted with eucalyptus trees. The vineyards, which spread everywhere, were turning golden and the harvest had just passed. With 73 wineries to visit (another 50 don’t have visitor’s centres) we selected three that sell widely in Canada: Jacobs Creek, Penfolds and Wolf Blass. The size of these operations was impressive and far larger than anything we have seen in Niagara or the Okanagan. The drive through the beautiful valley was grand and the tastings were wonderful. It was a delightful day ... as we can best remember.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Moorunde Wildlife Reserve: Saving a Hairy-Nosed Critter

South Australia is an amazing place. One day we were hedonists in the vibrant, cosmopolitan city of Adelaide, the next day we were encamped in the dry, sparse landscape of the outback. My dearest and I were invited to Moorunde Wildlife Reserve, established in 1968 to help save the endangered Southern Hairy Nosed Wombat.
We drove many kilometres of dirt track with our windows open to catch the breeze and with a long plume of dust trailing behind us. We opened gates and closed them behind us. This is mallee country, named for a scrawny eucalyptus tree, but which is mostly barren ground, yet, as we were to learn, is remarkably alive with strange creatures and plants. Once we closed the last gate and entered Moorunde, the landscape was frequently like the surface of Mars with craters of warrens dug by the wombats who live underground.
The reserve, which consists of an enormous 6900 hectares but only gets about 13 cm of rain a year, was created in 1968, an amazing achievement, especially since it was done entirely by volunteers, the Natural History Society of South Australia, who continue to maintain the property. Not only have the number of hairy-nosed creatures increased by fencing out sheep, but the scientific understanding of these and other creatures has been advanced.
We stayed overnight in an old caravan without running water or electricity. Essentials consisted of a nearby roof-rain-tank that supplied remarkably tasty water and a long-drop toilet. It was grand, and the stars were better than an IMAX theatre.
Dr. Peter Clements took us for long walks and showed us that the soil consists of a delicate crust full of lichens, spider holes, ant hills and hardy plants. I loved the bird life, so bright and colourful including pink and gray galahs, brilliant green parakeets and, of course, not-so-tiny emus. Wildlife was everywhere consisting of kangaroos, wombats, emus, lizards and echidnas.
The focal points of the reserve are two water stations, where large sheets of horizontal, corrugated iron catch rain water and divert it into tanks. The tanks trickle water to small water holes that attract animals like a magnet. The water hole we visited was easy to find for animal trails led to it like the roads that lead to Rome.
We left, overwhelmed by the incredible adaptability of life and the bizarre yet beautiful forms it can take. Just as impressive is what volunteers can achieve. We all need to pitch in and help preserve the environment.
For information: http://www.southaustralia.com/ & www.nathist.on.net