Thursday, July 30, 2015

Five of Canada's Best Kept Secrets

Entering Winnipeg's French Quarter.
I started the month with a blog post about cool stuff to do in Canada. Now I'll finish the month with another Canadian-themed topic. If you're not from Canada, some of these might surprise you. And a few might surprise you even if you are from Canada.

1. Calgary: not just another word for “Cowtown.” While the Calgary Stampede is second to none when it comes to rodeos, the southern Alberta city offers more than just cowboy culture - it is also home to some top-notch, world-class museums. Leading the way is the Glenbow Museum, a museum, art gallery, library and archives all rolled into one facility. Military history buffs will certainly enjoy the Museum of the Regiments or the Naval Museum of Alberta. If you’re into aviation and aerospace, check out the Aero Space Museum of Calgary. Calgary also honors firefighters with its Firefighters Museum.

2. Quebec is not the only place in Canada to experience French-Canadian culture. The city of Winnipeg, Manitoba can also provide plenty of authentic Franco flavor. Winnipegcontains western Canada’s largest French-Canadian population. A visit to St. Boniface - a section of the city often referred to as the “French Quarter” - might lead you to think you’ve been airlifted and dropped into some place other than Western Canada. The area’s biggest annual celebration reflects this heritage: the 10-day Festival du Voyageur held every February, highlights Canada’s fur trade era with entertaining shows, delicious traditional food and numerous exhibits.

3. Saskatchewan is not just flat land and wheat fields. Head into the northern half of the prairie province, and you’ll find yourself in some of the best fishing and canoeing country in North America. (Sigurd Olson certainly thought so, or he wouldn’t have spent weeks paddling the province’s wilderness, then written The Lonely Land.) One of the province’s gems is Prince Albert National Park, the final home for Grey Owl, portrayed by Pierce Brosnan in the 1999 film of the same name. The park offers excellent canoe routes as well as hiking and mountain biking trails. In the winter, outdoor enthusiasts trade in their paddles and bikes for cross-country skis and snowshoes.

Grey Owl's cabin in Saskatchewan.
4. Vancouver: think “Little India” – not just Chinatown. The west coast city is world-renowned for the incredible diversity of Asian cultures. Its Chinatown is Canada’s largest and best known; however, the Little India section is often overlooked. 

While the East Indian influence is everywhere in the city, the culture’s most concentrated gathering lies along a five-block section of Main Street, centered around 49th Avenue. 

A daytime stroll provides a potpourri of colourful sights, sounds and smells. Women of all ages often sport colorful saris. The strains of Hindi music blare from the many shops along the street. The aromas of curry constantly waft through the air to tantalize you as you pass some of the area’s eateries.

5. Edmonton: City of Festivals. Often referred to as “City of Champions” (a reference to the glory days of the NHL’s Oilers and CFL’s Eskimos), the Alberta capital could easily be called the “City of Festivals.” Its International Fringe Theatre Festival attracts artists and patrons from across Canada and around the world, including the U.S., Europe and Asia. Other summer festivals include international jazz and folk music festivals, a dragon boat festival and Klondike Days. In the spring, visitors can be entertained at the Northern Alberta International Children’s Festival. The Canadian Finals Rodeo rides into town every November. Winter celebrations include the Festival of Trees, a Yuletide event; and the Canadian Birkebeiner Ski Festival, the largest classical North American Nordic ski festival.



Things are really hopping at K-Days in Edmonton. (Time lapse by Jesse Nash)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Should we revive the bygone travel tradition of postcards?

Postcards from pals.
I was going through some boxes, sorting through some old photographs the other day, reminders of what photography was like in the pre-digital days.

While sifting through the piles of old prints, I stumbled upon some items I'd almost forgotten I had. I found postcards sent to me from vacationing friends during my elementary school days. One was from Jamaica, with a picture of a map of the island on the front. Another showed a man dressed in a native costume in front of a tepee from Keswick, Ontario.

Digging further, I found postcards my mom sent me from Hawaii, Florida, Arizona, Colombia, and several other places from around the Western Hemisphere.

I also discovered several unused postcards purchased during my very first trip to Algonquin Park in Ontario. We used to buy them to be sure to have some really good print images to go along with the ones we shot with our Kodak Instamatics and Duaflex's because back then, the odds of getting a good shot of deer or a bear with those kinds of cameras were slim-to-none. In fact, I remember when starting out on our very first hike, my dad told me, "Now if you see a bear, don't stop to take its picture!"

So I have postcards of bears, deer, wolves, skunks, and raccoons from Algonquin.

Not only had I forgotten about those postcards, I'd almost forgotten that postcards existed, period. I mean, the last time I sent postcards from anywhere was from Africa back in the 90's.

In this age of Skype and I-M, Google Talk and Face Time, texting and email, postcards seem like a quaint reminder of yesteryear, something vacationers used to use to share their trip with their loved ones.

From what I can ascertain, the production of postcards began, at least in North America, in the mid-19th century, about the same time the science of photography took off and transportation advances made postal service more reliable.

As leisure time increased, the postcard industry took off. Pretty soon, any gift shop at any kind of tourist facility sold them. They became a regular part of any travel routine that lasted more than a few days. Some would go into photo albums, as even today deltiology - the collection of postcards - is quite a popular hobby.

Others would end up in the mail. People took address books with them when they travelled so they could send a quick note back to their friends and families via the postal service. Kind of a pre-Internet version of Twitter or Instagram.

Unlike the Internet though, and depending on how long one vacationed, the postcards often arrived to their desired destination after you'd already returned home. Rather than annoy people though, that became part of a running joke.

Postcards for a collection.
Once the Internet arrived, and I started travelling professionally, I stopped taking vacation snapshots and I certainly didn't have time to send postcards. I basically stopped being aware of them. They might be there at the counter as I was paying for pack of gum or a bottle of water, but I wouldn't even notice them.

I only know they still exist, because someone actually gave me a postcard this past June. It was kind of a cool idea: a fellow travel blogger, Fabiano Maciel, ironically enough, purchased postcards for all the participants in a travel blogging press trip in Ontario, writing little notes on the back of each card.

I thought that was a really nice gesture, and it really speaks to what postcards are all about.

Reading those written thoughts from the past from childhood friends on the back of the postcards I'd re-discovered instantly transported me back to those days. They brought back many warm memories, those short notes freezing those moments in time. They wielded a power that no email or text message could ever hope to invoke. Does anyone save emails or text messages? Very, very rarely I would wager - and then the emails have to be printed out.

On the other hand, I'd saved those postcards, those messages and images from the past because they meant something to me emotionally. The images actually didn't mean much, but the messages certainly did.

Especially the cards from my mom, since she passed away several years ago.

Saved postcards are like instant time machines that depend on no technology, whisking us back in time - something no electronic tweet or post can do a decade down the road.

So maybe the next time you go on holidays, buy a postcard or two, send it to the people you care about.

You might be giving them a time machine of their own, one they ride some day in the future and recall the warm memories of your relationship.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Travel mishaps often make the best stories


View of the Rio Shiripuno from our Day 3 camp.
If you travel enough, eventually you're going to encounter some oddball circumstances. Especially if you travel outside of North America, and away from the main travel routes.

However, if you've had good luck for quite a few trips, the caca hits the fan from all sorts of different sources, all at once.

Like that time in Ecuador...

What began as a leisurely morning paddle on a jungle river had turned into a race against time and the Fates - and it looked like the two of them were going to whip our butts.

When we arose that morning, our final day of a five-day kayak trip on Ecuador’s Rio Shiripuno, we knew we couldn’t lollygag along the river, as we had to be off the river and on the road in time for a noon flight out of Coca, back to Quito. Still, there was no rush, no sense of emergency as we paddled downstream after breaking camp. 

After all, we wanted to enjoy the jungle one last time, we wanted to try and stretch out our final hour on the water. Our guides assured us as long as we kept a steady pace, and didn’t take too much longer than an hour, there would be no difficulties.

Famous last words.
Maybe we should have paddled faster...
We arrived at our takeout where we had left the van that was to drive us back to the airport, about a three-hour trip down mainly rural dirt roads. We packed everything in, but when Ricardo, one of the guides, tried to start the engine, there was nothing but silence. It was dead.

Okay…so while the guides worked furiously, trying to figure out what was wrong and how it might be fixed, we had to prepare ourselves for the possibility of missing that flight. I mean, we’re miles from any town or service station, and there was nothing resembling cell coverage out there in the Oriente.

After half-an-hour of sweating and swearing in Spanish, they managed to get the engine started. But now we really had to boogie if we wanted to make that flight.

We were all aboard, ready to roll – except one of our fellow travelers, a lady from New York, decided to go around and say some drawn-out good-byes to the Huaorani natives who had accompanied us. “C’mon, Susan,” our head guide Alfredo said in an exasperated voice. “We really need to get going…”

Off we went down the road. We’d be okay.

Twenty minutes down the road, as we were driving past a farm, a group of four or five cows decided to wait until we were 10 feet away before crossing the road. We stopped in time to avoid hitting them, but then they just stopped in the middle of the road and stood there looking at us. And stood there. And stood there. It’s like these cows had it in for us – they really did not want us to make our flight. Ricardo honked the horn, Alfredo leaned out and yelled, waving his arms, we all started to yell at them, some of us in English, some in Spanish. When we started to make threats about turning them into hamburger for an impromptu barbecue, they finally decided to saunter the rest of the way across the road to the greenery on the other side.

Okay, that was just a short five or ten-minute delay. No problem, right? We’ll still make it. As long as we don’t experience any further delays.

Well, delays seemed to be our lot, that day.

Twenty minutes later, we came to a long, single-track bridge crossing a deep chasm with a river at the bottom. And par for the course, there were two large transport trucks parked in the middle of it, nose to nose, with two guys yelling at each other and shaking their fists. Apparently, they’d both arrived at the middle of the bridge at the same time, and neither would back up to let the other go across first. It looked like one of those Ecuadoran standoffs you always hear so much about.

As neither truck had its engine turned on, it was pretty obvious to anyone watching that neither of these guys intended to back down and move for the other one any time soon.

Ricardo turned put the brake and emergency brake on (we didn’t dare turn the engine off for fear it wouldn’t start up again), then ran down to the bridge to try to negotiate some kind of deal so we could get across.

We could've used a blowgun to break up the battle
on the bridge - but we didn't need to. This time.
We couldn’t hear what was said, and maybe some money exchanged hands, but he came running back to tell us after he’d explained about the van full of turistas (well, five turistas, anyway), our need to get to the airport and make our flight, the drivers had agreed to move in order to let us past.

So they both backed up, simultaneously, clearing space for the van to drive across the bridge, and we continued on our way.
 
Our van cleared the bridge and waved to the one driver, and as we drove up the hilly road, I looked back and saw the two trucks jockeying back into position on the bridge to continue their standoff. Maybe they’re still there. Or maybe they figured their operation was a good way to generate extra income, and decided to charge a toll to everyone who wanted across.

We didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, at least I didn’t. Me, I was trying to focus on visualizing us actually getting to the airport on time, after all these delays. Don’t give the alternative any energy…

Okay, so we’re rolling along, we should still be able to make it on time for our flight. If nothing else goes wrong. Of course, no one would say anything like that, no one wanted to give it any energy. We actually were starting to enjoy the ride through the countryside after we were able to drive for 30 minutes without anything else happening.

That’s when we got a flat tire.

Oh well, it gave us a chance to get out, stretch our legs, check out the scenery, since the guides had to remove some of our equipment to get at the spare tire.

The tire change only took 10 minutes, but we were starting to inch past the point of no return for having enough time left to get to the airport in Coca.


We couldn't even call for roadside assistance, like this guy.
We had to change our own tires! And there was no cold beer waiting for us!

Ricardo put the pedal to the metal, and drove as fast as he could and still be safe on the dirt roads – and not lose another tire, since we had no more spares and another flat would doom us. Not that we weren’t already starting to feel a bit put upon…

But, what else could happen? We’d already encountered and dealt with engine trouble, stubborn cows, stubborn drivers and a flat tire – surely the Fates had dished out everything they could, right?

For the longest time, the rest of the drive went smoothly. When we got to within about 30 minutes of Coca, we started to see more traffic on the road. Not a big deal. We started to feel hope, we started to relax and thought, maybe we’ll get there on time, after all.

That hope continued to grow - until we happened to come across some hot dog who obviously had no real schedule and nothing better to do than play a slightly different form of “chicken” on the road.

We came up behind a pick-up truck full of locals, mainly young men and one older, matronly-looking woman riding in the back. The cab was full as well, filled by the driver and two others.

The road was still a dirt road, and there was some room to pass, as long it was done carefully. The guy driving the pick-up saw we wanted to pass, so he motioned us to do so and slowed down a bit.

As soon as Ricardo sped up and began to pull over into the other lane, the truck ahead sped up, forcing us to slow down. Ricardo swore, only partially under his breath.

We could see the driver of the other vehicle laughing. We could see the guys in the cab laughing. We could see the guys in the back of the truck laughing. They all thought it was hilarious. It was so hilarious in fact, the driver decided an encore performance was necessary. He slowed down, then motioned us, several times, and finally Ricardo started to try to pass – and the truck ahead immediately sped up.

This time we all swore.

This is how it continued for the next few minutes, a pick-up truck and a van zooming down the road, laughter pealing from one vehicle, expletives in Spanish and English flying out of the other one.

Where was a jungle traffic cop when you needed him?

Hmmm, we might be sleeping another night in tents.
This happened several more times before Fate joined the game once again, this time in the person of the matronly woman in the back of the pick-up who had apparently decided enough was enough.

The cab had an open top, as if someone had decided a sun-roof would be a good idea and cut a hole in it but never put any glass in the opening. Lucky for us.

The lady – who obviously was the REAL boss of this bunch – leaned in through the opening and started just hammering the driver with her bag, repeatedly. You could see her yelling at him, pointing to the side of the road – and it didn’t take long for him to slow down and pull right over to let us by.

She waved at us, as if to say, “Sorry for this idiot driver!” and we waved back as we zipped by and down the road.

It was really going to be touch-and-go at this point.

We got into town, and of course, encountered plenty of traffic. Nothing abnormal, but enough to make sure we had to drive the speed limit.

We pulled into the airport parking lot and piled out, grabbing our gear and rushing into the airport. We had about 10 minutes before our flight was to leave, but we still had to check in, go through security, all the usual airport pre-flight boarding protocols. We were hoping since it was a small airport and a small plane, the process might be quick enough that we could still catch it.

We got in and saw Alfredo, who had been checking at the counter, turn around shaking his head, which was facing down toward the floor.

Uh-oh. That’s not usually a good sign.

Then his head came up and we saw a grin on his face.

“The plane coming in from Quito was late leaving,” he said. “Our departure has been delayed for at least 45 minutes.”

There have probably been other announcements about flight delays that created the kind of reaction it did with our group, but I doubt if any group was ever so ecstatic about being told they’d have to wait an extra 45 minutes. We high-fived each other, hugged each other, breathed in huge sighs of relief that we would not have to say in Coca for the night, or worse – take the dreaded South American bus trip – back over the mountains and into Ecuador’s capital.

The Fates, as it turned out, were just toying with us, keeping us busy so we wouldn’t have to sit in the airport for an extra hour, just making sure we had a real travel story to tell to augment the ones we’d tell about our ecological and cultural adventures in the Oriente.

And maybe they needed a good laugh, albeit at our expense. I would imagine the Fates get bored some time, too.

I just hope they never get this bored on one of my trips, again.


Not every trip into the Huaorani jungle ends like ours. Mostly, they're more like this.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Age doesn't have to stop you - but may require some adjustments

The old phrase, "We are experiencing technical difficulties, please do not adjust your sets," was definitely a
Nothing beats a wilderness canoe trip.
familiar one to those who watched any television prior to the age of cable, satellite and high resolution digital TV.

Although cable companies still do experience technical issues, it doesn't seem to carry the same impact it did when there were only a few stations available to watch in any given city or area.

However, the phrase takes on a different meaning when it refers to the human body.

Although it varies in degree from person to person, we all experience "technical difficulties" with our bodies as they age. And although we would rather resist it, we do have to make adjustments.

This was borne home to me last month when a planned canoe trip had to be aborted because of a flare-up of an old knee injury, an event that reared its ugly head right out of the blue at a very bad time.

As part of the 2015 Travel Media Association of Canada conference in Peterborough, Ontario, I'd signed up to participate in one of the pre-tours they offer attendees. Titled, "The Rugged Routes of the Kawarthas," it would see us paddle and portage into one of the newer wilderness parks in Ontario, for three days.

I'd already sustained a wrist injury the first week of May, slipping in a boat in Mexico, but was bound and determined not to let it stop me from participating. It was not broken, just very badly bent (ha-ha), but with a brace and some ibuprofen, I was ready to tough it out, it was just a sprain. After all, I'd developed some bad tendinitis in my left forearm on the second day of a four-day kayak trip in the Everglades, and that didn't stop me...

But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men.

A week before I was supposed to leave for Ontario, I was warming up in a local pool during a deep water aqua fit class. This is my main form of regular exercise, it works the muscles and joints and provides a good aerobic workout as well - and with little or no stress on the joints. Supposedly.

Well, there I was, just doing a slow bicycling motion I've done hundreds of times, and I felt something go "Snick!" in my left knee. I ignored it and did the class. The knee has already been surgically repaired once after two dislocated patellas; I also hyper-extended it badly playing softball years after that. So it was not exactly in primo condition.

By the next day, it was swollen and I had trouble walking. There went any exercise for the next few days. I got my RMT to work on it a bit - but it's a joint, so hard to do anything with it, given its history. I tried all kinds of lineaments, and analgesics and oils, applying them two to three times a day, icing it twice a day...and there was a bit of improvement, but it was still a bit tight, a bit swollen, and a bit weak. I planned to go canoeing all the same.

However, the day I was supposed to head out to Kawarthas Highland Provincial Park, it was pouring rain. That would mean the portage routes would be slick - and deadly for someone with a wonky knee, even if it was supported by a brace. Because the park's wilderness interior is accessible only by canoe or plane, any accident would probably mean a medical evacuation by air. So, at the last minute, I thought discretion would be the better part of valour in this instance, especially since my ability to travel would affect the others taking this trip.

I felt devastated. I'd been looking forward to this trip for a year. Not just for the trip itself, but the writing and photography opportunities that it would present for me.

video

Carving my own paddle at the Canoe Museum was great;
paddling would have been greater.

I was able to replace the trip with a three-day paddle-carving experience in the Canadian Canoe Museum. It was a very enjoyable three days, the museum is a wonderful place, I wish I could have spent more time there, actually.

But it was not the same as a wilderness paddle trip.

It had been five years since I had done an overnight extended paddling trip in the wilderness and my soul thrives on those kinds of experiences.

After the devastation came the depression. I envisioned a future with no overnight paddling trips. If my knee gave out in something easy like aqua fit, could I ever risk doing an extended wilderness canoe trip again? If I couldn't do deep water aqua fit - one of the least joint-stressful exercises - what would I do for exercise?

Because of the busy schedule facing me over the next several weeks, I did not have time to ponder that question too much. But when I returned home finally, the thoughts returned with me.

video

Paddling along a lake at sunset: food for my soul.

The thought of never going on an overnight paddling trip again scared me. I've enjoyed such wonderful experiences on these trips, most of the truly memorable moments of my life have been on these trips. But if my body is breaking down, and makes it dangerous to myself and others to continue doing those trips, it becomes difficult to enjoy those kinds of experiences. The frustrating aspect of all this is the fact that I DO try to exercise regularly, and engage in non-stressful exercises like aqua fit, yoga, some light weight work with bands. But even those seem to present problems, these days.

So after some soul-searching on the matter, I thought, "Well, would there be a way to do these without the stress of something like a portage?"

Obviously, there is always the sea kayaking option, trips where there are no portages involved. But that doesn't allow me to experience some of the inland beauty of nature I so enjoy, having grown up paddling in places like Haliburton and Algonquin Park.

I looked at a map of Kawarthas Park and almost immediately experienced an "Aha!" moment.

There were routes that one could take that would not involve many portages, at all. And some would involve only short portages, not 1200 metre hikes with canoes and gear on one's back.

Another approach also came to me: I associate canoe trips as trips done on a complete circuit, trips where you travel and camp at a different spot every night, eventually winding up back where you start. Those involve hauling all your gear down a portage trail. But what if I paddled/portaged for one day only, to a spot far enough away to be off the beaten track, and then just set up a base camp there, and explored other lakes on day trips, where the only thing I'd need to portage would be a canoe and lunch?

That could certainly work.

While I wish I could still hump down a mile-long portage with a canoe on my back, put it down, then race back to grab the packs at the other end and do it again, given my body's age and mileage factors, that's just not realistic. Yeah, I can exercise (if I can find a way not to hurt myself exercising!) but I do that now. Even with regular exercise, I won't be entering any canoehead races any time, soon. Others my age may be able to do that, but it's not in my future. I have to accept that. And that is not giving up; there is a difference between just giving up and making adjustments according to circumstances.


Views like this from a wilderness campsite
are what make canoe tripping so appealing.
I can still have a full life for my last few decades on this planet. In other words, with a few tweaks, by making a few adjustments, I could still enjoy the wilderness by canoe.

So, my 60-year-old body is presenting me with "technical difficulties." And if I want to continue to enjoy what I enjoy, I just have to "adjust my set."

Adjusting for technical difficulties is what living life is really all about. And the ultimate acceptance of that is incredibly freeing.

Now with the "technical difficulties" out of the way, I just have to make sure I can avoid having to use the "emergency broadcasting system."

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Happy Canada Day! Some great Canadian ideas for travellers

You can hike or canoe to Grey Owl's cabin in Saskatchewan.
So you want to experience an iconic Canadian moment, eh?

Well, if you're planning a trip to Canada, here are some of the really great experiences you should set your sights on if you're planning a trip to Canada.

I do admit a bit of bias, since I love getting outdoors and experiencing nature. Most of these are all experiences I've enjoyed myself and I've tried to include all parts of the country. It was really tough keeping it to 10, but I had to stop somewhere, or I'd be still be writing.

1. Paddle a canoe in Algonquin Provincial Park. For me, paddling in this park is the ultimate experience, although not everyone likes to "rough it." But even doing it just once should bring immense rewards. Gliding past scenery immortalized by artist Tom Thomson, you can see otters playing in a creek, herons winging overhead, raccoons and deer sauntering along the shore; you'll here the wild and iconic sound of a loon. There are plenty of ways to do it. You can rent canoes and do your own trip and supply your own meals; you can get the folks at the Portage Store to outfit you; you can even hire a guiding service if you're a neophyte wilderness paddler. If an overnight trip is too much, just take a canoe out for a few hours. Lodges like Killarney provide free canoes for their guests.

2. Take in an NHL game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. While the Leafs have been pretty bad lately, there's still something about the atmosphere in the arena when these two decades-old rivals meet. Despite the Leafs' recent woes, they are still #2 in total Stanley Cup wins - second only to Montreal. Plan well in advance, or be prepared to pay exorbitant scalpers' prices in either Toronto or Montreal. If you just can't get tickets, then take in a CFL game. It's a bit different from the NFL experience and much more affordable in any of the league's nine cities.

video

Be sure to paddle a canoe in Algonquin. 
You might even have time to fish.

3. Go polar bear or beluga whale watching in Manitoba. This is still on my "to-do" list. The province is world-renowned for getting visitors up close to the big white bruins in "bear-buggies." At certain times of the year (summer) it's possible to see bears from Zodiacs in the Churchill area. As for Belugas ... you can see them from rafts, or even snorkel alongside them.

4. Visit Grey Owl's cabin in Prince Albert National Park. A man ahead of his time in terms of espousing a conservation ethic, the man portrayed by Pierce Brosnan in the 1999 film worked as a warden in this central Saskatchewan park and his cabin on Lake Ajawaan is still there. You can hike in all the way, or you can combine a visit as part of a canoe trip in the park's back country. There are great wildlife and bird watching opportunities here.

You can get poutine burgers in Vancouver,
but for the best poutine, try Quebec.
5. Eat something Canadian. You want poutine? You can get it just about anywhere, but if you want the best, get it in Quebec, since this combination of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy originated in that province. What about butter tarts? There's actually butter tart trails and tours in Ontario. If you're in Ottawa, be sure to sample a beaver tail (it's a pastry, not an actual rodent appendage.) Ottawa also has a poutine-fest, if you can't get to Quebec.

6. Spend some time among the dinosaurs. Alberta's badlands offer a couple of great places to look into the past. Dinosaur Provincial Park, near Brooks, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Guided hikes take you into places where you can see fossils. It also is home to the field station for the Royal Tyrell Museum. The museum proper is near Drumheller. The scenery in both places is spectacular, especially if you don't really associate deserts and hoodoos with Canada.

7. Hike to the Lake Agnes Teahouse. This sits above gorgeous Lake Louise, Alberta. Spend an afternoon hiking up the switchbacks of this trail and enjoy incredible views of the lake, then enjoy homemade soup, sandwiches, and cookies before heading back down to the trailhead.

It's hard to beat the beauty of a badlands sunset.
8. Visit Spirit Island. Sitting halfway down Jasper National Park's Maligne Lake, this spot may be one of the most photographed places in Canada. Tour boats take visitors down to this spot. You can also paddle there in a canoe or kayak, as there are a pair of backcountry campsites on the lake, halfway down and at the end of the lake.

9. Raft the Fraser River. Roaring through Hell's Gate on a motorized whitewater raft was one of my bucket list items I crossed off very early when I moved out west several years ago. I liked it so much, I did it again, three years later. After shooting through the rapids, take time to ride the gondola across the river which will give you a birds' eye view of what you've been through.

10. Go puffin-watching in Cape Breton. This Nova Scotia island offers much for visitors to enjoy, but if you like birds and wildlife, you won't want to miss out on the opportunity to see these cute-looking birds that look something like a cross between a penguin and a parrot. This is another one on my "to-do" list, which I hope to check off next year.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Turnabout is fair play: when a former resident becomes a tourist

Be a tourist in your own town.
A burger of "mass destruction" served up for lunch
 at The Burgernator, Kensington Market.

That's the advice provided to many people, who, due to work scheduling issues, budgetary restraints, health concerns, and other factors (like the inability to find an acceptable parrot-sitter!), cannot take a holiday or vacation away from home.

In other words, a "stay-cation."

It's also given out to travel writers looking for new places to write about. If you want to find a story or story angle that's new in order to pitch an editor an idea unique to the countless other pitches he or she receives during the course of business, try to find something new or unique about your own city that is relatively unknown or not written about previously.

Well, there's another kind of spin on that type of activity.

How about you go back to a city you essentially grew up in, used to know it like the back of your hand, but haven't been there, haven't really spent any time there for at least a few decades? And an old friend, but one who did not grow up there, but has now lived there for 30 years acts as a "tour guide" taking you to places you'd never been to, and knows the city better than you ever did.

For some, that might be a bit jarring. But not me. I experienced it the first week of June and I just rolled with it and enjoyed the whimsical irony about it and pondered about the twists of fate and caprice that lead us to those positions.

Got a rant? Check out this alley.
It works well for Rick Mercer.
I spent a very busy but enjoyable day touring around a few spots in Toronto with an old friend, Dan Arsenault, who I actually hadn't seen since 1977.

Dan is one of those people who was a real catalyst in my life, one of what I like to term "pivotal people," individuals who have a significant impact on one's life, regardless of how long your friendship exists.

We met during Frosh Week at the University of New Brunswick in the fall of 1975, and really hit it off.

We hung out together, drank and partied together, had long discussions late in to the night - and it was Dan who introduced me to the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien and that Middle Earth universe.

But that's not what he did that was so pivotal.

Dan was the one who got me involved in media.

He was in arts, I was in forestry. Like a lot of freshmen, I was overwhelmed by all the extracurricular activities provided for students on campus. I wanted to do it all! I eventually tried fencing, joined the UNB Outdoors Club (they didn't have a paddling club then, or I certainly would have joined it!), the UNB Forestry Association, and probably a few others I've forgotten. And maybe even a few I could not join...("What? You mean I have to be in the faculty of nursing to join the UNB Nursing Society??" There went that idea for meeting single females...)

But Dan, who did a show on CHSR 700, the carrier current AM campus station, kept telling me I should join, that I'd probably be good at it, and really enjoy it. Eventually I listened, and joined, and was part of the executive that helped transition the station to a low-power FM station in 1981.

And at that point, although the writing was not quite on the wall yet, and it would take a few more years, it really was, "Sayonara, forestry degree!"

That first year zipped past, and then it was spring, time to go home for the summer. Dan, went home to Chipman, New Brunswick, I went back to Newmarket, Ontario.

We kept in touch over the summer, mainly via letters (this was LONG before email, the Internet and social media), and a few phone calls. During the summer, Dan told me he was not coming back to UNB in the fall, as he needed to take some time off to figure out what he really wanted to do with his life.

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Wandering around the Distillery District, looking for a lunch spot. 

I felt not exactly devastated, but certainly at a loss. However, life went on. Dan dropped in to the campus a few times for a visit, but we eventually lost touch. He moved out to Alberta, I continued on at UNB, and so it went.

Eventually, I graduated (with a business administration degree) and moved out west to begin work at a weekly newspaper, the Barrhead Leader. Little did I know at the same time, my gone-but-not-forgotten pal was moving from Alberta to Toronto.

Fast forward to April 2011. I was just back from Thailand, and somehow we re-connected on Facebook. Then, when I realized I'd be spending a few days in Toronto in early June, I thought of Dan and how much I'd like to see him again.

So we arranged it, met up and hung around Kensington Market for a few hours - one of those places I always knew about but never went to, growing up in Toronto.

We had lunch at a cool little burger joint, did a bit of window shopping, drank some coffee, and just caught up on, oh, 40 years of living.
One of the pieces of public art on display in
Toronto's Distillery District.

Dan was a great tour guide. He knew the area well, even knew some of the merchants there, and it was an enjoyable few hours.

He also took me down an alley, not far from the market area. It was the graffiti-filled alley where TV host Rick Mercer conducts his "rants."

But it didn't stop there.

We hopped a streetcar and rode over to the Distillery District, an area I'd just heard about recently and spent some more time wandering and drinking coffee and chatting.

Dan really knows the city well, and that gave me the opportunity to look at Toronto differently than I had in the past. When taking other friends back there, I'd always been the one "guiding" us to where we wanted to go. This time, I just went along for the ride.

Try it some time. You'll probably get new perspectives and maybe a fresh appreciation for places you'd known or known about years ago.

While it was great seeing parts of the city I'd never seen before, basically, seeing it as a tourist might, of much greater importance was my re-connecting, in person, with someone who I've always considered a special friend, someone whose presence in my life had a profound impact on it.

And it was like we'd never even been apart for 40 years.

That's friendship.

You can travel the world and maybe never find something like that. Or, to paraphrase Irish novelist George Moore, you can travel the world in search of what you need, and return home to find it.

Spending time with good friends is like that: it's a return home.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Peterborough well worth the wait

Little Lake in Peterborough's Millenium Park.
When I was a kid growing up in Newmarket, Ontario, I never spent any time in or around Peterborough. My relationship with the city consisted of turning on CHEX-TV to watch a hockey game not on the regular CBC stations or a football game that was blacked out in the immediate Toronto area.

Peterborough was always that place that I was in a hurry to get through or past or around to get to Algonquin Provincial Park and later, Outlet Beach (now Sandbanks) Provincial Park.

My dad and I almost stayed at a fishing marina outside Peterborough one summer trip, but neither of us was much of a fisherman, it wasn't really set up for camping (although there was a place to pitch a tent) so I voted to go to Algonquin instead and off we went.

Learning to carve a canoe paddle with Russ Parker.
Later on, it was that place that Roger Neilson coached (the OHL's Petes) before beginning his NHL career in Toronto with the Maple Leafs. (A street in Peterborough is named after the late icon).

Of course, all of that was before a group of far-sighted individuals established the Canadian Canoe Museum. It also pre-dated the establishment of many of the great provincial parks like Kawarthas Highlands and Petroglyphs Provicinal Parks in the area.

And it was probably before the local dining scene, craft beer industry, wide diversity of independent coffee shops and many of the other aspects of current life that made Peterborough the thriving but very liveable community it is today.

I'm now finally getting the chance to explore the area and everything it has to offer.
Brewmaster Doug Warren serves up some craft beer.

So far, I've spent two days carving a canoe paddle at the canoe museum, followed by a paddle across Little Lake (which boasts its own huge fountain in the middle of the lake). I also enjoyed several fine meals and sampled some of the craft beers mentioned above.

I expect that to continue over the next few days with another visit to the canoe museum (yeah, I'm a canoehead!) a possible river cruise along the Trent River, and more fine dining (Peterborough actually has more restaurants per capita than Toronto).

So in many ways, I'm getting the best of Peterborough, arguably a better experience than I might have had all those years ago as a youngster.

I can certainly appreciate these kinds of enjoyments better than I would have back then.

So from my perspective, I waited until just the perfect time.

Good things really do come to those who wait...

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View of the river from the balcony of my hotel room at Best Western Otonabbee Inn.