I always find it so overwhelming — and so very humbling — to stand on the edge of the continent, like I did earlier this week. This is at Mystic Beach, on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
I learned a new meteorological term this week: heat dome. What’s a heat dome, you ask?
A heat dome is when the summer sun warms the air, which then rushes up into the atmosphere to form a dome of slow-moving hot air. It’s different than an ordinary high-pressure system, however, because it’s stuck and can take a long time to move on.
The Pacific Northwest and British Columbia experienced a heat dome this past weekend, which has now moved on to Alberta. And so, this morning, for the first time in four days, I woke to comfortable temperatures.
Yup. It was four days of intense heat where the temperature was 20°C above the seasonal normal. Because we had a typical June-uary here in Vancouver (meaning the average daily high was about 18°C), the sudden change in temperature was a bit of a shock. But the time of year also means there is little time for the temperatures to cool down at night. It doesn’t get dark until after 10 p.m. and by 4 a.m., it is already starting to get light.
I know that many parts of the world have endured extreme heat waves before — northern Europe comes to mind — but it’s pretty unusual for Vancouver, which has a temperate climate and rarely experiences extreme hot or cold. I haven’t felt this warm in Vancouver in a very long time — more than a decade, to be honest.
Yesterday a colleague in Toronto asked me if we were also experiencing the same humidity that Toronto gets. I don’t think so, I told her. To my memory (which could certainly be faulty given the time that has passed since I lived in Toronto), what is an extreme heat wave for Vancouver actually feels much like a normal summer day for Toronto.
That’s not to say this heat dome didn’t have serious outcomes. At least 486 sudden and unexpected deaths have occurred in Metro Vancouver since Friday, which is about 300 deaths more than is typical in that time frame. To put that number into context, the health risks from this heat wave are greater than Covid right now. Much of the health risk is because the homes in Vancouver aren’t built to withstand this heat — most of us don’t have air conditioning. To provide some relief, cooling centres were set up in local community centres and libraries.
Until this past weekend, the hottest ever recorded temperature in Canada was 45°C in Saskatchewan, set back in July 1937. That record was shattered on Sunday at Lytton in the Fraser Canyon, about 250 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, when the temperature reached 46.6°C. That record lasted a mere 24 hours. And it was broken again yesterday, with a record high of 49.6°C. For my readers who think in Fahrenheit, that’s 121°F. These are not the kinds of records we want to be setting. That’s hotter than the highest-ever recorded temperature for Las Vegas.
Naturally, when there are hot, dry conditions, there is always the threat of wildfires. Tonight, Lytton burned to the ground. Residents of the village had only minutes to evacuate.
To get through my commitments for this week, I started work at 6 a.m. so I could stop at noon. And then, I headed to the beach where I found myself a comfortable spot in the shade. I do not know how I’d have gotten through these past few days without those hours of respite that the sea breeze off English Bay provided me.
We reached peak Vancouver this week. I was in Stanley Park the other day, on the prowl for cherry blossoms to photograph, when the sun drew my eyes to the fresh snow atop the North Shore mountains.
Doesn’t get more Vancouver than that.
Remember when I said I was going to stop writing about the weather? And the pandemic?
This was a tough weekend for some folks. Today is Family Day, a statutory holiday celebrated in about half of the country. This year it came right on the heels of Valentine’s Day and the Lunar New Year. Which means those of us who are inclined to get together with loved ones on any of these occasions have been three times tested in our resolve to follow the provincial health orders. Here in BC, we are now into our fourth month of in-person social gatherings being limited to the people we live with.
Also, come mid-February, most Canadians are utterly sick of winter. This is the time when those of us who can start escaping to the sun. But, with current travel restrictions, trips south just are not happening this winter.
So, yeah, that.
I, on the other hand, had so much to celebrate this weekend. Yes, my long-awaited snowfall finally showed up, thanks to the polar vortex. I woke up to a winter wonderland on Saturday morning and spent much of the day in Narnia (aka Stanley Park).
The snow is already gone, alas, washed away by last night’s rainfall. But for this Canadian, who loves snow but lives in a place where it is a novelty, it was a good weekend.
Here, take a look.
So. Here we are. The last day of the wildest, craziest year I’ve personally ever experienced.
You know what were the last words I wrote on this blog in 2019?
“May we all see more of the light in 2020.”
Ha. What a sweet, summer child I was a year ago.
So many strange words are part of our vernacular now. Physical distancing. Lockdown. Bend the curve. Quarantine. Bubble. Circuit breaker. Phase 2. Red zone. Tier 4.
One word I never want to hear again?
This is a travel blog, but, like everyone else, I’ve stayed still this year. But here’s something I’ve learned while bird-watching: it is only when you stay still that you really hear the bird song.
This assortment of boats on English Bay is my photo choice for my last post of 2020 because it illustrates something that British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said at a press conference a lifetime ago way back in May.
We’re in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat. For some people, it’s been a luxury yacht, and for others we’re really an open skiff adrift without a working engine.”
Despite my naive wish a year ago that we put a miserable 2019 well behind us and all my hopes for a much better 2020, I will still, in faith and in hope, wish all of us a happy new year and all the best for 2021, whatever that may bring. May your seas remain calm, may your boat stay afloat, and may we all hear the bird song.
This is Eugenia, another of the sculptures that light up English Bay this time of year. She’s named for Eugenia Place, an iconic condo building along Beach Avenue that stands out because of the oak tree that stands tall on its roof deck.
This Eugenia changes colour from white to green to blue to pink to white again, but I think she looks most spectacular dressed in white.
Hey everybody! Meet Stanley!
Every year around this time, Stanley lights up English Bay. He is part of the Lumière Festival, which, since it’s easily possible to physically distance while looking at the displays, is one of the few holiday festivals that still took place in Vancouver this year.
Stanley is named after Stanley Park, home to one of the largest urban Great Blue Heron colonies in North America. He stands four metres tall and is made of more than 10,000 lights.
Sometime this week, probably today, is the 250th birthday of one of the world’s greatest composers, Ludwig van Beethoven. (I say probably today because there is no record of his birth. All we know for sure is that Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and the tradition back then was to baptize babies the day after they were born.)
Happy birthday, Ludwig!
A lifetime ago, I had tickets for concerts on consecutive nights to hear the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The pair of concerts was advertised as “The Beethoven Experience: A Most Remarkable Night, Part 1 and Part 2.” Two nights of Beethoven. I was so looking forward to it.
Then came along this little thing called a pandemic, and the concerts, scheduled for March 13 and 14, were cancelled. The VSO generously played part of their planned repertoire on March 15 to an empty auditorium and I listened to the live stream online.
It wasn’t the same.
Fast forward to October when I bought a subscription to the VSO’s digital 2020–2021 season. I’ve listened to the concerts when they are posted, and they are delightful. But, alas, also not the same as being there in person.
Who knew I’d miss live music this much?
The glass mural in the above photo is a facsimile of Beethoven’s original score for the chorale Ode to Joy. The mural is on the façade of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s School of Music, located next door to the Orpheum, the VSO’s concert hall.
Knowing I was going to be writing this post, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about that chorale. It’s from the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth (and last) Symphony. Set to words by the German poet Friedrich Schiller, it is probably one of the best-known anthems in the world.
Ode to Joy is all emotion and power. In 1973, Chilean women sang a Spanish version of Ode to Joy while marching in the streets outside Augusto Pinochet’s prisons to let the prisoners inside know they were not alone. In 1989, the students at Tiananmen Square played the chorale over loudspeakers to drown out the speeches by the Chinese Communist Party. And on Christmas Day of that same year, six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with an orchestra and choir made up of both East and West Germans.
It’s too early to say where 2020 will fall in the annals of history, but I think we can all agree that it has been life-changing for everyone living through it. And so I think it’s a happy coincidence that of all the composers we might be celebrating this year, it is Beethoven.
For one, Beethoven lived in turbulent times. So many revolutions. The American one and the French one. Also the Industrial Revolution. And then there was that little man, Napoleon Bonaparte, wreaking havoc across the European continent. The arts reflected the changing times as musicians (including Beethoven), writers, and artists all began to move away from creative works that emphasized elegance and order, hallmarks of the Classical period, to ones that evoked the full range of human emotion, a characteristic of the Romantic period.
For another, Beethoven is the embodiment of the tortured artist. Look up any picture of him — his hair is wildly unkempt and there’s always a scowl on his face. Much of this is likely conjecture, but we do know that Beethoven had a difficult life. He was in his late twenties when he first started having hearing problems. Only a decade later, he had lost the ability to hear speech and music. Although he was able to hear low tones and loud noises until his death at the age of 56, his hearing impairment affected him greatly both professionally and personally.
But back to that chorale. Here’s a line from the lyrics by Schiller: Alle Menschen warden Brüder.
“All people will be brothers. “
If there’s anything we learned this year, it’s that humanity can rally together in times of crisis. That’s particularly evident this week as, defying all expectations, vaccinations to protect against Covid-19 are starting to roll out a mere 11 months after the virus was first identified.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get to hear those concerts I missed out on last March, but you can be sure that as soon as the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is allowed to perform for the public again, I will be in the audience. Most likely weeping with joy.
Golden hour. Magic hour.
No matter what you call it, end-of-day light is enchanting.