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Whistler Train Wreck

And … as quickly as it arrived, the snow is gone (although there is talk of more to come).

But enough about our wacky winter weather. Let me tell you about my first ever winter day hike. A bunch of weekends ago, I was hanging out in Whistler with a bunch of friends. Our plan was to do some snowshoeing, but we had just one problem.

There wasn’t nearly enough snow. (I told you it’s been a wacky winter.)

So the showshoes got left in the car, and we proceeded to trek through the woods in our winter boots.

The hike we chose was a relatively flat and short (3 km) walk to the Whistler Train Wreck. I had heard about this hike only a year or two ago, and had put it on my list of hikes to do, but hadn’t yet had the chance.

The Whistler Train Wreck consists of a bunch of boxcars scattered through the forest by the Cheakamus River. Not that long ago, the only way you could get to the site was by walking illegally along the railway tracks. But train conductors don’t much like that and would report you if they saw you so that the police were waiting for you as you exited the woods.

In 2016, a suspension bridge was built over the Cheakamus River and what used to be an unlawful ramble along the tracks is now a quick and easy hike connecting to the much longer Sea to Sky Trail. The trailhead is on the road to Cheakamus Crossing, a new subdivision of Whistler that served as the Athlete’s Village during the 2010 Olympics.

And how did a train wreck end up in the middle of a forest, you ask? A lumber train heading south from Lillooet derailed here in 1956. The seven damaged boxcars were dragged clear of the tracks by local loggers hired by the train’s owner, the Pacific Great Eastern Railway. Left scattered among the trees in the forest, they’ve remained there ever since.

The sight of mangled boxcars in the forest is a little surreal, to say the least. In winter, even more so.

Here, take a look.

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Through My Lens: Snowy Woods

As you can tell by this photo, it finally happened. Winter is here.

After a couple of false alarms last week, snow has come to Vancouver. The polar vortex everyone is talking about? It’s here too. (Although, truth be told, what we call “cold” is considered positively balmy in the rest of Canada.)

The thing is, we’ve been crowing for weeks already about our super early spring. The daffodils were in full bloom more than four weeks ago — that’s two months earlier than usual — and our smugness was enough to make the rest of the country want to push us off the continent and set us adrift.

Those poor daffodils? With last night’s dump of snow, they’re goners.

I took the above photo late this afternoon on my walk through some snowy woods.

Happy Lunar New Year!

Welcome to the Year of the Pig!

In celebration of the new lunar year, the Coastal Lunar Lanterns were commissioned and are now hanging in Jack Poole Plaza on Vancouver’s waterfront. To acknowledge that the public art stands on unceded Coast Salish territory, the lanterns were created jointly by Indigenous artists from the Zihung tribe of the Atayal in Taiwan and of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh nations.

The images on the lanterns show the coastal mountains and the sea, and a large mythological creature that helped create Burrard Inlet. The Coastal Lunar Lanterns are on display until February 18.

Happy Birthday, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra!

I went to a birthday party today. And oh, what a party. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra hosted 100 free musical performances to mark 100 years since its first-ever concert on January 26, 1919. For 12 hours today, 1000 musicians performed across 10 stages, including several at the Orpheum Theatre, the symphony’s home since 1977.

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra dress rehearsal, January 26, 2019

That’s where my friend and I headed early this morning. We wanted to catch the orchestra during its last rehearsal before tonight’s concert. I was thrilled — despite the occasional flashback to my sometimes tedious high-school band practices — to watch the symphony’s new (as of July 2018) Music Director Otto Tausk lead his musicians through a dress rehearsal of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Grieg’s Peer Gynt.

Maestro Bramwell Tovey’s last performance as Music Director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, June 18, 2018

After a leisurely lunch, my friend and I returned for the afternoon and I was taken aback by how the crowds had grown since the morning. The lobby and auditorium were now filled to capacity. The most heart-warming sight were the dozens of strollers parked outside the box office; scores of parents had brought their toddlers to the Orpheum to introduce them to symphonic music. (Although we didn’t check out it out, there was also an Instrument Petting Zoo for the children.)

Vancouver is world famous for its natural beauty — which is a good enough reason to visit, no doubt. But culture? Not so much. That’s not what attracts the millions of tourists who visit Vancouver every year.

Even so, I personally think that the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is the cultural jewel of this city and it is the arts organization I frequent the most.

Happy birthday, VSO!

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performs Verdi’s Requiem, November 12, 2016

Through My Lens: Christmas Moose

Is this not the most Canadian holiday display ever?

This moose is lighting up the North Point of Canada Place, where the cruise ships dock every summer. The pier does a good job of cleaning up for the holidays; every year it puts up a number of window and light displays, which it calls Christmas at Canada Place.

Some friends and I went out for drinks the other night at one of the hotel bars near the waterfront. When we finished imbibing, we took a walk along Canada Place to check out the light displays and so I could take some photos. That’s an almost-full moon just to the left of the moose’s antlers.

Vancouver is so pretty this time of year.

The Last Greyhound

It’s the end of an era today. At midnight tonight, Greyhound is suspending all services in Northern Ontario and Western Canada. The decision is justified, says the American-owned company, by a 41 percent drop in ridership since 2010.

Greyhound moves millions of Canadians every year, and has done so in British Columbia and Alberta since 1929. For those rural Canadians who don’t or can’t drive, losing the Greyhound means losing their ability to get to larger centres for services not available in their communities, like specialist medical appointments. It also prevents them from connecting with friends or family. And during our snowy, icy winters, travelling through mountainous BC is far safer by bus than by car.

It’s already being reported that 87 percent of Greyhound’s routes will be covered by smaller, private operators — including Indigenous-owned companies — which are ramping up as we speak. This morning the federal government announced funding to help fill the gaps and that it is working on a long-term national transport solution.

My student days of 18-hour Greyhound treks between Edmonton and Vancouver are (thankfully) long behind me. (I assure you, there is little that is more depressing than a 3 a.m. rest stop at Blue River in the dead of winter.) But I still regularly take the Greyhound for short hops between Calgary, Red Deer, and Edmonton. I typically take it during non-peak hours and the buses are always full. My fellow passengers are people of all ages and social classes. Many are tourists. Some of us choose to take the bus, while others don’t have a choice, In a country like Canada, with too much geography, public transit is not just a service. It’s a right.

This photograph is of the last Greyhound I will ever take in Canada, which I rode from Calgary to Red Deer last month.

Vansterdam

O Cannabis!

Recreational marijuana, as of this month, is now legal in Canada. This has caused a flurry of media attention and a raft of bad puns.

The sentiment in Vancouver seems to be that October 17, 2018, was a non-event. Because, well, this is Vansterdam, after all.

It took a mix-up about a long-haul flight from Amsterdam to wake me up to the fact that Vancouver has a thriving underground drug scene. The mix-up started with me wandering up and down Schiphol’s cavernous terminal one morning, many years ago, looking in vain for the Air Canada check-in counter. As I retraced my steps, I noticed an information desk with a small Air Canada sign above it in an out-of-the-way corner.

“Hi,” I said, handing the agent my ticket. “I’m booked to fly to Vancouver today through Toronto. Where do I check in?”

The agent looked at my ticket, then he looked at me, then he looked again at my ticket.

“We don’t fly to Toronto today,” he said. “Weren’t you contacted about the new timetable?”

“No…,” I said, slowly. “Nor did anyone say anything about a timetable change when I checked in for my outbound flight two weeks ago.”

He started tapping his keyboard.

“I need to get back to Canada today,” I added. “I have to be at work tomorrow.”

“We’ll get you on another flight,” he said as he typed.

True to his word, in no time at all, he handed me a new ticket and a boarding pass. I was now booked on a KLM flight direct to Vancouver. And by the time he was finished with me, there was a line-up of people behind me, no doubt all of them wondering what had happened to their flights back to Canada.

Some ten hours later, I was going through the usual routine that seems to take forever when you’re jet-lagged: the long walk through the international terminal, the long wait at customs, the brief chat with the customs officer, the long wait at the baggage carousel, the handing of my customs form to the customs officer at the exit doors….

Which is exactly where the routine stopped being routine.

“Please go through there,” he said. That woke me up. He was pointing to the room where they send you when they want to search your luggage. Groan. Why me?

A customs officer waved me over and told me to set my suitcase on the table in front of her. She looked at my customs form and asked to see my plane ticket, then opened my suitcase and proceeded to look through my belongings.

She looked at my ticket again.

“You bought this ticket this morning?” she said.

“No,” I said. “I bought it months ago.”

She continued looking through my suitcase and asked me about every non-clothing item.

She’s being awfully thorough, I thought.

“You bought a one-way ticket this morning?” she asked me again.

And then the penny dropped. She was looking for drugs.

“Oh!” I said. “No! I bought the ticket months ago, but Air Canada changed its timetable and didn’t think to let me know, so they booked me on the KLM flight to get me home,” I explained. “There were a whole bunch of us.” (Except it wasn’t until later that I remembered the “whole bunch” was put on a flight to Toronto, whereas I was likely the only traveller flying all the way to Vancouver.)

My story seemed to satisfy the customs officer. She told me I could close up my suitcase and go on my way.

(As an aside: I don’t know how Canada Customs knew that my ticket had been issued only that morning — this was pre-9/11 — but that incident made realize that my government watches me in many more ways than I will ever know.)

Back to the beginning of my post. Pot is simply so not part of my world. Yes, I occasionally notice a pungent odour when walking along one of the beaches in this city. Sometimes I see people smoking up on the street. Whatever. But for me to be suspected of being a drug courier? That’s a laugh.

However, in the past few years, Vancouver’s status as the Cannabis Capital of Canada has become too obvious for even head-in-the-clouds me to not notice. That’s because of a federal program allowing the production and sale of marijuana for medical use that went into effect in 2013. The number of pot dispensaries in Vancouver jumped from about a dozen to almost a hundred. But only a quarter of them were approved by Health Canada and so, in 2015, the city council passed a bylaw to regulate and license the dispensaries, much to the disapproval of our beloved federal government. The city’s response was that it was taking action because the federal government had failed to do so.

The bylaw requires dispensaries to pay $30,000 for a business licence, and they are not allowed to operate within 300 metres of a school or community centre or another marijuana dispensary. And so, Vancouver became the first city in Canada to regulate the sale and distribution of a drug that was illegal under federal law except for medicinal use.

Fast forward to this month. Canada is only the second country in the world to legalize marijuana for recreational use. (The other is Uruguay. Contrary to popular belief, marijuana consumption in the Netherlands is tolerated, but not legal. Kinda like Vancouver before now.) Smoking laws must still be obeyed, so you can only smoke up where it’s legal to smoke cigarettes. In Vancouver, that rules out the beaches and parks. And, erm, the building I currently live in.

As of today, 19 of Vancouver’s medical marijuana dispensaries are licensed, 46 have land-use approval but no licence, and 75 are operating illegally. The illegal ones have been advised to shut down until they are provincially licensed to avoid prosecution — and I noticed the other day that my closest medical pot dispensary is shuttered.

Incidentally, I went through customs at Vancouver Airport on October 17, exactly an hour after recreational pot became legal in the province of British Columbia. Lo and behold, there was a new question on the declaration form: Was I bringing cannabis into Canada?

Nope.

Just as I wasn’t all those years ago when I flew from Amsterdam to Vancouver.

I can’t imagine pot tourism coming to Vancouver anytime soon, but with recreational marijuana still a budding industry, who knows what the future holds? The tourists might come for our scenery, but stick around for the unnatural high.

The New Amsterdam Cafe advertises itself as “North America’s premier smoke friendly cafe.” It has been operating on Vancouver’s Pot Block since 2000.

Munro’s Books

Today is International Literacy Day so I am going to make a plug for reading while also posting about the last island I hopped to this summer.

That would be Vancouver Island. I finished off my visit with a day in Victoria, and I spent a good part of that day browsing in what I consider to be two of the best bookstores in Western Canada.

Maybe all of Canada.

One of those stores, Munro’s Books, is celebrating its 55th birthday this year. If you love books, this store alone is worth the trek to BC’s capital city.

Munro’s was founded by Jim Munro, former husband of Alice Munro. As the store’s own website puts it, that would be that Alice Munro. It’s in an exquisite setting — a stunning heritage building built in 1909 to house a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada. Jim Munro bought the building in 1984. When he retired in 2014, he sold the business to four long-time staff members.

The story has a loyal clientele. As you can see, I went home happy.

Through My Lens: Salt Spring Island Cat

This is a travel blog, yes, but who doesn’t run into a cat or three while on her travels?

This is Amy. She was keeping me company while I enjoyed myself in my friend’s garden on Salt Spring Island the other weekend.

The best travel days always include gardens. And cats. Truly.

Through My Lens: Highland Cows at Ruckle Farm

Another island I hopped to this summer was Salt Spring Island. I go here often, thanks to the hospitality of one of my dearest friends.

These Highland cows are at Ruckle Farm on Salt Spring’s South End. Salt Spring has a long agricultural history and Ruckle Farm — founded in 1872 — is one of the oldest farms in the province. It is still being farmed by the Ruckle family.

Fun fact: Highland cows are a Scottish breed of cattle and my friend who lives on Salt Spring Island is a proud Scottish-Canadian.

Just though I’d mention that.

One more note: The haze in this photo is due to the smoke from BC’s wildfires, which blanketed the southern coast of the province the weekend I was on Salt Spring Island.