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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.

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Through My Lens: Winter Hay Bales

It actually doesn’t matter how I get around in Canada — the view is always spectacular. I took this from the Greyhound last week. It’s somewhere near Ponoka along Highway 2.

The Netherlands by Train

I had lunch last month with a couple of friends who were in town for the holidays. One of them grew up not far from where I was living last summer, and naturally our conversation turned to my summer in Amsterdam. We had a very nice discussion about the differences between the Netherlands and North America. Our topics? The weather, table service, and, erm, the bike culture.

I looked out the window for a moment, thinking about what else I had noticed about life in Amsterdam, and then turned back to face my Dutch-born friend.

“You know what the Dutch do really well?” I said. “Trains.” I then marvelled aloud that I was able to travel by train from Amsterdam to another town for lunch, to yet a different town for dinner, and still be back in Amsterdam by midnight.

Yes, the Dutch have an excellent and comprehensive train system. What do I mean by “comprehensive”? I mean there are 3000 kilometres of railway in a country that is scarcely 400 kilometres from one end to the other. Along that rail network are nearly 400 train stations. That’s right: 400. Few Dutch towns are without a train station.

That kind of rail network isn’t possible in a country like Canada, of course, thanks to the fact that we “have too much geography.” I know that. Yet I still couldn’t help but wonder the other week, as I schlepped by Greyhound from Calgary to Red Deer to Edmonton, how much more pleasant my journey would have been by high-speed train.

Discovering the Netherlands by train was one of the highlights of my summer and I had lots of fun photographing the dozen or so Dutch trains stations I travelled through.

I don’t have a photo of the station I used most often (that would be Amsterdam Centraal) because the building was enshrouded in scaffolding all summer long. But here’s a look at the imposing entrance to Rotterdam Centraal, a station that was rebuilt only five years ago and, like Amsterdam, is one of the country’s busiest rail stations.

Den Haag Centraal is another of the country’s busiest stations. Note the Mondrian windows at the top right.

This is Leiden Centraal, another spectacularly designed station.

Most of Holland’s train stations date back to the nineteenth century, however, like this one in Kampen. It’s one of Holland’s smallest train stations. Only one train stops here, a small two-car train that does the ten-minute journey between Kampen and Zwolle three times an hour.

This is the entrance hall to the Maastricht station. See those ticket machines? There’s one for each national rail service: Belgium, Germany, and Holland. How efficient (and multinational) is that?

And this photo is from one of my favourite stations: Haarlem. Haarlem is on the Amsterdam–Rotterdam route, the oldest railway line in the country. The current building was built in the Art Nouveau style between 1906 and 1908 and is a national heritage site.

The sign above this doorway reads “Waiting Room First Class.”

I was especially intrigued by this plaque in Delfts Blauw tile on one of the walls in the Haarlem station. It’s from 1939 and commemorates 100 years of Dutch rail service. Train buffs know that the 1840s were the tech boom of the nineteenth century — railway lines were being laid down all over the place. In Canada, too.

I don’t know how many kilometres of rail travel I did last summer, but I do know this: it is such a civilized way to travel and I loved it.

Amsterdam’s Canals

Today’s reminder of Amsterdam came from an umbrella I saw someone carrying: it was bright red with the three white Xs on black of the Amsterdam flag running along four of its ribs. Funnily enough, as much rain as there was in Amsterdam this past summer, I never once saw one of those umbrellas over there.

But I did here, in Vancouver’s West End.

And yes, that means our rainy season has officially started. To keep myself cheerful during these dark and dreary months, I’m going to finish off the series of posts about my summer travels that I haven’t gotten around to writing.

Staring with this one about Amsterdam’s canals.

Amsterdam has a lot of canals. A lot. And a lot of bridges. Far more canals and bridges than Venice, which is why some people call Amsterdam “Venice of the North.” But Amsterdam looks nothing like Venice. And when an Italian-American friend of mine once asked me what people did with their bikes in Amsterdam, I looked at her, puzzled.

“What do you mean ‘do with them’? They ride them, of course.”

“But how do you ride a bike in a city with so many canals?”

Oh, right. She’s Italian. She’s thinking of Venice. I told her how Amsterdam’s canals are all lined with streets — one on each side — and the streets had plenty of room for bikes. That’s also when I told her about my first-ever visit to Venice.

It was a holiday weekend in three countries (Italy, Yugoslavia, and Austria) and the youth hostel was completely full. The guy at the check-in counter told my friend and me that our best option was to try the convent down the street. He gave us precise directions: exit the hostel, turn left, and walk three bridges down.

“Do we walk over the bridges or beside them?” I asked in all seriousness. He looked at me like I was an idiot and asked, dryly, “If you don’t walk over the bridge, how will you cross the canal?”

Smart-ass, I thought, but as soon as my friend and I headed down the street, I saw what he meant. In Venice, there are no streets beside the canals and there is no way to get across a canal except by — you guessed it — walking over a bridge.

In Amsterdam, it’s entirely possible to walk the length of a canal without crossing it once. Where it intersects with another canal, you have the option of making a sharp turn left or right to start walking alongside that other canal. And at each one of those intersections, the bridges (there some 1500 of them in Amsterdam) go both over a canal while also going beside the other, intersecting, canal.

Last summer, I decided to get to know Amsterdam’s canals better and the best way to do that is to walk them. Off I went: down the Prinsengracht one day, back home along the Keizergracht, and then the next morning all the way along the Herengracht and back along the Singel.

The Singel is Amsterdam’s innermost canal, built way back in the Middle Ages and initially the city’s moat. In the seventeenth century, the city planners decided to add three more concentric canals parallel to the Singel. This expansion made Amsterdam four times larger than it was before and was desperately needed — by the end of the seventeenth century, the city’s population was four times greater than it had been when they first began building the new canals. (This was the Dutch Golden Age, when the Netherlands was the world’s maritime power and Amsterdam one of the world’s largest cities.)

The new canals all ended at the Amstel River, and were designed for both defense and transport and, yes, to manage all that water. (Remember, Amsterdam is below sea level.) The entire area became known as the Grachtengordel (canal belt) and was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2010.

The first canal past the Singel is the Herengracht (Gentlemen’s Canal). It’s named after the men who governed Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age, many of whom lived along the Herengracht. One stretch, called the Golden Bend, was developed a little later than the rest of the canal, and its mansions were built on double-wide lots. Many of these are now consulates, banks, or museums.

The next canal is the Keizergracht (Emperor’s Canal). It’s the widest of the three canals and was named after the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I.

And finally, there’s the Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal), named after the Prince of Orange. It is Amsterdam’s longest canal and is the dividing line between the Grachtengordel and the Jordaan.

These three major canals are connected to each other by dozens of smaller canals. The Leidsegracht is the widest of these and used to be the main transportation connection between Amsterdam and Leiden (hence its name). The Reguliersgracht (regulator’s canal) is probably the most photographed canal in all of Amsterdam. It is also where, if you are at water level, you can look through seven bridges at one time — a fact you learn when you take your canal boat tour. And the Brouwersgracht (brewer’s canal) way down at the other end of the Grachtengordel is where a lot of breweries were located (hence its name).

Eventually, my Italian-American friend spent a weekend in Amsterdam with me and saw for herself how different Amsterdam’s canals are from Venice’s. And shortly after our arrival in Amsterdam last July, I told my nieces the story of how I expected Venice’s canals to be just like Amsterdam’s. My youngest niece has since told me, now that she has seen Amsterdam’s canals, that she wants to go to Venice to see for herself how the Italian canals compare.

That’s what it’s all about folks: cross-cultural awareness and understanding.

About those bikes: just because the streets alongside the canals are wide enough to bike on doesn’t mean that bikes don’t end up in the canal. It’s been said that Amsterdam’s canals are one-third mud, one-third water, and one-third bikes and that more than 15,000 bikes are pulled out of the canals every year.

Canada 150: Tsiigehtchic

This photo is of Tsiigehtchic, which is where the Mackenzie River meets the Arctic Red River, and where the Dempster Highway crosses the Mackenzie River. Vehicles cross by ferry in the summer. In the winter, there is an ice crossing.

Tsiigehtchic is the Gwich’in word for “mouth of the iron river.” Iron river (Tsiigehnjik) is their name for the Arctic Red River.

Nagwichoonjik, or “river flowing through a big country,” is what the Gwich’in call the Mackenzie River. The Dene call it Deh Cho, which means “big river.” And its Inuvialuktun name is Kuukpak, which means “great river.”

In case there is any doubt, the Mackenzie is a big river. At 4241 km long, it’s the largest and longest river in Canada, and the second largest and longest in North America. (Only the Mississippi is longer.) The Mackenzie River’s watershed covers one-fifth of Canada’s land mass.

The river got its English name from Alexander Mackenzie, who followed its length to the Arctic Ocean in 1789. He hoped the river would empty into the Pacific Ocean. When he realized it did not, he is said to have named it Disappointment River.

That’s an awful lot of names for one river. Whatever you call it, it’s worth crossing.

Canada 150: Dempster Highway

Dempster Highway

If you’ve already driven some 2500 kilometres to get from Edmonton to Dawson City, what’s another 800 klicks to go to Inuvik for lunch?

That’s what we thought.

The above photo is of the Dempster Highway, the only road from Dawson to Inuvik. It’s also the only all-weather road in Canada to cross the Arctic Circle. Because of the permafrost, it is surfaced with gravel. When we returned to Dawson City, we were surprised to learn it was rare not to pop a tire or two driving the Dempster Highway to Inuvik and back.

I guess we got lucky.

There’s one place to stop for service along the Dempster Highway and that’s at Eagle Plains, which is the halfway point between Dawson and Inuvik. We filled up with gas there, but camped overnight closer to Inuvik simply by pitching our tents on the shoulder of the highway.

It wasn’t like there was much traffic to keep us awake.

Through My Lens: Float Planes

Float Planes

There was a wee bit of excitement in Vancouver today about a couple of visitors. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are in British Columbia for an eight-day visit and today was their whistle-stop tour of Vancouver.

What I find amusing about the media coverage of the Royal Tour is how every story highlights that the Royals are being flown around the province by float plane. Float planes are, to put it mildly, a way of life in coastal BC. For some communities, it’s the only way in or out.

I took this photo of the planes docked at the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre (aka Downtown Vancouver’s seaplane terminal) last summer. The Duke and Duchess arrived here from Victoria this morning ― by float plane.

Road Trip: Crowsnest Highway

I’ve written before how my road trips are few and far between, but that every once in a while I do switch it up and get behind the wheel of a rental car to admire the scenery through a windshield. Such was the case last summer when I chose to drive from Vancouver to Alberta and back. There were a number of reasons why I decided to drive, but not the least of which was that I’ve never driven the Crowsnest Highway. I was eager to explore a new corner of my home province.

And you know what? The Crowsnest Highway is unbelievably beautiful. Totally. Blew. My. Mind.

When I have an experience like that in my own backyard, I always have to ask myself: why ever do I travel outside of Canada when there is so much beauty right here?

Rhetorical question, people. Moving right along …

The Crowsnest Highway takes its name from the Crowsnest Pass, which is a valley that crosses the Rockies just north of the US–Canada border. The pass got its name from Crowsnest Mountain, which the Plains Cree named after the many large black birds nesting in the area. They were likely ravens, though, not crows.

The Crowsnest Highway is also known as Highway 3. Back in the nineteenth century, there was a gold rush trail through the Kootenay Mountains and a highway ― the Crowsnest ― was built along the remnants of that trail in 1932.

I got on the Crowsnest Highway near Pincher Creek, Alberta, after my visit to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, and I followed it, mouth agape in a state of constant awe, all the way west to Osoyoos, British Columbia. Here is a quick photo tour. (Click on the first photo at top left to open the slide show.)

Most folks, including myself, usually take the Trans-Canada Highway from Calgary to Vancouver. It, too, is a scenic drive ― one of the best on the planet, in my humble opinion. But if you have the time and the inclination to go slow,* check out the Crowsnest Highway. It’s well worth a look.

*The Crowsnest is about 250 km longer than the Trans-Canada, and, unlike the Trans-Canada, is not twinned, so it is a longer and slower route.

Through My Lens: Père Lachaise Métro Station

Metropolitain

No sense fighting it. I’ve got Paris on my brain this week. So here’s another photo from the City of Light.

This was taken by the entrance to the Paris Métro at Père Lachaise.

Freighters in English Bay

English Bay (aka the waiting room to Canada’s largest and busiest port) always has a dozen or more freighters anchored in it. The ships wait there, sometimes for days, until it’s their turn to load or unload their cargo.

Because they are always there, I think of the freighters in English Bay as part of my landscape. I don’t pay much attention to them other than sometimes using them to add interest to a photo.

Until this week. On Wednesday night the M/V Marthassa, a Greek-owned bulk carrier on its maiden voyage from Korea, was anchored in the bay waiting to take on a load of grain when it began leaking bunker fuel. More than two tonnes of the stuff would go into the water before the leak was stopped. Within hours, some of that oil had reached the beaches.

I took a long walk along those beaches today to get a closer look at what was going on and to reassure myself that everything was all right.

It’s not.

But it will be.

This week was a wake-up call for me. I will never again take my beach and my bay ― or the freighters in the bay ― for granted.

English Bay Freighters Sunset