When feeling particularly smug (which, truth be told, can be far too often), residents of BC’s Lower Mainland like to call where we live “The Tropics of Canada.”
Which is pretty funny.
I took this photo after last month’s snowstorm.
That is a wayward barge that was pushed onto the beach during last November’s atmospheric river — the storm that caused so many problems in our province. An atmospheric river is a band of heavy moisture up to several thousand kilometres long, but just a few hundred kilometres wide, that develops over tropical ocean areas before moving north and inland. (I’ve now added the term to my meteorological lexicon, along with heat dome.)
The atmospheric river that ran over southern BC last November dumped about a month’s worth of rain on the region in just 48 hours. Along with all that moisture came some strong winds, which is how this barge ended up on Sunset Beach in English Bay. It has its own Twitter account and is a constant reminder that not all is well, climatically speaking, in my home province.
(C’mon. You didn’t think I’d let a winter go by without talking about the weather, did you?)
That storm, the first of four atmospheric rivers to hit southern BC in one month, knocked out an unprecedented amount of BC’s infrastructure.
For starters, the Nooksack River in Washington State overflowed its banks and then flowed downhill into Canada, completely flooding the Sumas Prairie in the Fraser Valley for an entire month. Located about an hour east of Vancouver, the Sumas Prairie is on the other side of the mountain in this photo, but you get the idea from the photo of the geography involved.
The first time I drove through the Fraser Valley was as a teenager when my family moved from Alberta to BC. After so many hours of driving through endless mountain passes, I could not believe how absolutely horizontal the landscape was.
“And they say the prairies are flat,” I remember thinking.
But that’s a river delta for you, and its rich soil is why the Fraser Valley is home to more than half of BC’s dairy and poultry production. Close to a million animals died during the floods, and thousands of acres of blueberry plants were also ruined. We’ll be feeling the effects of this flood for years to come as the farmers work to bring their fields and farms back into production.
Two other communities, Merritt and Princeton, were also flooded. To give you an idea of the scale involved, the area of BC under flood watch last November was equivalent to the size of Belgium.
Then, in addition to the floods, a series of mudslides and washouts extensively damaged all the railways and highways connecting Vancouver to the BC Interior and the rest of Canada. Five people died, and 275 people spent two days trapped between mudslides on one major highway until they were evacuated by helicopter.
With our transportation network knocked out, nothing from Canada’s largest port could get to the rest of the country and no shipments for export could get to the Port of Vancouver (including grain shipments at a most critical time of year).
The pipeline that brings fuel to the Lower Mainland was initially shut down as a precautionary measure but then remained shut for three weeks, which led to gas rationing in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island. Fuel was brought in from the US by barge.
Talk about supply chain issues.
It was three weeks before the trains started running again. The largest and busiest highway in BC, the Coquihalla, reopened to commercial traffic only on December 20 and to all traffic last week. That it reopened as quickly as it did is quite the engineering feat: more than 130 kilometres of the highway in 20 different sections were extensively damaged, including five collapsed or heavily damaged bridges. It’s not business as usual — the highway will remain an active construction zone for the foreseeable future as all of the repairs are temporary.
There is scarcely nothing left of Highway 8 between Merritt and Spences Bridge where the Nicola River changed course and took the road out with it. The Trans-Canada Highway through the Fraser Canyon reopened only this week. Just to give you a bit of an idea of what the engineers working on the repairs are faced with, this is what parts of the Fraser Canyon look like.
I missed out on all those atmospheric rivers while I was in Alberta. And although I also missed out on Vancouver’s first white Christmas in thirteen years, I did get back home in time for another spectacular dump of snow.
Which was … stunning.
But then, just over a week later, a king tide and wind storm pummelled the city and our world-famous Stanley Park seawall.
Some of the damage was caused by logs set free by the November floods that came down the Fraser River and have been in the water since.
Why am I writing all this? Well, last year was pretty tough on all of us, but, to be honest, I don’t have much hope that this year will be any easier. If it’s not the pandemic, it’s drought and wildfires. And if it’s not drought and wildfires, it’s flooding and mudslides. We call these events natural disasters, but there is nothing natural about once-in-a-century storms happening every year. Atmospheric rivers are not new to BC, and they aren’t all bad. (They play an important role in maintaining BC’s water supply.) But they are increasing in intensity and frequency, so much so that oceanographers are coming up with a rating system for them, like the ones used for tornadoes and hurricanes, to help us better understand their risks.
What I find most sobering is the realization that BC has climate refugees. Months later, people who had to evacuate because of the wildfires or the floods are still out of their homes. Many will never go back to their communities.
It’s a lot to take in about the place where you live.
One last note: Barge Chilling Beach is a bit of an inside joke for those of us who live in Vancouver. Google “Dude Chilling Park” if you want to know more. The sign is temporary and has since been taken down.
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.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the winter I spent in Paris. Although I was on my own, ironically for being in a city so far from home, I had way more face-to-face contact with friends and family than I’ve had this winter. That is not something I ever thought I would say.
Not everyone enjoys travelling on their own. I really enjoy the trips I take with other people, even when they require a lot of compromise. On the other hand, if I limited my travel to the trips that suit the interests and schedules of my friends or family — well, I’d be giving up a lot of opportunities.
And so, I do a lot of solo travel. I’ve learned a few tricks over the years to help me be comfortable (and safe) when on my own in a foreign country.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it is this: if you can handle the solitude of living alone during a pandemic, you will thrive at solo travel.
Something shifted for me last week. It started on Thursday when the provincial health orders announced on November 7 for Metro Vancouver were extended to the entire province and until December 7. (And I have no illusions they won’t be extended again.)
And then, on Friday morning, our prime minister reverted to work-at-home and did his media appearance from the stoop of his home in Ottawa.
It feels like we’re right back where we were last March.
The second wave (or, as I like to call it, the Long Winter) that we’ve been talking about since last summer is starting to feel very, very real.
What does this mean for me personally? Pretty much the same as the last eight months: I will hunker down and do everything I can to stay healthy, both physically and mentally.
I’ll start by posting a series of photos from my recent daily walks. Because they make me happy. Maybe they’ll cheer you up too.
Here, then, are four trees I took notice of one Saturday afternoon about a month ago. I think they’re Douglas fir, but I could be wrong.
In a parallel universe, my sister and I would be getting on a plane today, headed for two weeks of sun and surf. But alas, no winter beach time for us this year.
Because it’s 2020.
Not to worry. I will instead wallow in my memories of the last time I was in the Aloha State. I took the above photo somewhere along the Windward side of Oahu, which is where my sister and I had planned to stay.
If all goes well, maybe next year.
If all goes well.
And there goes another decade.
Ten years ago today, the Vancouver 2010 Olympics got underway. It’s difficult to explain to people who weren’t here the feelings of anticipation we all had going into the Games, and the euphoria we experienced throughout.
We were nervous at the beginning, to be sure. The weather did not seem to be cooperating. A mild, rainy winter meant there was very little snow on the local mountains and the cherry blossoms were starting to bloom weeks earlier than usual. A key moment of the opening ceremonies, the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, was goofed up by technical difficulties. And earlier that same day, a Georgian athlete died while on a luge training run. It really felt like everything that could go wrong would.
I believe that many of the nerves we were feeling were simply related to the insecurities we Canadians tend to have about holding our own on the world stage.
But then things started going right. The events got underway, a small army of volunteers in blue jackets (affectionately known as the Smurfs) made sure everyone got to where they needed to be, and Canadian athletes started to win. And they kept winning. I remembered lamenting that I didn’t have enough red in my wardrobe (although I did have a coveted pair of red mittens — an impulse purchase made many months earlier — that you couldn’t get for love or money during the Games themselves).
I was happy to get to a couple of hockey games, but you know what was the most fun about the Vancouver 2010 Olympics? Taking in all of the excitement in the streets, and at the various pavilions and celebration houses around town. The atmosphere was electric. By the end of the Games, the world media was calling them the most successful Winter Games ever.
The photo above, taken in early February 2010, pretty much captures my feelings about Vancouver 2010. Several weeks before the Games started, the international media began arriving in droves. Next came the athletes and their coaches. And then, in the last week before the start of the Games, it was as if the flood gates had been opened and the tourists arrived en masse. They were everywhere.
Welcome world, indeed.
And there goes another month.
I took this photo on what turned out to be the highlight of my month: a weekend in Whistler. It snowed pretty much the entire time we were there, and my friend and I pretty much walked out our door with our snowshoes on and were upon this scene within minutes.
I know, I know. Here I go again, talking about the weather.
For the benefit of my non-Canadian readers (in case you haven’t figured this out yet), talking about the weather is a bit of a national obsession.
The western part of Canada is in the middle of a polar vortex. I got outside today to tramp through the deep snow that arrived overnight in Vancouver, but in this post, I’m going to talk about the next province over. That would be Alberta, where a lot of my family lives.
They’re cold, to put it mildly. My sister in Calgary was faced with a commute this morning in temperatures of –40° C.
In fact, it’s been too cold all week for the Penguin Walk at the Calgary Zoo. That’s right. The zoo’s king penguins, native to the sub-Antarctic, had a Snow Day. And Calgary today was colder than Antarctica.
I took these photos of the Calgary Zoo penguins almost a year ago, when I visited the zoo on a much balmier day than today.