Saturday, 31 October 2009

On my nephew's first Halloween photo

Shamelessly stolen from his mom's Facebook page, this picture is described as "Every pirate needs a parrot!" Too cute for words. The costume isn't bad either.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

On fools on touring bikes

My parents lent me a DVD of "Asiemut", a documentary by a couple of Quebecers about biking from Mongolia to Calcutta. My reaction is that I am not terribly impressed with the pair. They strike me as dangerously unprepared and naive with regards to their trip. In particular, I suspect that they pulled a hell of a stunt with regards to China on their journey. This stunt could have cost them very dearly.

To begin with, their route took them through Tibet. It is not clear exactly when they went, but it obviously within the last five years or so. What with the Western media's adulation of the Dalai Lama of late, China has been very sensitive about foreigners wandering about Tibet. From the perspective on China I have gained from Margo and Chris' experience, I suspect that their initial efforts at planning their trip were probably either naive or possibly half-baked. I see this in the fact that they arrive at the Mongolian-Chinese border and are dismayed (and in the case of the woman, devastated) to find out that the authorities won't allow them in. I am suspicious that either they stated they wanted to travel through Tibet or that they were so vague about their plans that it aroused official suspicions. Alternatively, it is possible that they failed to sort out their visa before they set out. Their reactions suggest that the possibility that they couldn't cross the border had simply not been sufficiently taken into account and they weren't properly prepared with practical and emotional backup plans.

They eventually managed to get into China by paying what they describe as a lot of money to a tour guide. What do they then do? They bypass checkpoints and villages to stay under the radar as they travel into Tibet despite the fact that they aren't supposed to be there! They had the luck to only run into one set of officials who cheerfully posed for pictures with them. Had they run into less pleasant individuals, they could have been chucked into prisons as spies.

Their comments on Tibet are fundamentally trite and lack a serious background knowledge. They repeat what amounts to a cliché that during the Cultural Revolution "tens of thousands" of Tibetan temples were destroyed. This being an assault of Tibet culture. My contrarian impulses scream to point out that in the same period, the same thing was happening to temples everywhere in China.

The pair made it to Nepal without incident. However, I can't help but feel that their cavalier approach, especially with having made a biased movie about their trip, has only made China (especially Tibet) a harsher place for cycle-tourists. As such, I am not very impressed with them.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

On Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

It has taken me a while to figure out exactly what my impressions of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. I guess part of the problem was that I already knew too much about it. Especially the story about why it got its name. I got rather bored hearing and reading about it. (What I would like to know is how the Crowsnest Pass got its name.)

One of the things that the site did teach me was that not only did the First Nations drive the bison over the cliffs, but that they also lured them over. If I may explain, to my mind driving them means scaring them away from where they are or might go. In contrast, luring means attracting them in a given direction. The technique in question involves one (or possibly more) people dressing up in a bison calf skin and making what he hopes are reasonably accurate distressed bleating noises in the hopes of appealing the maternal instincts of the bison. At the same time, people in wolf skins approach on the opposite side of the herd causing them to head towards the "distressed calf". The guy in the calf skin then runs in the direction of the jump leading the herd into a funnel of other people. Ideally, the herd will be panicked down the funnel and over the cliff, where some other people will cheerfully smash their brains out with a stone headed club. In truth, this technique involves both driving and luring the bison, but it is the luring bit that fascinates me.

Another aspect of the museum that intrigued me was the uneasiness I saw in the interpretation of the realities of the bison hunt and the uses the First Nations put the products of the hunt to. There is something of a cliché that the First Nations used every bit of the bison, leaving nothing to waste. This makes them sound like environmental poster boys, but unfortunately, the evidence isn't there, at least to my cynical mind. Unless the groups of First Nations people were much larger than I envision, if they were to drive a herd of bison over a cliff, they would have more dead bison than they would be able to process. Bison ain't small. While the First Nations had uses for every bit of bison, they don't need to use every bit of every bison if there are a couple of dozen dead bison lying around. As well, if you have killed a few dozen bison in one go, try as you might, some of them are going to start rotting before you have time to butcher them. Even if you do butcher them all, you aren't necessarily going to use every last bit. The testament to came be seen in the immense (10 m deep) pile of assorted bison bones that tells the tale of the place: if they were using every last bit, why all the "garbage"? (Yes, I am arguing semantics.) While the site didn't belabor this point, it did quietly admit it. However, there was a certain unease about this admission as making it has the effect weakening the eco-political position of the First Nations the site seeks to honour.

On milk crates

There was an article in Montreal Gazette today on the whys, the wherefores and the style (or possibly lack thereof) of people who attach milk crates to the back of their bikes.  As my regular readers will know, I am a proponent of this arrangement.  Indeed, as the practice has become more widespread in Montreal since I moved here in 1998, I sometimes wonder how many people I inspired.  Note that I don't claim to have invented the practice, merely that I may have inspired others to do so.

However, I think the article makes too much of the style issue of crates as in my opinion, style is something that needs to be kept as far away from bikes as possible.  A bike is transportation, not a flaming fashion accessory.  Once you start down the path of form over functionality, you get into all kinds of nonsense which ultimately take away from the transport function and bikes become toys.  Once that happens, they then become optional.  One of the reasons bikes fell out of the North American transportation cocktail in the mid 20th century was exactly that.

Also, the article makes it sound like milk crates are there for the taking, when they aren't.  As touched on in the article, they are the property of the milk companies.  The milk companies charge a deposit to stores.  The last time I acquired a crate it was $8.00.  Not a huge expense, but one that means that small businesses aren't about to start giving away milk crates.  To make a long story short: if you want a milk crate, ask politely at your local grocery or dépanneur, emphasizing that you are willing to pay the deposit.

Friday, 16 October 2009

On the confusion of domicile, origin and destination at least in Canada

One of the questions a touring cyclist often gets asked is "Where are you from?" While one's own country, this often has double meaning as there is often an implicit, "Where did you start?" implied in the query. I didn't notice this on my trip to Newfoundland as the two questions had the same answer, at least to a degree.

However, on my last trip, the answers were very different and were also antipodal: I am "from" Montreal but I had come from Victoria. I quickly learned that in order to avoid confusion, I had to respond to the initial question with "I am from Montreal, but I started in Victoria." This led to a further bit of potential confusion as some assumed I was going all the way home by bike. I had to add I was "only" going as far as Calgary.

It doesn't help that despite the fact that Canada has a lot of North to South distance, mentally it is thought of as being something of an East-West line, or in the case of my trip, West-East line. Thus if you mention two or more points on that "line", then the assumption is that you will travel between all the points. This is different from our neighbour to the South where not only is a Nouth-South jaunt more of a mental probability, there are many other possibilities. A biker (not a cyclist) I met on the ferry to Newfoundland was talking about how he had ridden the coastline of the continental states, something that you can't do with Canada. Heck, if you wanted to do that with a province, you would be pretty much limited to the Maritime Provinces!

On the freedom of the Prairies

In hindsight, it should have been obvious, but then hindsight is 20/20. Unlike biking in places like B.C. or Newfoundland, you can do without careful accommodation planning in Alberta and by extension, the rest of the Prairies. As there are decent sized settlements every 10 miles or so, (Alberta, at least, was settled during the age of Imperial measurements) where you can find a bed is relatively predictable as well as flexible. Because of the mountains, you could go significant distances in British Columbia without encountering a town, (the stretch between Kelowna and Pringle sticks in my mind) let alone one with a motel or the like. Consequently, I had to plan my trans-montane trip fairly carefully in light of the relative shortage of accommodations and my dislike of camping. Indeed, the failure to find a bed for the night me to have to ride much further than I would have wished on at least two days.

However, once I hit Alberta, the rules by which I had been operating went out the window. For one thing, I hadn't fully appreciated how much of a boost tailwinds are in flat country. Had I not booked a bed in High River, I might have gone significantly further on my last full day of biking. (The corollary of this is that headwinds become much more troublesome. Some locals I talked to said that I was smart to be riding West to East as going the other way you might as well walk!)

In light of this, the next time I am biking on the Prairies, I am not going to have as rigid a schedule and will instead let the day, my energy level and the wind decide how far I will go in a before I need to sleep. I will still be me and have a list of possible places to stay on hand, but I must refuse to plan too rigidly my distances. I must embrace the freedom of movement that the Prairies offer me.

Monday, 12 October 2009

On the passing of Douglas Campbell, part 2

Douglas as Falstaff in Henry IV, part 2

Another article from the Gazette here and photos here. I actually saw the productions of the Gin Game featured and Macbeth featured in the galeries. As well, there is this, this, and this from the Globe and Mail. "Canada's National newspaper" is the source of the above photo and claims it is from the 2002 production. However, I am not sure if that is truly the case, as the look doesn't quite match my memories of the play.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

On her shirt from Daniel, Julianne

The biking shirt I got Julianne was evidently an excellent choice. The evidence comes from this e-mail from Kristine:

"So Kevin walked and Julianne biked to the corner store and dam the other day and Julianne said something like:
"I can't wear my speedy shirt today Mummy. I don't want to go that fast" about her shirt from you!"

My niece-cousin is too darn cute for words.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

On my nephew

Margaret has posted some pictures of Edward on her Picasa site. Not only is my nephew ridiculously cute but so are some of the captions. The following picture has the caption: "First time in the neglectomatic"!!!!
As part of the same batch of pictures, that she downloaded from her camera, there was one of yours truly holding Edward. Unfortunately, it is rather dominated by my cheesy grin. It is one of my failings that I don't have a nice smile.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

On the passing of Douglas Campbell

Douglas receiving the Order of Canada
(Taken from the CBC article about him)
It was with sadness that I heard today that the actor and family friend Douglas Campbell has died at the age of 87. He was a Shakespearean actor of the old school and indeed was one of the last survivors of the first Stratford Festival. He had an incredible voice and a great heart. Unfortunately, there are relatively few examples of his work that I can point to. The best I can think of is his recitation of Blake's Lullaby on an early Lorena McKennitt album. I had the honour of seeing him play Falstaff in Henry IV pt. 1 and 2 at Stratford in the 49th year of the festival, a role to which he was well suited. Apparently he was a little too frank with his opinions about the running of the festival as they didn't invite him back for the 50th! Among his characteristics was that he was a bit of a curmudgeon. Though perhaps crusty might be a better term as he was, in my experience, a fundamentally warm individual.

If he could be generous with his criticism, he was also generous with his insight into theater, especially that of Shakespeare. I once attended a fundraiser at Bishops' University that was titled "Shakespeare on request". Assisted by his wife Moira, he read/declaimed the requested passages from the Bard's work along with brief but thoughtful discussions about the passages. There was a passion in him for the theater and other aspects of intellectual life that burned liked a banked fire: he would seem placid and reserved until something would stir him up then he would give off a jet of intellectual fire. I remember one time when I was chatting with him, when I mentioned that I was working on my Master's of Library and Information Science (or MLIS) degree. He replied: "Oh, so they are calling Librarianship a Science these days? I suppose it is all computers these days? I remember when books were the thing." Written down his comments seem very harsh, but there was a humour to the way he said it. As well, he accepted my take on the subject: namely that we librarians didn't consider librarianship to be anything like an exact science but like a science we questioned what we were and indeed asked questions about what is a book in an age of computers and how do we deal with books and the internet.

So long Douglas and thank you.

More articles about Douglas from the Montreal Gazette here and here. Also, a 1984 interview with Peter Gzowski.

Monday, 5 October 2009

On what comes next

This entry is adapted from an e-mail I sent to Margo.

As I recover from and mull over my last trip, I am thinking about what will be my next bicycle tour. It is all very much in the future, but to paraphrase Cunard "Planning to get there is half the fun." Actually, I could have said "Cycling there is most of the fun" but then the paraphrase wouldn't have worked so well.

As you may remember, my working plan for 2010 had been to bicycle from York to Campbeltown in June. The fact that my only sister may be getting married in Newfoundland at that time rather put a spanner in the spokes of that plan as I was hoping to be in Scotland near the solstice, but not too deep into high season. The alternative of cycling in Newf' involves slightly tricky timing as the distance between Deer Lake and St-Johns is something like 650 km (w/o St-Pierre et Miquelon) which according to my cycle touring planning rule of thumb works out to about 1.3 weeks. That is a tricky length of time, made all the more complex by the fact that Alice's very tentative date is a Thursday.

The second back up plan would be to bike from Calgary to Winnipeg. While this would be fun and lend itself to camping, I think I want something less distance oriented and a little more touristy for my next jaunt. (The Prairies tend towards "Bring me that horizon moments" which are good, but end up with relatively little in the way of memories.) ;-) Incidentally, by "touristy" I mean things like museums, castles, cathedrals, etc.

Consequently, the next back-up plan would biking from Bordeaux to Northern France, via the coast. Again, tricky to time because of Alice and high season. While I could go in May, I don't want to use up a large percentage of my vacation time in the first few months of the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

Reviewing the options and the timing issues, I am now wondering if it would be profitable to consider the extreme or antipodal option of biking either New Zealand or Australia during their 2010-2011 summer. After all, I should be looking at an interesting lump sum of retroactive pay rises next year. Also, it would be cool to a kiwi or kangaroo sticker to Leonardo. ;-) Much to ponder.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

On bits and pieces of thoughts

DCT Chambers trucks
For a couple of days after leaving Kelowna, I was passed by any number of trucks bearing the logo written in hard to read Gothic script D. C. T. Chambers. I was curious about what they were carrying so busily. They were double trailer rigs, and the trailers appeared to have cargo holds below normal floor level. This lead me to conclude that whatever it was, it wasn't very heavy. I eventually decided on wood chips as being the likely cargo. Having come to that conclusion, I then began to wonder what D.C.T. stood for. I noticed from one of the trucks that they had a website which I only looked up today. Apparently they have a Department of Redundancy Department, the name of the company is DCT Chambers Trucking Ltd, where DCT stand for Dan Chambers Trucking! ;-)

Phoenix, B.C.
In a previous post I mentioned the ghost town of Phoenix. In that post I mentioned how tough the climb was up to the town. Well, when I was in Cranbrook, I picked up a copy of "McCulloch's Wonder : the story of the Kettle Valley Railway" by Barrie Sanford. In it, I was flabbergasted to learn that not one, but two railway lines went up to Phoenix. Obviously, it was worth the money for the railway companies to build those lines, but better them than me.

Western Canadian history
When I was in Hope, B.C., I watched part of a documentary on the near-war that occurred between the First Nations peoples and the American gold-rush miners during the Frazer river gold-rush in 1858 or so. A few days earlier, I had been in Fort Langley, where the colony of British Columbia had been declared more or less in response to those tensions. When I put these events together with my experience at Fort MacLoed and in the San Juan Islands, I came up with a very interesting perspective on a theme of Western Canadian history.

One of the things that was mentioned was that the British had more or less lost the Oregon Territory to the United States through a failure to exert enough control over the region. The narrative seems to be that Americans came in and took over the area by what amounts to a declaration of squatter's rights. Incidentally, that is how Mexico lost what is now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California!

Evidently, in the late 1850's, the British were much more determined to keep what was officially theirs, actually theirs. This British determination is part of the background to the Pig War and the declaration of the Colony of British Columbia.

However, all this was relatively expensive and when Canada was formed, part of the British plan was always to consolidate their holdings on this continent into one entity. After all, the founding document for Canada was the British North America Act, not the Canada Act. In almost too short a time, London handed Canada Rupert's Land, a.k.a. the Northwest Territories (which are now Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Northern Ontario, Northern Quebec, the Yukon, Nunavut and the current Northwest Territories). That was a huge amount of land for the relatively small and financially troubled population of Canada to manage. One consequence of this was that American whiskey traders moved in from the South for a number of years before the arrival of the North West Mounted Police.

The potential for trouble was there. I see this in the fact that in their march across the Prairies in 1874, the NWMP brought along two cannons, presumably to convince the Americans in Fort Whoop-Up to respect their eviction notice. That the Yanks skedaddled before the NWMP arrived doesn't hide the fact that there could have been serious trouble. This could have been another bloody eviction of illegal immigrants like the Alamo. It must be noted, however, that "Remember Fort Whoop-Up" would have made a lousy battle cry in the atmosphere of increasing temperance in the Eastern United States of the late 19th century. There would have had to have been some serious bowdlerizing for it to work! ;-)

Geology and mountains
One of the joys of cycle-touring is that you have the time and vistas to really appreciate the structures of the land. To see and try to make sense of the landscape. To see if there is a pattern or logic to it all.

(At least, that is what I do, but then my father is a geologist so a certain amount of it rubbed off on me. I have noticed that my uncle Chris is much more fascinated by the flowers by the side of the road than I am. This is attributed to his mother's interest in flowers.)

In my musings about the landscape, I sometimes wondered if mountains, especially spectacularly naked ones like the Canadian Rockies, contribute to one's desire to become a geologist. I also wondered if my father had been out West before he started to study geology.
"Naked" mountains

Among the non-mountain bits of geology that fascinated me during the trip were the alkali lakes in Alberta such as this one.Post-Post-Scriptum
It turns out my Father did not visit the Canadian Rockies prior to becoming a geologist. Apparently, he became a geologist as it was an intellectual job that would get him out of doors and wasn't forestry which wasn't that interesting a pursuit in the early 60's.

Also, I don't know if alkali lakes truly count as geology.

Friday, 2 October 2009

On the size of the World

This recent post by Margo and Chris on getting to Europe made me reflect on my sense of scale and matters relating to it. There is nothing like a long bike trip to make the World seem relatively small. As early as my first long distance trip (North Hatley to Montreal), I was struck by how easy it feels to traverse a significant fraction of the planet by one's own power. Maybe it is the way that one forgets how long it is when you cycling, but somehow the distances don't feel as long cycling as driving.

One of my reactions to getting to Calgary from Victoria by bike was "Well, that wasn't so difficult." The trip didn't feel like it was taking a long time. (One of the few exceptions was the Penticton to Kelowna day.) I don't know if Margo and Chris have or will have the same reaction, but then they have been going at it far longer. After each of my major bike trips, I have been left with a distinct feeling of how fundamentally small this planet really is.

Now, I must caveat this sentiment by saying that it reflects cycling in very civilized countries with good roads. It might be quite different in less congenial countries.