Things to do


9
Nov 14

Challenge 9: Spot a Polar Bear

bear4We had to wait for the all-clear before we could leave the arctic crawler. Our guide, rifle loaded and cocked, walked out onto the rocks and scanned the area making sure it was safe for us to explore. Once out there, I crouched down on the pebble-grey rocks, flecked with coppery lichen and picked a handful of the shiny jet-black blueberries which lay tucked under the sparse sprigs of greenery which somehow grew on the barren land.

Polar bears eat this,” I thought to myself, as the tart sweetness of this most determined Canadian berry flooded my mouth, “I’m tasting what they taste.”

bear3It had been a morning of excitement already out in the wilds of Churchill, Manitoba on the edge of the edge of the world. Where else could you enjoy a drive-by Beluga whale sighting? We’d bumped along through the pot holes and past the shoreline in the old school bus that our lodge used as transit and seen them from the road, their snow white bodies glittering in the sunshine as they swam through the waves.

Today we were on the hunt for the polar bears who’ve made this remote part of northern Canada famous around the world. Each winter between October and November, the bears lumber away from their sumer time habitat and back across to the pack ice to hunt seals. Every hotel room in the sleepy town of Churchill sells out as it becomes the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’ with fully-booked tundra vehicles heading off onto the ice for bear watching safaris. There are even mobile hotels which pitch up wherever the bears are, so visitors can spend a few days out on the ice, witnessing the beauty of the bears. More elusive in the summertime, but still possible to see, we were heading out onto the protected tundra in a giant buggy to see if we would be lucky enough to track any polar bears down.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Let’s go and see something big and white and furry!” exclaimed our guide as we got on board. Furry and cute they may be, but the reality is they are wild animals–and potentially lethal ones at that. In a town like Churchill, living with bears, and all that entails, becomes second nature. For instance, all car doors are always left unlocked in town, if you spot a bear in the street you need to get away fast and find cover, so you can jump in any vehicle and call for help. Guides travel with rifles and ‘bear bangers’–firecrackers which hopefully will scare a bear off, as no one wants to have to shoot a bear. Churchill is proud of its record of no human deaths by bears since 1983 and takes its bear conservation very seriously.

bear1We slowly juddered across the rocks in the massive arctic crawler, scanning the miles of wind-flattened landscape for bears. So often my heart would leap with excitement, there, a bear! A huge one, curled up by the… no, just a rock. And again and again, it was just a rock; the tundra makes perfect camouflage for the creamy-white bears, being, of course, all creamy-white glacier-formed quartz and scrub with patches of low-lying greenery. But then we saw one, a real bear, elegantly doggie-paddling across a small pond. We stopped the crawler and turned off the engine to wait and watch. As we did, our bear turned to look at us, his black nose and eyes clearly visible against his fur, before deciding we were uninteresting and resuming his dip. Fascinated and delighted, we watched him, before some twenty minutes later he strode out of the pond, fur dripping and shook himself, like an immense dog, before slowly walking away to a patch of rocks, and then he disappeared from sight, cloaked by the landscape.

Look hard - yup, that white dot is my polar bear,

Look hard – yup, that white dot in the water is my polar bear

That was our only sighting that day but I wasn’t sad; I felt like I’d witnessed something wonderful and rare. I’d seen this creature who belonged in a world of snow and ice sun himself on a warm August day. I’d watched the pleasure he clearly felt in bathing in the cool water. This whole vast tundra was his domain. This unforgiving landscape was his home, despite having a climate so harsh that even the trees only have branches on one side, so fierce are the icy winds. We were just privileged visitors that day, lucky enough to share a brief sunny moment with this rare and endangered bear.

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I stayed as a guest of Tourism Manitoba and the Lazy Bear Lodge, but as ever my words are 100% my own. More info: . Lazy Bear Lodge [Official Site] . Travel Manitoba [Official Site]


16
Sep 14

Challenge 8: See the Northern Lights

 

Image Credit:  Jenafor Azure

Image Credit: Jenafor Azure


It finally happened: I’ve been chasing the Aurora Borealis for years. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve dreamed of seeing those lights in the sky. I can vividly recall watching a cartoon about a little bear who skated under the northern lights. I couldn’t have been more than five but I remember thinking, “Woah: that looks amazing. I want to see that for real.’ Well – almost 40 years later I finally have.

See, my typical Northern Lights adventures involves driving for ages in a minibus, far away from any kind of warmth, coffee and civilisation wrapped up in chunky arctic-friendly clothing. Then my personal long, slow journey into disappointment: I freeze and feel my hopes fade away – and then, of course, the long bus journey home again, hoping my fingers won’t succumb to frostbite.

 

Gerald Azure, our incredibly kind and generous host at Blue Sky Mush

Gerald Azure, our incredibly kind and generous host at Blue Sky Mush

But not in Churchill. Manitoba. Oh no! Here at the edge of the edge of the world magical things just seem to happen with ease. That day we’d been dog carting (more of that in another post) at Blue Sky Mush and our hosts Jenafor and Gerald Azure had offered to pick us up and take us to see the lights. We got back at 10p.m., Jenafor was already there “They’re here!” she beamed.

Oh great, I thought – surely that means I’ll miss them again.

But no: a quick 10 minute journey to their place and I hopped out the van and looked up. I cried: I did. I wept like a baby when I saw them dancing in the sky, it took my breath away and filled my heart with pure wonder. It’s everything people say it will be and a little more amazing on top of that. It looks unreal: a green glowing flickering disco across the sky. It looks for all the world as though the sky was sighing in colour. You feel elated and fortunate, just so lucky to be standing there and able to see this natural wonder. I stood on their porch and stared and stared. Whenever I got cold – and I was only wearing a light fleece and a hat for protection!- I’d go inside the wood-fire lit warmth of their yurt.

lights2To celebrate our trip, Jenafor had even made us a cake in the shape of a beluga – and yes, oh – so much to come about those shiny white whales. It may have taken most of my life to get to see them but they were worth the wait: and who knew I’d finally get to see them in the summertime with a slice of cake?

I stayed as a guest of Tourism Manitoba and the Lazy Bear Lodge. Gerald and Jenafor of Blue Sky were kind enough to host us.  But as ever my words are 100% my own.

More info:

Blue Sky Mush [Official Site]

. Travel Manitoba [Official Site]

 


23
Jun 14

Nordik Spa-Nature Aufguss Ritual: ‘Pagan, Wild and Incredibly Thrilling’

spa1For a spa-fiend like myself, the joy of discovering a new ‘spa toy’ is a rare and wonderful thing; so you can imagine what a bundle of glee I was at Gatineau’s Nordik Spa-Nature when I found not just one but three things I’d never experienced before. Nordik Spa-Nature is the largest spa in North America, boasting 7 outdoor baths, 8 saunas and an infinity pool set across three separate areas of beautifully landscaped gardens surrounded by soaring trees. I visited on a Friday afternoon in winter and even though the spa was busy with groups of girlfriends and blissed-out couples, it never felt crowded. So! New spa toys: the first thing I spotted which I’d never seen before were heated hammocks. It was snowing the day I was at the spa and, of course, Nordic-style spa-ing means bouncing between heated pools or saunas then taking icy plunges before relaxing. The hammocks were lined with a Neoprene-like material which seemed to wick away moisture from my wet swimsuit and the heater was phenomenally effective. Climb in, zip up to almost over your head and then wiggle your hips to encourage a spot of swaying and you’re in heaven. To be able to lie all snug and toasty-warm in a hammock in a sopping wet cozzie and not feel cold or wet, while watching snow fall was a truly magical experience. spa3I’d read a little about the Källa treatment before I visited. It’s essentially a huge communal float-tank in what they say is only the second salt-water floating pool in the world. Silence is required on entry; you go downstairs to a low-ceiling blue- lit room with flickering candlelight. You’re told to lie down on a lounger and slip on the headphones, handily positioned by each bed, to listen to instructions. I really enjoyed the sense of mystery and not knowing what to expect. I was told to shower before and afterwards, avoid rubbing my eyes in the pool and to move carefully to avoid splashing others. The water – a 12% blend of Epsom salts heated to 95/96 degrees – gives you an incredible buoyancy. I carefully waded in, lay back in the shallow pool (you can easily sit up) with my ears underwater. Initially thoughts raced through my head and I found it impossible to switch off, but the subtly-insistent effect of the mesmerising music playing from the underwater speakers along with the womb-like warmth of the pool and the muscle-melting effect of floating meant that the next thing I knew, I was waking up. Floating gently in the water so utterly relaxing that I’d actually fallen asleep. The best thing? It was only a $40 add on. spa2The final surprise was the Aufguss sauna ritual, I’d been told when I arrived to listen out for the gong and if I wanted to participate, to make my way immediately to the largest sauna. The ritual is performed four times daily so I timed my departure around the 5p.m. event so that it would be the last thing I did before I left. Spa-goers gathered in the sauna and were told to sit on the lower levels if we didn’t want to experience too intense a level of heat. If we needed to go out, we could go – but not come back. The Aufguss master came in with a basket of snowballs which had been sprinkled with essential oils. He spoke to us briefly in French and English to explain the ritual and then the door closed and music began – extracts from the stirring classic Carmina Burrana. The Aufguss master smashed the snowballs onto the heated sauna stones and then, as the steam rose, he whirled and snapped a towel around to fan us with the instantly-super-hot air. It felt pagan and wild and incredibly thrilling. I went from pleasantly warm to dripping with sweat in a few minutes. The music swooped and fell, the towel dancing around above our heads and the intense heat all combined to create a genuinely new and exciting kind of sauna treatment. At the end we all clapped, the doors were flung open and we cooled down in a cold plunge pool outside. I left feeling fantastic. Thoroughly energised, completely relaxed and so delighted to have discovered these new spa experiences. If you’re visiting Ottawa, just hail a cab to cross province borders into Quebec (just a fifteen minute drive) to check out this brilliantly well-planned gem of a spa in Gatineau Park.

I travelled as a guest of Ottawa Tourism – but as ever – my words are 100% my own.

Info:

Ottawa Tourism [Official Site]

. Nordik Spa-Nature [Official Site]


25
Apr 14

Diving Birds and Bluefin Tuna on Prince Edward Island

“Making $5 on a lobster is a dream; at $4 we make money but we’re at $3 right now.” Veteran fisherman Captain Kenny looks out to the choppy gunmetal-grey water and grins ruefully before putting the ‘hammer’ down to speed us out to sea towards the horizon. There are seals out there bobbing and diving in the water, snacking on mackerel and somewhere—hopefully— Atlantic Bluefin tuna. The plan is to find them and hand-feed them with mackerel; we just have to catch the mackerel and then track down the tuna.

boat2As we crash through the increasingly rough sea, Captain Kenny yells out fishing stats above the roar of the engine and the rhythmic slap of water against the windscreen. The cod seem to not be coming back; they disappeared, over-fished into almost extinction in the 1990s and have barely been seen since. There are strict regulations on fisheries now, necessary for the survival of the oceans but hard on those who’ve made their living for generations from the ocean. A recent wild halibut season was only 12 hours long, Kenny tells us, there’s a quota and once that’s met, that’s that. It’s the same for the Bluefin Tuna that we’re seeking out right now, “I’m only allowed to catch one tuna, the weight is checked at the port,” he explains. “You clear $6,000 on one tuna if you’re lucky - often far less – there are 360 people with licenses to catch them and our quota is 125m tone of bluefin tuna for all of PEI.” The weight is subtracted from the quota and then – incredibly – names are picked out of a hat to decide who can fish for more than one.

boat3

We stop to catch mackerel, alas, it turns out I’m a rotten fisherman and the only thing I catch is another person’s hook. Fortunately there are others on board less ham-fisted than I when it comes to finding big tuna’s dinner. We bag half a bucket’s worth and speed off again until, eyes narrowed against the horizon, Captain Kenny slows the boat down and we all peer at the sonar monitor which he uses to find the tuna.

boat4The green and blue display looks pleasingly like a vintage Atari video game, and I find myself watching for fish icons to come swimming across the screen. But there is no sign of tuna – even though fisherman’s lore tell us that they are there – fishermen have always looked for these giant fish by watching birds. From their aerial vantage point birds can spot of schools of fish and they’re always on the look out for easy pickings. If they spot mackerel close to the surface and start bombarding the water, it’s likely that the tuna will be close and feeding too. It’s incredible to watch the birds dive again and again for their supper; they flap their wings, circle close and then just a few feet away from the water hurtle beak-down into the waves. The sky becomes a white-winged squadron of dive-bombing birds, It’s mesmerizing.

I watch the birds wheel overhead and then smash into the water, just beyond us wind turbines spin slowly in the breeze and all around the boat, seals bob in the water like beach balls, “Swimming dogs is what they are,” grins Captain Kenny, and offers around a plastic bottle of his home-brewed Moonshine. It’s surprisingly smooth but makes you catch your breath as it burns a heady trail down. It’s just what’s needed to numb the disappointment of a no-show tuna trip. They’re down there alright, Kenny explains, pointing to a dark pattern at the bottom of the sonar screen; just too far down for us and they’re not hungry enough to come to the surface.  Maybe it’s that second (third?) gulp of Moonshine or maybe it’s just the excitement of the boat and the seals, the kamikaze birds and the thrill of the hunt but as we chug back to harbour I’m really not feeling sad at all. You can’t schedule nature, tuna won’t swim up to be fed on demand and there’s always something a little refreshing about that in this overly-organised world. A nice two-fin salute to us humans who’ve messed things up so much perhaps? But oh, we’re trying now are trying to fix things and  eco-tourism initiatives like this and Captain Kenny’s Hook & Release fishing excursions are what will keep fishermen in business and – hopefully – give the oceans time to re-stock with fish.

I travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism PEI but as ever, all my words are 100% my own.

· Giant Blue Fin Tuna [Official Site]

· Tourism PEI [Official Site]

· Ocean Wise – Find Sustainable Seafood Choices [Official Site]


31
Mar 14

PEI: My Island Pictures

PEI1

There are some trips that you make which seem a little magical and dream-like even at the time. Of course; memory softens the edges; that annoying wait for the car that one afternoon or the rainy morning which made you pout, they all melt away with time. But there was something special about Prince Edward Island right from the start.
PEI3
The sharp bright colours of the island made you feel as though you’d stepped into a child’s drawing; the sky so blue, the grass and trees so green and this vivid, almost-glowing red soil and red sand. The coastline dotted about with reminders from the past and standard bearers for the future; lighthouses painted with quaint deckchair-stripes next to bright white bands of wind turbines stretching their arms as they scraped the sky.

PEI4We took a sightseeing trip in a small plane, rising just high enough to make the illusion of it all being a child’s colouring book seem real. We saw the cold, clear waters where some of the world’s best lobsters, mussels and oysters thrive. That iron oxide-rich soil which grows such sweet flavoursome potatoes, the lush green grass which feeds some of the most-prized cattle in North America.

PEI6Over the next week I’d eat and drink so many delicious things – all from just a few miles away from where I was staying in its historic capital Charlottetown. I’d meet some of the warmest and most hospitable people I’ve encountered anywhere in the world; a friendly acceptance and a delight in sharing and showing the best that they had, that felt as gracious as something from a more sepia-tinted age.

almorrisonOne afternoon I met an elderly man in a cafe and fell into conversation with him. He insisted on giving me a copy of a book, ‘My Island Pictures’ a History of Prince Edward Island by folk artist, A.L. Morrison. The pictures have that child-like dreamy quality that the island conjured up for me. I wish I knew if it had been the artist who gave it to me; I was in a rush but adopting island ways, I made time to stop and talk. But I put the book in my bag as I left and didn’t look at it until I got back home to Vancouver; now I can’t match the hazy memory of the lovely old man with the author shot on the book. Flipping through its pages now, it’s all as I remember it, almost like he drew it for me just as I remember it. He must have been the author –  who else would carry around spare copies of their book but an author? And where else would such a thing happen but PEI?

I travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism PEI but as ever, all my words are 100% my own.

More information:

Tourism Prince Edward Island

Air tour in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk thanks to FD Airtours

 

 


21
Mar 14

Challenge #4: Go to Whistler and Zipline Down a Mountain at Night

I’m trying to be brave and try new things—truly I am. But as I hang in my harness, my teeth chattering in the sub-zero cold, swinging in a cradle as helpless as a baby, I began to think, ‘hey – what was so wrong with the old ways?’. It’s pitch black ahead of me on the mountain, just a small twinkling light, god knows how far away – that’s where I’m heading on this insane zipline and god help me, if they’re not about to release the brakes

Ready to swing off into the dark void. Squint and you'll see the lights below.

Ready to swing off into the dark void. Squint and you’ll see the lights below.

A curse on this whole ‘try something Canadian and new’  plan. I’ve given ziplining at night a whirl and decided that, nope, it is absolutely not for me. Was it the screaming through the darkness god knows how high up – just attached by a wire – that made me turn my stomach? Or perhaps it was the fatal-crash feeling every time I ‘zipped’ into the end of each line? Or maybe it was the weird sensation of being horribly scared as I flew in darkness across the mountain and yet at the same time - feeling weirdly bored because I couldn’t see anything? Whatever, as fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, this girl has gotta never do this again. And yet… I could see that if you liked it (and I was with a crew who clearly adored it) then this would be all kinds of fun.

Making tracks up the mountain

Making tracks up the mountain

It all started rather nicely with a heated snowcat ride up Rainbow Mountain. I loved this! The snow was deep, it felt like the most delicious sort of rufty-tufty Canadian fun inside the ‘Cat; blankets-over-the-knees and the rumble of the engine as we climbed at a thrilling angle up, up the mountain. The light was on in the cabin and my fellow zippers-to-be were excited. I peered out into the night: nothing. Sadly the fun bit was over too soon – we got dropped at a yurt half-way up the isolated mountain for dinner.

Normally I’d have been dancing with excitement over this; it had been catered by the Bearfoot Bistro – one of my favourite Whistler restaurants – but as I sat down and sipped on water (never have I wanted a glass of wine more) and watched the flames dance in the log fire, I realised I was genuinely nervous about what lay ahead. I pushed my perfect short rib around the plate, forcing down a few mouthfuls of whipped buttery mash and savoury gravy before giving up. Bad enough to scream, but how much worse if I threw up later?

See - how perfect and lovely is this adorable yurt?

See – how perfect and lovely is this adorable yurt?

When you dread what lies ahead, there comes a point when you don’t want to delay – you just want it to be over. Make the dinner, end, let’s just get this done, I wished to the gods of bad decisions and perilous ideas. Who knows – I was not letting the tiny flame of optimism burn out at this point – maybe I would love this. But every minute we spent in that gorgeous little wooden yurt made me doubt it more and more. For those familiar with the drill, you know what lies ahead – you carry your own kit from line to line over your shoulder. I wasn’t expecting this and as I slid around on the narrow trail in the half-light on the ice and snow, I wondered if I wasn’t about to find a far, far faster way down.

The two staff with us on the mountain with us were fantastic – friendly, helpful, fun and – kind – when it was clear that I was struggling to stay upright one of them shouldered my load and I was never made to feel like I was making a fuss. One of the group after one line decided that was enough; and they were kind to her too. Idiot that I am, I decided to stick with it. Maybe I’d grow to love it? (I didn’t.)

Not everyone hated this. OK - so ONLY I hated this...

Not everyone hated this. OK – so ONLY I hated this…

There were only 4 ziplines but it felt like oh, so much more; one was the longest in Canada, 600 feet above the ground and over a kilometer long. The part of me that wasn’t hating it all, was wondering what it would be like in the daytime? Maybe if I had all that stunning scenery to distract me from me grinding terror, I’d have had more fun?

It was very cool hanging out in the trees.

It was very cool hanging out in the trees.

Not so my companions, who whooped their way through the evening. They flew down the mountain, their helmet lights like little halos, and whooped like bad angels as they went. Apologies for this most anaemic of phrases but really: if you like this kind of thing, you’d love this. It’s well organised, if you could stomach the food it was delicious, the yurt and snowcat were a lot of fun and yes, if hurtling through the night is your bag then have at it.
I plan to keep my feet on the ground for now.

God bless them for having me – I was a guest of Superfly – who were so nice to me even though I clearly loathed it.

Also thank you to my chateau home away from home, the Fairmont Chateau Whistler who gave me somewhere beautiful and serene to rest my very achey bones after all this crazy. Oh, how I wished I’d have been able to stow away one of their special mustard-spiked cocktails with me on the line – maybe that would have helped?

As ever – my words though are 100% my own.


17
Feb 14

Welcome to the world’s eagle capital

EF5

I’d never imagined myself to be a birdwatching enthusiast before but like so many other things Canada has changed me completely. From my new-found love of leaf-peeping and attempts to develop ice skating skills to my enthusiastic embrace of drinking clamato juice cocktailsthere is apparently no limit to what I won’t adore about Canada. So, now I’m a ‘twitcher’ – why else would I be floating down a river on a bluebird sky day in early February, gazing with delight into the leaf-less trees? My new rationale being that if the world bald eagle capital is just 45 minutes drive away, well – you hop into a car, right?

Jake from Sunwolf gets our craft ready

Jake from Sunwolf gets our craft ready

A little explanation: half-way between Whistler and Vancouver lies Squamish, known as the Outdoor Adventure Capital of North America. You can hike, mountain bike, kayak, whitewater raft – everything. Ten minutes drive from Squamish is Brackendale, and as well as being a huge draw for enthusiastic types in North Face-branded clothing, it’s also where you’ll find the world’s greatest concentration of bald eagles, if you visit between November-February.

I’d visited Sunwolf late last year en route to Whistler and eaten a spectacular breakfast at Fergie’s cafe there. As well as dishing up quality rib-sticker brekkies, Sunwolf’s British owners Jake and Jess also have cosy cabins to rent along the Cheakamus River and host guided whitewater rafting trips and eagle float adventures.

Let the Eagle-Spotting begin

Let the Eagle-Spotting begin

It was a perfect day for a float along the river; after what seemed like endless grey skies and non-stop rain, the soft warm touch of sunshine on skin felt like a long-forgotten magic. And the sun was blazing down that morning. But it was cold on the river, so we suited up in the Sunwolf lounge in waist-high waterproof trousers and bundled up in scarves, mittens and hats.

Hopping into the dinghy without A) falling in or B) embarrassing myself, was surprisingly easy – my kind of outdoor adventure – all I needed to do now was sit back, listen to the soft splash of paddles on water and watch for eagles as Jake told us stories of the river and the Chum salmon which brings the eagles here in their droves. It’s a circle-of-life thing;  beautiful in its complexity and simplicity. Each year the salmon come to spawn in the pristine glacial-fed waters of the Squamish and Cheakamus rivers where they – in turn – were spawned.

It would have been hard to pick a more perfect day

It would have been hard to pick a more perfect day

It’s incredible that these fish who spend their lives out in the ocean return ‘home’ to start new lives – and it’s also where they come to end their life too. After spawning, the salmon die and in turn become a necessary life-giving food to another species. In some parts of the world bears feast on the salmon, but here it’s the eagles who thrive and survive. For a few months, the river is becomes an all-you-can-eat sashimi buffet and the eagles the stretchy pants-wearing regulars.

Waters so pristine you could clearly see the rotting salmon aka eagle-dinner

Waters so pristine you could clearly see the eagle’s dinner

I lost count of the number of eagles that we saw; mostly perched, presumably digesting huge meals, in the branches. Whenever one took flight the awe of seeing their impossibly wide wing span hit me every time. I may not be a fully fledged bird-spotting enthusiast but damn, I’m enthusiastic whenever I see a beautiful wild creature – especially in such jaw-clanging surroundings. Only the prospect of another meal at Fergie’s could cheer me after our trip was over. I really loved it: so peaceful, so much beauty and so many new things to learn along the way.

I travelled as a guest of Sunwolf but as ever my words are 100% my own.  

Also, thank you to BC Ford who loaned me a Ford Focus Titanium for my road trip. I’ve never driven a car that could actually park itself before! Genuinely amazing feature. 

More Info:

Sunwolf - Rafting, Cabins, Whitewater rafting and Eagle river floats – plus – Fergie’s delicious cafe!


10
Feb 14

Challenge #3: Skate the Rideau Canal

I want to give up; my shins are throbbing, my eyes smart from the snow storm, my feet are aching and my back, unused to the weight of the heavy snow boots that I’m carrying, really hurts. All I want to do is lie down on the ice and stretch out. And we’re only at 3 km. Not even half way. I’m never going to make it and I feel crushed by failure. What had I been thinking when I decided I’d skate the length of the Rideau Canal?

Getting patriotic on the canal

Getting patriotic on the canal

It all began a few years ago when I heard about Ottawa’s Winterlude festival; it sounded so magical, Canadians skating on a beautiful frozen canal, drinking hot chocolate under the blazing blue skies and munching on maple syrup-drenched ‘beavertail’ pastries. It’s the world’s longest skating rink and I wanted to skate it; to whizz gracefully on silver blades, skimming under bridges and around corners. There was, of course, just the one problem: I couldn’t skate.

A chance came to visit during the festival so I put Operation Silver Blades into action: I took lessons, I bought skates and 5 weeks later, boarded the plane to Ottawa feeling confident. But, of course, a canal is not like a freshly smoothed-over ice rink. There are no handrails, no way to steady yourself before you launch onto that bumpy ice. There are cracks and there are parents pulling children in sleds. And just to add an extra challenge – there was also a snow storm – in just a few hours 15cm of snow would fall on Ottawa that day – all things I’d never experienced at the rink. And then there was me and my failing nerve; I’m ashamed to say I froze. I was overwhelmed and scared I’d fall and really hurt myself. So for what seemed like an hour, I just stood there – willing myself to just, skate, dammit! Push one foot to the side, glide, other foot down, glide, push… like I’d done for hours around and around the Denman Street rink in Vancouver.

It was hard just getting ON to the canal…

It was hard just getting ON to the canal…

Bambi-like, my legs wobbled underneath me as I eventually pushed off. I managed maybe a minute – and then a couple walked in front of me, I panicked and crashed to the ground, badly bruising my knees. I lay on the ice and felt defeated before I’d even begun. Getting up was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. If I’d been alone I’d have laid there and cried before crawling off to a bar. But I wasn’t -  and the humiliation of giving up was greater than the shame of failing so I got up. Put one skate in front of another and painfully made it to the first bridge. Just 15 more stops to go. Oh boy.

It was curvier than I imagined, this canal, and wider too and oh, there were so many more people than I’d thought. Young children zoomed past, fell, sprawled on the ice and then jumped up and sped off again. I saw older couples skating hand in hand, teenagers madly texted as they glided by. There was a carnival-like atmosphere and a definite pattern to the ‘traffic’ of the skateway. At the points of entry the ice was scuffed up, I’d wobble and slow down, awed by the challenge of staying upright and avoiding the mobs of people, strollers and sleds all converging at once. Things would even out after a few minutes, I’d have longer sessions with fewer people around, my confidence would rise and I’d whisper to myself, ‘you’re doing it!’. I loved those moments of getting into the perfect rhythm, my skates smooth on the ice, gliding along just as I’d pictured it.

You know it's snowing too much when you turn around and see this following you.

You know it’s snowing too much when you turn around and see this following you.

But it was hard and my muscles begged me to reconsider. I spent most of my time on the ice in a silent debate with myself over whether it was enough to have tried and failed or whether failure was simply not acceptable. There was pain written into the DNA of this canal; it was built in 1832 by immigrant Irish and French-Canadian workers as a way for British ships to avoid possible American attacks along a vulnerable stretch of the St Lawrence river. The work was brutal and many died in its construction. My creaky muscles and frozen fear were just one tiny snowflake in a blizzard in comparision.

Just after 3km I hit a mental wall; I felt used up and spat out with nothing left to give. Through the blizzard it was hard to see but ahead lay a rest spot. I made for the banners fluttering in the distance and followed the sounds of drumming and African singing. Queues of happy born-to-do-this locals cruised along with a cup in one hand and a pastry in the other. I skated to a bench and collapsed. I closed my eyes and listened to the drummers and breathed slowly; the air smelt of bonfires, braziers burned with dancing flames in the snowfall and there was a sweet scent of syrup from the boiling maple taffy that was setting on the snow at a nearby stall. I took my mittens off and pushed my hair back only to discover that it had frozen solid into little dreadlock-like icicles.

Did it!

Did it!

Boosted by a cup of hot, sweet apple cider, 4km came and went. Things were harder now; there were no more beavertail stands, no more hot cider and poutine stalls – this was serious skating – and I didn’t know if I could do it. The next stop was at 5km and now I admitted it; I knew now that the full 7.8km was not going to happen. I hurt too much. I was beaten. I’m told that making it to the Bronson Bridge by Dows Lake was pretty much considered ‘the end’ by locals and I have no idea if I was told that by someone trying to be kind but hell, I figured I’d take it.

It was hard not to cry when I rounded that final bend, a blend of exhaustion and driving snow in my eyes. My feet ached and face  was scarlet but I had done that most Canadian of things – skated in the snow on ice. Better than that –  soon I’d be taking those skates off and chugging hot chocolate. Nothing will ever taste so sweet again.

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That was yesterday…

It’s only as I leave after a hectic 48 hours batting around the city that I realise that maybe the badge of failure that I thought I had isn’t mine after all. We drive along the canal and I tell my taxi driver about what I did, and that I feel I maybe let myself down. And we keep driving and it’s so much further than I thought – as we approach the 3km mark, where I thought I’d have to give up, I feel a surge of pride: I didn’t stop. I kept going. Finally we arrive at Bronson and he slows down and tells me that it’s far. That I did well. That I’ve inspired him to try with his daughter next weekend. I sit back in the car and feel as warm and happy as when I took that first welcome sip of chocolate. I did it.

At the airport, my driver stood at the kerb and called me back, “Hey! Well done!” And then he began to clap. “Ottawa salutes you! You did well.” And this time, I believe it. I skated the Rideau canal – maybe not like I’d imagined but I did it all the same. Next time, I’ll make the full distance – or maybe I won’t – the only certain thing is that I’m going to keep on falling – all I need to do is keep on getting up.

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I travelled as a guest of Ottawa Tourism – but as ever – my words are 100% my own.

Info:

Ottawa Tourism

Rideau Canal Skate way


2
Jan 14

2014: the Year of New Experiences #1 Polar Bear Swim in Vancouver

It’s easy to make new year resolutions – and so much easier to break them, so this year I’ve decided to skip the usual list and go with just one resolution that should be easy to keep: Do More New Things. I want to dive into brand-new Canadian experiences every month this year and I decided to kick off by joining the Polar Bear Club on Vancouver’s English Bay for an icy January 1st dip.

Walking down to English Bay with my friend Felice, who I’d shamelessly whined at until she came too, I can’t pretend my heart wasn’t hammering – what if it was too cold? What if I wanted to back out? But once we arrived excitement took over; this was the 94th year of the dip and the biggest in its history with some 2,500 people jumping in. Jostling for space amongst the guys dressed as disgraced Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, and a guy dressed as a rasher of bacon, I decided to just try and enjoy it. We jumped the wooden fence to the beach and stripped off to our swimming costumes. The sand was wet and cold, within a few minutes my feet were numb. And then it began -there was no formal bell or whistle, no ‘ready, steady, go!’ but as we saw everyone race forward we grabbed hands and made for the waves.

polarbear swim

I didn’t feel the water at first, not until it hit mid-thigh, I ducked, shoulders-down and then it hit me – I gasped at the icy cold; I genuinely felt like I was having a heart attack. For a few seconds I couldn’t breath – the water was shockingly, painfully cold, I jumped back up, mouthing frantically then shrieked! Then the adrenaline flooded through me, man!  This was great, I raced back out of the water and joined my friends – all of us wild-eyed and beaming – we’d done it!

We did it!

We did it!

I was in the water for maybe 30 seconds at the most but it’s half a minute I’ll always remember and it feels like it was 30 crucial seconds that will shape the rest of the year. We raced back to my apartment building and hopped in the hot tub to thaw out. Over the next half hour, more frozen polar bear veterans joined us; I loved the feeling of camaraderie, of a moment of craziness shared and the start of something adventurous beginning.

Here’s a great video from Tristan Harvey which shows what happened:

Here’s to a new year of Canadian experiences and fantastic first times…


16
Sep 13

Rocky Mountaineer Coastal Passage: the first Seattle to Vancouver trip

Oh! Sunsets...

Oh! Sunsets…

Travel used to be such an elegant affair; a tempting world of steamer trunks and porters, slow boats to China and postcards that arrived travel-worn and a little wrinkled at the edges bringing a whiff of far-flung adventure to your breakfast table. There’s no room for bus replacement services or low-cost airlines in that world and it’s a world that seems to have almost melted away. Almost.. but not quite. Not as long as there is a Rocky Mountaineer that is.

It was the inaugural run across the border from Seattle to Vancouver – a short journey of just a few hours – but a first for the company and a trip that I felt lucky to be part of. I’d watched in Seattle as the station staff lined on up the platform waving their flags to greet the first Vancouver train, “It’s here! It’s really here!” one exclaimed. This meant a lot to the railway – a new train – a new route – a chance to show off the great and grand things that train travel can be. The bags seemed to come first – whisked away by hustling porters, then the  passengers piled off the train, each of them fluttering little flags, chattering happily as they were greeted by smartly uniformed staff. Within minutes the excitement and happy fuss had gone and I was left alone admiring the blue and gold train that I’d take back home.

First time the Rocky Mountaineer arrives in Seattle

First time the Rocky Mountaineer arrives in Seattle

When I got onboard a day later I was happy in that very particular way that comes from scratching the surface of a big, beautiful playground of a city that you’ve never been to before that’s just a few hours away from home. Seattle looks like being all kinds of good times and I will be back again soon. Stepping onboard this beautiful shiny train was the cherry on top of an already perfect weekend.

I’d ridden the Rocky Mountaineer from Jasper to Vancouver a few years before – a wonderful trip that made me lose my heart forever to the mountains that give the service its name. This time instead of snow-topped mountains it was the shining sea that delighted me: the new Coastal Passage route takes you along the shimmering coastline of the Pacific Northwest. We rocked gently past wooden docks stretching out into placid water, hugged by lazily curving mountains. As we thundered past, we were met along the way by small groups waving; fishermen saluted us from their boats, picnickers returning home after a long day on the beach smiled, and kayakers raised their oars in greeting from the stillness of the clear water.

Dinner with a view

Elegant salad

I drifted downstairs to eat dinner – a crisp salad, a juicy slab of beef with a generous swirl of buttery garlic mash and fresh berries with ice cream – as the world passed by the windows. Even in the restaurant car, with its heavy white linen tablecloths, silvery cutlery and glassware, the views are great – and above, back in the lounge car with its wrap-around glass roof for panoramic viewing they cannot be beaten.

We crossed from America into Canada as the sun began to set. Sunsets this far west are – and I say this as a wildly-biased sunset lover – absolutely stunning and this was a corker. It began as a golden glow and then ran through every shade from peachy-orange to guava pink the light bouncing from the water reflecting into the carriages. It felt magical. It had been just a short trip but one which had crossed a border and taken us into a world where train travel was a joy again and the journey easily as pleasurable as the destination.

Calm coastal waters all the way

Calm coastal waters all the way

I travelled as a guest of the Fairmont (more of which in another post)

& the Rocky Mountaineer but my words and opinions are – as ever – 100% all my own.

 Find out more:

Rocky Mountaineer the Coastal Passage route here
Tourism Vancouver 
Visit Seattle
The Fairmont

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