Mike's photo adventure weblog

Mike's photo adventure weblog: August 2013

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Strait Floatin' (Canada #3)

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I wish I had gone inside to see the creepy shrine to himself that Stephen Harper has created in the lobby

Six tables of dessert
Weddings. They seem to be quite the trend these days. Though I'm not one for fads, I figured it was a good idea that I attend my brother's wedding. After all, it was one of the major reasons for this crazy and wonderful trip to Canada. Plus, he was holding it in Ottawa, and I'd never been before. Better yet, it would be in the spectacular Grand Hall of the Museum of Civilisation, a hanger-sized room with a magnificent panoramic view of the Ottawa river and historic waterfront. If that wasn't enough, there would be six tables of dessert. It was definitely a strong case for my attendance. And it would be difficult to be the Best Man over Skype.

I won't re-hash the wedding details, but it was great in all the ways weddings ought to be: I spent lots of time with my family (new and old), my little flower-girl nieces were adorable, I didn't lose the rings, Jon stepped on a glass, I rocked a 1980's brown three-piece suit, the groom kissed the bride, and later we held them up on chairs without dropping them, funny speeches, drunk relatives, etc. I'm really glad that I didn't miss out.

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The bachelor party got pretty wild

But more on the wedding venue (you'll see where I'm going with this): the Grand Hall was architecturally designed in a canoe shape, inspired by the west coast aboriginal story of the Raven's magic canoe—which could shrink to the size of a pine needle, or expand to hold the entire universe. (The architects couldn't quite figure out how to do the same with their room). The Hall exhibits west coast aboriginal culture, architecture, history, myth, and art. The room featured six different traditional longhouses, and many intricately carved totem poles.  And towering beside us for the ceremony was the famous Haida artist Bill Reid's masterpiece The Spirit of Haida Gwaii; his largest and most complex sculpture. It even was depicted on our $20 bills, until the latest revision. The Haida proudly called those older ones "Haida-bucks". (I'm sure competition was rigorous for the new $20 design, as it's now decorated with a featureless concrete block). The late carver's massive, magnificent canoe sculpture is overflowing with paddlers: humans, animals, Raven and Eagle (the two clans of the Haida, and very important creatures in Haida stories). Commenting on where the canoe was heading, Bill Reid once said:

There is certainly no lack of activity in our little boat, but is there any purpose? Is the tall figure who may or may not be the Spirit of Haida Gwaii leading us—for we are all in the same boat—to a sheltered beach beyond the rim of the world as he seems to be? Or is he lost in a dream of his own dreaming? The boat moves on, forever anchored in the same place.

It was thus fitting that just days later, I'd also be on a boat. But I knew where mine was heading: to the edge of the world. To Haida Gwaii. 

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A brief lesson in history and geography
Way up in the north west corner of coastal British Columbia—right before the area that, it's my understanding, the Alaskans stole for their frying pans—you could find yourself staring west into the setting sun. Assuming it's not raining. But it usually is up there. Over the horizon lies a distinctly isolated archipelago of 150 islands formerly known as the Queen Charlottes. The modern name is Haida Gwaii, meaning "islands of the people". This region was literally the last place added to our world maps, in 1787. By then, even Australia was fairly well mapped. Here in geographic isolation over many thousands of years, the Haida developed their own distinct language and culture, over a hundred villages, and even established trade routes as far south as Vancouver. That's a long paddle.

Hecate Strait has separated this area from Canada for 15'000 years. This isolation spared it the full brunt of of the ice age, preserving dozens of plants and animals now found nowhere else. The aptly named Strait (the goddess Hecate being associated with crossroads, entranceways, and sorcery) is prone to sudden, violent weather; and owing to the shallowness, enormous waves. This archipelago is potentially the windiest place in Canada, with average speeds in the winter of 35-40 knots. (Locals always carry a chain-saw in their car so they can clear the daily blow-down across their roads). Despite the fierce weather, the ancient Haida's warrior culture and advanced war canoes, carved from enormous cedars, allowed them to make distant war raids against mainland tribes—where they plundered like Vikings, taking women and slaves. John Vaillant writes in The Golden Spruce (recommended to anyone interested in early exploration, aboriginal culture, or beautifully-written adventure stories):

"Traveling in these giant cedar canoes, the Haida would regularly paddle their home into, and out of, existence. With each collective paddle stroke they would have seen their islands sinking steadily into the sea while distant snow-covered peaks scrolled up before them like a new planet. Few people alive today have any notion of how it might feel to pull worlds up from beyond the horizon by faith and muscle alone." 

Haida Gwaii sits precariously on the famed Ring of Fire, a highly active tectonic boundary around the Pacific ocean. Haida Gwaii has been the epicentre of Canada's largest recorded earthquake. And the second largest. And the third. Just a kilometres to the west of Haida Gwaii, the continental shelf ends, and the ocean floor plunges precipitously from 10 to over 1000 meters depth. These islands are literally on the edge. Interesting then, that the ancient name for this place is "Xhaaidlagha Gwaayaai", meaning "islands at the boundary of the world". Though 'world' here refers to the sea and sky, not the continental shelf, or the planet. Regardless, the ancients certainly named the place well.

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Not exactly Hecate Strait, but these girls braved the storm on Toronto Island. We cowered under a gazebo.

A thousand mile journey begins with...
a single step. In my case, that first step was: Don't miss your ferry, because it only runs once every two days. I arrived at night, twelve hours before departure. The woman at the airport advised a good place to sleep near the ferry, but warned, "Watch out for bears and cougars. Especially cougars—the bears are positively friendly by comparison." I had been warned about cougars before, just not the animal kind. But I knew how to be bear-safe, so I'd just do that, and hope that hanging food from trees doesn't piss off cougars. BC Ferries had advised checking in two hours early—but surely, they meant cars, so I ignored them—and set my alarm accordingly, and went to sleep under the stars, beside the sea. I awoke less than an hour before departure, feeling anxious, having dreamed I missed the ferry. It sparked me into action, and I immediately packed up and headed to the terminal. Turns out they actually meant that two hour nonsense for people too, and I was unsympathetically informed I had arrived with only seven minutes to spare. 

Sixteen hours and hundreds of beautiful kilometres up BC's coast later, I still had another long ferry ride left. As with train rides, ferries are wonderful for unhurried conversation with interesting strangers, and solemnly gazing at the real world drift past. It was on this second boat that I had the good fortune to speak with a carver and musician of high esteem on Haida Gwaii. During the many dark decades when the Haida language, culture, music and ceremonies were illegal, they had actually lost knowledge of many of their songs and the instruments used, for both music and theatre. Songs are interesting in Haida culture because they have ownership, must never be sung without permission from that owner. Songs can be gifted to others, and new songs can sometimes come to people as gifts from individual animals met in the wilderness. This man was a prolific song writier, gifting them to the people, actively rebuilding and growing Haida culture through new songs and dances, and even carving new instruments. 

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It remains to be seen which Perth is more exciting. But at least this one is walkable.

I also spoke at length with two elders from another distant First Nations community, one of whom was lovely teacher busily knitting the entire hour we spoke. (Later, she would actually gift me a handkerchief, the very thing she was knitting. What a sweet-heart.) She introduced me to her husband, an 87 year-old hereditary chief from Bella Bella. He told me many stories from his life, including years ago when he reluctantly agreed, after much persistence by his town's church, to attend the annual general meeting of the United Church. Throughout this meeting he kept hearing mention of how the missionaries had 'brought God' to his people. Finally he asked to speak, and was handed the microphone: " God was already there before your people arrived. God was everywhere, all around us. You didn't bring us God. You only brought us hell ! " 

Then he turned, grinning, "For some reason, I've never been invited back..." 

I had read some history about Haida Gwaii, and I had already met some amazing people. I was starting to feel the magic of the place, and it was only just appearing on the horizon. And over the next two weeks, there would be more magic than you could shake a wand at.


p.s. For more of, or the latest, photos and mini-stories, visit www.michaelfuller.ca

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After commandeering our ping-pong room twenty years ago, my father has finally finished building his airplane

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Coast to Coast (Canada update #2)

West Side Stories (Close Encounters of the Serendipitous Kind)
Mount Baker looms on a clear day. It's actually 130km away from us. Yes, even the mountains are bigger in the USA.

Walking along the sea wall in Vancouver, I turned the corner and froze in disbelief. I think I even blinked a couple times, because sometimes my contacts get cloudy. My friend Marie, whom I last saw in Fremantle, and who now lives in Ulaanbaatar, was walking straight towards me! She was visiting Vancouver for a couple months to have her baby, and neither of us lived near this path—I had never even walked it before. But there we were, gobsmacked.  During my brief stay in Vancouver, I kept running into people from my former life, in some of the most serendipitous ways. 

At the base of a climb in Squamish after a fifteen minute hike through the forest, Tiff and I popped out onto the slab and — Hello! — face to face with three guys I knew from climbing trips and engineering class. (One of them was a Mexican who'd come with me on a US climbing trip, and I recalled to him the funny memory of his ordering at a fast food restaurant en route. The woman taking the order was also Mexican, but without even the basics of english—her manager leaned over and recited in her ear each sentence she would then repeat aloud to us, like some sort of slow, human megaphone. After a painful minute of this irony, I made the obvious suggestion that he just save this poor woman the trouble, and just order in Spanish)  

Learning how the bubble wand works. Specifically, by not eating it.

A week later on a different route in Squamish I had just (barely) finished an 8-pitch masterpiece to the top of the 800m granite monolith, The Chief. We lay in the sun eating, exhausted after the final pitch, revelling in the bliss of accomplishment, and overlooking the majestic mountains and tranquil ocean. Suddenly, a face pops up over the cliff edge from the same route. It's familiar: a guy that six years ago I actually taught how to set up top-ropes. And after a few seconds, we still remembered each other's names.

Boris and I had been climbing around Squamish for a couple days, hitchhiking into town each night to visit the pub. We needed to get back Vancouver for the next adventure, and opted to continue using our thumbs. When someone finally stopped, we opened the trunk for our packs, and found it immaculately clean and totally empty. Except for two paper firing-range targets, riddled with holes. I looked at Boris nervously, and we laughed. Then of course, we hopped into the car. Our driver was an Iranian tourist traveling with his mother, who appeared to follow along with all our small-talk but it was likely she didn't speak a word of English. We never asked about the bullet-riddled targets; I preferred to leave intact my mental image of this sweetly smiling elderly mother poppin' caps into a human-torso-shaped target, with her shawl flapping in the blowback. 

The sunrise from our mountaintop bivouac overlooking Vancouver (photo credit Boris) 

While hiking in the mountains of North Vancouver I was telling Boris about all these crazy encounters. Him and I were just returning from an alpine climb called the Widowmaker, and we hadn't seen anyone else for about a day. Moments later, two of our friends walked towards us on their way to climb the same route. And after that, an old acquaintance of mine appeared on the trail. Boris found it funny and odd that he lives in Vancouver, and hadn't been randomly running into anyone he knew! As if by fate, a few minutes later an old man appeared, guiding a young Asian couple. The old fellow says in a thick Russian accent, "Boris?!", and the two prattle on in Russian — it turns out he was an old family friend. Meanwhile, the young couple, adorned in ludicrous amounts of shiny new gear — including hiking poles, goretex pants, gaiters, crampons!? — asked me what we were doing, and I told them about our rock-climbing / overnight adventure. Their reaction was priceless: Boris was in sandals, and we were sharing one backpack. They had about double the gear. They were on a day-hike.

There is a steel box atop Grouse Mountain which you must open to complete your backcountry hiking paperwork. When filling out ours, the heavy steel lid of the box stood precariously balanced when opened. Like a mountain lion waiting to pounce, it suddenly swung closed as Boris completed our trip plan, and put a nasty dent in his otherwise sturdy skull. It turned out to be the most dangerous part of our entire four day climbing adventure. 

The lake where I spent every weekend growing up

The Far East (Around in Circles)
She's holding up the small claw

So I bust out of the Halifax airport into the sweet Atlantic air. I find Dan standing on the sidewalk beside his work van, playing songs on his guitar. I almost mistake him for a busker, except that you never see buskers at airports. I wonder why not. I think we need more buskers around airports. 

We drive towards the city, passing an enormous, cube-shaped rock outcropping along the highway, brightly painted to form a giant Rubik's cube. For many years this Rubik's rock stood beside the highway in the same fashion it likely exists in your home: bright, neglected, and most importantly, unsolved. This year the highway Rubik's was repainted. Solved. I am happy for the rock.

Soon we arrive at Dan's house, his first time back in weeks. The location of Dan's house keys in the mess of the van has escaped him. So we enter via the bedroom window. Security isn't a real concern in Nova Scotia — not only does Dan leave his car unlocked, he never even removes the keys from the ignition.

A busy day at the beach outside Halifax

We fill up the van at the closest petrol station to our destination, and I wander inside to soak up the rural Nova Scotian culture. I see an advert on the wall for a local fundraiser, that day, to benefit Mr Garth Fader. An unfortunate name. May the force be with him. 

We arrive at Dan's bicycle tour-guiding workplace, after barely ascending the steep, rutted, gravel driveway to the house ("the best theft deterrent"). The homebase is a beautifully built pair of large wooden buildings: one the workshop for bikes and wood, the other the owner's family home. The home looks out through conifers upon the Atlantic, and is abutted by forest and a huge garden. A group of us watch the owner's son walk carefully into the garden. Suddenly, psssh clack! And a yelp. Another psssshh clack, and a second yelp. Everyone is laughing: the owner has set up a motion-activated sprinkler system to annoy invading deer. But it doesn't discriminate. A brilliant system. Watching the son comedically get sprayed, I am reminded of Bart trying to eat the electrified cupcake.

Dan and I depart for our canoe trip within hours of my arrival in Nova Scotia. We are headed for Kejimkujik National Park, which we selected because it has such a great name, and I wanted to say the word a lot. It's probably my second favourite indigenous place name; I can't wait to visit Tuktoyaktuk. An hour from the park (you can call it Keji for short), we remember the last things from our list: matches, tent pegs, and stove fuel. You see, after many trips together over the past 12 years, we are certainly experts. It's 5pm before we reach the park — because we stopped for pie — and the ranger is a bit nervous about how far we need to paddle that evening. So we let her know that we are experts. She seems relieved. We hope she doesn't ask about our life jackets, because we've forgotten them. No worries, they'd only slow us down anyways. Plus, experts don't capsize. Except those two times we did — but we weren't experts then. 

Hours later, the sun is setting, and we are still paddling. We had arrived at our assigned campsite, but it was rubbish, so we decided to find a better one, with waterfront views. Location, location, location. We find our home for the night after sunset, and Dan gets to setting up dinner while I put up the tent — one that requires pegs to stay up. I think the ground is a bit hard, and confirm my suspicions by shattering the first peg. Dan informs me that one was our only spare. I hit more gently. Done with the tent, Dan is still fiddling with the stove. But I sit patiently, because Dan is an expert. "Shit," he says, "I just broke the pump. Rrrrrraaagh!", he exclaims, as he drop-kicks the broken pump deep into the darkness. At that point we decide to cook all our meals over the fire, because they taste better that way. And with an abundance of now superfluous stove fuel, Dan expertly lit each fire with only one-match. 

A spooky mist hovered over the still water that night

The next afternoon while relaxing on a sunny rock island we decide to bathe away some of the stink of paddling and portaging. After a couple minutes of swimming, something begins tickling me. Down there. A leech is exploring a critical area of my anatomy — bath time is definitely over. I scramble up onto our tiny rock, and when I turn around, I see that the leech has actually followed me to the rock, and is climbing up towards me. I am both horrified and slightly fascinated. That's one persistent parasite.

Back at camp, Dan chops veggies for our dinner, while I'm in charge of opening the can. That may sound easy, but a can opener wasn't on our list. I'm looking around for inspiration, when Dan jumps up, wailing. He grabs the water bottle and drops onto his back, squirting water into his eyes. Dan likes spicy peppers, but his eyeballs evidently do not. He will lay there for the next 10 minutes, giving me time to bash open the can on the corner of the grill. I expertly pry open a hole, nearly breaking the spondonicles in the process. Damn, we're a good team. 

The next morning we pass the first humans of our trip. They ask us where we are headed, and Dan replies, "Around in circles", to their confusion. The previous day we had paddled 16km, and portaged eight times for a total of 5km, to finish basically where we started. This was so we could complete the full circuit, passing through all the beautiful lakes of southern Kejimkujik National Park (say that 3 times fast). but it was a great metaphor for the amazing and silly time we had, honing our canoeing expertise.

Relax and enjoy all the photos at www.michaelfuller.ca

Expertly yours,