Sunday, August 31, 2008

How to Fight Loneliness?

It's that creeping feeling deep in your gut, you could almost mistake it for anxiety or excitement, polar opposites of each other yes, but just a clever biological mirror image, similar to what Lacan called an imago. But this is oh so subtly different that it is difficult to grasp. Loneliness. Perhaps my worst fear, but with age and a little help from my friends, it passes almost unnoticed.

At the moment I'm feeling a little bout of it coming down the pipes. Bubbling deep in my abdomen, rising up in a chest-tightening grip. Deep breaths and calm mind; deep breaths and calm mind might just be my mantra for the evening.

I arrived back from my marvelous 18-day vacation, during which time I spent a significant amount of time with no less than six of my closest friends, and I suppose even more depending on how I calculate such intimately qualitative data. In any case, most of this time was spent on intensive back-country hikes in the Coast Mountains of BC and the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, where it was basically my friends, me and a few of our distant animal, bird and/or plant cousins. Caribou, ground squirrels, lichens, mosses, alpine wildflowers, hawks, eagles, elk, deer, Dall's sheep, rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, mosquitoes, midges, damselflies, etc, etc, you get the picture.

Even on the occasions where I went off on my own for the day, something I am more than prone to do, after all, taking in the bush on my own is a privilege I seldom enjoy these days, I knew someone was just around the proverbial corner, though it was more likely a 4km hike through alpine meadows, down steep precipices and back up mud-encrusted trails. It was that feeling of presence, knowing that someone was there in more than a metaphysical way, but in the sense of an ass warming a bench in a hut or boiling some tea or putting up a tent under the setting sun up ahead. Presence. At this moment, back at home in my large house by myself, I miss that presence. Though I remain confident that I can find it within me, I miss it, and right now feeling lonely is like a fine, serrated knife stabbing my heart. I've lost something dear to me that I should've savoured longer, like those Okanagan peaches I've been lusting over since I arrived in BC. But if there's something I've learned lately, 'shoulds' are a recipe for longing for a past that never was and never could be.

I enjoyed myself when I was away. And now I'm back and I miss my friends and I'm alone and it hurts. They're far away and even if I was surrounded by some of my favourite local people right now, and there are many of them, I'd feel dreadfully alone, because the ones I miss are not going to appear. I'll ride the feeling out on my own and be happy I did when it passes. Otherwise, loneliness turns into fear that it never will.

Tonquin Valley

Last week several of my friends and I headed to the Tonquin Valley in Jasper National Park for a five-day hiking trip in the backcountry. Our last multi-day foray into the wilderness was two years ago in Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario, a far cry from the spectacular Rocky Mountains. While Killarney had its own particular charm, partly due to its proximity to my place of birth, the Tonquin Valley is without a doubt in a league of its own.

On our first night we stayed at the Edith Cavell hostel underneath the mammoth Edith Cavell peak. This gave us a small taste of things to come. The hostel was well-maintained and the price was right. A great option for anyone needing a place to stay before heading out to the Tonquin.

The Tonquin Valley trailhead begins at the parking lot just outside the hostel, an ideal location to start a day-long hike. On our second day we set out on the trail to our final destination, the Wates-Gibson Memorial Hut, operated by the Alpine Club of Canada. The trail wanders along the Astoria River until it veers south towards Chrome Lake and the Eremite Valley. It is a moderate-difficult trail, nearly 18kms to the hut. I'd say pack as light as possible and expect rain, lots of it. The trail is often wet and muddy in most spots.

Once we arrived at the hut, we made a quick dinner and went to bed early to prepare for our next four days of day hikes through the Tonquin and Eremite Valleys. The most stunning landscape around the area was the marvelous Amethyst Lake, surrounded by the Ramparts to the west, Clitheroe Mountain to the east and the impressive Raptor Meadows on the lakeshore.

The other major highlight was our last day hike up to the Fraser Glacier, home to BC's Fraser River. Climbing up to the Continental Divide in the driving wind and stinging snow was well worth the privilege of playing underneath the glacier at nearly 2,500 metres.

The one major disappointment of our trip was that I didn't get to see the elusive grizzly bear. We did spot a large caribou, a moose and some elk on our trip, along with a number of circling birds of prey. I'd recommend the Tonquin Valley to anyone who wants relatively easy access to glaciers with little human traffic and good chances to view the endangered woodland caribou. Stay at the ACC hut if you have the money, the valley is rainy and cold almost all the time, though the three Parks Canada campgrounds around Amethyst Lake are nice and comfortable, and the warden cabin is just above the lake on the main trail in case of emergencies.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


I've had a love affair with Vancouver for ten years now, in fact, our diamond anniversary is in two months. I've traveled there seven of those years on at least fifteen different occasions, for reasons as diverse as love, work, and play. There's no city I feel quite the same bond with, something I chalk up to the distance. Yes, my heart does grow fonder.

This past trip I stayed with a friend in Kitsilano near Blenheim & Third. Lavender was wafting on the sea breeze and blackberries grew like massive weeds throughout the neighbourhood. There are several small parks around here -- the type of parks that drive me crazy in other cities because they serve solely as doggy outhouses -- but in Vancouver, they are lined with benches that look out over the ocean towards downtown to the east and West Vancouver and the mountains to the north.

It's true that the city is getting a serious facelift for the 2010 Olympics and cranes are almost as prominent on the landscape as those famous Coast Mountains. While I was chatting with friends who work in the social services sector both on the coast and in the interior, they spoke of how some service providers in the city have been giving people in the Downtown Eastside one-way tickets to the interior, in this case, Vernon, in order to 'clean-up' the city. Besides this gross Olympic-ification, the battle over Insite -- the needle exchange facility -- and the uber-gentrification of the eastside are longstanding battles that are simmering nearly out of control. The Olympics seem to have provided politicians and developers with all the right excuses to bulldoze the residents of the eastside out of existence.

Despite these extravagant transgressions, I'll no doubt be returning to Vancouver, my heart in hand.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Similkameen Valley

There's a place nestled deep in BC's southern interior that is dear to me, a magical place where I once lived and worked, the type of place everyone must live in at least once in their life. The Similkameen Valley, and particularly the small towns of Cawston and Keremeos, are gems full of ranchers, organic farmers, wine makers, artists, and an array of eccentric characters who never cease to amaze me. But, beyond the people, the valley, unique for its dry, desert-like climate, is an ecological wonder. The wild sage along Highway 3 south of Cawston is mystifying, though it's faced with being replaced by row after row of vineyards. I don't drink wine, but if I did I might just stop after seeing so many grapes replace hectares of my beloved sagebrush.

If you have a chance, visit this valley. Veer off the highway anywhere past Keremeos going towards Osoyoos, and visit any number of organic farms. The Similkameen has the largest concentration of organic farms in North America according to my reliable sources, and they're happy to welcome visitors. I went down to Mariposa Farms off Sumac Road near the Washington State border at Nighthawk and picked my own peaches, plums and apricots earlier today, and it was heavenly. And did I mention cheap too. I even bought some low-impact, organic wine from Forbidden Fruit Winery, another valley star. Grab some fruit, and maybe some wine, all organic and fresh, and sit under the searing sun down by the Similkameen River near Kobau Park in Cawston or even in downtown Keremeos. The views of the mountains combined with the fruit juice dripping from your chin are well worth the ride.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Howe Sound Crest Trail

My good friends Eloginy, James and I braved the unusually hot coastal weather last week and climbed the Howe Sound Crest Trail. Starting at Cypress Mountain, we set out along the trail in probably the three hottest and driest days the BC coast has ever seen. Low to mid-30s for three straight days, it was glorious.

The 27.6 km trail was very well marked throughout the Coast Mountain range, leading us up and down a number of summits, through mountain meadows, down rock slides, and around amethyst-coloured lakes. If you've gone 10m without seeing one of the orange markers-- whether trail tape hanging from a tree, trail diamonds nailed to trees or paint on a rock-- you've probably gone too far.

The toughest section of the trail was by far the approach to The Lions. Famous for their daunting presence over the East Vancouver landscape, The Lions are two towering rock monuments that act as beacons throughout most of the trail. From our campsite on St-Marks' summit, we wound our way up Unnecessary Mountain, and back down and then up towards the Lions. Once you find yourself at the bottom of the West Lion, satisfied with the stunning view, don't rest on your laurels. Coming down from here, there are several technical sections, including going across a slide at the southern end of the base of the West Lion and then making your way up over the Lion cub, a smaller peak between the East and West Lion. We found a site to camp two summits over from the Cub, after crossing a steep traverse with a rope and chain, giving us a sense of being in some low-budget S&M melodrama--> Ropes & Chains: The Lions Roar.

One important thing to consider is that there are few water supplies up in this section of the trail. We were lucky to find some piles of snow in the higher up sections, a bit late for mid-August, but given the hot weather, it was possible to find snow melt. However, by the end of this second day, we had one litre left in our bottles when we set up camp on top of the summit, with 2 hours to go before the next water source.

The best part of the trail was the very rewarding traverse of Brunswick Mountain. After walking by the newly-rebuilt Magnesia Meadow emergency hut, the trail veers west towards Howe Sound, and then north as it hugs the middle section of Brunswick. The wildflower meadows were marvelous walking through here. Purples, oranges, yellows, reds, I counted at least 5 different flowers growing directly below the Brunswick summit-- the smell was intoxicating.

The highlight of the trip in my book was the descent from the ridge between Brunswick and Hand Mountains to the chain of lakes running behind the Brunswick summit. When I reached the first of three lakes, I dropped my 50 lb pack, stripped off my sweaty clothes, and dove into the glacial water. And then I finally unleashed my fly rod and caught some pretty mountain trout.

Later that night we made it to Deeks Lake, where we camped for the third night before descending to HWY 99 at the newly- built Porteau Rd. exit. It's a tough spot to catch a ride, so I'd suggest walking the 2 kms to the Porteau Cove PP rest stop to find a ride or to park a car.

Overall, I'd say this trail is well worth tackling, but only if you have mountain experience and are a competent map reader. Some of the sections are awe-inspiring, but could also bring on some serious fears, considering the steep drops and sheer skill required to complete the trail. And don't forget to fill your water bottles as often as possible.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Québec's 400th

I returned from the 400 year celebrations in Québec City recently, holding onto my sanity ever so tenuously. I had traveled into the belly of the nationalist beast and been bombarded for almost two weeks with the quatercentenary celebrations. Museum exhibits, art exhibits, street festivals, films, concerts, rallies, monuments, books and other displays of Québec's long and distinguished history. It was all the eye could see. Stretches of tourists, myself included, taking in the story about Champlain's fateful landing 400 years ago. I had been expecting more debate, more controversy, at least from the so-called Québec sovereigntists, but there was only a whisper among a deafening current of pride and exhilaration.

Luckily I found a few people who wanted to highlight the madness of commemorating the origins of French colonialism. Pace the photo at the top of this entry, courtesy of the anti-colonial contingent at the march I attended with some friends July 3rd.