NOVA SCOTIA: THE END OF OUR ROAD

A SHORT STORY ABOUT SOME FOLKS FROM NOVA SCOTIA

A sea-mist hung over the dirt track leading down to Whale Cove. On setting out you might think there’s not much down there – a concrete wharf, a few sheds, a broken fishing boat and a couple of seagulls crouched on the rocks, hoping to get lucky. Certainly there were no whales. Still, we went to take a look, to stretch our legs, and all the while, through the windscreen of his car, a man watched us approach. And then we happened upon the darnedest thing we’d seen for quite some time.

I strolled up to the side of the man’s car. Stanley was his name. He looked pretty normal at first glance – though you can never be too sure. Anyway, he was just sitting there, relaxed, lifting something from a plastic bag, putting it in his mouth and chewing it with relish. Then Stanley took out another piece of whatever it was he was chewing on and nonchalantly passed it over his right shoulder, to the creature behind him. It reached forward and nibbled the morsel between his fingers …. well, I’ll be god-damned!

‘Hey, mister,’ I said. ‘You do know you’ve got a deer in the back of your car?’

‘That ain’t no deer,’ Stanley said, his accent combining the twang of the English West-Country, the lilt of the Irish and the drawl of a Canadian. ‘That there’s ma dawg.’

‘Your dog?’ I looked at the mutt slumped on the passenger seat and said, ‘He doesn’t look much like this one.’

‘Well, I do concede that he’s really a deer. But I treat him like a dawg. And he sure behaves like one, coz he never lets me up. I call him Buttons and he likes nothin’ better than to nibble on these here bits of dried pollack.’ Stanley points to the house beside the track. ‘This fellah livin’ here, he catches it and dries it and smokes it. You folks should try it.’

Whilst we all chewed on strips of dried pollock Buttons stuck his head out of the car window and nuzzled Christine’s hand. He was wearing a knitted, multi-coloured collar. Stanley came across the animal when it was no higher than the running board on his Subaru. Now Buttons filled the whole of the back of Stanley’s car. His back rubbed on the roof each time he moved.

‘Goddamn racoon was for draggin’ him off into the bushes.’ Stanley said. ‘Bin with me ever since.’

When the parks personnel tried to take Buttons from him, for it’s illegal to hold a wild animal, Stanley told them, ‘You can hush him off back into the woods, if ya so like. Only he’s just gonna come right back when he’s good and ready to do it. And then they said to me, “Well, Stanley, we can see you love that animal, and he loves you right back, so why don’t we just pretend like we never saw nothing”.’

The mutt in the passenger seat was called Molly. She was Buttons’ friend, confidante and all-round foraging buddy. The two have their own bedroom beneath the house, where Stanley has fitted a television with a 54 inch screen to the wall.

‘Some nights, when the wife’s gawn to bed, I goes down to their bedroom and lie out beside Buttons, with my head laid on his shoulder, sorta like this. We just watches the tv and that way none of us ever gets lonely.’

Two days later, in a tiny settlement, we met a lady who made quilts. In fact, she was a para-medic by profession and it was in her spare time that she made her quilts. It had grown into more than a hobby. Every moment of her spare time she was hand-sewing or machining quilts. When she wasn’t making them she was designing them, or choosing the material she’d make them from or simply dreaming about making them. Her showroom, a converted double garage at the front of her house, was full of them. I’m obsessed with quilts, she admitted, giggling. Though it was no joke what she was doing, for she’d sold enough quilts over the last few years to educate her three daughter’s through college. And that’s pretty damn impressive by any measure.

‘If ya think I’m crazy,’ she hooted, ‘then I got somethin’ ta really show yer.’

We followed her through the back of the showroom and into the house, down some steps and into the cellar. ‘Dave!’ she called. ‘Got some folks come to see ya.’

In the cellar we faced a multitude of model trains weaving the length and breadth of Canada. The walls of the room were painted sky-blue, dotted with white cloud, whilst scenes of the Rocky Mountains, the prairies, vast forests, beaches lapped by the ocean, farmland and city landscapes spread out before us; there were sidings and military bases and enormous factories, and more tunnels and bridges than anyone could conceivably want. There were wagons and cars and people and traffic lights – and kilometre after kilometre of track. The vastness of Dave’s model train set was simply stunning. There appeared to be no aspect of human life missing from it. Beneath one of the tables was a small bed where the grandson slept when he came to stay.

‘See,’ the wife said, giggling again. ‘Dave’s got it really bad.’

When he eventually appeared, Dave’s head bobbed up somewhere between Lake Superior and the Chapleau Crown Game reserve. ‘Oh yes,’ he exclaimed, ‘we only recently moved from across the road. The basement over there had become way too small.’

Dave was awaiting the arrival of the press. They were due that afternoon, to interview him and take some photos for the local rag. Making the final preparations before their arrival, he was rummaging in various drawers. One after the other he slid them back and forth, bursting with locomotives and carriages and signalling apparatus.

‘The detail you’ve gone to is unbelievable,’ I told him.

‘Oh, sure,’ he said, grinning at me mischievously as he returned triumphantly from one of the hundreds of drawers. ‘I removed this earlier and put it away. I thought the press might not approve.’

Dave produced the figure of a naked lady about the size of the nail on my little finger. He placed her on the sand between two trees, her feet just short of the ocean. ‘This is my nudist beach,’ he said, winking. ‘I always think you can never have too much detail.’

A picture of Whale Cove, home to Stanley and his two friends, Buttons and Molly.

4 SIMPLE TIPS TO SURVIVING NOVA SCOIA

  1. Eat plenty of seafood …

2) Always remain well hydrated …

3) Make sure you understand what the weather’s doing …

4) Follow points 1 to 3 as often as needed, and then you’re good for some great hiking …

A VERY BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO SOME OF THE WILDLIFE OF NOVA SCOTIA

Typically, there are two types of moose out in the forests of Cape Breton. There are the real ones, like these …

… and then there’s the pretenders, those crazy folk who scurry about the woods with antlers on their heads. With the hunting season starting, old mouse-head here needs to keep his wits about him, or he’s sure to wind up on some dude’s sitting-room wall.

Continuing on the subject of wildlife we made an interesting observation concerning squirrels: whilst this one may look cute and fluffy gazing at us from the dormer window of his log cabin …

… In the outhouse they become little devils. As if the daily leap from tree to tree is not enough activity for them, to kick off their morning’s work they sneak into the outhouse for a crafty workout on the exercise wheel …

OUT AND ABOUT IN NOVA SCOTIA

THE CANADIAN MARITIMES HAVE WITHOUT DOUBT PROVED A WONDERFUL FINALE TO OUR JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAS. AFTER FIVE YEARS AND ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY THOUSAND KILOMETRES WE HAVE ACHIEVED OUR OBJECTIVE. AND WE HAVE MANY GOOD MEMORIES. WE ARE PROUD TO HAVE REACHED THE EAST COAST OF CANADA AND ALSO SORRY THAT IT’S OVER. BUT NOT TO WORRY. THE END OF ONE JOURNEY MARKS THE BEGINNING OF ANOTHER. 

 

 

 

 

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NEWFOUNDLAND

VIKING DAWN

It’s somewhat ironic how Canadians are such amiable people, when amongst the first European settlers to arrive here were the descendants of a mass-murderer from Reykjavik. As penance for slaughtering Eyiolf the Foul (including impaling several members from the Thorngest clan) Erik the Red was banished from his homeland for a period of no less than three years. Not one to bide his time on a distant rocky atoll, this most volatile of vikings loaded his boat with a grizzly crew of savages, several sack loads of horned skulls, swords that flashed in the midnight sun and enough mammen axes to fell a forest. Perched on the prow of his boat, eyes screwed against a westerly gale, Erik set sail for a new and mysterious land worthy of pillage. By around 950 AD he arrived on the shores of a vast continent of snow and ice, proclaiming, “Men will desire much the more to go there if the land has a good name.’ Not willing to allow a few minor details to derail his vision of paradise Erik named this new country Greenland, when in reality Whiteland might have been much closer to the truth.

It was Leif Erikksson, Eric the Red’s son, who a few years later ventured north along the coast of Greenland and crossed the Davis Strait. Skirting icebergs and polar bears and glacial storms, he eventually landed on the northern shores of what is today Newfoundland. Much like his father before him it appears Leif had an eye for the main chance: he named this new land Vinland (wineland) when there wasn’t a vine to be had within a thousand kilometres! But that was to miss the significance of the event. It was one hundred thousand years earlier that man first ventured beyond the African continent, striving northwards and eastwards, crossing Asia and the Barents Straits and into the Americas. When Lief landed on the shores of North America he came face to face with the indigenous Indians and thereby completed mans circle around the world.

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AN EXAMPLE OF A PEAT HOUSE BUILT BY THE VIKINGS IN L’ANSE AUX MEADOWS.
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SOME OF ERIK THE RED’S DESCENDANTS KEEPING WARM BESIDE THE FIRE.

COASTAL ROAD TRIP

For the traveller, both Newfoundland and southern Labrador are all about the coast. Inland lies tundra, marsh, impenetrable forest and enough mosquitoes, black flies and midges to provide a lifetime of itching. In southern Labrador not even the shoreline provided respite from their constant attacks: on the 8th of August we took the ferry from Newfoundland to Blanc Sablon, southern Labrador, though within 48 hours we were heading back. It was enough time for us to grasp the reality of life in such a remote corner of the world. A young couple on our return ferry had to take their dog to a vet in Corner Brook, Newfoundland (a one and a half hour ferry ride across the Strait of belle isle, followed by a three hour drive to Corner brook) because it was quicker for them than going to the vet in Labrador.

Like all islands the weather in Newfoundland was changeable by the hour – the one consistent meteorological theme was that we arrived in a rain storm and we left in one. In between, thankfully, we enjoyed a lot of sunshine and in such conditions the island proved the perfect destination for a coastal road trip.

MANY OF OUR BIVOUACS OFFERED EXCEPTIONAL VIEWS. THIS IS SUNSET OVER THE GULF OF ST LAWRENCE. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
L’ANSE-AMOUR, LABRADOR. THIS IS ALL THAT REMAINS OF THE WRECK OF HMS RALEIGH, ONCE THE FLAGSHIP OF THE ROYAL NAVY’S NORTH AMERICAN SQUADRON. ON THE 8TH AUGUST 1922 THE VESSEL WAS 1.5 MILES FROM SHORE WHEN SHE SWERVED TO AVOID AN ICEBERG AND PROMPTLY RAN AGROUND. ACCORDING TO JEFF WYATT, THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER ON THE DAY, “THAT WAS THE ONLY ICEBERG IN THE STRAITS OF BELLE ISLE …” THE WRECK WAS DESTROYED BY THE ROYAL NAVY IN 1926.
RED BAY, LABRADOR. BY THE 1540S, FOR ABOUT 80 YEARS, WHALERS FROM THE BASQUE REGION OF SPAIN AND FRANCE WERE HUNTING WHALES AND PROCESSING THE OIL AT NUMEROUS PORTS IN SOUTHERN LABRADOR. RED BAY, KNOWN TO THE BASQUES AS BUTUS, WAS ONE OF THE LARGEST AND BUSIEST, BEING HOME TO AS MANY AS 1,000 MEN. THIS IS THE WRECK OF THE BERNIER, WHICH RAN AGROUND DURING A STORM IN 1965.
CRAB POTS STACKED ON THE QUAYSIDE. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
A PRIVATE HOUSE AT SHIP’S COVE. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
WOOD STACKED READY FOR WINTER, A COMMON SIGHT IN NEWFOUNDLAND.
THE MAPLE LEAFE INSIGNIA IS NEVER FAR AWAY.
TABLELANDS, GROS MOURNE NATIONAL PARK. THE TABLELANDS APPEAR SO DIFFERENT TO THE REST OF NEWFOUNDLAND BECAUSE THEY ARE A RARE EXAMPLE OF THE PROCESS OF CONTINENTAL DRIFT. DURING A PLATE COLLISION SEVERAL HUNDRED MILLION YEARS AGO A SECTION OF THE EARTH’S MANTLE WAS FORCED UP THROUGH THE CRUST, LEAVING THIS DESERT-LIKE ENVIRONMENT.
ANOTHER VIEW OF TABLELANDS IN THE GROS MORNE NATIONAL PARK.
TRAWLERS IN TWILLINGATE HARBOUR. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
THESE FISH BOXES ARE NOW USED FOR GROWING VEGETABLES. I SUPPOSE THIS MAY BE A GOOD INDICATION OF THE STATE OF THE FISHING INDUSTRY. A MORATORIUM WAS CALLED ON ALL COD FISHING IN 1992, DECIMATING THE ISLAND’S ECONOMY. THE FISHERY HAS BEEN PARTIALLY REOPENED RECENTLY. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
OUR BIVOUAC IN TRINITY EAST. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
HOUSES IN TRINITY. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
THE WATERFRONT IN TRINITY. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
BEACH BALL IN TRINITY. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
MANY OF OUR HIKES ENDED PREMATURELY IN FIELDS OF BLUEBERRIES. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
ABANDONED BOAT, MABERLY. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
THE ROCKS OF CAPE BONAVISTA. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
THE LIGHTHOUSE AT CAPE BONAVISTA. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
THE CHURCH OVERLOOKING THE LAKE AT OLD BONAVENTURE. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
FISHING STAGES ALONG THE NORTHERN PENINSULA. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
STORM GATHERING OVER THE LONG RANGE MOUNTAINS. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
SAILING YACHT ENTERING GOOSE COVE. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
THE PUFFIN COLONY AT ELLISTON. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
THE SEAT OF CONTEMPLATION, MABERLY. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
THE FLEET HIGH AND DRY IN BONAVISTA. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
A TRAWLER PASSING CROW HEAD. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
SUNSET OVER CAPE BONAVISTA – ANOTHE GREAT BIVOUAC. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
THE BLACK FOX OF BONAVISTA. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
FIREWEED THRIVING ALONG THE SEASHORE. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
A REPLICA OF AN OLD INDIAN CANOE MADE FROM BEECH BARK. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
THE ENTRANCE TO A ROOT CELLAR. BEFORE THE ARRIVAL OF THE REFRIGERATOR ALL PERISHABLES WERE STORED IN ROOT CELLARS TO PRESERVE THEM. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
CAPE RACE LIGHTHOUSE, SOUTHERN AVALON PENINSULA. THE MEN WORKING THIS LIGHTHOUSE WERE THE FIRST TO RECEIVE THE TITANIC’S DISTRESS SIGNAL. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
THE BEACH AT BELLEVUE. NEWFOUNDLAND)
THESE FOSSILS AT MISTAKEN POINT ARE SOME OF THE EARLIEST LIFE FORMS ON EARTH. THEY DATE BACK 560 MILLION YEARS. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
STILL WATERS RUN DEEP, THOUGH NOT ON THIS OCCASION. GETTING MY FEET WET SEARCHING FOR HIDDEN TRENCHES BEFORE CONTINUING ON OUR WAY. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
THE VIEW FROM RED HEAD COVE TOWARDS BACCALIEU ISLAND. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
A TYPICAL FISHERMENS WHARF. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
THE GANNET COLONY AT CAPE ST MARY HAS TURNED THE CLIFF WHITE. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
THE GANNETS PREENING THEMSELVES ….
…AND ON THE WING.
A VIEW OVER GRATES COVE. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
GRATES COVE. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
ROWING IN THE BAY OFF CUPIDS. (NEWFOUNDLAND)
SUNSET OVER CAPE ST MARY’S. (NEWFOUNDLAND)

ST JOHNS – CAPITAL OF NEWFOUNDLAND

 

 

 

 

CANADA: REASONS TO LINGER IN THE PRAIRIES

I guess you never know how you might react to a bear walking into your path … until the day a bear walks into your path. And they said it would be so boring out here in the prairies.

The mountain folk back west had nothing good to say about the prairies, after we told them of our plan to head east before the snow finally set in. They usually just grimaced and muttered, ‘Stick your truck on the train and fly the plane. You’ll die of boredom out there.’ I have to agree, there are a lot of open, flat, endless … endless fields stretching from south-east Alberta, through Saskatchewan and into Manitoba. In fact, there’s a quaint little tale which says, if you set your dog loose to run across the prairies, he’ll still be at it five days later. Though why should crossing the prairies be all about going in a straight line? A road trip isn’t worth the name unless you meander a little; actually, out here, you have to meander rather a lot, yet it’s definitely worth investing the time. If I met those mountain folk again I’d be sure to tell them how misinformed they are, especially considering our little hike today in the Riding Mountain Park, where we’ve encountered a bison hoovering up thistles, spooked a moose with a rack the size of an oak tree, skirted round an amorous, bugling elk and suffered a garter snake slithering from under my boot …. and that’s all before we ran into the bear.

Okay, so I’ve read all the BE BEAR AWARE brochures appearing like confetti at the entrances to the parks. Several times, in fact; I know how you shouldn’t toss them half your Big Mac, try to beat them to a fifty metre sprint, race them to the top of a tree, or pitch up demanding a selfie. I imagine for a regular hiker in these parks an encounter like this is not such a big deal. However, I’ve only ever watched bears from the safety of the camper, or a specially designed platform. Meeting one face to face on a remote path is an entirely new experience. And now he’s here, right in front of us, I’m feeling ever so twitchy.

‘Look,’ I hiss over my right shoulder, pointing ahead. The bear is about fifty metres ahead of us. In the sunlight he looks very black and shiny and is ambling up the grassy track towards us, not a care in the world. In the next second I scrabble to recall every safety leaflet I’ve ever read about bears; we haven’t much time. We need to make a decision.

‘I don’t think he’s seen us,’ I whisper to Christine. Which gives me this great idea. I grasp her shoulder, shoving her towards a withered rose hip plant. This should do it, I reckon. ‘Let’s hide and watch him go past.’ Perhaps we’ll even get a photo.

‘What if he follows us in here,’ Christine says, not in the least appreciating my grand idea. ‘Then we’re all in for a big surprise.’

I think on what she says and can’t deny it: she’s made a very good point. Never surprise a bear – I’ve read that somewhere.

‘We need to make a noise … let him know we’re here.’

‘You’re right,’ I say, extracting myself from behind our pitiful hide.

As we edge forwards through waist-high grasses, Christine makes an attempt at some opera, whilst I talk in a bass voice about the vagaries of Canadian weather, all the while fumbling with the safety device on the bear spray. When we get back to the grassy track it appears we’ve made precisely the right noises: the coast is clear. The bear has vanished. Phew! That was a close call.

Who says it isn’t exciting out here on the prairies.

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THE BADLANDS OF EASTERN ALBERTA. AS A KID I ALWAYS THOUGHT THE BADLANDS WERE WHERE BILLY THE KID AND THE HOLE IN THE WALL GANG HUNG OUT. HOW DISAPPOINTED I WAS TO FIND THEY WERE SIMPLY LANDSCAPES UNSUITABLE FOR AGRICULTURE. BADLANDS ARE TYPIFIED BY SUCH GEOLOGICAL FORMS AS CANYONS, RAVINES, GULLIES, BUTTES, MESAS AND HOODOOS, AND EXIST IN SOUTH DAKOTA, MEXICO, ARGENTINA, AND THE GOBI DESERT OF CHINA. THE SIOUX INDIANS OF SOUTH DAKOTA CALLED THEM MAKO SICA, WHICH LITERALLY MEANS LAND BAD. THE BADLANDS HERE IN ALBERTA ARE PACKED WITH DINOSAUR FOSSILS.
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THERE WAS A DAY WHEN A ROAD TRIP ACROSS THE PRAIRIES WOULD HAVE INVOLVED DODGING CRITTERS LIKE THIS. I THINK HE MIGHT HAVE DONE MORE THAN JUST CHEW THE LAND CRUISER’S TYRES. THE ROYAL TYRREL DINOSAUR MUSEUM MAKES A WONDERFUL PLACE TO TAKE A STEP BACK IN TIME.
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THE CYPRESS HILLS ARE TO BE BE FOUND IN SOUTHERN ALBERTA, ALONG THE BORDER WITH MONTANA, USA. THIS IS A VIEW OVER HORSESHOE CANYON, THE VAST PRAIRIE STRETCHING TO THE NORTH. CYPRESS HILLS,  10,000 YEARS AGO, FORMED AN ISLAND IN A SEA OF ICE. OUR CONSTANTLY CHANGING EARTH HAS MEANT THE PRAIRIES WERE ALSO ONCE COVERED BY A HUGE SEA, FOLLOWED BY A TROPICAL JUNGLE. HOW THINGS CHANGE!
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FOLLOWING THE BACK-ROADS: CROSSING THE PROVINCIAL BORDER FROM ALBERTA TO SASKATCHEWAN.
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THIS IS THE FORMER HOME OF ROBERT DAVID SYMONS, A WRITER, PAINTER, GAME WARDEN, COWBOY AND RANCHER. IN THE 1940S HE LIVED IN THIS CABIN WITH HIS COMPANION AND FOUR SONS, BECOMING A RENOWNED CANADIAN ARTIST. (CYPRESS HILLS)
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CATCHING A FEW RAYS ON OUR NEW SOFA.
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THERE ARE NO BARRIERS AT THE RAILROAD CROSSINGS IN SOUTHERN SASKATCHEWAN, WHERE THE LAWS OF PHYSICS AND GOOD SENSE GENERALLY PREVAIL: IF HE HITS ME I’LL BE FLATTENED – IF I HIT HIM I’LL ALSO BE FLATTENED.
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THE LANDSCAPE IS INVARIABLY CARVED IN STRAIGHT LINES: ROADS, FIELDS, RAILWAY LINES.
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AMONGST THESE GIANT FIELDS AND MODERN FARMING TECHNIQUES THIS HOMESTEAD APPEARED RATHER OUT OF PLACE.
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SOME OF THE NAMES OF THESE SETTLEMENTS IN SOUTHERN SASKATCHEWAN ARE SO CURIOUS – SEVEN PERSONS, BIG BEAVER, HARPTREE, SUCCESS, SANCTUARY, COLGATE, FORGET –  YOU HAVE TO WONDER AT THEIR ORIGIN. THIS PLACE  IS CALLED CLIMAX.
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GRASSLANDS NATIONAL PARK. AFTER THE BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIGHORN IN 1876 AGAINST THE AMERICAN CAVALRY, CHIEF SITTING BULL AND MORE THAN 4,000 OF HIS LAKOTA SIOUX SOUGHT SANCTUARY HERE IN CANADA.
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71 PLAINS BISON WERE REINTRODUCED TO GRASSLANDS NP IN DECEMBER 2005, AFTER A 120 YEAR ABSENCE FROM THE AREA. THE LIMIT FOR GRASSLANDS IS CURRENTLY SET AT 350 ANIMALS TO ENSURE A SUSTAINABLE HERD.
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THE ROLLING HILLS OF THE GRASSLANDS NATIONAL PARK.
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AS PART OF THEIR PROMOTIONAL WORK PARKS CANADA HAVE TAKEN TO PLACING RED CHAIRS AT PROMINENT VIEWPOINTS. THIS REALLY IS “BIG SKY” COUNTRY.
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OH, DEAR! THE BLIND LEADING THE BLIND. GPS IN HAND, WE’VE DITCHED THE CAMPER AND HEADED OUT ON FOOT. WE MAY BE SOME TIME …
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THE RARE BURROWING OWL OCCUPIES DENS MADE BY BADGERS OR PRAIRIE DOGS.
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SUNSET OVER GRASSLANDS NP.
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IN SASKATOON, CAPITAL OF SASKATCHEWAN, WE MADE A 20 KILOMETRE URBAN HIKE WHILST THE WEATHER HELD GOOD.
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REFLECTIONS. PRINCE ALBERT NATIONAL PARK.
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LAKE WASKESIU, PRINCE ALBERT NATIONAL PARK.
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THIS YOUNG ELK AND HIS ‘HAREM’ LIVES IN THE FORESTS SURROUNDING WASKESIU, A SETTLEMENT IN PRINCE ALBERT NATIONAL PARK. THEY ARE GENERALLY PRETTY SAFE FROM PREDATORS THERE, THOUGH THE PREVIOUS YEAR A PACK OF WOLVES CAME TO TOWN, BRINGING DOWN ONE OF HIS LADIES OUTSIDE THE HEYWOOD INN.
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FORAGING FOR BLUEBERRIES AND CRANBERRIES IN THE FORESTS OF NORTHERN SASKATCHEWAN.
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EVEN IN SEPTEMBER WE MANAGED TO FIND PLENTY.
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THE OTTER RAPIDS, CHURCHILL RIVER. (SASKATCHEWAN)
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HIKING IN RIDING NATIONAL PARK, JUST BEFORE WE MET THE BEAR. (MANITOBA)
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NEXT STOP – WINNIPEG.
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DOWNTOWN WINNIPEG, WHERE WE SET OFF ON A TEN KILOMETRE URBAN HIKE.
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THE LEGISLATIVE BUILDING, WINNIPEG.
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THE LOCAL BOXING CLUB.
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ALL MEANINGFUL URBAN HIKES SHOULD INCLUDE A VISIT TO A CHOCOLATE SHOP.
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FUNKY MURALS.
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ARCHITECTURE FROM THE OLD DAYS.
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SHEPHERDS PIE, FISH AND CHIPS AND TWO PINTS OF LAGER – I JUST LOVE URBAN HIKING.

CANADA: HIGHWAY TO THE MIDNIGHT SUN

Forget to buy your packet of cigarettes in Carmacks and it’s another 222 kilometres before the next opportunity, such are the vast distances up here. For days forests and lakes and mountains unfurl beyond our stone-shattered windshield, though we are gaining ground, slowly but surely, on the Arctic Circle and our final goal. Having left Bahia Lapataia, southern Argentina, four and a half years ago, Inuvik, a small town in the Yukon’s Mackenzie Delta, is now tantalisingly close. We’re heading for a big moment in our journey: Inuvik is quite literally the end of the road and marks the most northerly point on our trans-Americas odyssey. Though, before embarking on this last leg to Inuvik we must acquire a few extra supplies: the 700 kilometre Dempster Highway is a rough gravel road that invariably has a sting in its tail. For the moment our nearest town with a store is a quick blast along the valley, a place made famous by the Klondike gold rush of 1897.

Dawson City nestles at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. In 1896, when Skookum Jim and George Carmack dug a shovel load of yellow dirt from Rabbit Creek, they let rip with a cry of glee. With their whoops still echoing in the valley Dawson City took root, quick to feature on every gold diggers bucket list of 100 Places To Bust Your Balls Before You Die. In those gritty days of 1897/98 DC was a tough place just to exist, let alone scrabble for a pan of gold; I’d like to write how Pat Garrett gunned down half the gunslingers in the Silver Dollar saloon, or the day Butch Cassidy lassoed the safe and tore it out the front door of the Wells Fargo, but it just wasn’t that kind of a town, mainly because it’s in Canada and the Mounties had a bite to them as crushing as any grizzly. Today, if you slip on your sepia-tinted shades, sweep the motorhomes and Harleys off the dirt streets, you’ve pretty much got a picture of what the town was like one hundred years ago. I’m not sure if Sourdough Jim existed back then, but if you’re heading beyond the Arctic Circle it’s important to tuck away the best halibut and chips the town has to offer. Who knows what lies on the other side?

NEVER SURE IF I QUALIFY AS A COWBOY, I PLAYED IT SAFE AND PARKED WHERE THE TOURISTS DO.
PARKING LAWS IN DAWSON CITY ARE SEVERE: NEVER SURE IF I QUALIFY AS A COWBOY, I DECIDE TO PLAY IT SAFE AND PARK WHERE THE TOURISTS PARK.
DOG MUSHING IN DAWSON CITY IS OFFICIALLY DEAD. I SNAPPED THIS ONE TAKING A TURN DOWN QUEEN STREET IN HIS TACOMA. WHAT'S MORE, THIS DUDE DRIVES WITH HIS EYES SHUT ... AND NO PAWS!!
DOG MUSHING IN DAWSON CITY IS OFFICIALLY DEAD. WHY PULL A SLED WHEN YOU CAN DRIVE A TRUCK? I SNAPPED THIS ONE TAKING A TURN DOWN QUEEN STREET IN HIS TACOMA. WHAT’S MORE, THIS DUDE DRIVES WITH HIS EYES SHUT … AND LOOK: NO PAWS!!
I HAD THIS NOTION THAT GOLD PROSPECTORS LIVED IN REMOTE CABINS BEYOND A DISTANT CREEK. iT SEEMS THE MODERN PROSPECTOR TAKES HIS CABIN WITH HIM.
ANYONE WHO THOUGHT GOLD PROSPECTORS RODE A HORSE TO THEIR CABINS BEYOND THOSE FAR MOUNTAINS NEEDS TO THINK AGAIN. THIS IS HOW THE  MODERN, MOBILE PROSPECTOR GETS AROUND. NO SADDLE SORES WITH THIS RIG.
THE LAST CARNAL DISTRACTIONS LEFT DAWSON IN 1961. FRENCH BORN MATHILDE (RUBY) SCOTT HAD WORKED AS A MADAM FROM HONOLULU TO PARIS BEFORE MOVING HER BUSINESS TO DAWSON CITY IN 1935. THE PRICE FOR"INMATES" LIKE "LIBERTY" AND "CECILE" WERE FIVE DOLLARS A TIME OR TWENTY FOR THE NIGHT. SUCH WAS THE LOCAL ESTEEM FOR FOR RUBY THAT ATTEMPTS TO CLOSE HER DOWN FAILED UNTIL 1961. CHARGED WITH KEEPING A BAWDY HOUSE, RUBY PLEADED GUILTY BUT CONTIUED TO RUN HER BOARDING HOUSE UNTIL SHE RETIRED AT THE AGE OF 84.
TOP RIGHT WINDOW: HEY UP, IS THAT THE GHOST OF RUBY SCOTT? FRENCH BORN MATHILDE (RUBY) SCOTT WORKED AS A MADAM FROM HONOLULU TO PARIS BEFORE MOVING HER BUSINESS TO DAWSON CITY IN 1935. THE PRICE FOR”INMATES” LIKE “LIBERTY” AND “CECILE” WERE FIVE DOLLARS A TIME OR TWENTY FOR THE NIGHT. SUCH WAS THE LOCAL ESTEEM FOR RUBY THAT ATTEMPTS TO CLOSE HER DOWN FAILED UNTIL 1961. CHARGED WITH KEEPING A BAWDY HOUSE, RUBY PLEADED GUILTY BUT CONTINUED TO RUN HER BOARDING HOUSE UNTIL SHE RETIRED AT THE AGE OF 84.

HIGHWAY TO THE MIDNIGHT SUN

Notes from the journal

4th July: There’s an aspect to the wilderness of North America that appeals no end to a particular type of traveller. It plays on an irresistible urge to test themselves, or perhaps even to lose themselves. With their belongings pared down to the minimum they gradually withdraw from what is generally considered civilisation – they ride the last bus, depart the last town, beg the last lift, offer the last goodbye – and then simply disappear. By accident, or by design, whichever it is, some never re-emerge. I suspect there’s one of them here now, thumbing a lift by the gas station at the exit of Dawson City. The breeze catches his straggly hair and beard, tugging at the loose, grubby shirt. The smallest of backpacks lies at his feet, the words Inuvik scratched on a strip of cardboard held in bony fingers. His colour is grey and nobody sees him. Would it be for the best if nobody picked him up?

Construction started on the Dempster in 1959, reaching Inuvik by 1979. Oil and gas in the Mackenzie Delta is the principal reason for the road. The highway was named after William Dempster of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In his younger days as a corporal he was known as “The Iron Man of the Trail” for his legendary dogsled journeys from Dawson City to Fort McPherson, sometimes in temperatures of 40 degrees below. Dempster originally came to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. In winter he patrolled the route from Dawson to McPherson by dogsled, a 760 kilometre journey he completed 10 times in four years. Starting out of Dawson late afternoon we cut between the Klondike and Snowy Ranges, making camp by six. There’s a notice in the campsite warning that a wolf was present two days previously; we’re asked not to feed it. Though it’s not wolves that are the problem here – the mosquitoes are hellish. They hunt us in the outhouse, curtailing any ideas of living outside. They say these mosquitoes will suck a pint of blood from a moose every twenty-four hours. It is light all through the night – what an extraordinary experience this is.

5th July: Light traffic and a beautiful landscape. Trying to avoid the stones fired from the tyres of passing vehicles. So far so good. We leave the forest to climb over the ranges – the Ogilvy and the Taiga, followed by the Richardson Mountains. Thick dust and then more mud. Stones pound the underside of the camper. After crossing into Northwest Territories we drop down to the delta, the track cutting through the boreal forest, crossing the rivers Peel and Mackenzie by ferry boat. After 500 kilometres we can take no more; we stop by 8.30 in the evening, 30 kilometres short of Inuvik.

TAIGA RANGES.
TAIGA RANGES.
A MOOSE FEEDING AT THE APTLY NAMED TWO MOOSE LAKE.
ONLY A SINGLE MOOSE IS FEEDING AT THE “TWO MOOSE LAKE”. JUST GOES TO SHOW YOU CAN’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ.
VIEW NORTH FROM EAGLE PLAINS.
VIEW NORTH FROM EAGLE PLAINS.
FIREWEED
FIREWEED, YUKON’S TERRITORIAL FLOWER. CALLED FIREWEED BECAUSE OF ITS SUDDEN ABUNDANCE IN AREAS CLEARED BY FOREST FIRE. EVERY PART OF THE PLANT IS EDIBLE. THE FLOWER WORKS IT’S WAY UP THE STEM DURING THE SUMMER. WHEN IT SEEDS THE SNOW WILL FALL 6 WEEKS LATER.
UUU
SCHEUCHZER’S COTTONGRASS. COTTONGRASS HAS BEEN USED FOR EVERYTHING FROM STUFFING PILLOWS TO DRESSING WOUNDS.
CROSSING TH ARCTIC CIRCLE.
CROSSING THE ARCTIC CIRCLE.
THE BORDER OF THE YUKON AND NORTH WEST TERRITORIES.
THE BORDER OF THE YUKON AND NORTHWEST TERRITORIES.
CROSSING THE PEEL RIVER.
CROSSING THE PEEL RIVER. GOING NORTH WAS NO PROBLEM. GOING SOUTH PROVED TO BE THE STING IN THE TAIL!
INUVIK
ARRIVING IN INUVIK, NORTHERN CANADA, JULY 2016.

6th/7th July: Inuvik enjoys 56 days of 24 hours of daylight (late June, July and early August) and 30 days without sunlight (mostly in December). For us comparisons between Ushuaia and Inuvik are inevitable: Inuvik has no cruise ships, no Russians buying all the vodka at the duty-free store, no signs calling the British pirates for stealing Las Malvinas Islands and no snow (in fact it’s positively warm). Where Ushuaia felt vibrant Inuvik is most definitely snoozing. We camp in the Happy Valley Territorial campsite, overlooking the delta, and make for the tourist office, in the hope of uncovering the heart and soul of this Arctic town. Here we’re given a sheet entitled: Things To Do In Inuvik. Number 1 on the list reads: Check out the White Board at the Inuvik Visitor Centre to see if any current/special events might be happening, such as local feasts, local dances, Northern games, Gwich’in jigging, Inuvialuit drum dancing, etc. Number 2 reads: Watch the Inuvik Visitor Centre’s video collection, or read some books in our reference library, etc. There are 24 items on the list. I slip it in a pocket whilst we toddle off to celebrate our journey through the Americas in the Mad Trapper pub, which is not listed on the 24 Things To Do In Inuvik and then we go to the Igloo church, which is. In the Mad Trapper the Welders Daughter is the featured band; by contrast, in the igloo church, it is a civil engineer from Norway who entertains the small crowd. The following day we visit the northern-most greenhouse in North America. It is located in a former ice hockey stadium. The Things To Do In Inuvik list calls it the only Community Greenhouse of its kind in the world.

THE GREENHOUSE.
THE NORTHERN-MOST GREENHOUSE IN NORTH AMERICA. FORMERLY AN ICE HOCKEY STADIUM.
THE IGLOO CHURCH.
THE IGLOO CHURCH HAS GAINED SOME NOTORIETY FOR HAVING NO FOUNDATIONS. PERMAFROST AND FOUNDATIONS ARE A TRICKY COMBINATION. IN THE CASE OF THIS CHURCH IT WAS DECIDED TO BUILD IT PURELY ON A BED OF SAND, WITH NO FOUNDATIONS TO SPEAK OF. AT THE TIME THE ENGINEER WAS CRTISCISED BY HIS PEERS THOUGH, 53 YEARS LATER, IT IS STILL STANDING AND IN RATHER FINE CONDITION. SO FAR THE CHURCH LIVES UP TO ITS NAME: “OUR LADY OF VICTORY.”
THE MAD TRAPPER PUB, SCENE OF OUR WILD CELEBRATIONS.
THE MAD TRAPPER PUB, SCENE OF OUR TOP-OF-THE-WORLD CELEBRATIONS. THE PUB HAS SUCH A WELCOMING FACADE.
THE SERVICE PIPES IN INUVIK HAVE ALMOST AN ARTISTIC APPEAL. THEY ARE ABOVE GROUND DUE TO THE PERMAFROST.
THE SERVICE PIPES IN INUVIK HAVE ALMOST AN ARTISTIC APPEAL. THEY ARE ABOVE GROUND DUE TO THE PERMAFROST. I THINK THEY SHOULD BE LISTED ON THE VISITOR CENTRE’S THINGS TO DO IN INUVIK.

8th/9th/10th July: After a couple of days in Inuvik we’re heading back down the Dempster. It is raining and misty. We cross the Mackenzie River without event, though soon learn the ferry on the Peel is out of service: the recent heavy rains in the mountains have raised the water levels in the river, making it no longer safe for the ferry to operate. Small trees and thick vegetation churn in the current. We retire to the Nitainlaii Territorial Park campsite a kilometre up the road. Ironically, Nitainlaii, in the language of the Gwich’in means “water flowing out in all directions.”, so perhaps something like this should have been expected. This boreal forest is not a bad place to be held up, except the two motorcyclists camped a little way from us have to lift their mozzie nets each time they shovel a spoonful of beans into their mouths. When Robert drives round to collect the camping fees he says the ferry won’t run for another four days. It’s all nonsense: in South America a few floating trees and shrubs wouldn’t stop a ferry. By mid-day the following day the river has dropped significantly, though the grandly named Peel River Marine Operations manager won’t lift a finger. More cars and campers arrive. The hotel in Fort McPherson, 10 ks down the road, is now full. Robert organises small boats to ferry the half dozen motorcyclists across the river, charging them anywhere between 25 and 40 dollars. I’m beginning to feel we’re at the beck and call of the local Gwich’in mafia, as we pay another 10 dollar camping fee to Robert. He tells us his aunt has died and that they need to get her in the ground, except several car-loads of mourners are on the wrong side of the river. The food they’ve prepared is starting to spoil, he laments. ‘There’s plenty of chicken, if you want,’ one of the mourners on the right side of the river tells us. By Sunday a touch of cabin fever is creeping in, held at bay by frequent visits to watch the flow of the Peel River. There is a rumour circulating that work will begin in the morning on constructing ramps. The locals of Fort McPherson have taken to driving their pick-ups round the campsite in the evenings, gawping at the stranded travellers.

11th July: Despite thunderstorms and heavy rain in the night the Peel River Marine Operations crew have ambled into action, constructing a ramp from the surrounding mud. A dozen or so vehicles now await the resumption of services, all of us questioning how one makes a ramp from mud. The locals of Inuvik moan how useless the ferry service is and the incompetence of the Peel River Marine Operations manager in particular. Robert is talking of commandeering the one and only digger so that a hole can be dug and his dear aunt finally be laid to rest. Might this spark a riot? In any event all work ceases for two hours whilst the lady is buried. By 9 in the evening we are finally across and free to resume our journey. By midnight we make camp beside the Arctic Circle sign. It is as light as it was at mid-day.

12th July: Eagle Plains is the half-way point on the Dempster Highway. There is a motel here and a rather fine, old-world style hunter’s bar. Any wildlife you’ve missed out on the road can be viewed at your leisure nailed to the wall in the motel’s bar. A dozen grumpy truckers are awaiting the full resumption of services at the ferry landing. Too often their journey to Inuvik is interrupted like this, they tell us. I ask one of them if he is one of the famous ice-truckers. ‘Ooh, I don’t know aboot that,’ he says. (Many Canadians say oot instead out). They mutter about some guy called Dave or Johnny, who is an ice-trucker on the TV show. They say the whole thing is rubbish. Another trucker asks if we’ve seen a ginger-haired hitchhiker out on the road. We tell him we haven’t. The man says, ‘The kid left at two this morning on foot, heading for Inuvik. I told him the grizzlies would kill him.’ Perhaps he’ll get his head mounted in the motel bar, I want to say. By late afternoon we reach the junction with the Klondike Highway and turn towards Dawson City. There is a makeshift tent at the roadside near the junction. On a piece of cardboard is written “Cigarettes needed … and food.” Staring forlornly is the young, grey traveller we’d seen on the way out. He’s made it a little further along the road; the highway to the midnight sun is within his grasp.

THE FERRY ON THE PEEL RIVER.
AFTER THE STORM. THE FERRY ON THE PEEL RIVER.
MIDNIGHT AT THE ARCTIC CIRCLE.
MIDNIGHT AT THE ARCTIC CIRCLE.
GRIZZLIES ON THE DEMPSTER HIGHWAY.
GRIZZLIES ON THE DEMPSTER HIGHWAY.
THE DEMPSTER HIGHWAY.
A MAP OF THE DEMPSTER HIGHWAY. WHEN COMPLETED IN 2017/18 THE TUKTOYAKTUK HIGHWAY WILL EXTEND THE DEMPSTER BEYOND INUVIK BY A FURTHER 137 KILOMETRES, REACHING TUKTOYAKTUK AND THE SHORES OF THE ARCTIC OCEAN. PRESENTLY THIS ROUTE IS AN ICE ROAD OPEN ONLY DURING THE WINTER.
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CANADA: TELEGRAPH CREEK

Why are we drawn along some roads and not others, especially this one,  a 112 kilometre dirt track petering out at an abandoned town, beside a fast, broad river running out of the Stikine Ranges? The writer Edward Hoagland came to Telegraph Creek in 1966, more or less 100 years after gold was first discovered on the Stikine River. In short time news of the find swelled the population, sending all kinds of normally sane people a shade crazy and was a precursor to the bigger fever that was yet to strike further north in the Yukon. By the time Hoagland arrived the characters of Telegraph Creek – the prospectors and trappers, the hunters and wanderers, the homesteaders and fishermen – they were all mostly the memories of a few old men. All that remained on these terraced hills were 150 ageing souls. The McPhees, formerly railwaymen from the east, arrived at Telegraph Creek in the 1930s. Alex McPhee had variously been the town’s gravedigger, electrician, carpenter and explosives man, keeping the river clear of debris, so the stern-wheeler could make it all the way up from Wrangell, Alaska, a three day journey during the ice-free months. During the non-navigable months the mail arrived by dog sled, until the bush plane era of the thirties improved things somewhat. In his spare time McPhee trapped beaver and marten, mink and otter and he told Hoagland he’d wanted to marry an Indian girl once, except she’d banged her head on the gunwhale of the boat and drowned in the river. The salmon running in the months through July to September in the Stikine and Tahltan rivers have always been a big deal; McPhee said they used to catch salmon so big they needed a hatchet to cut their throats. Doubtless the men and women who forged an existence in this town had to be as uncompromising as the hills and mountains hemming them in. Hoagland got wind of an old trapper by the name of Fowler who’d toughed out the whole winter with a burst prostate gland. He writes of how, on another occasion … “Fowler spent a year alone on the Taku watershed, where he thought he was on to some gold. When he returned he was batty and babbling and handing out gifts on the trail, his shirt and snowshoes and samplings of ore and fisher skins”.

For millennia the Tahltans have lived on the lands surrounding Telegraph Creek, setting their traps on the river when the salmon begin their run each summer to the spawning grounds further up stream. For them it had been a comparatively quiet place until the arrival of the white man and all his wild ideas. In the 1860s the Western Union Telegraph Company attempted a telegraphic link between New York and London, running the cable via British Colombia, Alaska and Siberia.It was to be named the Collins Overland Telegraph. The section coming north from Hazelton crossed the Stikine River at a creek, later named Telegraph Creek. In other circumstances this remote settlement might have featured in one of the world’s key lines of communication; in the race to communicate with Europe the Western Union were beaten by another company who successfully ran a cable beneath the Atlantic, and so the Collins Overland Telegraph route was abandoned. In the 1898 Klondike gold rush Telegraph Creek was one of many transit points for gold seekers heading to the Yukon. As a result of all this frenzied activity the government deemed it worthwhile to construct the Yukon Telegraph line in 1901, continuing it north from Telegraph Creek, through Atlin and up to Dawson City. The swathe hacked through the forests of British Columbia ended up as something of a thoroughfare for some, becoming known as the Telegraph Trail. Prior to the First World War Norman Foster was said to be an ‘expert’ on the Telegraph trail: when the creeks froze up Foster ran the mail along it using a sled and his dog team, for which he was paid $100 a month. The telegraph linemen in the relay cabins along the route  fed him and stored food for his dogs, to help ease the toil of his nine day journey. In turn Foster kept them supplied with rum, on the basis that “… the isolation did nothing to them that the rum couldn’t straighten out”. One of the linemen had been a composer and Foster hauled out an organ to help soothe his nerves. The trail also attracted another kind of person, Hoagland writes in his book, folks he describes as … “the desperate and destitute, the specialist, the stunt man” … and those same telegraph linemen did what they could for all the people who came wandering to their door. The most famous was probably Lilian, a Russian lady on her way home from New York. Going north from Hazelton she found the trail getting more arduous, though she was well cared for: “the linemen in the cabins fed her and patched her clothes and bound her feet in moosehide when her shoes gave out”. They gave her a puppy for company, which shortly died and so Lilian stuffed it, continuing her trek with it tucked under her arm. She saw out the winter in Atlin cooking for miners and washing clothes in the freezing river. Later, she made it all the way to Point Barrow on the Bering Straight, a place where she hoped to persuade the Eskimos to paddle her across to Russia. Instead they fixed her a raft and pushed her off. “After that nobody knows her fate. It’s hard to think of her surviving so much and not making it home. But she hadn’t been talkative and she didn’t write”.

Today Telegraph Creek is all but deserted. It seems those who were left, for whatever reason, moved up the hill to the settlement of Dry Town. Some of the dwellings appear to have been abandoned at a moments notice, relics from various eras littering the backyard. It’s still possible to overnight at the The Stikine River Song, formerly a Hudson’s Bay Company store, and so we go there for a cup of tea and gaze for a moment at the solid-looking cakes in a glass display. I ask the young waitress if it’s possible to fix a river charter, as advertised on their sign above the door. ‘They’re hoping to get it going again soon,’ she says.

After the tea we sit on a bench outside, deciding where we should camp for the night. Enjoying this warm, sunny evening it is soon apparent how the new gold in Telegraph Creek is its tranquility and the silence following the sigh of the wind in the tall grasses covering the hill and in the trees lining the Stikine River.

(Extracts from Edward Hoagland’s Notes From The Century Before)

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CANADA: THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY

The scream of the reel is electrifying. The rod bends double, the tip almost piercing the swell.

‘You got a strike,’ yells Ryan.

Stumbling across the deck I wrestle the rod from the downrigger. Whatever’s on the end has already hit warp-speed. The reel handle thrashes my knuckles as the blur of line unwinds – this fish is really moving. Planting my feet I settle for the fight, switching the strain to forearms and shoulders. ‘This is a massive goddamn fish,’ I cry into the breeze.

‘Let it run,’ Ryan calls, snatching the engine control into neutral and leaping onto the deck. ‘Let the line run.’

Without doubt this is going to be the biggest salmon ever caught in the Seaforth Channel; right now I feel as if I’m attached to a plummeting bus. The muscles in my arms take the strain as the salmon does its best to snatch me over the transom. Just as I’m beginning to wonder if this could be one of those – I think we need a bigger boat – type of moments, the line goes slack. I yank up the rod and work the reel for all I’m worth. ‘I think I lost him,’ I hiss.

‘No,’ shouts Ryan, clearing the port rod out of the way. ‘He’s coming straight for the boat.’

Holy cow! He’s right. The flasher is riding the surface, racing towards us. A metre ahead of the flasher the surface of the water boils. The beast has turned. It’s homing in on the boat … coming straight for us. I can’t wind the reel fast enough; my wrist aches and my knuckles throb. As a bald eagle circles above, the thought of these orcas pinching my fish crashes through my mind. They’re not having my fish. And then the flasher pings into the air and the rod flicks upward, empty in my hands. I know for sure that this time I really have lost him. I curse as I wind in the rest of the line, placing the rod back in the downrigger. It’s all over.

‘I tell you … that was some creature.’ Panting from the exertion, I spread my hands as far apart as I can. ‘I swear, it must have been this big.’

Not that many years ago the only way of accessing the tiny fishing town of Bella Coola, located up the Burke Channel on British Columbia’s Pacific coast, was by sea. By necessity the settlers who lived up country from Bella Coola, along the Chilcotin Plateau and beside the Anahim Lake, had to be tougher than the hooves on a Yukon moose. Life was hard and often lonely out in this wilderness and pretty much all the stuff they needed had to be packed in on horseback, all the while avoiding the grizzly bears and the packs of wolves, or not, as was occasionally the case. When Isabel Edwards moved here with her husband in September 1932 it was an unfamiliar and scary world to her; she was even frightened of the snow. Twenty-five years later, all alone, she tracked and shot two grizzlies that had been killing her livestock. You could say she adapted pretty well to her surroundings. Many couldn’t stick the solitude and daily challenges, going in search of an easier life in such places as Vancouver Island. Today it seems you’ve still got to know how to take care of yourself if you’re to survive out here: the moment we park outside the Bella Coola store an old boy launches into the story of the cougar he fought one day, just off the main street. ‘Over there in those trees it was,’ he says. ‘He jumped on my back and launched its teeth into my neck. He chewed me up pretty good before I managed to get my hand in his mouth and pull the sucker off. Look at my thumb.’ He holds out his hand for us to inspect. ‘That cougar bit my thumb pretty darn good.’

Managing to avoid the grizzlies and the cougars, we’ve made it to Bella Coola to try our hand at catching a few salmon and halibut in the channels around King Island. This means being collected from the port the following day by Central Coast Adventures. We will spend the next four days based at their lodge on Denny Island, doing our best to catch our quota of salmon from their 23 foot Grady White fishing boats. By late afternoon the rest of our fishing buddies arrive from Red Deer and over dinner we’re already laying wagers as to which of us will land the first fish … the largest fish … the most fish … I never knew fishing could be quite so competitive.

The following day is an early start down at the port. Leaving our vehicles at the hotel we travel by boat for the two and a half hour journey out to Denny Island. Denny Island is not big; you could walk round it in a day, if there was a path, which there isn’t … and always remembering that it is apparently teeming with bears and wolves and cougars. And that’s the great thing about Canada … you are no longer the apex predator. Everywhere you go, in every village or forest, behind every tree or bush, there could lurk a killer vastly quicker and stronger than you are. It really keeps you on your toes. ‘Oh, we had a pack of wolves run down the main street of Bella Bella not so long ago,’ Ryan, our fishing guide, casually remarks. ‘Nice,’ I say, not in the least meaning it. Bella Bella is just across the channel from us, on Campbell Island, and is where Ryan lives.

After a quick lunch in the lodge, with Christine and I in one boat and our rivals in the other, we’re straight on to the Chinook salmon, setting our lines just off Idle Point. Except a pod of orcas thought to number 100 individuals is busily swimming up the channel at the same time. If you think of a shoal of salmon as carpet dust then orcas are the equivalent of the Hoover. These efficient fish killers are beautiful to behold, though not at all useful to have around when you’re trying to catch a salmon. That said I’m hauling in our first ten kilo Chinook after a few minutes of trawling at about 1.5 knots. By the evening the two teams are running head to head on numbers (though I can claim first fish!).

On the boat by six in the morning, the next day we go for the halibut in the Burke Channel. As we reach a stretch of open water the sea state takes a considerable turn for the worse. As if to combat the sudden violent motion of the boat Ryan simply reaches over to the stereo, whacking up the volume on the country music channel we’re listening to and those dulcet tones of the DJ Trace Atkins. Pounding into the waves with our speakers shrieking, I’m reminded of colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, though Kilgore was in search of great waves not great halibut and by lunchtime we’ve hooked a 30 kilo specimen which, from a depth of 450 feet, takes some bringing to the surface. Christine and I spell the task and after a ten minute struggle the brute finally breaks from the waves. We add a couple more in the afternoon and by the evening the two teams are again about evens.

The next day is a salmon day and sees our rivals creep ahead on fish caught, though it’s the last day where Christine and I are bowled a blinder. Convinced some fishy business is afoot, the rival team have peeled off, heading out to the ling cod grounds, where they ramp up the numbers, leaving us to the less productive salmon fishing off St John’s Point. By early afternoon a worsening swell makes life increasingly uncomfortable, forcing us to retreat down the Seaforth Channel, where the orcas have already enjoyed a feast.

It goes without saying that had I landed the one that got away our position as the premier team would be unassailable. But that’s fishing for you. Whatever disappointment we feel at having slipped into second place is amply taken care of by Timo and Tara’s dinner back at the lodge. All too soon we’re back on the boat with our boxes of frozen fish, heading for Bella Coola port. Recovering our vehicles from the hotel car park, on the drive back to William’s lake, as we round a bend on Heckman Pass I say to Christine, ‘Oh look, there’s a cow in front of us.’ This is not the kind of mistake one should make too often: I quickly realise that I’m in fact staring at a huge black bear grazing at the side of the track. Here is a reminder, if any was needed, of what those settlers had to put up with as they led their horses back and forth over these mountains.

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BELLA COOLA PORT. OUR PICKUP POINT.
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JACKSON ARRIVES IN THE KINGFISHER AT BELLA COOLA. FROM HERE IT’S A TWO AND A HALF HOUR RIDE OUT TO DENNY ISLAND.
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THE PORT AT SHEARWATER, DENNY ISLAND.
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THE LODGE ON DENNY ISLAND. OUR ACCOMMODATION FOR THE NEXT FOUR NIGHTS.
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A POD OF ORCA WHALES IN SEAFORTH CHANNEL.
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WITHIN TEN MINUTES OF GETTING THE RODS OUT WE’VE NABBED OUR FIRST CHINOOK SALMON.
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ORCA WHALES GIVING CHASE.
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CASTING OFF FROM THE LODGE.
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SALMON ROD SET IN THE DOWNRIGGER.
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CHRISTINE WRESTLES A SALMON TO THE BACK OF THE BOAT…
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…WHILST RYAN LANDS IT IN THE NET.
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SUNSET OVER SHEARWATER HARBOUR.
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THE VIEW FROM THE LODGE WITH THE BOAT JETTY BELOW.
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LANDING A NICE HALIBUT.
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OUR COLLEAGUES WAITING FOR A BITE. COMPETITION BETWEEN OUR TWO BOATS WAS FIERCE.
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GETTING AMONG THE ACTION.
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PLENTY OF RUDE GESTURES AND RIVALRY AS THE TENSION RAMPS UP.
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WASHING THE DAY’S HAUL.
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RIVALRY IS SET ASIDE  FOR A TEAM PHOTO. IT SHOULD BE NOTED HOW WE WERE UP AGAINST A TEAM OF THREE!!
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EARLY RISING.
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FULL SPEED TO BELLA COOLA.
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MIST RISING ABOVE THE HILLS.
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THE HUNTERS’ SPOILS: A FEW BOXES OF FISH FOR THE FREEZER.
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THE BEAR AT HECKMAN PASS (1,524 METRES).

CANADA: THE AMULET’S PLACE

When the explorer Mungo Park trudged into the African bush in the late 18th century he was fascinated by the Africans’ attachment to their amulets, or saphies, as they were called along the banks of the Gambia river and beyond. In most cases saphies consisted of prayers or sentences extracted from the Koran, written by the “Mahomedan” priests. These scraps of paper were considered to possess quite extraordinary virtues. Amulets, or talismans, or charms, each with their subtle difference, are of course not limited to the African bush but used the world over, probably dating back as long ago as man squatting beside the fire, the half-eaten, charred leg of a sabre-tooth tiger in one hand and his club in the other. Pliny the Elder named the amulet as ‘… an object that protects a person from trouble …’ which means the string of garlic, the bag of herbs, the talons of a Bald eagle or the pebble dredged from a river all have the ability to keep one from harm, once the power is ascribed by the owner. I guess many in this day and age dismiss the amulet as so much balderdash, at worst the conviction of a lunatic. I must admit, I’m the first to scoff at the thought of a lion’s molar protecting you from the ravages of wild animals, the thrust of a spear or that maniac overtaking on a blind Ecuadorian bend in his 25 tonne truck. Generally they occupy no place in my thoughts. So why have we so many of them in our car? Continue reading “CANADA: THE AMULET’S PLACE”

CANADA: A LANDMARK IN OUR JOURNEY

THE LEGEND OF CHIEF MOUNTAIN

Apparently the first white men clambered up Chief Mountain in 1892. When they reached the summit it’s said they stumbled across the bleached skull of a bison. Such a discovery undoubtedly intrigued them: just how did the skull of a bison come to be laid on the summit of this mountain? Located to the east of Glacier National Park, Chief Mountain towers above the plains.This prominent peak certainly impressed Meriwether Lewis of the 1804 Lewis and Clarke Expedition. He took one look at the impressive rock face and named it Tower Mountain. Continue reading “CANADA: A LANDMARK IN OUR JOURNEY”