April and Thunder Bay

April was a pretty quiet month for me. After getting back from Ottawa I’ve spent most of my time finding a new place to live and then hanging out in it, in order to save money to finance some canoe trips later in the summer and keep my head afloat while my hours at the tower are low. It’s not all twiddling thumbs though, I’ve been brushing up on my knowledge ready for school in September, and catching up with my Toronto friends. Me and Nyssa had some adventures too!

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Nawww

The first was a trip for Nyssa up on to the Edgewalk. It was great to finally get her up there to see where I hang out all summer! It wasn’t the warmest day, but we could still see very far and have fun doing all the activities and things.

As April slipped into May, we ventured to Nyssa’s home town, Thunder Bay. It’s located on the shore of Lake Superior up in northern Ontario, a couple of hours flight from Toronto.  I was a tiny bit nervous on the way up, it was time to meet Nyssa’s parents!!

As we came in to land we flew over Thunder Bay’s perhaps most iconic attraction, the Sleeping Giant. This huge landform stretches for over 5 miles along the horizon in front of the city, and resembles a person led on their back.

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Viewed from 25km away!

The scale of the giant is awesome, and whenever we were driving around the city it constantly drew my eye. We were fortunate to get great weather for our visit and so it was nearly always visible when we looked out over the bay.

Nyssa had organised a busy long weekend of first meetings for me, but we spent most of our time hanging out with Nyssa’s parents and brother, and going around to see the local scenery. Our first stop was a walk through Centennial Park. Thunder Bay sits on the exposed edge of the Canadian Shield, a huge section of rock which forms part of the core of Canada itself. Nyssa had mentioned once that amethysts and geodes could sometimes be found in the area and ever since I’d been teasing her about Thunder Bay having gems lying around everywhere! So as we set of into the park my eyes were searching everywhere on the off chance I’d see something (although I really had no clue what to look for!) Sure enough though I spotted a vein of bright white and purple crystals running through a rock in the ground. After some scuffling around, and using the classic technique of throwing one rock at another, we came away with a few nice pieces.

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The really good one is Nyssa’s find.

We also had a day with her friends and went over to Kakabeka Falls just outside Thunder Bay. The area had experienced a big deluge of rain and ice a week or so before, and so the falls were really swollen, with water blasting over the edge at quite a rate!

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A lot of white water!

As for Thunder Bay itself, the town is not exactly anything to write home about, but as with every city in Canada, dramatic scenery is never far away. The trip was really worth it to meet Nyssa’s family, and I’m looking forward to coming back again, and definitely want to do some hiking to see the Sleeping Giant close up.

The Capital

I’d been back in Toronto less than 48 hours before I went off to my next new place, Ottawa! Me and Nyssa were heading up to spend some time with her sister, Kathleen, and her boyfriend Kurt. I wasn’t sure what to expect of Ottawa, most Canadians who I’ve mentioned it to have responded with “meh, its ok I guess” or something to that effect. Nevertheless I’d been eyeing it for an excursion since the beginning of my trip. We were based at the Chateau Laurier, right in the middle of the city and perfect for sight-seeing.

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Yup, it’s another giant castle..

We spent our long weekend going around a host of characterful little spots, nearly all of which revolved around food! On our first day we managed to hit up a tea house, an Ethiopian restaurant, 2 pubs, an escape room, and a secret underground bar! Our second day started with an awesome breakfast!

Ottawa does a pretty awesome breakfast! #foodporn #ottawa #adventure

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That afternoon we went to look at Parliament Hill. This was pretty much the main tourism aim for me for the trip, to see where it all happens. Canada’s government buildings are split into blocks that surround a large open square. It was first used for the government in 1859 and I found walking around the square that it had a real colonial feel to it. I could imagine it as an outpost of London, with it’s Gothic, European, style buildings among the wooden buildings of early Canada.

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Ottawa circa 1838. Parliament is now built on the right.

In the middle of Parliament Hill is Center Block, and the Peace Tower which towers over the square and offers a great view out over the city, Ontario to the south, and Quebec to the north.

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Pretty ornate….

We didn’t get to see inside until the next day (after a swing class, and some rather good tacos) when we took a free tour of the tower and a few rooms at the base. The view on the day we were there was great, we could see a very long way, helped by the fact that Ottawa has limited the height of buildings around the city to close to the level of tower.

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Quebec to the north….

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Ontario to the south….

We spent our final evening at Kathleen and Kurt’s for dinner and board games, and then on our final day, we all went to see a Canadian institution, a sugar bush! (It’s where maple syrup is made.)

Upon arrival I got to try a traditional Canadian treat, Taffy! This is made by dribbling warm maple syrup over snow until the syrup is stiff like treacle and can be eaten like a lolly pop.

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Authentic and tasty!!

After some pancakes, smothered in maple syrup of course, we took a wander around one of the trails through the trees to see the actual extraction of maple syrup from the trees. In the old days syrup was extracted by tapping a tree and hanging a bucket off the tap to catch the sap, nowadays the taps are connected together by pipes allowing the syrup to be piped back to the farm straight to be processed. “Raw” maple syrup is almost as thin as water, so its quite simple to transport. It was very interesting to see, to feel the weight of the pipes, and actually see the sap moving through the lines towards the farm.

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Ducking through the sap lines…

Our visit to Ottawa was a really important travel lesson for me – Local knowledge is invaluable. Kathleen and Kurt have been living in the city for years, and without their suggestions we probably wouldn’t have found any of the cool little places that we visited, especially the secret bar, which is not common knowledge. (You’ll also have to find it yourself!) Now that I’m back in Toronto I’ve had to find a new place to live, and get to know a new neighborhood of my own. Hopefully I can find a few more hidden gems in my last few months here.

The Okanagan and Vancouver

After the heli-boarding I began my journey back to Toronto. There was a couple of places to visit along the way, the first of which was Summerland, and Uncle Phil and Nadine’s house! It was the first time I’d seen the Okanagan in winter time and it was pretty nice.

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Lovely snow…

Penticton and Summerland are pretty quiet in the winter, so the pace was pretty relaxed as we pottered around catching up and seeing a few places from holidays past. The area is famous in Canada for it’s fruit, so on the weekend we did a tour of some of the local distilleries, sampling some of the fruit based liquors, and a maple one (because this is Canada of course). The highlight was visiting Duhb Glas, a micro distillery in Oliver where we were treated to a tour and explanation of the process by the owner. I picked up my next newmake to put in the barrel at home and Phil and Nadine topped up their supply of gin!

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Quite a haul..

After a few relaxed days in the Okanagan I made my way to Vancouver. My time here had been cut short because of having to re-arrange the heli-skiing, so despite being tired from the early morning bus ride I made the effort to get out into the city and see some people. The first stop was the Vancouver Lookout. It’s sort of like the Calgary or CN Tower..

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If a little short…

The view over the city was great though, I hung out on the observation deck and took in the view for a while as it got dark.

That evening I met up with Tyson and Georgia, a couple of friends that I’d made in Lake Louise. They’re spending the rest of their visa in Vancouver, and knew all the good little places to eat near my hostel. That outing lasted until 2am, and conveniently finished a short stumble from my hostel! The next day I made a lazy start and headed to Stanley Park, probably one of Vancouver’s biggest tourist attractions. The huge park sits on a peninsula between downtown Vancouver and North Vancouver and was an important area for the First Nations in times past. I took public transport to get there, but misread the bus route and ended up taking the bus right through to the other side of the park, over the Lionsgate Bridge, and beyond to North Vancouver! I had nothing else to do that afternoon so I decided to walk back over the bridge, around the park, and back into the city and take in the views of the bay.

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It was a cloudy day, but I still had a great view of the city..

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On the other side of the park lay the Pacific. Vancouver is Canada’s big like to Pacific trade.

I made my way around the park and eventually reached the park’s collection of totem poles, which are unique to the nations of BC and Southern Alaska.

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Great imagery….

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Vancouver’s skyline was in full glory now….

That evening after getting back into the city I met up with my old uni mate Dan. Dan is attempting to cycle around the world, a trip that makes my travels look like a Canadian package holiday! Me and Dan caught up over our primary shared past time – Scotch.

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The Shebeen had a great selection to choose from!

After that Dan took me to one of the restaurants he works for and introduced me to Sushi (yes that’s right at 29 I’ve never tried sushi). It was pretty good! Apparently this place was the best in Vancouver!

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It was immaculately presented!

It was great to see Dan, who I hadn’t seen since before either of us left on our journeys. If you want to read more about Dan’s trip have a look here.

Cycle Earth

This had technically been the 3rd time I’d set foot in Vancouver, and the longest time I’d been there for, yet it never seems like I’ve spent enough time there. Its quite a place. I boarded my flight the next day feeling like it deserved more of my time, but as my plane glided towards my next destination those feelings changed to something different.  I could see a familiar shape out the window. A tall object…. Taller than anything for miles around, changing colour above all the other lights….. It marks a city I know very well, a place I have come to love, filled with very special people. A little cheeky part of me felt like it was coming home…

Heli-Boarding

I talk about Edgewalk all the time: “CN Tower this…” and “1168 feet that”, and I’d forgive you if you thought that the reason I was in Canada was to walk the Edge. Buuuut I’m actually in Canada to snowboard. To ride the hills and mountains of BC, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec, and hone my abilities on some of the most challenging terrain in the world. More than anything I’ve sought to ride powder, the freshest, lightest, deepest stuff I can find, and this week with the aid of a helicopter I found what I was seeking. I was going Heli-Boarding.

Phil works for Purcell Heli-Skiing, based in Golden, BC, so they were the natural choice for me to go with, but making it happen proved to be a little challenging. The weather  was not playing ball and when I arrived an approaching storm had cut off the mountains and we were unable to fly. Not the best. I had been really looking forward to it, especially as I was going to do it with Phil. Significant re-arranging followed. I had to cancel all of my accommodation in Vancouver, talk to Uncle Phil about moving the dates that I was going to see him, and try to find a route that would use a couple of nonrefundable Greyhound tickets. But it paid off as the next time I arrived in Golden it was to blue skies and perfect flying weather. I arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed and was soon refreshing my avalanche training, and chit chatting with the other guests, with every other word being “send”, “stoked”, “gnarly”, “awesome “and “can’t wait”. It’s hard to adequately describe how excited I was as we finally boarded the chopper and lifted off. It felt like 3 years of planning, travelling, and riding had built up to this, I was finally doing it, this is what Canada is all about, I’m actually living the dream.

I love being around airplanes and helicopters in any setting, so unloading from a running Huey is quite exhilarating on its own, once you’ve unstrapped you pile out into the snow, keeping your head down from the rotor blades, and then turn to look up at the whirling beast before it leaps off the ground and dives dramatically out of sight. Leaving you in the quiet wilderness to collect yourself up.

Then there’s the snowboarding. Once I’d collected myself up I was then presented with a snow sports paradise a sprawling playground extending as far as the eye can see. Your guide’s job is to pick out the best (and safest) lines and then guide you in intervals down to the landing pad to wait for the chopper. Most runs ran pretty much the same way: start in the alpine…….

Then you make your way down through the treeline…

And then into the glades….

Then you meet the heli and back to the top!…..

Sometimes you go one at a time over a steeper slope, or you go with a bit of spacing and ride kind of as a group….

As you can see its pretty amazing! Obviously the tracks from your other group members are in the snow, and everyone is very polite about letting other people go first, but that has negligible affect on the amazing riding, the best I’ve ridden ever. If you are lucky enough to go straight after the guide you’ll get a view like this.

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Powder anyone?

The runs are 700-900m each and I got an extra one, giving me 6 for the day. Its not the cheapest day out, but for me it was an incredible once in a life time experience (although the guides did joke “welcome to your new addiction!”). As I loaded my board onto the chopper at the end of the last run, a thought occurred: This would be the last time I would be snowboarding in Canada. I was now going to make my way eventually back to Toronto, for the summer, and the end of my visa. It was quite a swansong really; I’d achieved the main goal of this trip, my last few tracks in Canada may well be the best of my entire life, better than I’d ever thought possible, and I felt satisfied and happy that I had managed to make it happen. My outlook on what was achievable in life had been changed for the better for ever.

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Living the dream.

Ice Climbing!

As February slipped into March I reluctantly left Lake Louise. The call of Nyssa and the Tower was growing in my heart, but also the start date was just before April and I had more adventures to tick off! The next one came rather unexpectedly, Tim (who came to visit in January) had sent me a voucher for an ice climbing course! I headed down to Canmore for a couple of nights to do Basic Ice Climbing 1, with Yamnuska, a local guiding company that knows the area very well. They provide all the climbing kit – appropriate boots, ice tools, helmet, crampons, etc, but I was also prepared with my warm winter gear, harness, and a brand new pair of mitts, to keep my hands warm and dry.

I’ve done plenty of climbing in my time, but this was a whole new thing and my instructor – Grant – spent the first morning showing me and my group the basics of moving around in crampons and on icy terrain, and then we graduated onto rope work and actually climbing stuff.

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Watch your step…

All the climbing we did that day was on top ropes, and on gentle climbs with not a lot of vertical, which made things much more comfy for learning. Despite this (and typical of my attitude to climbing in general) I was constantly eyeing up the more dramatic vertical features on offer and wondering aloud if we’d get a chance to climb them! The basic of ice climbing are relatively simple, try to use your axes mainly for balance and try to get your legs doing as much of the work as possible. It’s important to keep your hips forward, forcing your centre of gravity over your crampons to maximize their effectiveness.

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Working my way up…

Once you’re confident in your crampons it becomes much easier but at the end of the first day my arms and hands were still quite achy. The ice axes (referred to in the sport as tools) present an attractive thing to cling on to when you’re nervous, and like in rock climbing, your arms tire much quicker than your legs!

During that afternoon a large snowstorm (that had been bothering me for other reasons before the trip) settled into the area, and the next day due to the avalanche risk Grant was forced re-assess and pick another location for us to climb at. To my pleasant surprise this was Johnston’s Canyon! It was a great turn of fortune for me, as I now got a chance to climb the ice that I’d enviously watched other people climb when I’d been to the canyon with my parents. After a couple of warm-up routes (and some more wondering aloud from me) Grant set up ropes on some of the larger features in the canyon and I got to do a WI 4 – a respectably graded 12-15m route that went up close to all the huge icicles that hang down around the upper falls.

It was a really awesome couple of days, one of the big highlights of my trip, and a fantastic early birthday present from a great friend that I won’t ever forget.Next stop Golden, and (hopefully) some heli-boarding!

Nyssa comes to stay..

February began with a visit from Nyssa. Despite our love for each other making the distance OK, after 8 weeks of being apart we were very excited for our reunion. Finally though the day came and I rushed up to meet her at the Fairmont Chateau, overlooking Lake Louise itself. Nyssa works in the tourism industry and that gets her access to the Fairmont’s special rates, making a little bit of luxury waayy more affordable for us. The staff at the Chateau did not disappoint; upgrading us to an amazing room with a view right over the lake!

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Just, wow…

I had been hoping for a lazy morning the next day, but Nyssa was bubbling over excitement for the mountains, so we set out on snowshoes for the Fairview Peak Lookout. The trail climbs above the lake and commands a great view back across at the chateau and beyond.

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Spectacular. It was also a perfect day for it.

In the afternoon we ventured out across the lake itself to have a look at some of the ice climbers and up the valley at the far end. We’d had plenty of fresh snow before Nyssa arrived, so once we got into the middle of the lake we were making our own tracks through untouched snow, which was really great.

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Nyssa ventures forth..

Next it was time for a couple of days of proper snow sports! The main reason I’m in Lake Louise of course is for the snowboarding of course, so I was really keen to show Nyssa some of the trails and the glorious views from the high parts of the mountain. Nyssa had done a bit of downhill skiing when she was younger, but needed a bit of a refresher, which provided an ideal opportunity for us to both do a ski lesson. I’ve only skied once before, so we’d conveniently be moving at the same pace.  It was really great! I put together a little video of the highlights.

First proper day of skiing with @thewanderingnyssa 😊⛷ . . #skiing #lakelouise #adventure

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After the skiing we left Lake Louise and headed down to Banff and another Fairmont – The Banff Springs Hotel. The Banff Springs is even more grandiose than the chateau, and both the days we were there we enjoyed the outdoor heated saltwater pool and all the other nice little touches that Fairmont does. It was a real taste of how the other half live. On the first night we went over to Banff Centre to do some climbing. The climbing was great fun, but the real highlight of that night was bumping into some elk, just outside the climbing wall!

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Really majestic.

The next day I had my first taste of cross country skiing! In the flatter areas of Canada – Ontario, Quebec, etc, cross country skiing is a big thing. Nyssa has been doing it with her family for years, and we were both very keen to do some around the area so we could get out into the wilderness and Nyssa could introduce me to a sport that is very dear to her. We rented some skis from the hotel and set off on a loop along the Spray River, one of the tributaries that flows into the famous Bow River. Coming from a “no-sliding nation” I took a little while to get used to cross country, more than with “normal” skiing. To do it most efficiently you have to time your legs and arms very well, more than downhill skiing, and if you go onto an edge even slightly, your ski is probably going to skewer off into the snow and you’ll find yourself in a heap at the side of the trail. I fell over more times than I did learning to downhill ski! By the time we reached the halfway point my toes were pretty chilly, but Nyssa was clearly in her element so we pressed on through a rougher, less skied route in search of more adventure. It was really fun! We saw a deer, and with the trail being barely used it felt much more like we were out in the wilderness.

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Venturing through the forest…

4 hours later we found ourselves back on the hotel grounds and made our way to the outdoor pool for a well earned soak. That evening we dressed up nice and went down to the 1888 Chop, the Banff Spring’s steak house, for one of the nicest steaks we’d ever had.

The next day we had a lazy morning and got ourselves ready for Nyssa to go back, it had been a wonderful few days, and another adventure for me and Nyssa to chalk up in our tally. It’ll be another 4 weeks or so until I return to Toronto, so it was nice for us to think that we were well over the half way point of me being away, and we’d be off on more adventures soon.

 

 

 

 

The Mountains..

I’ve been in Canada for a couple of years now. I’ve seen it’s peaceful lakes, rolling plains, dramatic skylines, but no scene has captured my imagination, and held my gaze quite like the Canadian Rockies. I’ve seen other mountains before, mostly while in Whistler, but these are on a whole different level.

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Giants in the mist…

It’s difficult to put my finger on exactly why they transfix me on a daily basis, but I think it comes down to two things: the scale and the sheer amount of exposed rock.

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Fairview Mountain towers over Lake Louise, and frequently threatens tourists with avalanches.

The Canadian rockies are notably more “rocky” than their American counterparts because of their combination of rock type, and the increased glacial erosion they’ve experienced since their creation. The results are vast towering cliffs and serrated peaks covered in cracks and fractures that draw my eye and cause me examine every detail, unaware of the passage of time around me. It’s difficult to relay exactly what that feels like, perhaps like reading a perfectly written book that you struggle to put down, or bingeing on Planet Earth DVDs.  The scale is also difficult to grasp. The mountains only grow larger as you approach them, 50 foot high pine trees look like carpet fibers wrapped around the base of peaks that are a 1000m+ climb from the highway to the summit. Castle Mountain appears like a battleship next to the highway, and seems to steam by as you drive along.

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Picture by Nyssa you can read her blog here: The Wandering Nyssa

Staring into the distance only deepens the awe as your brain tries to grasps just how far you’re looking.

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What’s through that distant pass??

When looking out from the Calgary tower Tim described the view as “looking out over continents”, and we spent a fair bit of time guessing how far away the furthest peak we could see was.

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Looking across continents.

It’s easy to see why people turn up here and end up staying for years and years, and if it wasn’t for my particular personal circumstances, I’m sure I could have lived amounst these vast wonders for many years. If you have the opportunity to come here, take it. If you can move heaven and earth to get here, do it. Whatever time of the year, for however long, you won’t regret it.