Yukon-Alaska September 2017

A random encounter, an invitation, a whim, a ticket. Excepting great circle flights I’d never been north of Prince Rupert, which seemed to be the waterlogged, depressing and depressed end of the road. I was on a flight to a place that makes that feel decidedly southern; to a town where a couple tens of thousands of souls, for months in the winter, brave almost around-the-clock darkness and cold, and appear to spend at least some of the rest of their year desperately girding themselves for it.

The Yukon in September is a beautiful calming salt and pepper mix of yellow deciduous and green coniferous. In the south, these two tend to exist separately, the fall colours confined to stream beds. Breaking through the clouds and coming in over Grey Mountain, I didn’t know yet that the scattered coexistent pattern appears to be the norm for a large expanse of the northern landscape.

I spent the first couple of days mountain biking on Grey Mountain in Whitehorse and Montana Mountain near Carcross. I’m a dedicated road cyclist, and had never been on a trail, never mind fat tires and suspension. It was odd to feel like a beginner on two wheels, a combination of exhilaration, frustration, and some fear.

This was my first experience of the Yukon outdoors. Around Vancouver there is almost always the sense, if not the sounds, of nearby human activity. But here, more than 70% of the population lives in Whitehorse and there’s the suspicion, and probably the reality, that there’s not much beyond the town but wilderness. So it’s quiet and seems even quieter. I heard one jet fly over in the four days I was in the north.

I got up a couple of times after midnight and despite clear skies, there was no aurora.

The third day my new friend drove me and her 12-year-old Greenland dog west along the Alaska Highway to Haines Junction and then south towards Haines, Alaska. Having left behind the treed area of the Yukon, we stopped at one point along a stretch reminiscent of the Scottish moors, although part of the reason for this assessment was that the high mountain peaks were obscured by fog and cloud. We walked for an hour or so into Tatshenshini-Alsek Park, which is actually in the upper northwest notch of British Columbia. This is a landscape barren with low-lying life not apparent until the mosses and lichens and heather are underfoot and you start scrambling through stunted brush. It’s almost ghostly: there are no birds, and no sounds other than the wind—and my guide occasionally calling out “hey-oh” to warn any nearby bears. We never saw one, or any evidence.

In Haines we stayed at the Hotel Halsingland, an historic building with a charming little bar, one of those that seem to encourage camaraderie among strangers. Northerners in both countries are quick to say hello, or at least give a nod, and open to conversation. One of the things that repeatedly surprised me is that by September, much has closed down for the winter. Like the hotel owner, many are off to places like Israel or Florida for the off-season. Many or most seem to be from elsewhere, whether long-time residents, passing through, or running a seasonal business. Maybe there’s a recognition that along with the light, human presence itself is fleeting, and people are not only few but literally far between. Bulletin boards, rather than the web, are the primary means of advertising events and services. There appears to be a community of small communities reminiscent of that of the Pacific islands I saw when in Kauai, gathered together over distance by common remoteness.

The next day was clearer than when we’d arrived, and the coastal mountains were sharp and stunning. We drove up Lutak Inlet towards Chilkoot Lake. This was going to be a good place to see grizzlies, but there were none. The scene of salmon spawn and seagulls in the fall sunlight was beautiful.

We took the ferry to Skagway, and drove up through yet another distinct geographical and botanical landscape, almost a moonscape but again packed with low growth. We tried scrambling down a cliff to, I believe, the Taiya River. It was too steep for the dog, and probably for me; although I mostly managed to keep up with this experienced hiker, we never went very far or very hard. We went back over the highway and had a short walk in a haunting landscape with numerous pools and rocks and stunted trees whose roots were completely out of proportion to their height. I thought about how the whole area would soon be completely snowed in; the highway was bordered on both sides by thousands of white-out markers.

We got back to Whitehorse a bit too late to see the movie we’d planned on, Dawson City: Frozen Time. Instead, we went to a house concert—no, not house music, but an actual performance in someone’s living room. A duo from Winnipeg, whose names I don’t recall, played some beautiful guitar with enjoyable but slightly clichéd country-ish singing and lyrics. Beforehand, I spoke with a couple of people who had given up city life, and had definitely compromised to do so. After four days, I was only just beginning to understand why.

That was my last night.

My host, a long-time resident of the northern Territories, was one of the more fascinating people I’ve met. Senior in government, volunteering much of her time, and spending the rest almost obsessively hiking, camping, and biking, squeezing in every possible outdoor activity before the winter—though she has a fat tire bike ready for that, too—I wondered how much of this lifestyle is common to the area. She has a quiet confidence and expertise in being in the remote wilderness, and on our long drives pointed out numerous places she’s hiked. Yet she’s still considered, or considers herself, a cheechako after some years in Whitehorse. Her friends seem equally occupied with outdoor and other social activities. Counterintuitively, my city friends seem to have more downtime.

I vaguely expected northern lights and bears; instead I think I got a tentative sense of the north and the people who choose to live there. Home in my Gastown apartment, with only rain, barely cooler temperatures, and slightly darker months on the way, I look north now with an awareness and appreciation and a bit of longing. It’s great to be back on my road bike, on pavement. But I hope to go north again.

A request for 2017

There has been much discussion about how 2016 was rough: mostly because we saw Donald Trump elected President of the U.S. People talk about a “post-truth” era, and shake their heads.

And yet, many of these same people, those I know, are posting stuff from charlatans like David Wolfe and Deepak Chopra; anti-GMO memes; and other unsubstantiated or demonstrably false nonsense. I have encountered, just in the past year, someone who works in the fitness industry who believes that the topical application of a cream can cure gastro-intestinal issues; people who read and believe horoscopes; and even a couple who question climate science or where and how our species originated.These people all believe themselves to be liberal, even sometimes radically so. But they are not: their beliefs are deeply conservative, stubbornly and religiously resistant to even the simplest check against current, and often longstanding, knowledge through a bit of reading or even, in many cases, a quick (well-informed) web search. In many or most cases, and I’m tempted to say particularly when it comes to GMOs, the level of knowledge is essentially zero.

This has always concerned me, but in the current climate it worries me even more. I think that if we don’t do the work of finding the truths “we” collectively actually do know—which often takes no more than a few minutes—we are, and I don’t use this word lightly, literally doomed.

I am not saying I’m perfect or an expert in all areas. But that is precisely the point: I am open to new information. I want new information.

I’d like to challenge everyone, and I include myself, to question everything and stop making assumptions this year. It’s more critical than ever.

Nelson Mandela

Many of those expressing grief forget, or ignore, or don’t realize, that Mandela was different in at least one important way from Gandhi, to whom he seems at least this week superficially and inevitably compared. Madiba refused to renounce the use of violence. Good for him. Partly as a result, he was able to achieve what he did, without resorting to violence.

Gandhi, too, has been misrepresented and misunderstood. Reading the excellent Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, I realized for the first time the mixed results he achieved: among many other things, he failed at what was arguably his most important mission, keeping India united.

My father now regards Mandela as one of his heroes. And yet, I recall my dad telling me while Mandela was still at Robben Island that he would have taken the same action that the white South African government had, as Mandela had threatened them. And we have a Canadian MP who called Mandela a “terrorist,” and apparently still considers him as such.

It’s quite easy with hindsight, when so much has been achieved, to join the throngs of praise and believe that we were all and always on the side of justice. But the really important thing is to recognize when change has not yet occurred, and to have the courage to back those who are sacrificing for it in advance. Who deserves our attention and support right now?

Marijuana tickets and peculiar Canadians

What a peculiar bunch of people we have in power here in Canada.

Peter MacKay says the government is “protecting families” from marijuana. What does he mean by this, exactly? Are stoned hordes gathering on the suburban streets to bash down white picket fences? Are “families” some sort of incubator of pretend 1950s-type, perfectly behaved (read: boring) people? Does he have a clue that there are “more one-person households (3,673,305) than couple households with children (3,524,915)” in this country (Stats Canada)? Does this mean that he thinks the majority of Canadians are weed-smoking violent criminals from whom the rest need protection? Or that the majority of households don’t need “protection” from the rampaging stoners?

Then Jim Chu, Vancouver Police Chief and the President of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, claims he had “not seen” the stories on Justin Trudeau’s “admission” (big fucking deal) of pot use. What planet is he living on? Does he read the news?

And what’s with The Globe and Mail? They report this shit with a straight face. No questions asked, apparently.

Tongli Rocks, the best desktop picture ever

I’m particular about the appearance of my computer, and a good desktop picture (also known as “wallpaper”) is essential not only for aesthetics, but for contrast and readability. Over the years I’ve searched a fair bit for pictures that fit my criteria. I think a good image must:

  • be generally dark in tone, no only to aid in readability of the textual labels of  desktop items, but also to provide contrast and framing for application windows;
  • look good at the edges, which is usually all I can see of the picture;
  • be beautiful in and of itself.

I’ve made a number of my own over the years; NASA’s high resolution pictures of Mars and Saturn in particular can make great desktop pictures. But there is one image that, in my opinion, tops them all. It is called Tongli Rocks. Here it is:


The description says simply, “A completely unedited photo taken of rocks in a garden in Tongli, China.”

I believe I first found this image at InterfaceLIFT, which at the time was called Xicons. I keep coming back to it. Unfortunately, its useful life is about to come to an end, at least for me: this year I expect to replace my display, which is 1920×1200, with something quite a bit larger. 1920x1200is the highest resolution of this image I’ve been able to find.

InterfaceLIFT lists “Amaus Design,” as the creator of the picture, and links to amausdesign.com, which no longer exists. Looking at archive.org, there’s a copy of amausdesign.com from September 16, 2008 and it’s apparent from the few pages in the archive that the owner of the site was a David Ward in Melbourne. I’ve done a couple of quick searches but have not been able to find a Mr. Ward who is obviously the right person.

So my search resumes. Perhaps one day I’ll travel to Tongli and try to find the gardens. More likely I’ll go out to the Nitobe (Japanese) Garden at UBC and see if I can get a similar effect.

Oregon July 2013

Back from a week driving mostly through Oregon; I’ve long put off exploring Highway 101 and visiting Portland. I really love our part of the world and believe it’s unfairly dismissed; I would honestly rather be on our cool, wet coast than sweating it out in the tropics.

After a two-hour border wait, left I5 and drove Route 12 to the coast. Bypassed Aberdeen via Route 107, a quiet wooded drive that reaches 101 which eventually hits the coast. It was a muted foggy evening and crossing the Columbia was beautiful in early twilight. Eventually got to Cannon Beach—longest drive of the trip, even excluding the border boredom. It was dark but the outline of Haystack Rock was visible and the rush of ocean a welcome sound.

Next day started overcast but beautiful.


The sky cleared and I rode Waffle, a gentle old Belgian (get it? <groan>) from Sea Ranch Stables, north on the beach.


After some sleuthing, found Newmans at 988, a well-hidden contrast to the greasy spoons on the main drag (the shops were nice, though; Cannon Beach is what Sechelt could have been rather than a crass big-box centre, sigh). Besides great service—sat outside and had wine and bread forty-five minutes before opening—they prepared a great vegan meal for me. Excellent food, and a nice little room.

In the evening, rented a tricycle and cycled many miles south on the beach. It was magical: a beautiful evening, birds, sand, waves, and a few people, including a photographer and his dog taking pictures of gulls circling over their sea stack.





It’s difficult to convey how beautiful this place is; the photos only jog the memory. It’s worth the trip.

On to Newport the next day, with some beautiful sights along the coast.



Newport was a nice little town; not as beautiful as Cannon Beach, but the dunes at the beach were something I’d never seen before.


Drove down the coast a bit further the next day to Devils Churn and Thor’s Well at Cape Perpetua. (It’s interesting, isn’t it, how in such an insanely religious country the most beautiful natural features are named after “the devil” while destructive forces such as hurricanes are “acts of ‘god'”.) Actually got right up close to this fascinating feature—a little nerve-wracking as the tide was coming in, but worth the risk.


Left the coast and drove the quiet and beautiful Route 20 and up through Willamette Valley wine country—unfortunately a little too late in the day for many tastings, but Firesteed kindly re-opened and I bought some nice Pinot Noir and a good Riesling from them.

On to Portland and the Ace Hotel. This is hands down the coolest place I’ve ever stayed. Amazing atmosphere, inventive hip old-timey décor, and good service.



Reading The Dog Stars, a great book, in 207, a “standard back room“:


Visited the Portland Japanese Garden, which was lovely. I love Japanese Maples.



Bought some wine at Vinopolis: all Pinot Noir, all Willamette Valley, recommended by the helpful staff:

See my CellarTracker account, where I’ll post tasting notes as I work through these.

Second great meal of the trip was at Portobello Vegan Trattoria. I had Beet Tartare (roasted beets, carrot aioli, and capers with cashew cheese and baguette) and Portobello Roast (portobello roast, creamed kale, polenta, sundries tomato jam, roasted garlic cashew cream), accompanied by 2009 Cana’s Feast Pinot Noir. Lemon-Thyme Cheesecake for dessert (pistachio crust, lemon thyme cashew-coconut cheesecake, raspberry coulis). An excellent dinner.

But Powell’s Books was the highlight of this visit. I posted to Facebook, “There are approximately a trillion books here. All interesting. I am never leaving.” The place really requires days to appreciate. Bought a few: Dave Eggers’s A Hologram for the King; Chuck Klosterman’s I Wear the Black Hat; David Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (I guess I’m in a comic mood); and How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti, which I’d not heard of but looks interesting.

That was pretty much it: spent a night in Seattle on the way home, and ate—twice!—at Plum Bistro, my favourite. Vegan grilled peach pancakes, yum!


And of course an obligatory trip to The Elliott Bay Book Company, which while not nearly as massive as Powell’s is certainly no less inspiring. I picked up Neal Stephenson’s Some Remarks on sale.

The only sour note of the trip was upon returning: the !@#$ Canadian Border Services Agency levied a “provincial liquor mark-up fee” and other miscellaneous bullshit charges which amounted to over 88% (!!!) of the value of seven of the nine bottles I brought back—they allowed me to claim the two most expensive. I knew I’d pay something, but this is ridiculous. I am even more steamed now about the antiquated, Prohibition-era alcohol policies in BC, that results in our having probably the most expensive wine prices anywhere. A couple of years ago I wrote Jenny Kwan, my MLA, about the issue and received a non-answer. I generally agree with the NDP, but I expect the BC “Liberals” will be more likely to show progress here. I’ll write the Minister of Justice, who appears to be responsible for the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch. I am left-leaning, and I really don’t mind paying taxes, but I feel that drinkers, and wine enthusiasts in particular, are being penalized for reasons I can’t fathom—probably history and inertia. See Free the Wine in BC for some good information.

At any rate, it was a great trip. I really was able to leave work behind completely for the first time in probably a year. Now, with Monday morning looming, I have to try to remember what it is I do for a living.

A thousand days

I’ve been on my own for a thousand days, following a bit more than twenty-two years of marriage—and I don’t want to calculate how many days that was. It feels good: every day a bit further from a long shadow.

But I’m not sure one can ever completely escape it. I’m no longer in my twenties. I’m not certain any more that a full-time, long-term relationship is a desirable or even a natural thing—see for instance Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. And starting something now feels different; looking at dating site profiles I sense the scent of real desperation. But I’m not desperate, despite occasional loneliness and except in the sense that Leonard Cohen lamented regarding a time of life still distant to me: ‘one just wishes for someone to have dinner with now and then’ (I couldn’t find the original quote).

It’s mostly the possibility of a life of interminable financial servitude to my ex that supplies some sense of regret—not for the divorce but for the whole sorry story in the first place—and I think I must know a little of how the convict feels. The only advice I can offer here is: be damned sure; check the laws of your province/state and country, as in certain situations they certainly do not favour men; and consider pre-nuptials.

Here’s a (large) sparkline of my weight since my separation: hey, why not? Another data point.

F. Scott Fitzgerald apparently wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives.” I have no idea what book that might have been from, because I haven’t read him. In fact I first encountered the quote in a review of a Springsteen album when I was young, said album—The River (1980)—being devoted to identifying and exploring said second acts. Anyway, I’m Canadian. But I think the matter is undecided. Working with more limited financial and temporal resources, it’s not entirely down to will.

Shall I wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach? The fuck if I know. But it’s good to live near the ocean.

UK/London July 2012

I arrived at Gatwick the morning of Sunday, July 8; it was pouring rain and Britain was suffering from flooding in the midst of a hose pipe ban. It had been seventeen years since I’d left the country, after completing my MSc degree at De Montfort University in 1995; my daughter Karina, who was now living in the UK, had been not quite seven years old when we left. So much was familiar to me from my time there; as the houses and fields near the airport finally appeared as we emerged from the low cloud, there was a real sense of return.

I made my best efforts to stay awake after the “overnight” flight during which the sun lowered and rose again, around Greenland and Iceland, without the sky darkening. But I slept through the afternoon.

The first real highlight of the trip was a trip to Glasgow for Karina’s immigration appointment. It was great to see the British countryside, which is pretty much exactly mirrors its romantic reputation. And there are windmill farms all over Scotland (I even saw some on my flight home). Can’t say I was much impressed by Virgin Trains, though.

Downtown Glasgow didn’t have a lot to recommend it, though I had a good visit to the Gallery of Modern Art while Karina was at her appointment. After a couple of days back in Camberley, I travelled to London and spent five nights at the Abbey Court Notting Hill, which was great both in terms of location and quality.

During my time studying (in Leicester) in the ’90s I hadn’t had any real time in London, so this was a chance to immerse myself in one of the world’s great cities. Upon my arrival the first night, Sunday, I caught the tail end of the Portobello Market and was tempted to sleep afterwards, but zipped down to the Thames on the tube and walked the South Bank. I tend to be a bit overwhelmed by travel: seeing the world, and especially historic sites, is an emotional experience. It was a beautiful night and walking by the Houses of Parliament, all the historic buildings, St. Peter’s, the Tate Modern, and even the London Eye really was incredible.

There were some acrobats crawling the spokes of the London Eye. The city was, of course, on the eve of the 2012 Summer Olympics, and the sense of anticipation and a bit of dread was obvious, and exciting.

Monday I walked through a lovely drizzle in Hyde Park and attended the British Design 1948-2012 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This was notable mostly, for me at least, for the pop art/rock and roll-related fashion and design. Later I met Karina at the Tate Modern, which was really stunning. Damien Hirst was interesting, if a little mixed in quality; Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye was great, as were the more permanent exhibits. As always, one wishes that there was more time in the day.

I’d done a Google search for vegan and vegetarian restaurants in London, and for our dinner Monday night chose Vanilla Black, which turned out to be Michelin-recommended and one of the best restaurants at which I’ve ever eaten—the price was reasonable, as well.

Tuesday we went to Camden Market. There had apparently been a couple of Banksy works along the canal but they were, unfortunately, gone. The Market was fun—and large; later we went to the Natural History Museum. This was probably the only disappointment I found in the city: it is really geared towards children and there was nothing new, and certainly no in-depth information, to be found. I’m always interested in the vast number of extinct prehistoric mammals, but even that was treated cursorily. Likewise, the “cocoon” was architecturally impressive but the exhibits shallow. I wanted to get into the back rooms and look at the real works and research.

After dinner Karina returned to Camberley. On Wednesday I made my pilgrimage to the British Museum. This was the highlight of my trip. I read last year The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, by Toby Wilkinson, so headed directly for the Ancient Egypt section. Standing under the colossal bust of Ramesses II, I admit to becoming teary-eyed: here is history. Knowing a bit of the story helps. “I met a traveller from an antique land …” as Shelley famously wrote.

The Museum is almost as huge and overwhelming as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Among the other highlights for me were Picasso’s Vollard Suite and Asian Art. Not to mention the architecture, particularly the Rotunda. Just stunning overall.

There was even a Haida front pole—a bit of home away from home. I didn’t have nearly enough time at the Museum, and as in New York I could spend years of weekends there.

I paid a brief visit to the Vision Critical office, and went for dinner at Mildred’s Vegetarian Restaurant in Soho—cool area, and good food.

Thursday I got up and went to the main branch of Foyles, a great book shop which I’d visited along the Thames a few days before. How I wish Vancouver had something half as good. Chapters is awful, just awful! On to St. Paul’s where I climbed several hundred steps up into Christopher Wren‘s marvel.

My last major event was another highlight: Karina met me at Shakespeare’s Globe, and after we had a nice lunch at Tas Pide we saw a great and hilarious production of “The Taming of the Shrew.” To see Shakespeare here, within a recreation of the original theatre not far from its original site, and all of it such a wellspring of our culture, was another emotional moment. In London, we are the indigenous peoples. This is where and from what so much of who we are, our culture and language, originated.


Ignorance of the Right

Reading idly through the Globe and Mail, I encountered this from (ultra right-wingnut) Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s Deputy Mayor: “My advice to the taxpayer would be: Don’t send us any more activists, don’t send us any more unionists. Don’t send us any more cyclists, send us some people down here with good common sense who just want to manage the city’s affairs” (Ford loses key vote that puts his contracting-out agenda in peril, April 10 2011).

The ignorance here is stunning, and a great example of either brain-dead thinking or attempted manipulation. This guy, one Doug Holyday, seems to believe that the vast majority of “taxpayers” are just like him, but for some reason frustratingly keep selecting those darned nutty activists, unionists, and—gasp—cyclists (who, by implication, aren’t taxpayers)—to “send” to city hall to make his life miserable. Maybe they’re doing it as a prank!

Of course, a pretty central concept this guy doesn’t seem to understand is that we elect people who actually represent us in government. Another is that he’s actually one of them, and he was “sent” there as well; he and his band of conservative compatriots doesn’t “own” government. He seems to assume that his position is safe and he’s just waiting for the voter-idiots to wake up and populate the rest of government with people just like him.

“Common sense” is one of the most overlooked and dangerous phrases in politics, and I’ve seen it invoked increasingly frequently (unsuccessful Vancouver mayoral candidate Susan Anton used it in her campaign last fall). “Common sense” is essentially carte blanche: nothing these people want to do needs justification or data; it’s—obviously—just so. Well, it’s just common sense that the world is flat, isn’t it?

I’d really like to know whether these anti-science, anti-evidence, and ultimately anti-people politicians are unhappy, uneducated, or just think they can fool the rest of us.

Dirty Laundry 2011 Riesling

Clear, very very pale gold in the glass. Clean, medium-plus intensity citrus, particularly grapefruit, and a hint of pear. Just off-dry, high acidity and light body. More green fruit on the palate with crisp apple and pear, along with lemon and minerals. Hints of residual sugar come through in subtle stone fruit through a medium-length finish. 12.3% alcohol. Overall good; recommended, particularly at the price: $21.50 (at Crosstown). See also my notes on the 2010, and the winemaker’s notes.

Dirty Laundry 2011 Riesling