A Tale of Two Ski Towns

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There’s probably no other book in history that has inspired as many lazy headlines as Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. A quick Google search reveals the 19th century classic has been riffed on for tales comparing  everything from airlines and auto shops to zombies and zoos. But, given that the two cities in question were London and Paris, it still seems somehow apropos to use it when comparing the best ski town in Canada with the best in Quebec, a province where après ski is taken literally and “vert” is the colour for beginner runs rather than shorthand for vertical drop.

While Whistler Blackcomb is routinely rated as one of the best resorts in the world, over in La Belle Province, the top spot is — with apologies to Mont-Sainte-Anne and Le Massif — generally considered to be Mont Tremblant.

Located in the Laurentian Mountains an hour-and -a-half drive north of Montreal past several smaller ski hills, it has been voted the best ski resort in Eastern North America by the readers of Ski Magazine for 18 out of the past 19 years in a veritable epitome of the French expression “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Other recent accolades include being named one of the top 10 family-friendly ski hills in North America by Condé Nast Traveler and one of the top 25 overall globally by National Geographic.

Nearly a century after Dickens wrote his tale set during the French Revolution, the title of a different novel came to define the relationship between the English and French here in Canada. Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes became an instant symbol of the longstanding divide between Anglos and Francos when it was published in 1945.

Before heading east for a visit, I decided to reach out to someone who not only has extensive experience riding at both resorts but also happens to be a bit of an authority on the Canadian identity.

In his recent autobiography, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau describes learning to ski with his family at Tremblant before, as a teenager, crossing the floor to snowboarding after watching the James Bond film A View To A Kill, in which 007 (actually stunt double Tom Sims) wrenches a ski from an incapacitated snowmobile and proceeds to use it as a makeshift snowboard to elude machine-gun-wielding bad guys.

 

Trudeau eventually went on to teach snowboarding at Whistler in his 20s before returning home and following his father’s footsteps into politics. Unfortunately, he was unable to find the time for a quick phone interview or reply to emailed questions about his time spent at either resort. He’s probably a busy guy, but it means we may never know the answers to such important questions as, for example, if fond memories of shredding pow in Whistler’s out-of-bounds Khyber Pass area played a part in his decision to choose a Montreal restaurant with the same name for a first date with eventual wife Sophie Grégoire.

But in any case, it’s not as if the new PM has left enough of a mark at either place to earn a trail named in his honour. Unlike his famous papa.

After an infamous episode in Parliament in the early `70s when former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau allegedly mouthed the words “fuck off” to a political opponent and later claimed he instead said “fuddle duddle,” Tremblant’s owners renamed a run for the gaffe. Fuddle Duddle, located halfway down the north side of the hill near the top of the Expo Chair, is an intermediate blue run rather than one of the black diamonds that make up half of 95 overall trails, which seems fitting given the language in question was likely blue as well.

“Quebeckers thought it was pretty funny and, since Monsieur Trudeau was a fairly regular visitor to the mountain back in those days, the people in charge must have thought it was a great idea,” says André LaChapelle, a semi-retired computer technician who has skied at Tremblant for nearly half a century. “I’m sure he got a bit of a kick out of it every time he skied down it.”

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André LaChapelle has skied with three different prime ministers at Tremblant. Photo: Alan Wechsler

He says he has seen a lot a famous faces at the mountain over the years, including fellow PMs Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien, and that locals take a certain pride in leaving them alone.

“People all look pretty much the same when they are all wearing helmets and goggles and all their other gear, but nobody here wants to make a fuss anyway. There’s no paparazzi or anything like that. We see Michael Douglas, who owns a house nearby, and his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) up here it seems like every other weekend and he just skis around like everyone else.”

While celebrities are also a frequent sight around Whistler and a few such as Seal, Sarah McLachlan and the guy with the tongue from Kiss have even bought homes in the area, this is still a fairly recent phenomenon. In Tremblant, being a vacation milieu for the rich and famous goes back several generations. Members of the Kennedy clan were frequent visitors and movie star Henry Fonda is said to have had at least one of his five honeymoons in town. Tremblant was also the setting for a popular novel in the `60s called Chateau Bon Vivant about an American couple who unexpectedly inherit a hotel. The somewhat saucy book was later sanitized, anglicized and turned into a Disney movie called Snowball Express, which inadvertently foreshadowed the French-Canadian community’s own eventual Disneyfication after being transformed from a sleepy ski town into a bustling four-season resort.

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FIRST TRACKS

The first settlers to the area were members of the Algonquin First Nation, who sought refuge along the shores of Lac Tremblant from the war-like Iroquois. They were the first to form alliances with early French settlers and who gave the mountain its name. Mont Tremblant, or “Trembling Mountain,” comes from the Algonquin “Manitou-Ewitchi-Saga,” meaning the Mountain of the Dreaded Manitou, a supreme being who, when displeased by human behaviour, would cause the mountain to tremble with storms and falling boulders.

Coincidentally, trembling is also how inadequately dressed skiers and snowboarders will find themselves on terrain that regularly sees temperatures of minus 20 Celsius. Before the wind chill factor.

The first people credited with climbing the hill were three Americans: an expat businessman named Henry Wheeler, a millionaire entrepreneur named Joe Ryan and a journalist named Lowell Thomas, who is best remembered today for introducing the world to Lawrence of Arabia. In February of 1938, they were all staying at Gray Rocks, a small ski resort on nearby Lac Ouimet owned by Wheeler’s brother, and got to talking one night about how much they’d like to climb the much bigger hill on the horizon. The following day, they hopped into Ryan’s plane, flew over to Lac Tremblant and slapped sealskins on their skis before heading in waist-deep snow up a route that is now known as the Flying Mile.

Thomas described the day in the introduction to the 1954 book The Mont Tremblant Story.

“After a couple of hours we reached the summit, and found ourselves in a dazzling fairyland of rime ice and pine trees laden with snow,” Lowell wrote. “Joe Ryan, who had the soul of an Irish poet, was particularly impressed. Joe said, ‘In the years that I’ve spent roaming the world, I believe this is my most thrilling sight. But there is one thing wrong with the mountain. It’s too difficult to get up here. And I think I’ll fix that.'”

Ryan put his money where his mouth was, convincing the federal government to sell him the land surrounding the mountain and staking most of his fortune on following his dream. Exactly one year after Ryan first reached the summit, Mont Tremblant Lodge opened its doors to skiers with a 1,370-metre chairlift rising from the Versant Sud, or the south side of the mountain, with a total of eight runs.

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Snow enthusiasts from big cities such as New York, Toronto, Chicago and Washington soon flocked to the town, mostly arriving via the P’tit Train du Nord, a milk run rail service from Montreal. Tremblant later became the first resort in North America to offer lifts on two sides of a mountain after another was added in 1946, and savvy skiers – and now snowboarders – follow the sunshine by beginning the day on the Versant Nord and making their last laps on either the Versant Sud or Versant Soleil.

(Although Ryan was an accomplished man of action, his sense of direction left something to be desired. The so-called south side of the mountain is actually its western flank while the north side mostly faces east.)

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For many years the ski scene was literally nonpareil, but by the late 1980s, Tremblant was going downhill in a bad way. Aging lifts and grooming machinery were badly in need of upgrading and snowmaking equipment was in short supply. Intrawest Resorts Holding, Inc. at the time also the owners of Blackcomb Mountain (and later Whistler Mountain), took a chance on the fledgling resort and forked over $26 million to owner Louis Laporte for it. The man they sent out to oversee the hill’s renaissance was a 41-year old Whistler lifer named Roger McCarthy.

THE MCCARTHY ERA

“It was bankrupt when we bought it and the deal closed Sept. 1 of ’91 and it was rough trying to get things ready in time,” says McCarthy. “The vehicles’ tires were all down to the canvas, rodents and insects had taken over all the buildings, and there was no electricity because the power had been shut off. It was a scramble and that first winter was spent really evaluating ‘what do we have’ and ‘let’s put together a plan.'”

Tremblant’s new general manager also had to substantially upgrade his rusty high-school French. “It was terrible,” says McCarthy. “I had a French woman come and sit in my office two days a week. This, at a time where we were busy ripping buildings down and adding new ones and people are hammering on the door looking for me and I have to say, ‘sorry, I’m getting my French lessons!’ My first speech to the employees, I had my assistant put it all on a piece of paper and double-space it and I wrote out phonetically underneath what the words were.”

Intrawest eventually pumped roughly a quarter of a billion dollars into the facility and added five high-speed quad chairlifts, several new routes including a gladed area called the Edge, a much-needed terrain park, and an extensive snowmaking system to help offset the region’s icy conditions, as well as a couple of golf courses, a high-speed cabriolet in the village, a 1,000-seat restaurant at the summit and an indoor water park.

McCarthy says he takes particular pride in the look of the new village itself, a faux-European, pedestrian-only town packed with colourful, multi-storey buildings overlooking cobblestone streets. It looks a bit like a steeper version of Whistler Village, which isn’t surprising given that both were designed by landscape architect Eldon Beck.

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Image courtesy of Mont Tremblant

They also moved some of the older buildings of the original base village — including the massive Chalet des Voyageurs lodge — downhill to create what is now called Vieux Tremblant to preserve some of the town’s heritage.

“I sort of felt like I was making an adjustment to a Stradivarius. We had the utmost respect for what was and wanted to maintain as much of that as we could. We really tried to put our arms around it and keep as much as we could because the history of skiing back there is so well-documented and preserved, unlike in Whistler.”

DENOUMENT

While Whistler and Tremblant share the same raison d’être as outdoorsy tourist traps, in many ways they remain quite distinct. Scale is an obvious one.

Pierre Bessette, a dapper, grey-haired gentleman who works as a liaison for Tourism Laurentians, says he only realized how much bigger Whistler really is after visiting on business.

“I’m there to try and convince people to come to mini-Whistler when they are already in Whistler,” he says with a chuckle. “But on the other hand there are many things that we have here that you won’t find in other places. We have things like a casino, a (Formula One) race track, an airport with direct flights to big cities and cross-country ski trails that are part of a national park.”

There are also no huge lineups at the gas pumps or gridlock as visitors drive back home after a day on the slopes. Or avalanche danger when off-piste. Or a Starbucks, at least for now. And way more options for poutine.

But the biggest difference when it comes to Quebec will always be the language. Resort workers are now mostly bilingual, although attracting English-speaking tourists is always a delicate matter in a province where the infamous Office Québécois de la Langue Française, commonly known as the Language Police, is ever vigilant when it comes to finding perceived abuses against Bill 101, which insists English words on signs or ads have to be less prominent than French ones.

Bessette instinctively lowered his voice when asked if this was a problem for attracting American tourists who could just as easily spend their money at nearby New England resorts such as Stowe, Killington or Jay Peak.

“They kind of leave us alone here because they see the value of tourism but it is still a sensitive subject,” says Bessette. “It is much better now than it used to be. To give you an example, back in the `80s I was about to give an interview with a TV station in Boston and the minister of tourism at the time called and insisted that I only answer questions in French. I tried to explain to her that they don’t speak French in Boston but she didn’t care. It did not go well.”

Many local businesses have adopted a laissez-faire attitude, including a nightclub venue with a sign near the dance floor stating, “No Men, No Drink in the Cage” followed by a simple “merci” in blatant disregard of provincial language laws.

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Although it’s equally possible that French guys simply don’t need to be told that go-go dancing is a faux-pas.

But the exoticness of French is also a big part of the attraction for many people. Tom and Emma Grant, a 30-something couple from England I spoke with while riding the gondola, were making their second visit to the resort in five years.

“It really feels like skiing in a foreign country, which obviously it is, but more so because of the French thing,” says Emma. “It’s a bit like visiting the Alps, only people here are much friendlier and our money goes a lot further. Plus it’s a lot closer to home for us than the Rockies.”

I mentioned the title I had in mind for this article since they hailed from Dickens’ homeland, and Tom pointed out that the book’s famous opening line could easily apply to ski trips.

“The ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ pretty much sums it up,” he says. “It usually is the best of times until you hit a tree or break a leg or something like that and then suddenly it’s the worst of times.”

It goes without saying that most people head off to the hills with great expectations of having the former.

(© Copyright (c) Pique Newsmagazine)

 

 

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Globe put Vancouver on the map

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Vancouver is known around the world for its outrageous real estate prices and equally ridiculous liquor laws, so it seems somehow fitting that Canada’s third-largest city first began after a squatter decided to open an unlicensed saloon in the middle of nowhere.

Apart from the First Nations village of Xwayxway in what is now Stanley Park, the downtown peninsula was still virtually uninhabited in pre-Confederation days, save for a handful of shack-dwelling workers at Stamp’s Mill, a sawmill on the southern shore of Burrard Inlet that first opened in June 1867.

This changed soon after the arrival three months later of a chubby Yorkshireman by the name of John “Gassy Jack” Deighton, who showed up unexpectedly one day in a dugout canoe that also contained his aboriginal wife, mother-in-law, a couple of chickens, a dog and, most importantly, a giant cask of whiskey.

Deighton, like most new arrivals to the Pacific Northwest, was originally drawn here because there was gold in them there hills. When prospecting didn’t pan out as hoped, he became a riverboat captain on the Fraser and later the owner of the Globe Saloon in New Westminster, which was then the fast-growing colony of British Columbia’s capital city.

Deighton suffered from an undiagnosed health problem that caused painful swelling in his legs, and the story goes that he made the unwise decision of leaving the Globe in the care of a friend while he travelled to Harrison Hot Springs in search of a cure. Upon his return, he found most of his stock had been given away for free and opted to flee town in order to avoid creditors.

Starting fresh next to a sawmill – where workers were unable to procure an adult beverage – seemed as good a bet as any, and it didn’t hurt that there was yet another dry mill town, Moodyville, conveniently located just across the water.

After pulling ashore, Deighton announced he’d give free whiskey to anyone who would build him a new joint, and 24 hours later a ramshackle Globe Saloon version 2.0 opened its doors for thirsty customers near what is today Maple Tree Square.

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The rest is history. Easy access to alcohol at the Globe soon attracted a rough and ready crowd from around the globe, many of them runaway sailors or criminals escaping the law. It wasn’t a pretty place – reeking of animal dung and skunk cabbage, and with streets ankle-deep in mud and spilled blood – but it eventually attracted a growing community known as “Gastown” in its colourful founder’s honour.

(It’s worth pointing out that Gassy Jack earned his nickname for his talkative and boastful nature rather than for gastro-intestinal reasons. Based on historical accounts, he comes across as a mix of Shakespeare’s Falstaff and a less murderous version of Al Swearengen, the owner of the Gem Saloon immortalized by Ian McShane in the HBO series Deadwood.)

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The makeshift town eventually drew the government’s attention, and on March 1, 1870, Gastown was officially incorporated as the town of Granville, itself named in honour of a colonial secretary rather than a boozy gasbag. Gassy Jack purchased a plot of land on the corner of Carrall and Water Streets and built a two-storey hotel he called Deighton House, where he died four years later at the age of 44.

It’s unlikely Gassy Jack ever sold beer in either of his establishments given that he passed away shortly before breweries such as Columbia Brewery on nearby Powell Street, Cedar Cottage Brewery at Knight and Kingsway, and the Stanley Park Brewery first opened their doors.

But if ever there was an historic local figure worthy of having a new craft beer named in his honour, ideally whiskey-flavoured, surely it’s Gassy Jack Deighton.

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Unlike Gas Town in the Mad Max films, there is nowhere to buy gas in Vancouver’s Gastown.

Journey into darkness on Vancouver Island

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When deep inside a cave and about to rappel further into darkness down a waterfall, it was a bit disconcerting to discover that the drop is known as “Fleming’s Folly.” Particularly since my last name happens to be Fleming.

My tour guide, an affable 34-year-old Yorkshireman named Paul Blood, said he wasn’t sure how the five-metre cliff earned the name but assured me it probably had something to do with a fellow Fleming who simply fell into the shallow pool of water down at the bottom rather than any kind of fatal folly. I had to take his word for it, much as I had to for every other step (and occasional crawl) of the way as he led me and two other inexperienced cavers 20-storeys below the surface of the earth as part of the five-hour Extreme Rappel tour of the Riverbend Cave offered at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park.

The park is located a short drive from Qualicum Beach, a small oceanfront town known for being a popular Vancouver Island summer destination. There are plenty of ways to escape the heat for visitors but few as guaranteed as exploring a cave where the average temperature is around eight degrees Celsius.

Vancouver Island has a whole lot of holes in the ground, more than anywhere else in North America with more than 1,000, which are the result of a unique combination of the heavy rainfall, dense vegetation and mountainous landscape on limestone rock made from the compressed skeletons of marine creatures more than 300 million years old.

There are three requirements to be considered a cave, according to Blood. “The first thing, it needs to be naturally formed as opposed to something man-made like a mine,” he explained. “It also requires the complete absence of natural light and be pitch black inside 24 hours a day. Last but not least, it needs to be big enough to fit a person inside of it. If you throw a baby on a string in a hole, you can’t call it a cave. It’s called a crime.”

Caves have offered shelter to humans since the dawn of time but speleology — the study and exploration of subterranean passages as both a recreational and scientific pursuit — is relatively new. Frenchman Edouard-Alfred Martel, known as the “father of modern speleology,” pioneered the multi-disciplinary pursuit of all things underground in the late 19th century, combining chemistry, biology, geology and cartography. After the First World War, interest in “spelunking” or “potholing” exploded in popularity across Europe and it was from there that the activity gradually spread.

The local First Nations tribe, the Nuu-chah-nulth, surely knew about the network of caves but little is known about how or if they used them in any capacity. From the time of early contact with European explorers, an estimated 90 per cent of the Nuu-chah-nulth died from malaria and smallpox. Many were also reportedly killed in raids by neighbouring tribes. Adam Horne, the Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor who the park is named after, was the first Westerner to cross the middle of Vancouver Island, and he was greeted upon his arrival at the Strait of Georgia by the grisly sight of a village massacre by Haida warriors.

The Main and Lower Main caves were first reported by a visiting geologist in 1912, and the larger Riverbend Cave was discovered in 1941. They soon became a popular tourist attraction and many of the fragile stalactites, stalagmites and other glistening calcite formations known as soda straws, bacon strips, flowstones and cave coral were damaged or removed as souvenirs.

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The cave system was granted protected status in 1971 and, fortunately, most of the damage was confined to near the openings. Most of the Riverbend Cave, for example, wasn’t even discovered until 1969 after an intrepid caver named Stephanie McLeod decided there might be more beyond the shallow pool of water that was considered the cave’s end. Like the crew of a popular new television show at the time, she decided to boldly go where no man had gone before.

“She stripped down, tied a rope around her leg and began digging,” said Blood. “Unfortunately, the rope wasn’t long enough so she simply untied it and kept going, which no doubt scared the heck out of the group she was with when there stopped being resistance on the line. But she made it through to the other side.”

The pool is now drained by an installed sump pump, which allows cavers to crawl on their bellies through the narrow passage — not an experience for the claustrophobic — and onto a far more extensive system of caverns, which require rappelling down a seven-storey cliff and back up a metal ladder suspended from the ceiling.

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Blood said the first section of the Riverbend Cave receives around 10,000 visitors a year but only 400 or so follow McLeod’s footsteps (so to speak) to see the rest of it. The Horne Lake Outdoor Centre offers tours for all ages and fitness levels, but if you don’t have a fear of heights, the dark and/or confined spaces, this trip is literally a hidden gem.

(© Copyright (c) Vancouver Courier)

A tale of old Yale

Despite a distant shared history, Yaletown and the town of Yale don’t have much in common these days. There are no posh yoga studios, pet accessory boutiques, organic grocery stores or places to buy a caramel macchiato in Yale, an unincorporated town of roughly 200 people a two-hour drive east from Vancouver. There’s not even a pub or restaurant to catch a Canucks game on a Saturday night, as my wife and I found out on a recent visit.

“There used to be a restaurant across the street but they closed up one day and put up a sign saying ‘See you in the Spring,’” said a woman working behind the counter at Barry’s Trading Post, which serves as the town’s post office, liquor store, convenience store and de facto downtown. “That was a few years ago though, so I’m not sure what specific spring they had in mind.”

Barry’s Trading Post is the busiest place in Yale.
Barry’s Trading Post is the busiest place in Yale.

This sleepy Fraser Canyon town on the Trans-Canada Highway once had more people living there than modern day Yaletown and was known as the largest city north of San Francisco and west of Chicago, with a population of more than 15,000 people, most of whom arrived shortly after gold was discovered on a nearby gravel bar in 1858. A Hudson’s Bay Company manager by the name of Ovid Allard originally named the place Fort Yale after his boss, James Murray Yale. It later became the divisional headquarters for the Canadian Pacific Railway, which relocated to Vancouver when the line was completed and former residents built a new home they called Yaletown in its honour.

The first European to lay eyes on the surrounding area was explorer Simon Fraser, who took a much needed rest there after finding out the hard way First Nations weren’t kidding about the rapids on the river that now bears his name being impossible to navigate by canoe. “A place where no human being should venture, for surely we have encountered the gate of hell,” Fraser wrote in 1808 about the waters north of Yale, which he was forced to painstakingly portage around.

One person’s hell, however, is another’s idea of heaven. Take Darwin and Sue Baerg, two former Coquitlam residents who fell in love with the area and have taken people down those same rapids and other nearby rivers for more than 20 years with their family business, Fraser River Raft Expeditions.

“We feel very fortunate to have so many incredible rivers right here in our backyard and we are busy pretty much all summer long and a good chunk of the spring and fall,” said Sue.

The Fraser is one of only two rivers in the world people run commercially with giant J-rig motorized rafts, although the Baergs don’t risk running “Hell’s Gate” rapids during the spring run-off.

Inflatable J-rig rafts are far better suited to running the rapids of the Fraser than birchbark canoes.
Inflatable J-rig rafts are far better suited to running the rapids of the Fraser than birchbark canoes.

“The bigger boats are pretty forgiving but you can get yourself into some carnage pretty quick because there is some big water on the Fraser,” said their son Will, who has followed in his parents’ footsteps to become a river guide. “Boats have flipped in there before, although none of ours ever have.”

Teague House.
Teague House.

The family also operates a unique bed and breakfast in a restored 19th century home full of antiques and period furniture called the Teague House, named for a pioneer family that lived there for generations. Sue promises it is “only a bit haunted and the spiritually aware folks who stay say the ghosts are curious but friendly.” We didn’t see any ghosts during our own stay in the lovingly restored building and, although we were awakened a few times in the night by loud shrieking and the walls shaking, we are fairly certain it was from a passing CPR train rather than poltergeists.

Visitors who want to have a less up close and personal experience with Hell’s Gate also have the option of taking a gondola ride over the rapids, which sees an average of 7.5 million litres of water — twice the volume of Niagara Falls — rush through the narrow gorge during the spring freshet. The roadside attraction, open April 26 to Oct. 14, also offers educational displays about the Fraser’s eco-systems and history (including a newly created exhibit highlighting the contribution of Chinese labourers to building the railway in the 1880s), gold panning lessons, observation decks and a suspension bridge. The complex also includes a cafe famous for its salmon chowder where you might possibly even be able to order a caramel macchiato.

© Copyright (c) Vancouver Courier

Magical Mystery Lore: The secret origin of the world’s first superhero

Superman is widely considered to be the world’s first comic book superhero and Canadians get a lot of mileage out of the fact that co-creator Joe Shuster was born in Toronto. Despite Superman famously standing for “truth, justice and the American way” and Shuster having moved to Cleveland when he was only 10 years old, the CBC made a Heritage Minute video to remind us of our Kryptonian connection while Canada Post even put his image on a stamp.

It may come as a surprise, then, that not only was there another cape-wearing character with superpowers to hit the funny pages well before him, but this one was based on an actual Canadian citizen.

April 11, 2011 would have been the 100th birthday of the late Leon Giglio, who later changed his name to Leon Mandrake but is better known by his stage name, Mandrake the Magician.

An accomplished illusionist, mentalist, ventriloquist, escape artist and fire-eater, Mandrake was once one of the most famous magicians in the world and also known for being one of the nicest guys to ever saw a woman in half.

Along with dazzling countless crowds around the world over a career spanning seven decades, he also found the time to inspire a comic book character of the same name that debuted a good four years before a certain strongman from outer space pulled on his first pair of tights.

Mandrake the Magician

The syndicated comic strip Mandrake the Magician, written by Lee Falk and illustrated by Phil Davis about a dapper crimefighter who could alter reality by “gesturing hypnotically,” first appeared in King Features newspapers in 1934.

There is, perhaps appropriately, still a bit of mystery as to how the two magicians first came together.

“From my understanding, they were both independent of each other, but the comic book character took on a close resemblance to my father,” said Lon Mandrake, Leon Mandrake’s oldest son, a retired science teacher and an accomplished stage magician in his own right. “I believe the one who wrote the comic already had the idea of a character who is a magician, but the person who did the drawings was familiar with my father’s act.”

Along with sharing the same name, the fictional Mandrake the Magician also sported the same trademark pencil moustache, cape and top hat, but copyright and intellectual property laws weren’t quite as stringent back in those days.

In any case, as Lon Mandrake points out, the matchup became mutually beneficial to both parties.

“They promoted each other. I’ve got letters from Phil Davis saying how there couldn’t be a greater character representation and vice-versa. It was a gentlemen’s agreement; nothing was ever written down or signing contracts or anything like that. This was back in the 30s, they did things differently then.”

Leon Mandrake first became interested in magic as a young boy. His parents were both vaudeville performers, but after the magic went out of their marriage, Leon and his mother moved to New Westminster to live with her sister in a house on Carnarvon Street known today as the Maria Keary Cottage.

Mandrake Roots: Leon Mandrake grew up in this house in New Westminster, B.C.

His aunt, a postal worker named Mildred Wagner, gave him his first magic set for his seventh or eighth birthday and he was soon disappearing regularly into the backyard shed to practise his act.

Mandrake hit the stage for the very first time under the name “The Wiz” at age 11, filling in between vaudeville acts at the Edison Theatre (now the Paramount Gentleman’s Club). He soon began working for free backstage at the PNE, where visiting magicians would sometimes share some of the tricks of the trade and give him unwanted props or costumes. Having mastered fire-breathing before kissing his first girl, Mandrake joined a travelling magic company at age 16 and left home to tour the continent.

He soon became known for stunts such as mindreading, driving a car while blindfolded, hypnotizing people from department store windows, and making daring escapes and elaborate costume changes from tiny boxes.

He and his second wife and stage partner, Velvet (Lon’s mother, who also became a character in the comic strip), are also credited with being the first people to introduce magic acts with audience participation into nightclub settings after live theatres began turning into movie houses.

The comic itself, now written by Fred Fredericks, continues to live on today. When this story went to print, the stylish sorcerer was busy battling “dangerous hologram vampires,” the sort of tough crowd the performer himself certainly never had to deal with. The likeness to Leon Mandrake, however, is no longer as pronounced under the new artist.

“Everything was fine until King Features, who owned the strip, became worried about royalty rights and wanted to disassociate from having a direct relation,” said his son. “My dad and the cartoonist were good friends though. Right up until he died (in 1964), the character basically had my dad’s features, and then afterward they tried to change the character a little bit.”

But Mandrake’s legacy lives on in other ways as well. Some of his magic acts can still be enjoyed today on YouTube, and Roberston Davies even modelled the character Magnus Eisengrim from his book World of Wonders on him. Mandrake the Magician has also appeared in radio shows, television series, plays, musicals and movies (including a cameo in The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine). Hayden Christensen, another B.C. performer (and, given that he is most famous for playing a Jedi, someone who should know a thing or two about gesturing hypnotically), is said to currently be in talks to star in a new Mandrake movie.

But his real legacy is continuing to inspire performers. Coquitlam resident Shawn Farquhar is one of them.

“As you can see from the photos, clearly I wanted to be just like Mandrake the Magician,” said the two-time world champion of magic over the phone from a tour in Florida. “He was just an awesome magician and such a wonderful person. He had the childlike sense right to the very end, he tried to create the magic in everything he did.”

Magician Shawn Farquar began his career trying to copy the look of his friend and mentor.

Farquhar, 48, said he first met his idol after a disastrous early magic show of his own in Surrey. He said Mandrake’s warmth and encouragement played a big part in convincing him to continue performing.

Leon Mandrake passed away Jan. 27, 1993 at Surrey Memorial Hospital, and – coming full circle – the memorial was held at the same New Westminster theatre where his career first began.

Exotic dancers have long since replaced vaudeville acts at the entertainment at the old Edison, but Farquhar said the sendoff was a fitting final curtain.

“We took out all the posters and all the pictures of the girls,” he said with a laugh. “We changed the marquee to ‘The Last Appearance of Mandrake.’ During Velvet’s speech, she said we probably thought we hid everything from her so she wouldn’t know what the club is used for now, but she said it was really good to come back here and that Leon would like to know they are still doing tricks here.”

(This story was first published April 13, 2011. © Copyright (c) New Westminster Record)

Lacrosse Examination: Researcher gets the inside scoop

When writer Barbara Adamski pitched an idea for a story about the New Westminster Salmonbellies and the city’s passionate support for the 124-year-old lacrosse team to a magazine a few years ago, she didn’t expect it would lead to pursuing a Master’s degree on the history of the sport.

The New Westminster Salmonbellies in 1902.

The self-described “lacrosse mom,” who enjoys the rough-and-tumble game from the safety of the stands rather than from on the floor, said she made the decision after coming across a veritable mountain of misinformation about one of Canada’s official national sports while researching the article.

Take, for example, the common misconception that lacrosse is the official national sport instead of hockey, a quirk of Canadian history that can be traced to a Montreal dentist and lacrosse enthusiast named William George Beers, who apparently wanted this to be the case so badly it eventually became accepted as fact.

Beers wrote an early book about the game entitled Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada, published shortly after Confederation, and it turns out that most people were simply willing to simply take his word on it.

“Beers was a huge advocate for the game and really wanted it to be the national sport,” said Adamski. “He was saying it was the official national sport, but that was never on the record. So there’s a whole controversy about that. It only became the official summer sport after somebody was researching it and realized ‘hey, it’s not even on the books.'”

In fact, it was only in 1994 that Kamloops MP Nelson Riis introduced a private member’s bill nominating the more obvious and widely embraced candidate – hockey – to be the national sport that the issue even came up in Parliament. A compromise was eventually reached by naming hockey the official winter sport and lacrosse the summer counterpart, even though box (indoor) lacrosse has largely usurped field lacrosse in popularity.

Adamski eventually found so many “all over the map” discrepancies about the game that she turned her research into a Master of Arts thesis in Integrated Studies, which, among other things, also debunked the widely accepted story of how the game got its name.

Jean de Brébeuf, a French Jesuit missionary, is credited with christening the sport after supposedly noting a similarity between the stick used by players, with its distinctive wooden shaft and twisted bark webbing, and a Shepherd’s crook, a crosier carried by bishops. The problem with this is that there is nothing to actually confirm he ever actually made said observation, which led her to getting in touch with researchers at both Library and Archives Canada and The Canadian Encyclopedia.

“I said ‘I don’t mean to be antagonistic or anything but I really need to know what’s going on here,” she said. “We began corresponding through email and ended up talking quite a bit over the phone. It got to the point where the two of us actually went to original copies of Brébeuf’s diaries from the 1600s. I printed them out from Canadiana.org and they’re all in the original French. I’m talking to them on the phone and we’re going through it all and we realize that he doesn’t actually say that. … It’s just become part of the mythology around lacrosse.”

Instead, “crosse” is simply a French word for stick. “It might not be in Quebecois, but in France French, a hockey stick would be a ‘crosse de hockey.’ It’s very basic.”

Jean de Brébeuf

Her research was often complicated by supposed experts on the subject turning out to be anything but. The CBC digital archives, for example, also perpetuate the myth, while the Canadian Lacrosse Association claim on a “Did You Know?” section on their website that “the earliest European record of Lacrosse dates back to 1863, when the French missionary Jean de Brébeuf wrote of seeing Native people playing a game with sticks and a ball. He called it ‘la crosse’ because the sticks reminded him of the Bishop’s crozier.”

Yet another problem with this statement is, by 1863, it would have been over two hundred years since Brébeuf had been tortured to death by Iroquois – a group who, it should be noted, already had a perfectly good word of their own for the violent game, Tewaarathon, meaning “little brother of war.”

For many First Nation tribes, lacrosse was often played to resolve conflicts as well as serve as training for war. Legends tell of as many as 1,000 players per side playing lacrosse on fields ranging from one to 15 miles in length. Games sometimes lasted for days. Balls were generally made out of wood, deerskin, clay or stone.

“An Indian Ball-Play” by artist George Catlin, circa 1846-1850.


Adamski added that her research into lacrosse’s origins, which also delved into a possible Viking connection via Newfoundland, is far from the final say on the matter.

“I don’t think there is any true authority on the subject,” she said. “I think the more you delve into it, the more you realize it’s just a big can of worms.”

(This story was first published Feb. 23, 2011. © Copyright (c) New West Record)

Greenpeace: 40 years of making waves

It was 40 years ago that a ragtag group of hippies first set sail from Burrard Inlet in an attempt to stop the U.S. government from blowing up nuclear bombs off the coast of Alaska. Worried the testing could trigger devastating tsunamis, the young environmentalists initially called themselves the Don’t Make a Wave Foundation, but soon ended up themselves making waves of their own under their new nom de guerre, Greenpeace.

The Greenpeace Foundation has since become the world’s largest, independent environmental organization and famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view or stock holdings) for taking a hands-on approach to a variety of important issues ranging from global warming to rainforest deforestation, overfishing and commercial whaling.

Mayor Gregor Robertson has proclaimed Sept. 15 the anniversary of the group’s maiden voyage, to be “Greenpeace Day” in the homegrown heroes’ honour. It’s a day Barbara Stowe, the daughter of original founders Irving Stowe and Dorothy Rabinowitz, didn’t expect would ever come.

“It’s a little bit of a shock but it is a good thing,” said the South Vancouver resident. “It’s kind of amazing what has happened to Greenpeace since its modest beginnings.”

Stowe was still a teenager when her parents began hosting meetings at their Point Grey home. “Our house started filling up with these sort of weighty minds like Bob Hunter and Ben Metcalf. It was an exciting time but it was also very frightening time, knowing of the potential consequences of these nuclear tests.”

Despite two separate attempts, Greenpeace members never made it to the test zone in the Aleutian Islands and was unable to stop the U.S. from detonating three bombs. However, they succeeded in causing enough outrage in the international community to pressure the Americans to finally put a stop to it.

“Even Japan was protesting them,” pointed out Stowe. “The whole Pacific Rim was. You really have to wonder if with the recent earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan if nuclear tests conducted a mile underground, many times as powerful as the ones that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in one of the most tectonically unstable regions of the world played a part in it.”

She said there is a certain irony to Greenpeace being honoured by any form of government, even at a municipal level, seeing as how the group has been a thorn in the side of so many of them.

“It’s not surprising that some governments might be reluctant to recognize them. I’m sure they’ve pissed off most governments over the years. I can’t quite imagine [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper honouring them.”

(This story was first published Sept. 14, 2011. © Copyright (c) Vancouver Courier)