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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Circus festival strikes a fine balance

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It’s a jolt to the system when a large group of people behind you suddenly clap their hands together in unison. And yet another after you turn to discover they’re all buff, manic-eyed twentysomethings dressed identically in short shorts, red knee stockings and old school aviator helmets who insist you follow them down the street, toute suite.

But this was a daily occurrence for pedestrians in Montreal’s famous Latin Quarter this summer and, perhaps surprisingly, it wasn’t part of yet another Just For Laughs hidden camera gag. Instead, it marked the beginning of yet another free public performance offered as part of Montréal Complètement Cirque, a city-wide two-week festival now in its sixth year and a growing Quebec cultural institution in its own right.

The performers were all “Minutiens,” members of the Les Minutes Complètement Cirque troupe, who led the crowd to a nearby university courtyard on Rue Saint-Denis for a highly athletic show heavy in audience participation. Volunteers from the crowd, young and old alike, were paired up with performers before playing a series of games that were a bit like a mashup of Frozen Tag and Simon Says, only with backflips, feats of strength and improv comedy.

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The crowd loved it, but it was actually only the warm-up for the far more elaborate outdoor “Duels” show held shortly afterward at nearby Place Emilie-Gamelin featuring tightrope walking, aerial silk routines, Chinese pole balancing  and general flying through the air with the greatest of ease. All without a net.

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Once upon a time, people had to run away to join the circus. In la belle province, thanks in no small part to an emerging cottage industry launched by the global success of homegrown Cirque Du Soleil, it is becoming a viable career choice for young people entering the work force.

“There is now a very big talent pool,” said Duels director Anthony Venisse, a trapeze and clown specialist from France who now teaches at the city’s National Circus School, the only accredited school in North America offering high school and post-secondary students professional training in circus arts. “Everything started 30 years ago [when the school opened], and then the Cirque du Soleil came and then it just became a huge thing.”

Former Montreal Canadiens goaltender Patrick Roy is often cited as the reason so many NHL goalies today are from Quebec because he made making saves seem more appealing than scoring goals for the likes of Marc-André Fleury, Jonathan Bernier, Roberto Luongo and many more. In a similar fashion, many Quebecois have grown up in an era after two French-Canadian buskers, Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix, created a multi-billion dollar empire out of a small Canada Council grant given to mark the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s voyage to the New World.

But while Cirque du Soleil’s founders deserve much of the credit for the province’s flourishing scene, Quebec has long been a stronghold for circus arts. It was home to the first touring circuses in Canada back in the 19th century, which became a part of French-Canadian tradition, and major cultural events such as Expo 67, the Superfrancofête of 1974 and the Montreal Summer Olympics all helped create a (literal) niche for street performers and various artist collectives. People realized there was bread to be made in circuses.

“There are so many artists studying here but also just staying to create new work,” said Venisse. “In North America, it’s by far the biggest area for it and, while there is still much more of a circus tradition in Europe, there are maybe only five other places in the world where the quality of teaching is as high as it is here.”

The culture also seems to be just as varied as any artistic movement. For example, while the Minutes performance offered all the athleticism and derring-do people have come to expect from a Cirque show, it also had an emphasis on involving regular people. The show included 20 non-professionals in the cast, most memorably a woman confined to a wheelchair who performed a beautiful pas de deux with a male acrobat who used her chair as a balancing platform.

“When she raises her arms near the end that is almost as difficult for her as anything [the professionals] are being asked to do,” said Vinesse. “It is very moving to include people from outside our community and see them fall in love with it. This is the first year we’ve tried it and it has been a great success.”

It was also hard to imagine the circus freaks of Cirque Alfonse feeling at home under Cirque du Soleil’s big top. Their show BARBU Foire Electro Trad, which I was fortunate to catch as part of a recent media circus tour organized by Tourisme Montreal, was unlike anything I’d ever seen. And I’ve seen five different Cirque du Soleil shows.

Imagine a punk rock version of a Cirque show, only instead of the G-rated crowd-pleasers, you’ve got dudes with strongman builds and giant beards stripped down to their Speedos juggling kegs of beer while standing on top of each other’s shoulders with a Gogol Bordello-like band rocking out in the background. Or acrobatic female mud wrestling refereed by a whip-cracking dominatrix. Or a grey-haired stagehand in a pig suit dancing to Motorhead between acts. Puppetry and penises. Guinea pigs both figurative and literal. This is definitely not your grandparent’s Ringling Brothers.

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Instead, it’s just the latest twist on an art form that goes back several centuries but shows no sign of packing up and moving on in the digital age.

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)

Via Ferrata offers high-wire experience in Quebec

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We were roughly 80 metres above the ground clinging to a sheer rock face in the Laurentian Mountains when we felt the first drops of rain.

“What do you suppose will happen if there is lightning?” asked fellow travel writer Bryen Dunn, who was perched precariously beside me during a tour offered by AventureX in Vallée Bras du Nord, located a 45-minute drive from Quebec City.

It was a good question because, unlike traditional rockclimbing where ropes are what keep climbers more or less safe from gravity’s inexorable pull, we were instead attached to electricity-conducting metal cables.

It’s literally a foreign concept to most climbers in Canada, but in Europe a mountaineering discipline known as Via Ferrata — Italian for “iron way” — is an increasingly popular activity that enables amateurs with a bit of sang-froid in their veins to experience the kind of high-stakes divertissement normally reserved only for experienced rock jocks.

The activity was invented by the Italian army during the First World War as a means to get troops and equipment through the Dolomite Mountains and attack enemy forces from above. The routes were left to rust away after the war, but hikers rediscovered them in the 1960s and hundreds of new recreational ones have since been strung up throughout the Alps and other neighbouring ranges.

The way it works is you attach yourself to a thick wire bolted to the rock that stretches the entire length of a climbing route. Using carabiners (basically high-tech safety pins) attached via short lanyards to a special harness worn around the waist, Via Ferrata climbers work their way diagonally up cliffs by clipping and unclipping past anchor points located every few metres apart. Special metal footholds, handholds and even wooden bridges are also helpfully hammered into place at trickier spots, and a fall should (in theory) only last a few feet before the harness catches you.

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A group of writers slowly make their way up a Via Ferrata route in the Laurentian Mountains. Photo: Andrew Fleming

Via Ferrata is not without controversy, with purists in the climbing community arguing that adding artificial aides is a form of sacrilege. While Europeans have been stringing gondola cables up mountains and building remote ski chalets for generations, most North Americans prefer wilderness environments to remain as pristine as possible.

The tourist town of Whistler is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the only place in mountainous British Columbia yet to offer tours, but its widespread acceptance in Quebec is now a fait accompli, with more than a dozen different places – including the famous Montmorency Falls — across the province now offering it.

Our guide on the seven-person tour, a bilingual 24-year-old college student named Olivier Roy, says he can see it from both sides.

“I’m a climber myself and can understand why some people would feel that way, but I think there is enough room for both,” said Roy. “For one thing, you can only do Ferrata on private land, so partly it’s a property thing, but [making climbing more accessible] can change people’s lives by giving them a chance to really challenge themselves and get an appreciation for the mountains.”

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Nearing the summit of a 100-metre high Via Ferrata route. Photo: Andrew Fleming

An appreciation for the mountains is, of course, something many Quebec City residents already have. Vancouver get a lot of mileage out of the fact people here can go downhill skiing and sailing all in the same day but this is possible here as well. The difference is that it will instead have to be iceboat sailing on the frozen Saint Lawrence River, likely accessed from the newly developed Baie de Beauport, a multi-use public beach the government spent $24 million to build in order to help celebrate the city’s 400th birthday in 2008.

“People here really love to do things outdoors,” said Danny George, a former electrician in his mid-fifties who now leads walking tours through the winding cobblestone streets of Old Quebec, a UNESCO World Heritage site. “You kind of need to be in order to get through the winters here. People love to snowshoe or cross-country ski or go snowboarding at places like Mont-Sainte-Anne or Le Massif. Of course, the one outdoor activity that pretty much everyone here also does a lot of is snow shovelling.”

There wasn’t any snow on the ground when I visited in early September after an invitation by Quebec City Tourism but I still got a taste of plenty of other recreational options that help entice nearly five million tourists a year. It has to be said la belle province has had more than its fair share of embarrassing gaffes and brouhahas in recent years ranging from the arrests of mayors of two of its biggest cities to government-led battles over anglicized pasta and turban-wearing kids playing soccer. The cartoonishly xenophobic Parti Quebecois were booted out of power back in April after just one term in a kind of coup d’état by common sense, and it’s possible the raison d’être for inviting a group of travel writers from across North America was to help reassure people that Quebec is actually a warm and welcoming place to visit.

Which it very much is and there’s a good reason that the French gave us the term “joie de vivre.” Our whirlwind weekend tour de force included a mélange of activities including cycling along the city’s separated bike paths, zooming around the Saint Lawrence in a Zodiac, trying out the jumps on Baie de Beauport’s pump track and exploring the trails of the Vallée Bras du Nord. Not to mention dining in fine restaurants such as Bistro Le Sam and Le Graffiti on the taxpayers’ generously donated dime.

While the mountains are molehills compared to B.C.’s, they are nonetheless stunning, especially in the fall when the leaves change colour. And it may be a cliché but Quebec will always be the closest thing to a foreign country most Canadians can visit without needing a passport.

© 2015 Vancouver Courier

Pilgrims progress in a modern Way

Pilgrims progress in a modern Way

Ever wanted to hike a thousand-year-old pilgrimage route through the hills of northern Spain? There is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an app for that. Several, in fact.

Every ounce of weight counts when you’re lugging a pack along the Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of Saint James, and an increasing number of modern-day pilgrims are choosing to rely on digital gadgets rather than carry a guidebook as they make their way to the city of Santiago de Compostela in the northwest corner of the country.

Today’s pilgrims, known as peregrinos, have things quite a bit easier than their counterparts did back in Geoffrey Chaucer’s day.

Apart from ready access to hot water, it’s hard to get lost when there’s a GPS device in your pocket or feel lonely when you can keep Facebook friends abreast about the state of your feet or live tweet your journey of personal discovery.

You can even log on to Netflix and watch Martin Sheen make his own progress along it in the recent film The Way if in need of a jolt of inspiration.

But there still isn’t a lot technology can do yet when it comes to shouldering a heavy backpack and walking day after day under the unforgiving Spanish sun.

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The 800-km Camino Francés, which begins in the town of St. Jean Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains, is by far the most popular of several Camino routes snaking across Europe to Santiago.

The city is said to be home to the grave of the martyred apostle Saint James, whose remains were allegedly discovered by a shepherd after angels sent his beheaded body back to Galicia by boat.

Non-believers, on the other hand, argue this was likely just a cynical ploy by Vatican strategists in order to successfully rouse popular support for driving Islam out of the Iberian Peninsula and back to Africa.

In any case, Catholics are told all their sins will be forgiven by making the pilgrimage, and during the Middle Ages roughly a quarter of Europeans would typically make the dangerous and debilitating journey to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.

Ironically, while people across the world are now abandoning the church in droves, hiking the Camino has become more popular than it has been in centuries. While the Way had largely fallen by the wayside by the 20th century, with only a few hundred people a year having completed it during the ’80s, it now typically attracts nearly 200,000 trekkers each year.

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Pilgrims may not be hiking this UNESCO World Heritage Site for religious reasons much any more, but the Camino nonetheless exudes an undeniable spiritual vibe. It’s not exactly a holiday even though it involves a trip to Spain.

My wife and I recently spent a week hiking west from Pamplona through the Navarre region and, while we were there primarily to enjoy a physical challenge in a country where the wine was cheap, many of the varied crowd we met had far more meaningful reasons.

A Danish woman we befriended was hiking it as a way to battle depression after her business fell apart. A muscle-bound Australian cop was debating early retirement after having seen too much blood and tragedy. A 62-year-old former whitewater guide needed to prove he still had vitality left in the tank.

Many were newly graduated, newly divorced or newly retired and hoping to walk their woes away.

Pilgrims typically start their days shortly after dawn and stay in special hostels, known as albergues, with communal sleeping areas, usually with bunk beds. The accommodations range from medieval stone buildings to newly built dormitories but all have a few things in common.

They’ll all stamp special Camino passports that have to be shown to the Confraternity of Saint James in order to receive a “compostela,” the certificate of completion at the end of the road.

Albergues also all seem guaranteed to have at least one person staying there who snores at great volume, and ear plugs are highly advised in order to resist the decidedly unchristian urge to murder a fellow traveller in their sleep.

Most typically offer Wi-Fi, which Europeans pronounce wee-fee, in order to cater to international pilgrims without data roaming plans. However, staff also frequently turn it off first thing in the morning to help get Internet-addicted pilgrims out the door and back on the right path.

© Vancouver Courier

Dive group aims to sink battleship

Dive group aims to sink battleship

The HMCS Annapolis didn’t see action during her three decades patrolling the seas as part of the Royal Canadian Navy. However, the 110-metre warship may soon see a very different kind of action as a new scuba diving destination in Howe Sound.

The Courier visited the ship on June 28 as part of UNESCO’s inaugural Dive for Peace Day, a global initiative meant to mark the anniversary of the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie 100 years ago that triggered the beginning of the First World War.

Since Vancouver waters don’t offer much in the way of WWI memorabilia, a dive trip led by Sea Dragon Charters instead offered a tour of the Cold War-era battleship — currently afloat in Port Graves on Gambier Island — after first exploring some steep undersea cliffs beneath the remains of North Shore gun ramparts that once guarded the First Narrows from potential enemy invasion during the Second World War.

dive

The Annapolis was launched in 1963 and decommissioned in 1996. She then sat rusting at CFB Esquimalt on Vancouver Island before being purchased by the Artificial Reef Society of B.C. (ARSBC) in 2009 for an undisclosed sum. The non-profit group has eight sunken military vessels under its belt, not to mention a Boeing 737 near Chemainus, but this would be the first ship scuttled a short distance from a major tourist destination.

“It is designed as an asset that goes to the province and it’s all about dive-site eco-tourism,” said ARSBC president Howie Robins. “This is one of the nice things about having the ship so close to Vancouver and about 20 minutes from Horseshoe Bay, it really provides us with a living library to see the kinds of biological changes that can occur without having to take the ferry somewhere.”

The late, great aquatic explorer Jacques Cousteau once described British Columbia as offering “the best temperate water diving in the world and second only to the Red Sea,” and the ARSBC hopes to see the Annapolis, despite the chilly water, become a major draw for international divers more accustomed to tropical diving. Shipwreck diving also typically involves highly specialized training, and wrecks are often found at greater depths than many recreational divers are comfortable with.

If all goes according to plan, the Annapolis will be sunk in relatively shallow water in Halkett Bay Marine Park and, because the ship was equipped to transport and service massive Sea King helicopters, it would offer a lot of open-space options for exploration that wouldn’t require swimming through dangerous narrow passages.

“The maximum depth will be about 105 feet at high tide in an area that is reasonably consistent at depth because we are basically putting the ship in a strategic area on a ledge,” said Robins. “Most of the diving will be between 50 and 90 feet and you’ll be able to see at least 85 to 90 per cent of the ship.”

The practice of creating artificial reefs has been around for centuries and they are built for reasons as diverse as blocking waves or boat traffic to creating better fishing spots.

The process of how — or even if — a man-made leviathan like the Annapolis eventually becomes one is determined by variables such as depth, currents and the make-up of the sea floor. Robins says the Halkett Bay sea bottom would be an ideal setting for an artificial reef because it’s previously been damaged from the island’s log-booming days due to bark and other fibrous materials having smothered marine life on the ocean floor after sinking.

Most artificial reefs attract aquatic life in foreseeable steps. First, when currents encounter a vertical structure like a sunken vessel, it can create a plankton-rich upwelling that provides a good feeding spot for smaller fish, which in turns draws larger predators.

Eventually, the metal exterior becomes encrusted with algae, anemones, corals and sponges, sprouting aquatic life like some sort of submersed, supersized Chia Pet and eventually becomes home to crabs, wolf eels, octopus, ling cod, rock fish and more.

Scuba divers

“The nice thing about wrecks this size is that you can keep going back and never see the same thing twice,” said scuba instructor Trisha Stovel “I’ve been to the Cape Breton three times over the years and every time has been completely different.” (The ARSBC sank the 135-metre HMCS Cape Breton off the coast of Nanaimo in 2001.)

The dream of sinking the battleship, originally scheduled for 2010, has been a hard-fought battle. Robins said that a lack of shipyard space due to the 2010 Olympics meant that dozens of volunteers had to make their way to Gambier Island to strip the vessel of hazardous materials.

The beginning of the project also coincided with the 2008 stock market crash, and the value of scrap metal — the sink-and-swim project’s main source of funding  — quickly bottomed out. There was also objection from a group called Save Halkett Bay, a group of island residents who oppose sinking the ship in their backyard due to environmental and increased traffic concerns.

Last but not least, the ship is also still subject of a lawsuit from the owner of WR Marine Services, who claims he is still owed nearly $100,000 for stripping and mooring the vessel.

Although Robins said he is hoping to send the Annapolis to a watery grave by the end of this summer, a date has yet to be finalized and his organization is still waiting for final approval from Environment Canada.

“It is premature to set a date until we have all our ducks in a row with the regulatory authorities. We’re still working through our government permitting process but there are no issues there and this is just a matter of course.”

© Vancouver Courier

The Courier’s man in Pyongyang

chris-czerwinski

Western media outlets are rarely granted unfettered access to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Vancouver Courier nonetheless recently managed to visit the secretive regime, although the newspaper wasn’t there to cover any major news stories regarding North Korea’s ballistic missile testing program, supreme leader Kim Jong-Un’s recent execution of an ex-girlfriend by firing squad or even the unlikely state visit by colourful former NBA star Dennis Rodman.

Instead, an Oakridge resident who works with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) simply brought a copy of the paper along to pose with for our Exotic Courier section on a visit last year.

Chris Czerwinski, 58, spent several years helping to organize emergency food distribution to the remote north Asian country during a famine in the mid-’90s, but his visit last December marked the first time he’d actually stepped foot inside the so-called Hermit Kingdom. He said he was nonetheless given quite a bit of freedom to explore the country unaccompanied by government officials due to his humanitarian history.

“If you were to go as a normal Canadian, you would have a minder with you from the moment you leave the hotel,” said Czerwinski, “but I had a very enjoyable experience because the new deputy country director for the WFP was also new to the country, and every weekend we could travel quite freely around the country and visit all the monuments.”

Czerwinski brought his copy of the Courier to a number of North Korea’s main attractions, such as the massive Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, the 170-metre Juche Tower, a monument built to symbolize the national philosophy of self-reliance, and the tomb of Mao Anying, Chairman Mao’s son who was killed in action during the Korean War.

Although he didn’t get his photo taken with any of them, he also witnessed a few of Pyongyang’s famously robotic traffic cops in action.

korea“The traffic police are all women and they are all very tall and very beautiful and they have these blue uniforms and black high heel boots,” he explained. “Just go on the Internet and Google them and you will see all these videos that people have taken. It’s kind of a quirky fetish thing and there seems to be a very large following.”

Czerwinski’s career as an agronomist has brought him to a wide variety of different countries since graduating from UBC in 1979, including Egypt, Chechnya, Mali, China, Sudan and Madagascar, where he met his wife Rachelle. North Korea was truly unlike anywhere else he’d ever been.

“It’s like the people are all uniform,” he said. “I mean, they are polite and the ones who speak English seem nice but people don’t seem to have any individuality.”

He added that he also found it hard to tell if their legendary nationalistic fervour is genuine or expressed out of fear of their totalitarian government.

His visit coincided with the country’s launch of its first satellite into orbit, an act most countries condemned as a threat to global security because the technology is the same as that used with intercontinental ballistic missiles. Czerwinski, whose Vancouver home falls within potential missile range, watched the event unfold from a restaurant inside a diplomatic compound where the staff all spoke English.

“The waitresses were all standing in front of this big flatscreen TV that was showing this missile being fired off,” he said. “One of the more vocal ones said to us: ‘Aren’t you going to congratulate us?’ and we were like ‘what!’ It is so hard to tell if the devotion is real or feigned.”

Czerwinski’s trip wasn’t simply for pleasure, however, as he was also there on WFP business. Whatever their social or geopolitical problems, he said mass starvation is no longer a major concern for North Koreans.

“The project I helped to develop last December really only concerns pregnant or lactating women or children, not like it was back then when it was blanket, when we were feeding most of the country.”

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