Glenn and I decided to try our hand at dog sledding. An old school bus drove us up Cougar Mountain to a dirt track, where an even older bus with snow chains was waiting to take us up the final ascent. It wasn’t an easy journey, with the bus crashing into enormous potholes and fishtailing up through the snow, but eventually we arrived at our destination, a hut in the side of a bulldozed snow-bank, where we were greeted by some cute puppies.
Down here in the relative warmth of BC, pure huskies are too furry to use, because they overheat if they try to run in anything over -20C. Here huskies had been crossed with greyhounds and other small dogs to make a small, short-coated animal more suited to the local climate. We were introduced to the sled teams, all lying around tied to chains in the snow, looking disconsolate and bored.
Our safety briefing could really be condensed into one rule: never get out of the right side of the sled, because that’s where the brake is, and the brake is simply an enormous steel claw embedded in the snow which might possibly pop out and gore you when you weren’t looking.
Glenn and I attached harnesses to a couple of the dogs, who took it meekly and without much interest. Then I climbed onto the sled to act as ballast while Glenn stretched the trace out taughtly in front, ready for the mushers to clip on the dog harnesses.
All hell broke loose! Suddenly the dogs realised that they were going out to run, and went absolutely crazy with joy. Still attached to their chains, they barked wildly and jumped up and down on the spot or ran around in tight circles. The few dogs that had been released fom their chains dragged their hapless handlers this way and that, until they were picked up bodily and carried to the traces. The world was a kaleidoscope of whirling snow, frothing teeth, and excited barking. It was impossible not to get caught up in the sheer abandoned joy of it, and all of us were grinning madly and laughing, even while frantically trying to retain control of ecstatic dogs and preventing them from tangling everything up in their leads.
Finally, somehow, six dogs were attached to each trace, and the four sled teams were ready to move out. Glenn clambered in to the sled in front of me, our handler climbed up behind, and with a cry of “Go dogs, go!” we were off.
It was tremendous fun. The sled was a fabric tube slung inside a fibreglass frame, and, seated at ground level with only our heads sticking up in the open, we could feel the ground bumping along beneath our backsides. The dogs kicked up quite a spray as they went, scampering excitedly with the sled bumping along behind, and then one would suddenly stop to have a pee and they would all tumble to a halt in a big pile of kicking legs and tangled traces before sorting themselves out to carry on.
The dogs ran along a prepared trail up the mountain, sometimes silently but occasionally snapping and barking. On one occasion, the sled in front ran into difficulties; it seemed that none of their dogs wanted to lead. The mushers decided to take one dog out of our team and swap it for one of theirs. This entailed stopping both sleds and then ensuring that our own did not run away while the other one was being sorted out. I spent an entertaining ten minutes hanging on the back of the sled with one foot on the claw brake and the other on the snow hook, a small anchor, trying to stop them both from being tugged out of the ground by the wrestling and tangled dogs in front.
When we moved off again, I stayed on the back of the sled with the musher. I was shown how to stand penguin-footed, with my forward foot along the axis (narrowly missing the downward-pointing teeth of the brake) and the other slanted across one of the runners. It was a comfortable and solid stance. Whenever we got to a hill, the lead dog looked back expectantly and we got off and pushed, running alongside in the deep snow.
The trail wound up through snow-capped forest, past ice-powdered lakes and alongside frozen streams, the trees parting occasionally to give glimpses of white, sun-dazzled mountains. With the dogs pulling hard, the only sound was the hiss of the rails on the hard-packed snow. The crisp clean air smelled of fresh mountain pine, overlain occasionally by the strong whiff of dog.
On the way back down the mountain and close to home, the sled in front started slowing down, and we pulled out to overtake. Everything went well until we were running side by side, at which point the dogs could no longer contain their excitement and crossed over to the other team to say hello. It all got a bit complicated and we had to hit the brakes before everything got too tangled. Perhaps were not ready to compete in the Iditarod sled race just yet.
Our friend Glenn had taken over as head chef at the Brewhouse in Whistler, and so – given that it was also the middle of the skiing season – it seemed like an excellent excuse to go and visit.
Glenn was working when we arrived, but introduced us to Dave the brewmaster, who took some time out to give us the tour of the brewery. However, when he realised that we enjoy quality beer as much as he does, he sat down with us as we sampled his creations, including a sneak preview of his upcoming and excellent 10% barley wine, until finally he had to call it a night and go to bed.
We stayed on, though; both Bronwyn and myself had fallen in love with his excellent premium lager, Lifty, and besides, we had worked up an appetite. We were shown to a table on the mezzanine level, with views down into the kitchen where we could see Glenn and his staff hard at work.
Its a big restaurant, and very busy, but the action in the kitchen was a dream of smoothly choreographed cooperation. It was a real pleasure to see the maestro at work, and especially interesting to watch our plates make their orderly way along the line – first an enormous stack of chicken breasts, then a pile of beef ribs, some vegetables – until Glenn added a few last artistic touches and sent it on its way up to our table.
We attacked it with gusto, washed down with the last of our Lifty and then some fine wine, before staggering satiated and happy out of the door. Thanks, Glenn.
I had never been snow-shoeing before, so Bronwyn and I hired a couple of pairs to hike the trails around Lost Lake. I was very interested to see how they worked, and in the event they were deceptively simple. The lightweight aluminium frame clamped easily to my ordinary walking boot, providing me not only with a large surface area to walk on, but also four sets of crampon teeth. It took me a moment or two to get used to the rolling gait engendered by my newly acquired extra-wide feet, but after that I discovered that I was invincible; I could walk over anything!
Although the trail itself had been groomed by the tracks of snowmobiles and the snow shoes and skis of previous users, the surrounding forest was waist-deep in soft powder, and I took every opportunity to head off the path and bound about on top of the drifts. It was like four-wheel drive for feet.
We had started our trip in a gentle drizzle, but as we climbed higher up the mountain, the rain turned to snow. Before long we were gliding completely alone through a winter wonderland of fresh powder and frosted trees. The only sound was the soft crunch as our snow shoes dug in.
We had left the main ski trail and were hiking on a narrow winding path amongst the pine, cypress and birch. On the occasional down-slope, we sat down and slid on our backsides, laughing like kids. We were twelve again, and the whole mountain was our playground.
Eventually we came out on the frozen shores of Lost Lake, where a log cabin welcomed us with a merry gas fire as we stripped off our ski gear and unpacked our bread and cheese onto a convenient wooden table. Since it was Valentines Day, we opened a half-bottle of wine, and sat and marvelled about how perfectly wonderful it all was. Apart from one passing ranger, there was still nobody there but us and the lake and the silent forest.
Every winter, the city of Ottawa empties the Rideau Canal, floods it with a few metres of water, and then waits for it to freeze over. The resulting ice sheet is, at just under eight kilometres, billed as the longest ice rink in the world. I just had to see it, and to skate the entire length.
First, however, I had to learn to skate. That was easier to arrange than I had expected; despite an outside temperature in the mid thirties, ice rinks are relatively common in my current home country Australia, and so I enrolled on a beginners’ course.
Aus Skate lessons
It soon became clear that Australians tackle skating just as they tackle any other sport; they become experts from about age 5. Thus it was that my beginners group consisted of a scattering of (presumably) slow kids, and a selection of adults from tropical countries who had never even seen ice before, let alone considered skating on it.
Our teacher, Slav, who just happened (like most of the other instructors) to be a world class figure skater, had us in stitches as we tried to “walk like penguin”, “balance cocktail on head”, “drive in little car” until, suddenly and miraculously, I found that I was skating.
Skate the World: London
There’s no point in rushing these things, and we were carrying our skates anyway, so we decided to make a couple of practice stops on the way to Ottawa. Every winter, London hosts a number of artificial rinks, including one under the Tower of London, and another in the grounds of Somerset House. The Tower was closed when we arrived, but we got tickets for a session at Somerset House. The rink was beautifully situated at the bottom of the grand staircase, and ringed with flaming torches. It was a little crowded at times, and I was glad of my lessons. Amongst the stumbling Londoners, I actually felt quite graceful, for the first and probably the last time in my life.
Skate the World: New York
Scene of a hundred Hollywood love stories, the rink beneath the Rockefeller Center was a must-do. We hopped over the Atlantic, and strapped on our ice skates. The rink is a tiny, crowded space, and the ice was wet and rutted, but heck it was fun!
Skate the World: Ottawa
On our arrival in Ottawa, the weather was unseasonably warm and the Rideau Canal had still not frozen. The opening of the rink is central to the annual Winterlude festival, which takes place largely on the ice, and there was muttering talk of relocating it to indoor parts of the city. Every morning, council workers went out onto the ice, and declared that it wasn’t yet thick enough to open.
We just had to wait it out, but it didn’t mean that we couldn’t go skating; we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to a childrens’ birthday skating party. It quickly became painfully obvious to me that Canadians are born on ice skates. The kids ran rings around the adults, and quite a few of the parents took the odd moment out to gently relive their glory days, pausing now and then for an effortless reverse or salchow before continuing to tend their offspring. In contrast, I lumbered around like a drunken ox, and in my attempts to look even slightly stylish I completely messed up a hockey stop and smacked my head on the ice.
Finally: The Rideau Canal
A week later, Winterlude opened! The last time we had been to Dowes Lake, we had pedalled around the leafy calm waters on a tandem bicycle. This time we were presented with a hard white expanse, scattered with benches and tents and hot dog stalls. We donned our skates in one of the marquees, and set off.
Dowes Lake itself was beautifully smooth, but once we entered the canal proper, the surface began to differ substantially from that of a man-made rink. Although the ice was patrolled regularly by snowploughs, and any holes repaired each night, the surface had definitely been formed by the hands of nature rather than by any artificial agency. Small pressure ridges and cracks focussed the mind, and the solid and concentrated stance of the locals contrasted with the eyes-high dance steps that I had been taught in my lessons.
There was, however, plenty of space to go around rough patches and the odd drift of windblown snow, and plenty of time to marvel at the local residents pushing their babies, carrying their shopping, or simply commuting to work, along this ephemeral highway that had appeared in the middle of their city.
We passed the three-kilometre mark. I was quite pleased with myself. The different surface was not the only thing that I had to get used to; up until now I had only ever skated for perhaps ten strides in a straight line before pausing for the turn at the end of the rink. Here, there was no reason to turn, just the occasional gentle arc to avoid other happy couples, and families towing or pushing their children in sleighs. My thigh muscles began to protest the continual, unfamiliar activity, but I thought that I had it under control.
Kilometre four came, and I paused, panting, under a bridge to take some photos. I was wearing far too many warm layers, even though it was well below zero and we were now entering the notorious wind tunnel, a deep cutting with a perpetual headwind.
At five kilometres, I got distracted while skirting an orange-painted borehole, and tripped over my own feet. Hitting the ice is a bit like being rear-ended in a car accident; it hurts a bit, but you know that its going to be so much worse in the morning. As I sat on a handy bench to recover, a passing lady stopped for a chat as she put on her skates. This was her first time back on the ice since breaking her leg at the previous Winterlude.
The final straight came into view, one or two more bridges and then the welcoming facades of the tents and huts marking the end of the rink. Bronwyn glided effortlessly ahead to buy cups of hot chocolate and beavertail waffles. I, on the other hand, concentrated on forcing my leaden feet into every stroke; left, right, left, right. It was getting harder to find the energy to lift the skate clear, and three times in quick succession I caught the toe-pick and tumbled down. Tomorrow was really going to hurt. And then, miraculously, I stumbled onto a handy bench; I had reached the end of the Rideau Canal.
Bronwyn drifted up with fried dough and chocolate and marshmallows, and I had done it! I had skated the longest ice rink in the world.
Canada is big; really big. We had been under the impression that we were going to Canada for our holidays, but on our return from three weeks of travelling, we’ve realised that at no time did we leave the geographical environs of just one particular river. Admittedly, the St Lawrence does cover a lot of ground, passing through the Great Lakes, including Niagara Falls and Lake Ontario, running up through Quebec and eventually emerging into the northern Atlantic, a distance of some 4000 kilometres, but one waterway does not a country make. On the other hand, we didn’t exactly spend our time sitting on the beach.
We spent a week in the Toronto area with our friends Phil and Penny, who live in what can only be described as the posh end of Toronto, the Beaches, with its own lake shore board-walk and an excellent bar called Captain Jack’s, where the wonderful Tanya learnt how to mix increasingly fierce Manhattans for the curious pair of Englishmen, one hairy and the other shaven-headed, who had blundered into her bar in the middle of the night.
We spent our days checking out the extensive selection of locally brewed beers and a number of tourist attractions, some more obvious than others. The CN Tower, a major feature of the famous Toronto skyline and the tallest building in the world, was, well, very tall indeed.
The Badlands, a curious geological feature formed from pink clay, was very weird, and Black Creek, a recreated 1860s pioneer village, was fascinating.
All the guide books warned that we would be disappointed by Niagara (most reprinting the old adage that it is the “new bride’s second great disappointment”), but in actual fact the Falls are awesome, especially when viewed from one of the Maid of the Mist fleet of pleasure boats that take you right inside the curve of the Horseshoe Falls. Looking around me on the deck, I couldn’t see a single face, young or old, that wasn’t fixed in a crazy grin amidst the thunder and the spray.
After the spectacle, we weren’t too keen to return to the bright lights and amusement arcades in town, and the Lonely Planet Guide – which quickly became our infallible bible for the trip – recommended a walk up the gorge, so we took the shuttle bus to the far end of the resort (for resort it most definitely is) and clambered down to river level for the long walk back up the valley. The gorge was indeed spectacular, bounded by sheer cliff faces and packed with enough trees and undergrowth to make the going rough enough to be amusing.
I had spoken to a park ranger at the top, who pointed out that we we were going to get wet. “Rain doesn’t bother us,” I responded… but boy, when the heavens opened, things got a bit messy down there. Those vertical cliffs became impromptu muddy waterfalls, and we were drenched in minutes. The unmarked trail that we were following became a series of cascading rapids, and when we finally got to the famous Whirlpool, we were hard pressed to tell where it ended and the land began. Once we finally dragged ourselves out of the gorge, we found that the buses had stopped running – we’d spent too long sheltering under a rock – but we hitched into town and were very grateful to pour ourselves into a convenient Planet Hollywood, where the staff were equally diligent at pouring cocktails into our rapidly drying bodies.
The following week saw us staying with our friend Mark in Kingston, some two hours’ drive downriver. Phil had lent us a spare convertible, an elderly Chrysler le Baron with some interesting eccentricities, the most endearing of which was probably the failure in the starter motor relay system. My first fix involved booster cables snaking out from under the engine, but after Maria pointed out that I’d have to crawl underneath the car to start it every morning, a few moments thought and a couple of minutes with some pliers fabricated the necessary hot-wiring. In order to start the engine, I had to turn the ignition, get out, open the bonnet (sorry, hood), and jam a screwdriver between the posts of my converted solenoid. It worked a treat.
It was Mark’s birthday, and since his parents (thanks Gill and Derek for putting up with us!) have a pool, we had a pool party, which swiftly and appropriately degenerated into a violent free-for-all involving increasingly disintegrating pool noodles.
Kingston has a number of interesting attractions, including a candle-lit evening ghost walk, and the fascinating prison museum, containing all sorts of ingenious weaponry confiscated from the inmates. The town is, however, most famous for being the gateway to the Thousand Islands, and the cruise amongst the islands was really quite something. Almost every island is owned by some millionaire and/or recluse, and each contains a home commensurate with its size, ranging from entire towns to huge castles to tiny shacks perched on a single rock. To add to the confusion, exactly half are technically US soil, the other half Canadian, but the different nationalities are all jumbled in one with another. A real millionaire’s playground, a wonderful place.
Moving on, we pointed the Le Baron northward up the St Lawrence river into Quebec, stopping for the night in Trois Rivieres, where we stumbled on the most amazing Bed & Breakfast belonging to a family of chiropractors who also happened to collect mid-19th Century antique furniture. The place had been lovingly restored, and each room reflected a different period or style. Incredible.
Downriver, Quebec City was dominated by the amazing Chateau Frontenac, a Victorian railway hotel of prodigious size which we just had to stay in. Our room on the 17th floor gave tremendous views over the city, but the room itself was something of a disappointment after the previous night’s Manoir DuBlois, looking much like any other business hotel.
Quebec City itself was similar; from a distance it showed great promise, but when you actually got in close you found that almost every building was a souvenir shop. We did find a fascinating purveyor of hand-made mediaeval (sorry, medieval) clothing, and a fine bar with an excellent selection of beers from the province and from around the world, as well as a restaurant specialising in ancient Canadian food, an interesting and on the whole successful attempt to cross pioneer trapper dishes with haute cuisine.
Even further north, in the pouring rain in the middle of nowhere, we came across a trio of young German hitchhikers who were quite bewildered to be packed into the back of a convertible and whisked onto the ferry to Tadoussac, where they squelched into the youth hostel and we checked into the faded grandeur of the Hotel Tadoussac, a forties confection in red and white-painted wood, with rooms looking out over the St Lawrence river.
We stepped out into the deluge to see if we could find a restaurant, but everything was shut so we crawled back to base to eat in the rather fine dining room, painted on all sides with a mural depicting English troops trouncing the City of Quebec.
The morning found us bouncing around in a Zodiac-style rubber-sided powerboat, hunting for whales. It was still raining, and visibility was very poor, but as we hit the chop at the edge of the estuary it all cleared, and as far as the eye could see there were whales, seals, dolphins, and various sizes of whale-watching boat.
Many who know me well will long have been aware of the existence of The List, an unpublished and constantly changing agenda of Things To Do Before I Die. There is a dark and shady corner of The List that contains things that I really want to do but which, realistically, I doubt will ever happen. One of these is to go into space; another is to see a blue whale. Incredibly, a huge one simply popped out of the sea nearby, and was content to swim along with us while all the other whale boats chased off after other prey.
The huge beast didn’t breach or tail dive, it just shimmered along just below the waterline, giving us tantalising glimpses of its enormous bulk.
Many whales later, I was extremely content, and it was pure icing on the cake when, speeding back to base, the pilot suddenly jinked hard to the left with the cry “La balene blanche!”. There they were, a whole pod of white belugas, swimming around underneath the boat. Marvellous.
Back on land, it was time for us to head back south, but first we wanted to jink inland so that we could make our way back through a series of national parks. One of the other things on The List was to stay in a roadside motel, as in all the best Hollywood thrillers (you’ve got to remember that this was my first time in North America), and in fact the Lonely Planet recommended a particular one in Chicoutimi, so I was delighted to pull up and check in.
Yep, it looked exactly like they do in the films; a bed, a lamp, and a small bathroom. It was hardly a dive, but I was pleased to note that some of the tiles were cracked and one of the ceiling tiles was leaking insulation; I could pretend that it was vaguely sleazy and, if I squinted a bit, ignore the beautiful views downriver toward the St Lawrence.
In the morning we had intended to visit a pulp mill in Jonquiere, but the tourist office had been shut down, and after a while we gave up and headed off on a road that – on the map – passed through a huge featureless white area that spread northwards as far as the Arctic. I had assumed that this was logging country, and I was not mistaken. The sun, which had remained stubbornly hidden for the last few days, finally reappeared, picking out the many shades of green in the ranks of trees as they marched endlessly over the hills, faithfully reflected in the limpid blue lakes below.
The wide sweeping roads were empty of all traffic apart from the occasional logging truck, and my heart was singing with the wide-open beauty of it all. I really wanted to park the car and just get on out there into the quiet and solitude.
Conveniently enough, we zipped by the office of the St Mauritie Nature Reserve, and a quick U-turn got me inside, where I explained what I wanted. There was a surprising amount of red tape, but I paid eight dollars to register my name, address and vehicle details, and then another twelve dollars to get over the toll bridge into the reserve itself. Only then could we motor the 18 km down unmade logging roads to reach our assigned footpath, a circular walk around a small waterfall called Dunbar Chute.
The footpath was pretty notional, the undergrowth thick and the mosquitoes vicious: it was wonderful! And so very very quiet, just the sounds of the birds and the water and no background noises at all. To a townie’s ears it sounded as though there was a hole in the world, something missing as we paused to admire yet another stunning lakeside vista.
Sadly, however, it had to end eventually, so we de-registered at the control booth and headed for Montreal.
The idea was to find a hotel in town, and indeed our guide told us that there were plenty of B&Bs both down town and in the old quarter, so we decided to try both. Down town Montreal appeared to be evenly split between office blocks and lively bars with cool dudes cruising loudly up and down outside. We couldn’t see any hotels, so we tried the old quarter, which was snarled up with picturesque flower-bedecked horse-drawn taxis, but nary a sign of a B&B.
Getting a bit desperate, we cast our net wider, and finally found a whole street full of what appeared to be hotels. At first we ignored the groups of young men lounging around in the lobbies, but as receptionist after receptionist first admitted that they were a hotel but apologised that they were full, I began to notice that every time we stopped, swarthy figures would appear in the windows staring at the convertible and apparently counting the wheels.
By nine o’clock we thought, to hell with it! and attempted to find a highway out of town. By half past ten we were completely lost… but there on the other carriageway was a 24-hour motel. This one was really sleazy. As the proprietor showed us to our room (I’d better help you with the door, the lock sticks since somebody stole the keys), three girls ran giggling from the one next door to a waiting car (I’d wondered why he’d asked how many people I was planning to put in the double bed), and through the (nailed shut) window we had a fine view of a purple neon sign declaring ’11 til 3 video poker’, whatever that is.
I’d asked if there was anywhere to eat at that time of night, and he pointed us in the direction of an all-night diner, but he seemed a bit hesitant so we approached it with some trepidation. However, the place turned out to be an award-winner for its fries and smoked-meat sandwiches, the walls papered with plaudits from food critics, and sure enough the food was excellent.
We sat, well-earned red beer to hand, and listened to Muddy Waters as the chef’s seemingly endless stream of old friends dropped in for a chat and a take-out. Back at the motel, we tried to clear the smell of stale cigarette smoke, attempted to close the blinds against the searchlight mounted outside, brushed the pubic hairs from the nylon sheets and composed ourselves for sleep.
Maria drifted right off, but unfortunately I was reacting badly to some of the day’s mosquito bites, and so watched miserably as one finger swelled up into a big red balloon while the rest of the hand itched maddeningly in sympathy.
An early start saw us on the road to Ottawa, and it was a relief to leave Montreal’s cracked and potholed roads behind and get onto some smooth tarmac. It was simplicity itself to park in the centre of town, and shortly we were standing in the sun on Parliament Hill, gazing at the Houses of Parliament that looked suspiciously similar to the buildings of the same name in London.
With so much to see, we settled on an open-top tour bus which was well worthwhile, giving us a geographical and historical overview of this attractive green city.
Finally, it was back to Toronto to return the car to Phil and Penny, to wander around the pleasant park and beaches that form the Toronto Islands, and of course to revisit the bar Captain Jack’s**, where Tanya was delighted to see us again.
Phil carried me home in a shopping trolley. Need I say more?
**Historical Note. At about this time, although we at this point had never met, Bronwyn was in fact a regular at Captain Jack’s. Possibly she was there in the bar that night. Possibly she was even one of the locals that thrashed us at table football. The world is indeed a very, very small place.