Nev Judd: Online and out there

Desert delights in Tucson

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Sonoran desert

The pigs attacked shortly after dawn.

The first indication was a dust cloud billowing from the bushes beyond the swimming pool, closely followed by deep, guttural belching.

Javelina pigs are native to the American southwest, extremely shortsighted, and smell like skunk. Perhaps for the last two reasons, they seem to be permanently agitated. Thankfully for us, they were attacking each other in what turned out to be a short-lived domestic dispute.

Short-sighted, smelly and agitated - Javelina pigs.

Short-sighted, smelly and agitated – Javelina pigs.

“If they approach you on a trail, they probably can’t see you,” said our guide, Koi. “Make some noise and they’ll go away.”

Koi works for Southwest Trekking, a professional guide service that offers guests of the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass Hotel free sunrise walks into Tucson Mountain Park. The 6 a.m. start might hurt a little on vacation, but the reward is a fascinating introduction to the unique landscape of the Sonoran Desert.

This is the only place where the saguaro cactus grows wild and many were blooming thanks to nightly thunderstorms during our late-August visit.

“They’re supposed to bloom in May but something’s going on,” said Koi, who showed us another cactus native to the Sonoran Desert, the so-called jumping cholla. The cholla’s stems are easily detached and love nothing more than to reattach to anyone or anything unlucky enough to be close by. The spines are barbed and extremely painful to remove.

Between Tucson and the Mexican border an hour south, the United States’ only population of jaguars roams. I was OK with not seeing one, but we did see several deer, including a buck.

The Marriott Starr Pass: "Too nice," according to Emma Judd.

The Marriott Starr Pass: “Too nice,” according to Emma Judd.

Post-hike, we drank coffee on the Marriott terrace overlooking Tucson, a city I visit for business several times a year. This was the first time I’d been able to bring my family and I had a long list of favourite places to show them: Maybe too long.

The first problem was the Marriott Starr Pass. “It’s too nice,” explained my daughter, Emma, as we floated one more time around the hotel’s lazy river in an inflatable. “Why would I want to leave this?”

“There are wild pigs out there,” my wife, Leah, chimed in. My son, Ryan, conceded that he might be willing to get off his sunbed to play golf at Starr Pass Golf Club: in a few hours.

So it was with some coercion, the Judd family arrived at San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission 16 kilometres south of Tucson. When first glimpsed amid dusty farmland from Highway 19, San Xavier del Bac looks like an oasis. Gleaming white with two towers and a cupola, the church is as old as the United States itself and the quintessential example of Spanish colonial architecture.

San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission 16 kilometres south of Tucson.

San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission 16 kilometres south of Tucson.

Enter through the impressive carved mesquite-wood doors and you’ll find the interior is just as dramatic. Candles flicker beneath an eclectic mix of religious devotion: paintings, carvings, statues and frescoes fill the church, which was built between 1783 and 1797 (replacing an earlier version built in 1700). It has since survived earthquakes, lightning strikes, and leaky walls, and continues to host daily mass.

We lingered in the pews before heading outside to buy sweet Indian fry bread from a vendor in the car park. We walked it off by climbing Grotto Hill, a short walk from the church and the best place to snap panoramic shots.

No one seemed in a rush to get back to the lazy river. We we’re on a roll, so we headed east to the Pima Air and Space Museum. You’d need several days to fully explore the museum’s 80 acres inside and out. And I needed several hours to sort through the 500 photos I took there. Center-stage in the museum’s main hangar is the Lockheed Blackbird, a plane that will evoke childhood memories for anyone who grew up in the 70s playing the card game, Top Trumps. In the aircraft issue of Top Trumps, Blackbird was a virtually unbeatable card. It flew from New York to London in less than two hours, and from Los Angeles to Washington DC in 64 minutes. Nothing could touch it for speed (2,193 mph) and cruising altitude (85,069 feet).

One of the 500 photos I took at the Pima Air and Space Museum.

One of the 500 photos I took at the Pima Air and Space Museum.

Just a few feet from Blackbird is the Bede BD-5 Micro-Jet, which appeared in the 1983 James Bond film, Octopussy. Almost 13 feet long, the BD-5 was apparently sold in kit form but proved to be beyond the abilities of most homebuilders to complete. (Presumably it wasn’t flown much.)

There’s much to keep you indoors at the museum, and not just the air conditioning. Several exhibitions pay tribute to space travel and World War II, but the huge variety of planes outside on the tarmac were worth braving 40-degree heat to see. Besides behemoths like the Boeing B52 collection and oddities like Aero Spacelines’ Super Guppy (which looks like it should be in an aquarium or a cartoon), there are planes displaying from nose to tail the work of acclaimed street artists and mural designers.

I refused to allow the family back to the hotel until we’d visited my favourite place to eat in Tucson, the Guadalajara Grill on Prince Street. Hand-made tortillas, salsa prepared table-side, a roaming mariachi band, and fresh margaritas served in glasses the size of fish bowls – the Guadalajara Grill by itself is worth visiting Tucson for: Especially if you don’t have to go to work the next morning.

Tucson view

Good morning Tucson!

Back at the Marriott the next day, the male half of the family followed in the footsteps of Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson at the Starr Pass Golf Club. Golf is a huge lure for Tucson visitors, with the city boasting numerous award-winning courses. Many of them cut their prices on mid-summer afternoons for those willing to bear Arizona’s heat. (Tucson is drier and generally a few degrees cooler than Phoenix, 90 minutes’ drive north.)

Starr Pass is no exception. The club features 27 holes divided into three nines played in three different 18-hole combinations. We played the Roadrunner nine, the club’s shortest circuit, which was just as well, having lost all our original balls by Hole 8. The afternoon thunder clouds seemed to be beckoning us inside and at the first sign of forked lightning, we called it a day.

That evening we ventured downtown to Reilly, which combines pizza and craft beer in a century-old building that used to house a mortuary and funeral home. Any morbid thoughts were soon banished by parm truffle fries, roasted crimini mushroom pizza, and Brussel sprouts in sherry, hot sauce and pecan brittle crumbs. Reilly epitomizes the resurgence of Tucson’s downtown, which features numerous bars and restaurants with inventive menus in historic premises restored to former glory. Perhaps the classiest of them all is the Hotel Congress, built in 1919, and now a thriving music venue, as well as housing a restaurant and bar.

Hotel Congress, built in 1919, and now a thriving music venue, as well as housing a restaurant and bar.

Hotel Congress, built in 1919, and now a thriving music venue, as well as housing a restaurant and bar.

A great way to see downtown and learn some of its history is by bicycle with guide, Jimmy Bultman, who runs Tucson Bike Tours. Dive bars, food trucks, a pinball arcade and downtown’s historic neighbourhoods feature in the sunset tour, which I did in April. I enjoyed it so much I rented a bike and covered much of the same ground by myself the very next day.

Jimmy turns kayak guide elsewhere during Tucson’s summer months, but he’s back now. The city is home to a growing bicycle network, including The Loop – more than 100 miles of trail shared with skaters, joggers and horse riders. In the foothills and mountains beyond the city is an extensive network of mountain bike trails.

And for the ultimate in relaxation, there’s always the lazy river at the Marriott Starr Pass. Just give the pigs a wide berth.

yo ma dawgs

If you go:

  • Marriott Starr Pass offers deals starting at $129 a night. Visit marriott.com/hotels or call +1-520-792-3500.
  • For more on the Pima Air and Space Museum, visit pimaair.org
  • Details of Jimmy Bultman’s bicycle tours are at tucsonbiketours.com
  • Desert hiking and biking tours are available through Southwest Trekking at swtrekking.com
  • visittucson.org is a good resource for anyone planning a visit to the city.

Written by nevjudd

February 15, 2016 at 10:23 pm

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YIR1

It was already late December

When I found the time to write

I was going to do it in November

But ‘going to’ became ‘might’

Too busy staging cat selfies to write ... until now!

Too busy staging cat selfies to write … until now!

Now the pressure’s on

Another deadline, I fear

The hours have all but gone

And 2016 is drawing near

cy and ryan

The graduates

2015 was fast

It didn’t walk, it ran

But one memory that will last

Our boy became a man

boys

A fart joke never gets old.

Ryan finished school

With a vision to refine

And ever since the Fall

He’s been studying design

Ferring's travelling A-Team.

Ferring’s travelling A-Team.

He got to share 18

With guests from far away

Ferring’s travelling A-Team

Nan and Grandad came to stay

Birthday boys. 102 candles between them! You do the math.

Birthday boys. 102 candles between them! You do the math.

He still can’t get a beer

19’s the age to be

But that’s another year

So he bought a fake ID!

Our summer was so hot, we went to ... Las Vegas.

Our summer was so hot, we went to … Las Vegas.

We sweltered in summer heat

And here the forests burned

The grass died beneath our feet

But the rains have since returned

Taking no chances with Emma's first driving lesson.

Taking no chances with Emma’s first driving lesson.

Emma learned to drive

Now she wants a car

But her savings took a dive

When she travelled to afar

Walkies with Nanny.

Walkies with Nanny.

Two weeks in the UK

Emma got spoiled rotten

So much packed into each day

Will not soon be forgotten

Just push a little harder!

Just push a little harder!

London shopping, up the Shard

The Thames and fun upon the river

The set of Harry Potter starred

Butter Beer and no damage to her liver

Up on the roof of the Downtown Grand in a cabana by the infinity pool. Like bosses.

Up on the roof of the Downtown Grand in a cabana by the infinity pool. Like bosses.

We visited the U.S.

Despite our dollar in a slump

We like it in the U.S.

Despite that tosser Trump

Can't even go to my bedroom without Donald Trump showing up ... tosser.

Can’t even go to my bedroom without Donald Trump showing up … tosser.

There’s other stuff we did

But I’m running out of time

It’s best goodbyes are bid

And I post this up online

So be well this joyful season

It’s time for me to go

If for joy you need a reason

Here’s a picture of J. Trudeau.

You're welcome ladies.

You’re welcome ladies.

Vegas on two feet

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It's hard to miss the 550-foot High Roller in Las Vegas, especially if you're staying at The LINQ Hotel and Casino.

It’s hard to miss the 550-foot High Roller in Las Vegas, especially if you’re staying at The LINQ Hotel.

When I was 19 and backpacking the U.S., Las Vegas was not on the itinerary. It was 1986 and I was still two years’ shy of Nevada’s legal gambling and drinking age. I ended up on The Strip though, staying at the Imperial Palace because at $20 a night, it was cheaper than camping on the beach in San Diego. I ate like a king for under $10 a day, and I walked The Strip from end to end. Midweek during the heat of August, there were few cheaper places to stay.

Almost 30 years later, The Strip is unrecognizable. No one walks The Strip from end to end. Fifteen of the world’s 25 largest hotels by room count are here, linked – barely – by a narrow ribbon of sidewalk that morphs into escalators and overpasses that seem to be designed to deter pedestrians at all costs. If you’re walking, you’re not spending.

Two parts of Las Vegas though, buck this trend: one on The Strip, and the other in downtown Las Vegas, sometimes known as old Las Vegas.

550-feet tall and 520 feet in diameter, the High Roller is the world's biggest observation wheel. What else would you expect in Las Vegas!

550-feet tall and 520 feet in diameter, the High Roller is the world’s biggest observation wheel. What else would you expect in Las Vegas!

On The Strip, The LINQ Promenade is a pedestrian-only marketplace, fronted by stores, bars, restaurants and casinos. Yes, even on the hottest midweek night in August, it’s busy, but unlike The Strip proper, The LINQ offers visitors the chance to stroll without worrying about falling off the curb into traffic, or being accosted by hawkers and celebrity impersonators.

Better yet, the area once home to the Imperial Palace is now anchored by two memorable attractions, plus a hotel that places you in the middle of it all. First, the High Roller – what people my age would call a Ferris wheel – is the world’s biggest observation wheel at 550-feet tall and 520 feet in diameter. Unlike a Ferris wheel, you’re not left dangling in a chair with a bar across your shoulders. The High Roller’s passenger cabins or capsules will be familiar to anyone who has experienced the London Eye in the UK.

To ride a full rotation takes about 30 minutes and, day or night, the view is unsurpassed in Las Vegas. We boarded after dark and were treated to an ever-changing perspective of the city, from the dazzling neon of Caesar’s Palace and The Bellagio to a sight much grander as we ascended to the High Roller’s apex – the outline of distant peaks in the west beyond Red Rock Canyon with Vegas itself looking all the smaller for it.

Walking through the cooling mists on the LINQ promenade.

Walking through the cooling mists on the LINQ promenade.

There’s room for 40 people in a cabin, but avoid sunset hours like we did, and you’ll probably be sharing with half a dozen others. Alternatively, private cabins are available, complete with bar service, for that special occasion!

A few doors down from the entrance to the High Roller is the Brooklyn Bowl, which mixes 10-pin bowling, live music, and comfort-food dining. Travelling with teens meant we had to exit by 8 p.m. when the venue becomes adult only, but until then we relaxed on the leather chesterfields, bowled for an hour and listened to musicians warming up. I drank a Rogue Dead Guy Ale but swore I’d return some day for a Bourbon Street Shake with Nutella and a shot of Bourbon.

The Roots and Elvis Costello opened the Vegas edition of Brooklyn Bowl (other versions are in London and Brooklyn – surprise!) last year. Its 2,400-capacity showroom makes it one of Las Vegas’s more intimate concert settings.

The LINQ Hotel and Casino anchors the pedestrian-only complex, which is about half way down The Strip opposite Caesar’s Palace. Not only is the location great, but the hotel offers welcome convenience, including the option of an automated check-in process that reduces lineups to a fraction of what’s normal in some Vegas hotels. Like many hotels here, there’s a decidedly adult vibe about The LINQ, including its swimming pool, which is off-limits to under-21s. Guests with children can use the pools at neighbouring Harrah’s and Flamingo.

The Brooklyn Bowl. Go for the 10-pin, the food, live music and the Bourbon Street Shake with Nutella and a shot of Bourbon.

The Brooklyn Bowl. Go for the 10-pin, the food, live music and the Bourbon Street Shake with Nutella and a shot of Bourbon.

No such restrictions exist at the Downtown Grand, which features a rooftop pool and is on the doorstep of Fremont Street – Las Vegas’s other pedestrian-only area. Known for years as Glitter Gulch, the Fremont Street Experience occupies five city blocks and is covered by an LED display canopy that blasts music and light extravaganzas every night, while zipliners zoom across the ceiling for $40 a turn. Roaming celebrity impersonators, near-naked showgirls, Chippendales, and several live music stages combine to make Fremont Street feel like a high-octane circus. Every cheesy T-shirt you’ve ever seen is on display here, from Kiss Me, I’m Irish, to One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor.

We lasted an hour before fleeing around the corner to the Triple George Grill on Third Street. Ranked one of the city’s best steakhouses, Triple George didn’t disappoint. Private booths, sumptuous dark wood, and brass fittings all conjure up a bygone era of triple-Martini lunches and deals sealed over a dinner of 16-oz ribeye done just right. It might as well have been a million miles away from Fremont Street, or the Hogs and Heifers’ biker saloon next door, for that matter.

Three of the Judds spent their last day in Vegas on the roof of The Grand, flaked out in a cabana by the infinity pool. It may have been the combined effects of the Triple George, plus an all-American breakfast at the Grand’s S&O Restaurant that eventually got me off my lounger and walking again.

Up on the roof of the Downtown Grand in a cabana by the infinity pool. Like bosses.

Up on the roof of the Downtown Grand in a cabana by the infinity pool. Like bosses.

I strolled across the street to Stewart Avenue and the Mob Museum. Once inside the former Las Vegas Post Office and Courthouse, I realized that I would need a day to fully explore this museum. The mob and its relationship with Las Vegas, the United States, and law enforcement are put into historical context via three floors of photos, movies, and compelling exhibits. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is macabrely brought to life with the actual blood-stained wall on display, alongside an electric chair, a tommy gun, plus a numerous artefacts relating to the mob’s involvement with gambling, drugs and prostitution. The world’s first slot machines look a lot easier to figure out compared to today’s versions.

Craving caffeine with little time before our departure, I found The Beat Coffeehouse and Records three blocks down Fremont Street. Vinyl for sale in one corner, free magazines and newspapers, and great coffee, The Beat is the perfect antidote for anyone craving life after the party. Like the Mob Museum, I wish I’d found it earlier.

I told the lady behind the counter I was worn out.

“It’s only the tourists who insist on partying 24 hours a day,” she said.

For a moment, I felt like a local.

Fremont Street Experience: 5 city blocks of neon chaos.

Fremont Street Experience: 5 city blocks of neon chaos.

 

If you go:

Between now and Dec. 31, The Downtown Grand will accept Canadian money at par when Canadian visitors stay and play the hotel’s slots. The offer is up to Cdn$500 a day, which is worth about US$375 – equal to $125 in free play. Visit downtowngrand.com or call 1855 DT GRAND for details, plus information about The Triple George and the S&O.

Rooms start from US$46 at The Linq Hotel and Casino. Visit caesars.com/linq for information about the hotel, the High Roller ($27-day/$37-night) and the Brooklyn Bowl ($100 per lane for up to 8 people).

For everything else Las Vegas, visit lasvegas.com

The Missing Link: Connecting the Coast to Squamish

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Yellow sections on this Google Earth map indicate about 10 kilometres of work needed to complete a trail connecting Sechelt with Squamish.

Yellow sections on this Google Earth map indicate about 10 kilometres of work needed to complete a trail connecting Sechelt with Squamish.

The map looks straightforward at first. As the crow flies, little more than 50 kilometres separate Sechelt and Squamish. Then you notice contour lines, crammed together like intense low-pressure systems, numerous splashes of white, indicating icy peaks, and deep blue streaks showing alpine lakes and ocean inlets. In between are green valleys that never seem to quite connect. Old logging roads, new hydroelectric projects, powerlines and pipelines present an extra layer of complexity revealed by Google Earth.

A cursory Internet search turns up more than 100 years of failed attempts to build a road system between the Sunshine Coast and “the mainland”.

So when Geoff Breckner tells me he’s about 10 kilometres away from completing a 75-kilometre trail connector, I’m interested.

If successful, the trail would reveal a side of the Sunshine Coast unfamiliar to most residents, including a series of spectacular waterfalls between Pokosha Pass and Clowhom Valley.

If successful, the trail would reveal a side of the Sunshine Coast unfamiliar to most residents, including a series of spectacular waterfalls between Pokosha Pass and Clowhom Valley. All photos courtesy Geoff Breckner

“With 10 capable guys and permission it could be finished in a week or two,” Breckner tells me by phone from Squamish. “But there are channels to go through, rules to be followed … funding.”

Breckner is recovering from major back surgery. When his doctor advised him to exercise he began hiking into the backcountry near his home in Squamish. The 53-year-old estimates he spent 200 hours during the last two summers working on the Squamish end of the trail.

A self-described “mountainbiking nut,” and “bush rat,” Breckner grew up in Deep Cove when the sport was still a novelty. He opened Pemberton’s first bike store, High Line Cycles, in 1994. A trail connecting Squamish with the Sunshine Coast makes a lot of sense, he says.

“I thought this was a great place for a bike trail. I knew there were logging roads up there and I researched as much as I could, checking out the feasibility of a route to Sechelt.”

Geoff Breckner’s tent at the south side of Pokosha Pass, near Mount Jimmy Jimmy.

Geoff Breckner’s tent at the south side of Pokosha Pass, near Mount Jimmy Jimmy.

Visit Breckner’s Facebook site ‘Squamish to Sechelt Trail’ and you’ll see a Google Earth image of the proposed route. From Upper Squamish and the Ashlu River Road, the route first heads north over existing trail through 4,000-foot Pokosha Pass before heading south, then due west following Clowhom Lake to Salmon Inlet, skirting the Tetrahedron Provincial Park, and on towards Sechelt via the Coast Gravity Bike Park.

About 55 kilometres of double track roads, and 20 kilometres of single track trails make up the route, says Breckner. The 10 kilometres still to be cleared comprise three sections of one kilometer, four kilometres and five kilometres.

“Once complete, it would be a long ride – two days for most people, but I hope to have a hut or shelter so people don’t need a tent and can travel light,” says Breckner. “The main problem would be lack of use, rather than overuse. The more use the better, to keep trail maintained and established.”

Breckner has received numerous offers of help from this side of the divide. Doug Feniak of Tillicum Bay is among those pledging assistance.

A self-described mountainbiking nut, Geoff Breckner rarely goes anywhere without his ride.

A self-described mountainbiking nut, Geoff Breckner rarely goes anywhere without his ride.

Feniak grew up riding with Breckner in Deep Cove. “It was a dream of ours when we were young, to be able to ride from Squamish to the Coast,” says Feniak. “We hiked into the Tetrahedron in August, looking for the best way. It’s super steep into Thornhill Creek but it shouldn’t be too bad after that because it’s old roads covered with Alders.”

Trails are in the Feniak family’s blood. Wife Jessica Huntington and son Linden both build trails, the latter professionally. Daughter, Holly, was 2012 downhill mountainbike Junior World Champion.

Doug says he expects to have a group working on this end of the trail in the fall.

“It would certainly be good for tourism here and I could see the B.C. Bike Race using it,” says Feniak.

Long-time local trailbuilder, Richard Culbert, says a trail to Squamish is “common sense”.

Culbert built the trail to the summit of Mt. Elphinstone, opening it on his 70th birthday. Now at 75, he’s busy clearing a trail up 4,700-foot Polytope Peak, which connects with Rainy River Road and Port Mellon due south. He believes that a trail from Squamish stands a better chance of completion if it veers south to Port Mellon, rather than to Sechelt.

Salmon Inlet from the top of Gray Creek Forest Service Road, looking north across Thornhill towards Clowhom valley. It's about 60km from here to upper Squamish.

Salmon Inlet from the top of Gray Creek Forest Service Road, looking north across Thornhill towards Clowhom valley. It’s about 60km from here to upper Squamish.

“The trail I’m working on is about a kilometer from a logging road, which appears to connect with this route,” says Culbert pointing at a printed version of Breckner’s route. “It also avoids Thornhill Creek [near Salmon Inlet] where the road is covered in alders.”

Warren Hansen concurs. “That gap after Salmon Inlet is some of the most rugged terrain I’ve ever walked in,” says Hansen, forester/area manager for Chartwell Consultants and an avid trailbuilder. “A lot of that area was logged in the 60s and 70s, so we’re talking about logging roads half a century old – many of which have been heavily deactivated and are covered in alder.

“I admire following an idea, but I worry about the sustainability of it,” adds Hansen. “The skeptical side of me thinks that there won’t be enough people using it. It will need to be on a lot of people’s bucket lists to make it sustainable.”

Hansen identifies with Breckner on one level.

“I believe in unfettered access to crown land. You live in the city, you can’t do this and that, but you have spoon-fed amenities. In a rural environment you don’t have those amenities, but you do have unfettered access to crown land. You can hike it, bike it, pick mushrooms in it, build trails. So you use it as you see fit, knowing that one day, it might be logged.”

Perhaps the person most excited about a possible connection is Bjorn Enga. The Granthams Landing-based filmmaker is the founder of Kranked, an online store for electric-assisted mountainbikes. They may upset purists, but bikes capable of climbing mountains in minutes, as opposed to hours, are catching on, says Enga.

“I’ve been riding on the Coast since 2000, and it’s an amazing coastline,” he says. “Suddenly, I’m thinking how much more I can see up there riding an e-bike. Imagine how phenomenal it would be to offer overnight tours with a fully charged battery for the next day.

“The Sea-to-Sky Corridor could become the e-bike capital of the world.”

Enga is helping Breckner with route planning and believes that trail completion is a matter of when, not if.

“Geoff goes way back to the start of mountainbike culture, before the glamour of the parks,” says Enga. “He’s done the hard part and one way or another, the trail will happen.”

In the meantime, some adventurers will continue to blaze their own trails. It seems as though everyone on the Sunshine Coast knows “a guy” who knows a route to Squamish. But their identity can be as elusive as the route.

More falls in the backcountry between Squamish and the Sunshine Coast.

More falls in the backcountry between Squamish and the Sunshine Coast.

Not so, Todd Lawson and friends, whose epic three-day trek from Lake Lovely Water, Squamish, to Sechelt via Clowhom Lake and Salmon Inlet, was featured in a 2014 issue of Mountain Life magazine. The trio packed inflatable stand-up paddleboards for the trip, which featured untold hours of bushwhacking through endless alder roots and Devil’s Club – an experience Lawson described in the story as “torture”. (He also wrote of the route, “It looked good on a laptop.”)

A different hazard awaited Denis Rogers of Sechelt, and fellow Coasters Mark Guignard and Al Jenkins, who hiked to Squamish in 2004 after being dropped by boat at the head of Narrows Inlet.

“It took us five days,” says Rogers, whose group followed a route from the head of Tzoonie Valley to a 4,800-foot pass, and then down to Falk Creek and a logging road leading to the Ashlu River and Squamish beyond.

“The third day was an interesting one,” recalls Rogers. “I fell in a lake and broke my watch, and Mark, the only one of us who didn’t bring bear spray, had an encounter with a black bear. Mark was about 20 yards ahead of us, picking his way through the boulders, when we shouted to him that a bear was taking an interest in him.

“The bear started down towards him, but then turned back. We suggested that perhaps the bear had been deterred by an offensive smell.”

Some hazards you won’t find on any map.

Exploring Edmonton

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Keeping cool in Edmonton's hot summer means a trip to the Legislature's fountains for many families.

Keeping cool in Edmonton’s hot summer means a trip to the Legislature’s fountains for some families.

Guest blog by Leah Judd

The guidelines were simple enough: find a destination within a 24 hour train ride that didn’t involve many transfers, somewhere safe, warm and relatively cheap. After eliminating San Francisco (Comfort Inn $350USD/night), and Eugene (three transfers) my friend Signy and I narrowed down the choices to Edmonton.  But did Edmonton have any kind of cool factor, something you could brag about on Facebook? Apparently not, as many friends thought we were being sent to Edmonton as a punishment of some kind.  Even Edmontonians were surprised that Edmonton was our destination, rather than just a layover.

Via Rail offers a spectacular and affordable service through the Rockies into Edmonton. Departing Vancouver early Sunday evening, the view along the Fraser River was so different than the one from a car window. Close to the water, we chugged through suburbs and industrial parks where the tracks lay hidden. Our beds for the night were a couple of upper bunks, with more than enough room to spread out and thick privacy curtains. Our “Sleeper Plus” fare included three meals in the dining car, and each meal was a treat. Booking the last sitting for each meal meant we had extra time to enjoy the food and take in the scenery.  The dome car had seats available most of the day, making it easier to spot the moose and the Big Horn sheep alongside the tracks.  We also had an hour to explore Jasper while other passengers unloaded for their visit to the Rockies. Jasper tourism didn’t seem to take advantage of our layover – short term bike rentals,  a quick taxi tour or a guided walk would have helped make the most of our time in Jasper. Instead we wandered around, admiring the Fifties architecture of the shops and wondering about the history of the town.

Edmonton's High Level Bridge offers a great perspective of the city.

Edmonton’s High Level Bridge offers a great perspective of the city.

After 27 wonderful hours on Via Rail from Vancouver, Edmonton was the perfect summer destination. We stayed in Old Strathcona – south of downtown across the North Saskatchewan River – which certainly amped up the cool factor. Bearded and bespectacled gentlemen serving coffee and selling used books convinced us that we had hit Edmonton’s hipster ‘hood. With an original Army and Navy department store and few chain stores, Whyte Avenue had plenty of shops to browse for locals and tourists escaping the heat.  An hour spent at the Wee Book Inn meant my hand luggage was overweight on the return flight!

Walking across the High Level Bridge gave us a great perspective of the city. The Legislature Building sits beautifully surrounded by 56 acres of manicured trees, lawns and gardens. A free tour of the “Ledge” provided great anecdotes from Alberta’s history, but the origins of the palm trees growing in the main dome of the building remain a mystery! Most impressive was the mirror pool in front of the Legislative Building.  Coming from drought ridden BC it was surprising to see kids swimming in the fountains in front of the Government buildings. Not just one or two families letting their kids cool their feet in the pool, but rather whole groups of summer campers enjoying a dip and spraying water guns to boost the fun factor. Everywhere we went in Edmonton locals were swimming in fountains and making the most of summer in the city.

Serenity now at the Mirror Pond outside the Alberta 'Ledge'.

Serenity now at the Mirror Pond outside the Alberta ‘Ledge’.

Teaching Canadian history was my excuse for dragging Signy to Fort Edmonton. Once located in view of the Legislature Building and downtown Edmonton, many of the buildings were reconstructed further down the South bank of the North Saskatchewan River. Fort Edmonton now houses a replica HBC fur trading fort circa 1846, as well as three community streets from Edmonton’s past: 1885 Street, 1905 Street, and 1920 Street. Costumed performers and staff are found in many of the buildings and happily answer questions and share stories from Edmonton’s history. If taking Via Rail from BC wasn’t enough to quench our thirst for rail travel, a steam train transports visitors around Fort Edmonton. It could’ve felt a little hokey, but the Fort did a great job in providing visual insights of how Europeans settled into Canada’s wilderness.

Inside Fort Edmonton.

Inside Fort Edmonton.

Despite being known as “Festival City” Signy and I managed to hit Edmonton in the one week of summer without a festival. But we found some local musical talent in El Cortez Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar, and a John A. Macdonald doppelganger in the Confederation Lounge of the Fairmont Macdonald. Chasing instagram suggestions led us to The Common, a lounge with an attitude. Featuring DJs, locally sourced food and a dance floor, The Common felt like we found Edmonton’s edge, where suits mix with denim.

Travelling with Via Rail allowed us four nights in Edmonton, before The Canadian made its way back from Toronto to Vancouver. Checking in with Via Rail the night before our return trip we found our departure was to be delayed between 12 – 16 hours, a day more than our budget allowed. So after an hour and thirteen minutes in the air and over 1,100km of train track below us, we returned to Vancouver, already missing Edmonton’s joie de vivre.

 

If you go

For all matters tourism, visit Explore Edmonton.

For the latest train details and deals, visit Via Rail.

For a trip back in time, visit Fort Edmonton.

Written by nevjudd

August 17, 2015 at 11:43 am

Whistler mild and wild

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The Polaris 570 cc RZR has never met an obstacle it didn't like.

The Polaris 570 cc RZR has never met an obstacle it didn’t like.

Close to the highest point of Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Course, the Blackcomb River dissects the manicured greenery and drops the air temperature about 15 degrees. The water’s arrived directly from the Horstman Glacier atop Blackcomb peak, which explains the cold and why this is a popular spot during record-breaking heat.

“It’s like instant air conditioning,” says a friend. It also makes the mosquitoes disappear, I think to myself. At the clubhouse, we’d just finished an indulgent meal, which somehow featured bacon in every course, including the caesar aperitif and the Nanaimo bar dessert. The temperature is still in the 20s and haze from the Pemberton forest fire lingers.

If you like your adventure on the mild side, the Golf Clubhouse Dinner and Nature Tour is right up your fairway. Enjoy dinner as the sun sets behind Rainbow Mountain, then board a golf cart for a nature tour of the course. The carts are equipped with GPS, which seems like overkill to me, (how hard can it be to navigate 18 numbered holes?) but given the 400-foot climb in places, I’m happy not to be walking.

The Fairmont's Golf Clubhouse Dinner and Nature Tour covers several food groups, but mostly bacon.

The Fairmont’s Golf Clubhouse Dinner and Nature Tour covers several food groups, especially bacon.

Even for non-golfers like me, there’s much to enjoy about the tour, which traverses creeks and milky-green glacier-fed ponds, ancient Douglas Fir, and granite bluffs. Sadly, the bears aren’t out tonight, but a protective mother grouse is strutting around the 13th hole with her three chicks in tow. The course has erected bat houses close to the 18th green, with more in mind than just encouraging wildlife. A single brown bat eats up to 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour!

If you like your adventure in something more agile than a golf cart, a RZR (that’s “Razor” when you say it out loud) Tour will safely push you a little further beyond your comfort zone. RZRs are four-wheeled, off-road vehicles capable of negotiating the gnarliest of boulder-strewn logging roads and creek beds. The morning after our night at the golf course, we rise early at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler for a RZR Alpine Sunrise Tour by The Adventure Group (TAG). Alongside its ever popular Superfly Ziplines at Cougar Mountain, about 10 minutes’ drive from Whistler, TAG’s RZR tours are an exhilarating way to quickly find yourself in the rarefied air, high up in Whistler’s backcountry.

With a guide driver at the front and ‘spotter’ at the back, we each board a Polaris 570 cc RZR and make final adjustments to dust masks, goggles and helmets. With no rain for weeks, and exposed to the elements but for a roll cage, we’re about to get extremely dusty. And as I turn the ignition key sparking the engine to life, I can’t help thinking a GPS would be better suited to a RZR than a golf cart.

Superfly ziplines 4

For the ultimate in thrill rides, Superfly Ziplines are hard to beat.

It’s a bumpy ride – extremely bumpy in places – but with one foot firmly applied to the gas, the RZR is capable of clearing anything in its path. The bucket seats absorb most of the jolts and on the steep bits, the brakes respond better to a few taps than to sustained pressure.

Our tour takes us through Ancient Cedars and Showh Lakes, hiking areas known for giant trees and good fishing. Lupins and fireweed are everywhere at about 3,500 feet, where we park to admire hazy views of Mount Currie and the Soo River below. It’s a world away from the bustle of Whistler village, and I begin to think of how much fun it would be to ride a snowmobile up here. Back on this tour, there’s more fun to be had at an obstacle course created in a clearing that features a teeter totter, berms, and steep embankment trails for those who hold their nerve.

During the 15-kilometer, two-and-a-half tour, we rarely exceed 25 km/h, such is the heavy going on Cougar Mountain’s rocky roads. But bouncing around on trails all but impassable to any other vehicle is half the fun. For anyone with $11,000 to spend and a quiet air strip, RZRs can accelerate from 0 to 35 mph in four seconds, and clock over 80 mph!

For similar speeds at less money, you might want to check out the Superfly Ziplines.

If you go

Fairmont Chateau Whistler offers numerous summer packages, including golf vacations and the B.C. resident accommodation offer, which saves 15% off best rates. Visit fairmont.com/whistler

The Adventure Group’s Alpine Sunrise Tour at Cougar Mountain costs $219 (2-seater) or $319 (4-seater). TAG also offers a two-hour Wilderness Ride and a three-hour B.C. Tour. For details, call 1 855 824-9955 or visit tagwhistler.com/

Fairmont’s Golf Clubhouse Dinner and Nature Tour includes a three-course dinner and costs $69 per adult ($35 per child) and is available Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Call 604 938-8000.

L.A. on two wheels

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Developer Abbot Kinney built the canals of Little Venice in 1905. A few survive today and restoration work in the 90s made Little Venice one of L.A.'s most desireable neighbourhoods.

Developer Abbot Kinney built the canals of Little Venice in 1905. A few of the canals survive today and restoration work in the 90s made Little Venice one of L.A.’s most desirable neighbourhoods.

At the corner of Cynthia Street and North Doheny Drive in Los Angeles stands a bland-looking triplex. With so much architectural extravagance across the road in Beverly Hills, the gated compound at 882 North Doheny is on the West Hollywood side of the street and barely warrants a second look.

Until Erick Martinez tells us to take a second look.

We dismount our bikes and catch our breath. We’ve been following our guide, Erick, mostly uphill from Bikes and Hikes L.A.’s store on Santa Monica Boulevard.

“In 1952, this used to be a five-unit apartment complex with a very famous resident in apartment 3,” says Erick. “Any guesses?”

The Judd family is still catching its collective breath.

“James Dean?” I offer between gasps. “Bette Davis?” guesses my wife, Leah.

“None other than Marilyn Monroe lived here,” says Erick. Turns out she wasn’t the only famous resident because Frank Sinatra lived next door.

Today, the building is on the market for $4.2 million, a modest amount compared to the Carolwood Estate up the road in Holmby Hills. Once owned by Walt Disney, it’s now selling for $92 million.

Bel Air residents don't get angry at intruders, their sculptures do.

Bel Air residents don’t get angry at intruders, their sculptures do.

On a 32-mile (51 kilometres) bicycle tour of Los Angeles, you quickly realize that everything is relative. And everything has a price.

Unsurprisingly for a city synonymous with smog and freeways, L.A. is not known for cycling. One magazine has described it as “a pathologically unfriendly bike city”. My friend Lars, a long-time L.A. resident now living in Canada, offered to rent us a car when he heard of our bike plans. He also wondered whether we were crazy.

But then getting somewhere wasn’t the point. We were on vacation and with just four full days in the city, we were more interested in the journey rather than the destination. Which in L.A. is just as well: several times during our seven-hour ride, we passed gridlocked motorists.

We crossed Sunset Boulevard, stopping briefly to look east at the Whisky a Go Go nightclub, where The Doors, Motley Crüe, and Guns ‘n Roses got their start. A block farther east is the Viper Room, where actor River Phoenix died of drug-induced heart failure in 1993. We cycled west, passing the 31-storey Sierra Towers, where Lindsay Lohan lived for a while after being kicked out of the venerable Chateau Marmont for partying too hard. At least she got out. The Chateau Marmont, built on Sunset Boulevard in 1929, is where actor John Belushi partied even harder and died of a drug overdose in 1982.

You don’t have to scratch L.A.’s surface too hard to find its seedy underbelly, which delivers titillating fodder for Erick’s tour. Even the handsome-looking Greystone Mansion – 55 rooms behind a mock Tudor façade, amid 16 acres of exquisitely manicured gardens – has a scandalous past.

Greystone Mansion - 55 rooms and a murky past.

Greystone Mansion – 55 rooms and a murky past.

Oil tycoon Edward Doheny paid $3 million to have Greystone built for his son Ned in 1928, making it California’s most expensive home at the time. In 1929, four months after he and his family moved in, Ned died in a murder-suicide with his secretary, Hugh Plunket. There are plenty of theories for the tragedy and Erick knows all of them. More memorable for me though was a different tale about a large spotlight mounted on Greystone’s roof. So concerned with security was Ned’s widow Lucy, she had the spotlight mounted as a means to alert Beverly Hills police down the hill in case of intruders. According to Erick, the spotlight later inspired the Bat-Signal used by the Gotham City Police Department.

Today, Greystone is owned by the City of Beverly Hills and is maintained as a park. It’s a glorious place to dismount a bike and wander the grounds, and it’s no surprise to learn that the location appears in dozens of movies, including The Big Lebowski, The Bodyguard, X-Men, and The Social Network.

Erick led us west, stopping briefly to look at homes once owned by Tom Cruise, David Beckham and Lucille Ball, who used to personally answer trick or treaters at the door every Halloween. We cycled past the Bel Air Golf Club, where membership hinges on a tidy $2.1-million fee and approval by the board, and then past UCLA, built in 1919.

Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood and Westwood all have their share of climbs, but they are quiet, bike-friendly neighbourhoods. And even back on Santa Monica Boulevard, where we headed west to the coast, a dedicated bike lane made for smooth passage.

More hair-raising was cycling the beach path from Santa Monica Pier to Venice Beach (think Stanley Park seawall in summer and directionally challenged pedestrians) where we stopped for a picnic and watched boarders defy gravity in the skateboard park. Inland a few blocks, we lingered at Venice Canals, my favourite part of the tour.

Big hair at the skate park in Venice Beach.

Big hair at the skate park in Venice Beach.

To me, the audacity of attempting to recreating Venice, Italy, almost 10,000 kilometres away in Los Angeles, California, epitomizes the American dream at its eccentric best. Developer Abbot Kinney built the canals in 1905, complete with decorative lights, gondoliers and arched bridges. Promoted at the time as “America’s most unique attraction,” Kinney’s vision of a cultural mecca failed to materialize. Amusement parks and freak shows proved more popular with the locals and the advent of the automobile led to most of the canals being filled in to create roads. The canals are a fraction of their former size, but restoration work in the 1990s has since made the neighbourhood one of L.A.’s most desirable.

We circled Marina del Rey and its seemingly endless flotillas of yachts and speedboats to Ballona Creek. Now entering the seventh hour of our tour and with the December sun setting behind us, we picked up the pace on the Ballona Creek Bike Path. Like the canals of Venice, much of the Ballona Creek corridor succumbed to concrete in the 1930s, with dire results for the area’s wetlands. What’s left of the estuary has been contested by developers and environmentalists for decades. Oblivious to the numerous ongoing court battles over the area, and in spite of being surrounded by dense development, Ballona Creek still supports a wide array of wildlife, including monarch butterflies, and great horned owls.

Twilight on the Ballona Creek Bike Path.

Twilight on the Ballona Creek Bike Path.

On our final leg of the tour, the indefatigable Erick continued to supply us with an impressive array of anecdotes. In Culver City we stopped at the Culver Hotel, whose six storeys made it a “skyscraper” in 1924 when it opened. Legend has it that Charlie Chaplin lost ownership of the place to John Wayne in a game of poker, while in 1939, the hotel was the scene of wild parties thrown by The Wizard of Oz cast, most notably, the Munchkins.

It was dark by the time we returned our bikes to the Bikes and Hikes outlet on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. After nearly seven hours on and off a saddle, I felt tired but elated to have seen and learned so much. I spent weeks in this city during visits as a backpacker in the 1980s. Yet in one day on a bike, I’d discovered more of L.A. than all those trips combined.

  • The L.A. in a day bike tour costs $162 per person, covers 32 miles (51 kilometres), and takes about six hours. Visit bikesandhikesla.com for more details.

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