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The one that didn’t get away

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Ryan Judd consoles himself with the thought that it’s a dry cold, as he patiently waits for a bite.

Brad Knowles doesn’t care much for bananas. Not when he’s fishing, at least.

“Did you bring bananas?” he asks from the driver’s seat.

I check with my son Ryan, sitting across from me in the back of Brad’s truck. No, we didn’t bring bananas. We check our packed lunch. No bananas, although the hot chocolate seems to have spilled.

Bananas will jinx fishing every time,” says Brad, who double checks that his assistant guide, Matt, has not brought bananas. Matt, a bass fisherman from Mississauga – where he’s known to some as “The Bassassassin” – knows better than to bring bananas.

We’re on our way to Blackwater Lake, about an hour out of Whistler, east of Pemberton. From mid-November to late-March, give or take, the 6.5-kilometre lake near D’Arcy is ice fishing country.

6.5-kilometre Blackwater Lake, about an hour out of Whistler, east of Pemberton.

At this time of year, Brad’s company, Pemberton Fish Finder, runs ice fishing tours. “It’s for people who want to escape the Whistler bubble and experience the lakes, wildlife, catch some fish and listen to some stories,” says Brad.

Brad has lots of stories. He grew up in Pemberton and is something of a local celebrity, starring in his own fishing show on Whistler Cable for a while. Together with running a fishing store, Pemberton Fish Finder keeps him busy year round.

My only adult fishing story involves a crab trap and a capsized canoe. I had always assumed ice fishing would involve a flight to Prince George or Edmonton.

Brad Knowles, owner-operator of Pemberton Fish Finder.

Blackwater Lake is idyllic. Serrated peaks loom all around us and under blue sky, the ice is blinding. The air temperature is just below freezing, there’s no wind, and the sun is flirting with the clouds. But for a creek in the distance, the only thing I can hear is my heart beating.

“Australians lose their marbles when they see this,” says Brad. “They ask me, ‘You’re sure we can stand on this?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m 300 pounds, you can stand on this.’”

Brad sets about cutting holes in the ice with a gas-powered auger. He and Matt set us up with rods and we bait the hooks with freshwater shrimp, which are native to the lake. Everyone gets an upturned bright orange bucket and a thermal pad to sit on.

And that’s it, we’re ice fishing.

We immediately get bites. Brad and Matt coach us on setting the hook, otherwise known as the hook-set – a quick upward thrust of the rod before reeling in. One by one though, we lose the bites and rue our bad luck.

“Well there’s a reason it’s called fishing and not catching,” says Brad.

After about an hour, Brad carves out new holes and we spread out. Under his guidance, I switch bait from shrimp to trout roe. Ryan and Matt are several hundred yards away but the air is so still, it’s easy to talk without raising our voices.

A lone whisky jack keeps us company, occasionally stealing a shrimp from the bait bucket, and otherwise mocking us.

A lone whisky jack steals bait and taunts us.

Brad’s been fishing in this region for about 35 years, chasing all five salmon species, plus pike minnows, steelhead, cutthroat, bull, brook, lake and rainbow trout. Together with his dad, Ivan, and his brother, Sheridan, Brad has carved out a living here and now employs his wife in the guiding business while raising three kids.

“There’s not a day I don’t wake up and look at the mountains, excited to go to work,” he says. I can see why. Fish or no fish, Blackwater Lake is quite an office. There’s a small forestry campground nearby with a dozen sites and in summer, lily pads and extensive weed beds flourish here. And somewhere beneath our boots and buckets today are rainbow trout ranging from 10 to 25 inches and weighing as much as six pounds.

Just as I’m beginning to think the shrimp bait looks tasty we decide that it’s lunchtime.

Brad carves pairs of holes a few inches apart and sets up a shelter in seconds. We’re not cold but from inside the shelter the water appears even clearer through holes that take on a luminous quality. “Sometimes you can see the fish before you catch them,” says Brad. For now, we watch our bait descend beyond sight and remain ever hopeful.

No bites but the sandwiches help.

As 2 o’clock nears, Brad suggests we concentrate on a shaded corner of the lake. We exit the shelter and set up one last time, trying to ignore the creeping cold. I start to wonder whether one of us is actually carrying a concealed banana. Then I think back to growing up in the UK. As a schoolboy, I used to accompany friends on night-fishing trips in the Kent countryside. In two years of those fishing trips, I never caught anything but a cider hangover. It occurs to me that not only have I never caught a fish, I’ve never actually seen anyone else catch a fish.

Perhaps I’m cursed?

One rainbow trout, about 10 inches long and just in time for dinner!

I decide not to share this thought with Ryan, and instead concentrate on the hole, which I realize is freezing before my very eyes. Then I’m shaken from my thoughts.

“YEAH!” shouts Brad. I turn just in time to see the rod bend for a moment and a plump rainbow trout flop into Brad’s palm. “No way we were going before we got one,” says Brad as we celebrate the catch. It’s closer to the 10-inch end of the scale and a beautiful looking fish.

Hopeful of more to come we continue fishing for another half an hour, but to no avail. “That’s fishing,” says Brad philosophically as he drops us back in Whistler. Ryan and I both warm up while a friend cooks our catch. It’s more than worth the wait: fresh, flavorful and not even a hint of banana.

nevjudd.com

If you go

For more information about guided ice fishing trips with Pemberton Fish Finder, visit pembertonfishfinder.com.

Do not bring bananas.

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Trail and tribulation in Powell River

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Make it to the top of Tin Hat Mountain and you will be rewarded with 360-degree views of more than two-dozen lakes. Plus you’re half way to finishing the trail! Photos courtesy Eagle Walz

Connecting Sarah Point, near Lund, to the ferry terminal at Saltery Bay, the 180-kilometre Sunshine Coast Trail now ranks among the greatest hiking trails in the world, according to Explore Magazine’s Top-50 list. Not only is it more than twice the length of the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, it’s Canada’s longest hut-to-hut hiking trail, and it’s free!

The trail’s mix of old growth forest, mountain peaks and sandy shoreline, attract thousands of visitors from around the world each year. Fifteen beautifully constructed huts en route provide overnight accommodation on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“It’s beginning to be seen as an economic driver in Powell River,” says Eagle Walz. “It’s the biggest recreational tourism resource we have.”

Walz is a trailblazer, one of a handful of outdoor enthusiasts who in 1992 realized that accessible old growth on the Upper Sunshine Coast was fast disappearing. They formed the Powell River Parks and Wilderness Society (PRPAWS), a non-profit committed to setting aside protected areas on a trail sufficiently unique to lure locals and tourists alike.

Eagle Walz in his element, hiking the Sunshine Coast Trail. Walz is a co-founder of the Powell River Parks and Wilderness Society, the non-profit behind the trail’s creation and upkeep.

PRPAWS mobilized volunteer work parties and began connecting the bushwhacked paths, deactivated roads, and disused railway grades left behind by a century of logging. In some places that meant constructing bridges – some 120 feet long – to ford creeks and rivers. They found enduring allies in a group of bloody old men, otherwise known as the BOMB (Bloody Old Men’s Brigade) squad. Comprising mostly retirees, many of whom practiced their trades at Powell River’s paper mill, the BOMB squad helped build bridges and huts, and are still counted upon for help in the trail’s never-ending maintenance.

The first time I interviewed Eagle for a story back in 2000, he was fending off criticism from a variety of sources over liability issues and the environmental concerns about sensitive wildlife areas. Walz and his cohorts had run into a host of jurisdictional challenges, too. Crown forest land, private land owned by logging companies, and Tla’amin Nation land are among the eight jurisdictions through which the trail crosses.

Seventeen years ago, he addressed those questions with a question of his own: “Would the trail have been built if we’d settled all these issues first?”

When I caught up with Eagle earlier this year, that question at least, appeared to have been answered. “You couldn’t start this trail now and try and make this happen,” says Eagle. “But that doesn’t mean the logging companies won’t stop logging. Western Forest Products, with their tree farm licence, they are the biggest interest. We manage to work together and eke out considerations. I only wish it would be a bigger buffer along the trail than we get most of the time.”

That buffer can be from 10 to 30 metres, sometimes more. Occasionally, the trail must be relocated in places. Overall, says Eagle, compromise and varying levels of protection ensure the trail’s viability.

“Our vision is that in 100 years, we’ll have no more logging near the trail,” he says. “It will be designated an old growth trail to be enjoyed by future generations. It needs someone to be the champion for it. We’re hopeful the younger generation will take over and certainly a lot of younger people are using it. People of all ages.”

Perhaps more challenging to PRPAWS is pressure on the trail from non-hikers.

“Mountain biking is very popular here, as it is everywhere else. The pressure is always to turn something into something else. But a multi-use trail wouldn’t have the same appeal as a single-use trail. We’re struggling to remain a hiking trail only because that’s what’s given us the edge in the market place. That’s what is bringing people by the thousands from all over the world to Powell River.”

In the meantime, trail maintenance keeps Eagle busier than ever. Ten years retired as a teacher, Eagle says he has time to enjoy the trail, but it’s usually when he’s part of a work party. The day I call him, he’s about to leave on just such a mission – a five-night trip to Confederation Lake, a steep section of the trail in Inland Lake Park, north of Powell River.

Eagle Walz takes in the view from the hut atop Tin Hat Mountain.

It’s a favourite spot, he says, before adding: “I think usually where I’m working, I like that part the best.” Eagle’s other cherished locations include Tin Hat Mountain with its 360-degree views of more than two-dozen lakes; and Mount Troubridge, popular for its magnificent stands of Douglas fir and yellow-cedar old growth.

When Eagle’s not on the trail, he’s writing about it – though not in the way he might have envisaged in 1972, when he moved to Powell River to write poetry: “I write hundreds and hundreds of emails,” he says in a deadpan voice. “That’s basically the extent of my writing.”

  • Visit http://sunshinecoast-trail.com/ for everything you need to know about planning a trip, including the definitive guide to the trail, written by – who else? – Eagle Walz.

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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.

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.

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.

palms

Whistler from the saddle

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It's not Roman Holiday, but Green Lake, Whistler is a good substitute for anyone on a scooter.

It’s not Roman Holiday, but Green Lake, Whistler, is a good substitute for anyone on a scooter.

When brothers Adam and David Vavrik travelled from their native Czech Republic to Whistler on work visas they quickly noticed something about the mountain resort. Most adventure here requires some kind of physical effort. Five years after the Olympics, Whistler still feels like an Olympic village whatever the season. Aside from the hours between midnight and 4 a.m., people here ooze health. A culture based on outdoor pursuits will do that to visitors and residents.

But suppose your shredding days are behind you, yet you still crave a little speed? Or, like me, you can no longer keep up with your teenagers on the hill, but still want some excitement off-piste. Despite being in their 20s and heavily into snowboards and skateboarding, the Vavrik brothers asked themselves the same question.

The answer was Spitfire Scooters, a fleet of 2014 Yamaha BWs and 2013 Honda Giornos, available to rent from the Vavriks’ base at the Summit Lodge Boutique Hotel on Main Street.

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49cc Honda Giornos are sleek, elegant, and run on about $6 of gas a day.

 

In the interests of full disclosure, I’d come for the second annual Whistler Village Beer Festival – four days of brewmaster dinners, cask showdowns, free tastings, obscenely large hangover-themed breakfasts, (thank-you Dubh Linn Gate) and a glorious Saturday afternoon festival in Whistler Olympic Plaza. Getting around to more than 150 beers from 50 breweries had seemed so exciting. But that was on Thursday. By Sunday morning I’d fallen out of love with beer, if only for a day.

The Summit Lodge offers Norco City Glide bikes for guests to borrow free. But with late-summer temperatures still in the high 20s, we were looking for wind in our hair, not sweat. So for the first time in our 40-something lives, my wife Leah and I rented scooters. Leah’s always had this thing about Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, particularly the scene where she rides a Vespa with Gregory Peck through Rome. So like Audrey, she wore a dress and sunglasses. Unlike Gregory, I wore shorts and T-shirt.

With two hours to spare and David Vavrik as our guide, Whistler beyond the village awaited us. After a brief orientation, we test-drove the 49cc Honda Giornos up and down Main Street. Storage under the seats allowed plenty of room for our backpacks, and we wouldn’t be stopping for gas any time soon. You could drive this model all day for about $6, according to David.

Nothing good can come from Beer Jenga.

Nothing good can come from Beer Jenga.

They’re elegant, too, with sleek curves and a cherry-red paintjob. The helmets by contrast, are decidedly un-Audrey Hepburn, but mandatory: Pity – but probably for the best. Soon we were buzzing along Blackcomb Way and up the ever-so winding Glacier Drive, past the tube park and onto the Whistler Sliding Centre. The place was deserted and we spent about 10 minutes walking the track and reminiscing about the 2010 Olympics and Jon Montgomery’s skeleton gold. Skeleton experience programs offer the public a chance to go headfirst, 100 km/h, David informed us. Not today, I thought. Riding a scooter at 50 km/h was more our style.

Riding the Sea-to-Sky Highway to our next stop, Green Lake lookout, allowed us to open up the throttle and push close to the bike’s top speed of 60 km/h. We stopped to admire the view and right on cue, a float plane took off from across the lake and into the cloudless blue sky.

I was glad to be off the highway and onto Alta Lake Road where traffic was scarcer. We passed Rainbow Park on Alta Lake and then on past Nita Lake and Alpha Lake, stopping when we felt the urge to take photos. The advantage of a scooter became more obvious with every kilometer clocked. For an afternoon or day of sightseeing beyond the village, this ride offers great freedom to see so much more of Whistler and its parks and lakes.

The oysters disappeared moments after this photo at Bearfoot Bistro, Whistler.

The oysters disappeared moments after this photo at Bearfoot Bistro, Whistler.

The highway with its fast-moving traffic and sketchy hard shoulder can be a little nerve-racking when you’re on a scooter. On the ride back from Alpha Lake through Whistler Creekside I realized my mid-life crisis – when it inevitably hits – will not feature a Harley Davidson. But I’d rent a scooter again in a heartbeat.

Back in the village, energized by equal parts adrenaline and fresh air, we made like Audrey and Greg and went for cocktails on the patio at the Bearfoot Bistro. A half dozen oysters led to a dozen more, accompanied by Pimm’s Royale for Audrey and a Whistler Grapefruit Ale for Greg.

Turned out Greg wasn’t through with beer after all.

If you go:

Starting May 1, Spitfire rents scooters for $25 an hour; or $120 for 24 hours. Guided tours are $120 (single), $100 (two or three riders), or $80 for four or more riders. Visit spitfirerentals.ca or call 604 938-3686.

Besides being a great, centrally located place to stay, Summit Lodge offers some handy, complimentary extras, such as snowshoes in the winter; bikes in the summer. There’s hot chocolate happy hour, plus smores and roast chestnuts by the pool. The free beer tasting in the lobby during the beer festival was most welcome, too! Visit summitlodge.com or call 1 888-913-8811.

The Bearfoot Bistro can justifiably claim to offer more than just a meal. Learn the fine art of Champagne sabering in the Bearfoot’s wine cellar surrounded by more than 20,000 bottles; brave minus 32 Celsius in a $1,400 Canada Goose, Arctic-ready parka and taste vodkas in the restaurant’s Belvedere Ice Room; or enjoy the Bearfoot’s $68 five-course menu. Details at bearfootbistro.com

This year’s Whistler Village Beer Festival will be from Sept. 17 to 20. Bookmark wvbf.ca for updates.

 

London on two wheels

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London Bicycle Tour Company guide, Tarik de Vries, in his element at Trafalgar Square.

My first job after leaving school was a stone’s throw from St. Paul’s Cathedral. Every day, I’d herd on to British Rail with a million other commuters for the 10-mile trip to Cannon Street. Not once did it ever occur to me to ride a bike.

A lot’s changed in London since 1985. British Rail’s been replaced with private train operators and fares as confusing as they are expensive. Buses don’t accept cash: Oyster cards and credit/debit cards only. Motorists pay a daily congestion charge (about $20) for the privilege of driving in the capital. And, as I write this, London’s Tube train drivers are on strike.

Again.

No wonder cycling is so popular now, and not just with Londoners; tourists, too.

Berners Tavern, at the London Edition hotel, is the sort of place Agatha Christie might have set a mystery. Nikolas Koenig photo

Berners Tavern, at the London Edition hotel, is the sort of place Agatha Christie might have set a mystery. Nikolas Koenig photo

Almost 30 years after that first job, I returned to my old London haunts this summer as a visitor with my family. We stayed a night at the London Edition in Fitzrovia, an artsy neighbourhood of galleries and upmarket stores. Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Rimbaud used to call this area home back when it had a decidedly more Bohemian edge. Accommodation was probably more affordable then, too.

The Edition is pricey, but memorable. Oak floors, wood-paneled walls, and silk area rugs make the guest rooms feel like a sophisticated hunting lodge. The hotel’s restaurant, Berners Tavern, reeks of opulence with a high ornate ceiling, decadent chandeliers, low lighting and almost every square inch of wall space covered by framed art. The staff are young and beautiful. It’s the kind of place Agatha Christie might have set a mystery.

Walking the quiet backstreets of Marylebone, Fitzrovia and Soho we first noticed just how popular cycling had become in the capital. Along with numerous people riding high-saddled, three-gear road bikes with baskets on the front and panniers on the back, we saw lots of ‘Boris Bikes’ – London’s ubiquitous hire bicycles nicknamed after Mayor Boris Johnson. Similar to North America’s Bixi Bikes, London’s hire-scheme sponsored by Barclay’s Bank supplies 10,000 bikes from 720 stations around the city. The sturdy, three-gear bicycles feature puncture-resistant tires and LED lights, and can be rented by credit/debit card for 30-minute rides.

A fleet of 'Boris Bikes'. In London, there's usually one just around the corner.

A fleet of ‘Boris Bikes’. In London, there’s usually one just around the corner.

With two days to see London, we booked two bicycle tours: the first, a Central Tour with the London Bicycle Tour Company; the second, an East End Tour with Cycle Tours of London. The Central Tour is a good place to start because it covers just about every London landmark on a tourist’s must-see list. The Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square and St. Paul’s Cathedral are among the highlights of the Central Tour, timed perfectly by our guide Tarik de Vries so we could see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.

While we watched soldiers in scarlet tunics and bearskin hats march down The Mall, Tarik regaled us with tales of over-zealous tourists bugging members of the Queen’s Guard. Soldiers standing all but motionless on guard are used to people posing for photos next to them. When that becomes a nuisance either because of physical contact or shouting, soldiers first stamp their feet, then issue a warning.

“When they raise their rifle, that’s considered a final warning,” said Tarik. “Next you’re detained.”

My favourite stop brought us to Westminster School, the only part of the tour I hadn’t visited before. Plenty of parks offer an escape from London’s crowds but the school, which stands in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, feels like a village. The streets are cobbled and on three sides of the green stand the school buildings, some of which date back to the 11th Century. Set back on the fourth side is Westminster Abbey, the traditional site for coronations and burials of Britain’s monarchy.

The peace and tranquility here – so remarkable in the centre of a city home to seven million people – contrasted dramatically with our ride to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Our approach from Smithfield Market (London’s central meat market with some absolutely gruesome history!) past the Old Bailey was busy enough before turning onto Ludgate Hill where traffic was so congested we cooled our heels on the equally congested sidewalk for a while. Congestion charge or not, motorists and pedestrians all appeared to have slowed down to admire Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece.

Shop, browse or chat - whatever floats your goat - at Spitalfields Market.

Shop, browse or chat – whatever floats your goat – at Spitalfields Market.

While Tarik covered London’s essentials, Mathew Tregaron’s East End Tour was a decidedly more offbeat excursion from a tourist’s perspective, making it all the more interesting. Tower Hamlets, so long synonymous with poverty and overcrowding, featured prominently in the tour, which also covered Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Southwark Cathedral and – a personal highlight – a ride across Tower Bridge.

Shortly after Tower Bridge we were at another old haunt, St. Katharine Docks. My dad, a marine engineer, used to bring the family here for boat shows and tall ships festivals. That was in the 1970s, shortly after St. Katharine’s warehouses were demolished and the area was commercially redeveloped. The stylish flats, yachting marina and pubs and restaurants are all still here. So, too, is the Tower Thistle Hotel, a corpulent, concrete monstrosity that epitomizes the worst of 1970s London architecture. But that’s just me.

In contrast to St. Katharine Docks, a failed attempt at gentrification is just a short ride away at Tobacco Dock. More than 200 years old, this abandoned brick and timber warehouse was turned into a shopping centre in 1990. Surrounding development failed to take off and dreams of creating an East End version of Covent Garden failed to materialize. The place has been abandoned for more than a decade. Yet until recently, piped music could be heard inside Tobacco Dock. A security guard still patrols the empty premises and, according to Mathew, spotless public toilets used to make this a timely stop on cycling tours.

Mathew Tregaron (right) of Cycle Tours of London stops for a breather at deserted Tobacco Dock.

Mathew Tregaron (right) of Cycle Tours of London stops for a breather at deserted Tobacco Dock.

Infinitely more compelling is Cable Street and a mural depicting one pivotal day in London’s political history. For centuries, Tower Hamlets, with its close proximity to the city and the Thames, attracted waves of foreign immigration looking for employment. In 1936, looking for scapegoats for the country’s perceived ills, the British Union of Fascists targeted the community for a march. Despite the protection of some 6,000 police officers, the BUF’s supporters, known as Blackshirts, more than met their match. United under the rallying cry, “They shall not pass,” as estimated 300,000 residents prevented the BUF’s entry to London’s East End, but not without considerable bloodshed.

The Battle of Cable Street mural, begun in 1976 and restored in 2011, vividly depicts the violent confrontation of that Oct. 4 day. We propped up our bikes and lingered to admire the colourful tribute to this community’s resilience.

Following French Huguenots in the 17th century, Irish in the 19th century and Ashkenazi Jews into the 20th century, Bangladeshis form the main group of immigrants living here today. On nearby Brick Lane, clubs, pubs, markets, and some of the best curry restaurants in the UK compete for space. On weekends it’s packed. On a quiet Tuesday afternoon we cycled down the middle of Brick Lane just wishing we could stop for a chicken tikka masala.

A pivotal day in London's political history is vividly depicted in the Battle of Cable Street mural.

A pivotal day in London’s political history is vividly depicted in the Battle of Cable Street mural.

Before we returned to Mathew’s bike store on Shoe Lane, we stopped at Postman’s Park, once a popular spot for General Post Office workers. In 1900 it became home to the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice. Thirteen years earlier, an ardent socialist named George Frederick Watts had first proposed a park commemorating otherwise ordinary people who’d given their lives attempting to save others. Fire, drowning and train accidents dominate the brief but brave stories documented on glazed Doulton tablets.

Like so many of the stops on Mathew’s tour, Postman’s Park felt like a refuge from London’s bustle. It was only as we left I realized that first job of mine was just a few streets away. I might have found it sooner with a bike.

If you go:

  • The London Edition recently launched a family package, featuring a loft or loft suite plus complimentary connecting room, with “big kid/little kid” treats, including a movie night and a London-inspired in-room tent. Rates start at $920 a night. For details of this and other packages visit edition-hotels.marriott.com/London
  • Cycle Tours of London’s East End Tour takes about three and a half hours and costs about $35. Details of this and other tours at biketoursoflondon.com
  • The London Bicycle Tour Company’s Central Tour takes three hours and costs about $43. For details of this and other tours, visit londonbicycle.com
  • For more information about cycling in London, check out visitlondon.com
Street art pervades Brick Lane and adjoining streets like Hanbury Street, where the giant crane by Belgian artist ROA is hard to miss. Community uproar dissuaded Tower Hamlets council from covering it with a banner before the 2012 Olympics.

Street art pervades Brick Lane and adjoining streets like Hanbury Street, where the giant crane by Belgian artist ROA is hard to miss. Community uproar dissuaded Tower Hamlets council from covering it with a banner before the 2012 Olympics.