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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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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

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