Nev Judd: Online and out there

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Get up, stand up!

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With ocean and an abundance of lakes and tidal rapids, stand-up paddleboarders are spoiled for choice on the Sunshine Coast. Photo by Alpha Adventures

One evening last year, Jamie Mani was driving home late after coaching at Chatelech Secondary, where he teaches. Awed by the beautiful sunset at Davis Bay, he instinctively pulled over to inflate his stand-up paddleboard. A few minutes later, he was plying the calm ocean with just the setting sun and a rising full moon for company: alone, or so he thought.

“This whale appears,” recalls Mani. “So, it was just me, a whale, the sunset and a full moon!”

Whether on an inflatable or a hard version, a stand-up paddleboard, or SUP as it’s commonly known, offers a variety of escapes depending on your location. On the Sunshine Coast that could mean a peaceful, flatwater glide on Trout Lake; a touring adventure up Sechelt inlet on boards equipped with dry-bags full of gear under deck-line bungees; or an ocean jaunt to Keats Island or Pasley Island off Gibsons. For experienced SUP boarders, there’s world-class surfing at the Skookumchuk near Egmont.

“We’re so lucky on the Sunshine Coast, we have access to so many styles and bodies of water – coves, lakes, inlets, open strait, wave, no-wave,” says Mani. “And on any given day, if you’re willing to travel, you’re probably going to find calm water.”

Even old people can standup paddleboard! Hitomi Makino photo

Mani runs the Wilson Creek-based outdoor adventure store, Alpha Adventures, and was among the first group of instructors to be certified to teach SUP by Paddle Canada. He introduced SUP to the Sunshine Coast through Alpha shortly after trying it while on vacation in Hawaii.

“It was early to mid 2000s and in Hawaii, SUP was already taking off. I rented a board and loved the experience. Having been a kayak guide for decades, I do love paddling. But paddle-boarding is a completely different interaction with the water. I could go surfing on it. But I could also just look down at a reef, see turtles, see fish, check out the sunset. There the visibility is so good, it was almost like I was snorkelling, but standing up.”

An avid old-school surfer, Mani quickly realized another SUP advantage.

“I’d always liked surfing so when I saw those other surfers on SUPs, I thought: ‘It looks so easy because they’re out of the water, and they are able to catch waves, and they are always back out in the lineup way faster than any of us.

“That was kind of my second epiphany; this is amazing and I’m getting older, so this is easier, so it was a natural. Whether or not it was going to work for the business, we knew it was going to be part of our lives. We were hooked.”

During the mid-2000s, as the boards began to appear in adventure stores like Alpha, many viewed SUP as a craze, sure to be short-lived.

“One of our customers, who’s actually a teaching colleague, said to me: ‘Is this going to be the Crocs of watersports?’ I can almost remember the day he came in seven years later, and he said: “I was wrong. I’d like to know more about buying a board.

“We’ve always had a strong instructional component in our business, our foundation is on teaching and lessons. We really worked hard at getting people out on the water and realizing, we don’t live in a high surf area, so you can paddle in flat water conditions, sheltered coves, lots of lakes, calm days in open water like Davis Bay.

Alpha Adventures rents and sells boards, runs lessons, and hosts Summer SUP nights. Alpha Adventures photo

“It took a little while for people to realize, I can find a use for this where I live here on the Sunshine Coast.”

Board designs have changed a lot from the 12-foot behemoths that launched the sport. For surfing, SUPs are becoming shorter with more rocker (a more dramatic curve in the board upward from nose to tail) allowing quicker turns. Hybrid SUPs are good for calm, sunset paddles or small waves at the beach. Boards are increasingly tailored to weight and body size, says Mani, with children a growing demographic. There are even highly stable SUPs for anglers!

For the extra-adventurous, there’s foil boarding, which incorporates a hydrofoil beneath the board to elevate it and create the experience of levitating across the waves. “It’s just jazzy, you’re flying!” says Mani, who is bringing a foil board to the store.

What hasn’t changed about SUP is the benefit of instruction and the need for safety.

“I see people out paddleboarding, and there’s no personal flotation device (PFD) on their vessel or on their body. They don’t have a leash, and they’re definitely not prepared to fall in the water.”

Alpha’s SUP lessons spend about 20 minutes on land discussing the board, stance, style, and safety.

“The lesson philosophy is that it’s a whole paddling experience. It’s not just ‘hey, this is a board, here’s how to paddle.’ We look at safety considerations, the weather, immersion gear.”

That way, everyone is prepared, says Mani. Perhaps for a whale, even!

Alpha Adventures photo

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Going downhill. Fast!

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“Tobogganing, which has sprung into such sudden popularity, is only a form of coasting. There is no more exciting and exhilarating sport for ladies and gentlemen than this on a clear, cold winter evening.”

  • Modern Manners and Social Forms: A Manual of the Manners and Customs of the Best Modern Society, James Bethuel Smiley, 1890

On the eastern slopes of Dakota Ridge, Emma Judd prepares for takeoff!

 

Even down at sea level and despite its name, the Sunshine Coast is no stranger to snow. Anyone who has grown up here can attest to cold snaps and snow days. Despite claiming to be 29, my mum-in-law Mary Vandeberg recalls the winter of 1954 vividly.

“We spent a lot time tobogganing down Davis Bay hill that winter,” says Mary. “We had spotters, but there really wasn’t much traffic to speak of in those days. And if there was, it wasn’t getting up that hill.”

Trouble with a capital T, Mary Vandeberg with her sister Gail somewhere on a road near Davis Bay, circa 1954.

For Mary’s daughter, my wife Leah, tobogganing the road down from Chatelech Secondary, was the ultimate way to celebrate a snow day.

Even in the snowiest winters of recent years, it’s difficult to image tobogganing Highway 101 from Selma Park down to Davis Bay, as Mary describes. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other popular places to slide.

Located 14-km up the forest service road at the end of Field Road in Wilson Creek, Dakota Ridge is one of the few, if not the only sanctioned sliding area on the Sunshine Coast. Created in 2013, the sliding area has become a popular addition to the winter recreation venue, accounting for 30 percent of total traffic, according to the Sunshine Coast Regional District.

Especially popular with young families, the groomed hill is right behind a Quonset warming hut, which is equipped with a wood stove and picnic tables. If you’re craving some off-piste thrills, there’s a long, gentle clearing off Balsam Loop on Dakota Ridge’s eastern slope that’s perfect for building bumps and jumps.

We have liftoff! Ariana Harder takes to the skies above Dakota Ridge.

Local Cavin Crawford, who’s helped plow access roads to Dakota Ridge and the Tetrahedron for years, recommends a 200-metre slope at the eight-kilometre mark of the forestry road, near the turnoff for Dakota Bowl.

“You can drive up around the corner, let the kids out and drive down and pick them up,” says Cavin. “But please, do not toboggan on the road.”

Winter tires and chains are essential, if you’re planning to drive to Dakota Ridge; or catch the scheduled shuttle with Wilson Creek-based Alpha Adventures.

Closer to sea level, school fields are popular with the younger crowd. “The slope behind Gibsons elementary is good for younger kids and pretty good for building jumps,” says 12-year-old Kaishan Nonacowie. There’s also a gentle slope behind Elphinstone Secondary.

Flume Beach Park at the junction of Flume Road and Beach Avenue in Roberts Creek might be the closest you’ll get to sledding on the shoreline. It was a favourite spot when my kids were growing up and offers the added advantage of a scenic picnic area, plus the option of building a beach fire to warm up by.

In their element, Ariana Harder and Emma Judd on Dakota Ridge.

A poll of friends and family on Facebook elicited numerous favourite spots and a theme quickly developed: roads seem to be where it’s at. Some short, some steep, and most dead-ends. (My son suggested School Road in Gibsons, which might have been feasible in 1917-18, but not 2017-18.) While there’s room for discretion on secluded roads in particularly heavy snowfalls, as a rule, cars and toboggans don’t mix, especially for emergency services, highway maintenance contractors, and stranded residents.

Back in the 1970s, it was a different story, according to life-long Coast resident, Warren Hansen.

“My favourite hill was Benner Road, in Selma Park,” recalls Warren. “Back then, there was no such things as immediate plowing. People had to park on the highway in Selma Park and walk up to their homes. For at least a couple of days, kids could slide down Benner Road, or the top of Snodgrass and Chartwell, or the top of Radcliffe Road. Every kid from miles around would converge on this location.

“I remember a bunch of us piled on a toboggan racing other toboggans down the hill. We knew that once we passed a certain driveway it was time to bail otherwise we would blow the corner and get hurt. And most kids did get hurt from getting run into, going into the ditch, or bailing off the sled sliding at breakneck speeds.”

Mary Vandeberg and her sister Gail in the snowy Sunshine Coast winter of 1954.

Hansen acknowledges those days are over, but has mixed feelings.

“The plows, climate change and over-sensitive parents ruined the great sliding opportunities on Benner Road, which hasn’t been the same since those days. Then again, it could be because I grew up and know now that I would never let my kids slide on Benner Road.”

Wherever you end up sliding this winter, keep a few precautions in mind. BC Children’s Hospital recommends that young ones wear a ski, hockey, or bike helmet for tobogganing. Make sure your kids know how to control their speed and stop properly. Choose a slope away from roads and free from obstacles, such as rocks, trees, and fences. Never ride on a sled that is being pulled by anything motorized.

Bundle up, stay safe, and enjoy the snow!

 

Toronto on two wheels

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The Beaches neighbourhood in eastern Toronto is a rarity in that homes and not a freeway still line the lakeshore.

The Beaches neighbourhood in eastern Toronto is a rarity: homes, not a freeway, still line the lakeshore.

I can remember the moment Toronto began to win me over. It was at BMO Field, an hour after arriving in the city, in the waning minutes of Toronto FC’s MLS game versus the Columbus Crew.

Losing 1-0, many Toronto fans upped and left when a storm swept in from Lake Ontario. Soaked to the skin, my son and I took advantage of space behind the Columbus goal just as Toronto equalized.

We’d barely finished high-fiving the locals when Toronto scored the winner in injury time, sparking more sodden pandemonium. We saw ourselves on TV highlights that night. Just as well we hadn’t worn our Whitecaps jerseys!

Like many west coasters, I harbored some instinctive disdain for Canada’s biggest city. I’d heard about its swagger, its summer humidity, and, of course, the Maple Leafs. Yet riding the bus full of fans back to the Fairmont Royal York, past the CN Tower and Rogers Centre (aka SkyDome), I was warming to Toronto.

No cyclists were hurt while taking this photo.

No cyclists were hurt while taking this photo.

Some of that big-city swagger must surely have originated in the Fairmont Royal York, once the biggest hotel in the British Empire and still oozing opulence from every one of its 1,600 rooms. The hotel of choice for royalty and rock stars is down to earth enough to grow its own herbs, vegetables and flowers on a rooftop terrace, as well as maintain three beehives.

The hotel will also store your bikes for you, a bonus in a city that’s expanding its bike lane network. With only two days in Toronto, we rented bikes at Segway Ontario, a short tram ride away in the Distillery District. The endless roadworks and construction across downtown made us glad of the two-wheeled escape.

Once home to the Gooderham and Worts Distillery (said to be the world’s largest distillery by the mid-19th century) the Distillery District today is a well preserved pedestrian village. Upmarket stores, bars and restaurants have taken up residence in the red-brick Victorian buildings and Vancouverites might see some similarities with parts of Yaletown and Gastown. The Mill Street Brew Pub is a great spot for local beers and great food – especially when you’re finished bike riding for the day.

The Lower Don Trail, where graffiti is prolific as wildflowers.

The Lower Don Trail, where graffiti is prolific as wildflowers.

We left the Distillery District’s cobblestones behind and headed for Toronto’s Waterfront Trail. The trail is part of a series of bike and pedestrian paths that connect 31 communities along Lake Ontario’s shores. About 450 kilometers of the trail is signposted and the few kilometers we biked transported us to beaches seemingly a million miles removed from downtown Toronto.

Known as The Beaches, this eastern Toronto neighbourhood is a rarity in that homes and not a freeway still line the lakeshore. The feeling of community is palpable at the beach where seniors and toddlers were dancing to a live Cuban salsa band and dozens of beach volleyball games were in progress. Just a week before, Toronto had sweltered in the upper 30s. Now in the mid-20s it seemed that every dog-walker, kite-flyer, roller-blader and cyclist in the city had descended on The Beaches and its boardwalk. Like proper tourists, we dismounted, bought ice creams and watched the world go by.

Toronto’s weather gods weren’t quite so kind the following day. Under leaden skies and with drizzle in the air, we headed inland on the Lower Don Trail. Whereas much of the cycling in Toronto is on routes shared with cars, the Lower Don Trail is blissfully free of vehicle traffic. More than that, it’s a slice of downtown Toronto far removed from the city’s more popular tourist attractions.

The Lower Don River is only about eight kilometers long but it flows through one of the most densely populated communities in Canada. So it’s odd to cycle by rusting and abandoned footbridges, beneath concrete express ramps, and yet still spot a heron presiding over a river bank that resembles a healthy wetland. In places the graffiti is as dense as the wildflowers and the proliferation of the latter is due in part to the efforts of volunteer groups.

The Fairmont Royal York, once the biggest hotel in the British Empire and still oozing opulence from every one of its 1,600 rooms. The lobby's nice, too.

The Fairmont Royal York, once the biggest hotel in the British Empire and still oozing opulence from every one of its 1,600 rooms. The lobby’s nice, too.

We dried off from the rain at the Evergreen Brick Works, known for almost a century as the Don Valley Brick Works. Evergreen is a national charity and one of the groups involved in reviving the Lower Don. It runs the brick works as a community environmental centre, nurturing the disused quarry as a park, naturalizing ponds and restoring the brick works’ old buildings. On any given day you’ll find a farmers’ market, cooking workshops and family pizza nights at the site which once supplied the bricks for most of Toronto’s major landmarks.

From Evergreen Brick Works we cycled through Beltline Trail and the racy-sounding Milkman’s Run (Couldn’t help thinking of Benny Hill) before zig-zagging our way through quiet residential streets to Sherbourne Street. Sherbourne was the first of Toronto’s separated bike lanes and from Bloor Street to King Street, biking is a breeze.

Even after we’d returned our rental bikes we noticed signs of cycling’s growing popularity in Toronto. After ascending the CN Tower on our last night we walked across historic Roundhouse Park to Steam Whistle Brewing. There outside the brewery on Bremner Boulevard, not far from a BIXI bike-sharing stand, was an urban bike repair station complete with pump and tethered bike tools: free for anyone wanting a tune-up!

nevjudd.com

On a clear day you can see Saskatchewan.

On a clear day you can see Saskatchewan.

If you go:

Segway Ontario in Toronto’s Distillery District rents a wide variety of bicycles for $35 a day, as well as offering walking and Segway tours. Visit segwayofontario.com

Toronto grew up around the historic Fairmont Royal York, which features several bars and restaurants and offers numerous accommodation packages. They will also store your bikes. Visit fairmont.com/royal-york-toronto

Evergreen Brick Works is a hive of activity, combining history, education, and environmental activism. It also serves great food! Visit ebw.evergreen.ca

For all other travel matters Toronto, visit seetorontonow.com

Written by nevjudd

October 2, 2013 at 10:34 pm

Quebec City by bike

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Taking a break in Quebec City at Place Royale, site of Samuel de Champlain’s first permanent settlement in New France.

Resting in Quebec City at Place Royale, site of Samuel de Champlain’s first permanent settlement in New France.

The older my children get, the more discerning they become about holiday activities. My teenagers Ryan and Emma are not big on cycling, history or museums. And like most people they don’t like rain much either.

So there we were with our bikes in the rain, standing outside The Museum of Civilization in old Quebec City.

“Well at least it’s dry in the museum,” I reasoned.

“Can’t we just find somewhere to eat?” asked Ryan.

It wasn’t the first time Quebec had witnessed a clash of wills – what military historians might call an impasse. After a three-month siege in 1759, it took General Wolfe and the British about 15 minutes to beat Montcalm and the French in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

Keep your head up riding through crowds of shoppers in the narrow, cobblestoned lanes of Quartier Petit Champlain. Once a fur-trading portside village, it’s now full of boutiques, bistros and frescoes.

Keep your head up riding through crowds of shoppers in the narrow, cobblestoned lanes of Quartier Petit Champlain. Once a fur-trading portside village, it’s now full of boutiques, bistros and frescoes.

It took the Judds about the same time to finish arguing, lock their bikes and enter the museum. Then something remarkable happened. “Game Story, the exhibition you play,” read the sign in the lobby. Yes, besides first-rate exhibitions about Quebec history and a showcase of Paris between 1889 and 1914, The Museum of Civilization was hosting a video game exhibition, featuring 450 artifacts and 88 video games to play. Everything from World of Warcraft to Pong was available.

We were still in the museum long after the rain had stopped and the sun had returned. It was just the first of several surprising events during our two-night stay in Quebec City. That night we cycled our bikes to the Port of Quebec Agora, an amphitheatre hosting Cirque du Soleil’s Les Chemin Invisibles. Quebec City might just be the only place where Cirque du Soleil is free! Had they been charging, our floor tickets would have cost a fortune because most of the show unfolded just a few yards from where we stood.

The Harbour of Lost Souls is the fifth chapter of Les Chemin Invisibles. The employees of an old customs officer decide to put on a show for his birthday in the hopes of helping him to find purpose in his life. The show is spectacular in its conception with performers suspended from cranes just a few feet above the audience and on moving stages that spring up in the crowd.

Just across from the National Assembly is the Fountaine de Tourny, built for the city’s 400th birthday. It's a popular spot for wedding photos and knackered cyclists.

Just across from the National Assembly is the Fountaine de Tourny, built for the city’s 400th birthday. It’s a popular spot for wedding photos and knackered cyclists.

Cirque du Soleil is a tough act to follow, but the Image Mill is timed to follow it and succeeds if only for its epic setting. A legacy of Quebec City’s 400th birthday in 2008, the Image Mill is a sound and image show projected onto massive grain silos in Quebec’s harbour. We joined the hordes lining the harbour to watch this summer’s show, a tribute to Scottish-born, Canadian filmmaker, Norman McLaren. A pioneer in synchronizing animation with music, McLaren, who died in 1987, would surely have approved of his work being presented on the biggest ‘big screen’ ever conceived.

Back at the Hotel Royal William in Quebec City’s trendy New St. Roch neighbourhood, we locked up our bikes and I ventured out for a nightcap on Boulevard Charest Est. The Mo Resto Bar had one more surprise in store for me; beer pumps at the table! The beer is metered of course (it’s not heaven) at 35 cents an ounce. But for my wife, I might still be there pouring modest amounts of Belle Gueule Blonde or Red ale.

Thanks to the success of Day 1, we sold the kids on a guided bike tour the following day.

At first glance, Quebec City doesn’t appear built for bicycles. Narrow lanes, cobblestones and hills usually look good in postcards, not from a saddle. But first impressions can be deceiving. A few bumps and the occasional grind are a small price to pay for a two-wheeled tour of North America’s only walled city and UNESCO World Heritage site. For visitors with more time, there are several hundred kilometres of bike trails to ride beyond the fortress walls.

Our guide, Marc Lupien of Cyclo Services, has been riding the same Nishiki road bike for 35 years (“I changed the brake cable once or twice – and the seat!”) and has seen the growth of bike culture here.

Chateau Frontenac, said to be the most photographed hotel in the world and surely the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.

Chateau Frontenac, the most photographed hotel in the world and surely the inspiration for Hogwarts.

“It’s not uncommon to see people buying $10,000 bikes in Quebec City,” said Marc. “It’s a relatively short season, but cycling is growing faster than golf here.”

While bike lanes line the edge of the St. Lawrence River and part of the escarpment above, cycling through Vieux Quebec itself takes some improvisation. In summer the streets are busy with pedestrians preoccupied with their centuries-old surroundings. Fortunately, it’s legal to ride the sidewalk and we were soon slaloming on either side of the kerb.

Marc’s tour skirted Laval University, formerly the Seminaire de Quebec and the oldest centre of education in Canada; the Citadelle atop Cap Diamant, adjoining the Plains of Abraham; Quebec’s National Assembly and Chateau Frontenac, said to be the most photographed hotel in the world. (I’d swear it was the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.)

Just across from the National Assembly we stopped at the Fountaine de Tourny, built for the city’s 400th birthday and a popular spot for wedding photos. It was hard not to notice the monolithic Hilton and Delta hotels, whose desperately unimaginative architecture is in dramatic contrast to most buildings in Vieux Quebec.

We lingered in Place Royale, site of Samuel de Champlain’s first permanent settlement in New France. Grey stones mark the footings of where Champlain’s home once stood, right outside Notre Dame des Victories, the oldest stone church in North America, dating back to 1687. There are similar grey stone markers all over Old Quebec, said Marc, signalling other historic sites that would be impossible to excavate now.

Near the Citadelle atop Cap Diamant, adjoining the Plains of Abraham.

Near the Citadelle atop Cap Diamant, adjoining the Plains of Abraham.

We rode the waterfront and part of the old port of Quebec before an adventurous ride through crowds of shoppers in the narrow, cobblestoned lanes of Quartier Petit Champlain. Once a fur-trading portside village, it’s now full of boutiques, bistros and frescoes. A funicular railway connects the area to Dufferin Terrace, a beautifully landscaped boardwalk with the best view of the St. Lawrence River. It seemed like a fitting place to stop for an ice cream and consider the view Champlain enjoyed in 1608.

People had told me that Quebec would remind me of an old European city. Aside from medieval Bruges in Belgium, I don’t know of another place as beautiful as Quebec City. Even Ryan and Emma liked it!

If you go:

In the heart of old Quebec City since 1995, Cyclo Services offers bike rentals and a variety of guided bike tours. Visit http://www.cycloservices.net or call 1 877 692-4050.

The Hotel Royal William is in the heart of New St. Roch, a neighbourhood full of great bars, coffee shops, restaurants and independent stores. It’s a few minutes bike ride from the old city and the train station. Packages start at $99 per person. Visit http://www.hotelroyalwilliam.com/en/

Free shows by Cirque du Soleil and the Image Mill are known collectively as Rendezvous sous les Etoiles and run Tuesday to Saturday, concluding with a Sunday performance Sept. 1.

For more on Quebec’s Museum of Civilization, visit www.mcq.org/en/mcq

For all other travel information about Quebec City, visit www.quebecregion.com/en

Written by nevjudd

October 2, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Vicious cycle: Biking the Big Apple’s core and beyond

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You try and raise your kids right - Minutes into the Five Boro bike ride and Emma's nabbed by NYPD.

F. Scott Fitzgerald loved Manhattan. In The Great Gatsby, he described its “first wild promise of all the mystery and all the beauty in the world,” when viewed from the Queensboro Bridge.

Chances are Fitzgerald wasn’t crossing the Queensboro on a bike when he wrote those words.

With 30,000 other cyclists.

In the pouring rain.

I looked back at Manhattan over a river of bobbing bike helmets on the Queensboro Bridge and saw imposing shades of grey, the tops of skyscrapers concealed by even greyer clouds.

It was Kilometre 24 of New York’s annual TD Bank Five Boro Bike Tour, a 68-kilometre celebration of car-free cycling through Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. The week before, temperatures hit 32 degrees Celsius. Today, the day of the big ride, the reason we’d trained together as a family, our motivation for flying almost 4,000 kilometres to New York, the mercury was barely nudging 10.

30,000 cyclists brave the rain in New York's Five Boro bike ride.

“This is actually fun,” said my daughter Emma, without even a hint of sarcasm. “Really!” she added, registering my look of disbelief.

Emma was clearly enjoying being the centre of attention as one of the tour’s younger participants. Soon after our 8-a.m. mass start from Battery Park and ride through the concrete canyon of Sixth Avenue, she’d been noticed by three NYPD bike cops as we snaked through Central Park.

“Hey, look at that kid, she’s barely breaking a sweat!” shouted one.

“What’s your name kid?” shouted another. “Well, listen Emma, don’t be thinking of beating us to the finish line, Emma. We can ticket you.”

We seemed destined to bump into the trio throughout the day, despite the numbers of riders involved and the distance covered. Accommodating 30,000 cyclists through New York’s five boroughs and across five major bridges must be a logistical minefield.

The fact that the tour has been staged annually since 1977 surely helps, but it’s only in recent years the city has begun to embrace bike culture on the other 364 days of the year. New York has expanded its urban bicycle network by 320 kilometres since 2006 while the number of New Yorkers commuting by bike has doubled in the last six In one of the busiest cities in the world, home to seven million people and 13,000 honking yellow taxi cabs, where rush hour starts at 5 a.m. and finishes about 15 hours later, riding a bike here is not as intimidating as you might think.

The day before the Five-Boro Bike Tour we had rented bikes from Liberty Bicycles five blocks south of Central Park. With some trepidation we cycled our aluminum hybrids west to the Hudson River Greenway, the longest stretch of a series of bike paths that circle the island of Manhattan. While busy with walkers, joggers and inline skaters, the greenway with its dedicated lanes and traffic signals is a great place to get acclimatized to biking in New York.

And after our first two days spent hopping on and off open-top buses visiting the Big Apple’s more obvious attractions — Empire State Building, for example — we felt a little less like tourists. (You can hardly visit New York and not visit such places, but be prepared for long lineups and short tempers.)

Crossing the Queensboro Bridge, over a century old, much loved by F. Scott Fitzgerald and made famous by Simon and Garfunkel’s 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).

With the eight-lane Joe DiMaggio Highway rumbling just a few metres to our left, it felt good to be setting our own pace, gliding south along the Hudson River past waterfront tennis courts, batting cages and soccer fields, piers and playgrounds. We had little trouble navigating the older, narrower streets of Greenwich Village, where we hooked up with a two-wheeled tour conducted by Levi Zwerling and Bike The Big Apple.

The company takes small groups of cyclists beyond the tourist trail through New York’s diverse neighbourhoods.

Nowhere epitomized that more than the Bedford- Stuyvesant neighbourhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where we cycled empty streets in eerie silence.

Home to a burgeoning population of Satmar, a Hasidic movement of mostly eastern European Jews who survived World War II, this well-kept community of row houses and apartments might just be the quietest place in all of New York’s five boroughs during Saturday sabbath. Conservatively dressed families, distinguished by men wearing oversized fur hats called shtreimel, ambled along the sidewalks ignoring the less modestly clothed cyclists in their midst.

By contrast, we stopped for a noisy lunch and beer-tasting at the Brooklyn Brewery, whose 150-year-old premises have been restored to their original bare brick and timber finery.

Various estimates put the number of community gardens in New York at more than 600, with 10 per cent of those located in the hip East Village and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. We paused to admire one, only for two of its creators to stop by and supplement Levi’s tour with their own version.

“That happens a lot in the East Village,” said Levi with a smile.

The ride back to Manhattan across Brooklyn Bridge’s busy boardwalk proved to be the most hair-raising part of the day. As we weaved in and out of pedestrians, clearly we no longer thought of ourselves as tourists — or at least not the kind of tourists who wander in and out of bike lanes. (Think Stanley Park seawall on any summer weekend.)

The experience helped prepare us for the Five Boro Bike Tour, which required plenty of weaving with almost 30,000 companions jockeying for space. While we passed expensivelooking Cannondales, Cervélos, Konas and Bianchis all requiring various repairs — usually flats — our trusty rentals kept us moving through the Bronx where churchgoers smiled at us in sympathy as the rain intensified.

Oh, the humanity! Bikers take cover under the RFK Bridge in Astoria Park during the TD Bank Five Boro Bike Tour.

In Queens we took refuge from the elements at Astoria Park under the RFK Bridge with thousands of other soaked riders. In the trendy Brooklyn neighbourhood of DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) at Kilometre 43 we fell inside a busy Starbucks for a family meeting to answer the following:

Quit the tour here and shortcut to our hotel for hot showers and hot food, or slog on through the deluge to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and the finish with everyone else at Staten Island?

“We’re going to come last if we stay in here all day,” said Emma, who clearly had decided on behalf of the family, much to her brother Ryan’s irritation.

So it was with some pride the Judd parents watched their kids high-five each other at mid-span of the Verrazano, once the world’s largest suspension bridge and closed to bikes on all but this day of the year.

Close ahead and all downhill was the finish at Staten Island.

Seven hours earlier, back in Manhattan and still half asleep, we’d cycled down Broadway and through Times Square (on a designated bike lane, no less!) to the starting line at Battery Park.

From here on the Verrazano, the city’s said to look spectacular on a clear day. Pelted by torrential rain and surrounded by leaden clouds, the view we got was lousy.

And we didn’t care.

If you go:

Bike New York organizes the annual TD Bank Five Boro Bike Tour and has a wealth of information on its website (www.bikenewyork.org) for anyone planning to cycle in the Big Apple. While the Five Boro tour is the biggest event of its kind in the U.S., Bike New York also stages smaller rides throughout the year, details of which you’ll find on its website.

Otherwise, to plan a twowheeled adventure in New York, visit nyc.gov/dotnews and click on “Bicyclists” on the left-hand side. There you can download or order the comprehensive New York City Cycling Map. Not only does the map illustrate the routes to ride, it also lists dozens of bike rental stores throughout New York’s five boroughs.

We rented reliable adult and children’s bikes from Liberty Bicycles (libertybikesny.com or 212 757-2418) in Midtown Manhattan (9th Avenue and 55th Street).

Bike The Big Apple (bikethebigapple.com or 1 877-865-0078) offers several different guided tours throughout the week and can tailor tours to suit individual requests.

New York offers hundreds of hotel options, but hotels that accommodate bikes are harder to find. The Buckingham Hotel (888 511-1900), two blocks south of Central Park, is well located and bike friendly.

After a long, wet bike ride, nothing aids recovery quite like new sun glasses.

We found New York’s subway system to be safe, reliable and relatively affordable at $2 a trip or $7 for a day-pass.While Manhattan is a great place to walk and browse, with a little planning you can easily navigate via subway between the city’s major sights. Hop-on, hop-off double-decker bus tours operated by CitySights NY (citysightsny.com) hit the highlights for $44 (adults) or $34 (children from five to 11) for a 24-hour period.

In the same vein, New York’s CityPass (citypass.com) at $79 (adults) or $59 (youth, 13-17) will buy you entry to six main attractions, including the Empire State Building observatory. It will also get you to the front of most lineups. For detailed tourism information, including the city’s calendar of events, visit nycgo.com

Written by nevjudd

December 15, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Arid Zona: Keeping cool in the Grand Canyon State

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Guilt and my own two legs prevented me from renting a mule at the Grand Canyon.

At Pima Point, on the Grand Canyon’s south rim, they say you can hear the Colorado River a mile below. It might have been the breeze or the din of countless unfinished conversations in the air, but we couldn’t hear it.

First sight of the Grand Canyon tends to cut conversation short.

“Whoa …” said my son, Ryan.

“Holy …” said my wife, Leah.

“That’s a mighty big ditch,” said a man nearby in a deep Texan drawl.

“Uh-huh,” replied his wife.

We had come by train from Williams, 100 kilometres away. The local historical society had staged a Wild West shootout before our departure. A Navajo singer had serenaded us on board. And the dusty desert flats passing our windows had lulled us into a midday doze.

Perhaps that’s what added to the spectacle. It’s not until the last minute that the Grand Canyon reveals itself. Set against such an epic backdrop the sky seems only more infinite. And it’s just as well there’s so much room on the rim because tourists like us are everywhere.

Ryan's nabbed by a wild west outlaw for looking too cute.

Fortunately, the Grand Canyon, like Arizona, is big enough to absorb the crowds. Better yet, it’s cooler than the cauldron of Phoenix, where we’d arrived and rented a car a few days before. It had been 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) and even the locals were complaining.

“It makes you wonder who showed up here all those years ago and thought, ‘Hmm, this looks like a good place to settle,’” said the car rental rep, not quite looking at home in a suit and tie.

I had to agree. Phoenix no doubt has its attractions, but with only six days in Arizona we’d headed north after one night in Tempe, a suburb near the airport.

Phoenix’s urban sprawl leeches north for about an hour’s drive but eventually the two-lane Highway 17 set us among cacti and rolling desert hills on our way to Montezuma’s Castle in Verde Valley.

The Disney-sounding name is misleading. When early settlers first saw the five-storey fortress somehow built into a cave 30 metres up a cliff they assumed it had been built by the Aztecs and called it Montezuma’s Castle. In fact, Sinagua farmers using ladders and gravity-defying courage are now known to have carved out 20 residences in the limestone recess. Support beams – cut from white-barked Arizona Sycamore – are still visible 900 years after the Sinagua erected them.

Literally meaning ‘without water,’ the Sinagua culture all but disappeared in the 1400s, likely because of drought or warfare with the rival Yavapai people.

Until midway through the last century, visitors could still use a series of ladders for a closer look at Montezuma’s Castle. However, when Highway 17 was completed those visitors became hordes and concerns about safety and damage prompted the U.S. National Park Service to remove the ladders.

You'll be glad of the air conditioning at Montezuma's Castle.

Despite being treated to the sight of one of North America’s best preserved cliff dwellings, we were constantly distracted by something much more down to earth: lizards. Among the mesquite and saltbush growing around an empty riverbed, lizards were always on the move, but occasionally stopping for photos.

We were less hardy. The unrelenting heat beat us back to the car and higher into Arizona’s Black Hills. Thanks to a tip from a friend in Vancouver we found the town of Jerome, a place cool in both senses of the word.

About 32 kilometres from Montezuma’s Castle and 145 kilometres from Phoenix, Jerome calls itself both America’s largest ghost town and it’s most vertical city. A mile above sea level on Cleopatra Hill, prone to disastrous fires and once home to a thriving copper mine, Jerome probably doesn’t disappoint on either claim. But to me Jerome’s charms lay in its narrow, winding streets and the fact that its funky bars, restaurants and galleries don’t so much perch but cling to the 30-degree incline. (In the late 1930s blasting at the mine triggered a slide that sent the town’s jail 70 metres downhill while still in tact!)

Atop Cleopatra Hill, the whitewashed Jerome Grand Hotel – once an asylum to house the mine’s burn victims and TB sufferers – presides over the community. Jerome looks nothing like mainstream America; more like a European citadel.

The 15,000 copper miners are long gone and in their place is a thriving artist community of about 450 people. Which could explain the presence of so many great places for coffee. The café cubano (an espresso shot sweetened with sugar as it’s brewed) at Jerome’s Flatiron Café was the best java jolt I’ve ever tasted.

The air was distinctly thinner (and cooler) in Flagstaff, 2,100 metres up and with as fine a view of the galaxies as you’ll see anywhere. Just outside downtown Flagstaff on Mars Hill astronomers at the Lowell Observatory discovered the former planet Pluto. (It was downgraded to a ‘dwarf’ planet in 2006: Don’t ask me why.)

On a clear and chilly August evening we lined up for an hour to take a turn peering into the heavens through the same 61-centimetre telescope erected by Percival Lowell in 1894 and used to find Pluto 36 years later. Even to the naked eye, the glowing red of Jupiter was hard to miss and once inside the old wooden observatory dome we were treated to a glimpse of the Wild Duck Cluster — an estimated 2,900 stars seemingly confined to a few small inches of the sky and thought to be 200 million years old.

Parents of small children can imagine the profound bedtime conversations after such an evening. (“But why was Pluto downgraded, dad?”)

Daytime revealed more down-to-earth pleasures in Flagstaff and with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals conducting preseason training at the town’s Northern Arizona University Campus, hundreds of crimson-clad fans flooded the historic core’s coffee shops, restaurants and brewpubs. Coffee was outstanding at the downtown Hotel Monte Vista, where scenes from the movie Casablanca were shot, and the sushi at Karma was worth the trip. B.C. travellers might also appreciate the fact that pubs here welcome children.

For all the attractions and distractions off Arizona’s beaten track, naturally it’s hard to compete with the Grand Canyon. A jeep tour in Sedona came close though. About 80 kilometres south of Flagstaff, the town of Sedona lurks within rust-red monoliths and mesas. With a reputation as a spiritual mecca, Sedona is home to about 11,000 people, most of whom came from somewhere else.

Steve Williamson came from New York City with his wife who wanted to be anywhere but the Big Apple after helping with 9/11 relief efforts. A geology major and web designer, Steve is in his element working for Red Rock Western Jeep Tours; contorting a so-called iron pony up, down and over impossibly steep and rugged desert trails while spinning yarns about the area’s history, culture and topography.

Following part of the trail built by General George Crook’s soldiers in 1871-72 and surrounded by Soaptree Yuccas, Prickly Pear plants, Pinion pines and Utah junipers, Steve put names to much of what we had seen on our travels through northern Arizona. Seemingly oblivious to boulders, potholes and our occasional screams, Steve regaled us with tales of Crook’s Apache campaign and made sense of Sedona’s dramatic landscape.

But even Steve might struggle with the trails of the Grand Canyon where rented mules are the fastest mode of transport. We stuck with our own two feet and hiked about 15 kilometres over two days. We descended Bright Angel trail into the Canyon and felt the temperature rise with every narrow switchback. We also strolled the extensive network of trails along the south rim, watching bleached white clouds cast their shadows on an otherworldly landscape.

By all means buy a souvenir at Verkamp’s Visitor Centre, a drink at the El Tovar Hotel or dinner at the Thunderbird Lodge, but don’t be distracted from the main event. Put your camera down and take at least a few moments of solitude and silence here. The Grand Canyon is 446 kilometres long, up to 29 kilometres wide and 1.6 kilometres deep. For those who are prepared to get a little dirt under their fingernails and some sweat on their backs there are memories to last a lifetime.

How the Judd family managed to obtain such a prime viewing spot must remain a secret.

Written by nevjudd

December 5, 2011 at 9:39 pm

Posted in Arizona, Grand Canyon

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You are now entering Vernonia, aka The Twilight Zone

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People are friendly in Vernonia, Oregon.

Within minutes of cycling into town, a woman told Ryan how much she liked his new Nikes; another woman asked me if I needed directions (I must have looked confused); and a motorist braked sharply so as to avoid ruining the photo I was about to take.

Other strangers said hello, and as we cooled our feet in the Nehalem River, kids floated by in inner tubes. No one swore and I couldn’t see any graffiti. Perhaps we’d entered the Twilight Zone.

Under cloudless skies, we’d just cycled 22 miles across wheat fields and through forests on a paved trail from Banks, about half an hour west of Portland. At Mile 12, Leah and Emma decided they’d had enough and cycled back to Banks while Ryan and I rode on the Vernonia. Ironically, that meant the ladies actually cycled farther than we did, and they were nice enough to drive to Vernonia to pick us up.

Tubing down the Nehalem River in Vernonia, Oregon.

Written by nevjudd

August 16, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Posted in Cycling

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