For 10 amazing days in June of 2015, I spent time in 3 of Europe’s most famous and intriguing cities. Travelling with my girlfriend – inarguably the best locator of accommodations within central areas of the cities we are to explore – I had the pleasure of not stepping inside a car for 10 days and staying in privately owned condominiums with full kitchens. This afforded us a truer experience of these cities: walking to the local bakeries, grocery stores, and laundromats; cooking our meals; and pretending even for this short time that we too were Europeans.
Over 500 photos taken, descriptions, stories and pictures of our trip enough to fill volumes, I am to attempt the near impossible and present our tour of 3 of the greatest cities of all time in this, but one blog post.
Paris, the Grande
Paris, the bustling metropolis, offers up France’s (and Europe’s) history through the open doors of Notre Dame Cathedral, the tall spire of the Eiffel Tower, the thousands of works of art in the Louvre, and the ultimate in architectural design throughout its inner core. Paris’s investment – and planning – in its subway system allows millions of residents and visitors each year to see the city without stepping foot inside a vehicle. And falling in suit with most European cities’ pedestrian culture, walking is the norm (far from most North American cities where we are so tied to our cars we will drive down the block and public transit is near non-existent). A combination of subway, regional train, and our own feet carry us to the many wonderful destinations within – and just outside – Paris.
Rome: Europe’s Historical Heart
Having spent three days in Paris, we boarded the short flight to Rome. It is perhaps here I attained the greatest appreciation for the history European cities have for us to reflect upon, admire, and sometimes admonish. From St. Peter’s Basilica, to the Vatican Museums, to the Sistine Chapel, to the Colosseum, we see much of western european human history unfold before us – glorious and cruel; religious and secular; Christian and pagan. Throughout our explorations, we are amazed at the patience, artistry and masterful skill of those artists, architects and labourers who spent so many thousands of hours creating almost unearthly works of art for us to marvel at centuries later, and hopefully for centuries to come.
Yet it is not just the art and architecture of Rome that left me with an ever-after desire to go back: it is the people, the culture and the food that I remember being of just as much warmth, history, and welcome.
Having spent three days in Rome, though hesitant to leave, we hopped aboard the high-speed train to Venice. Marvelling yet again at the investment European countries have made in public transit, and the ease at which one can travel throughout much of the continent, we sit in comfort, cruising at up to 250 km per hour through sunflower fields, past quaint villages, and across the channel of water separating the island of Venice from the mainland. Walking out of the train station, taking in the majesty of the Grand Canal, I cannot resist mimicking Indiana Jones upon his arrival in Venice: “Ahhh…Venice.”
Eager to explore this perhaps most romantic – and unique – of European cities, we push on to our apartment in the heart of the city and prepare for 2 wonderful days of getting lost amongst the city’s narrow, angular pathways.
Farewell to Venice
Not only was our experience in Venice so different than any other we had ever had, so was our departure. Rather than hopping in a taxi cab to the airport, in Venice one takes the boat! As our water taxi skirted down the canal, out into more open water toward the airport, we looked back wondering just when we may get to see this strange and wonderful place once again. We will certainly have many other adventures ahead of us, but this one shall be beyond compare.
Having flown from Venice to Charles de Gaulle airport in France (just outside of Paris) we were greeted by a pleasant surprise on our overnight stay prior to flying back to Canada and the U.S: the quaint village of Roissy. It being our last night in Europe for 2015, we decide to take a quick look around this little town and discover that as the massive Charles de Gaulle airport has grown up around it, the village has held onto its history and its charm. If unaware of the seemingly constant and not-too-distant whine of jet engines from the airport, one would assume you were strolling through an old-time village in the French countryside. This evening we decide to walk up to the Eglise Saint Eloi (church) reading on the plaque outside that – to our surprise – it was built 500 years ago.
Realizing that we are truly in the twilight of our 10-day trip to Europe, this being our last evening here, we try ever-so-difficultly to sleep, thoughts, images, smells, and flavours of Paris, Rome and Venice wafting through our heads, and thoughts of our return already coming to be.
As a species, the wolf in North America has faced the twilight of its existence again and again. Upon the earliest arrival of western Europeans on this continent, wolves were seen as dangerous, vermin, even evil. Public perception was certainly not aided by stories such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” ” The Three Little Pigs,” and numerous films where they are portrayed as blood-thirsty man-eaters. Little was known of the incredibly sensitive nature of the wolf, its close family bonds, intricate social structure within packs, and positive impacts on the ecosystems they call home until those truly concerned about the extinction of such noble creatures began studying their behaviours.
And it truly is a recent change – a slow shift in the belief that the wolf is evil, to the now well-known fact that wolves play an integral role in keeping the environment in balance: hunting the weak, keeping herds of deer, elk, and other animals in check, protecting foliage from over-grazing; providing food for other animals that reap the benefits from leftovers of wolf hunts; and competing – quite successfully – with other predators, keeping their numbers in balance as well.
Politics and the Almighty Dollar: the True Threat to Wolves
But perceptions are difficult to change, especially where dollars are involved. Even in very recent years, wildlife “control” officers in the U.S. have embarked on wolf killing sprees in support of ranchers who have deemed the wolf a threat to livestock. Even compensation programs do a disservice to the wolf as most often livestock on open ranges die of many other causes, yet the wolf is blamed. Even if a wolf is found to be feeding on a carcass, only a forensic biologist would have the skill to determine if the wolf or wolf pack was responsible for the kill. Through compensation programs, ranchers will often insist lost livestock were as a result of wolf kills so they may be compensated, attributing many more livestock deaths to wolf hunts than is accurate. In true eye-for-an-eye fashion, a wolf thought to have killed livestock, is killed by wildlife control officers.
The Wolf as Endangered Species
The wolf in North America has been listed and de-listed as an endangered species several times in recent decades, bringing wolves in and out of protected status – often as a result of political pressure and faulty legislation as opposed to any good science. This has led to approved hunting programs where hundreds of wolves in recent years have been hunted just close enough to extinction – but not too close that they once again receive protected status.
The Hidden Life of Wolves
I spotted in my local library a book with a cover that seemed to stare right into my soul, the photo on its front of a wolf, its eyes staring intently at me, not menacingly, just with intent, wanting to know more about me and wanting to let me know more about it. The Hidden Life of Wolves (2013, National Geographic Society) profiles the life of the Sawtooth Pack, a group of wolves introduced into a large, enclosed area within the Sawtooth mountains of northern Idaho. Authors (and filmmakers) Jim and Jamie Dutcher describe their experiences observing the pack, living closely with them, learning their social behaviours, and seeing first-hand the truly positive affect they had on the ecosystem around them. They also describe the larger context of the wolf “issue,” the reintroduction of wolves from Canada into Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, and the subsequent benefits of such, all the while bringing into focus the complex issues involved in man’s coexistence with the wolf.
My Relationship with Wolves
Despite those who believe wolves are to be feared, it is actually an incredibly rare experience and true privilege to see a wolf in the wild. I can say I have been so lucky.
Cycling along the Icefields Parkway near Athabasca Falls in Jasper National Park in late April, 2016, I noticed a row of cars parked alongside the highway. As I approached and noticed several people standing outside their vehicles, cameras pointed to the edge of the woods, I of course thought, “bear.” Getting a little closer, I recognized the familiar dark fur of a black bear browsing through the foliage on the side of the road. I’ve seen many bears in Jasper and it is always special, but being on my bicycle I decided to keep pedalling.
Having had a long enough ride on this day (an incredibly sunny, unusually warm day for this early in the year in the Rocky Mountains, allowing me to put in a good 3 hour ride on my road bike on perhaps the most picturesque highway in the world) I decided to turn back about 20 km south of Athabasca Falls. Arriving near the same spot where the black bear had been, I slowed to peer into the ditch to see if it was still nearby (though the cars had now gone). However, my eye caught movement on the other side of the road, about 20 metres into the low brush. Expecting to see the familiar hump of black fur, I was surprised to see a clump of grey fur moving through the foliage. Slowing nearly to a stop, I looked closer and was astonished to see a large, grey wolf emerge from the brush, staring at me as intently – perhaps more – as I was at him (or perhaps her).
Often, people get excited thinking they’ve seen a wolf, when in fact it is a much more common coyote. I’ve seen many coyotes, and even with its thicker winter coat a coyote is nowhere near the size of a wolf. This was no coyote.
Amazed at both my incredible luck in seeing this elusive creature, and bad luck for not having a camera with me, I stopped pedalling and kept gliding as slowly as possible. Expecting him to dart off into the woods upon seeing me, I was amazed at what happened next: Staring at me with a level of intensity I’d never seen in a wild animal before, the wolf started trotting after me. Just a few feet from this incredibly beautiful animal, rarely seen in the wild, I felt truly privileged. Yet it seemed so odd. I knew wolves wanted little – if anything – to do with humans. They are incredibly elusive. It was then that I had an uneasy feeling. Perhaps it was simply a level of uncertainty, being alone on this road with this wild animal now following me, but I almost instinctively picked up my pace. As he crossed the road behind me, still trotting and getting a little closer, I picked up my pace a bit more, actually glad that this was a downhill section of the road. As I increased my distance, the wolf seemed to lose interest and simply continued into the ditch on the other side of the road.
I still don’t know what to make of this encounter. I’m most certain it was curiosity that drove this wolf to come closer, even follow me for a bit. I have even thought I was silly for feeling as I did. I’ve made the joke to others that perhaps this wolf thought I was an elk on a bicycle! But I forgive myself, there on the road with such an impressive – and seemingly confident – creature staring right through me, following me as I rode along on my bicycle feeling quite exposed. I’m just glad to have been one of the few on this earth today to have seen a wolf in the wild.
Tracks in the Snow: Wolves and Me
It was late winter 2015 when I first came closest to wild wolves. Hiking the trail up to Dorothy Lake just west of Jasper townsite, snowshoes strapped to my back, I noticed tracks in newly fallen snow along the trail. The snow was deep, the tracks not well enough defined for me to tell if they were dog, coyote, wolf, or – slightly concerning to me – cougar.
Arriving at Dorothy Lake itself, I was glad to see the newly fallen snow had created a fresh, white canvas for me to lay down my own tracks. I felt truly blessed to be the only human there for many miles around, and certainly the only one to cross the lake since a thick, fresh snowfall had left a quilt-like covering across its expanse. But though I may have been the only person around, a pair of individuals HAD crossed the lake just before me: Starting from the end of the same trail that had led me to this frozen vista, a pair of tracks led across the lake. Deciding to follow their path, I strapped on my snowshoes and headed out. Following the tracks across the lake, I marvelled at how recently they must have been laid. I could see the tracks reaching the other side of the lake. I had just missed seeing the wolves that had gone before me.
Confirming the Presence of Wolves
Wanting to be sure of what I had been tracking, once down from the hike I decided to email Parks Canada biologists to see if these had in fact been wolf tracks. From their reply, I was delighted to learn of the Pyramid pack:
Sent Monday, March 2, 2015 to email@example.com
“Hi there. I was snowshoeing Sunday, March 1, 2015 up to Dorothy Lake and spotted these tracks (see the attached photos). The tracks followed the trail a bit then onto and across Dorothy Lake. There appeared to be two sets crossing the lake.
Can you tell me if these are wolf, coyote, or otherwise?
Reply from one of Parks Canada’s Biologists based in Jasper:
These look like wolf tracks… This might have been from the Pyramid pack (a pack of 2 or 3 grey wolves that cover some of the main valley). They would use the area where you were hiking all the way over to the Maligne hostel and probably north and south of town too. We don’t know a lot about those two wolves; they are not collared, although they may be in the future. We monitor wolves for a couple of reasons – learning how they respond to human tracks (they often choose to walk along trails that have been packed, especially if they’re moving uphill) and getting an estimate of wolf density (number of wolves over 1000km²),
Thanks for reporting your sighting!”
Wolves: A Future Unknown
Thanks to passionate wildlife ecologists and conservationists, we now know of wolves’ family-oriented social behaviours , of the critical role they play in keeping wild ecosystems healthy, and despite centuries of public perception we can see they are of little or no threat to us at all. Having been one of the few to have experienced wolves in the wild, I can say that not only for the sake of our wild spaces, but for our own, I certainly hope that wolves are NOT in the twilight of their existence, but rather at the dawn of a new beginning.
Mysterious forms shuffling through the neighbourhood at night; faces with lifeless, lost, blank looks; complexion made pale by a dim light from underneath; little conversation – only “this way,” “that way,” “I think it’s over here”; various grunts and groans as with hunched shoulders the forms follow each other slowly, not sure which way to go: The zombie apocalypse is upon us people. And it’s being played out in every neighbourhood a cell phone with a decent data connection can reach.
That’s right, it’s Pokémon Go.
All I know of this incredibly pervasive fad is what I have heard of it: people use the app on their phone to search through neighbourhoods trying to “catch” the little figures that pop up in various locations. Watching a news story the other day of a human stampede in Central Park caused by one of the rare little figures in the game popping up there, I marvelled at the popularity of this “game.” It seems simple – though I have yet to have tried – and maybe that is what makes it so popular.
To call it a “fad” may not give it justice. Not that it is going to be any more long lasting than a fad; but, rather the intensity and absolute speed at which this game has caught on makes it more of a “craze,” I think. But what I don’t subscribe to is an immediate lurch toward judgement; some in their pretentious ways automatically dismissing something that has become so popular so quickly (and seemingly as silly as this) as “stupid” or “a waste of time.”
Analysing Pokémon Go Without Having Played It
Ok, so let’s look at this phenomenon. At first I think, what right do I have to analyse it having never even seen it, never mind having never played it?! But maybe that is the MOST objective opinion one can form: as a bystander only observing the human behaviour caused by the game.
Outside of a warning that people keep their heads up as they wander around (including an R.C.M.P. Constable advising the same when interviewed on the local radio station the other day) I know of no real harm here. In fact, let’s look at the benefits.
I have often complained that this little City (Fort Saskatchewan) basically falls asleep – in its entirety – by 9:30 pm. A bit of a night person, I will often go for a stroll around 11 pm or later and can hear a pin drop on the main street. A few evenings ago, however, I noticed at least 5 small groups of people walking through town, chatting a bit, laughing, and helping those on their “team” who may be a bit more directionally challenged. Just let me say this: anything that gets people out of the house and walking around outside can’t be all that bad. One thing I would like to see is stats from the Pokémon Go people once winter arrives. It would have to be a ratio of app holders to active app players to be an accurate showing of winter’s impact since I’m sure the overall number of players will continue to climb.
This is not to say I will not be critical of Pokémon Go – or rather, of the fanatical players. On a recent stroll with my girlfriend through the beautiful, yellow-leaved trees of the fall flush at the Alberta Legislature grounds in Edmonton, the number of people staring at their devices and shuffling through this beautifully adorned park, instead of looking up at the natural beauty surrounding them, was nothing short of shameful.
Minecraft: the Online Version of LEGO
A similar recent “craze” to Pokémon- at least in magnitude and with no resemblance between the games themselves – is Minecraft. I will admit that when I first saw and started hearing of the popularity of Minecraft, I myself dismissed it as a waste of time. Perhaps it was that part of me as the old man sitting on the lawn waving his rake at the young’uns going by with their ripped jeans and awful music playing, as I dismissed this emerging phenomenon as just another video game. Then I played it with my kids and realised something: I loved LEGO as a kid (and still do actually) and this Minecraft thing is essentially online LEGO. I love the creativity, building and collaborative play inherent in Minecraft. It may even – dare I say – have a leg up on LEGO. Yet, as Stephen Colbert said recently on his post-twilight “Late Show,” as soon as something online becomes too popular, and thus mainstream, people begin to hate that thing. Such has been the case for some Minecraft players – a number of them drifting towards agar.io (though that game I won’t get into here); but Minecraft has surprisingly continued to maintain a large user base.
Is it My Turn to Try?
So as I sit on my balcony this evening and see small groups of people walk through my neighbourhood – mostly older teens and adults this time of night (during and well past twilight) – I’m asking myself two questions: When will I try Pokémon Go? And will it let me down?
Having spent two nights, three days on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada we are having a difficult time leaving. We have explored the seaside, climbed the rocks, watched the ferries and sailboats go by, held breakfast beside the water, and even sat peacefully, appreciating this place (and this trip) for what it has given us: an appreciation of nature; a break from the the often tedious demands of everyday life; a simpler existence; and a sense of connectedness to this land, each other, and even ourselves.
One More Ride on BC Ferries
Yet, we must go. I once again busy myself packing up our tent and other equipment, conscious of the ferry we are to board early this afternoon on the other side of the island, all the while wishing we could stay longer. Taking one last walk down to the rocks along the shore, my kids and I share yet another special moment on this amazing trip.
But alas, we nearing the twilight of our trip, we do need to start the journey back to Alberta. Having driven across to the other side of the island, we board the “Queen of Nanaimo,” for our voyage to the mainland. It is hard to say “goodbye,” but we hope to say “hello” to the west coast again soon.
Having enjoyed our time in Victoria, my kids and I head across to Salt Spring Island. The weather has turned cooler and wet, yet as we travel across on the ferry (a much smaller vessel than those used to cross from the mainland) we insist on sitting outside for a bit to experience the journey. It is a fairly short ride to Fulford Harbour (less than an hour).
Disembarking, we drive across the island along a narrow, paved road that carves its way through deciduous and coniferous forest through to Ruckle Provincial Park on the island’s eastern tip.
Camping at Ruckle Provincial Park
The campground at Ruckle shall be our home for the next two days. The campground includes some RV sites, but our goal (mine for a number of years) has been to camp in one of the walk-in only sites, with views of the water, only a few feet from the oceanside.
Having transported our small tent, sleeping bags, air mattresses, and a few other supplies via the wheelbarrows left available at the trailhead, I set up camp – the kids already exploring the rocks and tide pools along the water’s edge.
A Playground of Discovery
Having been perhaps too intent on getting our site set up, I had yet to really take a look at how beautiful this place is. With our tent secured on its pad, the beds inside looking comfy and warm, I turn around to take in what is perhaps one of the prettiest spots I have ever seen at such an accessible campground.
I know this being our home for the next 3 days there will be a reminder for me to appreciate where we are every few minutes, a new picture to take every few feet, and many joyous occasions to watch my children (and me) explore, climb, sit, hike and discover this amazing place.
It now nearing twilight here at the end of our first day on Salt Spring Island, we take a look over the water, seeing lights from Vancouver Island across the strait, hearing the chug of ferries as they go by, and eager to greet tomorrow as another chance to explore more of this special place.
No trip to Vancouver Island is complete without kayaking. Whether they be hearty adventurers seeking to travel many miles up the coast and/or between the smaller Gulf Islands, or parents just taking the kids out for a paddle, kayakers always enjoy these world class waters.
Paddling Sooke Basin
On this day, I choose to take my kids up to Sooke Basin. This body of water is large enough to get the ocean kayaking experience, yet sheltered to protect against the larger waves on the strait of Juan de Fuca to which the basin is connected by a narrow channel. Renting a kayak for a couple hours from a local shop – my son in the middle, my daughter in front, and I at the back – we set out along the shoreline, enjoying the cool salt air, the warmth of this late August sun, and the gentle lapping of the waves against the hull.
Allaying any fears my kids have that some large ocean-going mammal may surprise us, I let them know that we are perfectly safe. Perhaps it is the fact that the idea has now entered my mind that causes my heart to skip a beat when I hear a sudden, wet exhalation of water and air behind me. “No, it couldn’t be!” I think to myself, about to turn around to see what it is. Seeing the familiar, round, grey, bespeckled head of a seal poking up from the water directly behind us, I laugh at myself. Pointing him out to the kids, we smile at his naturally friendly expression as he seems interested enough in us to follow as we continue paddling on.
French Beach Provincial Park
Continuing our day trip up the west side of the Island, we arrive at French Beach. This long, continuous, arching expanse of fine, shell-laden sand is one of my favourite places on Vancouver Island. The beach is very accessible, yet rarely very busy. More rustic than luxurious, this beach is for exploring as opposed to swimming as the water is cold, making for fun splashing but not the most comfortable swimming. Walking along this beach, we inspect shells, play with the bulbous bull whip kelp that has washed ashore, and of course take our lunch alongside the massive tree trunks that long ago fell into the water to become driftwood, bleached by the sun and warn smooth by the waves.
After lunch, we continue further down the beach toward the rocky outcropping at its southern point. Here, the tide pools collect tiny crabs, mollusks attach themselves to the rocks, and tiny minnows find themselves caught in micro-ecosystems that change with every passing tide.
This day nearing its twilight, we head back up shore, reflecting on the specialness of this day, and glad to have our warm sleeping bags awaiting us back at Goldstream Provincial Park campground, our home-away-from home for these all-too-few days on Vancouver Island.
Arriving at the Tsawwassen ferry terminal is always exciting: it means we’ve made it! Driving over 1000 km from central Alberta, catching the first hint that we are near the ocean is most often not through site nor sound, but scent. With car windows only partially down, the salt-laden, organic smell of ocean air usually becomes apparent well before we actually see the water. With heightened anticipation, my kids and I know (having done this trip a few times before) that we are close to our destination. One of the prettiest cities in Canada – and perhaps the world – Victoria lies on Vancouver Island just across the strait. But first, the funnest part of travelling this route, we drive aboard one of BC Ferries’ massive auto and passenger carrying boats.
Crossing the Strait
The ride across the Strait of Georgia takes about an hour and a half. At this point, the trip to Vancouver Island has turned from a journey to a ride. In the belly of these ocean-going beasts are hundreds of cars, RVS, and large semi trucks carrying all sorts of cargo to the Island. Yet, these massive vessels pass incredibly close to the small islands between which we carve a path to get to Vancouver Island itself.
Victoria’s Inner Harbour
Having made it to Vancouver Island, we immediately make our way to Victoria itself. With the Empress Hotel, Provincial Legislature, restaurants, marina, and many other attractions, the Inner Harbour – located right in downtown Victoria – is always a bustling centre of activity. Having arrived in late August, the weather is still warm, there is much activity about, and we simply enjoy strolling.
Oak Bay Marina
No trip to Victoria is complete without a visit to some of Oak Bay Marina’s inhabitants: the seals! At the marina’s shop, a small bag of frozen salmon pieces can be purchased for $3. My kids and I always make a point to see the seals, who know EXACTLY what they are doing, splashing with their front flippers to get our attention as they spot us carrying the little plastic bags across the pier.
The breakwater at Ogden Point juts out into the water like a giant arm protecting those who enter the harbour, providing a shelter from the waves for the many boats entering and leaving this busy port. Large cruise ships often tower over the docks while fishermen push out into the strait in tiny, aluminum boats looking for their next big catch. Walking the breakwater to its end on this late summer evening, we are lucky this time to not be battered by the often present high winds. Reaching twilight on this our first day in Victoria, we gather around the small lighthouse beacon which both warns sea-going travellers of its looming presence, and beckons them safely home.