Archive for January, 2014|Monthly archive page

The Wild West?

A little known fact about Vancouver is that it used to be a good ol’-fashioned Wild West town. You know, the kind with lumber jacks, gold miners, and the odd knife fight at 11am on a Sunday morning.

Of course, over time that changed. The trans-Canadian railway reached Vancouver in the 1890s, and families, churches and business folks flocked here, slowly turning this frontier town into the clean, polite city that we know today.

Except that, it didn’t. Not really. True, Vancouver has relatively low rates of violent crime and property theft, but it turns out that the locals have a rather more relaxed approach to obeying some of the other laws here. Mostly, any ones that they don’t agree with.

I’ve already mentioned Vancouver’s attitude to the apparently-illegal-but-no-one-here-seems-to-realise-that subject of pot. Now, since buying a car, I’ve discovered that the locals also have a very “meh” philosophy regarding speed limits. The speed limit on the highway north of Vancouver is 90km. People normally do about 110km.* On long weekends, traffic controllers will put up an electronic sign to tell drivers how fast they’re going. Sometimes (I kid you not), the sign just makes a sad face.

And then, there was this story I recently stumbled across.

Last year, British Columbia held provincial elections. A few weeks out from the polls, a reporter did a “day in the life” story on the Premiere at the time, Christie Clark. The reporter rode along with Clark as she went to drop her son off at an early morning hockey camp, and discussed everything from the upcoming debates, to Clark’s grandparents.

In the essay, the reporter mentions how Clark’s 11-year-old son challenged Clark to run a red light.

“I might. Don’t test me,” Clark replies.

“Yeah. Go ahead.”

“Should I?”

“There’s no one.”

And then the Premiere of British Columbia, just weeks away from an election, with a reporter in the car, ran a red light.

The article came out the next day. Interestingly, the reporter didn’t lead with that. In fact, that incident was 3,800 words into a 4,200 word article, and played more to the relationship between Clark and her son, rather than “holy shit, the Premiere of the province just broke the law in front of me. WTF?”, which is probably where I would have gone with it.

Of course, it wasn’t long before the story picked up steam. Initially Clark’s response was “eh, it was 5am. Who cares?”. It turns out that the journalists cared, and soon enough Clark did the standard political tap-dance, saying she was sorry, there is no excuse for running a red light, and promising to never do it again.

Her opposition, Adrian Dix, oddly enough, decided not to use this as a political tool. Possibly because he had been caught riding the Skytrain without a valid ticket not too long before.

A few weeks later, Clark’s party won the election by some 800,000 votes. It turns out that, unlike the journalists, the voters didn’t care.

It’s nice to know that, no matter how civilised and refined Vancouver may appear to be on the outside, deep down inside there’s still a touch of the wild west.

*The BC government likes to counter this with the occasional unsignposted hairpin corner at the base of a hill.

A Dog Day Afternoon

We knew we were close when we could hear the dogs.

We’d been driving along the winding, snow-covered road for twenty minutes, and – according to the GPS – we should have seen the turnoff by now. I was beginning to worry we were lost.

We were in Banff, possibly Canada’s most famous national park. Situated in the middle of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Banff has a kind of jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery that almost borders on cliché. My friend and I had left our boyfriends to explore the mountains their usual way – with skis and a snowboard – while we were going to do something different. We were going to go dog sledding – unless, of course, I couldn’t find the meeting place.

It turns out, I didn’t need to worry. Thirty-five over-excited dogs are kind of hard to miss.

On first impression, I was disappointed. Instead of pure-bred huskies attached to a quaint old-timey leather harness, I was greeted by a motley pack of cross-breeds, strung on a line that looked like red twine; in places the line had been chewed through to reveal a steel cable. The dogs themselves seemed anxious or nervous. One – a blind dog, from the look of his milky white eyes – was constantly throwing himself against the harness. I wondered what sort of operation needed to keep a blind dog on as a runner. I feared I was supporting a business that exploited animals for profit.

Concerned, I headed into the briefing, where the guide took us quickly over the basics of dog sledding. Each sled took three people, including a guide. Two people would stand on the back railings, whilst one person sat on the front, wrapped in blankets to protect against the cold. Those on the back would be responsible for the handling of the dogs, including using the foot brake, a metal spike that dug into the snow to slow the team down if necessary. The guide pointed out that it was crucial to stay on the brake if the team was stopped – if not, they were likely to take off without you. “You’re not a real musher until you’ve run 8km through the snow after your dogs” he warned.

Remember that last part. It turns out it’s important.

Then it was time to leave. As soon as we were aboard, our guide, Anna, pulled a small metal anchor out of the snow and released her weight from the brake. I waited for her to give the team a command to start, but the dogs didn’t need it. As soon as the brake was released, they were off. Their anxiety and nervousness melted away as they bounded down the snow-covered ramp onto the frozen lake, replaced instead by the simple joy of running with the pack across the great expanse of the Canadian Rockies.

There is an eerie silence to dog sledding, a quiet whisper as the sled rushes silently over the snow, the only noise the panting of the dogs and a faint shhhing of the rails beneath our feet. The scenery slid by, soaring jagged mountain peaks and deep tree-lined valleys, as the dogs ate up the miles. My first impression may not have lived up to childhood dreams, but now, as the dogs raced across the ice, I understood why dog sledding was – and still is – so special to Canadians.

Dog sledding has been around in Canada for over three thousand years. It was originally used by the First Nations as a means of transportation through the snowbound interior, and was quickly adopted by the settlers; from gold miners to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, anyone who wanted to move anything anywhere used dog sleds during the long and harsh Canadian winter.

And now our team was, tongues out, tails wagging, happily pulling us across the frozen Salt Spray Lake. In the distance, I saw a dark blotch on the vast expanse of snow and ice. As we drew nearer, I could see it was a family ice fishing. They were layered up in thick winter clothing and huddled together around a small hole they’d drilled in the lake.

While they looked like mongrels, the dogs were, in fact, all husky crosses. The blind dog was on our team and, being one for tact, I asked Anna why they kept him running. It turned out that they had tried to retire him when he lost his eyesight, but the dog – Spock – had became anxious and stressed. The only thing they could do was let him run again.

At the edge of the lake, Anna pulled the dogs to a halt. We were about to head up into the forest flanking the lake, and she wanted to make sure the teams behind us knew what was going to happen.

“Hold onto the bar, and stay on the brake” she said, embedding the metal anchor into the snow.

I looked around at the scenery. It was astonishingly beautiful here, but that beauty belied the harshness of life in the Canadian Rockies. Life here is still very much at the mercy of the elements; blizzards can close schools and make roads deadly, while the bitter cold can make even the simplest of tasks challenging.

Suddenly, I felt a jerking on the sled. Spock was throwing himself forward on the harness again. One of the other dogs joined in. Suddenly, the anchor ripped free of the snow as the sled jerked forward. Startled, I instinctively took a step backwards to regain my balance.

That was a mistake.

The team, all suddenly sensing less weight on the brake, leapt forward, yanking the sled bar out of my hands.

I looked up to see the seven dogs, with my friend still seated on the front of the sled, disappearing towards the forest.

Oh, shit.

I took off after them, but the team was quickly pulling away from me. Desperate – and with the thought of an 8km chase echoing through my mind – I threw myself at the back of the sled. I felt my left hand close on the hand rail; I held on for dear life as the sled ran along, my knees bouncing on the snow as I dangled from the back of it.

I grabbed hold with my other hand and attempted to pull myself up, my feet slipping and sliding on the snow as I tried to get my feet on something solid. Eventually, I managed to get one foot on the railing, and brought my other foot down on the brake. It bit into the snow, slowing them to a stop. I sighed in relief as Anna ran up and added her weight to the brake.

The trip continued as the sun sank towards the horizon. It was just before Christmas, and days were short above the 51st parallel. Eventually we arrived back at the boat ramp we had departed from.

I helped the guides unharness the dogs and load them back onto the trucks, two large flatbeds with individual dog boxes built into the back of them. Each dog had their own pooch-sized kennel to travel in, complete with a bed of straw to lie on, and a doggy-sized window for them to look out of. My fears of the dog’s ill-treatment were unfounded. These were working dogs, but they were well-cared for, and they loved nothing better than to run before the sled with their handlers.

My last sight of the team was of the trucks driving away. In true canine fashion, there were forty dog heads poking out of forty small dog windows, all eagerly looking forward to the next adventure as they headed up the road into the night.

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A Bend in the Road

I never realised how easy it is to die.

All it takes is a patch of black ice and a corner in the road. That’s it.

It was a Friday evening. We were on our way to Revelstoke, a small skiing town in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, where two friends of ours would be joining us for a week-long holiday.

It was a 550km drive from Vancouver, a long trip after work but not impossible – and worth it to be able to spend Saturday on the slope. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to factor in driving through a blizzard in the Canadian Rockies.

Canada, it turns out, is a rather snowy place. Which is why ski holidays here are so great – it’s just traveling to them that can be hard. And, although we live in an age where I can use orbiting satellites 20,000km away to navigate to my destination, apparently our best approach to snow-covered roads is simply to shovel them every few hours.

And of course, when it’s a blizzard, that doesn’t really do much.

We were a few hours out of Vancouver when we hit the storm. We slowed to a crawl as thick flurries of snow fell, reducing our vision to just a few metres in front of the car. Our headlights didn’t help; the snow just reflected the lights back to us, turning the world into streaks of white. The markings on the road had disappeared long ago. I hunched over the wheel, carefully following the previous tyre tracks in the snow and hoping that I was staying roughly in the right lane. Or even a lane. Every few minutes a lorry would roar past, buffeting us with its slipstream.

All in all, it was probably going to take us a bit longer than five and a half hours to get to Revelstoke.

By 2:37am we were almost there. The last hundred kilometres hadn’t been too bad – at least not compared to the first. The blizzard had stopped, now there was just the layer of snow on the road to worry about, but even that had been gritted – covered with a layer of dirt to add traction. We had the jeep in four-wheel drive and were staying at a safe 70kph. Then the road started to head downhill towards a curve.

It was the sound that changed. The steady humming sound of the jeep’s tyres became a sharp crackling. Then: “Oh, shit” from my boyfriend as the back end of the jeep slowly started to swing out.

Strangely, my first thought as we lost control, was that I would be letting our friends down when we had to cancel the skiing trip.

The jeep picked up speed as it fishtailed wildly across the road. I could see the edge appearing fast. On the other side, there was a ten metre drop, and then a lake, frozen over in winter.

The phrase “lost control” sounds rather trivial. It implies a momentary lapse before you simply regain control. It in no way encapsulates the heart-sickening terror, the helplessness, of being trapped in a car going 80kph towards the edge of the road while you are powerless to change or stop it. All we could do was hope like hell we would somehow survive. For the next hundred metres, we had no say in whether we would live or die.

We hit the guard rail with a sickening crunch before ricocheting off and spinning sideways. I braced myself, I knew that the car was going to flip.

Only… it didn’t. Instead, it slid sideways for what felt like a lifetime before spinning around backwards. Now we were facing the right way, but traveling backwards in the oncoming lane. Any car coming around the bend would see our tail lights and presume that we were heading in the right direction. They wouldn’t realise until too late that we were coming towards them.

Please don’t let a lorry come around the corner.

The jeep fishtailed wildly once or twice more, then swung itself back around. As suddenly as it had started, it stopped.

Shaking badly, we pulled over to the side of the road. Somehow, we had come through unharmed. The Trans-Canadian highway, the life blood of cross-Canadian travel and shipping, had left this brief, hundred metre stretch of road silent for the thirty seconds our lives had been up in the air.

A lorry roared past us, reminding us what a tenuous thread our lives had hung by.

I’m not a horrible person.* I don’t cut people off in traffic, I sort my recycling, and I rarely drive somewhere if I can bike or walk. In my mind, that was the deal I made long ago with the universe – I’ll be a fairly decent person, and in exchange, bad things will only happen to other people.

Until that night, I think I truly believed that.

I thought that if I lived a mostly good life, nothing bad would happen to me.

Now I know I was wrong.

A random sequence of events, a lucky combination of circumstances, meant that we walked away unharmed where we could just as easily have died. Even the jeep was somehow mostly okay.** We’d been passing convoys of trucks all night; if any had come around that bend whilst we were out of control, we would have died on that dark stretch of road outside Revelstoke.

There was a fatal accident that night, not far from where ours nearly took place. Another eastbound SUV lost control and crossed into oncoming traffic, colliding with a lorry. The driver was killed on the scene.

I am sure that the driver of that SUV didn’t think she would die that night, either. I am sure she had her own deal with life, her own moral codebook that she lived by, and in exchange she believed that death would only come for her when she was old and ready for it.

Sadly, the same randomness that saved our life that night, took hers.

* Okay, I’m not a great person either, but I do sort my recycling. I’m sure that counts for something.

** It came out of this with only a scratch along the bumper, leading me to believe that it is made of adamantium. Which would explain the lousy gas mileage.

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