Archive for December, 2014

2014

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014
  • I left the mountains. I’m still not sure how I feel about that.
  • I lived in Montréal for two winter months. It wasn’t quite enough to get a sense for the city, but I know it a bit better now. I got around with English, particularly around McGill, but it’s not the ideal way to do things.
  • Participated in my first professional conference, PyCon 2014! It was fun and I will be back in April 2015. Palais des congrès de Montréal is a fantastic space and one of my more aesthetically-pleasing moments of the year came when I found a side aisle with an oasis of quiet and sun and electricity and World Sick on headphones and it reminded me how much I enjoy looking out on cold sunny days.
  • I went to Cuba and it looked like communism in the sun, complete with concrete bus shelters and road overpasses to nowhere. I also briefly visited Kitchener-Waterloo and spent a weekend in Quebec City in early April (it was still snowy and wintery).
  • I had a week-long layover in Iceland at the beginning of May and tried to make the most of it going around the island and into the Westfjords; a bit too compressed but still amazing.
  • I moved to London! I walked around London and didn’t get hit by a cab; I biked around London and didn’t get hit by a bus. See my post after three months and it’s been getting better since.
  • Out of London, I did the tourist thing and visited Stonehenge; went up to Edinburgh for a weekend of the Fringe Fest; and travelled from Prague via Munich through Switzerland.
  • I visited Poland at the end of the year, my first time in the country in 13 years. I was a little apprehensive — as a grown-up I’d been a Polish person, but I was always a Polish person abroad. Now I was briefly a Polish person in Poland. And I was alright at it. I could do it! I could be a Polish person. I didn’t fully fit in, but in the normal ways I don’t fit in in Canada: social awkwardness, etc.
  • I got a Nexus 5 and I broke the screen within half a year. My thoughts are mixed, a mini-review is forthcoming.
  • I had earphones and listened to a decent amount of music. Foremost were FM Belfast’s new album, Broken Social Scene, Crystal Castles, and The Rural Alberta Advantage including their new album. A new Stars album came out but I didn’t listen to it that much.
  • On a more mainstream note, Lorde’s Pure Heroine turned out to be a perfect city-by-dark album in November and December, Underworld’s Barking a close second.
  • I saw a satisfying amount of live music, not quite as much as in 2013 but no 2012-level drought either (last.fm, setlist.fm). I saw Broken Bells in Montréal, Owen Pallett twice, Mogwai, The Twilight Sad twice, Ólafur Arnalds, The Notwist, The RAA, and reunion shows from The Jesus and Mary Chain and Slowdive.
  • Musical moments:
  • January 25, 9 a.m., Vancouver late winter sunrise, driving a white Modo minivan over the Fraser Bridge southbound, Lorde — Royals
  • April 14, Montréal afternoon, first blast of summer, Young Galaxy — New Summer
  • late fall, London early-dark afternoon, Lorde — Team
  • We are faster than you and you know that we are strong.

Whitehorse

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

Why travel to Whitehorse, you might ask? It is a fair question. My answer was that it’s the fastest, cheapest way to get above 60° from Vancouver.

Perhaps an unusual obsession, but there’s something about summer north of 60°, where golden hour lasts three hours and you can read a book outside mid night.

Beyond the latitude, there isn’t much to Whitehorse per se. It’s a small town and an administrative centre, the kind of place where people come in on “the Westjet” or “the Air Canada” flights. Like many others this far up, it pulls more than you’d expect based on southern population standards, and so there’s a museum or two. But the main attraction of the city is what the city used to be, what is outside, and what is above.

The Yukon River is the reason the city was founded, and offers history, glacier-cold-and-clear water, and the well-preserved (and free to explore) river steamboat SS Klondike II.

(Whitehorse, elevation 640 m above sea level, is the highest point that can be reached by watercraft from the sea, though nobody bothers these days.)

Yukon River, in early sunset light at 10:30 pm

Yukon River at 10:30 pm

The MacBride Museum is not the biggest. Like many small ex-frontier museums, it leans more towards the curiosities than strict history, but remains fairly enjoyable. I wouldn’t come up just to visit, but once you’re up and have time, it’s worth dropping by.

There’s usual tourist frontier entertainment in form a follies cabaret, which I might have enjoyed a bit more if I wasn’t sunstricken (note to self: just because it’s north doesn’t mean you don’t need a hat!). There is even the obligatory waterfront trolley (powered by a diesel generator on a little trailer).

One of the more enjoyable things in Whitehorse is walking out into the park and then forest up the Yukon River’s Miles Canyon. The trails going upstream are lovely, the forest is quiet, the river is fast and cold, and there is a bit of history in the air, even if the “Canyon City” townsite features more midden than anything else. Word of warning: the return along the west bank of the river requires walking along some roads and up and down a number of hills. The hills offer nice views but are also quite tiring, especially if you do like me and underestimate the 20 km round trip walk to Canyon City.

(Canyon City was a terminus of a horse-drawn tramway bypassing White Horse Rapids on the river, and the reconstructed track-and-vehicle exhibit is in equal parts ingenious and hacky: tree trunk logs served as rails and the wheels were semi-spherical.)

The outdoors in the summer is a lot like Vancouver with lots of hills and conifers, but drier and rockier. Coming in on a plane from Fraser River delta, the lack of water and more sand and gravel almost makes the area look a bit deserty at first, and indeed yearly precipitation totals are less than a quarter of Vancouver’s.

Of course, this isn’t the closest or cheapest such hike from Vancouver. What really brought me to Whitehorse was the midnight sun, and it didn’t disappoint even though it was two weeks off the solstice. Hills to the northwest brought sunset at 11:05 pm (astronomical sunset was 11:30 pm), and I did read a bit after midnight. Even after experiencing Vancouver, where sun sets a fair bit later than in southern Ontario and everything seems to close by 8 pm — 10 pm if open late — it was odd walking through an obviously Canadian, obviously shut-and-tucked-in town with the sun still up.

Yukon River in downtown Whitehorse at summer sunset

Sunset at 11:05 pm

All these wonders don’t come cheap, though. Whitehorse suffers from twin maladies of being remote (driving up prices) and being visited primarily by retired people who have time to travel nowhere in particular (driving up prices). Starbucks and Subway have about 30% price premium over down south (no $5 footlongs here), and too many restaurants charge too much. Klondike Rib and Salmon Barbecue, in case the name didn’t tip you off, appears to cater to large retiree groups and barely bothered to give a pair of twentysomethings the time of the day at dinner. The Burnt Toast was much more reasonable and the crowd, at least at brunch, seemed more local too.

Access is by airplane, unless you like really really long drives. Thanks to being a small town, the airport is compact and easily accessible. The bus to town is hourly at :22 (schedule PDF) for $2.50 cash, the taxi is about $12-15, but best of all, the walk is 45 minutes. From the terminal, head north along the path on the edge of the airport and turn off when the path rounds the runway east then south. There will be stairs leading down the hill to the end of Black Street downtown. If you have time, pass the stairs and head a little further south, where I’m told there are nice viewpoints over the river valley, but you will have to backtrack as the stairs are the only way to reach the central city from the hill.

Similar destinations

I understand Yellowknife is cheaper from east of the Rockies, apparently including as far as Ottawa. It’s in different terrain but slightly further north. From U.S.A. west coast airports it might be cheaper to fly up to Anchorage, but I know little about it. Depending on the origin and time it might also be cheaper to fly to Iceland, which while less Canadian is further north still and has seriously amazing outdoors.