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I kissed a cod and I liked it

First off, let me just say that I am not a fisherman.  Stick a fishing rod in my hand, plunk me on the dock or in a boat, and the fish just know it’s time to head for the farthest shoreline.  So this isn’t about fishing, lures, or where the best spots are.

Newfoundland dead capelins beach But in three months of traversing Canada from Cape Spear and Bonavista to Courtenay on Vancouver Island – with a little hop between Toronto and Edmonton to skip the uninteresting parts –  we’ve seen a lot of fish.

Our piscatorial perambulations started at Twillingate, Newfoundland.   On an early-evening outing to a cliffside lighthouse we ran into a couple from New Hampshire who casually asked us if we’d seen all the millions of capelins on the shoreline a mile or so back.  Nope.  Never heard of capelins before, actually, but we were intrigued enough to tear ourselves away from the lighthouse and dramatic coastal views to go have a look.

We parked beside a beach and made our way the short distance through the grass to the Newfoundland capelin eggsbeach.  Right away we were struck by the strange, spongy feel to the sand, but thought nothing of it as we walked along the shoreline to some people with buckets and nets gathered by some rocky outcroppings at the northern end.   We passed by a few dead fish the size of large sardines or small herring scattered here and there – nothing approaching millions – but by the time we reached the end the fish were piled up six inches deep in places, and with every wave more were being thrown ashore.

These were capelins, which do indeed arrive by their millions in Newfoundland every June to spawn.  The females leave their eggs in the sand and the males come by to fertilise them.  Then they all die.  Keeps the divorce rate low, I guess.  Anyway, that spongy feel underfoot all along the beach were, in fact, the eggs.  They’re pin-head tiny, but there are billions of them, so they pile up thick on the shore.

Kissing that cod.

Our next fishy encounter was a few days later in Trout River, a former outport town on the western shore of Newfoundland just west of the Gros Morne National Park boundary.

Newfoundland Trout River north

Trout River wasn’t the prettiest town we visited, but in true Newfoundland fashion the people were very friendly and the more you hung around, the more you learned from them .  We talked to a Fisheries and Oceans Canada fellow staying in the cabin next to us about his life and work, how he goes out on the fishing boats monitoring catches and making sure they’re keeping within pre-set guidelines.  He suggested we drop by the local museum for their traditional codfish salt preserving tour, so we headed over there one rainy day and got the full face of it.

In a tour halfway up and down the shoreline boardwalk our guide described how Newfoundland Gros Morne Trout River gutting fishNewfoundland life was back in the old days before TV and roads and a way out, much of it dedicated to the harvesting and preservation of fish.  Salt was what they used to preserve it back in the day before refrigeration, so after letting us try our hands at splitting – what we call gutting – the cod – she let us carefully scoop a half-bucket of it over the filets we’d managed to carve out.

Newfoundland Gros Morne Trout River kissing cod

Then it was time to kiss the cod.  This ritual is only one of about three – some say there are up to eight – hoops you have to jump through – be you a tourist or recent immigrant – if you’re ever going to be a Newfoundlander.  Others involve drinking Newfie Screech, parroting back dialectical utterances to a Newfoundlander after having downed said Screech, and other stuff we won’t get into.

Up she held a fresh cod, out puckered our lips as we took turns smooching the dead-eyed creature.  I can’t say it was the most enjoyable kiss I’ve ever had, but to reveal how bad back in the day some of my dates were, it wasn’t the worst.

Giving it away.

After Trout River we had plans to head north to l’Anse-aux-Meadows to the world-famous Viking archaeological site, but didn’t want to put ourselves through yet more driving, so we headed back west and pulled into Elliston, a village a few minutes down the coast from Bonavista known for a rather large colony of puffins.Newfoundland Bonavista Elliston puffin

The puffins were cute and fun to watch as they waddled about on the grassy rocks and dive-bombed for fish, but what I’ll always remember about that place were the cod.

Newfoundland used to be the world capital of cod fishery, but over-fishing and gross mis-management led to a collapse of stocks and a complete closure more than 20 years ago.  Today the stocks are still low, but there are enough out there to allow your average joe and jane fisherperson an inland cod fishery two or three weeks at a time twice a year depending on location.  One boy in another town said, “we were supposed to catch 15, but only got nine,” when asked how the day went, humourously confusing their daily limit with obligation.

Newfoundland Bonavista Elliston splitting codEarly one morning I got up to look at the puffins, then kept on walking down the path to a nearby bay just to watch the waves roll in and maybe spy one of the many whales plying the Atlantic coastline.  I saw three men in a small boat heading for shore, and by the time I reached their tiny cove they were already onshore splitting their catch.

I headed down there with my camera and was immediately assaulted with the stench of old fish obviously discarded over days past.   Some were crawling with maggots.  Stepping over and around the carcasses I went up to the men and asked for a closer look at their catch.

Newfoundland Bonavista Elliston trio splitting cod

“Ya just missed tha biggest one,” said an elderly gent who must have been in his late seventies.  I would have liked to have seen the size of it, because the ones still in their buckets waiting to be split and thrown in coolers still looked pretty sizable.

“My wife and I were in Bonavista yesterday looking for some cod to buy on the docks,” I told them.  “My wife can’t understand why there’s no place to just pick one up from a boat.”

“Can’t sell’em,” the youngest one said, “but you want some cod?”

He pulled a couple of filets out of the cooler and threw them in an empty bucket.

“Here ya go,” he said.  “Ever had cod tongue?  How ’bout britches?

We’d heard about cod tongue, a tender, almost jelly-like part from the underside of the head, and britches turned out to be the roe, but we’d yet to try either.

They threw in a few of those for good measure and after a few more minutes’ gab sent me on my way.  Though it was barely past 10 they were finished for the day, and getting ready to pull the boat above the high-tide line for the night.

Mashed-up fish on Mashiter Creek

A month later clear across the country – it would take you 96 hours to cover the 7,402 km from Bonavista, Newfoundland to Squamish, BC according to my GPS thingy – we drove over a tonne of pink salmon without even knowing it.

Canada British Columbia Squamish Garibaldi Elfen Lakes trailThey were thrashing like crazy under a bridge we’d driven across one morning to reach the Elfin Lakes trailhead 14km up a winding road through the forest, but we had no idea they were there until many hours later on the way back down when we met a man from France in a hiking shelter.

Well, we didn’t know he was from France until he oPENNed his mouse and started struggling to talk like ziss…

So we got to chatting in our sadly little-used French and he said he was amazed at how so many fish were crowded into so small a creek, you could have walked across on their backs, and it was just down the hill a few kms away.

“Is that bridge just after a golf course on your right and a bunch of industrial buildings on your left?”

“Yes, that’s it.”

“Mashiter Creek,” I said.  “That has to be it,” realising I was about to have another experience in this town that I’d heard about all my life growing up but never bothered to have: see the fish spawning.

Once there we got out and stood on the bridge at the spectacle below us.

“We’ve got to go get the red-haired teen and show her this before the light’s gone,” I said.

So we headed back to our place and I hauled her back to show her the fish.  We didn’t just stand on the bridge and take a couple of snapshots, though.  We headed through the bush on the east side of the bridge to the water’s edge, marvelling at the sight of it all.  And up close, the stench.

Feeling the need to go see the fish as they turned off the Mamquam River up the Mashiter British Columbia pink salmon maggots roeonly 30 or so metres downstream, we walked through the sand and scrub to the confluence.  The salmon were thrashing like mad to fight the flow of both rivers, one after the other, a seemingly endless supply of them.  Along the way I stepped on a dead fish and got a footload of stench and maggoty goodness, but that only added to the fascination.

I suddenly realised that all this dead meat lying around might be a good place to see eagles and bears feeding –  the former majestic, the latter potentially dangerous – but surprisingly, we didn’t see either.

Nevertheless, we didn’t linger, even if the smell in our nostrils did.


Gran Canaria biking slideshow

It’s been stormy the past couple of days, so the rental mountain bike has been sitting safely underground.  It’s been given a thorough trail test in near-perfect weather over the first 8 days of my two weeks here, so any thoughts of it suddenly splitting in half and sending me tumbling over some of the cliffs I’ve been pedaling along have been cleared aside.  Thankfully, not every bike you get to ride is a piece of crap.  As a little update from home, the store is replacing the frame and wife K has a loaner in the meantime.

The best day was this past Friday, getting out on the road before 7am to arrive at the island’s peak just shy of the 2000-metre level at around 3pm.  Along the way I got a bit lost and so had to head downhill several hundred meters to get on the right road again, so the actual vertical climb was quite a bit more than the 2 kilometers.  I also misjudged the amount of time it would take to let gravity pull the bike back to sea level, returning at 7:30pm long after sundown.  A blinking light back and front was a good precaution along with some warm clothing, because even though it can be close to 30 degrees down on the beaches, up near the top the temperatures plunge and the winds are high.

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My favourite trail from last year is even better.  At least it was last week.  All along the way up I was expecting to be passed by the usual convoy of jeeps laden with the package-tourist daytripper set, tongues clucking and heads wagging as they breeze past imagining the difficulties some people put themselves through.  But two hours up the hill there wasn’t even a single car on the road going either up or down.  The reason became clear after rounding a corner to face a rock slide blocking the road as it runs along a cliff.  I suppose word had already spread and the tourists were on another route somewhere, leaving the whole trail and surrounding countryside all to myself.

I keep hearing the word “dangerous” whenever people find out I’ve been mountain biking alone in the volcanic wilds.  Maybe they’re right, but I don’t know if it’s any worse than lolling around on the beach in the pounding sun for hours at a time amid thousands of others all doing the same thing day after day.  Some of them look seriously in need of hospitalisation.


The Queen was right about my home town

I couldn’t agree more:


Praying for more cold so there’s skating in Holland

It’s so cold here the rivers are starting to freeze up.  But I wish it were even colder, and stayed that way for at least another two weeks.   That way the canals of Holland will once again be safe for miles and miles of skating.

Just a little over three years ago I raced 550km from Hamburg to just south of Rotterdam for the chance to slip on the skates and slide around the windmills for three days.

And now that a Russian winter has invaded western Europe, could it happen again?  A lot of people are guessing it might.  Every day this past week dozens of people have been landing on this moribund blog after googling skating in holland.

I’d do anything to be able to do it all over again.  There’s nothing else in winter quite like it.


York Minster in snow

The train from London to York, stuck somewhere half-way, finally lurched forward again after a 90-minute delay.  The safety gate at a level crossing had frozen in the upright position, so the train could not proceed until it was freed.  As the train limped in to York station under heavily laden skies that were once again starting to unload their burden, I figured I was lucky.  I could have been stuck back in London, and who on earth would ever want to be stuck there…?

As I hauled my bag to the hotel about 15 minutes away, passing groups of happy teenagers who looked like the weather had kept them away from school for the day, I started to realise that I had a rare opportunity that afternoon to take some urban winter photos in a place I’d never been before.  Every 15 minutes it would dump like a day-long blizzard, then suddenly clear up.  There was hardly a whisper of wind, so the tree branches were feathered beautifully.

After dumping my bag at the hotel I headed straight for the old town and York Minster, the second-largest Gothic Cathedral in Europe after the colossal Cathedral in Milan.   There were a few people about, but hardly any traffic braving the snowy roads, so it was fairly quiet as I padded through the streets and over bridges, pausing to take in a few sights on the way.

I came across more of the teenagers I’d seen earlier by the station.  They were making the most of the snowfall.   A few of them had climbed over the gates on the ancient wall encircling the old town to pelt snowballs at drivers and pedestrians below.  Others dragged sleds up the steep slopes of a castle and spent the afternoon whizzing down the embankment.  Some didn’t even bother with a sled.

The sun was now low in the sky about a half-hour before dusk. I found myself alone in the immense churchyard, making a slow circumnavigation of the cathedral as the sun played off the snow draping the spires.  Though I’d read how spectacular it is inside – much of it reconstructed after a devastating fire in 1984 –  I left that ’til later, savouring the late-afternoon light and contrast with the brilliant layering of snow.

Enjoy the slideshow if you don’t mind this technical problem I ran into:  I tried to remove from the slideshow the two photos already published above, but couldn’t figure out how.  Still have a lot to learn about this blogging thing.

Monday: frozen out of the Yorkshire Air Museum.

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Frozen out in York: how I never made it all the way

Some of my posts take ages to get published.  This is the first of a series of four of them, about a trip during a massive snowstorm one year ago this week that I took to York, England.

All I wanted to to was get to the Yorkshire Air Museum to muse over a piece of family history.

On the night of March 30-31, 1944, during the Nuremburg bombing raid, the Halifax bomber in which my uncle Vince was flying was shot down 7km north of Frankfurt, Germany.  He managed to bail out, but was captured along with three others of his crew and confined to a German prisoner-of-war camp.  After he was liberated he made it back to Canada, started a family and lived his life.  Despite the amazing nature of his ordeal, uncle Vince told us all very, very little about what happened during his war years.  There were whispers to us when visiting that asking him wasn’t what he’d want, that he didn’t like to talk about it.

So the family legends out of what might have happened to him only grew.  They were ALL wildly off the mark, but they remained stuck in my mind, and it was precisely this shroud over the facts that instilled a fascination for my uncle Vince.  He was the only one of the three boys on my father’s side to go to war.  My father – the eldest – was excused on medical grounds, while the youngest of the three was in still in air force training in Canada when the war ended.

A few years ago my uncle Vince’s widow was asked to attend a ceremony at a flight museum  in York, England commemorating the Canadian airmen who served in the war.  I’d always wanted to go to see how my uncle is mentioned there, and to marvel at the reconstructed Halifax bomber family legend says holds pieces of the plane he’d been shot down in.

But I never seemed to find the right time to go to York until one week at the beginning of December last year.

You might remember that week one year ago now.  A fistful of winter.  It’s not that it snowed that much, but this is England, remember.  The British bureaucrats in colonial times made sure that railway station roofs in subtropical Malaysia were built to withstand the weight of three feet of wet snow, but as soon as a few flakes start to build up on the railway tracks back home even today, the whole country’s system screeches to a halt.

No, wait.  First they make sure to get you on the train and half-way to your destination, and then they shut it down.

So it was on my way to York after having hopped to London from Hamburg to stay with a friend for a couple of days.   Things didn’t look bad pulling out of the station on time, and once we left the bleak wastelands of London’s sprawl the trip north through the blankets of snow was an endlessly changing panorama of slow-laden trees and hedgerows stitching together the rolling hills.

But after a few delays and false starts, the train came to a full stop about an hour short of York.  Before they finally announced that we couldn’t proceed owing to snow blocking a level-crossing gate, I’d imagined the worst.  On a lot of lines in England, if there’s any build-up of snow on the tracks the contact between the “third rail” – the one with all the juice running the train – and the train itself gets clogged up with ice, and it all just stops, and they have to close the line until it can be cleared.  This can take hours or even days if the weather doesn’t change.

Tomorrow: visiting the Air Museum.  Or not.


In love with Gran Canaria

It was my first time on Gran Canaria.   Although I knew it was going to be sunny and warm, ringed with sand and rocky cliffs and gouged with the remnants of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, I didn’t have any inkling how stunningly beautiful I was going to discover the island to be until I rode a mountain bike one morning from sea level to 1,100 metres.

Away from the coast you slowly climb impossibly narrow and twisting roads to stand facing stark outcroppings of lava weathered to craggy fingers topping massive layers of basalt dozens of metres high.  A turn of the handlebars and you’re following a rocky ledge atop cliffs plunging 500 metres to the valley floor.  Climb a little higher and you enter a pine forest.  You stop for lunch with a view to another island more than 50km away, and suddenly realise the air is so pure, so fresh, you could be miles from anywhere.

And you are, because having left behind the walrus colony of package tourists and leather-tanned pensioners lolling around in their thousands down on the beaches, you’re up in the mountains with nothing to hear beyond the wind sighing in the trees like a distant river.   Once in a while at the very top you’ll get caught in fog, a thick swirling blanket as the rising air chills, but it’s never there for long.   I went up there for six days of biking spread over two weeks, and every day it just got better.  I couldn’t get enough of the landscape.

Every morning I’d wake up expecting my body to tell me to just fall back into bed after the pounding I’d given it – and the bike – the day before, but I just had more energy.  I just had to get back up there to discover something new.

Is it possible to fall in love with a place?  To miss it so much after being away for only a week?  I guess this first time was a short fling and destined to remain a sweet memory, but I’ll be back one day with the family.  They should see this.

Here’s a sample of what I saw in two weeks on Gran Canaria.

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Hiking the Stawamus Chief

Living as we do out here in the flatlands of northern Germany, every trip back to Canada we look forward to a little bit of hiking.  For the past four trips – 2005, 2006, 2009 and just this past month – the red-haired girl and I have climbed up the Stawamus Chief, a massive granite monolith whose sheer face dominates the eastern side of Squamish, British Columbia.

In 2006, we went up as a family with a friend of hers to Peak 1:

In 2009 we made it the furthest yet –  to Peak 3:

This past month we first went to Peak 3, then skirted down through the forest and up again to Peak 1.

I fully expect the photo of our next hike up to show some little guy next to a tall red-head.

It takes about two hours to climb as the trail winds up through evergreen forest along a rushing creek before branching off into paths leading to three separate peaks.

As the sign at the trailhead says: this is no walk in the park.

The first part is quite steep and dominated by wooden stairways, recently upgraded to allow for the massive increase in the number of hikers over the past few years.  On our way down this year we started counting the number of people we met along the way.  In only 30 minutes we counted no fewer than 215 people including 16 children plus eight dogs headed up the path as we were headed down.

I’d slip into a nostalgic riff about how when I was a kid we used to walk up there on a weekend and meet maybe a half-dozen people on a crowded day, before launching into a tirade about how the explosion of tourism is ruining the planet, but because I get up to that far too often, I’ll spare you.

Besides, the atmosphere in this post-industrial version of Canada is a lot better than it used to be.  You used to see – and smell – great wafting drifts of white smoke shifting up or down Howe Sound from the former pulp mill at Woodfibre.   The former mill site you can see as a white patch on the far shore behind us in the background.  The mill was taken down a few years ago and shipped for reassembly in China.  Far up the Chief you also used to hear the background sound of woodcutting machines at an equally massive sawmill plunked at the entrance to Squamish, but it’s been gone for ages.

These days the town promotes itself as the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada, so if the tourists have picked up and that and descend on the place in their thousands every summer day, that’s the trade-off.  The surrounding countryside is so much cleaner than it used to be, making the view from the top even more worth the climb.


Saturday sunburn at st. peter-ording

Sunburn in winter.  How long has it been?  It had to have been the sun that reddened our faces, because there was absolutely no wind on the vast, empty beach at St. Peter-Ording, the roiling North Sea calmed to the level stillness of a morning lake.  A few strollers, a couple of disappointed kite-surfers, nothing much more.    A year ago today we were stepping over three-foot snowdrifts on the Baltic after a 24-hour blizzard cut us off from the rest of Germany for a while.  What a difference.

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Ten days in New York’s Chinatown

We met in Hong Kong and have fond memories of the place,  always telling the little red-haired girl that we’ll take her back there someday.  We’d also always talked about going to New York City as well, but with only two weeks’ holiday, Hong Kong is quite a stretch.

So in booking a hotel for New York, we combined the two: The Hotel 91, at 91 East Broadway, is right in the middle of what some say is the biggest Chinese community outside of Shanghai.   Turn left out the door and cross the lane, you’re in a Chinese supermarket right under the Manhattan Bridge.  Turn right and you’re in the middle of a scaled-down version of Hong Kong’s old Wan Chai wet market, with a variety of fresh fish, live eels, huge, fist-sized sea snails, razor clams oozing soft, white flesh, live lobster, and what I came to fall in love with: the Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab.

I’d never seen blue crab before stopping to watch a fishmonger along East Broadway.   He had no fewer than 30 wooden buckets of them stacked up tightly along the kerb when I went out to fetch croissants for the three of us one morning, and when we went back later, shoppers were lined up to buy them. They’re such a gorgeous blue, gradually giving way at the extremities to a deep red-orange.

He’d thrust a pair of tongs into the buckets, shoving what he could gather into a large paper bag.  Sometimes the customer would complain and say – I suppose – that one of them was too small, so he’d root around in the bag and haul it out again with the tongs.  Because he worked fast and handled them roughly,  he’d shear off a limb or two, their remains scattered in the buckets and on the surrounding pavement.

Standing amid the passing traffic, getting jostled by the constant stream of pedestrians crowding the sidewalk, you’d hear above the loud Cantonese the blast of subway trains as they rumbled by overhead on the Manhattan Bridge.  They came every two minutes, blotting out all possibility of conversation.  But like living near an airport, after a while the noise was just part of the background.

I often had the feeling we really were back in our old colonial home in what is now China.  In the manner of emigrants everywhere, the people seem to have held on so hard to the life they left behind, it remains frozen in time, while the home country has moved on.  The old-fashioned herbal remedy stores look and smell exactly as I remember them.  Cakes, preserves, meats, paper products – all stacked in a disarray along sidewalks with barely a border between one store and the next.  And everywhere the crush of bodies.

A playground lies on the other side of the bridge adjacent to the brick supermarket.  I lingered and observed the families watching their children play, the old men smoking, the young women chatting in groups, the kids so wrapped up in enjoying the moment.  It was tiny, very crowded, and noisy: just like everywhere in Hong Kong.

The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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A few reasons why I sometimes get homesick

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