ALL ABOARD!

July 27, 2009

Here’s an update on  Via Rail’s  labour dispute with its locomotive engineers.

Via Rail says its passenger rail service should be back to normal on Monday after a two-day Canada-wide strike, offering discounts of 60 per cent on tickets to all destinations to woo back customers.

To take advantage of the discount, travellers must buy their tickets by midnight Pacific time on Wednesday, and must take their trips by Dec. 14.

As a result, train service between Winnipeg and Churchill is set to  resume and not a moment to soon for the residents of Churchill for whom the railway is their only land link to southern Canada.  In the spirit of public service, here’s what would-be travellers are missing.

Last August, we journeyed from Winnipeg in southern Manitoba to the town of Churchill on the shores of Hudson Bay aboard VIA Rail’s Hudson Bay.

Louise took the opportunity to test the video capability of her Leica C-Lux 2 camera. The results have been edited to dreamy effect, an accurate reflection of a journey originally scheduled at 36 hours.

Owing to a heat wave which softened the permafrost landscape and created “sun kinks” in the rails, the trip lasted 50 hours, the final 100 miles of which were covered at a speed of 10 mph. Check out scenes from the observation dome car where you can actually see the cars rising and falling over the curved rails.

Featured in the video are fellow members of the Society of American Travel Writer’s Canadian chapter. Near the conclusion of the 8-minute video we’ve included tantalizing clips of what awaited us – beluga whales and polar bears – which figured prominently in Jack’s dreams as he snoozed through the aptly-named Barrens.

For an extensive display of related still photographs, check out the Churchill file posted are posted here.


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Nisga’a land woos Nass Valley tourists with parks, art

July 21, 2009

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Nisga'a hereditary chief and master carver Alver Tait is creating four house poles to be installed at the new Nisga'a Museum taking shape near the village of Laxgalts'ap. Louise Christie photo.

Imagine celebrating Canada Day in an independent nation surrounded on all sides by, well, Canada. If your guess is la belle province, think again. In 2000, after more than a century of negotiations, the Nisga’a signed the first modern-day treaty—the Nisga’a Final Agreement—negotiated with the federal government. Since then, the Nisga’a Lisims government based in New Aiyansh, about 150 kilometres north of Terrace, has overseen four traditional villages whose 2,500 inhabitants occupy the heart of the Nass Valley. Welcome to Nisga’a Land.

The mighty Nass River flows through the valley as smoothly as molten lava did about 270 years ago in a fiery volcanic eruption. We spent much of Canada Day exploring the Nass—the anglicized version of Lisims—in the company of Kim Morrison, chief operating officer for Nisga’a Commercial Group Tourism, now in its second year of operation. Morrison, of Mohawk ancestry, was pleasantly surprised by the 150-percent visitor increase over the past year, spurred in large part by school groups from as far afield as Toronto. “Our staff have been working full-time since May, even though I thought they’d only be needed on weekends,” the dynamo admitted. “Last year was stepping off the edge for the Nisga’a after years of tourism feasibility studies. This job suits me because I’m all about living on the edge.”

Presently, most visitors are drawn to the area to explore Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park—also tongue-twistingly named Anhluut’ukwsim Laxmihl Angwinga’asanskwhl Nisga’a Provincial Park—on a 12-stop, self-guided auto tour. For Morrison, that’s just the beginning. “We’re building three backcountry fly-in lodges on the Cambria Icefields in Nisga’a traditional territory near Stewart, with a 36-kilometre trail system that leads through four different environments with bikers, hikers, paddlers, snowshoers, and backcountry skiers in mind. The first will open by the end of next year with an all-Nisga’a staff.” In a frank admission, Morrison said she herself doesn’t plan to be around in five years. “I want to work my way out of a job and have a Nisga’a in my place.”

One person who has already worked his way into a leadership role within the new nation is hereditary chief and carver Alver Tait. When we visited Tait at his studio in the village of Laxgalts’ap, or Greenville, he was in the midst of preparing the first of four dugout canoes to be launched by summer’s end. “My home is in New Aiyansh, but this village hired me to train eight apprentices in traditional carving techniques,” the Order of British Columbia recipient said. Alver, younger brother of noted carver Norman Tait, recently journeyed to Austria to raise a ceremonial pole the Canadian government had commissioned to honour the Vienna Zoo’s 250th anniversary. “These canoes represent a revival of one of the most important symbols to our people, who journeyed between winter and summer camps for gathering food like oolichan, cockles, sea lions, and salmon.” In the future, Tait’s eight apprentices will take their place as the principal canoe carvers. “Norman taught me how to design and shape a canoe in 1980, which we eventually paddled from Prince Rupert to Gingolx, or Kinkolith. It’s been a long time coming. We were working on our own then, nothing like today, where we have apprentices.”

According to Tait, fortunes changed with the founding of Nisga’a Land. “It takes a lot of money to find the trees, fell them, and move them to the carving shed. The old growth is getting harder to source.” In addition to the canoes, Alver is also carving four house poles to be installed at the new Nisga’a Museum taking shape nearby, where longhouses will honour the nation’s four principal clans: raven, wolf, eagle, and whale.

In B.C.’s northwest region, travellers seek out carvers in the same way they tour wineries in the Okanagan. The effects are similar: well-executed carvings can have as heady an impact on the central nervous system as wine. Bear this in mind as you work your way around the park and beyond. Although the carving shed in Laxgalts’ap, which is open to the public daily, is the ideal place to witness the creative process, take time to also view the four ceremonial poles that dominate the entrance to the municipal hall in New Aiyansh, as well as a similarly sized pole topped by a human figure holding a rainbow that fronts the Nisga’a Lisims government building farther uphill. Festooned to an almost baroque degree with swirling designs, the poles’ impacts are heightened to mind-altering degrees by their outdoor settings on terraces at the feet of glaciated peaks that wall the valley. And although exploring the lava fields that spread in a wide swath through the park is the main attraction, an equally attractive activity is paddling the freshwater lakes on whose surfaces the peaks are reflected to an even higher degree of impressiveness.

In total, Nisga’a Land encompasses 2,000 square kilometres of territory. Don’t be intimidated. No passports are required. Set aside at least a full day just to explore the park and adjacent villages. You’ll never look at Canada the same way again.

Access: The Nass Valley, including Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park, is located 1,525 kilometres north of Vancouver via Terrace. Detailed information is available from the Nisga’a Commercial Group Tourism, 1-866-633-2696 or www.ncgtourism.ca/. For information on surrounding communities, including Terrace, call 1-866-615-7205 or visit www.kermodeitourism.ca/.

Original Article
Text CR Jack Christie
Photo CR Louise Christie

Cross-border Docking on the M.V. Coho

July 7, 2009


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Southwestern B.C. sits at a crossroads of natural convergences. The Cascade Mountains, which run between California and Washington state, line one side of the Fraser Valley while from the other the Coast Mountains lead north to Alaska. Offshore, the interface of the southern end of the Alaskan marine species range and the northern end of the California varieties accounts for a staggering abundance of biodiversity. To top things off, three sweeping straits—Georgia, Haro, and Juan de Fuca—meet up in the waters that separate the Lower Mainland and Victoria.

Looking for a thrill? Get out the water and witness these forces at play for yourself. One of the best places to do that is aboard the M.V. Coho, pride of the Black Ball Ferry Line. Based in Port Angeles, Washington, on the shores of the Olympic Peninsula, the Coho and its crew have been making daily traverses across Juan de Fuca Strait to Victoria for the past half century. When reached on the bridge of the Coho as it was about to make its 50th birthday voyage, Captain Elmer Grasser told me that he viewed the anniversary as quite an accomplishment. “It’s a humbling feeling,” he said. “When I think of all the crews that came before us, we can be very proud of what’s been accomplished. The community support both in Port Angeles and Victoria is outstanding. This celebration is about keeping the link between our two countries going, especially given the ups-and-downs of international travel lately. It’s something to be very thankful of.”

Out on deck, two travellers who would heartily agree with the captain’s assessment were preparing to cycle to Baja California in Mexico. Maxime Bruneau of France and Craig Jones of New Zealand, having just wrapped up winter in Whistler, were now intent on experiencing some warm-water surfing. The two were kitted out for camping. This was long-haired Bruneau’s first experience entering the U.S. “The American customs officer was quite pleasant,” he admitted with astonishment. “She said we needed to put an address of where we’d be staying on our entry form. When we told her we planned to bike the coast, she put down Olympic National Park and wished us well.”

Port Angeles lies at the foot of the Olympic Mountain’s Hurricane Ridge, a towering landmark clearly visible from Vancouver’s Little Mountain. One reason to take a vehicle across on the Coho is to drive a 27-kilometre route up the slopes behind the mill town to a viewpoint of the wall of snowy peaks as well as a panoramic look back across the strait to both Victoria and our North Shore mountains. Otherwise, travel as a foot passenger. For a small fee, bring along a bike to explore the waterfront trails—including the 45-kilometre Olympic Discovery Trail—which fan out from the ferry slip. Unlike BC Ferries, where cyclists must park bikes on the lower car deck, passengers push their bikes aboard the Coho’s top deck to handily-placed racks.

The two ports share much in common. A wealth of public art is displayed on city streets, such as Port Angeles’ Avenue of the Peoples and Victoria’s Signs of Lekwungen interpretive walkway. As well, murals soar on the walls of historic brick buildings. Both harbours feature hands-on displays of marine life. In particular, the volunteer-run Fiero Marine Life Center, a public aquarium on Port Angeles’ City Pier, is a must-see.

No matter which harbour you frequent, a potent combination of salt air and stimulating exercise will have you searching out places to placate your appetite. If you want to dine with the locals, try the First Street Haven Restaurant in Port Angeles, a classic slice of Americana whose menu compliments but in no way mirrors Victoria’s grass-roofed, outdoors Red Fish, Blue Fish, a companion operation to Go Fish! at the False Creek Fisherman’s Dock.

If you visit Victoria on the B.C. Day long weekend, listen for the M.V. Coho’s distinctive B flat ship’s horn to sound the note that anchors the Victoria Symphony Splash performance on August 2. A throng of 40,000 spectators is expected to converge on the inner harbour—where plaques honour distinguished ships and sailors who have made Victoria a port of call—to catch North America’s largest annual symphony event. On the summer breeze, listen as Captain Grasser offers the classic mariners toast, “Clear horizons.”

Access: Crossing time between Victoria and Port Angeles is 90 minutes.

For information on the Black Ball Ferry Line’s Victoria-Port Angeles route, including sailing times and fares, visit www.cohoferry.com. Until December 31, complimentary fares are offered those who travel on their birthdays. In addition, the Black Ball Ferry Line’s online contest awards a free Vancouver Island or Olympic Peninsula getaway every month during 2009, including round-trip transportation on the M.V. Coho and overnight accommodation.

For information on the Victoria Symphony Splash, visit www.victoriasymphony.ca/concerts/splash/.

The First Street Haven (107 East First Street; 360-457-0352) lies just uphill from the Black Ball ferry slip. Red Fish, Blue Fish (250-298-6877; www.redfish-bluefish.com) lies at the foot of Broughton Street adjacent the Victoria seaplane base.

For information on the Fiero Marine Life Center, call 360-417-6254 or visit www.olypen.com/fierolab/. Note: The centre is closed on Mondays.

In Port Angeles, Sound Bikes and Kayaks (120 East Front Street; 360-457-1240; www.soundbikeskayaks.com) offers tours and rentals.

Tourism information is available from the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce (121 E. Railroad; 360-452-2363; www.portangeles.org/) and from Tourism Victoria (812 Wharf Street; 1-800-663-3883; www.tourismvictoria.com/).