Sunday, August 29, 2010


For our second anniversary, back in 1994, I surprised Audrey with a trip to the Banff Springs Hotel. It was still a CP hotel at the time and had a ridiculous "bed & breakfast" promotion that meant even I could afford a night there. We fully expected to be shuttled off to one of the much more recent annex wings and crammed into a shoebox room, which was fine, as we could still explore this majestic edifice in our sock feet as registered guests, but they magnanimously upgraded our rooms so we could look out our window and see the pine boughs piled over the statue of Van Horne in lieu of a Christmas tree. We supped at the Banff Grizzly House and ate all manner of exotic fare, and had a tremendous time, despite Audrey's suffering a terrible cold, and watched a candlelight Christmas parade through the halls of the hotel.

And that was pretty much the last time we were in Banff until last week.

The Banff Springs is now a Fairmont Hotel, and there are four of us now instead of two. We pitched our tent at Tunnel Mountain, in an RV spot, as I need electricity to power my CPAP machine. Power placement also necessitated my purchasing an 82' extension cord, but other than that, no complaints about our lodging. Well, maybe one: since we had to improvise a tent site in the trees next to an RV pull through, the ground was not particularly level, which usually left the four of us stacked to the starboard side of the tent come morning, which was not very restful. Still, sleep was had, despite the fact that it went as low as 3 degrees above zero one chilly evening. I will take cold weather over hot any time while camping, and it only rained once while we were there.

Mornings would usually see me up first, cooking breakfast on the Coleman stove because i) someone had to do it, ii) it's not like I could go back to sleep once I had gotten up to perform my ablutions anyways and iii) the stove provided a measure of warmth.

I have always preferred Jasper to Banff; the more northern town feels just a bit more rough hewn and authentic, while I feel Banff striving for some measure of cosmopolitan compromise between art galleries and ski shops in order to accommodate commuter tourists from Calgary. The townsite was incredibly busy on Sunday, despite the rain, so we toured the main street and went to the Whyte Museum to see their exhibit, Grizzly!, which was excellent. The girls most enjoyed the pictures from the park's earliest days featuring clueless tourists feeding bears by hand (or by mouth in once case).

Souvenir shopping can be fun enough, but it doesn't take too long to realize that there are only about 5 distinct stores on the whole strip and the remainder are variations on a fairly tired theme. Still, a store called Rock, Paper, Silver had a ton of interesting fossils and the like, including a fossilized cave bear skeleton in the front window, and I would recommend checking them out if you get the opportunity.

The Fenlands Trail is right next to the Trans-Canada Highway, but I was still impressed with the girls for not freaking out in a dark forest at night, even while inspecting an aspen tree for the claw marks of a bear.

We went to the Cascade Gardens behind the Park Administration Building for the first time ever and were all suitably impressed since we were there at pretty much the peak time for the 60,000 annuals planted throughout.

Our stroll through the Banff Springs Hotel was a bittersweet mix of intriguing and tantalizing; it turns out there is no easy way to explain to grade school offspring why staying in a $300 per night hotel is not a practical choice. Still, imagining what one could do while a guest there is a great way to spend imaginary lotto winnings. (I'm pretty sure my internal class struggle would manifest itself as a pie fight or some other form of Stoogery...)

We also met up with Island Mike and his family, as well as his sister and her family. We enjoyed a great evening out at the St. James' Gate pub, with the six children at one table and the parents at the other. I remember similar outings from my own childhood, and was happy that Fenya and Glory could experience something similar, and you could not ask for better company. Combine this with the fact that they had Smithwick's on tap and excellent food, follow up with a walk down to the Bow Falls and it was the highlight of the trip, at least for me.

The hot springs are a favourite part of any trip to the mountains, but by the time we got there, the sun had come out and warmed everything up, which took a lot of the novelty out of it. They are open year-round, so I just need to figure out how to arrange a trip there in the dead of winter.

We also rode the gondola up Sulphur Mountain and walked over to Mt. Sansa to see the old weather station and the historic site of the cosmic ray research station. One of the plaques there had this fantastic artwork next to a description of cosmic rays, which I tried to explain to the girls is the source of the Fantastic Four's powers. The art is so evocative and reminds a lot of the "Doodle Art" of the 1970s.

By the time we had to journey home, we were not only tired from striking camp (and sleeping on an incline), but I had chafed up badly from hiking in jeans throughout the week. We still took a small excursion at Moraine Lake (home of the landscape on the old $20 bill) and while walking along the shore, we came within 10 yards a doe feeding in the forest, which was very surprising since we had Nitti with us.

Audrey also indulged Fanyea and I by pulling over on the drive down from Moraine Lake and letting us fill our water bottles from a moutain stream.

There are now signposts showing how far Athabasca Glacier has receded every decade for the past century or so, and it is estimated that it will be completely gone in three generations. Spending ten minutes walking from the toe of the glacier to the point it stood at when I visited as a boy is pretty sobering stuff, and made quite an impression on the girls, as did the idea that their grandchildren may not get a chance to see it at all.

My favourite part of the trip came at the very end, when Glory insisted I move into the back seat for a cuddle with her. Fenya leapt at the chance to sightsee from the front seat, and Audrey, ever the trooper drove the entire way to Edmonton. The view from the backseat is a little limited if you are taller than 4'10", but having one daughter curled up under my arm while the other pointed out landmarks from the shotgun seat more than made up for it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Yet Another Space Cowboy

I've somehow managed to have something new posted at the start of every work week since I started this blog last year, and rather than break the streak while we prepare to go camping in Banff tomorrow, I thought I would cheat a little with a rerun of sorts.

A few years back, a friend of mine started a science-fiction role-playing campaign set in the universe of Joss Whedon's Serenity. All of us were huge fans of the short-lived Firefly TV series, and rightly so, and leapt at the chance to stretch out the experience of life in the 'Verse just a little longer, and to enjoy hearing those distinctively anachronistic turns of phrase so particular to the show. Plus, any book with a chapter entitled "Gorram Chinese" is a must have by my reckoning.

Unlike a lot of RPGs which follow an 'equip - quest - fight - loot - equip...' cycle pretty much ad infinitum, Serenity encouraged a high degree of drama and mystery, and expected the players to help the game master out with this by giving their characters idiosyncrasies such as a troubled past, a secret weakness or an implacable foe.

My character, Gus Hardy, would typically work as a dealmaker or frontman for a ship or crew looking for work, using his skills as a carny barker to drum up business or talk his way out of trouble. Not a violent man by nature, he is not to be trifled with as he is a very decent shot and (more importantly) incredibly fast on the draw.

I had a backstory worked out for Gus, and decided that the best way to impart it to the referee (and to formalize it for myself) was to write it up as a sort of short story, in the form of a one-sided interview. It's unlikely we will get an opportunity to play again anytime soon, what with the game master having moved out of province, so I thought I would share the story with those of an interest. Let me know what you think.

For the Record

Gus Hardy. Oh, full name? Augustus Chang Hardy. I guess if you’re recordin’ this for more than posterity I oughta keep things proper, huh? That’s a nice deck, can I have a look at it? Not a lot of people use these carts anymore…whoops.

There, it’s working again. Sorry about that.

No, I’m not currently employed, that’s what made me interested in the sign downstairs.

I guess it’s been, what, two weeks or thereabouts? I was working with a theater troupe touring Beaumonde, mostly barking, but occasionally up in the lights. Whassat? Ha, ha! No, no offense, I’m sure no self-respecting actor wants to be told they look like an actor. Kind of defeats the purpose, don’t it? No, it wasn’t that kind of thing at all, more like carny work.

Sure, if you’re having one. I’ve no preference, they all taste pretty much the same to me. Incident with my tastebuds, actually. Got any ice? Ahh, much obliged.

Not hardly Hamlet, mostly just tricks to drum up a crowd, a little light magic to charm the kids and their moms. Between you and me, if you can get a pretty lady to ask, ‘how’d you do that?’, you can pretty much close the box office, know what I mean?

Having a background with sideshows and the like is a good fall back. Seems there is always some group or another droppin’ in or leaving atmo, and I’ve loved the life since I was a tike. No, not to go to, to be in. My daddy’s cousin on Paquin took me in after my folks died back on Boros. Kind of the black sheep if you know what I mean, but he was the only kin what could take me in. I was 11. Helluva strange environ to grow up in, I don’t mind tellin’ you! Anyways, where was I? Oh yeah, Beaumonde. No, Mr Cartwright treated everyone respectful, and paid regular enough, which is rare in that line of work. It was just time to go. Time to try something new.

Sure, two fingers.

Yeah, barkin’ is just like sellin’. Ain’t nobody goes lookin’ for a show like that, you need to be convinced, y'know, cajoled. Yeah, I like that word too. I haven’t done any actually sellin’ for a long spell now. Medicine, actually. Didn’t much like it.

Well, that was their idea too. Have a well-spoken individual come out and do a few tricks to raise up a crowd, and then lay into my pitch about the benefits of Elixirase, the wonder remedy of the age. What? No, I’m pretty sure snakes had nothing to do with it. Oh! Ha, ha! I’m surprised you’ve heard of it, actually. Yeah, I’d say ‘unpleasant’ is a gorram polite way of puttin’ it all right.

No, I’m good…well, it ain’t hardly like I’m driving is it? All right.

That was a bad time, and no mistake. Sure I felt responsible, I sold it to to them. Me, personally! But let’s get one thing straight, I never once told them to give that luh suh swei to their gorram kid. I knew the stuff wasn’t all that good, I had no idea at all that it might end up with someone gettin’ hurt, let alone dying. I ain’t much for hurtin’ folk. Well, unless they’re tryin’ to hurt me.

Nope, never went back after that. In fact, I drank the rest of the stock before heading back to my ‘riginal line of work. Hmm? ‘Bout ten days I think. I have trouble recollectin’ exactly, I think it has something to do with the high alcohol content. Everything’s tasted the same ever since. Aw, it ain’t so bad, I save a lot of money buying the cheaper whiskey, and protein bars are as good as a steak now. I only know what you’re serving me is top shelf because I recognize the label. Whoa up, that’s good. Thanks.

And Kersey keeps turning up, and I keep moving on. The kid’s dad, that’s who. Can’t rightly say as I blame him either, but martyrdom ain’t exactly my cup of cha. At least he’s easy to spot now that he walks with a limp. The time before last was a mite closer than you like a feller to get with homicide in his intent. Ha, ha! No, it’s just…of course I could kill him. It’d be easy enough to do, too. I’m a damn sight faster ‘n him, and the reason the room was dark when I shot out his kneecap is because I shot out three candles in the room tryin’ to scare him off. That, and to backlight him and keep it dark enough he couldn’t see me too clear.

No, just the wicks. Any ruttin’ idiot can shoot a candle. How do you think I earned my keep with Uncle Lewis, playin’ ‘is it the eight of clubs?’ with some rube? Anyhow, being able to shoot him ain’t the problem. I could even make a damn good self defense case. It’s just I got enough to answer for with a dead kid on my plate without addin’ a grievin’ parent to the mix. No thanks.

Not as much help as you’d think. Most of them what need a man with a gun are less concerned with how good he is with it, and more concerned with how discreet he is with it, how willin’ he is to use it.

Sure, I’ve shot a few men. Even killed a few when they forced my hand. But they always drew first. I’m not one for dry gulchin’. Which, sure, has cost me the occasional job, but never one I wanted. I’ll work for unsavoury types when the need appears, but I’ll never kill a man for money.

Speaking of jobs, you’ve let me do most of the talkin’ here. Pardon my ramblin’, I don’t usually carry on like this. Must be the liquor. Strange how neither sellin’, speechin’ or shootin’ has prompted you to say much about what you want me to do. I reckon that could mean you’re workin’ for Kersey and wanted some proof I was here on Tonqa, hm? Hey now, no need to get jittery, mister; I understand how it is. We all gotta work, right?

Here’s a proposition: I'll keep that cart I palmed earlier on so you have nothin' for Kersey, and we go our separate ways, call it square, how's that sit by you?

On the other hand, if Kersey is bringing in third parties, he’s probably got a right shiny bounty on me. You've given me a fair amount of whiskey, it’s probably slowed me down some. Is it enough? You look like you could be fast. How fast? D’you want to find out?


Much obliged for the drink.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Celtic Invasion

The four of us (plus my sister and her boyfriend) spent pretty much the whole day at Hawrelak Park yesterday enjoying the third annual Edmonton Celtic Festival, and we will definitely be going back for the fourth.

Tara had seen a band called St. James' Gate (brilliant name!) at a pub of the same name while staying in Banff earlier this summer, and when she saw they were coming to the festival, she suggested we all go. Initially I was wary, but since the $40 tickets could be had for $25 each if you bought four in advance and children are free, it seemed foolish to resist. A cooler of sandwiches to offset festival food prices (which were not too bad there, honestly) and we were off.

Despite having been born in St. John's, I've really only been a fan of Celtic music since my friend Brent introduced me to The Pogues shortly after high school. Still, growing up I got hear a lot of Irish and Scottish musicians at home like the Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, Harry Hibbs and of course, the Irish Rovers, so perhaps it just took me a while to grow into it. My lovely Dutch wife has the soul of a Gael and is a fan as well, so there is often a lilt in the music that pervades our home, from The Chieftains to Great Big Sea, and the festival had a lot of appeal for her.

I've lived in the Edmonton area most of my life (>75%) and this was my first time attending an event at the Hawrelak Park amphitheatre. What a great venue! Gentle hills enclose the actual seating, allowing those who have brought lawn chairs to set up where they will. I hope we can come back soon; it's too late for Shakespeare in the Park, but perhaps not for Symphony Under the Sky.

In addition to the beer and food tents, a number of vendors offered wares from clothing to candy to jewelry to kilts. Audrey picked up a gorgeous moonstone for a necklace and I ended up getting a wool hat to round out my headgear collection, which is still almost exclusively ball caps. The girls got their faces painted, and both of them also ended up winning tartan-patterned water bottle holders.

The crowd was a little small, which I found troubling as I dearly want to return next year, but what they lacked in size they made up in friendliness. Volunteers and attendees alike were smiling, and even the infrequent sprinkling of rain failed to provoke any crabbiness. I was stopped multiple times by people wanting a closer look at my 'Irish Yoga' t-shirt, a gift from Island Mike.

Tara went to ask one of the volunteers about getting a t-shirt, and was told they had only made them for the volunteers. "That's too bad," said Tara, "it would be a great way to promote next year's event." The volunteer agreed, and literally gave my sister the shirt off her back before she could even ask about volunteering for next year.

We arrived a little ways into the first act, Keri Lynn Zwicker, who was followed by the Matierrin Irish Dancers who were spectacular. And talk about the cultural mosaic: Canadian dancers doing jigs and reels from Ireland while accompanied by a Scots bagpiper and a West African drum troupe called Wajo, who got to highlight their percussion between dances. This also marked the first of five renditions of 'Scotland the Brave' on bagpipe we were to hear this day, but this is by no means a complaint.

The following act, Stephen Maguire came to Edmonton by a circuitous route; originally from Belfast, he met his now-wife at a Belfast Giants hockey game, as she was interning with the team, and ended up moving back with her to Saskatchewan. With an album entitled 'Irish Soul', it's easy to see the Van Morrison influences on his singing, but his original stuff is quite good, and I ended up getting the CD, which he was kind enough to autograph for me.

After the Celtic Dance Academy demonstrated some great Highlands dancing, Calgary band Skullduggery took the stage. A fantastic party band, they busted out great versions of "Whiskey in the Jar" and "Fisherman's Blues" by the Waterboys. They also have a fantastic logo, and Tara got one of their hats, which should come in handy next St. Paddy's Day.

Knights of the Northern Realm, an SCA type group, did a couple of mock fights using medieval armour and weapons. The equipment looked great, and idea of half of them dressing as English soldiers and taunting the crowd before the 'Celts' drove them off was pretty fun, but they would have benefited from a tighter script, or perhaps a narrator, as the demos always felt like they ran a little long. They did pass the boot around to raise some funds for the Albert Blain Performers Aid Society, the charity behind the festival.

Claymore had the day's best logo, I thought, and a decent Celt-rock sound for a four piece band. I'd go to see them live pretty quickly, but the lead singer's voice, though powerful, doesn't have a great range, so I wasn't too interested in their CD.

The Edmonton & District Pipe Band put a novel spin on their genre by being accompanied by a rock quartet, and I was also surprised to see a band with more female pipers than male, but my favourite act of the day has to be St. James' Gate though. Talented instrumentalists, good harmonizers and what Tara described as a 'stupid' amount of energy, this six man band from Red Deer engaged the crowd despite its small size and rocked out hard for an hour. They are a fun and playful group, which is not surprising for a band with an album entitled "License to Kilt", which I also picked up.

Like all Celtic-influenced bands, SJG has a talented multi-instrumentalist who played penny whistle, bagpipes, accordion and didgeridoo. Mandolin and bouzouki joined electric guitar and drum kit at times, and they closed out their set with a fantastic rendition of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top", which sounds so much awesomer with live bagpipes it cannot be described. I hope this band comes to Edmonton again soon.

Sarah Burnell is a fiddler who brings a bit of world music to her music with her band, but her set felt a little too laid back after St. James' Gate. The crowd didn't seem to perk up until Glory and one of her friends went up and started doing some Irish dancing in front of the stage.

The most energetic act of the night was closing act McCuaig, purveyor of 'bagpipe-power-pop with an edge'. I'm a little surprised I had never heard about Johnny McCuaig before, and my timing is crap since the Celtic Fest will be one of his final shows since he is going on hiatus with his wife and baby boy (good on ya, McCuaig!) after more than a decade on the road.

Lead vocalist, piper, songwriter and guitarist Johnny McCuaig's music should carry an advisory: CAUTION: This rock defies pigeonholing and may contain traces of celtic, pop, reggae and soul music. Watching this wee bald fireplug of a man play a blistering solo on his bagpipes to match the one being laid out by his lead guitarist while bouncing all over the stage in his kilt is a remarkable musical experience, and I hope he returns to a local stage before too long. McCuaig also chose to close out his set with "It's a Long Way to the Top", but as a swan song, it certainly seemed appropriate. Here is a video of him performing it in Mexico; check out the pipe/guitar headcutting going on around the 2:40 mark.

He also brought his entire extended family out on stage for a number, and was profuse in his thanks to his friends, fans, and those who had given him a couch to crash on or other assistance while realizing his dream of being a professional musician.

All in all, a fantastic day in the park, full of fellowship and music. I intend to bring a much larger crowd there next year, so I hopeyou will get the opportunity to see it for yourself then!

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Way We Ride

Audrey had a girl's weekend away two weeks ago, so I took Fenya and Glory to the Capital Ex (the fair formerly known as Klondike Days). It was opening day and we got there just prior to the gates opening at noon, and even that short wait in the sun was enough to fill me with trepidation.

I'm pretty sure the last time I was at the Midway in Edmonton, my parents took me, placing it about a quarter century back in my personal chronography. Then, as now, the danger of the sun to my pasty complexion was everpresent, and we had neglected to bring sunscreen because the forecast had been for partly cloudy skies.

I had intended to spectate for the most part, but ended up getting ride-all-day wristbands for the three of us, which meant we could go on every ride we wanted (and multiple times) instead of having to choose between them.

There were a few rides I couldn't go on because I simply don't fit, but I was still more than able to get my money's worth out of my wristband, and sharing my love of rides with the girls was a real treat.

From the languid sight seeing of the giant Ferris wheel to the oppressive centrifugal force of the Polar Express ("Raise your hands if you wanna go FASTA!!") we tried over a dozen rides more than twenty times in total.

Neither Fenya nor Glory are big on rides that go upside down, which surprised me a bit, since Fenya was willing to ride the Twin Flip at a carnival in Calgary a couple of years ago, and that ride felt like a total astronaut trainer.

Glory impressed me by wanting to go on the Mega Drop, and Fenya impressed me by refusing to go, and agreeing to wait while the two of us went. The Mega Drop uses essentially the same mechanic as the old Drop of Doom, but is even taller. Frankly, another twenty feet and there is a distinct possibility I would have wet myself.

We all went down the giant Kinsmen slide a couple of times, which only added to the nostalgia of the day. There were a couple of times where I was sure I was going to become airborne, but I ended up none the worse for wear, and the huge stairs perhaps offset the fair food we enjoyed over the course of the day. The whole affair reminded me of John Ringo's great Honorverse short story "A Ship Named Francis", which features an eccentric starship captain exhorting his crew to ride potato sacks down the inside of the spinal structural support, leading to many humorous injuries. Highly recommended for fans of schadenfreude.

The Swing Tower was also good fun, and about double the height of the original swing ride that I was used to. Again, the girls riding without me right next to them was unexpected and enjoyable, if maybe a little bittersweet. ("What do you mean you don't need Daddy? Of course you need Daddy! Shove over...")

We also took in the Superdogs show and the 'It's a Candy Nation' exhibit where we saw not only a number of intriguing bits of trivia about confections and an assortment of vintage candy to buy, but also a mosaic of Elvis made out of nothing but jelly beans. I called him Jelvis. It's clearly not The King's best depiction, but it beats the hell out of black velvet, don't you agree?

The most interesting thing to me was that the girl's favourite ride of the entire day was not the newest shiniest examples like Crazy Mouse or the Fireball, but that old stand-by, the Tilt-A-Whirl. I have very fond memories of the tilt-a-whirl from my own childhood, and I remember it being a favourite of my dad, but I had no idea how vintage a ride it was.

(Sorry for the stock photo, but the cell-phone self-portrait did not work out at all.)

The first tilt-a-whirl was built in 1926, six years before my dad was even born, and they are still making them today. There's just some undeniable appeal to the spinning and undulating of this simple ride, but one of my favourite features is that all three of us (plus room for Audrey if she had come) share the same bench seat, being tossed this way and that; a real shared experience.

Maybe that was the reason I was so happy to accompany the girls on the tilt-a-whirl three times over the course of the day.