Monthly Archives: November 2014

Scientology, Asphalt and Cats

My first full day in Los Angeles and I visited two places that had interested me for a long time but for very different reasons:

The Church of Scientology – How could anyone believe in this 21st century religion of the rich and famous.

The Brea Tar Pits – Bubbling pits of prehistoric proportions in the centre of a city containing animals captured in time.

I had read about the L. Ron Hubbard museum on Time Out’s unusual sights of Los Angeles listing. It had commented on the paranoia of the employees in the building and the foreboding sense of 1984. We arrived and were welcomed warmly and taken around the museum by a delightful young member from Taiwan who was anything but paranoid. The museum is about the life and work of L. Ron Hubbard and what a life he had. From his prolific writing of which we know nothing – he wrote romances, to wild west stories as well as science fiction – to his travels when he was a young man around Asia and becoming a pilot able to fly and sail almost anything. Do not get me wrong here, I am not in any way condoning the religion that has built up around this man but what I was amazed by was his life experiences and his ability to adapt and learn at a rate well beyond most people. He was clearly a charismatic person with highly developed inter and intra personal skills who was able to help people to feel better about themselves and deal with the issues and conflicts of everyday life. Lets face it who would not like to eliminate the self-doubt, negative thoughts and hang ups from previous bad experiences? This was what he was passionate about and his book about mental health published in the 1950’s has sold an astonishing amount of copies – I think 65 million. The work that he pioneered is still helping addicts today and it was interesting to hear that the ‘Church’ supports many groups in a humanitarian way including students to learn how to learn. Quite a lot of what was being said in terms of life skills and the learning to learn did strike a chord with me as these are key elements of 21st Learning of which I have tried to implement into the schools I have worked in. So where do the aliens come in – well I do not know as this more spiritual element of Hubbard’s work was only touched upon briefly. We were given a trial on the E-reader which is the instrument used to assess the thoughts of the reactive mind – when asked to think about something which was worrying us the needle did move. Were we being assessed as we went around being guided? Maybe we were but who is being paranoid then? All I can say is that we spend time learning about an amazing man and maybe, just maybe, we came out of the ‘Church of Scientology International Mission’ a little bit more inquisitive about why we and others behave the way we do – it certainly prompted some interesting conversation as we continued along the star studded Hollywood Boulevard passing the homeless, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Munro and a host of Johnny Depps.

In total contrast I headed off on the no. 780 bus along Hollywood Boulevard away from the madness and down Fairfax heading for the La Brea Tar Pits. Natural asphalt or brea in Spanish has seeped up through the ground in this area for tens of thousands of years, Over the many centuries many an animal has become stuck in the sticky substance making them targets for predators, who may also get stuck joined by birds and a whole host of insects, amphibians and the like as they all become stuck. Over time they all became part of the tar pit covered by dust and leaves and, luckily for us, were all well preserved encased in the asphalt. The Page Museum has on display an incredible array of well preserved bones which have been extracted from the pits and very carefully and painstakingly  separated from their black graves. There are the big bones and tusks of mammoths as well as hundreds of Dire Wolf sculls (not only in Game of Thrones!).

Dire Wolf skulls

Dire Wolf skulls

Sabre Tooth Cats (not Tigers we were corrected) a host of birds, plants, other flying and crawling things down to microfossils of leaves, seeds and even pollen grains. Carbon dating of some bones has shown that they are 38,000 years old. Today the pits are still bubbling away and are carefully fenced in to prevent any visitors becoming exhibits of the future.


Bubbling asphalt

The tar has been used by native peoples and European settlers to waterproof and even for some roads but today it is a living museum with groups of staff and volunteers chipping and brushing away at large blocks of bones and assorted organic debris which has been dug out of the pits from below the layer of tar. Teams are currently working on Project 23 – 23 large blocks of who knows what that were removed when the next door museum was under construction. Who knows what else they will find as they try to fit together the worlds largest and most complex jigsaw puzzle of life on earth.

More treasures from the tar awaiting

More treasures from the tar awaiting

A very interesting day to start my Los Angeles experience: from the very old to the current and perhaps into the realms of fantasy – welcome to Hollywood!


Monterey Giants

Spanish explorers in 1542 came across the bay while sailing north. Originally named for the many pine trees and then in the name of Saint Peter the bay was given its current name in 1602 in honour of the Conde de Monterrey the then viceroy of New Spain.

Deep under the waters of the bay lies one of the largest underwater canyons in the world and it is due to this canyon that Monterey Bay has become the home to a variety of marine animals with the cold, nutritious waters providing an abundance of feeding for some of the largest mammals on earth. Sea otters, Californian sea lions, harbour seals, elephant seals and bottlenose dolphins thrive in the bay and it is on the migration path of the Gray and Humpback Whales.

Therefore this area was a must to catch a glimpse of the whales as I journeyed south just as they would be doing in the coming months. My last whale watching trip had been in Iceland and although I do believe that we did see the back of some Minke whales, the most of the journey was spent trying to stand up in the stormy seas and avoiding the waves as they broke over the side of the ship. With calm seas and perfect blue skies this trip should prove to be more about the sea life rather than the threat of becoming sea life!

Whale watching Iceland 2008

Whale watching Iceland 2008

Leaving the harbour we pass a group of noisy Californian Sea lions basking in the sun on the breakwater accompanied by some Grants Cormorants. An otter watches us pass before flipping over and disappearing. Pelicans gliding rather than flying just above the surface of the ocean travelling with just a few beats of their wings pass us by along with soaring gulls.

Pelican in Monterey Harbour

Pelican in Monterey Harbour

It would take about 45 minutes to reach the canyon where the Humpback whales would be feeding but it was not long before we could see the spray of whales  coming to the surface to breathe. In the distance but that first glimpse of these sea giants was in itself breathtaking. As we came nearer to the the deep water a pod of four whales came to the surface off to the shore side of our boat. In succession they came to the surface and cleared their lungs three or four times before diving to the depths with a flick of their uniquely marked tails. We were left speechless to be in the presence of such amazing animals and close enough to hear them breathing out, spraying a fine mist of water into the air which caught the light as a rainbow of colours. Minutes later they resurface and the boat turns to make sure we get the best views. Again we all watch, some with cameras trying to catch that prefect wildlife photographer shot, but all in silence as the whales prepare to dive. Their next surface was much closer to the boat  with some spectacular fin waves. Time was coming to an end for our time in the bay and with one more surface and tail flicks we parted: us back to harbour and them to continue their feeding to ensure they have enough body weight to allow them to breed and survive the months further south.  As we sailed back to land we could see more sprays of water as more whales surface and dived to feed.

Humpback Whales in Monterey Bay

Humpback Whales in Monterey Bay

I had been determined to take only a couple of photos as wanted to enjoy the experience myself and not on a screen. I did capture some tail flicks – if only I had my Nikon and zoom lens… but what I do have are the memories of sharing time and space with some of the largest mammals on earth.

Sunset over Carmel Bay

Sunset over Carmel Bay


On the trail of Lewis and Clark

I had heard of this pair of intrepid explorers and their quest to find a water route across the vast land of America but when I saw monuments, signs and schools and colleges bearing their name I had to find out more.

Lewis and Clark memorial in Seaside, Oregon.

Lewis and Clark memorial in Seaside, Oregon.

Meriwether Lewis was born into a military family and grew up in the woods of Georgia with a fascination for natural history. Following a time of more formal education under the guidance of private tutors and after his graduation he joined the Virginia militia at the age of 19 and the following year the US Army. He quickly rose in rank to become a captain at the age of 26 when he ended his military career. Among his commanding officers at this time was William Clark.

1770 William Clark was one of ten children born into a family of common planters in Virginia. As was the custom of the time young William was tutored at home. His elder brothers had fought in the American Revolutionary War and at it’s end relocated the family to Kentucky where William’s interest in the natural world was ignited by one of his brothers during lessons in wilderness survival. After a busy six years in the militia Clark resigned his commission due to ill health.

In 1803 Thomas Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase and the United States grew in size by 828,000 square miles. Much of this land was unexplored so Jefferson requested that Congress approve the money to fund an exploratory expedition westwards. The primary objective was to explore and map the new territory and find routes across the continent to establish an American presence on the West coast (before any other country staked a claim). The secondary objective was to study the areas plant and animal life and establish trade relationships with the indigenous peoples.

Lewis was selected to lead the Corps of Discovery expedition due to his previous knowledge of the west. He in turn selected Clark who was simply the best man for the job: had previous experience negotiating with native people, had survival skills and was able to map. Both of them had an interest in the natural world. There was much preparation by Jefferson for the trip with Lewis being tutored in medical cures  and astronomy. Silver Indian Peace Medals bearing Jefferson’s portrait were prepared as symbols of peace along with enough weaponry to show their military firepower, including the new repeating rifle. Flags, gifts and a range of other items were carefully gathered.

On the 1st of May 1804 the Corps of Discovery left to meet with Lewis and follow the Missouri River westwards. The whole expedition team had narrowly missed capture by a group of mercenaries sent to prevent America’s encroachment on Spanish territories. The relationships the team established with the native peoples saved them from starvation during the upcoming harsh winters and with navigation in the vast Rocky Mountains. After following the Missouri to it’s source the party crossed the continental divide and sailed the tributaries of the vast Colombia River in canoes. Thanks to a previous explorers maps and notes they navigated the lower stretch of the Colombia River and on sighting Mount Hood they knew that the Pacific was near and it was sighted on the 7th November 1805. The winter proved exceptionally harsh and later in the month the camp relocated to the south side of the river near what is modern day Astoria and Seaside.

Their mission was accomplished when the American flag was raised above the newly built Fort Clatsop. An American presence had been established on the West coast and the area had been mapped along with diplomatic relations being established with two groups of native peoples. One thing they did not do was find a continuous water route across the continent but this did not stop the thousands of immigrants who chose to make their way to the West coast nor the further exploration and scientific discoveries.

Portland – nearly Boston but for the toss of a coin!

It is said that Portland, Oregan’s largest city’s name may never have been given was it not for the toss of a coin.

The year is 1843 when the unlikely travel companions of a Tennessee drifter William Overton and Massachusetts lawyer Asa Lovejoy beached their canoe on the banks of the Willamette River, a contributory of the Colombia River. For Overton, this timber rich land was full of potential but there was one drawback – he did not have the 25 cents needed to file and land claim. Lovejoy struck a bargain with Oveton that in return for the quarter he would share his claim to the 640 acre site. In keeping with his previous ventures, Overton soon bored of the logging and timber business selling his share in the land to one Francis W. Pettygrove. On their land a growing township was in need of a name but neither partner could agree on something suitable. While Lovejoy wished to name it after his much loved home city of Boston, Pettygrove was equally passionate about naming it after his much loved home city of Portland, Maine. In time honoured custom a toss of a coin, best of three, would be the most democratic means to decide. So with the toss of the the ‘Portland Penny’ Pettygrove got his wish.

Of course Portland would not have been an American city at all if it was not for the endeavours of Captain Merriwether Lewis and his friend Second Lieutenant William Clark who in 1805 after two and a half years expedition arrived at what is now Astoria at the mouth of the Colombia River staking a claim for their country under a commission from President Thomas Jefferson.

Joseph ‘Bunco’ Kelly was a shady figure in the late 1800s when the city was growing. A hotelier, Kelly was notorious for his side business of providing ship captains with young sailors for monitory gain. He was not the only local hotelier involved in supplementing their income by duping  the unwary with intoxicating liquor but he was the best. One story goes that after another bragging session that he could gather a full crew in less than 12 hours he stumbled across some unfortunate men who, thinking they had found a free stash of alcohol, had been drinking embalming fluid. Claiming that the dead and dying men were merely unconscious Kelly sold all 22 to a captain who sailed before finding out that his crew were no more. Another story claimed that he had delivered a wooded Indian statue to a ship well wrapped in blankets and made a quick buck: by the time the captain realised what had happened he had set sail.

‘Sweet Mary’ was another well known, or perhaps infamous resident of those dark days of a growing Portland. She was a successful business woman who to avoid taxes and city laws took her brothel to the water opening on a barge which sailed up and down the Willamette River.

Things were changing in Portland with permanent jobs in the lumber mills and businesses supporting the gold rush prospectors and the economy stabilised which in turn brought in more laws and regulations putting an end to the more seedy aspects of the city business.

Simon Benson was one of the new Portland businessmen – a lumber baron, teetotaller and philanthropist. The story goes that he had been shocked at his workers propensity to drink beer in the middle of the day. His worker’s justification was that there was no safe drinking water to be found downtown hence their choice of beverage. Upon hearing this Benson gave a sizeable amount of money to the city for the installation of  20 safe, fresh water drinking fountains. It was said that the city’s beer consumption dropped by a quarter with the appearances of the Benson Bubblers. These water fountains are still to be found in downtown Portland.

Smoking Mountain

I have always been fascinated by volcanoes ever since it was a school topic in P4. The power, the reminder of our insignificance in time and their role in shaping the world in which we live today cannot fail to capture the imagination. So Mount St. Helens was a must on my ‘to do’ list for North America. She is not my first volcano as I visited Mount Etna many years ago but she has the most stunning setting.

Located in the south of Washington state and only 50 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon is one of the lofty peaks of the Cascade mountains – Mount St. Helens. Known to the native First Nations people as the ‘smoking mountain’ because of her propensity to make herself known and the ‘Fujiyama of America’ up until that fateful day in 1980 due to her graceful, symmetrical snow-capped dome, Mount St. Helens has always fascinated those who have seen her.

Stock Photo – prior to 1980


She got her more recent name from Captain George Vancouver who in 1792 named her in honour of the then British Ambassador to Spain, the Baron St. Helens. Incidentally he also named the three other major volcanic peaks in the Cascade mountain range after naval officers: Hood, Baker and Rainier.

Although throughout our world’s history for the past 4000 years Mount St. Helens has been an active volcano changing and shaping the land around her it is that fateful day in May, 1980 and the resultant effects for which she is known. Due to her history of eruption scientists and vulcanologists had, five years previously, predicted her re-awakening and eruption and the potential extend of the hazards to the areas in her shadow and beyond. Therefore for scientists those first earthquakes on March 20th of 1980 were not so unexpected but although they were alarming to those living nearby and did cause some avalanches of snow and ice there were no signs initially of an eruption.

On March 27th the smoking mountain announced her awakening with a thunderous explosion of ash and steam opening up a crater 250 ft wide. Over the next weeks Mount St. Helens continued to emit ash and steam and the crater became larger. Avalanches of snow and ice tainted by the ash flowed down the mountain’s previously pristine slopes. Earthquakes continued along with the more alarming variety associated with Hawaiian, Icelandic and Japanese volcanic eruptions suggesting that magma and gases were on the move and that more eruptions were to follow.

There was a short period of respite for the area in late April and early May perhaps giving a false sense of security and questioning of the need for the continued evacuation which had been called for. However, the scientists and vulcanologists were observing some very significant changes in the surface and shape of the apparently dozing mountain. On the North face a ‘bulge’ had appeared and was growing at a steady rate as magma pushed it’s way through the fissure in earth’s crust. The many earthquakes through to the middle of May were coming from beneath the ‘bulge’ along with the steam blasts from the super heated groundwater. The mountain was being split in two by immeasurable natural forces – there was only one possible result.

The day I visited Mount St. Helens in November was not unlike that eventful morning of 18th of May 1980 in that it was a prefect day. The sun was shining in a crystal clear blue sky. The volcano had shown no change in activity from the weeks prior and there were no warning signs from the myriad of measuring machines dotted around the mountain. 8.32am everything changed. A 5.1 earthquake beneath the volcano seemed to trigger the collapse of the ‘bulge’ and the whole side of the mountain began to move producing the largest landslide avalanche on record. This was followed by a huge explosion as the magma which was no longer under the pressure of the rock. Hot volcanic gases, ash and pumice spread outwards in a pyroclastic flow in a wave passing the speed of sound. It left absolute destruction in it’s wake with trees and everything natural or manmade nearest in the ‘Direct Blast Zone’ being obliterated or carried along with the flow. in the ‘Channelized Blast Zone’ everything was flattened as the flow passed by with trees snapped at the base of trunks and left lying in the direction of the flow. In the ‘Seared Zone’, the outer most reaches of the pyroclastic flow, trees were killed by the extreme heat. The following landslide avalanches and resulting mud flows changed the landscape forever scraping previously lush mountain sides to bare rock faces. Lakes were submerged and new lakes carved out. The perfect cone mountain was no more.

Pic of fridge magnet bought at the Mount St. Helens Memorial

Pic of fridge magnet bought at the Mount St. Helens Memorial

Today, almost 35 years on, many local people are still living with the continued impact of that day. One of our taxi drivers recalled his memories of that day when as a 21 year old driver in Portland his ingenuity had enabled him to keep driving despite the falling ash. Despite strange looks and comments as he bought up a shop’s supply of ladies tights his idea to create a filter to stop the engine clogging worked. Stopping every 15 minutes to clean or change the improvised filter – and stop the engine going on fire – he helped many people get home during those first days.

The land still bears the marks of the devastation, or is it natural renewal? Part of the area has been returned to the forest department and replanting is underway with some of the initial tree planting due for cutting soon. A large part of the devastated area, particularly in the ‘Direct Blast  Zone’ has been left to nature to repair naturally which is happening. The snapped trunks remain as  reminders of the forces which ravaged the area and some of the bare rock faces remain so.

Fragment of wood left in blast zone

Fragment of wood left in blast zone

Bare rock where ancient forest stood - on high ground some bare trunks still stand having been sheltered from the blast but killed by the heat.

Bare rock where ancient forest stood – on high ground some bare trunks still stand having been sheltered from the blast but killed by the heat.

Her looks have gone, no longer is she the ‘Fujiyama of America’ as the gaping crater on the North face remains. However, her dome is growing again from within as barely molten magma slowly emerges through the old crater reminding us that she is may be dormant for now but is still very much an active volcano.

Mount St. Helens on 15.11.14 - the collapsed north face visible.

Mount St. Helens on 15.11.14 – the collapsed north face visible.



Anyone for Tea?

John Crane

John Crane

My name is John Crane. Was born on the 7th of December in the year of our lord 1744 in Braintree, Massachusetts. I have been a member of the Sons of Liberty for many years supporting independence for the American colonies. Too long have we been taxed to pay for wars and debts for which we have no interest whilst having no representation in the British parliament.

It all began with the Townshend Acts which were a series of act passed by the British government in 1767 after the repeal of the Stamp Act of two years before. These acts were passed under the false impression of John Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer  that the colonies had objected to the use of a direct tax such as the Stamp Act required and that they would not object in the same way to the taxation of imports. Taxes were levied on the import of items such as glass, lead, oil, paint, paper and tea. A group of Boston based merchants and traders agreed not to import or export items to Britain in objection to the new acts. To maintain order and enforce the new taxation rules a garrison of British regulars arrived in Boston in 1768. Over the next year and a half tensions between the two sides began to mount which ended with the Boston Massacre. Called to disperse an angry crowd of civilians protesting at Customs House the soldiers in all the commotion either mis-heard or disregarded the command of ‘Don’t fire!’ with five civilians being killed. Captain Preston and eight of his British soldiers were tried for murder all all went on to be acquitted on the grounds of self-defence.

Five years later when the Tea Act was passed the merchants of Boston once again came together to take a stand against this continued taxation without representation. The Tea Act gave the British East India Company a monopoly on tea sales in the American colonies. The British Government had passed this act to support the ailing East India company who were near to financial ruin due to the unstable political situation in India and Europe. In reality this was no new tax as tea had been one of the items taxed as part of the Townshend Acts. The Townshend acts had been repealed in 1770 with only a tax on tea remaining to maintain the British Parliaments right to tax the colonies. What angered the American colonists was the government sanctioned monopoly preventing colonial merchants from trading.

Prior to that night in December 1773 protests in other colony ports had been made by leaving boxes of tea on the docks to rot. However, in Boston the Sons of Liberty refused to let the ships unload their cargo of tea while the Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts refused to let the ships leave Boston without unloading their cargo.

Plans were in place and on 16th of December in 1773 myself and over a hundred other men snuck into Boston harbour. It was dead of night so identify those who were brothers we wore feathers in our hats. We crept aboard the three ships in harbour and set about bringing the boxes of tea from the ships holds, hacking them open and emptying their contents into the water.

Now what happens next I can only relay by word of mouth as I suffered the most awful accident when in the hold. One of the ropes being used to raise the heavy tea chests snapped causing one of the boxes to hit me on the head and I remember no more. I awoke the next morning with a dreadful head pain surrounded by wood chips. My fellow brothers had took me for dead and had hidden me in a carpenters to bury the following day. What a shock they got when they saw me in the tavern sipping ale early the next day.

Boxes of tea bearing the East India Company logo

Boxes of tea bearing the East India Company logo

The tea from the ships had been dumped into the shallow sea as it turned out that we had chosen a day with not only a full moon but a very low tide.

What we had done was not spoken of – what we had done was tantamount to treason.

What became of me? I joined the militia in Boston and went on to take part in the Revolutionary War. I later moved to Rhode Island taking part in the Battles of Lexington and Concord and was given the honour of being made commander of the U.S. Corps of Artillery. After I retired I move to Maine.

Boston Tea Party Experience

Boston Tea Party Experience



Whistler – where rivers, mountains and people meet

Whistler Village from Blackcomb Mountain

Whistler Village from Blackcomb Mountain

Best known for it’s ski resorts, outdoor activities and high cable car and as the mountain host for the 2010 Winter Olympics the area around Whistler in the Southern Coast Mountains of British Colombia also has a fascinating historical and cultural story to tell drawing adventurous spirits from all over.

The Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations people have inhabited this area of scenic beauty for thousands of years drawn by the hunting and gathering opportunities as part of their nomadic lifestyle. Today they have joined together to share their cultural past through their Cultural Centre in Whistler Village. The Squamish’s lands spread from Vancouver up the coast to Alta Lake with the Lil’wat lands spreading from Alta Lake into the mountains and towards what is now Pemberton. Both peoples lived peacefully side by side for generations trading and inter-marrying but have retained their own cultural identity. The Squamish were primarily a coastal people while the Lil’Wat were mountain people thus their canoes have differing designs for either sea or rivers and lakes but their canoes are all made from the abundant cedar wood from the forests around them. Weaving was a key skill for the women of both peoples: the Squamish woman were renowned for their mountain goat wool weavings and the Lil’Wat women for their weaving with cedar bark. The cedar bark was harvested from the numerous trees around them but only one strip would be removed from a tree to ensure that the tree did not suffer. As part of the tour at the cultural centre, I got to make a cedar bark bracelet. The strip of inner bark had been soaked and gave off a wonderful smell. By twisting the bark in the right direction a simple rope could be made, a technique used by the Lil’Wat peoples for generations.

Cedar bark bracelet

Cedar bark bracelet

Carved wood figures were used by many First Nations peoples in North America to mark territories. Carved in cedar the totem poles of the Squamish and Lil’Wat told a stories through the images carved into them. Each artist had their own distinct style which was useful when this totem pole was found near Vancouver sitting amidst some trees. Some of the Squamish elders were able to identify who had carved it and for whom from only a description. The pole is about 80 years old.

Mathias Joe's totem pole

Mathias Joe’s totem pole

The animals carved into the totems have been identified by the First Nations peoples with different months of the year. My birthday animal totem is the Hawk. It is said that the Hawk is a natural born leader who can always be looked upon for clear judgement in sticky situations. Hawk’s never waste time but rather strike while the iron is hot and take action in what must be done. It is said that those born under the Hawk are adventurous and assertive along with being creative. Sound like me?

Hawk totem animal

Hawk totem animal

European trappers and prospectors first settled in the area around Alta Lake in the 1900’s. The story goes that Whistler got it’s name due to the sound made by the hoary marmots who live among the rocks. When the Pacific Great Eastern Railway’s line was built to Alta Lake  in 1914 connecting it to the the outside world it became a base for logging and mining. With it’s abundant salmon stocks the area became a popular summer resort destination but it was not until a gravel road to Squamish is built in the 1950’s through the mountains lining Howe Sound and then a single track road to Whistler in 1964 that winter travel became possible. The road to Whistler was extended due to a plan to develop the area into a site to host the 1968 Winter Olympics chose London Mountain (now called Whistler) as the perfect venue. In 1966 Whistler opens for skiing and gradually the road connecting it with Squamish is improved. Whistler Village was built in the late 1907’s to service the summer and winter tourism trade which was to expand greatly with the opening of Backcomb Mountain making the area one of the largest ski resorts in North America. Finally in 2003, after many attempts, Vancouver won the bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympic games with Whistler as co-host for the mountain events.

Although all was well and all events were on time there was cause for concern when a particularly warm winter left the Whistler and Backcomb slopes with very little snow for the Winter Olympics events. Snow was brought in by trucks from higher ground and snow machines were used to ensure that there was enough just incase the snows did not come in time. The irony of it was that the East coast of America were experiencing some of the worst snow storms ever.

Today there are snow machines dotted around the slopes just in case a little extra is needed at the start of the season. It was not until 1800m that we saw snow at the beginning of November and with the ski season due to start on the 24th they may be in use fairly soon. However, the temperature needs to be below freezing to justify the use of the machines or the danger is that the precious snow will melt quickly away.

Snow machine on Blackcomb Mountain

Snow machine on Blackcomb Mountain

The road from Vancouver to Whistler may have been torturous and for only the most hardy and adventurous when those first trappers and prospectors built their lodges. Today it takes just 2 hours on Highway 99 or the Sea to Sky highway which has been named as one of the most beautiful drives in the world. It leaves Vancouver via the Lions Gate bridge and hugs the Howe Sound.

Howe Sound

Howe Sound

It then follows the path of the Cheakamus River and we stop to admire the Shannon Falls comprised of a series of cliff faces rising 335m above the road.

Shannon Falls

Shannon Falls

Past the 700m granite dome Squamish Chief mountain and on through Squamish village. The road carries on along the Cheakamus River to Daisy Lake. A man made reservoir on the course of the Cheakamus River providing the water for Whistler Village. At the head of Daisy Lake lies a dramatic gorge with the waters of the unusually named 70m high Brandywine Falls fed by the nearby glacier. The name is believed to come from a wager between two surveyors over the height of the falls with the closest guess winning a bottle of brandy wine. There is another story about two men passing out at the falls after drinking too much brandy wine in their tea! Whatever the story the falls are dramatic as is the view down the gorge to Daisy Lake and beyond.

Brandywine Falls

Brandywine Falls

Brandywine Falls and view to Daisy Lake and beyond

View to Daisy Lake and beyond from Brandywine Falls

The First Nations people of this area call Whistler the place where rivers, mountains and people meet. This is never more true than during the winter season when multi-national seasonal workers descend on Whistler Village to support the ski industry. Many come for a few months and stay on enchanted by the area. Finding accommodation is the greatest challenge as our guide explained and it is not uncommon for several people to share a small flat. When looking for work often the question if they have somewhere to live can be a deciding factor. With such an array of outdoor pursuits on offer it is hardly surprising that even today it draws adventurous spirits but from an even wider distance.

Vancouver – city of five cultures

Although a relatively young city at 125 years old, the coast and area around Vancouver has been a place for meeting, trade and a settlement for thousands of years. The forests teaming with wildlife, beaches with ample supply of seafood and the river that every six months ran with nutritious salmon provided an ideal place for the peoples arriving from Asia. The next wave of visitors were the Spanish as they explored the west coast of North America during the 17th and 18th century. The city’s namesake, Captain George Vancouver, a Royal Navy officer, first sailed through the narrows into Burrard inlet on 13th of June, 1792 naming it after his friend Sir Harry Burrard. The Fraser River, at the mouth of which Vancouver lies is named after the explorer and fur trader Simon Fraser who was looking for an overland route from Eastern Canada.

Hudson’s Bay Company built a trading post on the Fraser River in 1827 named Fort Langley after a company director. In 1832 Fort Langley shipped out over 2,000 beaver pelts with many of the local Kwantlen people having left their winter villages to take up fur trading around the fort. By 1840 the fort had become the largest exporter of salted salmon on the Pacific Coast . Later it was farming which became the major industry around the fort area. In 1858 there were rumours of gold on the Fraser River and within weeks over 25,000 gold rush prospectors had flooded in from over the border.

Vancouver did not become a European settlement until 1862 when the city grew rapidly following the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway along with rumours of gold. With some of the largest trees in the world growing along the coast lumbering became Vancouver’s main industry with timber being used for the masts of sailing ships and a special consignment for the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The area we were staying in is called Gastown, the original town site of Vancouver. A river pilot, John Deighton opened a saloon primarily for the forestry workers in 1867. Due to his verbose nature he was nicknamed ‘Gassy Jack. The saloon became so popular that a community built up around the place and was known as Gassy’s Town and soon shortened to Gastown. Today, as one of the oldest parts of the city much of the original architecture remains giving it a different character from the glass and concrete modern buildings of the rest of Downtown.

Vancouver today has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world attracted by the quality of life in the city which has been voted one of the very best places in the world to live. They bring with them their cuisines, artwork, heritage and beliefs which have influenced Vancouver culture over the past 125 years. There are five cultures in particular that have had a particular influence on the city: Japanese, Chinese, First Nations, Indian and Italian. Chinatown is  still a thriving community and is the third largest in North America.

Armed with copies of Frommer’s walking guides, a map and my trusty Tom Tom I set off to explore the many faces of this unusual city. From Chinatown with it’s distinctive shops, gate and faces to Gastown with it’s myriad of restaurants and bars as well as modern and original architecture stretching from the Waterfront . Then on to Downtown with it’s five star hotels, shops and business sections (and many homeless who are keen to act as guides for a few dollars) to the West End with a mix of Edwardian and more modern buildings, tree lined streets and hidden gardens stretching to the beaches looking out towards Vancouver Island and the narrows. I know I have only scraped the surface but do feel as if I have a greater understanding of why this city is so special.


So who is Tim?

It is no secret that Canadian’s have an obsession with coffee: from the multitude of coffee shops all over the city, that nearly every person is carrying a coffee and from knowing the habits of my own very dear Canadian friends. When a certain Canadian coffee shop chain arrived in Dubai there was near hysteria from my Canadian friends with samples of coffee and ‘Timbits’ appearing in the staff room regularly. So who is this Tim Horton and why did he start selling coffee?

When in Canada!

When in Canada!

Miles Gilbert ‘Tim’ Horton was a Canadian professional ice hockey player who was very unfortunately killed in a car accident in 1974, aged only 47. Realising that his hockey career would not last forever he looked for ways to make his earnings work. Horton proved to be an entrepreneurial businessman having opened a hamburger restaurant and a car dealership. However, it was the Tim Horton Doughnut Shop which opened in 1964 in Ontario which would be his most successful: by 1967 Tim Horton’s was a multi-million dollar franchise business. Although initially selling only doughnuts and the now legendary special blend coffee the chain’s range of food products expanded with customer tastes. The bit sized doughnuts known as ‘Timbits’ were a phenomenal success when they appeared in 1976 – there are now available in 35 different varieties and as popular as ever.

The Tim Horton chain is now owned by Burger King and as well as having shops in the US has 29 operating in the UAE and other GCC States with plans to expand this market further.

Thanks Tim, great coffee!


Symbols of Liberty, Freedom and Hope

Manhattan was my first experience of America way back in 1995. It was the summer of the OJ Simpson trials, the city was changing under mayor Rudy Giuliani and the city was alive as it was Independence weekend. Along with my travel companion Irene, we walked the streets visiting landmarks and enjoying the ambiance of the celebrations. One landmark we did not visit, probably due to the long queues, was the Statue of Liberty. When a day out in New York from New Jersey was proposed visiting this symbol of America was top of my list. The ferry to the statue and Ellis Island were booked along with access into the statue itself to the pedestal (very limited access to the crown).


A short ride across New York Harbour at the mouth of the Hudson River lies Liberty Island. Frederic Bartholdi’s sculpture of a robed female figure bearing a torch and a tablet was a gift to the United States from France in 1886. Inscribed with the date of the American Declaration of Independence, July 4th 1776 the statue was a symbol of freedom and hope to the millions of immigrants arriving in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

This statue warmed the hearts of those new immigrants but the reality of starting their new lives would hit when they arrived at Ellis Island. This island which previously housed Fort George   was to become the first port of call for over 12 million immigrants as they were processed at America’s busiest immigration inspection station from 1892 when it opened until 1954. Individuals and families were questioned and underwent medical inspections within the building which now houses exhibitions telling their stories. From the many reasons for immigration, the journeys they made and the struggles and challenges which faced them on arrival the audio and visual displays are a fitting tribute to these new citizens.

The day began with a lunch in a typical Manhattan pizza pie parlour and continued with dinner in China Town. Walking through the streets of China Town with offers of fake designer bags and watches and the array of random items in the shops around: I could have been in parts of Dubai or Hong Kong! The day ended with a visit to the razz-ma-razz heart of Manhattan, Time Square. With street performers and the array of flashing lights and images on the buildings on the square and the streets around it was a fitting end to a day of history and local colour.

New York, you have gone through some very difficult times since I saw you last. However, with your spirit of hope and the strength of your people you are bigger, better and continue to be an inspirational place to visit. I will see you again very soon.