Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A brief diversion...

Before we begin this post properly, a small announcement- I've recently moved to a different position at work, which has resulted in a substantial change of schedule. Normal service should be restored soon-ish, but everything may be somewhat erratic while I get used to things and find the time both to go and do things and write about them. There should be semi-regular (ish) updates on the new Instagram to go alongside this blog, over at

That having been said before I get too deep into my explorations of the local area, there is a rather important gentleman I need to introduce to you all- my Great Uncle Jack. First of all, there should be a few extra 'greats' in there, but I can't be bothered to check how many or type them all out, so Great Uncle Jack he shall remain.

Great Uncle Jack was a Cornish mining engineer and, unusually, supernatural pest control consultant. Not a common job, even in late 18th/early 19th century Cornwall, but it seems that if you had Knockers or Spriggans causing trouble in your mine, Jack was the man to call. At some point during his career, someone, presumably a Cornish expat, invited him to travel to Canada to help with surveying and research in the area of the proposed site of a trading post (Jasper House, later built in 1813).
Although accurate dates are missing from most of Jack's records, we know that he spent a few years in the country, both before and after the construction of the trading post. Best guess at present is that he was in Canada between 1810 and 1815, and travelled a fair proportion of the country in that time. I will be doing my best to follow his route, although probably not in the right order, and relay his notes to you as best I can.

That having been said, I feel like I should do my best to tell you a little more about the man himself, and give some idea (or possibly warning) of what to expect.

These are not pictures of Great Uncle Jack. They are, in fact, pictures of Tsar Nicholas II and Walt Whitman respectively, since no pictures of Jack have survived. Assuming any were taken in the first place, that is. However, based on the rare and fragmented descriptions of him that I have found in other people's writing, these represent my best guesses as to what he would have looked like.

Not Great Uncle Jack, but Tsar Nicholas the Second. Possibly a bit like how Jack would have looked in about 1810, though. Although dressed rather differently, of course.

Also not Great Uncle Jack, but Walt Whitman, and almost certainly how both he and Jack looked in 1887.

As mentioned, he began his career in Cornwall, clearing mines of various supernatural creatures (allegedly). During this time he gained a fair degree of experience in mine engineering and the operation of various steam engines, as well as some very strange ideas about the supernatural and the nature of the universe.

It was this that lead to his being invited to travel to Alberta by an employee of the Hudson Bay Company, whose name has been lost to time, who happened to also be a member of the Cryptozoological Association of the Rockies. The members of this group, or the CZARs as they liked to call themselves (and as they were never called by anyone else, despite repeated requests) had a fascination with exploring the Canadian wilderness, from the Yukon through to Nunavut. They believed the entire area to be one of the last great wildernesses and home to almost all non-tropical mythical beasts. The Rocky Mountains held a particular fascination for them, as the believed it to be a key nesting area and migration route for everything from Sasquatch to Mountain Unicorns- the mountain goat equivalent of normal unicorns, and a creature that I can find no record of anywhere else.

These were the people who had hired Jack to scout the area for creatures such as Sasquatch, Ogopogo (a North American cousin to the Loch Ness Monster), Wendigo and Adlets, and to advise on certain technical aspects of proposed mining and railway projects. Over the course of his association with them, and the international community of 1800's cryptozoologists, Jack undertook a great many peculiar expeditions. Each of which seems to have chipped away slightly at his already reasonably loose grip on reality. By the time he finally disappeared (1891, trying to ascend Mount Everest by dirigible, in order to climb it in reverse) his notes had become almost incomprehensibly mystic and arcane. This seems to be due to a combination of age, medication for his various ailments being mostly morphine and opium, and a concoction he called 'Piskie Blood'. It was this last one that he insisted that kept him going, but since it seems to have been the local hallucinogen of choice dissolved in the strongest liquor available (or his own distillations, if nothing available met his standards) this seems highly unlikely.

As it seems that he never intended or expected anyone else to read these notes, he never bothered with accurate dates. To compound the confusion, he seems to have re-visited many of the key locations from his early years in the international monster hunting business in the latter half of his life. Working out which of his notes came from which visit is more of a challenge than one might expect, and I have adopted a simple rule of thumb that the less realistic it all seems, the later the assumed date. Handwriting offers no help since although one might expect it to change over the years, his notes seem to have overwhelmingly been written in peculiar circumstances, such as on horseback, or up a tree, and in many cases have been rendered illegible by time, rain, tea stains, and in one case a large dollop of custard. The latter is particularly frustrating since it completely obscures the passage supposedly detailing his encounter with a 'Pudding Squid'.

Despite all of this, I shall be doing my best to extract sense from all of this, and where possible I will include pictures of the original notes and sketches, where legibility and the ravages of time permit.

Thank you for your patience while I get things sorted out, and in the meantime here is a free-range Canadian shoelace:

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Journey to Jasper

It's a pretty long way from Vancouver to Jasper. The train journey took almost as long as the flight to Canada in the first place! And if you look at a map, you can see why.

And here's the UK at the same scale, for comparison. It's about the same distance as Land's End to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, though through somewhat tougher terrain.
And what terrain it is! Admittedly there did seem to be an inverse relationship between the beauty of the scenery and the quantity of sunlight, which was a bit of a shame, but anyway.

So, as you will see, the scenery immediately outside Vancouver isn't terribly...uh...scenic. Inspiring in a bleak-ish sort of way, but not what most people would call beautiful. 

Fortunately, it improves very quickly

Yes, that is a frozen waterfall in the background

And at about the same rate as the scenery improved, the temperature dropped. Which, in places such as the rather impressive frozen waterfall above, also somewhat enhanced the beauty of the area.

This spot is referred to as the Mouth of Hell, if I remember correctly, and is somewhere on the Thompson River. I've tried to look it up and confirm it, but there seems to a surprising shortage of information on the area, at least to that level of detail. A shame, really, as if I had realised I would have taken better notes. I shall be sure to do something about that if I return the same way.

After that picture along the train, the light faded too much for me to get decent pictures,

Kamloops is an... uh... interesting looking place. I'm sure that the rest of it looks better in daylight.

Jasper train station is surprisingly impressive and was a very welcoming sort of place to arrive.

Seeing as this is a rather sparse post, being mostly pictures, this seems like a good time to digress on to a more personal note for a little while.
Settling in is taking a little while, what with adjusting to having a more or less normal job for the first time, a poorly timed cold (hardly surprising) and so on. But I keep coming across things that make me feel very at home here. Just little things, and things that are quite different from back home, really. But they are things that make me feel like this is the right sort of place for me, and that once I have settled in a bit more I will very much enjoy my time in Canada.
Little things like these:

It's a bit hard to read, but it's vanilla and oak flavour. And very nice indeed.

Kombucha, in particular, seems to be everywhere. Well, in Jasper, anyway (along with a very nice yoga studio, which I may cover some other time). But the Canadian reputation for gentle friendliness seems to be extremely well founded. As well as a seemingly less widely spread reputation for low-level oddness, which is making me feel really rather comfortable here. It would seem that a quest to explore the eccentricities of Canada was a rather good idea.
Quite a stroke of luck that, really.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Vancouver Aquarium and Dr Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Gardens

Two particular highlights of Vancouver today- the Aquarium, and the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Park and Gardens. Let’s start with the aquarium.

Located in Stanley Park, not far from the Totems, this is the largest aquarium in Canada, and well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. Its exhibitions on local marine environments are particularly interesting. It also boasts an arctic section, and a sizeable outdoor area with penguins, seals and sea lions.

The main Amazonian section contains some very impressive specimens, some of which I don’t think I’ve seen before.

This was a few weeks ago, though, so I don’t remember what they are/were. Should have taken notes, really, but it didn’t seem important at the time. I’m new to this whole journalism thing, you’ll have to bear with me.

Unusually for an aquarium, there’s also a rather good indoor rainforest:

And a delightful collection of bats! I couldn’t get any decent pictures of the bats, sadly, but they were there, and very cute, as always.

Further on, I found a long time favourite of mine, and one that I'm not sure that I've seen in an aquarium before- garden eels! Or lesser spotted sand noodles as I prefer to call them, for reasons which should be fairly obvious:

Feeding time in the main tank was quite a sight. A particular highlight for me was getting a good look at this magnificent wolf eel:

And then outside for sea otters, seals, and sea lions!

There were also walruses, which were very impressive, but not doing much… so… I sort of forgot to take any pictures. Sorry about that.

And then after a wander around the amphibian section, highlights being the false tomato frog

As opposed to the real tomato frog?

And the axolotls

It was time to exit via the gift shop

I wanted it but didn't have room in my luggage...

Despite the impressive scale, and variety of exhibits, I would have to say that it lacked something of the ‘wow’ factor of, say, the sealife centres at London or Newquay. Perhaps that is the effects of age and nostalgia at play, but although an excellent visit, I can’t say that I was quite as engaged as I have been at other aquariums. This is possibly an unfair assessment- I have a strong suspicion that jetlag was still at work that day. Either way, it’s the difference between ‘spectacular’ and ‘very good’, so which ever it is, I can certainly recommend that you visit and find out for yourself.

That having been said, for those of you interested in marine biology, they have apparently had groundbreaking success in the sphere of breeding captive jellyfish, and as a direct result have a truly fantastic collection.

As per usual, more pictures on the tumblr!

The Dr Sun Yat-Sen Park and gardens, however, are one of the best places I have ever visited, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.

The history of these gardens is a rather interesting one, the formal gardens in particular. First, the public park.

Built as an accompaniment to the formal gardens on the other side of the pond, this is a replica of a Ming dynasty public park, constructed under the direction of master craftsmen from China.

The private gardens, however, are not just a replica in appearance and construction technique, but also had all of the materials, right down to the river pebbles in the floor, imported from China.

And as you can see, there are a lot of those.

Construction took place during 1985-86, to coincide with Expo 86 and the centenary of Vancouver. It is named for Dr Sun Yat-Sen, pioneering Chinese nationalist, who visited Vancouver several times during his exile from Qing dynasty China. Apparently, funds raised by the Chinese population of Vancouver were also a key part of financing the revolution that eventually ended the imperial dynasty. To round out the selection of reasons Vancouver was chosen, it also has the same winter climate as Suzhou, the location of the gardens used as a template for this one, allowing for many of the same plants to be used.

Such as this rather lovely little plum tree

Ordinarily, the pond would be full of koi, but unfortunately, an otter recently made its way into the garden and managed to catch and eat a number of the fish and evade capture. Apparently, the rest have been evacuated to the safety of the aquarium, though I didn't see them there.

Still very pretty though

An interesting feature of the pond is the bright green colouration, known as 'jade water'. I didn't have much success capturing it on camera, but it adds a real vibrancy to the area, as well as ensuring a good reflection, even on a dull day. This effect is achieved by lining the bottom of the pond with a specially imported clay, which then colours the water. It's these sort of extra details that really made this such a special place for me.

A fascinating detail of the walkway, seen here from the other side of the garden- as well as the zig zag concealing the whole journey, in a manner that is supposed to symbolise the journey of life, it is apparently supposed to deter ghosts. According to traditional Chinese mythology of the time, ghosts have no joints and thus can only travel in straight lines. (I've done a little bit of research, and this seems to be something broadly believed only of the Jiangshing, or 'hopping vampire', but since Chinese folklore covers several thousand years of history, some variation is to be expected). Apparently, this is a common feature of the architecture of the time, and similar features can even be found in modern Chinese restaurants. Not all of them, obviously, but I'm certainly going to be looking for that in the future.

The design of the gardens as a whole is guided by the principles of feng shui, balancing yin and yang elements such as the different geometric shapes in the windows, dark and light colours, rough and smooth surfaces, plants and rocks, and so on.
On top of that, there are bats incorporated into almost everything, as a symbol of good luck. Have a close look at the end of the roof tiles in the picture above.

The approach of mirroring the natural world in miniature and balancing all of the relevant elements has created one of the most tranquil, calming, and delightful spaces I have ever been in. I'm sure it won't appeal to everyone, but if you like this sort of thing, then I cannot recommend these gardens highly enough. If you're in Vancouver, I'd say that this is an absolute must-see.

As an aside, there was also a delightful display of Chinese calligraphy in the exhibition hall, which I found rather inspiring. Having settled down a bit in Jasper, I did a little more research into the architecture and calligraphy, got distracted (as per usual- the joys of a butterfly mind) and started teaching myself Tibetan. Just the script for now, but it passes the time.

Next time, some more on Jasper itself! Hopefully. Possibly in video format. We'll see what I can get working.

Monday, April 1, 2019

A bit more of Vancouver

It took me a while to pin down what felt so odd about Vancouver for the first day or so, but I think I’ve worked it out- it was everything being built on a grid. Somehow that made it feel not really like a proper city for a while. An entirely unfair impression, but interesting that my gut assessment of what constituted a ‘proper’ city was so closely related to age and winding-ness of streets. The atmosphere seemingly saturated with cannabis smoke and a faint air of greasiness didn’t really help, but after a while I have concluded that the former was more to do with the immediate area around the hostel I was staying in, and the latter was more to do with the state that I was in after the long flight.

I’ll go into more detail on some of the more interesting parts of Vancouver later, and just do an overview of some of the bits of the Downtown area that I found most interesting.

One of the highlights of Vancouver has got to be its oldest quarter- Gastown. Home to a fascinating steam-powered clock, some delightful architecture, and the statue of the man for whom the area is named, “Gassy” Jack Deighton, the Yorkshire steamboat captain who opened the area’s first saloon. The majority of the buildings date from 1886, rather than 1867 when the settlement was first founded, thanks to a fire which destroyed all but two of the buildings. (Haven’t found out which ones yet- will update if I do).

I wasn’t able to spend quite as much time exploring the area as I would have liked and ended up on Water street for most of it. The most touristy stretch, apparently, but jolly good nonetheless.

The clock is particularly interesting. It runs off steam from the low-pressure steam network that provides heat for downtown Vancouver, driving a system of chain lifts and steel balls that keep time, and trigger the steam whistle 'chimes'. A 1977 addition, rather than an 1800's original, but a beautifully designed and constructed one.

Next, Stanley Park! The park also dates from 1886, the year the city of Vancouver was incorporated, and is named after Lord Stanley, 16th Earl of Derby, the Governor General at the time.

There's something familiar about that beard...
In total, I think that’s probably where I spent most of my time in Vancouver (in terms of places to visit) and certainly where I took the majority of my photos and videos. And I think it’s probably those that say the most about this fantastic place

For the record, it turns out that the herons are Great Blue Herons, part of one of the largest urban colonies of the birds in North America. And for a few extra videos, check the tumblr counterpart to this blog at

During my visit, the seawall was under repair, sadly, so I was unable to walk the whole perimeter. However, I did manage to take in some of the key sites. First, the totem poles, which record some of the histories of the indigenous people. 

Of those last two, the one on the right is particularly interesting. It is the funerary pole of a notable chieftain, decorated with relevant spirit-animal figures, and the moon, the chieftain's symbol, set at the top in the centre of the rectangular board. A board which would, apparently, have been used to conceal the cavity in the top of the pole in which his body would have been placed. I don't know about any of you, but I'd never heard of that as a form of burial before.

Another area of interest, not in Stanley park this time, is Granville Island, which has a fascinating selection of craft and artisan shops, as well as an excellent public market. I wasn’t able to get many pictures, but the best way I can summarise the place is to say that it’s like every other market or craft fair you might have been to, but with more interesting stalls replacing all of the women’s clothing stands. Well, more interesting to me anyway. You’re free to disagree.

Those few pictures really don't give a sense of the scale of the place, but it was sufficiently busy that opportunities to take photos without being horribly in everyone's way were distinctly limited. If you ever find yourself in Vancouver, and you have a taste for unusual and interesting foods (or handmade ceramic gnomes...) then Granville Island and the public market are an absolute must.

Of less interest to most of you, perhaps, but somewhere that I found absolutely delightful, was the Vancouver public library. Mostly because of the fantastic building, and excellent views of the city that it offered, but also as somewhere to retreat from the bustle of the city for a bit. Which, to be fair, is much less severe than in most cities, but I am not an urban creature and was still feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Plus it has a lovely little row of cafes opposite the actual library right there in the building, including one that does bubble tea.

And if that wasn't good enough, you get some jolly fine views of the city from the roof as well.

Seeing as I was in Canada and in need of a quick dinner, there was only one sensible choice- poutine! Having been given a recommendation by the splendid people at The Global Work and Travel Company, who have done so much to get me here, I headed to Fritz’s European Fry House for my first experience of this notorious Canadian… delicacy?

Delicate it may not be, but delicious it certainly is! Especially topped with Montreal style smoked meat. I didn’t actually know what that was at the point that I ordered it, I just saw ‘smoked’ on the menu and made a snap decision. As per usual, ‘follow the smoke’ turned out to be a very good rule to follow (when it comes to food, anyway). No longer will I doubt those who swear by chips and gravy. Chips and chocolate, I’m still unsure about, but this? This is good. Try it. Try it.

After that, I was just about time for sunset at English Beach. Just round the corner from Sunset Beach, which is supposed to be one of the best places for sunset, but I had a couple of reasons to choose English Beach instead. One of the most obvious is this:

The Vancouver Inuksuk, a traditional indigenous navigation marker. Whilst this particular one was built in 1986 by Alvin Kanak, they are fascinating ancient structures. The name is formed of the morphemes Inuk (human, person) and suk (substitute), meaning roughly 'that which acts in the place of a person', and they can act variously as markers for travel routes, food caches, fishing sites, burial places, and more besides. The difference in shape and structure to indicates which ones are which, in a remarkably sophisticated manner. I'll do a longer post about them later, as there seems to be quite a lot to write.

And whether strictly the 'best' spot or not, I'm still pretty darn happy with this little lot:

A bit less cloud might have been nice, but given that I'm still working with a phone camera at the moment, I might not have been able to get a decent picture of anything without it, so perhaps it's just as well.

The second reason was to be in walking distance of my last stop for the evening: back to Stanley Park for the firing of the 9’o clock gun! And on my way there, I had my first encounter with an interesting bit of Canadian wildlife:

A wild raccoon! And an astonishingly calm one at that. It hardly paid me any attention while I stopped, took pictures, and then just walked past it. Then, on to the gun itself.

An 1812 12 pounder fired at 9pm every day. Brief research suggests that this is because people like that better than when they used to fire it at 9pm and 9am. If I find a better reason as to why they fire it at all, I shall let you know. Although when you consider the firing itself:

I think it is fair to say ‘because it’s fun’ is all the reason needed.

And that concludes our brief(ish) look at some of the highlights of Downtown Vancouver. Next time, the Aquarium, Dr Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Park and Gardens, and a further look at Canadian food!