The lonely spaces, and why I seek them out.

I like to be outdoors as often as I can. While it can be very relaxing to sit with a book and while away a day or two, there is always something to be said for getting outdoors and feeling the wind, rain or sun on your face.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have driven out to the west, into the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains, in weather that could best be described as poor. When traveling alone, the trip gives me a chance to reflect. At this time of year, as autumn gives way to winter, the tonal palette of the landscape changes from the greens and yellows of fields and trees, to the burnt oranges and browns of winter. Often cloudy, the skies possess a beauty not seen during the rest of the year, as tendrils of water vapour coil their way among the shattered crags of the biggest geological car-crash between here and the Pacific Ocean. The worst weather often puts off the multitudes of tourists who normally jam up the roads with their people carriers and waddle about waving selfie sticks. I understand and accept the need for tourist-generated income for local towns and villages, but find the self absorption and utter lack of awareness of anyone else around them that such tourists generally exhibit quite annoying. I mean, when people are stupid enough to step backwards into moving traffic, in order to get a better photograph of their friends on a sidewalk, doesn’t that tell you something fairly basic about what’s going on (or not) inside their heads?

This past couple of weeks, I headed off the main tourist trail near Banff, to Lake Minnewanka. This is a favourite of mine, especially once the lake freezes, giving access to the interior on snow shoes. This time, it was the kind of day that I normally associate with the Pacific Northwest, whenever I think of the art of the Haida. Rainy, damp, not really too cold, but lots of moisture in the air, with dark still lake waters. Even here, on a day like this, it was impossible to completely evade the selfie-brigade, but their numbers were greatly reduced. I don’t like crowds, in case you haven’t noticed. Lake Minnewanka is ten minutes from Banff, but I suspect that most shoppers have never seen it. I really like Banff, girdled with mountains of different characters and possessing a river that I could sit and watch forever, but it isn’t the main reason I head west and north. The Palliser Expedition passed though here just before the American Civil War, heading out from the Great Lakes, with the remit of surveying everything to the west. Standing at the monument above Lake Minnewanka and looking out at wind ruffling the surface of the lake betweeen Cascade Mountain and Mount Girouard, I can’t imagine what that trip must have been like. I find the character of the people that set out to the west inspiring.

Lake Minnewanka from the Palliser Memorial

Lake Minnewanka from the Palliser Memorial

I like to get as far away as I can from cities sometimes. I don’t deal well with crowds, and the braying jostling masses sometimes make me want to shout at them. The view below is of the Crowfoot Glacier, on the Icefields Parkway, during the summer. I’d like to see this in full winter, with sharp clear sunlight and air that burns your lungs. Better still, I’d like to take my gear and get off the road, so often crowded with more tourists, and strike out into the back country across the lake to the west. There’s a lot to be said for breaking your own trail, and learning the skills necessary to be self-sufficient. Wilderness camping, under the stars, with only what you can carry, is one of life’s luxuries. Thoreaux and Emerson had it right when they talked about the wild. You can keep your satellite TV and two hundred channels of pap. Give me a good backpack and an ice axe and my own company. Chances are, I won’t fight with myself, and the trip can be a source of considerable catharsis.

Crowfoot Glacier

Crowfoot Glacier

Again, to find solitude, it isn’t necessary to get far from civilisation. Sometimes getting a couple of hundred feet higher up can do the trick. The picture below is from high above Lake Louise in Alberta, another destination for the busloads of tourists. Going off-piste, led on by a sign warning of danger of serious injury proved irresistable, and rewarded us with this view. Not many people from the carpark make it up here. The silence was palpable, and the light special. These are ancient rocks, from the Cambrian period, 540-480 million years ago.

Snowy crags at Lake Louise

Snowy crags at Lake Louise

Moving down the frozen expanse of Lake Louise, it was possible to leave the selfie-stick wavers behind, and enjoy the magnificent mountains towards the Victoria Glacier. The only people out here were snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Out here, there are endless miles of trails, of a fairly serious character. Need to get fitter before I can tackle them.

Toward the Victoria Glacier

Toward the Victoria Glacier

Mind you, Canada isn’t the only place where you can find peace and quiet. The high tops in Glencoe, in the western Highlands of my native Scotland, offer good places to get away from it all. The first peak I managed in this group is below, Buchaille Etive Mor, the Great Shepherd of Etive, looking over to Bidean nam Bian. I have the First Midlothian Scouts to thanks for teaching me to navigate, camp, and most of all, to love the mountains of my homeland. I’ve not got the skill or head for heights needed to rock-climb, but scrambling is fine. On a clear day up here, you can literally see for miles. Choose the wrong day, as I did on Beinn a Bheithir, and you can’t see the end of your nose, with potentially fatal consequences. Those are when you learn hard lessons. I have never been happier to see the Clachaig Bar.

Bidean from Buchaille Etive Mor

Bidean from Buchaille Etive Mor

One of the last true wildernesses in Scotland is Knoydart, often referred to as the Rough Bounds. If nowhere has a middle, it is somewhere in there. The hills are serious, and carrying in everything you need focuses the mind. It helps to forget the humdrum and banal elements of “everyday life”, and sometimes the day can be distilled down to breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. Again, these are ancient rocks, cooked and compressed over geological ages. We’re privileged to be able to witness their testament to hundreds of millions of years of rains and snow. The span of time is almost impossible to imagine. Beside all of this, we are less than ants.

Between Streap and Sgurr Thuilm.

Between Streap and Sgurr Thuilm.

Glen Affric is another good escape. It is possible to walk all day here and not see many people. The shot below was in the Autumn, looking to the west. Typical for many highland rivers, the water was peat-coloured and shockingly cold. The trees were just on the turn, as the country slid into winter. I remember the smell of the foliage after rain.

Looking west in Glen Affric.

Looking west in Glen Affric.

The far northwest has some of the most ancient mountains, including mighty Suilven, here seen from the east, near Loch na Gainimh (Sandy Loch). These massive butresses rise from the underlying rock, dwarfing everything around for miles. These are names to conjur with, Canisp, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor and Cul Beag. I have seen these mountains lined up in the gathering dusk, casting massive shadows on the ancient land. They will still be here when Man has ultimately passed back into dust. Again, good for getting a sense of our own lack of significance.

Mighty Suilven

Mighty Suilven

The eastern side of Scotland also has great places to get peace. Here, under the gaze of the Cairngorms, there are many tracks giving access to woods and water. Funny to think that the blathering crowds aren’t actually that far away. If this reads as though I am fairly antisocial, it isn’t the case. I just prefer to be able to choose my company, and those people tend to be those that don’t constantly fill the air with prattle and noise. They’re the kind of people who can sit in the car with me for an hour and not feel the need to say anything. Sometimes just being there is enough. Wind and water, tree and hill. Give me moss and bracken, and rain in my face, and I will be happy. Cities are for other people.

Loch an Eilean, Cairngorms

Loch an Eilean, Cairngorms

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Winter is coming – Walking in the Rockies in snow

Winter is pretty much my favourite time of year. Even when I lived back in the UK, I always found the cooler weather more comfortable. Here in Western Canada, the temperatures get well below what most of Britain sees, but with the proper gear and a bit of winter walking knowledge, it’s quite possible to enjoy days out at anything down to about minus thirty Celsius.

Lake Minnewanka

Lake Minnewanka

Given the vast number of lakes in Canada, when full winter comes, there are lots of relatively easy places to walk. Snowshoes are essential, or cross-country skis. I’m not fit enough for skiing yet, but snowshoes themselves take a bit of getting used to. Strapping wide and long metal plates to your feet require a different mechanism for walking, which in my case brings John Wayne to mind. Over long distances, using them can be pretty strenuous, though definitely an improvement over the alternatives.

Another essential is an ice axe and rope. Even walking on trails in wooded areas, it is possible to fall into deep pockets of very powdery snow. This happened to me last year, below minus 20C. As I tried to free myself, I found that I had no contact with anything solid. Moving my arms and legs caused an influx of fine powdered snow through my sleeves, boot tops and the neck of my jacket. All of this conspires to rob you of heat. An axe can help you reach something that will allow you to get free, i.e. a tree. Better still, being roped improves your chance of avoiding being caught in such a situation. When I got back to the car about ninety minutes later, my clothes had frozen to the point where they had to be beaten to return to their original shape. That way lies hyporthermia. It also creeps up on you gradually, so alert friends are a bonus.

Dr Bennett I presume?

Dr Bennett I presume?

Barry Bennett, above, is modelling the kind of gear you should be wearing. Don’t be deceived by the grin, it was bitterly cold, halfway up one of the mountains beside Lake Louise. Without gear, your situation would become dire rapidly, with frostbite and worse on the cards.

Windchill can also catch you out. While it is generally a much drier cold over here than in Europe, when the wind blows, it can drop the effective temperature by another ten degrees. Bare skin also sticks to metal, which is just another bonus. Still, if you have respect for the conditions, winter can provide some truly breathtaking walks.

Two Jack Lake, with Mt Rundle.

Two Jack Lake, with Mt Rundle.

See what I mean? Absolutely beautiful, and the air was so cold, you could feel it inside your chest. What really blew me away was that this was part of the route of the Palliser Expedition. This was a British expedition to survey a large swathe of Canada, from Lake Superior to the southern passes of the Rocky Mountains. They did this with a combination of canoes and horse travel, between 1857 and 1860, shortly before the American Civil War. They didn’t have the kind of materials we have access to nowadays, and I admire the spirit of people for whom this was not regarded as a problem. The Doctor of this expedition was ultimately injured by one of the horses, giving us the name “Kicking Horse Pass”. Further to the north-west in this area is the Yoho Valley, “Yoho” meaning “Wow!” in one of the local Indian languages. It isn’t hard to see why.

Mount Rundle

Mount Rundle from Norquay.

This is Mount Rundle, with the suburbs of Banff in the foreground. Also in view is Tunnel Mountain, named despite not having a tunnel bored through it. The railway engineers eventually decided to run the track around it. What I love about this shot is that it shows very clearly that Mount Rundle has a gigantic layer-cake structure. Geology but on a monumental scale.


The road to Alaska (Part 1)

Tolkien had one of his characters in the Lord of the Rings say about roads that you never know where they may take you. Well, that might well be true, but sometimes the roads that fire my imagination are those whose ends you DO know. There are two close to where I am sitting right now. Highway 1, or the TransCanada Highway, lies not more than two or three miles from this desk, and it runs all the way across Canada to St. Johns in Newfoundland, many many miles away. In fact, by the time you reach St Johns, you are close to Glasgow than Calgary.

The second road is just out west, a little past Cochrane, on the way to the Rockies on Highway 1A. This is a quieter way to get into the west, with nowhere near as much traffic as the TransCanada, and scenery that is just as good. Just before Ghost Lake, there is a road that branches off to the north, up and over a ridgeline, and out of sight. Forestry trunk road 40 – not the most romantic name to conjur with, but what fires my imagination is that this road continues to the northwest, following the Rockies, up through Nordegg (a name with meaning for geologists), to the east of Jasper, crosses the Athabasca River west of Hinton. You are now as far north as Edmonton, though quite a ways west of the city. Edmonton is three hours drive north of Calgary, say about the same drive as Glasgow to Manchester, or Glasgow to Aberdeen, in the UK. A quick look at a provincial roadmap for Alberta shows you that there is still lots more of Alberta to go; this is only the southernmost end.

Devil's Thumb (centre)

The road goes ever on and on…

On to Grand Prairie, and the road number changes. On through Muskwa and Fort Nelson in British Columbia, and the Yukon beckons at Upper Liard (another geological name) and Watson Lake. Jakes Corner leads to Whitehorse, a city I will fly to some day. From Dawson City, the road splits, taking you either north to the places you have seen in Ice Road Truckers, Inuvik, Aklavik and Tuk, or west into Alaska. Highway 2 ultimately leads you on to Fairbanks, and continues on to a barrier at Deadhorse: “No private transportation beyond this point”. This is about five miles or so from Prudhoe Bay, on the Beaufort Sea. From here, you’d get your feet wet.

So, all of this lies within about thirty minutes drive from where I’m sitting. One day I will drive the whole thing, but for now, I’ll have to settle for the first few miles. I drove it on Canada Day, trying to get away from the crowds thronging to the better known places I like to visit. The first part is easy, on paved roads, winding through Water Valley, in beautiful rolling farmland. Off ahead are the Rockies, with peaks like Devil’s Thumb prominent on the skyline. To the southwest, a thunderstorm rolled and boomed across the southern part of Highway 40, down near Mt Kidd and Mt Baldy. Up here, it was beautiful, a good day to be alive, with swallows zipping about over the grass, and barely any sound but the wind.

These are the kinds of roads that I like to drive, particularly at night, when you can stop the engine somewhere rural, and the silence almost hits you. Watching the moon rise over Moose Mountain, and the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter over the Rockies at midnight. The only thing that can give an edge to nights like that is the sound of things moving around in the deep woods, in the dark, in cold that could give you frostbite. That happened up at Two Jack Lake, in February this year, while it was twenty below. Whatever it is that’s moving around is welcome to it! Back to the car and a good heater!

Rolling farmland in Water Valley, AB.

Rolling farmland in Water Valley, AB.

For this kind of drive though, you really need two people, and to plan logistics. Fuel stops are a long way apart, and breakdowns become more than a simple inconvenience. That said, this is proper driving, and I plan to see it all some day. Any takers for the co-driver’s seat? More to follow as I head north and west.


This is not about hills…

Given that it is Father’s Day here in Canada and the UK, and the fact that I can’t get into the mountains without risking electrocution (it’s thunderstorm season here in Alberta), I thought I would spend a few minutes thinking about my Dad. If you’re hoping for a post about mountains, and the title hasn’t clued you in, you can always bail out now. I’ll never know…

It’s been good to see lots of people reflecting on their parents, as I sometimes don’t think often enough about how hard my own parents worked to bring me up right, with enough food and decent clothes. As I get older, my own experiences in life help me see that more clearly.

My Dad was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, in the north of England, just before Christmas of 1935. Walker Road, by the time I first saw it in the 1970s, hadn’t changed much since then, with sweeping terraces of identical houses, all with small yards and outside toilets. His own childhood wasn’t pleasant, but it made him determined that his children wouldn’t have to go through the same experiences, as his parents separated acrimoniously. Again, looking back with perfect hindsight, I can see that he succeeded in that, as my parents never argued, at least not where we could see it. I suspect that they just didn’t, which is pretty unusual in our day and age.

As he left school, he worked in one of the large engineering firms in Newcastle, learning optics. He would go on to work on some of the largest telescopes for the time, and one of the mirrors in the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh was his work, I think. Dad believed in hard work, and I still have the certificate maths books that he used to study at night sitting on my desk, beside his framed picture. I took the picture myself, with my first proper SLR, in 1985, while he was sitting at our kitchen table in Gorebride. His hair is just starting to grey at the edges, and it is sobering to think that in that picture, he was only six years older than I am now. It’s funny, but while he isn’t smiling in the picture – he’s just looking at me with crossed arms, I can sense the affection with which he was regarding me. Dad’s job as a Minister was often thankless; I remember people saying to me that he only worked one day a week, and that we were poor. I also remember him taking funerals outdoors in the depths of winter, sometimes three a day, and the work he did to provide comfort to the bereaved and the terminally ill. I cannot match his skill in caring for people, but will hopefully be able to pay something back in voluntary work over here in Canada. I remember him saying two things: Never let the sun go down on an argument (excellent advice), and always try and treat people well, because you may be the only person that they see that day. Having experienced despair in my time, I understand the value of a sincere smile now.

Cropped Dad BBQDad was also very patient with me, always taking time to help me with things, and teaching me stuff. I think that’s partly where my love of learning came from. Again, when the time came and I was fortunate enough to go to University courtest of the Scottish government (we could never have afforded it ourselves), he made sure that I was able to survive in an environment he would have given an arm to be in himself. Mum once told me that when I graduated from Newcastle University in 1994, he would have given anything to go himself. That sort of thing just didn’t happen to kids from Walker Road in the 1950s. He did work towards gaining two degrees in the 70s and 80s, the first while working full time for an American mining company – a picture of him graduating from Glasgow University is below.

Dad_graduationOne of the most fortunate things that happened to him was meeting my mother. Not just so that I could exist, but Mum proved to be his soulmate and partner in every aspect of his life. Since he died, I have come to know my mother much better, and can see how their personalities meshed so well. In this respect, I’ve been fortunate in that I am old enough and mature enough now to tell her how much I love and appreciate her, and am thankful for how she helped to raise to try and be a good person. When Dad died, I was just beginning to see him as a friend as well as my father, and we would sit with a beer or two on Friday night and shoot the breeze. I guess they would say over here that we were just hanging out. Sadly, just as we were beginning to build a better rapport, he was taken from us in Edinburgh.

Dad, I never did get the chance to tell you how much I respected you as my father, or just plain as a good decent man. You had strong values that you didn’t compromise, and always did the right thing, regardless of personal cost. I have tried to follow your path in that respect, and admire you more, as it is often a far more painful route to take. Your compassion inspires me, and you (and Mum) shaped me into a person that I am (mostly) proud to be. I inherited your love of Peter Sellers films (“Is that a minkey with a beum?”), and remember your hearty laughter while watching something really stupid on TV. One thing people might not have always seen was that you had a great sense of humour, or that you were an excellent photographer, in a time when digital technology didn’t allow you to take 200 pictures and then edit them down. I’m also grateful to you for setting me on the path that led me from a car park overlooking Glasgow from the Campsie hills to living and working as a geologist in Canada – handing me my first piece of Lewisian Gneiss from Stornoway and instilling the wonders of natural history in me. None of that would have happened if it wasn’t for you.

Dad clericalSo, I know you probably can’t hear me, but I want you to know how much I love you. If there was a way to swap places with you, I would die happily in a moment, without regret. I am thankful for everything you gave me, and continue to give me, in terms of how I look as the world. You were a good man doing a difficult job, and you were taken from us far too soon. Someday I hope to see you again, so that I can tell you in person. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.


Some lovely photos here of Montana – thought its worth re-blogging, so here you are!

rubbertramping

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My mate Fraser and the Scottish elephant polo team

I’m stuck inside today, watching the rain batter off the windows, and started thinking about one of my friends who lives in a remote part of Agyll. Fraser Maciver, a Canadian artist, lives and works near Crinan. A truly beautiful part of the world, and feeling much more cut off from civilisation than it probably is. Here’s the thing – Fraser lives in a wagon. This means that the weather that I am currently “enjoying” is probably a bit closer to Fraser.

Link to Fraser’s website: http://www.frasermaciver.com/

He’s currently artist in residence at Inverary Castle, the seat of the Duke of Argyll. As a matter of interest, the current Duke is the captain of the Scottish national elephant polo team. In case you haven’t heard of this popular sport, we have won the world title several times. How can you not have heard of this? I’m really not making it up: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/4073353.stm

Lots of (non-pachyderm) information can be found here: http://www.inveraray-castle.com/home.html

Anyway, back to Fraser. I think that his artwork is excellent, and even possess a couple of originals. Most of his work is also available in print form, so much more affordable. If you’re thinking that this post is a blatant plug, it is. Tell your friends, go and visit the studio on the Crinan Canal, tell other people, if you like his artwork. He lives in a wagon by the canal, and should get a wider audience.

Some of the local artists take part in what is known as the Argyll Art Map. This is a yearly series of events, giving people the chance to find out more about the various artists, including meeting them and experiencing their work first-hand.

http://www.artmapargyll.com/

While I find some artists to be a bit precious, I do like a lot of what’s on offer here in Argyll.