13th November 2015
Photo: © Soren Rickards
The Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival had been pencilled into my calendar for the best part of a year. It’s one of the biggest and most anticipated annual events in Banff and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Being a ‘local’ for this year’s event gave me the opportunity to get a little more involved than simply watching films. I signed up as part of the volunteer team for the festival, which was a really worthwhile experience. Volunteering brought a unique perspective; helping visitors, working behind the scenes, meeting festival staff, exhibitors, filmmakers and adventurers; really showed what goes into such a large-scale event.
Then of course there were the films; inspiration for the mind and soul. From a 5 minute short about a Welsh woman who swims naked in mountain lakes to 40 epic minutes of death-defying alpine climbing, this year’s line up included something for everyone.
I’ve previously sat for hours in cinemas, watching drivel that someone spent tens of millions producing, and here I am rejoicing at films that are more engaging, thought-provoking and potentially life-changing, produced by relatively unknown filmmakers, often on shoe-string budgets. I really cannot recommend this festival enough, so isn’t it great that they have a world tour bringing the best films to over 40 countries – make sure you check it out.
Intro video from the 2014/2015 World Tour
The films were the main draw of the festival, but there was a lot more on offer besides, including book signings, talks and debate, art exhibitions, presentations by Google and workshops hosted by National Geographic. Krystle Wright and Cory Richards also led a photo tour along the Bow River, accompanied by photo editors from the National Geographic Your Shot team.
The result of all this? A ton of great ideas, creative inspiration and who knows what next – this is my first post in six months, but hey, it’s a start!
20th May 2015
We had barely been in Banff a week before hearing stories of how spectacular the northern lights are here. Because the entire expanse of Banff National Park to the north is uninhabited, the night sky is very dark indeed; perfect for stargazers. Our first trip to Lake Minnewanka, a local’s favourite and probably one of the most accessible locations for aurora watching, came after a few weeks…
Anne Marie receives a call at half eleven on a Tuesday night; our Australian friends David and Katrina are blaring down the line something about flares and are on their way to pick us up immediately. I think the worst; there’s no way I’m going to a fancy dress party at this hour, but gladly I’m informed they’re talking about flares of the solar variety. Solar Flares can cause highly charged particles from the sun to erupt in huge plumes, racing the 92 million miles through space to earth, where they interact with our upper atmosphere. Who cares if you have work the next day when there’s a solar storm on the loose!
We excitedly throw on our thermals, wrap up warm and prepare the camera gear, unsure quite what to expect, but already buzzing at the prospect of a late night adventure.
Twenty minutes drive through dark, windy forest road later and we arrive along the ice bound lake shore, along with what seems to be half the town. I can’t believe just how many people are already here, with plenty more still arriving. Some are clearly well prepared, set up in groups down by the water’s edge, snuggled up in camping chairs.
Being new to the whole scene we make do with our parking spot along the roadside and eagerly set up our gear, all the while gazing skyward, waiting for our eyes to adjust to the dark. With such a throng of spectators arriving, spurred on I’m told by aurora forecast text and email alerts, it takes a while for the car lights to settle down and for us to fully take in the night sky.
Slowly but surely a myriad of stars appear above our heads, the familiar band of the Milky Way only barely visible, but for the haze of light emanating from behind the mountains in front of us. The light, ghostly, with only the faintest suggestion of green, sweeps across the northern sky in a huge arc, as though reflected from the far distant pole.
We fiddle with the settings on our cameras; ISO, Shutter Speed, Focus, waiting with baited breath between the closing of the shutter and revelation of the image on the camera LCD. A camera’s eye is so much better than ours in some ways, particularly for night photography. Imagine if with every second you gazed skyward, the light of the stars was multiplied again and again. That’s what happens with a camera’s sensor, and after ten, twenty, thirty seconds or more, what it reveals is truly breathtaking.
“Oh yeah… it kinda looks like a giant green blob”, remarks Aussie David, insightfully.
Indeed, the great arc of light is rather green and blob like. But we needn’t speak so soon. After half an hour or so in ‘warm up mode’, the aurora, sensing our collective anticipation, bursts into life. There’s an audible gasp and an echo of hoots from along the lake front as huge pillars of light slice through the sky above. Appearing slowly, fading, shifting and dancing across the night sky like an ancient ritual of the heavens as old as the Earth itself.
Apart from the clunk of camera shutters and excited gasps from those around us, the aurora, now visibly green with a hint of red, performs its art in eerie silence.
I feel a shiver trickle down my spine and glance over my shoulder into the blackened trees behind. It’s only now that I think about where we are, in the heart of Banff National Park, home to wolf, cougar, lynx and bear, and I sense other eyes watching from the forest beyond, perhaps sharing in our awe and wonderment of the boreal lights of the North.
15th March 2015
It took well over a year of planning – making sure we secured visas, saving and getting our lives in order – but Anne Marie and I have finally made it back to Canada. After a quick stop over in Toronto visiting relatives, we hopped over to the west coast and Vancouver to catch up with friends and enjoy some more of the city. It felt like we’d never left; street pizza, Granville Island, hipster restaurants, beer served in jam jars and of course city views with that awesome mountain backdrop.
We could have spent this year living in Vancouver, but the call of the mountains was just too strong. Why just look at them when you can live IN them? So we took the bus for fifteen hours through the Rockies to the small town of Banff. If we had any reservations about venturing into the ‘wilderness’ they were soon quashed as dawn broke to mountains of snow. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen so much of the white stuff; the conifers in some places were completely loaded, barely a green branch visible. Drifts piled down mountainsides and covered everything below in fluffy plumes. We craned our necks to look up at the peaks overhead and I kept bugging Anne Marie to ‘look’, ‘look!’ out the window like an excited child.
The snow seemed to peak just north of Lake Louise and by the time we reached Banff town there was not quite as much on the ground, perhaps a few inches. Still, we arrived with a sense of adventure and the prospect of a fresh start.
As I write this now we’re well settled in. In just over six weeks we have both secured work and a small rental apartment in the heart of town. Although we’ve spent a few days hiking, snowboarding and exploring, our focus has been on ‘setting up’ and now that we’re getting over the necessary life chores we can concentrate on really enjoying what Banff National Park has to offer.
Thankfully the snow is currently falling again; the season hasn’t been great so far really. In fact, it’s well reported that the west coast of Canada is experiencing its worst snow season in over 100 years, forcing most of the ski fields to close early. On the other hand, the east coast has been snowbound for months, with minus 20 and below temperatures. Global warming is certainly starting to have a real affect on the ski industry. If the balance can return, we might still have a couple months of snowboarding here in Banff so fingers crossed X.
Some highlights in Banff so far include a romantic day spent on a horse-drawn sleigh ride, going up the Banff Gondola to the peak of Sulphur Mountain, then soaking in the warm waters of Banff Hot Springs. Several walks along the Bow River have seen encounters with the local Elk or Mule Deer, and just last week we spotted a group of Coyotes howling on the shore of Vermillion Lakes. You don’t have to venture far out of town before you start encountering the wildlife of the park.
Another draw to Banff is that it is home to the Banff Mountain Book and Film Festival, which tours the world annually, showcasing the very best in mountain cinema and literature. Our first special viewing of short films at the Banff Centre was an emotional one, with the main feature ‘Mending the Line’ causing the whole theatre to choke up! The tale of Frank Moore, a 90 year old World War Two veteran returning to fish a river he stopped at during the invasion of Normandy, is as heart warming and life affirming as anything you’ll ever watch.
Needless to say that Banff has already made a great impression, and we have only scratched the surface. There’s a whole mountain range out there just waiting to be explored. Watch this space for updates!
14th March 2015
We’re all set for a two week long road-trip around British Columbia and Alberta. Our hire car is jam packed, the route is mapped out and every single battery device is fully suped. No sooner than the key is in the ignition however, the heavens open to a biblical scale rainstorm. You can’t plan everything I guess.
Fortunately though we are heading for The Okanagan Valley, which is considerably warmer, sunnier and receives less rainfall than the rest of BC. The climate makes it the ideal location for fruit growing, and where there’s fruit, there follows wine!
The climatic claims are thankfully proven as, after a four hour drive through thundering rain and hail, the skies clear on our descent into the Okanagan Basin. I’m immediately reminded of Central Otago in New Zealand as the mountains give way to rolling hills and lush fields of vines.
There are currently over 120 wineries in the Okanagan, so we would be crazy not to sample a few of them. With a little bartering Anne Marie agrees to be the designated driver on our self-drive wine tour. I meanwhile make a firm promise not to enjoy the wine too much (I wouldn’t dare). Starting from our base in Penticton, we drive south along the eastern side of Skaha Lake towards Osoyoos.
The first winery on our list is Inniskillin, named after the Irish Inniskilling Fusiliers. With so many great vineyards to choose from, liking their name isn’t a bad start to planning a tour. As it turns out the wines we try are also excellent, in particular the ice wine, which is the first we’ve tasted. Canada is one of the world’s largest producers of Icewine, with most of it being grown in Ontario.
With our tastebuds sizzling we head to the next winery on our list, Nk’Mip (pronounced in-Ka-meep), which is North America’s first Aboriginal owned and operated winery. The vineyard is set on a vast stretch of land which also includes a holiday resort and cultural centre. Wine is clearly big business here in the Okanagan.
The rain is held back by the surrounding mountains as our tour continues to Stoneboat, Jackston Triggs, Elephant Island (some very different fruit wines) and Poplar Grove (above). Unfortunately I’m no wine critic so I’ll spare you the detailed sensory analysis. All you need to know is the wines are all of a very high standard, which seems to improve as the day wears on. Anne Marie can only handle so much so it’s back to our campsite for dinner and an evening stroll along the lakeshore in Penticton to clear my fuzzy head.
The next day takes us further up the valley towards Kelowna and along the way we stop in at some seriously plush wineries. Mission Hill is more like a castle than a winery with very modern architecture and expansive views over the lake.
After sampling so many fantastic wines I can’t believe Canada doesn’t export more product to the rest of the world. As said before I’m no critic, but I have tasted my fair share of wines over the years and the Okanagan certainly makes an impression. Perhaps I’ll have to do some more research just to be sure…
26th January 2014
If ever there was a perfect coastline, in my eyes, it would be this. Peppered with islands, rocky outcrops, secluded bays and secret sandy beaches, the coastline around the small town of Tofino is picture perfect. On top of that is the sense of mystery and anticipation of a chance encounter with a bear, wolf or a glimpse of a whale amidst the waves.
Anne Marie and I slept under canvas at the Bella Pacifica Campground which offered sheltered sites in the forest only steps away from McKenzie Beach and a few km from downtown Tofino. The town itself is more of a village, with one main street providing access to a network of piers, harbours and coves. We arrived at the very start of summer when things were still pretty sleepy, but the population booms each year with tourists flocking for the camping, hiking, scenic tours and world-famous surfing.
We spent a few days exploring the surrounding coast and took a full day boat tour to Hot Springs Cove with Marina West Motel Eco-Tours. After some debate on whether to fly to the springs, which would take just 20 minutes, I’m so glad we opted for the longer boat trip as the sights along the way were incredible.
First on the list were Grey Whales, which proved elusive and with choppy seas, the most we glimpsed of them was a flash of their backs as they surfaced for air. Still, this was my very first whale encounter which was exciting all the same. You really get a sense of how immense these beasts are. With each outward breath a cloud of steam burst from the water like a geyser, followed by hoots from those on board and the frantic snapping of camera shutters.
Dolphins appeared next, followed by Harbour Seals, Sea Otters, multi-coloured Star Fish, Bald Eagles and plenty more bird life. All of this was just en-route to the hot springs, which were really something else. After a short trek through the forest along a wooden boardwalk we were met with the tell-tale smell of sulphur and steam rising through the rocks below our feet. It was then off with the clothes and a frantic tip-toe dash over the rocks in search of the ‘goldilocks’ pool; not too hot, not too cold.
There’s something primeval about sitting in a bath-warm rock pool, the sound of ocean waves pounding against the shore only feet away. You can imagine generations of First Nations people coming to use these pools long before they were discovered as a tourist attraction. I think the locals have got the balance just right here though, it’s not over developed, other than the walkway, changing shelter and basic toilet the rest is pure nature.
After our hot springs adventure we cooked up a big feed back at camp before heading down to the beach. Tofino is certainly one of those places where people are drawn to the shore each evening to watch the sunset. Each one we saw seemed more spectacular than the last. It’s something no photographer will ever tire of and a perfect way to unwind after a long day of exploring.
The drive south to Victoria took us through a beautiful mountain lined landscape and past Cathedral Grove, home to ancient Douglas Fir trees, some over 800 years old. The trees are truly enormous and it’s not long before you feel the effects of repeatedly craning your neck skyward. It’s a real shame that such ancient trees are so rare to come by. The timespan in which these trees have lived can only make you think about the past and how in that time we’ve devastated forests like this the world over.
After the wilderness of Tofino, Victoria was a nice change of pace. It’s a big enough city with a population of over 300,000, but dam it’s elegant. The harbour is definitely it’s main focal point, with yachts, tour boats, ferries and seaplanes zipping to and fro. Commanding over all of this commotion is the historic Empress Hotel, wrapped in a cloak of Ivy.
We didn’t have long to spend in Victoria which was unfortunate. With so many inviting bars and restaurants, it would have been nice to stay longer. Still, it’s always nice to have an excuse to return.
2nd January 2014
I’ve always wanted to see the West Coast of Canada and after three years of travels I finally made it to Vancouver in June 2013. The world famous city, which repeatedly ranks in the top ten of best places to live, had much to live up to.
Now, I have to be brutally honest and say that my first impression of the big city wasn’t the best. A couple of wrong turns while strolling through downtown and I found myself on what looked like the set of an apocalyptic zombie movie. Homeless, drug addicts or just plain mentally insane, Vancouver turns out to have more than its fair share. What I found more disturbing however was the overall tolerance and casual ignorance of the public to these people, who would probably have a more positive outlook if they were stray dogs. Alas, the troubles of the modern city; Vancouver is afterall home to over half a million and has some of the highest property prices in the world. Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for how frequently I had to sidestep a muttering drunk.
If there is one positive to come out of a bad first impression it is that things could only get better – and worry not, they certainly did!
Once I got my head around the many different suburbs and districts of the city I steadily grew to love the place. The sheer diversity of cultures here really surprised me. The term Hongcouver has been used to describe the abundance of Asian people in Vancouver, but I also found a multitude of other nationalities, which could only lead to one thing – outstanding traditional cuisine. A walk down Commercial Drive offered the usual North American fare, plus French, Greek, Himalayan, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Vietnamese and even Ethiopian! Who needs to travel when you have such diversity on one street.
Commercial Drive, Kitsilano, Granville Island, Stanley Park, North Van and the beaches which skirt the city all have their own unique character, but to truly appreciate the city in all it’s glory I first had to get out of it…
For many people who call Vancouver home, it is the proximity to the great outdoors which make it such a great place to live. The surrounding snow-capped mountains and lush green pine forest are barely a twenty minute drive away. My host and good friend Scott took Anne Marie and I on a short hiking trail to Dog Mountain, which offers stunning views down over the city. Met by this vista and a family of soaring Bald Eagles, I began to appreciate just how nice this part of the world is.
The walk up to the Dog Mountain lookout was still covered in large patches of snow and we tried out some snowshoes to help navigate the deeper sections. I don’t know what was more ridiculous – falling into snow drifts in boots or tripping over my own feet in snowshoes! At the summit we met a hiker who stopped for a snack and was promptly surrounded by hungry Jays, who happily posed for a few photographs.
This would be only the first of many encounters with Canadian wildlife, which as I soon discovered is absolutely everywhere. You barely have to venture into the back garden or local park to find squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, deer and more. Keep an eye out for my next post for much more wildlife.
One of the top visitor attractions on the outskirts of Vancouver is the Capilano Suspension Bridge, but we were offered a welcome alternative, with no entry fee, less crowds and a network of walks to explore the surrounding forest.
Lynn Canyon is the little sister of Capilano, with a smaller bridge, which at 50ft high is still worth holding on for. We spent an afternoon here with the whole family and really enjoyed the variety of trails. I reckon Kayleigh had the best idea, taking in the sights from the comfort of her baby backpack…
Pretty much anyone who visits Vancouver has to make the trip up the Grouse Mountain Gondola. Only a short drive from the north of the city, Grouse Mountain is a ski park in winter and offers hiking, ziplining and paragliding in summer. There is also the Grouse Grind, which consists of 2,830 stairs, climbing the 853 metres to the top. Needless to say I convinced Anne Marie what a great idea it would be to walk it! It’s strenuous enough, but all depends on how fast you want to take the ascent. An average Joe might take an hour and a half to reach the top, but every year hundreds of challengers compete for the record, which currently stands at a mere 25 minutes.
At the top we explored the chainsaw wood carvings, watched a falconry display, spotted some bears and took in the views before taking the easy route back down on the Gondola. An afternoon well spent and worthy of a rewarding pint in one of the city’s many craft breweries.
The weeks spent in Vancouver certainly gave me a deeper understanding of the city and why it is so loved the world over. Its cultural diversity, active lifestyle and the draw of the great outdoors all make the city unique. There is way too much to capture in just one blog post so here are a few more photographs from the trip. I hope you enjoy them and if you have any questions or comments about the above feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org