Winter Is Coming… Again

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The Long winter’s night sets over the lake.

Autumn in the boreal forest is a hasty affair, the blackflies persisted and pester until after the first snowfall. Colours came and went in the matter of days and than the snow descended upon the taiga. And taiga is probably the best way to describe this land, the never ending snow forest that stretch to the Hudson’s Bay. It is only November and we’re under several feel of snow, the lakes are all but frozen and the chill in the air can cut right through to the bone. Winter arrives early in the north.

The days are short now, the sun is well below the horizon before 4PM, and it does not rise til just after 9AM. This is the restless of times… I leave for the work before sunrise and return after sunset, the sunlight eludes me. The great indoors call as the darkness of the night brings with it the frigid sub-arctic temperatures. Waking up to -28 Celsius is never the easiest of tasks, the warmth of the bed beckons and entices. Not seeing the sun for five days at a time is the hardest part of working up here, but even this challenge comes with some rewards. For it is Northern Lights season.

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Fall in the Boreal Forest

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What is left of the first snow fall in Northern Ontario.

This is my first fall in woods of Northern Ontario. When I moved here some short 11 months ago this was a frozen world deep in the grips of winter. But now I finally get to experience what the fall up here is all about. And with the single detraction that is the black flies, which are still active in October, it’s been a great time.

Fall is different up here, the colour are not what I’m used to. There is a distinct lack of colour, the fall here is too green. A boreal forest is a evergreen forest, there a obvious lack of deciduous trees here. With the exception of Birch trees and Tamaracks (a deciduous conifer), Jack Pines stay green. In a span of 3-4 days the Birch trees turned from green to a rusty yellow and fell, it was a hasty affair. From a high vantage point looking over the land one can see distinct bands of yellow, the Birch trees grow where there is water or road. Once fall comes you can easily tell where the creeks and roads are, the Birch is a dead giveaway.

This fall is not what I’m used to, it doesn’t feel like fall in many respect. It’s just cold and rainy most of the time. The lack of vibrant colours has thrown me off. To add to the confusion we’ve already had our first snowfall and every morning I see frozen puddles, winter in undeniable. What has been a pleasant surprise was seeing a flock of Snow Geese flying about the other day. Never seen them before. More pictures can be found on my flickr

Kakabeka Falls, again.

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The mighty falls.

I honestly think I’m starting to spend too much time in Thunder Bay. This year alone I’ve stayed in five different hotels and can pretty much navigate the city without the need for a GPS. The city is kind of starting to feel like a third home at the moment. And like any home, there it has one of my favourite places to visit, the Kakabeka Falls. It a small park that holds a massive water falls, a beautiful site. More pictures on my flickr.

Ouiment Canyon Provincial Park

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Ouimet Canyon, a massive scar caved into the face of the earth.

I have poor luck when it comes to this place, it’s awe inspiring place always eludes me. I’ve been to Quimet Canyon on three occasion in my life, including last year and every time I come here it’s either raining or about to rain. Cloud cover following me to this place without fail.

This place is magical, any time I’m near by in Thunder Bay, I attempt a visit. Sadly I don’t usually succeed, luckily at end of this summer I did. An hour’s drive east of Thunder Bay is certainly worth it to visit this place. It changes little, seasons and time have little effect on such a place. While change is slow in some places, the road leading to the park feels like it is digressing further each time I come here. The decrepit roadway is lined abandoned farmland and even a failed campsite/lodge that I can remember being open some 10 years ago. Time is not gentle in these parts. 

A Summer Night at the Leslie Spit.

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Late evening on the Leslie Spit.

My summer in Southern Ontario is officially come to an end, I’m back in the north and currently prepping for the up coming school year. My summer in Southern Ontario was rain filled and generally uneventful, just the way I like it… Well except for the rain. But my last few days in Toronto were sunny and picturesque. I spent several evening wandering around the Leslie Spit just enjoying the later summer rays.

I’m both sad and excited at the summer drawing to a close. The summer has blown by, and I feel like it’s hardly begun. I’m not sure what will come next, but I do know that I’m looking forward to the challenge. Until then, I’m just playing around with my camera and some new lens additions. Below is a small collection of some macro shoots I’ve taken with my camera while trying to figure how to work the new lenses. More pictures on my flickr account.

Long Point Provincial Park

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Evening sunset on the beach.

Long Point on Lake Erie is a special place, so much so that it has been named a World Biosphere Reserve. It is a mix of cottage country, wetlands, and sandy beaches that is partitioned into private property, National Wildlife Areas and a Provincial Park. I’ve been here before, and camped here as well. This is not the most wild place to camp, well it could be if you’re keen on trekking into the endless quagmire and swale of the point. The beach is really what you come here for, and I did just that. Sunny days have been few and far between in Ontario this summer so when two days in a row arose in the forecast, off I went. 

At the base of the point you’ll find a wonderful wetlands of the Big Creek which empties into small delta on Lake Erie. Here there is several kilometers of trails to traverse through the marsh, it’s a beautiful area. But we warned, wear long pants and tuck them into your socks. The area is home to migratory birds as well swarms of mosquitoes and ticks, bug sprays is highly recommended. There has been confirmed cases of Lyme Disease in this parts, luckily I wore long pants and tucked them into my socks as I found two of these little buggers hugging onto one pant-leg after a trek into the marshlands. Always use safety and precaution, I’ve been told due to our swam and wet summer tick numbers have been on the rise. Besides the invasion of ticks, the most notorious of Ontario’s invasive plants, phragmites is still holding on strong. It’s gobbled up countless acres of marshlands, stopping it seems like a wishful dream at times. But this time around as you can see in some of the photo’s above, the effects of phragmites have been curved by a new pilot project in the area. From the look of things, it’s been effective in the areas that have been treated but long term it’s challenging to forecast. 

Besides fighting off ticks in the marshes, one of my favourite things to do is stroll along the expanse of the provincial parks beaches. To a point that is… If you venture far enough up the point, you’re bound to reach the fences and no trespassing signs that signify the onset of Long Point Company property, a private hunting club which has through luck and fortune of it’s members ancestors acquired a substantial slice real estate in South Ontario’s most valuable natural areas. The effects of the rainy summer have not gone unnoticed on the sand spit, the beaches are significantly narrow as the encroaching water has pushed them up against the walls of the sand dunes. Erosion is evident all around, the relentless action of the waves has exposed many roots and event toppled trees from the dune walls. The water constantly builds and destroys the shorelines in these parts.

Long Point is home to many species of animals and plants, of which the Fowler’s Toads is an elusive encounter. This toad while plentiful in much of North America, can only be found in three location in Ontario, all along Lake Erie. I’ve never seen one before, but this time around I found basking on the beach.

Finally there were the sunsets, and as always nature does not disappoint. But what added an extra layer of awesome was the full moon. It was big and bright, at one point during the night I woke up and thought it was morning, but it was just the moon light. As always more photo’s can be found on my flickr.

The Via Rail Canadian – Day 4

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Sunrise over Kamloops Lake

Last night we went to sleep in the Rocky Mountains, passing through Jasper and the Yellowhead Pass. We had a scheduled stop in Kamloops around midnight, but since we were running hours behind, that did not happen. Kamloops was reached sometime before sunrise, I did not bear witness to it, lack of sleep had gotten the better of me. But the sun made sure that once it had breached the horizon, sleep soon dissipates. Lucky for me the sun is a punctual measurement of time, I was awake to some of the most fascinating scenery of the journey. Going westwards, the Via Rail Canadian saves best for last.

As the sun rose above Kamloops lake behind us, the Thompson river re-emerges as a separate entity and carves a deep cicatrix into the face of the earth. The river runs fast, glacier cold and a magnificent shade of dark royal blue for the remainder of its course. It is refreshing to the eyes, and deadly to many who’ve attempted to tame it. We snake around the rim of the canyon, this is an arid place, a high desert. The river overflows with water, but beyond the banks there is no liquid to be found. The Thompson river valley lies in the rain shadow of the ever imposing mountains, rain clouds exhaust their potential before they reach this place. We push forwards, an odd mix of flooding and desert capture the attention of the passengers. We pass ranches and farms, all reliant on the river for their survival and the use of elaborate pumping systems. The valley is also littered with rusted out relics of failed colonization, ranches, farm equipment, fences and even churches can be seen. All slowly returning to whence they came, time is gentle to no one in the valley.

Eventually we reach the confluence of the Thompson and the Fraser rivers, the end our our journey nears, but first we must reach the flatland’s of the Fraser valley.  At the fork of the two rivers, the royal blue waters of the Thompson clash with the silty and murky waters of the Fraser. It’s a spectacle, the river meet but don’t merge right away. The two river flow side by side down the canyon, until eventually the murkiness of  Fraser river prevails. Here the walls of the canyon are steep, we hand on the ledges like lichen. Here on these steep mountain walls, well over a hundred years ago a corporate battle took place. Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways raced up and down these valley walls building railroads, their goals were to connect the nation east to west. Tunnels were blasted, lives lost and bridges forcefully crammed into impossible confines. We are now privy to the fruits of their aberrant ambitions to conquer what nature deemed impregnable. The Fraser angrily bubbles and boils below us, the faith below seems so final. We edge forward, hanging onto cliff edges and slithering through countless tunnels. The cost in lives to make this journey possible seems incomparable to the price of the ticket payed. Sights that the Fraser River affords are truly some of the finest artwork mother nature has created, it more then makes up for the four sleep-deprived nights. Eventually the mountains give way, the strangle hold on the Fraser river eases and the river responds in kind. As we enter the Fraser Valley; farmland emerges, the river sprawls out and becomes more even tempered. This is the final leg of the train ride, with each passing mile the land becomes more saturated with people. Nature fades and gives way to the urban, we’ve arrived on the Pacific Coast of Canada. Vancouver’s skyline now dominates the windows in the train car.

The Via Rail Canadian – Day 3

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Sunrise over the Prairies.

The prairie sun in vivid and piercing, waking even the tired of bodies. Day three on the transcontinental is upon us. We’re now on the western fridges of Saskatchewan, steaming North-West towards Edmonton. Saskatoon had pass on sometime in the night, I was not awake. Nor were many when we pulled into The Bridge City, it greeted most of us mid slumber. Outside the windows, the flatland’s and crops have given way to gently rolling hills and shallow valleys. This is pasture country, and the cattle serve as the only witnesses to our trek across this land. They stare, but offer little in terms of encouragement or comfort. Seated in the from of the train, in the first Sky-Car, I’m treated to a pilot’s view of what will unfold before us. Looking beyond the locomotives, the rails disappear into the abyss of grass and sky. The horns on the locomotive sound, serving a stern warning for all drivers that we approach. Countless gravel roads and small neglected county drives snake across these tracks, and we bisect them all. Rolling ever so slowly and ever so defiantly to the west, then we stop. Another siding, another freight train, more lost time. Edmonton slips from an early breakfast to a late lunch.

One things to understand and keep in mind when riding a train like the Canadian is the sheer distance the task requires. The distances are vast, the nation is sparsely populated, and the rail networks reflect this well. For most sections of the journey it is a single track network, with trains passing each other at rail sidings. And on the railroad pecking order, freight is king and passenger transportation is at the very bottom of the Totem pole. We lost almost five hours heading into Edmonton and a further two sitting in the rail-yard waiting to leave. Edmonton left a sour taste in all our mouths, the rail-yards are cold and industrial. Edmonton is a starch contrast from what we’d witnessed preceding it on the Prairies.

The delay into and out of Edmonton dominoes into a very late arrival to Jasper. The mid day lunch in the mountains would have to be substituted from a take-out dinner on the rails. We manage to finally slither out the Edmonton rail-yards and gain some momentum, the scenery before us begins once again change for the second time in the day. The low rolling pastures give way to woodlands and deep river valleys, the topography began to rise. As we trek westwards we arrive at the Athabasca Valley, the mountains stand abruptly beyond the horizon. As a person who’s never seen the Rockies first hand, I must say that they have a domineering presence to them. They channel the rivers into deep gullies and obstruct the clouds with their imposing stature. The views are to kill for. Our arrival to Jasper was late and our stay ever so brief, we had lost too much time and now the sun was about to eclipse us. The train left the station with a noticeable hurry as we entered the Yellowhead pass, the views followed us along each turn and twist of the track. In front of us lay the dying light of the day, the mountains and clouds filled with colours I could not begin to describe. No picture can do this scene justice, and sadly none I had taken will even make the attempt. Shooting from a moving train in low lights with glare for the windows does not lend itself well to photography. Night four had begun, we were about to go to sleep in the midst of giants. There is no telling what wondrous views will await us in the morning.

The Via Rail Canadian – Day 2

 

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Early morning sunrise over a freight train.

The train jumps and jitters as it runs down the tracks, it both startles and rocks you to sleep with one breath. I’ve woken up early on the second morning, sleep is an elusive prey in these parts. It does not succumb to even the sweetest of callings. Economy is full of dreary sleepless souls scrambling for a flat surface and a few solitary moments of dormancy, the firmness of which are of no one’s concern. Hours are starting to mangle together; the clocks have become meaningless. Train time is lost to the real world, it’s starting to feel like what happens inside this steel capsule will have zero impact on the outside. I’ve woken up early enough to see the sun rise from the east as the open fields greet us in the west, our 36 hours battle through North Ontario’s thickets has finally come to an end. The endless stretch of prairies lies before us, Manitoba has announced herself in the grandiose of fashion. Before us awaits Winnipeg, we are surprisingly on time. Here we’re afforded a rare opportunity to stretch out our legs and feel solid ground as the train crews switch out.

 

Mean while on the train, life is starting to take a turn for the most intriguing. As the endless miles of fields and pastures slip by outside the windows, characters emerge within. It is the nature of such journeys that otherwise distinct and unrelated people begin to live their lives contemporaneously. Here inside these chromed confines I’ve meet a former hippie turned grandmother on her way back to Saskatchewan to work on an organic farm. A collection of 18 to 22 year old’s taking on the advantage of cheap unlimited travel for young people, a part of Canada’s 150th birthday promotion from Via Rail. They trade stories of shady hostels, lengthy miles of wasted time, cheap booze and drunken nights spanning the nations rail corridors. Regrettable life choices are the order of the day. In that mix are a couple of families with kids, small ones too, almost too young to handle so many days on a train, but soldering on for sake of adventure and promises of grandparents and little seen relations. This is a mix of adventure seekers and the frugal who found some sort of deal. We traverse small isolated communities and occasionally new people hop on and off the train going only an hour or two, heading west for their own reasons. They leave little trace of their existence in these close-quarters. Meanwhile I’ve meet others from different corners of the world; Australia, Korea, England, and Chile to name a few. All are here sharing stories, and creating memories in the process. People live interesting lives; some live on boats, others with no fixed addresses, endlessly wondering the world in search of purpose and a joyous sense of adventure. While others stranger yet are venturing out into the cosmos for the very first time. All the while the wheat and the prairie grasses roll on by.

 

As the day progresses we leave yet another province, the locomotives thunder down the tracks and through Saskatchewan. There is a reason they call this big sky county, the endless seas of green curve beyond human eye to meet the clouds. We’re idle yet again, another siding, another freight train. I’ve lost count of the interruptions. We pass pastures and crops, and trample countless gravel roads in our quest westward. The fields are immense, the people are few. Every so often a dilapidated homestead creeps into view, wood rotting and roofs caving in. Monuments to the harshness of the prairie life, failed ventures and family farms left to ruin. I wonder what stories these places have, but who would remember them now? Isolated and roadless, it is certain that many haven’t seen a living soul enter their confines in decades. These thoughts, along with the endless clanking of the steel wheels are what keeps me up at night. But these tales are for another time, for someone more prepared to be more then just a mere passer by on the transcontinental. Just like yesterday, the iron horse charges into the sunset. Day two is met with the all-consuming darkness in the middle of Saskatchewan.

The Via Rail Canadian – Day 1

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The thin red line that is my journey.

Not all grand adventures start with a lot of planning, some are last minute gambles that unfold slowly before your eyes. This will be one of those slow unfolding events as I trek out west towards Vancouver and Tofino.  It’s those long slow unfolding that are best complimented by the dull clanking of rails beneath a train and the gentle back and forth swaying as the locomotive sluggishly snake’s into Ontario’s vast northern hinterlands. I’m seated in a reclining chair on the Via Rail Canadian, a cross continental that is a throwback to the golden days of travel. This journey is four days in the making. We’ve been en route for 16 hours and barely made a dent on the map. We’re but a small spec of shiny chrome tubing on the giants back that is this magnificent nation.

We left Toronto at 10pm on Tuesday evening, if we’re lucky we’ll reach Vancouver by mid day on Saturday. But not before traversing the Rocky mountains, fording the grass ocean that is the Prairies and conquering Northern Ontario’s boreal forests on our 4,600km cross continental struggle. And a struggle it might turn out to be, economy is for the hardier and most adventurous of souls, or simply for those who can afford no more. I’m not sure if I’m the former of the later of the two, the scale tips depending on the moment. Sitting by myself, on a solo trip to the west, on a train, without a bed, I must be losing my mind. And if I’ve not yet, the train might tip the scales in the end. But thus far the accommodation have been adequate, the seats are spacious and the sky car has been rewarding us with wondrous views, but we’re a long way from the conclusion. We cross small northern highways and zigzag past rivers and lakes, passing through remote fishing camps and isolated communities like Foleyet and Oba in Ontario. Communities that a few have ever heard off, and even less have visited. These places grew around this railroad and they feel destined to die with it, becoming relegated to not much more then remote rail-siding in the ever desolate bush-lands. The train pulls into a siding spur, we sit idle. These tracks do not belong to us, they belong to freight. Another massive freight train passes us making haste, it’s becoming clear that our itinerary was not much more then a suggestion. We surge forward and pick up speed, but soon we’re again in another rail-siding, parked and immobile. The cycle repeats itself endlessly; rail-sidings, idle trains, freight locomotives. This is journey is writing many stories.

This is what I more of less what I hoped this journey might look like, and so far it has delivered in the grandest of fashion. There is an ecliptic and ever so enigmatic cadre of character that inhabit this steel horse as the battles ever so westwards. From the young to the old, the adventure seekers to those on their last legs returning from failed ventures in distant corners of the nation. The stories you overhear are fascinating, this is prime people watching. I spend my time glued to the window, I’ve yet to speak go anyone. It’s pleasing to have space and distance in such confined quarters. We hope to breach the Ontario, Manitoba border by breakfast tomorrow morning. Until then I’m back watching the world unfold just outside of my window.