Athens – A Historical City


On June 10, we set out to visit the Acropolis Museum. Voted one of the best museums in the world, with a total area of 25,000 square meter, the museum showcases Greek history through its three floors.  The museum was inaugurated in the summer of 2009.


The Museum is built above a large urban settlement on the Makriyianni site dating from Archaic to Early Christian Athens.   This discovery is being integrated into the Museum and is yet to open to public.  As we walked on the glass floor, we could see excavation and restoration process of the Makriyianni site.


On the ground floor, the ‘Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis’ houses exhibits from the sanctuaries that were established on the slopes of the Acropolis, as well as objects that Athenians used in everyday life from all historic periods. ‘Archaic Gallery’, on the first floor, hosts the magnificent sculptures that graced the first temples on the Acropolis.  Photography is not permitted in these two floors.


Third floor, ‘Parthenon Gallery’, where sculptures of the Parthenon period are exhibited in continuous sequence along the perimeter.


The most impressive among the exhibits is the Caryatids.  A Caryatid is s a sculpted female statue, used as a column or a pillar, supporting the structure on her head. This Greek term literally means ‘maidens of Karyai.’   These original statues once supported the roof of the North porch of Erectheion.  Five statues of Caryatids are in the museum.  Statue on right-rear was smashed by a Turkish canon-ball in 1687, when the Parthenon was shelled during a battle between the Turks and the Venetians.  The sixth is installed at the British Museum in London, which acquired it nearly two centuries ago after Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.  He had it sawed off the Erechtheion’s porch, along with shiploads of adornments from the Parthenon to decorate his mansion in Scotland before selling the pieces to pay debts.  Cast reproductions of six Caryatids now support the porch of Erectheion.


After spending about three hours at the museum, we walked to the iconic Acropolis.  An `acropolis’ is any citadel or complex built on a high hill. The name derives from the Greek language meaning ‘High City’ or ‘City on the Edge’ or ‘City in the Air.  Most famous being the Acropolis of Athens, built in the Fifth century BC.

Acropolis is the most characteristic monument of the ancient Greek civilisation. It symbolises democracy and the beginning of Western civilisation and stands as an icon of European culture.  More than half of the sculptures and artifacts from the Acropolis are in the British Museum in London and their return to Greece is a cultural and a political issue between the two nations, yet to be resolved.  The Brits claim that Lord Elgin saved the marbles from destruction, and acquired them fairly.


As we walked up the hill, we come across the Propylaea, meaning a monumental gate or entrance to a specific space, usually to a temple or religious complex.


As we climbed up the Propylaea, on the Southern flank stands the Temple of Athena Nike.  It was a place of worship for deities associated with wars, ‘Nike’ Gods or Goddesses.  The Nike statute had no wings, as it was customary for Nike statues of the time, the temple acquired the name Apteros Nike (wing-less victory). It is said that the statue was deprived of wings so it could never leave the city of Athens.


Propylaea stands as an impressive building that surrounds the natural entrance to the plateau.


After walking for about five minutes on the plateau, we were at the Parthenon.  The Parthenon is a former temple dedicated to Goddess Athena, considered the patron Goddess of Athens. Construction began in 447 BC and was completed in 438 BC, although decoration of the building continued until 432 BC. It is the most important surviving building of Classical Greece.  The temple was built to shelter the monumental statue of Athena that was made of gold and ivory.

In 1975, the Greek government began a concerted effort to restore the Parthenon and other Acropolis structures and these efforts are still ongoing.


Walking around the Parthenon, we came to the Erechtheion.  This temple was built to house the religious artifacts that the old temple housed. Construction of the Erechtheion began in 420BC.  It is an intricate temple designed to accommodate the uneven ground on which it stands.  The need was to build a temple without disturbing sacred shrines like the altars to Poseidon and Hephaestus, and the spot where Poseidon is believed to have hit the Acropolis with his trident. Other shrines that needed to be accommodated included the sacred olive tree, a well containing sea water and the tomb of Kekrops.


The temple faces East and its entrance is lined with six long Ionic columns.


To the North and West, the wall of the temple drops dramatically to almost twice the altitude of the front and South sides.


The temple is unusual in that it incorporates two porches; one at the North-West corner which is supported by tall Ionic columns, and one at the South-West corner which is supported by six massive female statues, the famous Caryatids.  The Caryatids (replica as the original is in the museum) have become the temple’s signature feature, as they stand and seem to casually support the weight of the porch roof on their heads.


Acropolis also provides an excellent view of Athens and some important historical monuments adjacent to it.


The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, built at the base of the Acropolis is an ancient amphitheatre.  This ancient theater, with a capacity of about 5,000, was built in the Roman times, about 161 AD. by the Roman philosopher, teacher and politician Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife Aspasia Regilla.  It was destroyed in 267 AD and was in ruins until restored in the 1950s.  Since then it has been the main venue of the Athens Festival, which runs from May through October each year.  Many world renowned musicians have held concerts here and was the venue for the Miss Universe 1973 pageant.


This is the facade at the entrance to Odeon of Herodes Atticus


Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, also known as the Olympieion, is located on the South-East of Acropolis.  It was built over several centuries starting in 174 BC and completed by Roman emperor Hadrian in 131 AD. Its unusually tall columns and ambitious layout made the temple one of the largest ever built in the ancient world.


The Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus is considered to be the world’s first theatre, built at the foot of the Acropolis, cut into its southern cliff.  Dedicated to Dionysus, the God of plays and wine, the theatre could seat 17,000 people.  It was the location for ancient Athens’ biggest theatrical celebration, the Dionysia.  It was an engineering marvel with perfect proportion of depth/circumference. Here is where the great masterpieces by Aeschylus and Sophocles were first performed. I tried to imagine the great  Greek tragedies being enacted with 17000 spectators, seated all around. The thought quietly transported me into a bygone era.


So time for first impressions. Great food, great people and an immense sense of history in every nook and cranny, all together a great getaway.

Greece – The Cradle of Western Civilization


(Image Courtesy Google)

Greece was our destination in the Summer of 2018.  Greece is a country in South-Eastern-Europe with thousands of islands in the Aegean and Ionian seas with Athens as its Capital.

First traces of human habitation in Greece appeared during the Paleolithic Age (120000 – 10000 BC). During the Neolithic Age that followed (7000 – 3000 BC), many buildings spread throughout the country.  The beginning of the Bronze Age (3000-1100 BC) is marked by the appearance of the first urban centers in Greece.


Conquest of Greece in 146 BC by Romans ended Greek dominance.  Christianity was propagated in Greece by Apostle Paul during the First Century.  By the Third Century, Greece became part of the Byzantine Empire.

The Ottomans empire expanded to engulf Greece from the Fourteenth Century.  Around four centuries of Ottoman domination ended with the Greek War of Independence in 1821.  The Greek State took its current form after the end of World War II.  In 1974, after the seven-year dictatorship, a referendum was held and the government changed from a Constitutional Monarchy to a Presidential Parliamentary Democracy, and in 1981 Greece became a member of the European Union.


We landed at Athens on June 09 and drove straight to our hotel.  We were briefed by our Tour Coordinator at the hotel


After completing our  check-in formalities at the hotel, we walked to ‘I Kriti’ Restaurant nearby as recommended by our Tour Coordinator.  The restaurant served a sumptuous Cretan food consisting of fish, lamb in a pan, pork ribs and Greek salad.   Crete is the largest island of Greece and every Cretan village has its own signature cheese, which form part of every Cretan cuisine. They are usually made from sheep or goat’s milk, or a combination of both and each cheese variety has its local interpretation.  We were also entertained by a local musician playing his accordion.


After lunch we walked to National Archeological Museum housed in the old parliament building.  It is an imposing neoclassical building of the nineteenth century which earlier served as the Greek Parliament.  It houses over 20,000 exhibits, providing  a panoramic view of the great Greek civilization.

Some of the museum exhibits of extraordinary splendour  that caught our attention are:-

 
Dipylon Amphora
. This is a large Ancient Greek painted vase, made around 750 BC.  Such large sized painted vases were used as grave markers.  The vase was made on a potter’s wheel in three sections that were joined together to form a single large vessel,  over five feet high. The base has a hole to allow offerings to be poured for the dead.


Kauros
. A marble statue of a naked youth (530 BC), erected on the grave of Kroisos, who fell in battle, according to the epigram carved on the front of the pedestal.  He is represented standing frontally with his left leg forward and fists clenched.  He symbolises youthfulness, beauty, power and hope.


Kore (Maiden)
. This marble statue of a maiden (550-540 BC), stood on the grave of Phrasikleia. The Kore is depicted by the sculptor wearing a wreath on the head, jewellery and a long gown.

Statues depicting men had their left foot forward and women were depicted standing with their feet together.  This could also prove my observation of ‘Left Foot First’.  Please click here to read my earlier post.


Sphinx
. This marble statue of a Sphinx (570-550 BC) is one of the earliest known Archaic Sphinxes and it was set above a grave.  Sphinx is a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion.


Bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon. This statue (460 BC) was recovered for the seabed is still debated as to whether it represented Zeus or Poseidon.  The statue is over two meter tall.  The God is depicted with left leg forward in a  great stride, with His left arm forward, while throwing the thunderbolt or the trident held in His right hand.  Notable feature is  the exquisite rendering of motion and anatomy.


Funerary Stele
. This marble piece (400 BC) was found in 1870 in an ancient cemetery. It shows a lady seated on a chair, looks at a piece of jewellery held in her raised right hand. Opposite her, a sorrowful standing attendant holds an open jewellery box belonging to a dead woman.  The sorrowful expressions on the face of the two ladies, their hairstyles and rendering of their jewellery and dress is all very impressive.


Artemision Jockey
. Bronze statue of a horse and a young jockey (140 BC) retrieved in 1928 and 1937 in pieces from the seafloor. The word Artemision comes from Cape Artemision, the site of the shipwreck. The young jockey, probably of African origin, holds the reins of the galloping horse in his left hand and a whip in his right. The contractions and furrows in his face, especially on the forehead, reveal agony and passion.


Statue of Hermes
. This marble statue (27 BC-AD 14), is probably a funerary and was found in 1860. Hermes was the  Greek God of trade, wealth, luck, fertility, animal husbandry, sleep, language, thieves, and travel.  He is depicted standing, wearing a short cloak that is wound around his left arm. In his right hand he is holding  a purse and in his left the Caduceus, his staff.


Bronze Statue of a Youth
. A bronze statue (340-330 BC), recovered in 1990 from  an ancient shipwreck on the sea floor.  It depicts either Perseus, who would have been holding the head of Medusa, or, more probably, Paris, with the ‘apple of Strife’, ready to award it to the most beautiful Goddess, Aphrodite.  Outstanding feature of this statue is the strongly modeled muscles and the expressive face.

National Archeological Museum with its numerous and outstanding exhibits give the visitor a peep into Greek history.   Unique treasures displayed with detailed captions and signboards will mesmerise you and it is really worth a visit.  The sculpture collection depicts the evolution of ancient Greek sculpture from 700 BC to the Fifth Century AD.  It requires plenty of time to read through various information boards and enjoy the artistic value of the statues and artifacts displayed.


We returned to our hotel rooms by dusk.  We had dinner at the roof-top restaurant of the hotel which offered a stunning view of illuminated Acropolis.

I felt a fleeting sense of awe and humility. Looking at the brilliance of what is left of a more than 2000 year old structure, i couldn’t help but feel that despite the ravages of time, here is where history stands tall, with elegance and poise.

Retreat Ceremony at Hussainiwala


During our visit to India to attend the Golden Jubilee celebrations of raising of our regiment – 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River) – we watched the Retreat Ceremony at Hussainiwala Border Post.  Unlike most international borders, where no such daily ceremonies are held, retreat ceremonies are held on Indo-Pak border at dusk.

Canada and USA share the longest International Boundary in the world, which is mostly unmanned, except at crossing points.  The border came into existence at the end of bitterly fought American Revolutionary War between Great Britain and the United States with the Treaty of Paris of 1783.  In 1925, the International Boundary Commission came into being with the task of surveying and mapping the boundary, maintaining boundary pillars and buoys and keeping the boundary clear of bush and vegetation for six meters.

Ontario province has 14 road border crossings, one truck ferry, and four passenger ferries with the United States.  The most popular crossing is the Rainbow Bridge (above) near Niagara Falls.  This is a popular border crossing for pedestrians, however, trucks are not permitted to use this bridge.  The boundary runs through the centre of this bridge.  Surely, the two countries hardly ever hold any border ceremonies.

There are only three trading posts, Wagah (Punjab), Chakan da Bagh (Rajouri, Kashmir) and Kaman (Uri, Kashmir) on the Indo-Pak border through which people and goods move.  Chakan da Bagh Post and Kaman Post is manned by Indian Army soldiers and they do not hold any ‘retreat’ ceremonies.  However, they exchange sweets on important national and religious days.

A ‘retreat ceremony’ in military parlance signals the end of duty day and when the national flag is brought down.  The band if present or the bugler will sound ‘retreat’.  The lowering of the flag is coordinated with the playing of the music so the two are completed at the same time.  It is a ritual in every military unit and often coincides with the change of guard for the night.

Retreat ceremonies are held on the Indo-Pak border in Punjab at Wagah (Amritsar), Hussainiwala (Firozepur and Sadiqi (Fazilka) by the Border Security Force (BSF) of India and Rangers of Pakistan.  Neither the Indian Army nor the Pakistan Army is involved in this heavily choreographed flag-lowering ceremony.  The drill movements are over exaggerated and at times is near ridiculous and mostly absurd.  One would even wonder as to whether such ceremonies hold any value in modern civilised world.  Whatever it may be, the ritual has endured through half a century despite many diplomatic upheavals, border skirmishes, economic warfare and mutual misunderstandings.

Hussainiwala Border served as the major road crossing between Indian and Pakistan till 1970. At that time, it acted as a trade route for truckers, mainly to import Kandahari Angoor (dehydrated grapes) as well as other fruits and food products from Pakistan and Afghanistan.   The post was closed for trade in 1970 as tensions rose between India and Pakistan.  The retreat ceremony commenced in 1972 after the Indo-Pak War.

We were all seated in the Amphitheatre to witness the ceremony.  On the Indian side there was no segregation of. men and women.  The only concern was the glare of the setting sun as we faced Westwards.

On the Pakistan side, there were separate enclosures for men and women.   The only commonality was most women and men including the Rangers – all wore Salwar Kameez.

As the seats were getting filled up, the audio systems from both sides begun belching out ‘patriotic’ songs with as much volume they could muster.  At the auspicious time of 5 PM, the soldiers from both sides ‘enacted’ their choreographed drills.

They marched ‘Goose Stepping’, throwing their legs as high as they could.  This was a form of extreme marching held by German, Prussian, and Russian military to be an ultimate display of the unbreakable will and discipline of its soldiers.  Most modern armies have done away with this ‘fascist’ approach to marching as being extreme.  Only a few countries use it as a powerful display of military discipline.

Foot drill is a fundamental activity of the military and is practised regularly during initial military training.   Foot drill involves marching with an exaggerated heel strike, and regimented manoeuvres performed while marching and standing characterised by an exaggerated stamping of one foot into the ground.

The soldiers were wearing leather soled boots with heavy metal attached to them.  It made ‘metallic’ sound when they came in contact with the concrete floor every time the a soldier stamped his foot, that too much higher than needed.

The soldiers from both the sides pose showing their aggression and fearlessness.  They widen their chests, twirl their mustaches, thrust open their  eyeballs, and what not – all to invite applause and cheers from the audience on either side.

After enacting all these choreographed caricature of a drill, soldiers  cross the white line to come to the other country and form a beautiful cross X with the flag threads. Both the flags are held together at the junction and then are brought down at speed and folded neatly.  Throughout the ceremony sloganeering and clapping many a times reached frenzied levels.  The only saving grace during the entire routine was the exchanges of sly smiles between the soldiers of both nations.

The question here is as whether we need such exaggerated drills to incite national passion and fervour among the citizens?  How long can a country sustain such a fervour?  What about the soldiers who are enacting this routine?  Have you considered the unwanted  physical and mental stress they undergo?

High levels of bone strain caused by such exaggerated drills will surely result in stress fracture.  It may also cause micro-damage to bones.  Digging down of heels, especially with the foot raised over the head may cause severe strain to the neck and spine and also brain damage.  These soldiers may also end up with joint pains, migraine and headaches

Ultimately who cares?  The show must go on.

 

Hussainiwala – A Village on Indo-Pak Border


During our visit to India to attend the Golden Jubilee celebrations of raising of our regiment – 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River) – we watched the Retreat Ceremony at Hussainiwala Border Post.


Railway line connecting Peshawar to Mumbai was built in 1885, passing through Hussianiwala.  During the Pre-Partition days, Punjab Mail connected the cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Ferozepur, Lahore and Peshawar. In those days, most British troops and businessmen would arrive at Mumbai and make their way to their destinations in the North-West Frontier Province by train. The train track from Ferozepur to Hussainiwala was an engineering fete, with Qaiser-e-Hind bridge, which stood over several round pillars (all of them intact even today, as depicted in the image above).


When Pakistan was carved out of British India, the border was drawn along the Sutlej River in Punjab and it passed through Hussainiwala Village.  Now, Sutlej River has changed its course over the years, running further East in Indian territory.  This made Hussainiwala an enclave into Pakistan, with the Sutlej River behind it.


Hussainiwala is named after a Muslim Peer (Saint), Hussaini Baba, whose shrine is located at the entrance to the Border Post.  This small hamlet came into prominence on the evening of 23 March 1931 when British soldiers tried to cremate the bodies of three young Indian freedom fighters – Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Raj Guru – who were hanged at the Lahore Central Jail.  The hanging, scheduled for 24 March was rescheduled a day earlier as the British feared a revolt in Lahore as the situation had become very tense.  They  secretly transported their bodies to Hussainiwala and while cremating them on the banks of the Sutlej, the locals got wind of it.  They assembled near the cremation site.  Fearing repercussions, British soldiers fled the scene, leaving behind the dead bodies which was cremated by the villagers.  This site today is a memorial – aptly called ‘Prerana Sthal‘ (Motivation Site).


Later Bhagat Singh’s mother, Vidyawati, and freedom fighter BK Dutt were cremated at this site as per their wishes. The cremation site is called ‘Shaheedi Sthal’ (Martyyrs’ Place).   This is where Indians from all over the country make an annual pilgrimage to honour the martyrs on March 23 as they observe ‘Shaheedi Diwas’ (Martyrs’ Day).


(Defences on the Indian side on Bund (wall) with a bunker as inset)

This enclave has witnessed three bloody battles between India and Pakistan,  with the very first one fought on 18 March 1956.  At that time, heavy floods had damaged Bela Bund and Sulaimanki Headworks at Hussainiwala and as the Indian engineers were repairing the damage, Pakistan Army launched an unprovoked attack at 9 PM.  4 JAK RIF was guarding the bund, and they fought  gallantly causing heavy causalities on the enemy.  This resulted in a hasty withdrawal by the attackers.


During partition of British India in 1947,  Hussainiwala, an enclave of 12 villages went to Pakistan. The railway line no more had trains running through Hussainiwala.  The railway station at Hussainiwala as it exists today is depicted in the image above.  Now Punjab Mail connects Mumbai to Ferozepur via Delhi.  Pakistan destroyed  Qaisere- Hind Bridge leaving behind the round pillars across the river. The Shaheedi Sthal was in a dilapidated state without any maintenance. In 1961, Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister, brokered an exchange deal and Hussainiwala came to India while Sulaimanki Headworks –  from where three major canals which supply irrigation water to a large area in Pakistan  Punjab originate –  went to Pakistan. India immediately restored Shaheedi Sthal to its due dignity and reverence.

During Indo-Pakistan War of 1965, 2 Maratha Light Infantry (Kali Panchwin) was deployed to defend Hussainiwala. The battalion fought valiantly to thwart a  frontal attack resulting in two enemy tanks destroyed and two captured, with several enemy killed. The Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Nolan was killed in enemy artillery shelling. The unit ensured that the Samadhi of Bhagat Singh was not desecrated by Pakistan Army. The battalion was visited by then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Defence Minister YB Chavan, Congress Party President  K Kamraj, the Chief of Army Staff and other senior officers. Kali Panchwin was awarded the battle honour ‘Hussainiwala’ for its role in the 1965 War. The citizens of Firozpur, in honour of the Battalion’s contribution in defending the Bridge and Firozpur town, presented a silver replica of the Hussaniwala Bridge.

During the 1971 War, it was 15 PUNJAB defending Hussainiwala enclave and the Memorial.  On 03 December, Pakistan Army launched a heavy attack.  The valiant Punjabis withstood the attack gallantly despite suffering heavy casualties until withdrawing on 04 December night.


Did the three freedom fighters, who laid down their lives for Indian independence in their wildest dreams ever visualise that post independence, there would be a partition on religious lines and it would all end up in three bloody wars at the very same site their ‘Samadhi’ stood?

Military Lounge @ Buffalo Airport


On 04 February 2018, I traveled to Buffalo Airport, USA to pick up Reshma Sameer, daughter of Veteran Brigadier Azad Sameer. To read more about Brigadier Sameer,Please Click Here.

Buffalo Airport is 160 km from our home, about two hours of drive by car.  She was scheduled to land at 2 PM.  It was snowing in the morning and was foggy.  Hence, I left home by 10 AM, catering adequate time for a slow drive,  breaks, and crossing at the Canada-US border.  We generally cater for about 30 minutes for border crossing formalities.


As I pulled up at the US Customs & Border Protection counter, there was hardly anyone waiting there to cross.  I drove up to the counter and the officer manning the post came out.  As I was handing over my passport he asked “Sir, aren’t you watching the Super Bowl?”  “I am off to Buffalo Airport to pick up our family friend”  I answered.  Returning my passport he said “Drive safely, have a nice day, Sir.”  This quick clearance must have been due to the ‘Veteran’ Licence Plate of my car.

The Super Bowl is the final game of the National Football League (NFL), played on the first Sunday in February.  It is one of the most watched TV event in United States with more than 100 million people from the United States alone watching it.  Every year the TV commercials, known as Super Bowl ads attract a lot of interest and also money.  This year it featured Hollywood stars Cardi B, Tiffany Haddish, Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman.

I reached the Airport at noon and was looking for a place to spend two hours at my disposal.  I picked a book I had in the car and my reading glasses after parking the car in the parking lot.  As I entered the arrival area, I read a sign ‘Freedom Lounge – A Courtesy Centre for Military Service Members and Veterans.’

This lounge was setup in 2016 by WNY Freedom Lounge Inc in recognition of  sacrifices by the US Military Service personnel.  It ensures a welcoming environment for traveling Military personnel & Veterans at the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport. The lounge is open to members of the military, veterans and their families free of charge.


WNY Freedom Lounge Inc is a private, non-profit organization, headed by Veteran Lieutenant Colonel Dan Walther of Kenmore, who raised funds and made arrangements for the lounge. The lounge provides morale and recreational services to members of the US Military and their families. The lounge offers comfortable seating, reading material, TV, phone, snacks, and internet access. It is staffed by veteran volunteers, veteran organizations and military supporters.

I was welcomed in by Veteran Chief Petty Officer Ronald of the US Navy.  After exchanging usual pleasantries, he ushered me in and showed me three rooms – a reception area, a kitchenette and a small living room with sofas and chairs.  He opened the fridge, well stocked with beverages and asked “What would you like to have Sir?”  “Black Coffee” I replied.  He brewed a cup for me in the coffee maker and we sat down and talked.

He said that this lounge has been created for transitioning Military personnel, who  often have significant wait times between connecting flights.  Most Military personnel often travel alone and they need a place to rest.  The lounge is staffed and maintained fully by volunteers.  It is generally open from 9 AM to 10 PM and during other times, the Information Desk staff would open it.

We spoke about all matters two Veterans would speak – about our service in the Forces, places served, family, children, aspirations, dreams, et al.  At the end I realised that we Veterans – from US and India – why from world all over – speak the very same language.  The Military is in our blood and it cannot be shed easily.

Canada’s African Lion Safari

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It has become a ritual for me to take our guests to the African Lion Safari, located in Cambridge, Ontario.  I have even lost count on the number of times I have been there.  I can for sure claim that I am now an accomplished tour guide for anyone visiting the Safari.  When Air Vice Marshal TD Joseph (Joe) and Sophie Joseph came calling in May 2016, how could I omit the African Lion Safari from the itinerary.

African Lion Safari, a family owned private entrepreneurship, is a picturesque and fun-filled Wildlife Park that offers not only a Safari trip of 9 km, but also conducts educative shows on birds and elephants.    This conservation theme-park showcases many different and rare animals from Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas. The drive through the game reserve will get you as close as you can ever get with fascinating wild life.

At the Safari, animals are exhibited in an entirely different way – visitors are caged in their cars or tour bus, and the animals are free to roam the 5 to 50 acre reserve, in their natural habitat.  The Safari Trail comprises seven game reserves that showcase a diverse collection of species such as lions, cheetahs, baboons, rhinos, ostriches, giraffes, and many other exotic and native species.

In case you take your own car, you are in better control of the time that you spend observing and photographing the animals, and it affords a great deal of flexibility. There is a  guided tour on the Safari bus, which takes just over an hour.  The tour guides offer great information about the animals you encounter.  Visitors who spend a full day at the African Lion Safari, often exercise both options. I prefer the drive in our car and surely there are a few risks involved.

It is worthwhile to note some interesting facts about the founder of this wonderful place. Late Colonel GD Dailley founded the Safari with a vision to create an environment for self-sustaining populations of declining wildlife species.  It opened with 40 lions  in three reserves in 1969.  Today the park houses in excess of 1,000 animals comprised of more than 100 species.

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Colonel Gordon Debenham Dailley  (July 24, 1911 – May 3, 1989), was born in Winnipeg, Canada and was educated at St John’s College at the University of Manitoba.   He was a member of the team which won the gold medal in ice hockey for Great Britain at the 1936 Winter Olympics. The team consisted mostly of British-born Canadian citizens, as well as Dailley, whose only justification for playing for Britain lay in his long years of living in England.  He led the team to European Championships in 1937 and 1938,  after which he left hockey to join the Canadian Army.

Colonel Dailley served in England throughout World War II. After the war, he remained with the Canadian Forces and held a number of posts in Ottawa and served on the United Nations Armistice Commission in Korea. He was promoted to the rank of Colonel in 1955 and was assigned to Belgrade, Yugoslavia as the Canadian Military Attaché.  In August 1960 he was appointed the base commander at Gagetown in New Brunswick.  He retired from the army in 1964.


After about an hour’s drive from our home, we generally reach the Safari gates at 9:55 AM, five minutes before the gates open.  In order to avoid the rush, it would be better to visit the park on a weekday, that too well before the schools close for summer vacations.  This gives all the time to watch and photograph the animals as there is no pressure from the vehicles following.


First reserve is Nairobi Sanctuary which houses elegant birds like the crowned crane and white stork  with llamas and robust Watusi cattle from Africa with its large distinctive horns that can reach up to 8 feet.


Next is the Simba Lion Country, home to a large pride of lions, perched on large rocks or in the shade of trees.


If you are lucky, you can capture the lions in such poses too.

There is a separate enclosure for the White Lions.  They are same as their African Lion cousins with a rare color mutation.  They are found in the Timbavati area of South Africa.

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Adjacent to the lion sanctuary  is  the Duma Cheetah Preserve.  African Lion Safari has been very successful with breeding cheetahs, who are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, with over 40 cubs to date.

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Most entertaining reserve is Wankie Bushland Trail where you will encounter baboons.  This is where the risk of taking your car lies.  These baboons have developed special skills to pull at wipers or peel rubber stripping or to simply perch atop the car’s roof and take a ride around their habitat.

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Next enclosure is the Rocky Ridge Veldt representing the Savannahs of Africa.  It is home to a mix of species from the curious ostrich to the highly endangered Rothschild giraffes, as well as  zebras, eland and rhinos.

Joe216Ostriches and giraffes come very close to the cars and this shot of the giraffe saying hello through the moon-roof  of our car.

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Last reserve takes you to North America which houses animals like elk and the bison.

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There are also a number of entertaining, educative  and informative shows starting with the Elephant Swim.  The keepers bring the Asian elephants, all cutely holding the tail of one in front by their trunk. They range from the oldest at 35 to the youngest at two years.

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Next show, the ‘Birds of Paradise’ where various birds showcase their incredible intelligence like a crow cleaning up tin cans to put in a blue recycle bin to a macaw deciphering colours, as well as the red-legged Seriemas,  a long legged bird from South America, showing off their natural abilities.  The Serena displayed its skill at killing a snake by picking it up and throwing it repeatedly hard on to the ground.  They also showcased a wide assortment of birds like macaws, emu, an Indian bat,  peacock and ended the show with a talking and singing parrot.

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The next is another great show, the ‘Birds of Prey’. The flying and hunting skills predator birds are on display here. The birds include marabou stork, a bald and golden eagle, a couple of owls and peregrine falcon ,the fastest moving creature in the animal kingdom.

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Elephant Round-Up show is a display of elephant’s impressive strength, agility and intelligence.  One even paints a t-shirt in the show, holding the paint brush in its trunk.  It was heartening to see that not even once was an elephant shouted at or goaded with a pointed metal rod as seen in some parts of Asia. African Lion Safari is home to the largest Asian elephant herd in any zoological facility in North America and has one of the most successful breeding programme.  The Safari announced the birth of Jake in 2009, a healthy male calf , through artificial insemination, the first ever in Canada.

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African Queen boat cruise piloted by one of the parks guides, circles a lake to see exotic birds, primates, ring-tailed lemurs, ground horn-bills, spider monkeys, black and white ruffed lemur and endangered Angolan Colombus monkeys that reside on the islands.

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The shows were conducted mostly by university students, many pursuing their degrees in zoology related fields.  What an opportunity and environment for these students to earn, learn and apply their knowledge and also improve their confidence levels, communication skills and self-esteem?

How do these animals, mostly from the tropics, survive through the harsh Canadian winter?  The Safari has large barn-like centrally heated housing where the animals can go in and out.  As per the Safari staff, the Cheetahs love playing in the snow and enjoy the winters.

Since its inception in 1969, the Park has been successful in breeding 30 species, considered endangered, and 20 species, considered threatened. The original idea of maintaining self-sustaining populations of species in decline is still the Park’s priority, all while providing its visitors with a safe, entertaining, and educational environment.

Fishing @ PEI


In the summer of 2010, we decided to travel to the Eastern most province of Canada, the Prince Edward Islands (PEI).

Savanna Style Location Map of Prince Edward Island
PEI is located close to the Eastern Canadian coast in the Atlantic Ocean. The Confederation Bridge links Prince Edward Island with mainland Canada. The 12.9-kilometre bridge opened on 31 May 1997. One can also reach the island on a ferry. There is no toll on the bridge or charges on the ferry while entering PEI, but on leaving one got to pay.

The island is named after Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, the fourth son of King George III and the father of Queen Victoria. The Island is 224 km long and from 6 to 64 km wide with a total area of 5,660 square km. No place in the province is more than 16 km from the sea and the highest point is 152 metres or 466 feet above sea level.

Classic Style Map of Prince Edward Island
The island has three counties: Prince, Queens and Kings. The Island is formed from sedimentary bed rock of soft, red sandstone which produces the rich, red soil. The redness of the soil is due to the high iron-oxide (rust) content.


Agriculture remains the dominant industry, especially potato farming in the red soil. The province currently accounts for a quarter of Canada’s total potato production. In the PEI, fishing, particularly lobster fishing as well as oyster fishing and mussel farming, is second to farming as an occupation and is a highly regulated industry.


The lobsters are fished using a lobster trap. Lobster traps are constructed of wire and wood and an opening permits the lobster to enter a tunnel of netting. The size of the opening depends upon the size of the lobster to be caught. The majority of the newer traps consist of a plastic-coated metal frame.  Traps are usually constructed in two parts, called the ‘kitchen’, where there is bait, and exits into the ‘parlour’, where the lobster is trapped from escape.

During fishing season, bait fish is placed inside the trap, and the traps are dropped onto the sea floor. A long rope is attached to each trap, at the end of which is a plastic or Styrofoam buoy that bears the owner’s license number and is identified by their colour coding. The traps are checked every day by the fisherman and re-baited if necessary.

The activity that really enthused us was the lobster and crab fishing tour, operated by Captain Mark Jerkins and assisted by his younger brother Codi. Captain Mark runs this tour in July and August at the end of the fishing season. During the tour we experienced what the lobster fisher folk undergo. It involved locating a buoy, hauling a trap and banding a claw of the lobsters. The claws are banded to ensure that the lobsters do not fight with each other and lose their claws. Watch how Cody holds the lobster’s claws in the image. Outside water, if not handled properly, these claws will fall-off as they are really heavy.


As per Mark, this Lobster is about 40 yrs old.


Everyone took a turn at the boat’s wheel and learned how to use modern technologies to fish for lobster. Captain Mark also shared his personal experiences while fishing for lobster and also how this fourth generation lobster fishing family makes their living on the water. At the end of the tour we were treated to a sumptuous dinner of lobsters and crabs.


More than 1,200 lobster fishers set out for these waters to haul in lobsters during the first fishing season in PEI that runs from April 30 to June 30 each year. Setting Day marks the start of the eight-week lobster fishing season. The annual event starts at 4:45 am when the fishing communities across the island come out to cheer on their local fishing fleets as they head out to the sea. The first lobster boat that leaves the wharf is that of the most veteran fisher and his crew and other boats follow and the wharf roars with the sounds of engines, cheers and silent prayers. Some harbours invite local clergy to bless the boats and crews during this annual spring rite.

PEI’s lobster industry strongly believes in sustainability and would never jeopardize their rich resources for short term gains. Its fishery is strong because of the aggressive and sustainable management strategies implemented throughout its history. The Canada government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) sets minimum legal sizes to sustain the lobster fishery and fines fishermen caught with smaller lobsters on their boats.

The smaller lobsters called the ‘Canners’ are unique to the PEI, where the warmer temperatures cause the lobsters to mature quickly. These small lobsters were canned in the earlier days and so they got their name. Minimum size of ‘Canners’ is now set to 72 mm and they weigh between 250 and 375 grams. This is where the marine-scientific community believes the population is sustainable, as 50% of female lobsters in PEI’s waters would have reproduced at least once by the time they reach this size. In other regions, the minimum legal size is 81 mm. The waters are colder there and it takes longer for the lobsters to mature – when they do, they are much bigger. The ‘Market’ lobsters are about 81 mm and weigh more than a pound. They are used in the restaurants and are exported live to the United States.


The Island’s 27 crab fishermen are engaged in the trade.  Their allotted annual quota for PEI fishermen is about 600 tons which include snow crab, rock crab and spider crab.


In PEI, during a  tuna fishing season (mid July to mid October), each licence is allotted  one tuna and the captain owns that fish, to conserve Bluefin tuna population. According to Captain Mark, he stays in the high-seas until a Bluefin Tuna  weighing about 400 kg is caught.  Tunas are fished using ‘tended line’ method where a baited hook is attached on a line, connected to a powerful motor on the boat to reel in the catch.  At the hook end Captain Mark ties a kite which flutters in the air and goes down once the fish bites the bait.  The line is now pulled in and if the tuna is not large enough, is released and the operation is repeated.


95 %of the Bluefin Tuna is exported to Japan. A fish can be caught on a Monday, trucked to Halifax on Tuesday and arrive by plane in Tokyo on Thursday.  A fish that fetches about $25,000 at the PEI Wharf may fetch half a million dollars in the Tokyo’s fish market auction.

The fishing industry being regulated stipulates that there is a need for a licence to fish lobsters. The licenses are passed on from generation to generation and it is not that easy to get a new license as the DFO has put a cap on it. With each licence comes stipulations regarding the harvesting season dates, area they can set their traps, the number of traps permitted, the minimum and the maximum size of the lobsters that can be caught. Any violation of the stipulations will lead to hefty fines and also suspension of the license for three days. There have been hardly any violations reported as a three day suspension during a sixty day harvesting season will prove to be big loss.

The fishing community along with the DFO officials and the environmentalist have succeeded in maintaining the equilibrium of the fragile eco-system and also ensure optimum market value for their catches.

 

From Bog to Bottle – Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh


On October 24, 2017, we travelled to Bala in Muskoka Region of Ontario to visit Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh. Johnston and his wife, Wendy Hogarth, now run the oldest commercial cranberry farm in Ontario. The farm was founded in 1950 by Johnston’s father, Orville, and his wife June.

The early settlers from Europe called it ‘crane berry’ as the shape of the blossom resembles the head of a crane. Over time, they dropped the ‘e’ and the fruit came to be called cranberry. Captain Henry Hall was the first to successfully cultivate cranberries with the first documented harvest occurring in 1816 in Dennis, Massachusetts, USA. William MacNeil planted Canada’s first commercial cranberry farm in Nova Scotia in 1870.

Cranberry is a native fruit of Canada. The vines on which the cranberry grows is very hardy and can easily survive a Canadian winter. The fruit is packed with antioxidants and other healthy plant chemicals. Cranberry got a boost in the early 1990s when scientists at Harvard University found that drinking cranberry juice was a natural way of preventing and relieving Urinary Tract Infections (UTI). Then came research that said cranberries helped to keep the arteries healthy, are a good source of vitamin C and may even help to prevent cancer. This resulted in most retail grocery stores selling cranberry and various other cranberry related products like juices, crasins (dried cranberries), sauces, capsules, etc.


The cranberry vines grow in bogs. These bogs evolved from deposits left by the glaciers more than 10,000 years ago. These deposits were left in low lying areas lined with clay. The clay prevents materials from leaching into the groundwater. As the glaciers receded after the ice age, they deposited peat, sand and moss in these low lying areas, creating a marshy land.


Cranberries thrive best in these bogs, which consist of alternating layers of sand, peat, gravel and clay. Cranberry vines produce horizontal stems called runners that may grow up to 2 meters long and spread profusely over the bog’s floor. The runners spread along the ground and would rise only a foot above. The fruit grows at the lower side of the runners and hence picking it is a difficult job. Cranberry growing season extends from April to October. Thus it is often the last of the fruits to be harvested in Ontario.


Many people believe that cranberries are grown in water. The berries are mostly depicted floating on top of the water during harvest. The vines flower in early spring, but the chill of the Canadian Spring may damage them. To prevent this damage, the bogs are flooded to ensure that the blooms and the tender buds are not exposed to the cold. The vines need to be irrigated all through their growing season.


There is an extensive network of pumps and pipelines, coupled with water reservoirs controlled with floodgates all through the farm for irrigation. Most of the irrigation and flooding is carried out from these reservoirs with the water flowing down due to gravity.


Come harvest time in the Fall and the bogs are flooded again to facilitate picking. The cranberry fruit has four air pockets and hence they float in water. Once the bogs are flooded with about 2 feet of water, the vines holding the cranberry fruits rise up.


A water reel picker now rakes the fruits off the vines. The cranberry fruits float up on the water surface as the picker moves ahead. This method ensures that the vines are not damaged while picking.


The red berries floating on top of the water are swept together with the help of a floating hosepipe and pumped into trucks to be taken to the packing plant for further processing.


The truck carrying the cranberries from the bogs empty them into a hopper. From here begins the packing journey of the cranberries. The cranberries now travel through a conveyer belt up to the Vibrating Table of the Air-Cleaner. The table has holes, adequate enough to let the cranberries pass through. The vines are collected here. From this table, the cranberries fall through a wind tunnel. The wind clears all the leaves.


The cranberries again travel up a conveyer belt to the Dryer. The dryers houses a huge fan which blows cold air on to the cranberries. As the cranberries move from the top step to the bottom one, the forced cold air dries surface moisture off the fruits. This process last about one hour.


The dried fruit is delivered to fresh fruit receiving stations where it is graded and screened based on color and ability to bounce. These berries bounce because they have four air-pockets in them. An early cranberry grower named John Webb had a wooden leg – and he couldn’t carry his cranberries down the stairs. So apparently he dropped them instead. The story goes that “He soon noticed that the firmest berries bounced to the bottom but the rotten ones stayed on the steps.”

Most of the cranberries are red, but there are white ones too. They are surely ripe ones. They are white because they did not get enough exposure to sunlight. The anthocyanin (red pigment) that gives red colour to these berries have not come out to the surface. Cooking or freezing these white cranberries will turn them Red. At the Johnston’s farm, they convert these white cranberries into their speciality product – White Cranberry Wine. It has become very popular and are an immediate sellout.


The bogs are also flooded in winter to form a protective layer of ice over the vines. Sand is then placed on the ice, where it falls to the bog floor in spring, allowing the vines’ long runners to set roots. At the Johnston’s farm, they convert the bogs into a 10 km skiing and skating trail that wind around and through the 350 acre farm.

The Johnstons run a Shop at their farm, open all year around. The shop sells fresh cranberries during harvest season and cranberry products like wines, crasins, jams, jellies, preserves etc through the year. The products are hand made by Mrs June Johnston and is sold as ‘Mrs J’s Preserves’. Mrs Johnston also and wrote a cookbook and is also available in the store.


The farm also offers a tour of the farm aptly named ‘ Bog to Bottle Tour’. The tour commenced with a briefing about cranberry, its history, how the Johnston’s farm was established etc. Then we moved to the bogs to see how cranberry is grown and harvested. the tour gave many interesting insight into cranberry and its cultivation.


The tour ended at the shop with wine tasting. We tasted their famous Cranberry Wine, Blueberry Wine, Red Maple Dessert Wine and also their signature White Cranberry Wine. At the end we picked up a few bottles of wine to be taken home.


As we bid goodbye to the Johnstons Farm, rain clouds had formed up in the sky. As we drove through the countryside, a huge rainbow appeared in the horizon. Might be wishing us all the luck for our next journey.

Butterfly Conservatory @ Niagara Falls

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When Air Vice Marshal TD Joseph (Joe) and Sophie Joseph visited us in May 2016, how could we miss a trip to the Niagara Falls.   Niagara Region has much more to offer, other than the falls, like Niagara Gorge, Welland Canal, and Wine Country.  (Please click on each one to read about them on my earlier Blog Posts).

The place, a nature lover should not miss is the Butterfly Conservatory, filled with beautiful free flying butterflies, a tropical wonderland located on the grounds of the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden. It really is a near ethereal experience.

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Whenever I see butterflies, my mind races back to the nostalgic memories of our childhood in Kerala, India.  Kerala is home to more than 500 birds, 330 butterfly species from the largest butterfly in India, Birdwing, with a wingspan of about 25 cm to the smallest, the Grass Jewel with only 2 cm.  It is also home to 68 species of dragonflies –   the most common types being Malabar Torrent Dart, Yellow Bush Dart, Pied Reed Tail, and the Long-legged Clubtail.  Many writers and poets were fascinated and inspired by these romantic creatures that they became subjects of some great contributions to Indian literature.

As kids, we enjoyed the sight of butterflies and dragonflies fluttering around, especially after the monsoons (June to August) and during the Onam Festival (end August / early September), when the flowers would be in full bloom.  We chased and caught a few of them.  We used to catch these little beauties and tie a small thread to their tails so as to control them and make them take short flights.

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We would prompt the dragonfly in our captivity to pick up small pebbles. We increased the size of the stones until the dragonfly could lift no more.  This sadistic game ended with the death of the dragonfly, when it severed its head from its torso.

Advent of rubber cultivation and extensive use of pesticides in Kerala for over three decades have driven these beautiful creations of God from our farmlands.

Thumbi Thullal (Dance of Dragonfly) is a dance performed by women of Kerala as a part of Onam celebrations.  About six to seven women sit in a circle and the lead performer (called Thumbi meaning Dragonfly) sits in the middle of the circle. The lead performer sings melodious fast paced songs and other performers clap their hands and sway to the melody.  Gradually the tempo of the song increases and the lead performer brushes the floor with her hair as if she is possessed by a spirit.  It usually ends with the lead performer fainting or playacting so.

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Back from nostalgia. At the commencement of the Niagara Gorge, about 10 km from the spectacular falls is the Butterfly Conservatory.  This glass-enclosed conservatory is home to over 2000 butterflies.  This state of the art facility is designed to have a tropical environment within a Canadian climate characterised by both warm and cold weather.  The mechanical and electrical systems maintain optimum environmental conditions for the butterflies and plants while accommodating comfort needs for its visitors.

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Around 45 different species of butterflies can be found fluttering in this rainforest setting spread over 11,000 square feet. The exact number of butterflies and species fluctuate on a day to day basis.  The butterfly conservatory accommodates as much as 300 visitors per hour.

The self-guided walking tour of the Butterfly Conservatory begins with a short, informative video presentation that is close captioned for the hearing impaired.  After this, one is allowed to explore the area and spot different species of butterflies as they fly all around you. The setting has a lovely pond, waterfall and a series of meandering pathways amidst several tropical plants with lovely flowers.

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The jungle vegetation and delightful fluttering of hundreds of beautiful butterflies are unusual and a very uplifting experience.  Everywhere there are exquisite butterflies floating in the warm, moist air or spreading their iridescent wings on leaves and flowers.  One can even catch them mating.

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It is a great place to see beautiful butterflies up close but you are not allowed to touch them, because if you touch their wings they get damaged and they cannot fly anymore and may die.  One may photograph them, but surely they need to be kept out of harm’s way.

The Conservatory currently hosts species such as Monarchs, Swallowtails, Owls, Mosaics, Red Lacewings, Blue Morphos and Small Postmans. The green house setting also hosts goldfish, turtles, beetles, toads and Eurasian quails to help regulate insect population.

The best part about the tour is that you can actually get the butterflies to land on you. Some might be even willing to rest on your outstretched hand. Visitors are encouraged to wear bright clothes, wear perfume or cologne and move slowly if they wish to have butterflies land on them.

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Plates filled with fruits are kept at certain places to attract butterflies who like to feed on these and you can watch them doing so.

Most of the butterflies have been imported from farms in tropical countries while some have been raised in a greenhouse behind the conservatory.  The tour is not only entertaining but also educative.  One can watch the metamorphosis process and the life cycle of a butterfly in real time.  One can also observe the butterflies come out of their cocoon, dry their wings and take their first flight.

Adjacent to the Butterfly Conservatory is the Floral Clock.  This unique and stunning display is a very popular stop and is photographed almost as often as the Falls.  The planted face is maintained by the Niagara Parks horticulture staff, while the mechanism is kept in working order by Ontario Hydro, the originally builders of the clock.

The Floral Clock is 40 feet wide, with a planted area 38 feet wide, making it one of the largest such clocks in the world.  The Tower at the back of the clock, houses Westminster chimes that chime at each quarter of an hour.  There is a 10-feet wide water garden that curves 85 feet around the base of the timepiece.

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If you are lucky you may come across the Niagara Parks Commission’s gardeners crawling along the special aluminium ladder they lay across the face of the clock, in order to plant and tend the clock face. Designs are created a year in advance to allow for the proper preparations. Tin dividers are built and installed to prevent soil slippage caused by the slope of the face of the clock. The clock is stopped during the planting process.

The floral design is changed twice each year.  Spring designs are made up with Tulips, Forget-Me-Nots or similar plants, therefore, do not last long.  It is followed by Violas planted in late Spring to provide a colourful design.  From the latter part of May, traditional carpet bedding material is used until frost occurs. The summer designs in general are made up of approximately 24,000 carpet plants whose foliage rather than their blooms provide the necessary contrasting colors. Flowering plants are not suitable for summer planting because the plants that are used must be kept trimmed to form relatively sharp contrasting patterns and not be allowed to grow up and interfere with the movement of the hands. For this reason reddish, green and yellow Alternanthera and Santolina form the background and markings of the various dial designs from year-to-year.   California Golden Privet and Blue Festuca Grass may be used for contrast. In winter, the summer design is perpetuated by using rock chips of various colours.

Anyone planning a visit to the Niagara Falls on the Canadian side must include these little wonderful sites in their itinerary.  Always remember that the falls are better viewed from the Canadian side as one can hardly see it from the US side.  So, always obtain a Canadian Visa in case you are visiting the Niagara Falls.

Bermuda : So Much More Than the ∆


Map Courtesy Bermuda Tourism (Not to Scale)

During the third week of September 2017, we travelled to Bermuda for a week’s vacation. Bermuda is Britain’s oldest and smallest British Overseas self-governing (except for external affairs and defense) overseas territory. It lies 1000 km East of USA in the North-West Atlantic Ocean. Bermuda is about 56 square km in total land area, a cluster of six main islands and 120 small islands.


We landed at LF Wade International Airport, the sole airport connecting Bermuda only to Canada, USA and UK. It is named in honour of Leonard Frederick Wade, Leader of the Opposition, who passed away in 1996. Bermuda is home to registered corporate offices of many multinational business entities, particularly for investment, insurance, reinsurance and real estate companies. Tourism is the other major industry.

We drove to the Hotel in a Taxi. Being a British territory, all vehicles are Right-Hand drive unlike the Left-Hand drive ones in Canada and USA. The electric power supply is 110 Volts and not 220 Volts. Please click here to read more about it.


As we drove through, the pastel coloured houses with slanting white roofs caught my attention. The roofs are designed to harvest rain. The steps slow down heavy rainfall helping the gutters to collect the water and store it in a tank under the house. The tanks get topped up regularly with every rainfall and every home is self-sufficient for water. There is no governmental or municipal water supply system in Bermuda.

Bermuda is not blessed with any fresh water source like lakes, rivers or ponds. The lakes and waterholes hold brackish water, hence unfit for human consumption. As Bermuda gets abundant rainfall, well distributed all through the year, the early settlers were forced to harvest rain.

The design of the slanting white roof has multiple benefits. It is mostly made of limestone and hence is heavy and not easily shifted by hurricanes or heavy winds. The white paint help reflect ultra-violet sunrays, thus keeping the homes cool.


Image Courtesy http://www.bermuda-online.org/shorts

Bermuda is the only country where the national dress for men is known by the country’s name. It is worn by male Bermudians and visitors from all walks of life for business and  parties. It is a colourful shorts, worn three inches above the knee. Bermuda Shorts are not uniquely Bermudian, but were originally worn by British military forces. It was designed as a light attire for the British Military while deployed at British garrisons in tropical and sub-tropical colonies of the erstwhile British Empire.


We spent five days in Bermuda, swimming and relaxing on its beaches. The beaches are characterised by its pink textured sand and turquoise blue water. We also enjoyed Kayaking in the serene quiet waters.


We visited the Crystal Caves on a guided tour- a journey of amazing natural beauty – on pathways of floating pontoons spanning a crystal clear underground lake, about 50 feet below ground level.

Mark Twain, one of the first visitor to this wonder of Mother Nature wrote in a letter “The most beautiful cave in the world, I suppose. We descended 150 steps and stood in a splendid place 250 feet long and 30 or 40 wide, with a brilliant lake of clear water under our feet and all the roof overhead splendid with shining stalactites, thousands and thousands of them as white as sugar, and thousands and thousands brown and pink and other tints.”


Crystal cave was discovered in 1907 when two young boys were attempting to retrieve a lost cricket ball. They saw the ball dropping into a large hole. As one of them went deeper and deeper into the hole to fetch the ball, he realised that it wasn’t an ordinary hole. It was leading to some wondrous cave.

The owner of the property Mr Wilkinson was immediately informed. He then used a rope and lowered his 14-year old son through the hole. At a depth of about 120-ft and using a bicycle lamp, his son for the first time saw the wonder of the caves. The hole through which the boys entered is still visible.


The dramatic formations of stalactites and stalagmites which are crystal-like pointed structures naturally formed out of limestone rocks, offer an awesome view. A stalactite is an icicle-shaped formation, with a pointed tip, that hangs from the ceiling of a cave. It is produced by precipitation of minerals and lime from water dripping through the cave ceiling. They grow at a yearly rate of about 3 mm.


A stalagmite is an upward-growing mound of mineral deposits that have precipitated from water dripping onto the floor of a cave. Most stalagmites have rounded or flattened tips.


When a stalactite touches a stalagmite it forms a column as seen on the Right side of the image, which will surely take thousands of years.


Different chemical elements along with the limestone give different colours to the stalactites and stalagmites. Iron and other minerals, as well as acids from surface vegetation, combine with calcite crystals to add shades of red, orange and black.

Crystal Cave, just like other caves in Bermuda, formed, when sea level was considerably lower than now. When the Ice age ended and glaciers melted, sea level rose and inundated the beautiful cave formations.


We Visited HMD Bermuda (Her Majesty’s Dockyard, Bermuda) after a 30 minute ferry ride. This base was the principal base of the Royal Navy in the Western Atlantic between American independence and the Cold War. After the closure of most of the base as an active Royal Navy’s dockyard in 1957, the base fell into a state of disrepair. Storms and lack of maintenance caused damage to many buildings. Beginning in the 1980s increased tourism to Bermuda stimulated interest in renovating the dockyard and turning it into a tourist attraction. The Naval Air Station located here was called HMS Malabar by the Royal Navy, after the Indian princely state, now forming part of Kerala State.

Bermuda Triangle, for sure everyone must have heard about it; it did not engulf any of us. It is surely a myth. Even if it is not, I have no place there. I would better stay in Bermuda.

The Last Lap

We steamed off from Ketchikan by 5 PM on 03 August and we had to sail for about 40 hours to our final destination – Vancouver. The ship cruised through Inside Passage, crossing from US to Canada. On either sides were coastal mountains cut off by glaciers millions of years ago. It provided a spectacular view of coastal rain-forests, beaches, waterfalls and mountains. The passage has been the preferred route since the first passenger steamers of Yukon Gold Rush in 1890’s. Inside Passage provides safe transit as a sheltered West Coast waterway.  The journey offered a view of many fishing trawlers laden with their catch heading to harbour, historic lighthouses on rocky isolated shores, coastal First Nations houses fronted with proud totem poles and bald eagles.

In the evening, crew of the ship (882 crew members from 44 countries) put up an absorbing and entertaining cultural programme to bid goodbye to their guests.

Next morning, Fabrizio Fazzini, Executive Chef of the ship held a culinary demonstration, showcasing few of his signature dishes. Jean Paul Misiu, the Maître d’Hôtel was the host. In large organisations such as hotels, or cruise ships with multiple restaurants, Maître d’Hôtel is responsible for overall dining experience including room service and buffet services, while head waiters or supervisors are responsible for specific restaurant or dining room they work in.

The culinary show was followed by a tour of the kitchen. The kitchen was spread over two decks, connected by two sets of escalators. It was a well laid out kitchen with adequate space for the staff to work and was all spick and span. Every section had separate storage lockers, maintained at specified temperature as dictated by the items stored.

Pasta and Spaghetti Section

Pastry Shop where 7000 assorted pastries are produced each day. All baking needs like bread, cakes, and pastries are made here.

Soup Section

Sauce Section

Vegetable Section where four tonnes of vegetables are used.

Butchers Shop where 700 kg of fish and seafood and 1600 kg of meat is prepared and served each day.

Garde Manger (French for ‘keeper of the food’) is a cool, well-ventilated area where cold dishes (such as salads and appetizers) are prepared and other foods are stored under refrigeration. The person in charge of this area is known as the Chef Garde Manger or Pantry Chef.

At the end of the tour Marina purchased a cookbook authored by Fabrizio Fazzini, the Executive Chef. The book was autographed by the Executive Chef and Jean Paul Misiu, the Maître d’Hôtel.

Our ship docked at the Vancouver’s Fraser Port on 05 August morning. The port resembled a modern airport with all the facilities like aero-bridge, customs and immigration offices, car parking etc. This port has been is consistently ranked as one of the most passenger friendly ports in the world and so is no surprise over 800,000 cruise passengers come through this port each year,

On coming out of the cabin balcony, I realised that the visibility was pretty poor with smoke hanging in the air. It was all due to wildfires in British Columbia (BC), about 150 of them burning that day. Since April, there have been 928 fires due to a combination of lightning and tinder-dry conditions. Of these over 500 of them have been confirmed to be naturally caused while another 364 were human caused. These numbers are consistent with previous years where roughly 60 per cent of fires are natural and 40 per cent are caused by people.

Bans on campfires as well as the use of off-road vehicles on public lands had been in effect for most of BC. People were warned about the heavy smoke causing poor visibility on roads and drivers should have their headlights on and watch out for any wildlife. The smoke also posed a health risk for infants, the elderly and people with chronic health conditions.

The BC Province and Canadian government have left no stone unturned to fight these wildfires. They have moved in firefighters with their equipment from all other Canadian provinces and also requisitioned water-bomber aircrafts. The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) through Operation LENTUS is in the forefront by providing aircrafts for transportation of the firefighting crew and equipment from all over Canada. The CAF aircrafts are also employed in evacuating locals who are affected by the wildfires, transporting first responders (Ambulance with Paramedics, Police and Firefighters), delivering essential aid to isolated communities and in assisting the local police in providing information to the public and conducting observation and reporting tasks at assigned points along access roads in affected areas.

We disembarked from the Coral Princess and bid goodbye to the crew and boarded a coach to the Vancouver Airport to catch out flight to Toronto,

All good voyages and travels must come to an end, but surely the next experience is awaiting.

Ketchikan – City of Totem Poles and Salmon

Over 80 Native American Totem Poles dot Ketchikan and a traveler  cannot go a few blocks without seeing one.  These Totem Poles serve as important illustrations of family lineage and cultural heritage of Native American people.

Totem Pole shown above tells the story of a Raven, who desired the sun, the moon and the stars believed to have been owned by a powerful Chief.  The Raven is depicted on the top of the pole.  Below the Raven is the Sun.  In order to procure the heavenly bodies, Raven changed form to appear as the Chief’s daughter’s son.  The Chief’s daughter is depicted below the Sun.  The Raven cried to his grandfather until the Chief gave him the boxes containing the heavenly bodies.  Raven opened the box, bringing the sun, moon and the stars to the earth.

This is the Chief Johnson Totem Pole.  The figures symbolise a single story about Raven.  On top is the mythological Kajun Bird.  The un-decorated long blank space symbolises high regard in which  Kajun Bird is placed.  Below the blank space are Raven’s slaves with the Raven below it.  The bottom figure is that of the Fog Woman.  She is identified with the summer salmon run. It was believed that the Fog Woman produced all salmon and caused them to return to the creeks of their birth.

Life story of Alaskan Salmon is another interesting tale – a story that takes the Salmon  from the rivers and streams of Alaska’s wild frontier to the Pacific Ocean and back again.  How they find their way back from Pacific Ocean is intriguing.

Starting out as small eggs in a stream bed, they hatch and begin their journey downstream towards the ocean. They spend a couple of years in the streams and rivers growing up. During this time, their bodies change to adapt to seawater. Young adult salmons then head out to sea and spend several years swimming in Pacific Ocean.

Adult salmon spend one to four years swimming and feeding in Pacific Ocean. They grow to their adult size and develop unique adult markings . Their ocean journey is long and hazardous as they are constantly hunted by seals, whales and fishermen. After swimming more than 2000 miles throughout Pacific Ocean, they swim back to their original stream or river where they re-adapt to fresh water and swim back up the stream to reach their spawning grounds, the place of their birth.

To ‘spawn’ means to release or deposit eggs.  Sometimes this involves swimming up rugged rivers with rapids and even waterfalls to leap.  Upon reaching their spawning ground, female adult clears a spot in the stream-bed by sweeping her tail back and forth creating a gravel nest and lays her eggs.  Male adult salmon now fertilizes the eggs with his sperm and protects them until both die within a couple of weeks and leave the embryos to fend for themselves.  Their carcasses decompose in the stream creating a nutrient-rich environment for new infant salmons that are about to hatch.

It is obvious that Alaska salmon have interesting lives. One has to admit that a salmon that has returned to its birth stream after years at sea is an admirable fish to say the least. Due to the excellent salmon management practices that now exist in Alaska, salmon populations are well protected.

If the salmons could come up the Ketchikan’s  streams  to spawn, men of Ketchikan were not far behind.  By the turn of the Twentieth Century, population of male workers in the city was almost double that of females.  This encouraged prostitution and thrived until banished in 1954. In 1903, the City Council ordered all bawdy houses to be moved to the Creek Street.  At the time in Alaska, prostitution was tolerated but only if it did not occur on land.  This gave birth to Creek Street, where houses were built on stilts above a creek.  The women who worked in Creek Street called themselves as ‘sporting women.’

As per the then Alaskan laws, more than two ‘female boarders’ constituted a prostitution house.  Hence, most Creek Street ladies lived in pairs or alone.  Only exception was Star Dance Hall, (the building with the salmon), a two storey building with 21 rooms, with live music and dance partners.

Single men frequented Creek Street openly, whereas married men used more discreet Married Man’s Trail through the woods.  The girls could easily identify them by the mud on their shoes

At the other end of Creek Street lived Dolly who bought this house in 1919 and lived here till her death in 1975.  Dolly lived all alone as she preferred to work alone. In those days when an average Ketchikan male worker earned $1 a day, Dolly charged each man $3.  She purchased her house for $800 and paid it off in two weeks.

Dolly neither smoked nor drank, but her house was the most sought after ‘watering hole’ as prohibition was in place.  Dolly earned more money selling small amounts of liquor for large sums to her clients than she did through prostitution.  She kept one or two bottles in the house at a time and hid the rest under the dock. It was easier for her to discard them in case of a raid.   Many of the Creek Street houses had trapdoors where they could receive alcohol deliveries under the dock in the darkness of night.

Dolly was an industrious lady.  As soon as people realised the ineffectiveness of French Silk Condoms in vogue then, with the dead stock Dolly had, she made flowers out of them to decorate her bath curtain.

Dolly’s bedroom was done up very tastefully, obviously it was here she conducted her business.  It appears she loved pink, red and green colours.  Furniture in this room was a gift from a client a from Petersburg.

When Dolly died on July 1975 at the age of 87, all major newspapers in Alaska carried her obituary, paying tribute to a woman with an indomitable spirit exemplified the tough, roistering years of Ketchikan’s early history.

By evening, It was time for us to bid adieu to the colourful historic city of Ketchikan.  We embarked on our ship for the last leg of our sailing to Vancouver, Canada.

Next : The Last Lap

Ketchikan – The First City of Alaska

 

Our ship reached Ketchikan Port in the early hours 03 August.  After breakfast, we disembarked and walked to the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show arena.

The term ‘lumberjack’ is a Canadian derivation and are workers in logging industry who perform  initial harvesting and transportation of trees. The term usually refers to a bygone era when hand tools were used in harvesting trees. The lumberjack’s work was difficult, dangerous, intermittent, low-paying, and they lived in makeshift cabins and tents. However, these men built a traditional culture that celebrated strength, masculinity and  confrontation with danger. Lumberjacks, exclusively men, worked in lumber camps and often lived a migratory life, following timber harvesting jobs as they opened. Their common equipment were axe and cross-cut saw.

In popular culture, a stereotypical lumberjack is a strong, burly, usually bearded man who lives to brave the natural environment. He is depicted wearing suspenders, a long-sleeved plaid flannel shirt, and heavy caulk boots.  With a rugged group of expert lumberjacks, some razor sharp equipment, and a mix of corny jokes, a hour long exhibition of logging events was worth watching. Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show featured a page right out of history with old fashion axe swinging and lumbering skills.

Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show is the re-enactment of how lumberjacks competed and displayed their skills.  There was a rivalry between Dawson Creek Mill in British Columbia, Canada and  Spruce Mill in Alaska, USA.  Both camps claimed they produced better timber and their lumberjacks were more skillful.  To stake their claims, they held an annual Lumberjack Competition and the winners won bragging rights.  Arena where we watched the Lumberjack Show was the very same place where  Spruce Mill was functioning.  The show began and it was a hysterical, hand clapping and foot pounding spectacle as the audience were also divided into two sides supporting each team –  Canadian and American.

First event was Underhand Chop while standing on a log.  It required the lumberjack to swing an axe fractions of an inch from his feet, mimicking how early lumberjacks would cut fallen logs to length in the forests.  It needed immense skill and control of the axe as margin of error was very narrow.  The axe had to move vertically up and down, else would land on the lumberjack’s foot.

This was followed by the Standing Block Chop.  To a casual observer, standing block chop may resemble a baseball swing.  It involves swinging a razor sharp axe at a 11 inch thick pine chopping block. It was surely more than just smashing on a log with brute muscle power.  The lumberjack had to ensure that the axe met the log at the correct angle to cut the wood fibers and slice into the block.

Next event was the Springboard Chop.  The lumberjacks had to severe a log placed about nine feet high.  In the earlier days springboards used to allow lumberjacks a flat working surface in uneven terrain or where tall trees were cut by hand in steep hills.  The lumberjacks started by cutting a small pocket with an axe at roughly hip level for the first springboard, then jumped onto the first board before cutting another pocket higher up the pole.  Then they placed the second board into this hole and jumped on it, providing a secure location to chop the log.   Standing on this springboard, they chopped and severed the block.

This was followed by Stock Saw cutting.  The lumberjacks had to cut two cookie shaped slices from a block using a powered chainsaw, first cutting down and then next cutting up.  The lumberjacks had to have a keen ear to the sounds the saws made while feeding the saw just enough wood  to ensure that it is cutting fast but not too much wood that it got bogged down

Next competition was the 60-feet Speed Climb where in the lumberjacks climbed a 60-feet-tall cedar pole using steel-core climbing ropes  and spurs and then came down slithering. While descending, the lumberjacks had to touch the pole once every 15 feet.

This was followed by Double Buck Sawing where two sawyers working as a team with a two-man bucking saw had to cut through a 20-inch-diameter pine log.

Next event was Axe throwing where the lumberjacks threw an axe at a target, attempting to hit the bulls eye as near as possible in the allowed five throws for a maximum score of 25. The target was a three feet diameter circle, consisting of five rings  four inches wide. Scoring was based on where the axe struck with the outside ring worth one point, the next one in worth two, then three, then four and finally the bulls eye worth five points. Distance of the throwing line to the target was 21 feet.  In case the thrower stepped over the throwing line, or the axe did not lodge correctly on the target,  he got no points.

Final event was Logrolling, also known as Birling.  Two lumberjacks from opposing teams stepped onto a floating log and started  the roll and spin it rapidly in water with their feet.  They would  stop it suddenly by digging into the log with special caulked birling shoes and a reverse motion to maneuver their adversary off balance and into water, a feat called ‘wetting’. Dislodging an opponent constituted a fall.

The Lumberjack Show reflected upon North America’s rich logging history and came to life with thrilling displays of strength and agility. The show in fact honours an industry that was the backbone of Ketchikan’s economy from the late 50s to the 80s.

Next : Ketchikan – City of Totem Poles and Salmon

Juneau – The Capital City of Alaska

Our ship’s next port of call was Juneau on 02 August early morning.  Juneau has been the capital of Alaska since 1906.  Juneau is rather unusual among US state capitals (except Honolulu, Hawaii) in that there are no roads connecting the city to rest of the state or to the rest of America. Absence of a road network is due to extremely rugged terrain surrounding the city.  All goods and persons coming in and out of Juneau must go by plane or ship.  Downtown Juneau is located at sea level, with tides averaging 5 m, surrounded by steep mountains about 1,200 meter high.

Even though Anchorage is the biggest city in Alaska and is well connected by rail, road and air network, how did Juneau become the capital of Alaska?

Sitka was the Alaskan capital when US took over Alaska from Russia. The capital was moved to Juneau in 1906 because the gold rush had made it and other towns in the Northern Alaska much more economically significant than Sitka. When Alaska officially became a territory in 1912, Anchorage did not exist. Anchorage came into being during the summer of 1915 as a construction depot on the Alaskan railroad. Anchorage wasn’t that important of a town until the US Military moved in before World War II.

After the war, Alaskans considered moving the capital out of South-East Alaska to a more central location. Anchorage was considered suitable with its central location, but poverty and lack of agreement prevented any action from being taken. Resolution to move the capital was put to vote in 1984 and 1996, but was defeated and is unlikely that the state government will ever physically move.

We got off our ship and headed on a bus to Auk Bay, about 20 km from the port, for whale watching.  We were ushered into a boat captained by  Emily.  John, a university student pursuing his pre-medical degree was her assistant.  Both Emily and John were very knowledgeable about Auk Bay and  surrounding areas and also about whales.   We were a group of 12  in the boat and after everyone boarded, Captain Emily gave out safety briefing followed by a talk about what we were expecting to see.  After leaving the jetty, Emily went full throttle, skimming over the water to locate  the whales.  During this journey John gave a detailed briefing on whales.

After about an hour, we sighted Sasha, a humpback whale. The whales located in  Auk Bay are given numbers and names.  Alaska is only a feeding area for the whales as there are lot of fish to feed on and is not a breeding ground due to the cold temperature. We watched bubble-net feeding by Sasha as she dived down and released a ring of bubbles from her blowhole beneath a school of fish. As the bubbles rose to the surface, it created a net, trapping the fish.

The next whale we located was Flame.  Humpback whales have patterns of black and white pigmentation and scars on the underside of their tails or flukes that are unique to each whale.  These black and white patterns are their bio-metric identification akin to our fingerprints.

After watching the whales, Emily steered the boat to an island where over two hundred sea lions were sunbathing.  The males had their heads up while the females and the cubs were all lying down like an arrangement of sausages on the beach. After watching the sea lions, Emily dropped us at the jetty to board a bus back to Juneau.

Back at Juneau, we drove on Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tramway,  a five-minute ride through the rain forest, from the cruise ship pier to the  Mount Roberts at an elevation of 600 meter.  It offered a breathtaking view of the cruise ships, the port and  downtown Juneau as depicted in the images at the top. Mount Roberts Tramway is one of the most vertical tramways in the world.

We came down on the tramway and decided to enjoy lunch at Juneau’s Twisted Fish Company, rather than going on board our ship anchored 100 meters away.  This place was recommended to us by locals and it was worth it. We savoured a menu of salmon, halibut and clam, sourced straight from the docks.

At the dock stood a plaque commemorating ultimate sacrifice by 690 member crew of Anti-Aircraft Light Cruiser Ship USS Juneau.  This ship was torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese submarines on the morning of 13 November 1942 in Pacific Ocean.  Only 10 crew members survived to narrate the tale.  Aboard USS Juneau were  George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert – five brothers from the Sullivan family.  Even though US  Navy’s policy of separating siblings was in place,  it was not always followed and the five brothers enlisted to serve together and were assigned to USS Juneau.  The two oldest brothers George and Francis had served in the Navy before World War II and both had been discharged in May 1941. When war broke out, two older brothers with their three younger siblings volunteered to serve in the Navy but only if they could serve together.

After a sumptuous lunch, we boarded the ship and we sat in the balcony enjoying the breeze and the view outside on the waterfront.  There were many sea planes taking off and landing on water and a fishing boat crew were spreading their nets to catch salmon between the cruise ships and the ‘runway.’

The day for us ended with dinner and our ship bid goodbye to Juneau on its onward journey to Ketchikan, our last port of call in Alaska.

Next : Ketchikan – The First City of Alaska

Skagway – Gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush

On 01 August morning, our Ship anchored at the Port of Skagway.  The City of Skagway has a population of less than a thousand, but in summer months the population doubles with many temporary workers manning various restaurants and shops. Skagway becomes a busy port destination during summer months, welcoming more than a million visitors from around the globe in more than 400 cruise ships.


Skagway came into prominence when gold was discovered in 1896 at Bonanza Creek in Klondike in Yukon, Canada.  Headline of the Seattle newspaper – Intelligencer –  on 17 July 1897 read  “Gold! Gold! Gold!”, broadcasting the news of discovery of gold in Canadian Klondike. In 1897, first ships from San Francisco, Portland and Seattle arrived in Skagway, packed with gold-seekers, beginning Klondike Gold Rush.

In Klondike Gold Rush, an estimated 100,000 people tried to reach Klondike goldfields, of whom only around 30,000 to 40,000 eventually succeeded in reaching there. Out of them, only about 300 actually  found gold and became rich.  Everyone from doctors to farmers, all wanted a share of gold as there was severe unemployment and poverty due to a series of financial recessions and bank failures in  1890s in USA.

Gold-seekers were required, as per Canadian laws to pack and carry one ton of goods, which was needed to last one year, if they wanted to reach Klondike Goldfields. The average man took about 40 trips over three months to haul his ton of supplies to Klondike Gold Fields from Skagway. Soon, Skagway boomed and peaked at a population of 10,000 people, many of them prospectors in the midst of their journey, but many were permanent residents offering goods and services to the gold-seeking hoards.

During Klondike Gold Rush, Skagway was a lawless town, where fights, prostitutes and liquor were ever-present on its streets.  The period saw the rising of a con man Jefferson R Smith, better known as ‘Soapy’ Smith, who was a sophisticated swindler.  He headed a gang of thieves who swindled prospectors with cards, dice, and shell game.  Smith came up with his ingenious ‘Soap Swindle’, which earned the nickname of ‘Soapy.’ The trick began with Soapy wrapping up cakes of ordinary soaps with  paper currency ranging from one dollar bill up to a hundred bill. He would then mix it with other ordinary cakes, re-wrap all in plain paper and would sell them for $1 to $5 a bar. He had his ‘men’ in the crowd who would buy a soap cake, opening it to find a $100 bill. The crowd was then anxious to buy their own, which, of course, held nothing but a 5 ¢ent soap cake.

Soapy Smith was shot and killed by Frank Reid, a town guard, on July 8, 1898, in a shootout when the two men fired their weapons simultaneously. Frank Reid died from his wounds twelve days later. Smith is buried in a corner of the Gold Rush Cemetery, where as the tomb of Reid is located in the center of the cemetery.

Klondike Gold Rush saw two men coming together- Sir Thomas Tancrede, representing investors in London and Michael J Heney, an experienced railroad contractor interested in finding new work for his talents and interests.  Though Tancrede had some doubts about building a railroad over the Coastal mountains, Heney claimed  “Give me enough dynamite and I will build a railroad to Hell.”  Construction of a narrow gauge ‘White Pass & Yukon Route’ railway line commenced on 28 May 1898.  After two years, two months and two days, on 30 July 1900, first train from Skagway arrived at White Horse, Yukon, Canada, about 110 miles.  Agony was that by the time the railway line was completed,  Gold Rush was nearly all over.

Today, fully restored cars, pulled by vintage diesel locomotives climb nearly 1,000 m over 30 km of steep grades and around cliff hanging turns, taking tourists on a  three-hour excursion to White Pass Summit.

We booked our tickets for the morning trip and boarded the train. The train pulled out of the Skagway station and after two km, we came to the railway yard where a fully functional vintage steam engine Number 73 rested.

This  monstrous looking machine is a enormous snow cutter used to cut through the deep snow to allow the train to pass during winter.

The train passed by the grave of the city’s most notorious Soapy Smith in the Gold Rush Cemetery.  Then the train commenced its climb .

We then passed Inspiration Point, looking down on the Skagway Harbour where our ship was anchored.

This abandoned  Switch-Back Bridge came into our view after traveling 24 km from Skagway.  It is a cantilever steel bridge over Dead Horse Gulch with a span of about 400 feet.  It was the world’s longest cantilever steel bridge when it opened.  In the Fall of 1969, a new tunnel and bridge that bypassed Dead Horse Gulch was built to replace the tall steel cantilever bridge that could no longer carry heavier and longer trains pulled by the diesel engines.

Dead Horse Gulch, it is believed that more than 3,000 animals, mostly horses, died on this trail and many of their bones still lie at the bottom on this ravine.

After another three km, we reached White Pass Station on US-Canada Border.  A pillar marks the International Boundary with US and Canadian Flags on either side.  Here the train stopped for its return journey to Skagway.

After alighting from the train we embarked on a five mile trek to the gorgeous Reid Falls, located North of Gold Rush Cemetery.  The Falls is named in honour of  Frank Reid, the town guard who shot dead Soapy Smith.

On return to the ship, it was dinner time.

Dinner was followed by a movie ‘Beauty and the Beast’, watched in the open air theater on the top deck of the ship, aptly named ‘Movie under the Stars.’

Next : Juneau – The Capital City of Alaska

 

 

Glacier Bay – Where the Birth of the World is Continuing

In the morning of 31 July after breakfast we played cards in the Card Room as the ship cruised its way into Glacier Bay.  Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve contains some of the world’s most impressive tidewater glaciers. The bay has experienced at least four major glacial advances and four major retreats and serves as an outdoor research laboratory.  Glacier Bay has more than 50 named glaciers, as well as two major arms: East Arm and West Arm. The cruise ships head up the West Arm, towards the Margerie Glacier as it is the most impressive glacier, which is advancing three to four meter a day and calves frequently.

The glaciers in Glacier Bay are remnants of a general ice advance—the Little Ice Age—that began about 4,000 years ago. This advance is not comparable to continental glaciation that occurred during the Wisconsin Ice Age.  By about 1750, Little Ice Age reached its maximum stage and a general recession of glaciers began.  200 years ago Glacier Bay was covered by Grand Pacific Glacier, which was more than 1,200 meter thick and about 30 km wide. Since then the ice has been retreating with Glacier Bay  now having 20 separate glaciers, of which 11 are tidewater glaciers including Margerie Glacier that calve into the bay.

Margerie Glacier is named after French geologist and geographer Emmanuel de Margerie who visited the area in 1913.  Glacier Bay was completely covered by ice in 1794 when Captain George Vancouver, a British officer of the Royal Navy, best known for his expedition which explored and charted North America’s North-Western Pacific Coast region was stopped by a wall of ice 32 km wide and 1,200 m high.  This ice wall has since retreated from the mouth of the bay and is only a remnant of the massive glacier seen by Vancouver.   Today, the ice flows have been recorded at Margerie Glacier at 610 meter per year or about 1.75 meter per day.

Like a river, the glacier flows down the mountain  choosing the path of least resistance. As it moves,  it swallows rocks into its lower layers. These  acquired rocks grind away at the bedrock, carving deep valleys in the  mountainside over the years.

When the ice reaches lower, warmer elevations, it begins to melt. Eventually the loss through melting is greater than the supply of ice flowing down the  mountain. Now the glacier ceases to make further  progress, though the body of ice is still moving  down the mountains.  The length of time it takes for a snowflake that falls in the mountains to emerge at the end, or terminus of a glacier varies, depending on the speed at which the glacier is flowing. The ice visible at the face of the park’s glaciers today  is about 200 years old.

As we entered the Glacier Bay we first sighted the South Marble Island. This small island is a  sunbathing spot of gigantic Sea Lions. They lay on the rocks  with the dominant males sitting with their back arched and head erect.

Then came up the ‘Gloomy Knob’, a well rounded, dome shaped granite feature.  Surely it would have been smoothened by the glacial activities over the years.  Grass growing on the rocks formed a grazing pasture for the Mountain Goats.

After we passed Gloomy Knob, a boat belonging to US National Park Services came alongside our ship.  Rangers from the boat boarded our ship through a rope-ladders provided by the ship’s crew.

These Rangers, lead by Ms Highsmith, the Warden,  conducted classes about the Glacier Bay, its ecology, geology, about the original inhabitants, etc.  She brought out as to how the current conservation effort has been a great success as they included local inhabitants into it, respecting their beliefs, traditions and customs.

Our ship then moved closer to the Margerie Glacier, nearly a mile away, to facilitate us to view the spectacle of calving.  Cows have calves, glaciers calve icebergs, which are chunks of ice that break off glaciers and fall into water. This is caused in the glaciers of the Glacier Bay due to the forward motion of the glacier and the erosive action of the salt water of the Pacific Ocean, the tidal waves and the wind.

As we stood on the deck watching the Margerie Glacier, it calved five times, each time bringing down a heavy volume of ice, falling into water with a thunderous sound.  It was a great natural spectacle showcasing the fury of nature.

As our ship steamed off from the Glacier Bay, we all enjoyed a swim in the top deck swimming pool.

Next : Skagway – Gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush

Yakutat Bay and Hubbard Glacier


Our Ship sailed through the night after casting off from Whittier.  We had early breakfast and set out to explore the ship.


In the Mid-Ship was  lavishly decorated and well laid out Shopping Arcade with stores selling everything from Scotch Whisky to Jewellery.


Shopping Arcade covered four floors, very well done up with chandeliers, artwork, murals and et all.


Our ship entered Yakutat Bay by 11 AM from Gulf of Alaska.  It was a breathtaking sight to see large icebergs that had calved out of the giant glaciers, floating around.


On to the West was  St Elias mountains ranges.  The mountains rise like a white pyramid to an elevation of about 6000 meter in one of the world’s most dramatic transitions from sea to summit.  The Fairweather mountain ranges lies on the Eastern side of the Bay.  These mountains are scarred by glacial activity from the Ice Ages to date.


As we sailed through the Bay, more ice bergs, both small and big, were sighted as we sailed into Disenchantment Bay.  This bay was  named Puerto del Desengano (bay of disenchantment in Spanish) by Alessandro Malaspina in 1792, when he felt ‘disenchanted’ that the bay was not the entrance to the North-West Passage.  He was in fact looking to sail through the Arctic Ocean to Europe through the North-West Passage.


(Map courtesy of the US Geological Survey)

As our ship entered Disenchantment Bay, we could see Hubbard Glacier from over 50 km. This massive glacier is a staggering 125 km  long, 10 km wide, and 400 meter deep. Its face is over 100 meter high, which is as high as a 30-40 story building.  Hubbard Glacier,  is one of the over 110,000 glaciers in Alaska and is North America’s largest tidewater glacier. Hubbard Glacier was named in 1890 in honour of Gardiner G. Hubbard, the founder of the National Geographic Society.


A Tidewater Glacier is fed by the snow that flow out of the mountains and down to the sea.  Saltwater of the sea ‘eat’ into the thick ice-wall, causing it to break off .  This process is called ‘calving’.

Hubbard Glacier has been thickening and advancing toward the Gulf of Alaska, in stark contrast with most glaciers, which have thinned and retreated during the last century. This atypical behaviour is an important example of the calving glacier cycle in which glacier advance and retreat is controlled more by the mechanics of calving than by climate fluctuations. If Hubbard Glacier continues to advance, it will close the seaward entrance of Russell Fiord and create the largest glacier-dammed lake on the North American continent as it had done in 1986 and 2002. Hubbard Glacier remains an ongoing study of calving glacier dynamics for the scientific community.


In 2002 the advancing terminus of Hubbard Glacier created a glacier lake dam which turned Russell Fiord in to a lake for about two and a half months. Rising water in the newly formed lake altered local hydrology and was a threat to nearby communities. During the two and a half months that the channel was dammed, Russell Lake rose 20 meter. In 1986 a similar scenario resulted when the glacier caused dam raised the lake level 27 meter over the course of five months. Erosion of ice dam from saltwater eventually carved a new outlet channel and restored the fiord to its previous elevation in both cases.


Our ship after being in Disenchantment Bay for over two hours turned around.  During this manoeuvre, the ship’s propellers churned out glacial deposits brought down by the calving ice bergs deposited on the ocean floor.

After sailing another two hours in Disenchantment Bay, our ship headed for the Glacier Bay.  We all were really ‘enchanted’ by the natural beauty of the hills, the bay, and the floating icebergs.  We were not at all ‘disenchanted’ as we were surely not looking for the North-West Passage to Europe.


As our ship sailed ahead from the Disenchantment Bay, we watched the Sun setting into the Pacific Ocean – It was 10:45 PM.

Next :  Glacier Bay – Where the Birth of the World is Continuing

Alaska – Here We Are

During the summer of 2017, we along with Stephens, our travel companions, booked Alaskan Cruise on Coral Princess luxury liner.  The cruise commenced from Whittier, Alaska, USA, sailing South-East and ending at Vancouver, British Columbia (BC),  Canada.

On 29 July 2017, we boarded the early morning Air Canada flight from Toronto to Vancouver on the first leg of our Alaskan Cruise.  The flight duration was of about five hours, but the clock only moved by two hours because the clock had to be set back by three hours as the time zone of Vancouver is three hours behind Toronto.

The five hours flight was made more comfortable than the regular one as the aircraft, an Airbus 319 variant deployed was the special charter plane used to fly various teams of the National Hockey League (NHL).  The aircraft had only 60 seats, that too all First Class, with all the accessories like comforters, extra legroom, LCD screens, etc.  Thank you Air Canada.

After a two hour stopover at Vancouver, we flew to Anchorage, the largest Alaskan City.  We were impressed by the Military Lounge at Anchorage Airport.  An effective way to project the power of a strong military, thus a strong nation, especially to  foreign tourists.  A country that respects its soldiers will always be powerful for sure.

We boarded the bus for Whittier where Coral Princess, our cruise liner was anchored.  Route between Anchorage and Whittier on Portage Glacier Highway was very scenic.  The road ran parallel to the railway track, both hugging the coastline.  We passed through Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, known as Potter’s Marsh, a good place to spot migratory birds, water fowl and moose.

The road continued along Turnagain Arm, a body of water featuring the world’s second highest tides at over 30 feet.  We passed through Girdwood and Portage Glacier and the bus stopped at the entrance of Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, also known as Whittier Tunnel. It is a highway and railway tunnel that passes under Maynard Mountain. At 13,300 ft (4,100 m), it is the second-longest highway tunnel and longest combined rail and highway tunnel in North America.

We alighted from the bus at the banks of a lake formed by the melting Portage Glacier.  As the tunnel is one-way and is also shared by the railway, there is a schedule for traffic passing through it.  All the vehicles assembled in the staging area at the entrance of the tunnel.  At the scheduled time the convoy moved with buses leading the way.  Buses being public transport are given preference over cars.

Whittier Tunnel was constructed in 1941 to use Whittier as a rail port during World War II.  It is named after Anton Anderson (1892–1960), Chief Engineer of the Alaska Railroad Company and Mayor of City of Anchorage from 1956 to 1958.  The tunnel’s entrance portals are designed in an ‘A’ shape, with a large  door, which allows traffic in and out of the tunnel. The entrance portals are designed to withstand the force of an avalanche.

Ride through the 4 km tunnel was for about 15 minutes and surely there is light always at the other end of the tunnel.  As we emerged out of the tunnel at Whittier Port, Coral Princess, our cruise liner anchored there, came into our view for the first time.

Whittier came into prominence during World War II as it offered a shorter voyage into the Pacific Ocean and reduced exposure of ships to Japanese submarines.  It also reduced the risk of Japanese aircrafts  bombing the port facilities because of the high mountains around the port and bad weather for which Alaska is very famous for.  It pours all through the year and gets less than a month of bright sunshine every year.

We were escorted into our cabin E731 on the eight floor of the ship.  The cabin was very spacious and comfortable with a balcony facing the ocean.

Adjacent to the port were small boats and fishing boat jetty and also the railway station where a train was waiting its schedule to cross through the tunnel.

The ship casted off at 8:30 PM and we all headed straight to our watering holes for our first drink on board.

How did Alaska become the fiftieth state of the United States of America, detached from the mainland USA with Canada in between?

Russians colonised Alaska in the 17th century and exploited the local resources like fur and gold.  When Crimean War broke out in 1853, Britain, France and Turkey stood against Russia. Russia could neither supply nor defend Alaska during the war as the sea routes were controlled by the allies’ ships. There was a fear that British might blockade Alaska or even seize it.

Tensions between Moscow and London grew, while relations with the American authorities were warmer than ever. Russia offered to sell Alaska to the United States in 1859, believing the United States would off-set the designs of Russia’s greatest rival in the Pacific, Great Britain. US Civil War delayed the sale, but after the war, on March 30, 1867, US agreed to a Russian proposal to purchase Alaska for $7.2 million. The Senate approved the treaty of purchase on April 9.  President Andrew Johnson signed the treaty on May 28, and Alaska was formally transferred to the United States on October 18, 1867.

For three decades after its purchase the United States paid little attention to Alaska, which was governed under military, naval, or Treasury rule or, at times, no visible rule at all. Seeking a way to impose US mining laws, the United States constituted a civil government in 1884. Major gold deposit was discovered in the Yukon (Canada) in 1896, and Alaska became the gateway to the Klondike gold fields. Alaska became a state of US on January 3, 1959.

Next – Hubbard Glacier at Yakutat Bay

Jonah the Musical

On 01 July 2017, we along with Stephens, our travel companions, set out early morning to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA.  After eight hours of car ride from Toronto, we reached our hotel and checked-in by about 10 AM.

Lancaster is nicknamed the Garden Spot of America or Pennsylvania Dutch Country and located in South Central Pennsylvania.  The county is home to America’s oldest Amish settlement, where thousands still lead the age old lifestyle – without motor cars, without modern gadgets like cell phones, computers etc – but with their horse buggies, ploughs pulled by mules, homes without electricity etc.  It is called Dutch Country as most Amish settlers are of German (Deutsch) descend and have nothing to do with the present Netherlands.  It is called the Garden Spot because of the well drained plain farmlands which support agriculture, the mainstay of the Amish people.

In the evening we watched the Biblical Stage Show – Jonah by  Sight & Sound Theatre, a Christian faith-based, company -complete with grandiose sets, costumes befitting the time period, music and songs, use of modern technology like GPS to move various props around the huge stage – it was amazing. The center stage was very wide, and they also had props and action the left stage and the right stage.  They used the aisles in the seating area too for the actors and animals to make their entry.  They lighted up the ceiling of the theatre to immerse the audience into the ambience of day, night, storm, underwater – it was a journey into a different world.

The cast was fantastic and everyone fitted into their roles and the story being told very well.  Kudos to the technical and arts team, the changes of the sets were flawless and smooth.  In minutes one was transported from a little town to a sea port, then to a ship bumping through the storm ravaged seas to an evil town.  The props were magnificent and huge -especially the ship covering almost half the stage.  The details have been really gone into designing the ship with all its sails, masts and the most amazing was the lower deck when the hull opens to show the inside of the ship.  Truly Fantastic!

It was real technical wizardry and art on display all through the two hour show.  They have made three dimensional ancient cities come live with people and animals.  A fleet of boats sailing across the stage, and a 50 foot ship being tossed up and down in a storm at sea is amazing.  After intermission, the entire theatre is transformed to an undersea world with schools of exotic fish swimming about, beautiful iridescent jellyfish floating above our heads, sharks prowling for prey, colourful clownfish and seahorses swimming around, and a giant whale swimming over our head.

The story of Jonah has been scripted very well with a fine touch of humour.  The story has been extended to fill two hours, but will never distract the audience even for a second.  The story dates back to about 700 years before Christ where in a boy, Jonah gets a prophecy from God about the victory of the king of the Israelites.  When it comes true, he is declared a prophet and everyone waits for more prophecies.  God does not appear to Jonah thereafter, but the people of Gath-Hepher erect a heroic statue of him.

One day God ordered Jonah to go to Nineveh to declare the city’s wickedness and impending destruction.  Jonah does not want to save the people of Nineveh as his father was killed by soldiers from Nineveh and he hates the city and its people.  This forces Jonah to flee.

He goes to Joppa, a seaport and embarks on a ship sailing to Tarshish.  A storm rages and the ship is battered and tossed around by it.  Jonah, realising that the storm is God send to curtail his journey to Tarshish, orders the Captain to throw him off the ship.  Thus the storm dies down.

Jonah falls into the deep sea and the audience are transported into a serenely beautiful undersea world.  Jonah is gulped down by a huge whale and he survives this encounter for three days.  He repents and prays to God for mercy.  Now God wants Jonah to help the people of Nineveh find redemption.  God ensures that Jonah is thrown out from the whale’s stomach to land in the City of Nineveh.  Jonah keeps avoiding the people of  Nineveh as he hates his father’ killers, but ultimately understands the idea of forgiveness and redemption and saves the people.

The music and the songs in the play were apt and spectacular, especially the powerful voice of the Queen of Nineveh.   The show was supported by about 25 stage technicians who run the show and the 48 actors who star in it.  They all have done a remarkable job bringing a story alive both as a spectacle and as a Biblical message.

Some history behind the Sight & Sound Theatre.  It was founded by Glenn Eshelman who painted landscapes as a boy. As he grew up, Glenn continued to pursue his artistic interests, eventually buying a camera to take reference photos for his paintings. After marrying Shirley, Glenn sold his artwork out of the trunk of his car to make a living. In 1964 he presented a scenic photography slide-show at a local church using a slide projector, a turntable for musical underscore and a microphone for narration. This was the first unofficial “Sight & Sound” show.  By the mid-1970’s, Glenn and Shirley took their slide-shows around the United States.  They formed the Living Waters Theatre in 1976, marking the birth of  Sight & Sound Theatres.

In January 1997, a devastating fire destroyed the theatre, but the couple rebuilt it in 18 months.  The new 2000-seat, state-of-the-art theater featured a massive, 300-foot panoramic stage that wrapped around the audience, with the ability to house sets four stories tall.  They have now further enhanced the theatre by incorporating the modern technological light & sound equipment and software, coupled with other technologies like GPS and digital communication.

York-Durham Heritage Railway

On October 1, 2016, we embarked on the York-Durham Heritage Railway train on a trip around the city of Uxbridge, about an hour’s drive from Toronto.  The York-Durham Heritage Railway trains operate on the original Toronto & Nipissing (T&N) rail line, built in the late 1860’s. This line was built to allow its owner, William Gooderham, a distiller from Toronto, to carry grain to his distillery as well as lumber.

On March 4th, 1868, the Company was chartered and construction began the following year. As it was advantageous at that time to have the rail line pass through any town, many paid handsomely for the privilege. Markham raised over $4,000 in one evening, and Unionville made a successful last minute effort to have the line rerouted after it bought $500 worth of shares. The town of Uxbridge was chosen for the site for the railway’s shops.

We  reached the Uxbridge station, with its distinctive “Witches Hat” roof, owned and maintained by the Township of Uxbridge for the heritage journey. Uxbridge is situated in a beautiful valley on the northern slope of the Oak Ridges Moraine, about 64km northeast of Toronto, Ontario.  The York-Durham Heritage Railway reopened the line between Uxbridge and Stouffville in 1996 and has been running on summer weekends since then. The train journey of about 90 minutes.

After we boarded the train, the Captain of the train – the Conductor – briefed the passengers about the train and its journey, what to see and do with the coach attendant watching. All the staff running the train are volunteers.

The fall had set in (01 Oct) and the leaves were changing colours – before they fall off.  This gave a kaleidoscope of colours all through the journey.

The guard’s wagon  of the train called the Caboose at the rear end of the train, acted as an office and living quarters for the crew of a freight train in the old days. A viewing Cupola is built to facilitate a crew member to look forward at the train to see if anything is amiss

The Baggage Car with open doors fitted with safety barricades is the best place to view the landscape while the train is on the move.

One side of the Baggage Car is a ‘Railway Play Station’ for kids, to keep the kids engaged all through the journey.

On the other side of the Baggage Car is the Souvenir shop and a snack-bar – all manned by volunteers.

The rail-road crossings do not have barriers like those along an operational rail line as the trains operate only on weekends.  It is the duty of the drivers who cross the railway line to lookout for approaching trains and stop.

A musician, again a volunteer, entertained the passengers with his melodies. The passengers also joined him in chorus.

A volunteer ‘Clown’ was also seen entertaining kids with his tricks on board

This is a lime stone quarry enroute of LaFarge Cement Company.  Ontario has large deposit of limestone which supports the large cement manufacturing industry.

The journey was very pleasant, especially with the friendly, easy – going volunteer staff.  The staff obviously loved what they did.  It is an experience worth sharing as it goes to prove that a volunteer force can run a railway and much more.

 

Pelee Island : The Southernmost Tip of Canada

On July 08, 2017, we along with Stephens, our travel companions, travelled from Toronto to Lemington, a four hour car drive along Highway 401.  We boarded MV Jiimaan, a vessel 200 ft)in length that transports 400 passengers and 40 vehicles on Lake Erie from Lemington to Pelee Islands.  The cruise was of  about 90 minutes.  The ferry housed a cafeteria and the view from the deck was awesome.

Pelee Island, (42 Sq Km) largest island in the Western End of Lake Erie, is the Southernmost tip of Canada.  It was leased to Thomas McKee by Ojibwa and Onawa tribes in 1788.  The island’s name is derived from a French word ‘pelee’ meaning barren.  It remained barren, true to its name until it was purchased by William McKormick in 1823.

The Pelee Island Lighthouse was built by John Scott in 1833.  William McCormick donated the land and also served as its first light-keeper till 1840.  The lighthouse used to guide sailors through the rocky Pelee Passage. in the Erie Lake until it went out of service in 1909.

The only other way to get on to the Pelee Island is through the International Airport with a 3,300 feet paved runway.  Regular flights operate in winter when the ferry services are closed.  It serves as the emergency pickup point. It might be the smallest International Airport in Canada – it is International as it receives flights from USA, just South of it.

The population of Pelee Island is about 140.  In summer about 100 migrant workers land on the island to support both tourism and agriculture.  The island has a Police Station manned by two personnel, obviously there is hardly any crime and the last major crime was reported in 1920.  The Emergency Services is operated by two Para-Medics with an ambulance and a Nurse Practitioner manning the Medical Clinic.  Emergency cases has to be airlifted to the mainland at Lemington.  The Fire Department has a fire tender operated by volunteer crew.

This is the shoe tree which has an interesting history.  The tree was given up for dead and the home owner tied a pair of shoes on to it and it is believed to re-grow thereafter.  All the migrant workers, on leaving the island at the end of the season now tie their work-shoes on the tree to bring them good luck.

The island is mainly  agricultural based with about 5,000 acres of soybeans, about 1,000 acres of wheat, 500 acres of grape cultivation.  The centre of the island was a large marsh which was drained out to form the fertile agricultural land.  Thus most cultivation is done below the Lake’s level and hence there is always fear of floods.  The houses on the island are built on stilts to save them from flooding.

After spending the day on the island, we boarded the ferry on our return voyage to Lemington and then we drove off to Toronto.

 

 

Victoria – Capital City of British Columbia

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Our trip to British Columbia in August 2016 concluded with a visit to Victoria Island, the capital of British Columbia (BC).  Victoria is an island that  offers heritage architecture, colourful gardens and traditions like afternoon tea, mixed with outdoor adventure, culinary experiences, especially fish and chips.  Victoria Island is located about 100 km from Vancouver and can be reached by ferry, sea plane, tourist boats or by air.

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We set sail by the 9AM from Vancouver on the ferry operated by BC Ferries and it took about 90 minutes.  There were about 200 vehicles and 400 passengers (and a few dogs) on board.  The ferry ride offered a deck-side view of the breathtaking scenery through the Strait of Georgia.  The ferry had three restaurants with various food options and viewing platforms, both inside and outside.

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Our first halt was at the Parliament building.  Overlooking the harbour stood the statue of Captain James Cook, the first non-aboriginal man to set foot on Vancouver Island in 1778.  Many aboriginal families lived on Victoria Island, each referring to themselves by distinct family group names.  In 1843, James Douglas chose Victoria (then known as Camosack), as a Hudson Bay Company trading post.  The post was eventually renamed Fort Victoria, in honour of Queen Victoria.

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On July 21, 1871, BC became the sixth province of the Dominion of Canada and Victoria was proclaimed the Capital City.  The Parliament building to house Legislative Assembly of BC opened in 1898.  In the twentieth century, Victoria evolved as a city of government, retirement and tourism.

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We were thrilled to see the three statues located in front of the Parliament building.  They would enthrall any military history enthusiast and veteran.  The first was a statue of a soldier to commemorate BC’s fallen in World War I, World War II and the Korean war; then a statue of a Veteran Sailor and a statue of homecoming of a sailor to commemorate 100 years of Canadian Navy unveiled on 04 May 2010.

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Our next destination was Butchart Garden, surely a place for a nature lover and a gardening enthusiast.  Robert Pim Butchart, a pioneer in the North American cement industry, came to Victoria Island lured by its rich limestone deposits.  In 1904 he developed a quarry and built a cement plant.  His wife Jennie Butchart became the company’s chemist. Close to the quarry, the Butcharts established their family home with a small garden.  As Mr Butchart exhausted limestone deposits, his enterprising wife Jennie, converted the gigantic quarry into a beautiful garden.

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The renown of Mrs Butchart’s garden quickly spread. By the 1920s more than fifty thousand people visited her garden each year. The hospitable Butcharts christened their estate ‘Benvenuto’, the Italian word for ‘Welcome’.  Their grandson Ian Ross was given the Gardens on his return from World War II.  He made the garden self-sustaining, transforming the mostly neglected home and gardens into an internationally famous tourist destination.   Each year over a million bedding plants in some 900 varieties give uninterrupted bloom from March through October. Almost a million people visit annually for spring’s colourful flowering bulbs; summer’s riot of colour and fall’s russets and golds.

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The most impressive sight was of the Sunken Garden from the lookout.   The old quarry had been transformed by Jennie into a beautiful sunken garden of massive dimensions and dramatic aesthetic qualities representing exceptional creative achievement in gardening. Deep expansive walls, beds of annuals, flowering trees, unique shrubs, central rock mound and  a fountain, all added variety to the uniqueness of this marvellous garden.

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We were welcomed by the luscious scents of roses to the Rose Garden.  The flowerbeds bordered by magnificent delphiniums had roses of many varieties and bright colours.  The garden has an extensive collection of floribundas, ramblers, climbers and Hybrid Tea Roses.  Each rose variety has been marked by name, origin and year registered with the American Rose Society.

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A Torii gate welcomed us into the serene Japanese Garden.  Walkways by the side of streams and ponds guided us through many bridges. Japanese maples and birch trees spread abundant shade on to the well manicured lawns.  Jennie, with assistant Isaburo Kishida, an expert Japanese landscaper, completed this garden in 1906.

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The next stop was the Italian Garden bounded by two arched entrances. This garden was originally Butchart’s tennis court.  A splendid Star Pond adorned the centre of this garden.  It was originally designed to house Mr Butchart’s collection of ornamental ducks as he was an enthusiastic hobbyist who collected ornamental birds from all over the world.  He kept ducks in the Star Pond, peacocks on the front lawn and had many birdhouses throughout the gardens. 

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Past the Italian Garden, we entered the Mediterranean Garden.  This area had an enchanting arrangement of lush, exotic plants from around the world.  We were all surprised to see that even a banana grove could enhance the beauty of an enchanting world renowned garden.

From the Butchart Garden, we headed straight to the Red Fish Blue Fish.  It is  an outdoor waterfront eatery in a modified cargo container, standing on a wooden pier in Victoria’s Inner Harbour.  It is one of Victoria’s most cherished eateries.  There was a long queue and after about half an hour in the queue, we ordered fish and chips.  We relished the battered and steaming pieces of halibut, sitting on the dock overlooking the bay.  Indeed it was worth the wait standing in a long queue.

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Our next destination was ‘Mile 0’ which marks the start of the over 8,000 km Trans-Canada Highway that spans the entire length of Canada – from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic.  Mile 0 is also home to a statue of Terry Fox. Fox lost his right leg to cancer when he was 18 years old. He started a trans-Canada run to raise money for cancer research, beginning in Newfoundland on the East coast of Canada and was to end at the Mile 0 marker in Victoria. Unfortunately, Fox’s journey ended tragically near the halfway mark when he fell ill and passed away. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars has been raised in his name by the Terry Fox Foundation for cancer research.

With the visit to Mile 0, we culminated our exploration of Alberta and BC this time.

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Now it was time for us to catch the return ferry to Vancouver and say goodbye to the beautiful Victoria Island.  As we cruised through the Pacific Ocean, the sun was about to set and its rays painted the islands with different shades of gold. 

Temperate Rain Forests of British Columbia

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We visited the Stanley Park and Capilano Park during our visit to British Columbia (BC), mainly to see the temperate rain forests. 

How is the temperate rain forests different from its tropical cousin?

The term ‘rainforest’ implies forests in high rainfall area, making them very dense and green.  Tropical rainforests lie closer to the equator while temperate rainforests are found at latitudes between the two Tropics and Polar Circles.  This causes temperate rainforests to be cooler, have less precipitation, contain less biodiversity and slower decomposition than their tropical counterparts.  Canada’s rainforest falls between the Arctic Circle and the Tropic of Cancer, forming a narrow band along the coast of the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to Northern California. Other countries that have temperate rainforests are Chile, New Zealand and Norway.

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In the morning we visited the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park.  The park offers visitors a unique mix of adventure, history and culture.  The park showcases a totem pole park, North America’s largest private collection of First Nations totem poles, period decor and costumes.

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Totem pole is a monument created by Northwest Coast Aboriginal people to serve as a signboard, genealogical record and memorial.  Carved of large red cedar and painted in vibrant colours, they are usually erected to reflect the history of that lineage.  Theses poles are also erected as memorial poles, grave figures, house posts, house front poles, welcoming poles and mortuary poles.

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The entrance to the park as the name suggests is by way of a suspension bridge.  The bridge was originally built in 1889 of hemp ropes with cedar plank deck.  It was replaced with a wire cable bridge in 1903.  The bridge was completely rebuilt in 1956.  We enjoyed the thrill of crossing the 450-foot long swaying bridge, suspended 230 feet above Capilano River. The bridge offered a splendid view of the river and the forest below.

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An eco-guided tour is conducted by the Park every hour, which was very informative, covering various ecological aspects of the forest in the Park.  The guide educated us about the rainforest, trees. trout ponds and the undergrowth.

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The first stop was at a banana slug.  The guide explained that there are no earthworms in these forests and these slugs contribute to the decomposition of organic matter into humus. These slugs are covered with a special slimy coating that numbs the mouth of any predator.  Racoons roll the slugs in mud to coat them and then eat them.

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We stopped next at a nurse log.  Fallen logs are called nurse logs as they help new seedling growth by creating an elevated and moist habitat.  Decomposition being comparatively slower when compared to tropical forests, results in a deep layer of decaying organic matter that forms the top layer of the forest floor.  This gives a cushioning effect while walking on it. 

Canada’s temperate rainforest is dominated by a relatively small number of tree species because the seeds need to regenerate in the low light levels on the forest floor caused the thick canopy.  Most of the trees found in this forest are coniferous trees like the Western Hemlock, Yellow Cedar, Western Red Cedar, Douglas-fir, and Spruce.  The coniferous trees are well adapted to the temperatures and shorter daylight hours of the winter as they remain green and keep their foliage in winter which helps then to photosynthesise throughout the year.

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The thick and uneven tree canopies that cover the coastal rainforest allow little sunlight to reach the forest floor, so undergrowth must adapt accordingly.  Indeed, the ground is mostly covered by plants that do not need much sunlight, like ferns. Small trees also grow under the shade of the taller ones. In order to get sunlight, some plants grow on bark and branches of trees, where there is more sunlight than on the forest floor.

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Along lakes and rivers and gaps left by fallen trees, which lets in more sunlight in, few deciduous tree species like Bigleaf Maple, Red Alder and Black Cottonwood thrive.  

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The guide escorted us to the ‘Grandma of Capilano’ – the tallest tree in the forest.  It is a Douglas Fir, aged over 1300 years, standing tall at 76 M. 

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After the guided tour, we ascended a foot bridge for Treetops Adventure Tour – a self guided tour.  This leg consisted of seven footbridges suspended between magnificent 250-year-old Douglas Fir trees, forming a walkway up to 30 M above the forest floor.  The elevated walkway offered a woodpecker’s eye view of the forest.

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The walkway has been created without harming the trees, with no nails or bolts drilled into them.  Metallic collars hold the ends of the walkway on to trees and are moved every eight years to facilitate the tree to grow. 

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On our way back to the parking lot was the Cliffwalk.  This heart-pounding cliff-side journey took us  through rainforest vegetation on a series of suspended walkways jutting out from the granite cliff face above Capilano River.  The Cliffwalk is high and narrow and in some sections, very strong glass is all that separated us from the canyon below. The narrow walkway has fixed handrails supported by steel beams cantilevered from 16 anchor points in the granite rock face of the canyon.  Various information boards along the walkway explained the interaction between water, granite, salmon, flora and fauna.

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We then drove to Stanley Park on the beaches of the Pacific Ocean, a green oasis in the midst of the heavily built urban landscape of Vancouver.  The 400-hectare natural West Coast rainforest offered us rare scenic views of the ocean with ships anchored, mountains, sky, and majestic trees along Stanley Park’s famous Seawall.  We walked around the park on the walking track which ran all along the beach, adjacent to a separate cycling track.

Our visit to the temperate rain forest parks were both educative and recreational.  Hermann Hesse, a German-born Swiss poet once said “Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”

 

Whistler : Abode of the Gods

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(Image Courtesy Whistler Blackcomb)

We halted at Whistler on our way to Vancouver in August09, 2016.  Located in the spectacular Coast Mountains of British Columbia (BC), Whistler is Canada’s favourite year-round destination.  Whistler is undoubtedly the most-visited ski resort in Canada, with over 2 million visitors a year.  There are two majestic mountains with a vibrant base Village.  The facilities in the area include skiing and snowboarding, gondolas connecting various peaks, mountain biking trails, hiking trails, golf courses, restaurants, bars and accommodation to suit every budget.  It is undoubtedly the best mountain adventure site in the world.

We headed straight to the Whistler Village Centre to buy our tickets for the Peak2Peak Gondola Ride.  The area was jostling with activity, mainly by hikers and mountain bike riders.  There were many stalls offering mountain bike rentals and training for novice mountain bikers.  The mountain bike trainees ranged in age from five to over 50 years.
Whistler Blackcomb boasts of the largest mountain bike park in North America, officially opening in May each year. With over 4,900 vertical feet and over 60 descending trails spread over three riding zones, there is something to pump up the adrenaline for each level of riders.

The gondolas of Whistler Blackcomb are inspired by the ski lifts in Switzerland.  They connect the two ridge-lines running roughly Northwest to Southeast, separated by a deep valley as shown in the diagram above.

Whistler was originally conceived as part of a Canadian bid for the 1968 Winter Olympics.  Although they lost the bid, construction started and the resort opened for the first time in January 1966.  Blackcomb mountain, originally a separate entity, opened for business in December 1980.  The two resorts underwent a period of intense rivalry through the 1980s and 90s.  Intrawest, the BC real estate firm that developed Blackcomb, purchased Whistler and fully merged their operations in 2003.

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Whistler Blackcomb offered a renewed bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics, which they won in July 2003. They hosted the men’s and women’s Olympic and Paralympic alpine skiing events.  Over the next decade, Intrawest expanded by purchasing additional ski resorts across North America, before expanding into golf and other resorts as well.

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We lined up at the Whistler Village Centre for our journey up Whistler Mountain.  The air was a bit chilly and misty.  The gondolas were enclosed, separate for persons and equipment.  Many mountain bike enthusiasts and tourists were already in queue awaiting their turns.  We boarded our gondola for the first leg and the journey up the Whistler Mountain to the Roundhouse Lodge located at about 6,000 feet.

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Enroute we had a fascinating view of the coniferous tree tops with their young cones blooming with a bluish tinge.  It was thrilling to watch mountain bikers below, negotiating the mountain trail at a very high speed, with precision and grace.  We could also see young kids being trained on mountain biking skills by their instructors.

We alighted at the Roundhouse Lodge after a thrilling 15 minutes.  From there we had a 10 minute hike through a trail to the starting point of Peak Express for our journey to Top of the World Summit.

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The trail had an explosion of colours offered by the wildflowers growing at that altitude.  They are seen for only two to three weeks in mid-summer and we were indeed blessed to catch a glimpse of these wild beauties.  Most of these flowers are poisonous to ingest, hence are not foraged on by the deer in the forest.

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The flowers we saw were the Alpine Fireweed, a bright to deep pink flower that grows from 5cm to 3 metres.  The yellow Mountain Buttercup is primarily found in deeper soils and among bunch grasses of undisturbed grasslands. The flower has a waxy sheen to it. The Sitka Valerian grows in moist alpine meadows with flowers that are pale pink to white and form a dense, sweet scented cluster.  Partridge Foot grows in wetland areas. This shrub-like perennial has cream-coloured flowers in the summer and golden seed pods in the fall.

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The Peak Express  journey was on an open gondola and the cold winds blew hard on to our faces.  As the elevation kept increasing, the landscape kept changing.  It was a fantastic experience to view the rugged beauty of the Canadian Coast Mountains.  The wildflower meadows, boulder  filled slopes and towering peaks offered a picturesque view.

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After about five minutes we landed at the summit at about 7200 feet.  From there we could catch the glimpses of lakes under distant peaks and massive glaciers, even though there was bit of mist.  We picked up cups of hot chocolate from the coffee shop and walked to giant Inukshuk.  An Inukshuk is a piled-stone marker that looks like a man. Historically it was used in the Arctic as a directional marker but has now become an icon of Canada overtaking the Mountie.

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After spending about 15 minutes at the summit, we returned to Roundhouse Lodge on the Whistler Mountain for our ride to the Rendezvous Lodge on the Blackcomb Mountain by the Peak2Peak Gondola.  This ride was for 11 minutes and the system holds the record for the highest and longest unsupported cable car span in the world of 3.024 km. It is indeed an engineering marvel – a long steel ropeway hanging between two peaks – unsupported by any pylons.

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The Peak2Peak Gondola was completed on December 12, 2008 and can transport 4,100 people per hour between the resort’s mountains.  The cars for this leg of the ride are enclosed and can seat 12 persons.  There are some glass bottom gondola cars, but their frequency is once every 15 minutes.  The ride offers spectacular views of the village, valley and surrounding mountains – a 360 degree 3D view in fact.

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From the Rendezvous Lodge we took the Solar Coaster Express and then the Wizard Express to reach the Blackcomb Base.  The open-air chairlifts on these rides offer a unique experience than what a gondola provides as you get an aerial perspective of the ground directly below.

The Whistler Olympics project took nearly four decades, but the effort taken by the Canadian government in collaboration with business partners is clearly visible.  It has helped to place Whistler as an excellent year-round adventure destination in the world and has generated employment for the local population and businesses.   The Whistler visit showed us as to how the facilities created for a major sporting event could be exploited for the betterment of the community post event.

Silviculture : An Aerial View

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During our trip to the Rocky Mountains in Alberta and British Columbia (BC), in August 2016, we undertook a helicopter ride lasting 30 minutes over the mountain ranges and the Boreal Forests of Revelstoke, BC.  The town is located 641 km East of Vancouver, on the banks of the Columbia River.

Canada is home to 10 per cent of the world’s forest cover and 30 per cent of the world’s Boreal Forests.  About 38 per cent of Canada’s land area is forested, or about 3.4 million out of 9.1 million square  km.  92% of these forests are owned by the government and is highly regulated and monitored.  Slightly more than half of this area is classified as commercial forest capable of producing merchantable trees and has not been reserved for other uses such as parks.  

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Various government agencies  identify intended methods of cutting, reforesting, and managing timber resources within the defined area of responsibility. The forest management planning time frame considered is 200 years, representing two full life cycles, or ‘rotations’.

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Despite being the lead exporter of softwood lumber, newsprint and wood pulp, Canada harvests less than 0.2 per cent of its forest annually. On average, a tree must be about 80 to 100 years old before it is ready for harvesting.  In case 1% of trees are harvested each year, forests have 100 years to grow back before they are re-harvested. Every year is different, depending on several factors, including wildfire and mountain pine beetle activity, but the number of trees harvested each year is always much less than 1%.

While trees can now be chopped down with the help of machines, replanting must be done by hand, one sapling at a time.  Certain species, like aspen, regenerate naturally after harvesting. The number of trees in Canada works out to 16 trees for every person.  Canada also plants at  an average of more than 2 trees for every tree the industry harvested.

A silviculture system covers all management activities related to growing forests – from early planning through harvesting, replanting and tending the new forest.  Silviculture is the art and science of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, and quality of forest vegetation for the full range of forest resource objectives.  The policy guideline for silviculture in Canada is sustaining environmental and economic values for the future.  Canada’s forest management policies and practices are among the most stringent in the world.

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A common method of logging in in Canada is clearcutting – harvesting and removal of an entire stand of trees. Although efficient, clearcutting poses a variety of environmental problems.  It can increase the harmful impact of wind and rain on local ecosystems; destroy valuable wildlife habitat used by pine martins, caribou, and other animals; and cause soil to become dry and overheated, which may in turn increase the risk of fire or interfere with seedling growth. Logging operations can also alter the chemical and physical makeup of nearby bodies of water and affect the health of fish and other aquatic species.

Since 1949, forest companies have been legally mandated to reforest harvested areas. Reforestation must occur within two years of harvesting. Tree planting operations typically occur between May and August, when conditions are right to plant trees and promote their survival through the winter months. Forest companies monitor trees for up to 14 years after planting, and conduct all work needed to help ensure survival to full maturity and successful forest renewal.  In most cases, the logging companies are required to regrow at least two trees for every one they harvest. Sometimes companies plant five or six trees for every harvested tree. The reason for this is that many of the seedlings may not survive their first few years, so planting extra trees ensures that enough will survive to replace what is harvested.

Harvesting too many trees can be harmful to the forest, but with careful planning, harvesting trees can actually make the forests healthier. Clearing out old trees makes space for new trees to grow, continuing the life cycle.  Many animals like deer, moose, and elk prefer younger forests with  new vegetative growth to feed on.  The younger trees are less prone to diseases and invasive insects like the mountain pine beetle.

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If we only had old trees in our forest, it wouldn’t be very healthy or diverse. In the picture above, you can see patches of forest that are at very different stages of growth. There are older trees which provide habitat for the wild animals and there are young trees too.

Forest harvesting involves cutting trees and delivering them to sawmills, pulp mills and other wood-processing plants. The operations include road construction, logging and log transportation. Years of planning go into deciding when and which parts of the forest will be harvested and how this will occur, all to ensure that these activities are carried out in a manner consistent with protecting social and environmental values. The specifics of forest harvesting would depend on the region and type of forest. 

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The forest industry builds thousands of kilometers of logging roads each year.  All these roads require planning and surveying. They must be constructed to minimize erosion, protect water quality and cause the least impact on the forest growing site.

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The lumber harvested and the timber products of the industry’s mills are transported mostly by rail or road.  Waterways are also used to move lumber by floating them downstream, tied in a raft formation or by powered barges. The trans-Canadian railway line connecting the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast runs through this area.

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Forest fire is the nature’s way of deforestation.  These fires help return valuable nutrients to the soil that helps a natural rebirth.  Some pine cones need high temperatures to help burst open to facilitate their seeds to disperse.  Fires help the undergrowth exposure to sunlight, making them grow better.  Such fires naturally occur in forests every 150 to 250 years. 

Regulated and dedicated efforts by various Canadian government agencies and the timber industry can only sustain the forest wealth of the country.  The efforts are in the right direction to ensure ecological balance  and also to ensure that these forests would thrive through for future generations.