Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas in Kiwi , or maybe Hobbit, Land

 Andrew, Joy and I, not the Magi, but also drawn by a (southern) star made a long journey to enjoy our family Christmas this year. Starting from just below the Arctic Circle we left a -30C Whitehorse early in the morning and, over the next 72 hours, crossed the Tropic of Cancer, the Equator, the International Date Line and the Tropic of Capricorn, thus pretty much covering off the whole of grade 8 geography. Air New Zealand, festooned with Hobbit land paraphenalia, claimed we'd arrived in Middle Earth where we stopped for snack before the final leg to Christchurch.

The whole point of the trip was to become acquainted with our first grandchild, Hector Mason. We found him with his Dad relaxing under a shady tree in the back garden. Erin and Stephen's world has contracted around a new centre and we were pleased to join them for a grand Christmas day.

We opened presents. Not surprisingly most were for Hector, though all of us got a treat or two. The sheer joy of having a multi-generation Christmas did not overshadow my own nostalgic reflections of Christmases where I've been the child, the adolescent, the adult and the parent. Now I'd crossed another line on a different kind of, and much longer, journey through life. What a delightful experience this has been. Life, especially new life, is wonderful stuff.

A New Zealand Christmas is usually at the beach. This year though our arrival in the middle of Christmas morning, and the coolness of the day - only +20C, meant we'd settle for a picnic in the backyard.

After our Christmas meal, it was time to play with Hector, again, and we all took turns practising jumps, flying and talking. His grins, and yawns, were infectious and we enjoyed a very mellow afternoon.

Then it was Hector's turn for a snack and a nap. And "after dinner the Uncles lay out in the sunshine, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept."
Zombie and Andrew do the Uncle thing.
Later, in the evening, all refreshed from naps and walks, we settled in for the traditional Kiwi pavlova. A great start to a family visit in New Zealand.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Freeze-up: Ice crystals and slush

The Takhini River throwing ice into the Yukon in late October.
Gilbert White's introduction to his Natural History of Selborne (1789) describes the benefits of careful observation of the world about us. His letters provide a collection of lyrical epistles on the natural landscape of a small corner of southern England. White, a product of the Enlightenment, was sure much could be learned from nature through simple observation and the application of human reason. He also sounds an 18th century clarion call to fulfill a long time wish of mine; the examination of the freeze-up of the Yukon River. 

"The Author of the following Letters takes the liberty, with all proper deference, of laying before the public his idea of parochial history, which he thinks, ought to consist of natural productions and occurrences as well as antiquities. He is also of the opinion that if stationary men would pay some attention to the districts on which they reside, and would publish their thoughts respecting the objects that surround them, from such materials might be drawn the most complete county histories.... If the writer should appear to have induced any of his readers to pay a more ready attention to the wonders of the Creation, too frequently overlooked as common occurrences; or if he should by any means, through his researches, have lent a helping hand towards the enlargement of the boundaries of historical and topographical knowledge... his purpose will be fully answered."

I have two copies of White's book. A lovely illustrated version of the letters published in 1993 which I like on the shelf but rarely look at and, my first copy, a soldier's edition published by Penguin in the early days of the Second World War. Clare Leighton's nostalgic wood engravings of the English countryside illustrate the book. The most striking image however is the front inside cover advertisement. Apparently the British Army was convinced that troops imbued with rational thought, cogent powers of observation and healthy teeth would be more than a match for the poor Germans burdened with Mein Kampf.

No doubt a trophy from Dunkirk.
Having recently retired from full time work, that is, I am now a "stationary man," I felt I ought to approach my district and publish thoughts respecting the objects that surround me. Under White's guidance I spent two weeks observing the freeze-up of the Yukon River just north of Whitehorse. I purposefully did not talk to my hydrologist friend nor did I check the internet for background. I would join Gilbert in spirit and the two of us would wander the river bank to watch the water, rising and falling, flowing and foaming, and gradually stiffening into the ice which will stay until spring.

On October 29 I noted that both the Takhini and Yukon rivers were low. The wide banks showed a drop of a metre or more from summer high water, and the tempestuous rapids broke up the moving sheets of ice.

From my vantage point at the end of the Takhini River I saw rounded pans of ice. It appeared that larger sheets of ice, probably formed on Kusawa Lake upstream, entered the river. As the ice banged against other flows and the river banks the sheets were tinkered into round flan pans, with raised edges of crushed ice, which spun crazily in the current.

The Yukon River just below the Takhini confluence.
The Yukon River is free of ice until the pans from the Takhini entered. Below the confluence the pans traced a river in a river as the cooler water of the Takhini swung back and forth across the Yukon River waters around it. Although the Yukon River also has a lake as its source the Whitehorse hydro electric dam both stops the ice and the friction of the water blasting through the turbines appears to raise the temperature to keep ice forming for some distance down river.
A floating mat of connected ice pans.
A little further downstream the river curves north and a large back eddy collects ice pans too close to the edge of the current. These gradually coalesce into a knobbly ice sheet lightly attached to the small shelf of shore ice. The current line is clearly marked by the smooth edge of the sheet.

Getting close to the shore ice shows its very different pattern of crystallization. The ice is black, lacking the air which has been absorbed by the pans during their journey. And the ice crystals are clearly visible in three dimensions, imperfections on the ice surface acting as anchors for the condensation of the moist river air as it passes over the shore ice. These intricate and delicate, feather-like structures rise a centimetre into the air.

Nearby Little Takhini Creek, its water source up Heckel Hill, seen in the distance, now frozen, has dwindled to a slow trickle below a thin sheet of icy snow. And down by the Yukon River the stones from the fall's campfires are still visible and the water flows on unmindful of the winter to come.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Set in Stone: Completing the Family Cobble Patio

I finished the cobble patio in late September. My final design varied from my original plan for a couple of reasons. I had envisioned a four pointed star but as work progressed I struggled to come up with a reason for a western point. The eastern point was obvious, it pointed at the house and so was the way home. If you want another beer, you headed east. And the cobbles weren't the best thing to put a picnic table on. I also admitted that perhaps the romance of setting cobbles had some limits. I substituted much easier to lay large squares of cut stone.

Fire is the centre of the patio. A fixed, unending circle, providing life supporting heat and light, the fire is the love between my wife, Joy, and I. Without it there wouldn't be much point to anything else in the circle. Much of what brings meaning to my life wouldn't even exist without this fire.

The Polaris point addressed my own fascination with the night sky. I enhanced this quadrant by infilling with black, a crescent moon and the Big Dipper. The red cobble outlines mark the sunrise and sunset of the summer solstice. I thought about adding equivalents for the winter solstice but figured they would be under a metre of snow during their time of relevance so let it go. The quadrant also speaks to my affection for my far away sky daughter, Celeste.

The home quadrant is a metaphor of the Yukon's cultural diversity. It includes shards of Italian clay planters, volcanic pumice from the Yukon River shallows below Robert Service campground, a large flat slate from the top of Grey Mountain carried out by hiking group friends, a set of colourful rocks from the McQueston River where my son, Andrew, and I launched our Magician's Nephew river tour of spring, 1992 and the CBC mug I won for a story about my Siberian auntie. The coffee mugs are especially attractive to the two little girls from next door who regularly dig them up to see what's in them. I plan to add a "cache" of goodies to the mugs for next summer's explorations. Surely the natural and cultural diversity of our home is something that should be enjoyed and shared.

The southerly point is actually a bearing of 220 degrees True North, a line connecting Whitehorse with Christchurch, New Zealand, the home of our children, Stephen and Erin, and new grandchild, Hector. The point marker is a heavy ceramic electrical insulator which Stephen and I wrestled off a recalcitrant broken fence post abandoned beside the road. What odd ways we stay connected - Blog, Facebook, Mother's emails, your emails, Skype, occasional  visits - each offering snatches of a full lived reality, each disconnected from the other, yet all speaking to what is going on and how we doing.

If I understood how to manage these I'd probably keep my blog much more up to date. Instead I have a backlog of great ideas and experiences, some eventually get posted, most just drifting off like the wake ripples behind a canoe. In the same way we each have our own lives and they are full. We share what is interesting, new or meaningful and let the bulk of the routine that envelopes us become as invisible to others as it is to us.

Winter arrived earlier this week. Today the patio is under 25cm of snow. The wind plate in the fire pit is still visible but the yard has turned to a smooth white surface that will lighten our winter nights by reflecting moon, stars and aurora.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Bran Muffins - Gray Day Comfort Food

On a day like this its nice to turn the oven on.
 October can sometimes be mild but this year it has decided to be windy, cold and snowy. The potted rosemary and thyme have been brought into the kitchen window, the new raised bed remains unfilled, the compost and soil frozen solid before I had a chance to shovel in. I was too frantic trying to get the potatoes out of the garden before they froze. This morning it was -10, there was thick overcast and more fresh snow blown over the cars. As I made my coffee I knew it was time for bran muffins.

Coffee is an essential element in successful muffin making.
I started baking muffins about 25 years ago, maybe more, maybe less, I don't remember stuff like that. But for a long time I've been making bran muffins. I made them in earnest when our kids were small and just kept it up. Served up hot with butter or cheese or cream cheese they were popular. As time went on I moved beyond the traditional raisin bran muffin and started adding cornmeal (adding a little crunch), sunflower seeds, blueberries, cranberries, what ever we had in the house. This morning I added some salty green seeds I found in the cupboard, not sure what they were, tasty though. Might have been pumpkin.

Fresh bran muffin with a lovely aged herb Gouda left behind by some generous dinner guests.
The Recipe
In the busy days I'd get the dry ingredients ready the night before so that I could get up and have the muffins in the oven in about ten minutes in the morning. The kids seemed to like them for breakfast and it made me feel like I was actually being a parent - straying up late and putting hot food in their bellies.
  • milk                                    185 ml
  • cornmeal                             60 ml
  • unsifted all-purpose flour     185 ml
  • baking powder                       8 ml
  • baking soda                           3 ml
  • salt                                       3 ml  (less if adding salted seeds)
  • butter                                  60 ml 
  • brown sugar                      125 ml
  • molasses                            60 ml
  • eggs                                     2 
  • raw natural bran                375 ml
  • raisins/seeds/berries         125 ml
Preheat oven to 375' F.
Mix cornmeal and milk and let stand.
Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl.
Place butter, brown sugar, molasses and eggs in a large bowl and beat 2 or 3 minutes until creamy and blended.
 With beater slow add milk/cornmeal, flour mix, bran and raisins/seeds/berries until just mixed.
Turn mixture into an oiled muffin tin. Makes a dozen large muffins.
Bake for 18 minutes.


Friday, October 5, 2012

Baldwin House - Erickson's 1963 Modern Home

Baldwin House nestled in forest on the south shore of Deer Lake.
We are spending Thanksgiving week at Baldwin House, an early Arthur Erickson design epitomizing his development of the West Coast style. Combining Scandanavian and Japanese features in a rain forest environment, the house has been an interesting dwelling place.

Burnaby, British Columbia, can be proud of their greenspaces. A part of the lower mainland of the Fraser River valley, the city has some old parks, but it has also reclaimed property from earlier industrial and institutional uses. The western shores of Deer Lake were, from 1912 to 1991, the site of the Oakalla maximum security prison farm. Only traces of the prison remain in the park, most buried beneath a large condominium development on the remainder of the site.

Built into the steep lake slope, Baldwin House is experienced as a series of cascades.
Across Deer Lake there was already a suburban development of small holdings that has more recently transformed into a densely packed urbanscape of single family houses. Eagles Estate, a lovely English style bungalow set in a large garden built in 1930, is a remnant of the older community. Built for Blyth and Violet Eagles, the house was sold onto the City of Burnaby in 1993 when Violet passed away. The building and its maintained gardens are now the regional offices of The Land Conservancy of BC. The TLC is also the manager of Baldwin House.

The Living Room with its original furnishings and finishes.
The Baldwins, friends of Arthur Erickson, commissioned the house in 1963, the same year the Erickson/Massey firm was surprised to win the contract for the design of Simon Fraser University campus. The house has a stepped concrete foundation, the rough faces generally covered with cedar panelling or stone tiles but two lower slabs still show the rough plank formwork. Rising from the foundation almost like a mist are vertical glass plates and horizontal cedar beams. Looking out from the house offers beautifully framed views of the lake and the changing sky.

Evening, a dramatic sky and views of Grouse Mountain.
Early morning, an aura of calm and peace. Nice to have a canoe.
Artful views are offered from every room.
The range of materials, textures and colours offer an interesting contrast with the natural setting of the house.
Living in a fish bowl.
The City of Burnbaby runs an active recreational education program at Deer Lake. Every weekday large numbers of middle school students launch canoes and head out on a voyage. We were surprised to find that the first stop was always the little cove of Baldwin House. With some 80 young eyes all staring through the transparent walls of the house we were glad that we'd already dressed.

A week in Baldwin house allowed us to appreciate the skill and thought that went into the design and orientation of this dwelling. It is not a house offering comfort and security - definitely not in the pioneer tradition of refuge. Rather the structure engages it's occupants with the forest, water and life about it.

Standing by the edge of the floor - the glass offering no sense of wall - you are not watching nature, you are a part of it. The house was at its best in early dawn, watching lake mist rise and obscuring shore, tree and mountain, offering a blank slate and then the sun tints the opposite shore, the mist evaporates to reveal the new day. And in the evening with the red sky reflected in the water and calling for thoughts on the acts and passions of the day just passed.

Perhaps a week of clear skies and bright sunshine was an unusual event in Burnaby but we will have to return to see and experience Erickson's invisible house in the rain.

The house appears to float in its watery setting. Erickson claimed Dal Lake in Kashmir as an inspiration for Baldwin House.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Yukon River and Land Use Planning

The confluence of the White and Yukon Rivers.
About 160 years ago the first Euro-Canadian newcomers entered the upper Yukon basin looking for furs. And aside from a couple of exceptions - the Klondike Gold Rush 1897-1899, the construction of the Alaska Highway in WWII and post-war mining booms, few others have followed. Today the Yukon Territory is home to almost 36,000 people, both First Nation and Newcomers. The Yukon, although 1/3 larger than Germany, has a population of 81,823,000 less people. The Yukon is considered lightly populated.

This small population is largely centered in the capital, Whitehorse (27,300) with 13 towns and villages scattered through the rest of the territory. One interesting feature of this low density of population is the almost complete absence of private property holdings outside the small area comprising these 14 communities. The bulk of the land is held by government - national, territorial and First Nation - and is mostly empty of people.

Several forest fires have swept through the middle Yukon River valley in the past ten years.

There has never been a comprehensive plan for the development of the territory. In many ways the North in Canada was seen as an open resource frontier. Mineral claims, timber leases and protected areas have been carved out of the territory to meet various economic and social needs, rarely with much thought about the future.

With settlement of a treaty between Canada and Yukon First Nations this situation has been changed. The Agreement, finalized in 1990, lays out a program of regional land use planning to ensure that thoughtful and community sensitive developments take place in the future. There is a territorial Land Use Planning Council to support regional bodies undertaking the plans. And slowly the plans are being worked on. A plan for the Yukon North Slope has been completed, a second is currently mired in controversy, while a third, for the Dawson Region along the Yukon River, is just getting underway.

Recently I was invited to join this third planning group on an investigative trip along the Yukon River.

The Minto mine has begun production and uses this barge to get its ore trucks across the Yukon River and down the highway to Skagway, Alaska for shipment out to refiners.
Recently heavy mining activity along the river valley has been sparked by high gold and base metal prices. There are no roads in much of the area of interest so everything is brought in either by plane or by river barge. The Yukon River hasn't been this busy since the river boats stopped operating in the early 1950s when the still basic road network was completed.

In the course of our three day trip we saw four large barges supplying the isolated prospecting and mining camps. They are hauling lumber for camp construction and supplies but the largest loads are diesel fuel for equipment and electricity production. One ore body currently under development will require a power plant delivering more electricity than the territory's three hydro-electric dams and remote diesel generators now generate. See the Yukon Conservation Society's dynamic graphic showing the mineral staking rush between 2009 and 2011. There are some major changes coming up soon.

Cowboy Smith's barge just below Minto hauling propane and diesel fuel to remote mining and prospecting camps.
Smith's barge continuing on upstream.
The river also holds recreational values and an important international tourist experience. It is a popular canoe trip for both locals and visitors from around the world. On our family's river trips over the years we've met paddlers from Germany France, Britain, Japan and many other countries. The trip between Whitehorse and Dawson takes about two weeks with camping on sand bars, historic Fort Selkirk and old wood camp and roadhouse sites.

The bluff across the river from Fort Selkirk.
The river was high so paddlers have been moving swiftly downstream this summer.
A cabin at Fort Selkirk.
Fort Selkirk is co-owned and managed by the Selkirk First Nation and the Yukon Government.
The river maintains an ecological integrity of great value. Hunting and fishing remain important First Nation cultural and subsistence practices. While well paying jobs in industrial development are welcome Yukon communities remain conscious of the importance of the natural world they live in.

Moose cow and calf on the river bank.
Storm clouds hang on the hills overlooking the river valley.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Seeking Solid Ground - a cobble patio

Building a cobble patio, rebuilding a sense of worth.
On April 30 I was informed that my career with Parks Canada was over. As part of the Government of Canada's economic strategy large numbers of civil servants will be made redundant over the next three years. In a curious reversal of my youth - generally the last chosen for the team - I was among the first selected for the "transition team." I remain uncertain still as to who or what's transition is being referenced in our name. There was a pang of anxiety and self-doubt on making the team, but my personal identity as a worker is more wrapped up in my profession as a historian than as a government employee. Still I needed to work a few things out.

Our backyard has a fire pit. The flat our house and fire pit sit in is carved into the side of an esker, a long snake-like ridge of stones and dirt deposited by the retreating glaciers of the last ice age. The fire pit sits on the raw sandy earth surrounded by picnic table and suitable sitting stumps. It's always been comfortable but now I needed that space changed.

My inspiration came from our 2011 stay at Lutrell's Tower on The Solent, facing the Isle of Wight.
We had a magnificent view from the tower and a beautiful cobble patio where I lounged and read books in the uncharacteristically hot and sunny weather of an English autumn.

I ordered up trucks, there's nothing like ordering up big trucks to rebuild the shattered ego of a man. Loads of crushed rock, sand and cobbles appeared as giant hills in our back yard. Shortly after the two little girls next door - "I'm five years old, and I have some skis and they are red. I like baseball and that's my little sister" - arrived to investigate and claim the top of the sand pile.
Work gets underway. A steel ring now fixes the fire in one spot. No longer a campfire that can wander about, my psychological need for a solid foundation overrules flexibility.
I select a four petal blossom pattern from the isle of Santorini as an inspiration and layout arches to the cardinal points. I sort out the cobbles, gradually making four piles of stones - greenish, whitish, blackish and a few reddish. There is a great deal of satisfaction in handling each individual cobble. They range in size from fig to grapefruit, each with its own texture and an extraordinary range of striations, inclusions and fractures. I kneel in the sand studying each one, turning it over, wondering when its glacial journey began and where it passed before ending here. Don, my geologist friend, has offered to come by and tell me the stories of the rocks.

But for now I take each cobble, scoop a hollow in the loose sand with my hand, and place it adjacent to the previous one, creating outlines and filling sections. It is extraordinary to me how a single cobble placed in sand will roll and slide but by placing them next to each other in the sand, not quite touching, a firm hard platform is created. What I really appreciate however, is that there is nothing bonding the sheet together beyond some sort of natural co-dependency. The patio surface is eminently flexible, forever malleable and changeable. This too is an important epiphany.

Setting True North with a glass insulator marking the direction of Polaris. Millions of years from now astronomical archaeologists will be able to date the patio to the Anthropocene. A pathetic desire to be recognized long into the future. Why else work with rocks?
My hubris calls down an unseasonable mid-May snowfall.
By the end of May I have three points nearly completed. There is satisfaction in what I have accomplished but an awareness of the size of the project I've started. Some revisions maybe necessary.