Monthly Archives: December 2016

Somewhere Up Meander River Way

For the past couple weeks, in my part of the world, there has been a disheartening deep freeze. That damn “polar vortex”. Or for those whose memories stretch past this decade’s latest fad, or don’t care about feigning a peripheral knowledge of meteorology, it’s more cozily known as a “Canadian winter”.

Nationalities aside, we are talking about temperatures that are unfriendly to a hairless ape. At -25⁰C (-13⁰F) to -40⁰C (-40⁰F), the outside becomes intolerable very quickly. At the bottom of the range, the inside of your nostrils freeze, your eyelids feel cold, and your fingers become utterly useless unless they are bound in mitts or gloves.

The coldest wind chill I personally experienced was just below -50⁰C. But you don’t need to get to those extremes to empathize. The experiential difference between -25⁰C and -50⁰C is often negligible. It’s the difference of a few minutes of toleration. It’s fucking cold.

So when I am out, unable to feel my face, I often wonder what the hell all those pioneers were thinking. Who thought Europeanized “civilization” belonged in a place where the air hurts your skin?

And I think even more fundamentally about all the people who called the northernmost reaches of Turtle Island home for millennia.

For many First Nations, centuries of oppression and white-washing have rendered them not all that different than the paler naked apes who have flung their shit all over the place. Biologically speaking, it is difficult to discern whether aboriginal peoples are better equipped than any other human from any other continent to manage the cold. With that said, I am sure there are some epigenetic triggers from living in the northern environment generation after generation.

But I will assume we are all equitable, from the perspective of the overall energy system we consider an individual human being. I assume there is biological adaptation, but no super-human difference (I am open to compelling evidence otherwise). No difference, particularly after any cultural techniques to bear the cold were forcefully rubbed out by residential schools. Particularly after the environment that influenced those genetics for so long changed so quickly.

But where Wasichu have high-efficiency natural gas furnaces and pink insulation, First Nations often have woodstoves and plywood walls.

segó͔łį gots’ę jo͔ deneilé

“I lived here since I was born”

So my mind, detached from my frostbitten senses, goes to a Dene Tha’ community in northern Alberta, where earlier this year I was wandering around with hurt in my heart and a chill in my bones (my cold tolerance was lower then, the freezing point felt brutal).

I had Meander River, AB specifically marked as a stop on our road trip to the Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada. If you are travelling through Alberta, there are two ways into the Territories. The more travelled route is Highway 35. Also known as the Mackenzie Highway, it heads north from High Level, AB (once poised as the new capital city of Canada II), until it turns into Highway 1 at the Territorial border but maintains its moniker until Fort Simpson, NWT.

Even Wikipedia notes Meander River, AB is a highway service centre on that route. Otherwise, there is a stretch of ~175 km (109 mi) between the gas stations in High Level and the gas station at Indian Cabins, which is the last stop for gas before Enterprise, ~100 km (62 mi) north.

If we could gas up in Meander River, we could get to our campsite in the NWT for the night, and gas up in nearby Enterprise the next morning. It was all set.

Dark was a few hours away, but it had been dim all day and had rained steady the day before. We woke to more of the same. As we crossed degrees of latitude the air became chillier and some of the rain became sleet. I fueled up in Fort Vermilion, AB and passed clean through bustling High Level.

It started raining again when we detoured off the highway around bridge construction, off the asphalt and onto the red clay that lay underneath the dense forest we were starting to see more regularly. I knew I had 151 km (94 mi) to Meander River. Right around the sign that said 1 km Up Ahead I prepared myself.

And then I saw the 1 km Up Ahead sign again, in my sideview mirror. We passed no gas station, no highway service centre. I pulled over on an approach, rocking our 1973 Boler as I cranked us around to head south. I drove slower this time, and passed both signs for Meander River again without seeing so much as another vehicle on the highway.

I made another U-turn and decided to take the first unmarked road after the sign. There was another unmarked road further north. These were the only access points to the town. I took us on a loop, trying to keep my bearings and hoping I didn’t run into any dead ends–turning the Boler around was a pain in the ass.

Behind an outcrop of trees we started seeing houses. They were large and spaced out. They weren’t surveyed on proper streets, it seemed, but their placements seemed to work. There were outcroppings of the town, undulating westwards to the Meander River.

This reserve was not unlike other reserves I have been on. It appeared neglected, with a noticeable need for up-keep. Siding was missing, windows were busted, shingles peeled, cars rusted, garbage clumped in tall grasses. There were cars at almost all the houses, but it felt like a ghost town.

The road I took looped us back to the Mackenzie Highway. At this northern access, there was the service centre. But where there would have been pavement or gravel or something to drive on, there was grass and weeds. The pumps stood in the middle of the clearing, white and shiny.

I parked on the road and took a walk around the abandoned gas station. The door to the store was locked. The windows were covered with plywood, except one. The interior was gutted. I checked the pumps. Their Measurement Canada inspection was still valid. The pumps looked hardly used.

The cold was making me paranoid. This was no place to spend the night, mostly because it would be below zero that night and we would feel it inside the un-insulated Boler. We would later find out from a woman in Hay River that they didn’t ever want to end up stranded on the Mackenzie Highway. Too many anecdotes of sexual assaults on that long, lonesome highway [Note: I wasn’t able to find anything to link, though].

No gas at Meander River made this leg of the journey ~250 km (155 mi). That doesn’t sound so bad, but on a loaded crossover’s 55 L tank hauling a 1000 lb Boler with headwinds on the western jogs, it was cutting it a little closer than I liked. If there were troubles at Indian Cabins getting gas, we would have another ~100 km (62 mi) to Enterprise which we probably would not make.

Cell coverage was spotty. I could load a map, but not do much with it. I have done most of my travelling without the crutch of everything a Google search away, so it didn’t bother me. I was in a town and there was bound to be someone around that could help me.

So I left the car parked and went for a walk into Meander River. I could go north and check out some houses, but there were some on the same road I was on. So I started for the first house. There were four vehicles parked in front of the house. There was no noise from inside but I knocked anyway. When no one came to the door, I started to the next house.

On my way a black pick-up truck was coming down the road. I made eye contact with the driver and waved to him. He took a corner and disappeared.

Before I reached the next house, I could hear people. That was promising. There were no windows on the top floor, so I could track down the voices to a corner room. There must have been about a half dozen people. They were shouting at each other. Screaming, and it didn’t sound like anyone was listening. The television played infomercials on full blast, filling in the space of what sounded like a party.

There was a thin bed sheet that looked like it was meant to cover the window, but it did nothing. Half of it hung out the window, the rest of it barely attached to the rod. The icy rain blew into the room, and still they all shouted like it was just another Saturday afternoon in Meander River.

I tried to outdo their roar. I shouted Hello! and Yo! and Can I get some help? and Anyone there?

That last question seemed stupid. No one was there. At least not for me.

I eventually found someone on a bicycle, who felt safest shouting at me across a patch of tall grass that was too wet for either of us to cross. She was perfectly fine with me not getting any closer. She was already on her bicycle and heading away before she finished explaining that I couldn’t get gas until Indian Cabins.

On my way back to the vehicle, I passed the house with no windows. They were no quieter. I tried to get their attention again. I wanted to ask them about the windows. If they were planning on replacing them. It was only fall, things would get colder. What would they do in January? What happened to all the snow that came in through the windows? Were they okay? Was there anything I could do?

That last question seemed stupid. Of course they were not okay. And there was nothing I could do.

Things became colder, of course. Like, 40⁰C colder. In that cold, when each icy breath rasps the back of my throat, and my hands became bricks, and frost starts to build on my eyelashes, I think back to that house with no windows in Meander River.

The memory doesn’t stop the cold. Doesn’t help my sunless mood, either. Whether I shunt reality or try to embrace it, I have to live through it all the same. And maybe that was what they were doing in that house that afternoon. They were living through it, all the same. Heat-trapping windows be damned.

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On Where to Stick Your Free Parks Canada Discovery Pass

WARNING: This blog entry contains unapologetically elitist opinions. Reasonable arguments are included, but I’m going to make you read through my opinion first.

About a week ago, Canadian news reported that the Parks Canada website had crashed when traffic overwhelmed its servers. The reason for the traffic? The free Discovery Pass up for grabs in 2017.

The Liberal government announced that, as part of its platform and in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary, national parks and historic sites would be free for every Canadian citizen. It was a very minor platform plank, something to tout Canadian heritage and maybe win over some newer Canadians who feel disconnected with the natural abundance of our great landscape.

A minor platform plank—but for me, this was a sticking point. And it still is.

Before the 2015 election, my father and I were standing in Banff National Park, waiting for the Canada Day parade. He offhandedly brought up this policy idea. I didn’t even have to tell him how stupid of a platform plank that was. He just had to look around.

For those not in the know, Canada Day is probably the worst time to visit the mountain parks. The crowds become mobs, drivers become the me-first-and-fuck-you-very-much kind of motorists you find in any city, and the roadside attractions become mere backdrops for narcissistic selfies. I put up with the parade for my parents. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be within earshot of the place.

In brief, the Banff townsite becomes a diorama of everything I find sad about modern society. And the Liberal government only wants to proliferate this tragic diorama.

Let me unpack that statement a little. I am no old stock Canadian, fearful of immigrants starting to infiltrate parks and historical sites. Despite that—or at least, despite the image propagated by the Liberal government—I am an avid outdoorsman, hopelessly devoted to the Canadian landscape.

That doesn’t mean I am the best at everything outdoors, or that I have fancy expensive equipment. In fact, I pack lo-fi gear as a rule. My friends ask for gear tips for the backcountry, and I have nothing to offer them.

Quite frankly, you only need two things to enjoy nature: the capacity to be present, and a will to survive.

And let’s face it. Our society has a massive attention deficit problem. As a culture, we do not have the capacity to be present. It’s just not a value that is promoted. Even the Lululemon aphorisms or optimistic Instagram quotes about ‘staying in the moment’ are bullshit lip service. The true capacity to remain focused, and to maintain that focus for a prolonged period, is very difficult.

I don’t claim to have this capacity any more than you. But I sure do value it. And our national parks, typically being the largest, wildest places a public citizen can visit, offer a brilliant opportunity to practice. There’s no better place to get in touch with your animalistic nature than being wildly unprepared in a place that offers no help, no comfort, no easy way out.

Trudeau sees—or so he says—an opportunity for new and old Canadians alike to get to know their country. What does that mean, in our current cultural mode, for a place like Banff National Park? It means more commercial properties, more roads so we don’t have to actually walk, more intrusion, more fragmented ecosystems, more big name brand stores so you can shop for the same shit you would buy in any suburban mall—but with a mountain in the background!

National Geographic had a lengthy look this year at how this same model operates in Yellowstone National Park. With the intent to try to infuse nature back into our lives, we impose our lives on that very nature and hope that seeing it in small glimpses out the side of a tour bus will be the placebo we need.

I will say, from personal experience, this opera glass experience is useless. If you go into the wild and don’t break a sweat, or feel lost, or get the minutest sense that all your synthesized identities are a facade of the mind, to convince itself it is something other than nature—forgetting you are nature—well, you might as well throw in an episode of Planet Earth in between binge-watching the newest season of Fuller House.

That’s my elitism about it. No Kardashians allowed, basically.

Now for a little more reason.

It is easy to forget that little over a year ago, Canadians had a very different federal government. Not only was our national leader a lot less prone to selfies, he had a fundamentally different approach to our natural resources. For the Harper regime, Parks Canada was just another department that needed to cut its budget…you know, so Harper could spend money saving Christians and advertising about how great it is.

Since 2012, Parks Canada had its budget drastically cut, seeing 600 jobs lost, winter service suspended for many locations, and a doubling of entry rates. More than $27M was cut from the 2014/2015 budget, even though Parks Canada identified a $2.8B backlog of maintenance and repair work for its buildings in “poor and very poor” condition. At the same time, Parks Canada generated $3.3B for the economy, spread across 400 communities in the country. And still, Harper let it bleed out.

Now, after all these cuts, the Trudeau government is throwing open the gates. Harper starved the beast, and now Trudeau is putting it on display in a cage.

Revenues account for ~25%  of Parks Canada’s permanent budget, with approximately half of this revenue from entry fees. This ~12.5% will need to be accounted for by the federal government, so in a way, we’re all paying anyway. But what’s worse is that the use of government funding is notoriously inefficient. Generated revenues are probably the most carefully spent 25% of the budget. Will this be the same when it’s coming from government coffers?

That doesn’t matter to Trudeau and Catherine McKenna, because they obsess that the experience isn’t accessible. How is a decimated public service going to be any more accessible to people? How is overcrowding and development of a wild area going to help that? Should this experience be easily accessible?

Liberal MP John Aldag, formerly in parks management, put it best: “[…] when you do have crowding conditions, it impacts the entire visitor experience and it can have ecological or cultural integrity impacts.” The current visitor experience manager for Banff National Park echoed these concerns.

Aldag’s solution? “In some ways, it’s managing visitor experience.”

Oh ok, great. So in order to gain an experience of our national parks and historic sites, we have to compromise that experience. That makes a lot of sense.

Overall, this minor opinion won’t change a minor policy. So I am appealing to you, dear Reader.

Sure, take advantage of whatever bonus the government is providing. They are few and far between. But don’t be an asshole about it. Go to the parks, see the sites, but leave some of your civilization at home. Park your car (if you can find parking), leave behind your entitlement for comfort and convenience, and try to immerse yourself in our natural wonder.

Value that experience that can’t be had anywhere else. You can manage your own experience, without compromise, without the government patting you on the back and saying “You’re a real Canadian now!” Make this more than a reprise of a Black Friday sale.

 

Think radicals like me shouldn’t have so much to say about Parks Canada? Then get in on this federal consultation on the Parks Canada Agency Act, because you’re fucking right that I’m bringing my opinion: http://www.letstalkparkscanada.ca/