Thursday, November 16, 2017

Lake Louise & The Beehives

A short track from the crowds at Lake Louise leads via a couple of lovely lakes up to two mountain viewpoints known as 'The Beehives', Big and Little Beehives in fact.

The viewpoint on Big Beehive, from the Little Beehive. Note the smoke from the BC forest fires in the air.

Lake Louise bottom left, Lake Agnes hiding in under the peaks to the right.

Mirror Lake, blue, cold, beautiful and the site of a little tea house, which uses the Lake water to brew up hot, refreshing cuppas up in the mountains. Don't believe their website though.... they don't do coffee!

Looking down from the Little Beehive, over Lake Louise through thick forest fire smoke. The BC forest fires were so bad during the summer of 2017 that friends in Edmonton could smell it clearly and scientists monitoring air quality on the East Coast could detect it too.

Silty delta where the river flows into the blue, waters of Lake Louise.

Final view through the smoke towards the hotel, from the descent path on the Beehives walk.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Book Notes: Calum's Road by Roger Hutchinson

Calum's Road is one of those books that I have been aware of for a very long time, but wish I had got around to reading long before now. I've never been to the island of Raasay, although I have sat and gazed across it from Skye, and watched the sunset behind it from the Applecross peninsula. Having read this book, I'm sure that next time I am in that part of the world I will have to explore it for myself, now that I have leaned so much about its people and history.

Calum MacLeod, was a crofter and lighthouse keeper who lived his whole life on the North end of the island. Calum's Road, after which this book is named, is the only connection between Brochel Castle in the south of the island, and South Arnish, Calum's home hamlet further North. The premise of the unlikely, but true, story is that this crofter built a road up the island, by hand, using a pick a shovel and wheelbarrow; because nobody else would. The book though, tells a broader story than just one unique man's ambitious project.

Roger Nicholson, in his narrative, weaves between images of Calum MacLeod, alone in the landscape, smashing rocks, levelling land, building walls, and drainage ditches; with the long and painful history of Rasaay - and the story of why a road was necessary here. He tells a tale of brutal Highland Clearances, of Scots landlords preferring the cash income from sheep to the presence of crofters. He explains the depopulation of the south of the island, and the cramming of the locals into the rough and hard ground of the North, and the construction of a wall to divide the poor land from the hunting estates to the South. He speaks of the men of the island (and adjoining islands of Rhona and Fladda) going away to world-wars, and returning, to little improvement. A succession of absentee landlords and English mineral companies, then owned the island, seeing it, not as a home or a community, but as an anonymous asset. By the time Calum MacLeod began to build, the North of the island was almost empty; as better opportunities had lured successive families away to better land and easier access in Skye, or on the mainland. While huge numbers had been driven away to America and Canada in earlier emptyings, the final 20th Century emigration virtually ended human settlement in North Raasay. 

A long local campaign for a road to help revitalise the dying community fell on deaf ears at the Inverness County Council; as it would cost so much, and serve so few people. The inevitable logic of which meant that with every family who left because of the infrastructure problems,  the case for the expenditure became weaker. Calum MacLeod realised that unless he built a road, nobody would. 

The book, rather movingly then describes how he set out, after work at the lighthouse, and on his croft and built a few metres of road every day. Virtually unaided (he was given a hand dynamiting a couple of massive rocks in his path), he worked for a decade building his road -and gaining a media following as he did so. For six days a week he worked unstintingly; but never on a Sunday, which for a Highland Presbyterian was his Sabbath rest.  Retaining walls, earthworks, tight bends, bog-crossings all were achieved by hand. Finally the road, good enough for a land-rover was completed, and the Council agreed to top it with smooth tarmac. Sadly, it seems that by the time Calum's Road was complete, his was the only family left in the North of the island.

If Calum's Road is billed as a personal story of a unique character (MacLeod was a largely self-educated Gaelic writer who won several literary prizes when he wasn't road-building); it's also a case study of the challenges faced by remote communities. It highlights the problems of absentee landlords, and asset-strippers, and explains why people on the margins of the land so often resent those at the core of the power structures in far away cities. Charming and insightful in turns, Calum's Road is definitely worth a read.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Lake Louise

Lake Louise is beautiful, but incredibly busy; the car-parks are full to bursting, and the shoreline around the hotel is sometimes hard to walk along, such are the crowds. Nevertheless, every mile walked probably reduced the number of bodies in the way by about two-thirds, and so very little effort restores the sense of wild land.

Our visit to Lake Louise coincided with a series of terrible forest fires which raged across British Columia, back in the summer (Yes, these pictures are old - but I've been so busy I am still going through them!). Photos from our second day there are especially murky, as the smoke was so intense.

Looking back towards the Lake Louise hotel; built in the early twentieth century, there's no way they'd allow that kind development in such a location now!

Needless to say, we didn't stay at the Lake Louise Hotel, the cost of which for two night would have been about the same as half our holiday. We were in a very acceptable family room down at the Lake Louise Hostel. It's quite a place too, with a good cafe/bar, a cinema, pool room, lounge, as well as all the usual facilities. Free BBQ's out the back (from which this photo of the main building was taken) are a nice place to eat. One night we were there, they lit a huge bonfire out at the back of the building, and people from all all over the world sat together, ate, drank and chatted into the night. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Consolation Lake

If Lake Louise draws in the huge crowds, and Morraine Lake only a few hundred people, then the shirt walk from Morraine to Consolation leaves almost everyone behind. Lonely, beautiful landscape, covered in easy-to-navigate trails. Despite the warnings from the Park Rangers, we didn't see any bears. Either they weren't there, or we made sufficient noise as we walked through the woods to warn them away. The bear-spray was carried, there, and brought back unused!

The kids thought 'Constipation Lake' sounded better; so that is what it shall always be known as to us!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Morraine Lake

Like its more famous next-door-neighbour, Lake Louise; Morraine Lake is famous for its stunning mountainous backdrop, and dazzling brightly coloured water - which changes as the angle of the sun, and blue-ness of the sky, move around.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Book Notes: The Righteous, Unsung Heroes of The Holocaust by Martin Gilbert

The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of The Holocaust is a profoundly moving, indeed unforgettable book; but also a rather unusual one. Martin Gilbert is a historian of some repute, his studies of The Holocaust being widely lauded and indeed sold at places as important as the Memorial to The Murdered European Jews in central Berlin. His study entitled "Auschwitz and The Allies" is a brilliant work, examining the Nazis attempt to keep their 'final solution' secret, how news was leaked out; in order to answer the questions. "who knew what, when?" and "did they respond appropriately?" He finds that the Allies were hamstrung with lack of reliable information for much of the war, but could have done more to prevent the later deportations especially from Hungary; but that their sole objective at that stage was winning the war. (review here). "The Righteous" is completely different however, not just in terms of subject material - but also in terms of what the book sets out to accomplish. While 'Auschwitz and The Allies' was a book of sustained analysis, reason and argument; The Righteous, is more a collection of stories - more of a select archive than a history book. There is almost no analysis at all, other than some musings in the postscript. The vast bulk of the book is not even arranged chronologically or thematically, but geographically, all the stories from each nation being grouped together.

Describing the book in such terms is not however a criticism. Most of these stories simply stand on their own merits, and require very little explanation, but very careful recording and re-telling. The subject of the book, is the stories of those who helped hide Jews from the Nazis during the early 1940s; both in Germany-Austria. and in the many nations they occupied during WWII. Story after story,  painstakingly collected from survivors and curated at the Yad Vashem, of how ordinary people across Europe risked their lives to save the innocent from deportation to slavery and murder are recounted here.

Some of the images form the book are forever impressed on my mind. The Polish youngsters carrying food through the trees to a Jewish family hiding in the woods, to avoid leaving footprints in the snow which would alert the occupying SS; the Catholic Priest in Galicia forging Baptismal certificates to hide Jewish children in his church and convince the Nazis that they were Catholic orphans; the non-Jewish women marching in Berlin against the deportation of their Jewish husbands, the Dutch family with Jewish people concealed in their houses; the mass resistance to Nazi anti-Semitism in Hungary and Italy.. the British POW buying dead bodies and recycling their identities to Jews who escaped from the death camps. The stories and images go on and on and on; with countless unknowns alongside the Oscar Shindler's risking everything to save the innocent from evil. 

Of course, there are many tales which end happily; "She survived the war, and died in Chicago in 1978", or "now lives in Israel". There are of course many heart-rending stories where some brave, defiant person evaded capture for years; but was  betrayed, "sent to Sobibor and murdered upon arrival". Likewise, there are wonderful stories of Jewish people who survived and were re-united with those who saved them many years later, to recall the tales of digging secret shelters under barns, or concealed rooms in attic spaces. Again, there are dreadful stories of families who were summarily executed by the Nazis for their assistance in sheltering Jews from their 'actions'. Different people explained their motivations in different ways, most of them seeking to live out their core principles despite obvious and ghastly dangers; whether they were Catholics, Calvinists, Humanists, Nationalists, Communists, Lutherans, or in Albania, a Muslim. What united them was an overriding sense that there was no real decision to be made - as it was simply the right thing to do. Many of these have been designated as "Righteous Among the Nations" by the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Reading this book is a painful business. Each chapter details acts of incredible bravery, courage, and ingenuity - all of which was required because of the all pervasive evil of Nazism. Cases of individuals, families, groups, or even huge numbers being saved from the violent murderers of the SS fill every chapter and such rescues are hugely uplifting to read. Yet - each chapter contains sorry statistics revealing what a tiny proportion of the whole were saved by these massive, and risky efforts.

Reading this book is then a doubly painful business. It becomes clear that the Nazi obsession with exterminating Jewish people was what humanity looks like when stripped of all decency, accountability, empathy, normality and is infected with an evil ideology. That we are all part of this species which is capable of such barbarity, that we do not come into this world with some kind of immunity from such darkness is perplexing and disturbing. It was Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor who wrote, "It happened, therefore it could happen again". It occurred to me repeatedly a I read the book that the Nazi's were devoid not just of normal humanity, or morality; but also of any sense. The mass of resources and manpower they must have consumed pursuing the Final Solution, which was diverted from their efforts to win WWII, was staggering. That the power of hatred can become so all consuming makes for grim contemplation.

Then this book is trebly disturbing. Every story of a family taking a Jewish refugee in, of lying to the Gestapo, of passing food into ghettos, of smuggling children over borders is both gloriously uplifting, and exciting. That there was some light even in such darkness is liberating. Yet, as Gilbert says in the his afterword, the reader inevitably and constantly asks themselves, "What would I have done in that circumstance?" Would my door have been open? Would I have risked all to do what as right? Would I have asked them to go elsewhere, because I feared for my family? Would I have stood with a few refugees against the sadistic might of the Nazi Empire? Obviously I do not know the answer, as I have never actually been in that position. But I am haunted by the thought that I might have been a coward, might have been simply paralysed with fear and done nothing. Obviously it is foolish to give oneself a guilt-trip over a hypothetical scenario, but I stand somewhat in awe of those who did what was right, what was so hard to do; and saved  many; but worry that if we ever find ourselves in such days again, I might not have the strength they did.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Sunshine Mountain

Sunshine Mountain! Catch the cable car up high, above the tree-line and follow the trails over the great mountains!

Rafting the Bow River

Wednesday, November 01, 2017


'The Inkpots'

The Banff National Park is full of treasures. We only had a few days in the area, and merely scratched the surface of a place which could have occupied us for a whole holiday. Johnston Canyon, is one of the most accessible of its attractions, with a busy car-park and an obvious trail, leading upstream away from the magnificent Bow River, through the Canyon and up into wilder territory.

The rule of thumb seems to be that for every mile you walk way from the car park, the number of people you meet halves. The walk to the lower falls was busy, to the upper falls steady, but the track up to the Inkpots wonderfully lonely, with the continual excitement provided by the recent bear sightings in the area.

A nice family picnic spot beyond the Inkpots,  vast mountains, huge forests, wild rivers.

The Inkpots themselves are a nice little geological feature which stains the pools different shades of blue and green.

Canmore Town

One of the best places to go if you want to buy your very own Gurgle Pot!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Canmore Miners Reunion

Back in the summer we spent an eventful week in the attractive town of Canmore, which lies just outside the Banff National Park. It seems that while building and planning regulations are very strict within the parks, there is a lot more scope for all kinds of development once outside their boundaries. 

For the majority of its existence, Canmore was a mining town. Locals were keen to tell us that the mines were the reason Canmore existed, and around which life was based there, for over a century. Following closure of the mines in the 1980s, the town then fell into disrepair, and has only latterly been rejuvenated through tourism, winter sports and some nice spin-offs from the Winter Olympics.

Every year however, the town comes out in force to remember its mining heritage. The annual miners reunion brings ex-miners, their friends and families back to Canmore for a day of celebration marked by parades and festivities.

A lot of Canadians trace their roots back to Scotland, something that was apparent here in the music, and on the placards. The families of the miners all displayed their family names as they marched, which included plenty of  'Mc' and 'Mac' names as well as other Scottish names such as Wardrop. Later immigrants brought swathes of Polish and other Eastern European names to Canmore.