Thursday, August 14, 2014


Last week we went up Cypress Mountain, which is the Mt. Tam of Vancouver.  It was a bright but somewhat hazy/smoky day.

We went on the Yew Lake Trail in Cypress Provincial Park.  It's a short, flat loop that takes you to a pretty little montane lake.  There were a lot of loud people on the trail, but that's what happens in easily accessible spots.  Many people were using those walking poles too.  You can probably pick up a pair at any Pacific Northwest garage sale, lightly used.

The blueberries were out.

Blue poop (bloop).

And many had fulfilled their purpose.

"Dad is taking pictures of poop!"

Here is Mr./Ms./Dr. Bloop, processing more berries. Bloop was completely unconcerned about all the noisy pole-swingy people walking past 25 yards away.  As we stood, watching, we could hear people coming from a  hundred yards in either direction.  Yak yak yak.  Poke poke poke. In addition to swingy poles, some even had silly little bear bells that were no match whatsoever for their outside voices.  Yak yak yak. Poke poke poke. Tinkle.

They would walk past in groups of various sizes, not the least bit curious why we were standing at the edge of the trail, looking into the bush.  As they passed, here's what would happen:

Me, pointing: There's a bear.

Them, pausing: Where?

Me: Over there.

Them:  A bear!  

Then they would experience the flight or smart phone response. Smart phone invariably won, although with difficulty because of the interference of swingy pole wrist loops.

Eventually bear shuffles away.  Find a quiet place to bloop.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Low tide lugworms turtle-floatie horse.

Chariots of Fire Man.

There was an extremely low low tide near noon yesterday at Boundary Bay.  It was one of those days that takes about an hour of walking over sand bars and and wading through dips to get out to the true edge of the water.

But it doesn't take long to discover the lugworms.

This is after all, the Kingdom of the Lugworms, as evidenced by their curlicue poop pagodas and ankle twisting downspout holes.  But for us, we don't feel we've really done the low tide walk until we find the sand dollars, which start about halfway out in the deepest coldest dips.

First you find the bleached white tests of dead ones, but eventually you find the live, spine-covered purply ones.  This is when I extol the wonders of echinoderms and the children walk away.

We did have one new sighting this time, a recently deceased Starry Flounder.

Here is the bottom, or left side.

Here is the top, or right side.  Most are right sided, but some can be left sided. I don't know how that affects their social lives.

Everyone loves low tide walks, but I'm not sure this person with the turtle floatation device realizes how far she'll have to walk to find deep enough water to float.

A woman on horseback went galloping past, leaving the rest of us  wondering whether to be annoyed by a potential breach of beach etiquette, or to be wowed by a galloping horse.  Notice all four hoofs are in the air.

Turtle floatie lady and horse lady.  Never the twain shall meet.

A final view of the Kingdom, with North Shore mountains as a backdrop.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why I throw books across the room.

I would never burn a book, but I will throw one across the room.

Having spent the first two decades of adulthood reading vast numbers of scientific papers and manuscripts, I have a huge fiction deficit.  During those years I scarcely read fiction at all.  Who had time for that?

But somewhere in my congested head I always knew that you should read fiction, plenty of it.  I understood this while bustling back and forth between the Ramsay Wright Zoological Laboratories and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.  A few times I saw Robertson Davies standing outside Massey College at the corner of Hoskins Ave and Devonshire Place waiting for a cab and I would think, He looks like an interesting old kook.  I should probably read his books.  On the third floor of Ramsay Wright there was a small lab room, really just a prep room between two real lab rooms, with a nameplate on the door, “Prof.  C.E. Atwood.”  C.E. Atwood was a professor emeritus, and I was pretty sure he was the father of Margaret Atwood.  I never met or saw him, but I thought that putting his name on a prep room door instead of a real lab door was kind of disrespectful, and that I should probably read his daughter’s books, or at least skim one.

I have a hard time reading.  I have strabismus, still, after three corrective surgeries (ages 8, 10, 20).  I’m not the wall-eyed confusion you might have met during earlier pre- and inter-op spans, but there’s enough L-R disparity that my eyesight buggers up my ability to look through binoculars or follow a line of text across a page.  In high school, small-print Hardy and Dickens were hell, and I should have been awarded high marks for even finishing those books.  My wife was an English major and at some point I greedily hoarded all her old books when she was about to discard them before a move because it’s so costly to move books.  I shouldn’t have bothered. I doubt I will ever read them.  They contain too many words without enough spaces in between.  But here they are at arm’s length, foxing away.

I no longer need regularly read grim multi-authored papers on the phylogeography of skinks or the evolution and function of the vomeronasal organ.  As much as possible I read single-authored fiction, and am always looking for a writer who suits my needs and limitations.

My main requirement:  Keep it moving.

Please don’t show what a fabulous writer you are by describing something commonplace in excruciatingly clever detail. 

Last night I was reading a novel in which the author spent the equivalent of four pretty pages describing the people at a party—their clothes, their mannerisms, snippets of conversation—meant to illustrate that they were hip, shallow people.  I got it after about four lines, and had to start skimming, searching for something my eyeballs and interest could glom onto.

Perhaps being boring was his way of illustrating how boring the party was, in which case, Success!
I would have thrown the book across the room except that I had downloaded it onto my iPad.

Even if I could afford to throw my iPad across the room, the inconvenience in replacing its data would have been much worse than what Elvis went through when he shot TVs.

I learned book throwing from my mother, who would read several novels a week.  Her trigger for throwing a book across the room was when an author described a character having a dream.

Thank god for trade paperbacks.  You can throw them blindly. Hardcovers can mar the drywall or crack a fish tank, so don’t throw them.   Thump them broadside down on the carpet in disgust, then carefully kick them at the baseboard.

But here’s the thing.  I always feel ashamed for losing my temper at a book. I know not everyone wants to write in strabismus-friendly snippets.  Inevitably I pick up the thrown book and repair any damage I have caused to it and put it back on the shelf lying sideways across the other books.  If I have read at least a third of the way through prior to the throwing, I will at a later date, somewhat embarrassed, pick it up, finish reading it, and wedge it in upright among the others with its title and author clearly visible.

I was recently given a Kindle Paperwhite, which is nicer to read from than an iPad but you can’t throw it either, a flaw second only to the fact that it’s too easy to mistake for a coaster.

I don’t like e-readers and will never download an unknown author again. Unless I know I can tolerate an author’s style, I want a book I can throw across the room.

I love fiction.  Please keep it moving.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Iona's yellowheads.

This week I took a group to Iona Beach Regional Park to see the Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  Usually they are easier to hear than see, only occasionally popping up from the dense vegetation of the marsh,

like this.


But this time they were right at the parking lot, waiting to greet with their spectacular calls.  There were males and females, and I wasn't able to make sense of exactly what they were doing--although it was, broadly speaking courtship, territoriality and other vernal exuberance-- because I was also herding humans, and there were non-associated naturalist types on site trying to take pictures--and one has to maintain a certain amount of mutual distance or be seen as an oaf.  Birding isn't as simple as many would think.

I followed the flight of a little drab bird to where it landed at the top of a distant tree. I haven't figured out what it was. Almost instantly it was photobombed, then scared away by a pair of yellowheads.   (In the above photo, mystery bird is below the female YH).

The whole point of going there was to see the yellowheads, and having them there right at the beginning of the walk meant that the bar was set pretty high for the rest of the day.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Late season honkfest: Snow Geese in Richmond.

They're still here.  It's nearing the end of Snow Goose season; some hang around into May, but most should be Siberia-bound soon. There was a large flock Friday across the south arm of the Fraser from Vancouver International Airport.  It started with about a hundred.

And then another hundred, and another, and then more, much like planes arriving at regular, noisy intervals.

Within 20 minutes there were a few thousand.

And still they came.

I don't know how many there were. Lots.  

Today I took all our empty cans and bottles to the recycling depot.  There is a woman who works there who can scan a flat of randomly placed cans and count them in about 2 seconds.  She would probably be good at Snow Geese.

Snow Geese: 4,657 (or so).  Cackling Geese: 1.  I've never seen other geese mingle with Snowies before.

Look at those wings.  Darn near perfection.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Miss Smith, the obsessed, possessed GPS.

We named our GPS Miss Smith because it has a no-nonsense female voice.   She is usually pretty reliable in guiding us to where we want to go.  Sometimes she gets annoyed because she likes taking the shortest route to a destination, which means if there’s a diagonal street such as Kingsway, which runs through East Vancouver and Burnaby, she’s all for it.  But the diagonals often have weird junctions with the otherwise orthogonal grid, so we tend to pick a route that includes an easy crossing.  Miss Smith will doggedly and seemingly with increasing exasperation keep “RECALCULATING” for as long as there is the tiniest possible diagonal stretch remaining along the route. 

Other than this largely philosophical difference our relationship with Miss Smith is generally agreeable.

If I have a basic knowledge of where we’re going I don’t program a destination and just use Miss Smith’s screen as a map.  It’s a lot tidier than a multi-fold paper map or one of those spiral-bound map books.  In such a situation Miss Smith has no clue or interest in where we’re going and she says nothing.

Except for when we go up Mount Seymour, which we do a few times each winter to experience the deep snow.  To get there, we have to go a few miles along a major east-west road called Mount Seymour Parkway until we turn left at Mount Seymour Road, which features a long series of switchbacks that take you to the top.  It’s during this stretch of drive that something strange happens, every time.

Shortly after we get onto the parkway, Miss Smith perks up and tells us to take a left, and head uphill into a subdivision.  We ignore her and after “RECALCULATING” she tells us to take the next left and so on for all the subsequent cross-streets.  On the screen a series of lengthening loops are being drawn, all reaching back to the initial missed turn.  Miss Smith wants us to reverse course and go uphill into that subdivision to a particular address on a particular residential side street.  It’s an address that means nothing to us and—I have checked—is programmed nowhere into Miss Smith as a destination, waypoint, or anything.  Weirder still, she is giving us instructions when she is not in navigation mode—when we’re using her as a map.  She shouldn’t be saying anything!  I eventually reach to change the settings and switch her voice to “mute,” which seems unfair and extreme, but otherwise she’ll be frantically RECALCULATING all the way up the mountain.

I’ve made note of the address she so desperately wants us to visit and have visited virtually using Google Street View.   It belongs to a 1970s two-story house in a neighbourhood of similar houses, almost at the end of a curving road that noses up into the forest.

Why does she want us to go there?  What would happen if we did, and rang the doorbell? 

“Here we are,” we would say.

And the people who answered the door would say, “What took you so long?”


Thursday, February 13, 2014

BC Black Alligators revisited.

In one of the more peculiar side-tracks of my Interpreter Stories Series, I wrote a story called the Black Alligator of British Columbia.  It entailed a search for a legendary gigantic salamander, historically misnamed an alligator.  If the alleged beast truly existed, it would have looked something like this.

Now don't you want to paddle up the Pitt River and find one?

Me too.

P.S.  In case you didn't already know, 2014 is the Year of the Salamander.