Friday, April 10, 2009

Sea Kayaker April Issue

Picked up the April issue of Sea Kayaker magazine to read on the flight over to Europe and was pleased to find myself drawn into a great edition.

Three items jumped out above the usual, Chris Cunningham's editorial, the letter from Pat Donlin and the article on Health. Like many in my generation I suffer from acid reflux an found the last item to be particularly pertinent.

But first to the editorial. I carefully read and re read the editorial then went to the letter from Pat Donlin that raised the question. I concluded that there were really two questions here; 1st should Search and Rescue (SAR) Teams be expected to come to the rescue of high risk adventurers? And 2nd should we idolize these adventurers.

Cunningham takes on the first question and answers it with an emphatic yes. He of course is absolutely correct. No SAR team, be they professional or volunteer units, has a litmus test to determine if a response is warranted. Lets see, you're irresponsible, poorly trained, poorly equipped and not very admirable, sorry we can't save your soul. Thankfully it does not work like that.

But the second question never really gets resolved. It's a tricky one. One of those principal, ethical and moral questions whose answer is usually found in some Grey area. Neither yes or no. The type of question that confounds the usual rhetoric generators - politicians and sports figures. In Donlin's letter it's implied that we should not idolize these adventures. The question is never clearly stated but it lays there between the lines.

Cunningham comes at this question sort of sideways because to some extent the magazine is part of the myth making machine. It regularly runs story's of adventurers accounts of their firsts a-rounds or fast crossings. In fact there is an excellent account in the April issue about the descent of the Atrato river in Columbia.

These story's when well told inspire. Maybe they provide the spark to do something extraordinary in another wise ordinary life. Or, maybe they only light up the imagination for a moment or two. Either is important and a positive result.

Cunningham references Joshu Sloccum's adventure as the first person to solo sail around the world. But don't take his word for it. Read Slocum's book. I believe the book is what made the adventure. It was his ability as a story teller that elevated the events. Face it sailing alone entails long stretches of tedium, boredom personified. The same happens on kayak trips, but a good writer can make the adventure.

Most adventures are complicated undertakings made simple while the people who undertake them always remain complex. You train, you develop the skills, you plan, you organize, you implement it's straight forward, it's just not easy.

When I was a boy I idolized a certain sports figure. I cut his pictures out of Sports Illustrated and taped them to my bedroom walls. This was long before the swim suit editions or I am sure other figures would have made it to the wall. Later I learned that my hero was a wife beater. Heroism crashed hard that day.

So as a father the lesson I taught my son was not to put people on to high a pedestal. Celebrate the accomplishment but keep in mind how complex humans are.

Freya Hoffmeister has left her family to complete her circumnavigation of Australia. Even if I had her skill, her fitness and her tenacity I would not do what she is doing. My family and the joy I derived from raising my son has kept me at home. That's about values mine are simply different from Freya's.

In fact I'm so out of step with the world that I believe raising a child up to be a successful and compassionate part of society is the greatest thing any parent can do. Paddling around a continent pales in comparison. Call me old fashioned.

Nevertheless when she succeeds I hope her account inspires someone to do something extraordinary, who knows maybe it'll be her own son.

Freya is closing in on successfully completing the 575 km crossing the Sea of Carpentaria.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

More From Paris - late March

Two days in Paris and I no longer sound like a rube from Purgatory Ontario. Not bad for a guy with two weeks of grade nine French. Don't get me wrong. I wanted to learn French in high school but my basketball coach told me, "you have to keep your grade average up and that Dike fails all the jocks in her French class." Just because she was Dutch was no reason to slander her. Nevertheless I left the French lessons behind to my everlasting regret.

Now when I enthusiastically greet people in Paris they don't look about me as a poor Angles, they look upon me more as the village idiot from Gascony. I'm moving up.

Our first stop of the day was the Rodin Museum, it was just around the corner and only six kilometers from the hotel - so we walked. We could have take the tube from the hotel door and got out at the gate to the museum but it was pouring rain so we walked. Once inside we picked up a floor map rented the audio guides and headed off. The museum started life as the Hotel Biron. After falling on hard times it was taken over by nuns who operated it as a school. judging by the way they stripped the building of all its paintings it must have been a rather bleak school. Next it became an artist community headed up by Rodin himself and finally if evolved into the museum it is today.

As this was an evolutionary process there are some quirky things going on. For instance the floor map is conveniently numbered as is the audio guide. Unfortunately the exhibits and floor map numbering system are not entirely related to the audio guide. I believe this is done as a test to humble the casual tourists. Just as you begin to see what Rodin was doing to the face of that poor gargoyle you realize your actually facing the wrong way and the audio guide is talking about the piece behind you. These French artist enjoy a clever joke as much as the rest of us.

Rodin was of course a genius. He worked on the gates of hell for 30 years making changes trying to get it just right. Interestingly his mistress went crazy and had to be confined for the last 30 years of her life. Hmmmm!

Perhaps the most remarkable part of the tour is the stroll through the gardens. Here the scale of the sculptures are displayed to there perfect glory. Late spring would be an ideal time to visit when the trees, shrubs and beds are in full bloom. Of course, "The Thinker," is very prominent. You come across it just before you enter the main museum. The Gates of Hell are off to the right but the sculpture that I found most intriguing was that of the Burgers of Calais. If you walk through the gardens counter clockwise it'll be the last one you see before you exit the property.

After leaving the Rodin museum we head to the Musee d'Orsay. This is a converted railway station right along the south bank of the Seine. It is an impressive museum, very grand in it's scale. It contains works from Monet, Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh and countless others. With it's soaring ceiling this is a very impressive site and would be worthy of an extended multi day visit, but we were running short of time.

Day Two

Leaping backward from Rodin to the the Palace of Versailles we disembark from the metro and walk 500 meters turn the corner and there's the Palace. On this cold wind swept day it does not immediately overwhelm. But as we approach the gates the sun breaks free of the clouds and the gates ignite in a wild display of golden light, just as quickly the sun retreats leaving us with only a hint of what awaits inside.

If you have an Internet ticket go to the stone outpost to the right of the gate and exchange your electronic ticket for a proper pass. Don't go directly to the main entrance without the pass. You'll end up going back for it. Do get an audio guide, again they can be quirky but with thousands of people jostling for position they're ideal - just stick the speaker to your hear and ignore the throngs.

Opulence is not a grand enough word to discribe Versailles. From its beginning as a hunting lodge Louis XIV created what is one of the worlds leading heritage sites. The Hall of Mirrors, the grand canal and fountains are astounding. For me the Grand and Petite Trianon's were fascinating. Being almost a mile from the main Palace in the Marie-Antoinette's estate they were largely empty of the crowds in the Palace. Ironically that was exactly why they were built sort of a retreat from the main court and all the intrigue around the Royals.

If you go heed the advice go on less busy days and get there early. Take the metro.

Trains late March

We left Amsterdam in a flurry of wind and rain the perfect anticipation for a high speed train rush to Paris. It was only a tease as the train plods along comfortably like a Dutch burger through the flat and featureless countryside.

Getting out of the city is a blessing as the miles roll by you get a real sense of what the Dutch Masters and van Gogh were capturing. It is the sky that dominates. As in Saskatchewan the sky writes the poetry.

Holland in the winter would be a giant studio for the landscape artist. With the sun low in the southern sky for much of the day, the magic light of morning and evening is elongated giving the artist time to capture the subtle play of light on thunderheads, fleeting clouds and wisps of mists. But there is little warmth in this sunlight. the price of painting here could be high as the artist racing against the cold would have to work fast capturing the light before the seemingly ever present rain washes all away and the cold numbed fingers let the brush drop from the hand,

As we roll south the land is flat and without relief; a hill would be a welcome site. Everywhere the canals hold back the water. But they 're cold and without natures sparkle they are only ditches lacking the life of a river or the sea.

Through the low lands the train rolls until finally we reach Brussels where the train inexplicably breaks down in the terminal. There's a practiced scramble for a sister train, apparently this happens often. Once reembarked we slip into France and truly begin to race with the small countries behind us we literally begin to cut through the rolling hills of northern France faster and faster we plummet south trying in vain to catch the days last rays of sun.

Finally as the sun sets we slide into Gare Nord. Off the train we climb down into the darkness of the Metro only to pop up like mushrooms miles away. A short walk and we have reached our hotel. Next to the hotel is a tiny restaurant, small tables covered in pure white linen we crack open the glass pane that separates the magical room from the sidewalk and sit down to a wonderful dinner. Its what you come to Paris for. A perfect first night.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Off to Amsterdam and Paris

Heathrow, March 23

Vancouver to Heathrow sharing my corner of the AC flying canoe with a nice Norwegian herring fisherman. Really! After the first two hours I couldn't tell he fished at all.

The Norwegians have discovered Revelstoke as a ski haven. Granted the mountain is sublime and the snow light and fluffy but I suspect the main attraction is the price. These young Nordic gods can descend on the village, ski the mountains for a week, and fly home for the price of a cup of coffee in Oslo.

After arriving and making my way from Terminal 3 to Terminal 1 I found myself craving a plate of smoked herring. Odd as I normally don't like smoked fish. Luckily there's just enough time in Heathrow to sample the ale list at The Tin Goose. I've started with a pint of London Pride; it has a fruity after taste.

The place is full of pale Irish faces wearing rugby union green shirts and sporting some massive hangovers from Ireland's defeat of the Welsh for the Six Nations cup. Normally the Irish accent is a lilting thing of beauty but these voices are ruined wrecks from 80 minutes of singing and god knows how many hours of drinking. I share a pint of Guinness with a few before drifting off to make my connections to Amsterdam.

This of course is not a usual kayaking trip. Normally if I'm crossing the Atlantic I'm heading for the Irish Sea but this time the destination is not adventure but romance. I'm “hoookiing” up with my beautiful wife in Amsterdam for a few days then it's down to Paris where we honeymooned 23 years ago. I may find time to check out kayaking on the Seine – not likely.

Wednesday March 24

It's now early Wednesday morning and my beautiful wife is upstairs fast asleep. It's raining hard in Amsterdam. Is there any other way. From my window seat at the Port de Cleve hotel I look across the Estrada at an ancient protestant church. Built in the traditional cross shape the Dutch have managed to squeeze in a house between the balustrades. Very practical.

Yesterday we visited the Vincent van Gogh museum and took in “The Colour's of the Night” show. Obviously Van Gogh was a tortured genius but I had no idea that his entire body of work, about 800 paintings, was created in only ten years.

Van Gogh's legacy is not just the wonderful works of art that he created but through that art he allows us to travel through time. Sit in front of one of his pastoral scenes or better yet the night sky over the City of Rhone and you find yourself transported back in time. His landscapes be they the rural views of Holland or the city scenes of Paris and the various villages he lived in are riveting.

Of course the show is extremely popular. Tourists, locals students and school children under the respectful care of curators vie for viewing space. I enjoy listening in as the curators explain this or that aspect of various works. Of course I cannot comprehend a word, but it's a hardly necessary as the passion and respect they convey is universal.

We use an audio headset to help fill in the gaps in our knowledge of Van Gogh. These things are both a blessing and a curse. They educate but I find some of the interpretations just silly. You get a priest like voice, after all they invented interpretive mumble jumble, intoning the listener to; “Look at how Van Gogh has caste the mans face in light and shadow to depict the mans melancholy, regret and sadness of his character.” Well how do you know! Maybe he's just lost a hundred guilders betting on the wrong cards. I much prefer it when the curators stick to the facts and leave the impressions and interpretations to the viewer.

The crowds in the museum can be diverting yet there are roses amongst the brambles. A young woman just on the cusp of womanhood walks across the room. I only see her face in profile framed by her long brown hair but her poise and grace is electric. Like many Dutch women she is fashionably dressed in high leather boots, black tights and a short flirty skirt. I shamelessly watch as she walks across the gallery. Quickly I look about and find at least a half dozen people watching her, yet she's oblivious. All too soon she disappears around a corner fleetingly, like the sun light on Van Gogh's fields of wheat, she's gone. For a moment I thought I could hear a chuckle and a sigh of appreciation. The old master certainly had and eye for beauty.